Derek Bermel, clarinet

Derek Bermel holding clarinet and reclining on a beige sofa

Two time Grammy-nominated composer and clarinetist DEREK BERMEL has been widely hailed for his creativity, theatricality, and virtuosity. An “eclectic with wide open ears” (Toronto Star), Bermel is acclaimed for music that is “intricate, witty, clear-spoken, tender, and extraordinarily beautiful [and] covers an amazing amount of ground, from the West African rhythms of Dust Dancesto the Bulgarian folk strains of Thracian Echoes, to the shimmering harmonic splendor of Elixir. In the hands of a composer less assured, all that globe-trotting would seem like affectation; Bermel makes it an artistic imperative.” (San Francisco Chronicle).

Bermel’s studies of ethnomusicology and orchestration with Andre Hajdu in Jerusalem heralded his immersion in music of the world — traveling to Bulgaria to study the Thracian folk style; to Dublin, to study uillean pipes; to Ghana, to study the Lobi xylophone; and to Brazil, to learn caxixi – while adding the study of Dutch, Portuguese, French and Italian along the way. Inevitably, Bermel’s engagement with other musical cultures has become part of the fabric and force of his compositional language, in which the human voice and its myriad inflections play a leading role.  Bermel’s commissioners have included the Pittsburgh, National, Boston, Saint Louis, New Jersey, and Pacific Symphonies; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, WNYC Radio, and eighth blackbird; the Guarneri Quartet, Music from China, Music from Copland House; violinist Midori, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, electric guitarist Wiek Hijmans, Schoenberg Ensemble/Veenfabriek (Netherlands), Jazz Xchange (U.K.), and Figura (Denmark). Recent and upcoming are works for the St. Paul, River Oaks, and Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg’s New Century Chamber Orchestras, The JACK Quartet, James Ehnes’s Seattle Chamber Music Festival and La Jolla Music Society, The Chautauqua and Columbus Symphonies, and beyond.

Bermel’s clarinet playing has been hailed by The New York Times as “brilliant,” “rhythmically fluid, rich-hued” and “first-rate.” The Boston Globewrote, “There doesn’t seem to be anything that Bermel can’t do with the clarinet.” As a performer he has worked with a dizzyingly eclectic array of musicians including Paquito D’Rivera, Luciana Souza, Tan Dun and John Adams. In recent seasons he performed as soloist alongside Wynton Marsalis in his own Migration Series, commissioned by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and American Composers Orchestra (ACO). ACO had earlier commissioned Bermel’s clarinet concerto Voices for premiere in Carnegie Hall, with the composer as soloist. Bermel has since performed that critically acclaimed work with more than a dozen orchestras, including the BBC Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, and at the Beijing Modern Music Festival. His performance of Voices with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project led to a Grammy nominated recording (2010) for Best Soloist with Orchestra. He has also appeared with the Lexington (KY) and Westchester (NY) Philharmonics, Greensboro (NC) Symphony, and many others, in concerto repertoire ranging widely from Mozart and Copland to Bolcom and Adams. Founding Clarinetist of the acclaimed Music from Copland House ensemble, Bermel’s chamber music appearances also include performances with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; Borromeo, Pacifica, and JACK string quartets; Festivals including Moab, Fontana, Cape Cod, and Salt Bay; the Cliburn Series at the Modern, Carmel and Albuquerque Chamber Music Series, Garth Newel Center, Seattle Town Hall, and Louisville Chamber Music Society.

Bermel has brought his “staggering eclecticism” (Gramophone Magazine) to an array of collaborations, residencies, and groundbreaking educational roles. His passion for collaboration has led to several film scores, and his work with artists such as playwright Will Eno, installation artist Shimon Attie, choreographer Sheron Wray, poets Wendy S. Walters, Nicole Krauss, Mark Halliday, and Naomi Shihab. His recent collaboration with hip hop legend Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) for the Brooklyn Philharmonic received raves. His music-theater work Golden Motors with Wendy S. Walters received a 2019 BRIClab residence and he is currently working on an opera with MacArthur, Penn and National Medal of the Arts award prize-winner Sandra Cisneros.

Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra, Bermel is also Director of Copland House’s emerging composers institute Cultivate, served as Composer-in-Residence at the Mannes College of Music, enjoyed a four-year tenure as artist-in-residence at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, and is Curator of the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music (Bowdoin International Music Festival). Bermel has become recognized as a dynamic and unconventional curator and creator, in addition to programming the Edward T. Cone series at the IAS, he helped found and shape the ACO’s Jazz Composers Orchestral Institute, and co-curated several of the ten-day SONiC Festivals in New York, featuring music by over 120 young composers at venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to Joe’s Pub.

An innovative educator, Bermel was the Founding Director of the New York Youth Symphony’s Making Score program, an intensive composition seminar exploring composition and orchestration. In addition to his work as Institute Director of CULTIVATE, he also mentors young composers in the ACO’s Underwood Readings, Playing it UNsafe and CoLABoratory programs. He has led master classes and held residencies at Yale University, University of Michigan, Longy School of Music, Peabody Institute, Faculdade de Santa Marcelina, Beijing Central, Shanghai, and New England Conservatories, Columbia University, Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, Rhode Island School of Design, Rotterdam Conservatorium, University of Cardiff, USC, Curtis School of Music, University of Chicago, Universita Federal da Bahia, UCLA, Adolf Fredriks Musikklasse, Northwestern University, Aspen School of Music, Bowdoin Festival of Music, Cal Arts, Tanglewood Music Center, and many more.

Bermel’s discography features two all-Bermel orchestral recordings; his most recent Grammy-nominated album Migrations  (Naxos) with the Albany Symphony and conductor David Alan Miller, which includes his Migration Series, featuring Ted Nash and the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, Mar de Setembro, featuring Luciana Souza, and A Shout, A Whisper, A Trace;  and his Grammy-nominated clarinet concerto Voices (BMOP/sound)Soul Garden, a disc of his small ensemble/solo music (New World); and Canzonas Americanas, with Alarm Will Sound (Cantaloupe). Forthcoming is a disc by the JACK quartet.

Among Bermel’s many awards are the Alpert Award in the Arts, Rome Prize, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships, the Trailblazer Award from the American Music Center, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; commissions from the Koussevitzky and Fromm Foundations; and residencies at Yaddo, Tanglewood, Aspen, Banff, Bellagio, Copland House, Sacatar, and Civitella Ranieri. Bermel holds B.A. and D.M.A. degrees from Yale University and the University of Michigan. Notable among his composition teachers are William Albright, Louis Andriessen, William Bolcom, Henri Dutilleux, André Hajdu, and Michael Tenzer. His music is published by Peermusic Classical. Bermel served as the Seattle Symphony’s 2018-19 composer in residence.