Lewis Nielson, Composer


Lewis NielsonThe life and writings of Rosa Luxemburg, the Russian-born reformer of Polish-Jewish extraction who fought social conditions in a broken and demoralized Germany in the years following World War I, might have seemed the improbable stuff of an opera. Chicago-based Opera Cabal didn't think so. It commissioned a one-act multimedia chamber opera on the subject from Lewis Nielson that was premiered in New York, Chicago and Oberlin, Ohio, in 2010.

Nielson is the director of the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music's division of contemporary music, the chair of its composition department and professor of composition. He is also a composer who is beginning to be recognized around the world.

The "libretto" of USW, as this adventurous work would be named (1919 saw an historic strike by the United Steel Workers; the acronym had also stood for Unrestricted Submarine Warfare), was put together by Nielson himself, using fragmentary passages in several languages from Luxemburg, Karl Marx, German poet Georg Trakl and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He set the lot to what one audience member described as "an austerely beautiful score."

Nielson spent his childhood in Washington, D.C., but moved with his family to London at age 10. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, then at Clark University in Massachusetts and the University of Iowa, receiving a Ph.D. in music theory and composition in 1977. He served as a professor of music theory and composition at the University of Georgia, where he also directed the University of Georgia Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, for 21 years, before arriving at Oberlin in 2000. Though he composes very contemporary new music, he loves Beethoven and Wagner and has even played in a few rock bands in his youth.

His works have been performed by, among others, the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra in Prague, the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra of Bratislava, the Musique Expérimentale de Bourges in France, the American Composer's Orchestra and the Fresno Philharmonic and at such venues as the Great Hall of Tchaikovsky in Moscow, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; and at a number of international events including the World Saxophone Congress in Valencia, Spain, national conventions of the American Society of University Composers and the Society of Composers, and I Seminario Nacional Pesquisa em Performance Musical in Brazil. Recordings of Lewis Nielson’s works can be heard on five separate record labels. The University of George Woodwind Quartet includes one of his compositions, alito, gemito, on its recently released Sunlight and Shadows, which can be downloaded directly from the Internet.

He has received a Fulbright-Hays grant from the French government and others from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ibla Foundation in Sicily and the International Society of Bassists. He has been a resident composer or fellow at the Charles Ives Center for American Music, the Delius Foundation, Meet the Composer and the Georgia Council for the Arts.

Nielson also has received commissions from the Lake Placid Sinfonietta, the University of Georgia Bicentennial Commission and many important chamber ensembles and solo performers.

Nielson won honorable mention in the International Society of Bassists’ Composition Competition 2000 for his Duo Concertant (Danger Man), a work for double bass and percussion. A few years ago, members of Oberlin's Contemporary Music Ensemble traveled to New York to perform works by Nielson in Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. Anthony Aibel of the New York Concert Review has written that  “Lewis Nielson is a master composer, an American original. He deserves to be better known, and I think it is simply a matter of time.”

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