|Posted by John Plant on February 20, 2021 at 3:35 PM||comments (0)|
It is ten months since my last post!
I have been feeling lucky to be in Nova Scotia, and to have a large unwieldy challenging inspiring project to keep me occupied - intensely occupied! - during these difficult days and months. The project outlined in my April 2019 blog is very much alive, but its name has changed: it is now The Heart of Things, and I am working on the eleventh of its twelve scenes.
The pleasures of eating one's words...
Specifically, those I posted on September 6, 2016, concerning a production of Verdi's Il trovatore, which I had read about, but not seen. I cited an article in Diapason, in which "Christian Merlin is encouraged by stagings whose 'dramaturgical viewpoint is so strong that a plot which we considered superficial suddenly begins to speak to us,' such as Tcherniakov's staging of Verdi's Il trovatore - which is transformed into 'a role-playing game for idle members of the bourgeoisie.' That anyone could experience Il trovatore as superficial takes my breath away; that a work of such intense, committed passion and vitality could somehow be improved by turning it into a role-playing game is beyond my grasp."
Well, I have now seen Tcherniakov's production, thanks to Marquee TV, and I hereby eat my words. Well, most of them. I still am astonished that anyone could find Il trovatore superficial. Tcherniakov clearly did not ; his production is the first one I have seen which does something like justice to the emotional and dramatic intensity which blazes through every page of this glorious score. He takes Verdi very seriously indeed; this production is driven by an unerring sense of what matters in this opera. It all takes place in a single room, and we never see the chorus: this is undoubtedly a loss, but the sacrifice is justified by the gain in concentrated intensity. All the lines of the minor characters (Inès, Ruiz) are taken by principals; this reinforces Tcherniakov's initial role-playing scenario. As Inès and Ruiz exist solely as foils for Leonora and Manrico, this actually chimes quite nicely with the director's vision.
What M. Merlin does not tell us is that the concept is rather one of a role-playing therapy that goes tragically wrong. All notion of role-playing vanishes quickly, as the characters are inhabited and even possessed by their 'roles.' The paradoxical result is that this story, so often mocked for its plethora of improbable coincidences, becomes utterly convincing, and the deep tragedy arising from the irreconcileable desires and obsessions of its characters is searing, inevitable, and utterly gripping. It is not a pretty production, to say the least, and I would not recommend it as one's first exposure to this opera. But for those who know and love Il trovatore, and are willing to be ejected from their comfort zone, it is as powerfully moving a production of a Verdi opera as any I have seen.
|Posted by John Plant on April 7, 2020 at 12:50 AM||comments (0)|
On February 16, in Montreal - that is to say, on another planet and in a different era - my Three Echoes of the Odyssey were performed by two magnificent artists, percussionist Marie Josée Simard and pianist Louise Bessette. Between the intention to write about this event and sitting down to do it, coronavirus exploded on this continent - Montreal seems now as far away as the moon. It seems almost indecent to rejoice in my good luck at being able to hear my piece and share it with a blessedly appreciative audience. We were able to be with my wife Jocelyne's two daughters and their families. And we went to see a play, something I have not done in years, Dany Goudreault's haunting, magical 'Corps Célestes' at the Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui.
These Three Echoes are the culmination of a long series of experiences. Marie Josée made them the focus of her residence at Banff in January-February 2019. Wanting to make full use of her splendid instrumentarium, I did not stint! With the strategic genius of a general, she mapped out the position of the instruments, enabling her to move with breathtaking fluidity and grace from one to another, cutting and pasting the score as needed so that the required notes would be found in front of the correct instruments at the right time. The sorcery of Skype enabled me to be present when necessary, giving us a sense of onsite collaboration even when we were a continent's width away from each other.
The collaboration with Louise Bessette was also deeply rewarding and helpful; in the first of the three Echoes I was exploring the interior of the piano for the first time. Her immense experience and profound musicality were indispensable in this adventure. And the intuitive complicity of these two artists created a sense in the audience of almost visceral participation in Odysseus's adventures as I imagined them. I had the luxury of working with them for a week before the performance, and it is difficult to imagine a more rewarding experience for a composer.
In my notes on the piece I wrote: The quest of a wanderer to find a safe and welcoming harbour in a dangerous and often hostile world takes on particular poignance today. I did not realize how dangerous the world was about to become, though of course it has long been intolerably dangerous for far too many. I am deeply grateful to Marie Josée and to Louise, and to the audience who came to hear the piece... and to whatever gods made it possible for the event to happen. Wishing for a day, soon, when people will be able once again to gather to listen to and make music together, in peace and in safety.
|Posted by John Plant on September 19, 2019 at 4:30 PM||comments (0)|
We've just returned from a wonderful week in Chicago, where an adventurous and resourceful company called Thompson Street Opera opened their new season with four performances of 'I will fly like a bird', the opera I composed in collaboration with J. A. Wainwright. We were able to take a train (the 'L') straight from the airport; the company's treasurer, whose guests we were, picked us up and drove us directly to the theatre, where the final technical rehearsal was in progress. From the moment we stepped into the magnificently resonant black box of the Athenaeum Theatre's Studio 3, it was clear that our work was in dedicated, professional hands; and that these hands were working in intense symbiosis. This impression was thrillingly fortified through the dress rehearsals and filming sessions which preceded the premiere.
The opera was given with two casts, each giving two performances. The singers, Nathaniel Hill and Jonathan Wilson as Robert, Jennifer Barrett and Marissa Simmons as the Mother, were not only splendid singers whose voices would grace any stage in the world, but deeply committed and skilled actors. They were also brilliantly paired, yet one more instance of the symbiosis which was the week's hallmark. Conductor Alexandra Enyart and stage director Ross Kyo Matsuda showed profound insight into the work, and reinforced each other's interpretations: what a joy to have a director whose musical instincts are so profound, and a conductor whose grasp of the work's dramatic pulse is so unerring!
The instrumental ensemble, led by newly appointed concertmaster Robert Alvarado Switala, was superb. I had imagined the orchestra as full participants in the drama, and so it proved. I must name and thank each one of them: in addition to Robert, second violin Angelica D'Costa, viola Kelsey Hanson, cellist John Rogler, clarinettist Lilia Olsen, and pianist Cody Michael Bradley. I saw all the performances but one, and all the dress rehearsals and film sessons, so that I had the full experience of my opera seven times. The freshness and power of this company's interpretation was powerfully sustained throughout the week. So too was the sense of tragedy: the opera has, alas, lost none of its relevance since the events of 2007 on which it is based.
The company's artistic director Claire DiVizio is clearly a person of immense vision and commitment - and not only because her company staged my opera! In fact, Thompson Street Opera is committed to performing only works by living composers, thus, in Claire's words, 'showing the potential of the art form through the diverse voices of our time.' It is a great honour to be one of those voices.
The production received two strongly favourable reviews, from Chicago Classical Review and Chicago Theatre Review. Links below:
|Posted by John Plant on February 26, 2019 at 5:20 PM||comments (0)|
Last July, just as I was completing the first draft of my Three Echoes of the Odyssey, playwright Wanda Graham sent me a play she had just completed, conceived as a 'music drama,' and dealing with a tormented family of fishers on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia. I found her concept so compelling, so original and so musically suggestive that I engaged with it immediately. As I wrote to Arts Nova Scotia in applying (successfully!) for a grant to work on this project: 'It deals with the ecological and economic realities of the fisher's life, the struggle for gender equality, sexual identity, suicide, sexual abuse, generational tensions, the intricate web of family relationships. It manages to do this without preaching, by creating indelible, moving characters and thrusting us into their very particular world.'
Just as with I will fly like a bird (my setting of Andrew Wainwright's tribute to Robert Dziekanski), this powerful, eloquent text is taking me in directions I never would have foreseen. Unlike I will fly like a bird, All of Us will not be an opera, though the work is of operatic proportions and intensity. As in opera, the music will carry the emotional thrust and sweep of the drama, creating a situation in which the actors are an integral part of the musical tapestry.
I will be exploring various styles of vocal delivery and implementing new 'user-friendly' notations for them; in this respect I will be developing and expanding terrain I first began to investigate almost half a century ago, in the scores I composed for the dance troupe Le Groupe de la Place Royale.
I will be venturing into realms which are new to me: mastering Logic Pro X, QLab, and other software, exploring electronically generated sounds, musique concrète, sounds recorded from nature or sampled from my growing collection of percussion instruments, and integrating them into a substantial virtual orchestra.
I cannot overemphasize my gratitude to Wanda for sending me her profound, moving and ground-breaking drama, and inviting me to join her in this inspiring collaboration.
|Posted by John Plant on March 27, 2018 at 8:50 AM||comments (0)|
A bittersweet epilogue to my last blog. I wrote to Ursula Le Guin last fall, informing her of my intention to compose an 'Earthsea' sonata. She wrote back expressing great interest, and asked me to send her a recording of the premiere. I mailed her a CD of the magnificent performance by Dominic Desautels and Tina Chong... and then received word of her death. So I thought sadly that she had never heard the piece - and then, two days later, I received a handwritten card from her in the mail. This is what it said:
17 Jan 18
'Dear John Plant -
Thank you for the recording of your Earthsea Sonata - The music is beautiful, and the performance is stunning. It's a treasure.
Email of course emanates from nowhere, and it was an addition to my pleasure to know you live in Nova Scotia. Was briefly there years ago, and remember the landscape vividly. (This card is a sketch from the high desert of E. Oregon - I liked the fences so much I just left the rest of the ranch out.)
Many thanks for your music - may you keep making it.
Ursula Le Guin
Needless to say, I was touched beyond measure to know that she heard and liked the sonata during her last days on earth. She has been an essential writer for me ever since I first discovered her. One of her great gifts to me was this sentence, spoken by Ged, in the penultimate chapter of 'A Wizard of Earthsea:' 'My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars....'
Of course it is sad to think that there will be no more books from Ursula K. Le Guin. But this sadness is tempered by the knowledge that her work is inexhaustible; each new rereading yields unsuspected treasures and discoveries. She's like Mozart in this respect. She also made a matchless translation of the Tao te Ching, and recorded it - listening to her voice, steeped in wisdom and rich with quiet humour, kept me sane and smiling more than once during Montreal rush hour traffic.
And it is good to think of her name slowly unfolding in the shining of the stars.
Thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin.
|Posted by John Plant on January 8, 2018 at 3:45 PM||comments (1)|
Since my last blog, I've been happily busy with three projects. Dominic Desautels, who performed so magnificently in the Opera Nova Scotia production of 'I will fly like a bird,' did me the honour of commissioning a sonata for clarinet and piano. Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea stories have haunted and enchanted me for the last forty years or so, so perhaps it was inevitable that they would find their way into my music. Dominic, in addition to being principal clarinet of Symphony Nova Scotia, is now occupying the same post for the Canadian Opera Company. It was he who traced Violetta's breaking heart as she writes her farewell letter in La traviata; it was he who traced the contours of the human heart so plangently etched by Wagner throughout Götterdämmerung... Not the least of Mozart's gifts to humanity was making the clarinet an indispensable part of the operatic orchestra!
Well, a sonata for clarinet and piano can hardly claim to be an opera - but operatic ambitions seem to insinuate themselves into everything I write these days, and in this case I was aided and abetted by Dominic's breathtaking expressive virtuosity, and by the insightful and atmospheric piano of Tina Chong. Dominic is artist-in-residence with Cecilia Concerts in Halifax this year; he and Tina gave the work its premiere on November 25, performing it magnificently, and receiving a standing ovation from a full house.
And speaking of exuberant virtuosity, the saxophonist William Chien from Taiwan, one of the co-commissioners of 'Faustus: a SaxOpera' wrote to me to ask if it would be possible to create a version for saxophone, acoustic guitar and piano, to be performed at the World Saxophone Congress in Croatia this summer. Never having written for guitar, I promptly bought myself a second-hand one, and immersed myself in the literature, discovering works by such masters as Leo Brouwer, Nikita Koshkin (both new to me, and both wonderful), Ginastera, Henze, and so many others. I was encouraged to learn that Julian Bream particularly relished learning guitar works by non-guitarists, that in his experience the challenge of writing for an unfamiliar instrument (like that of writing in an unfamiliar language) often resulted in something unanticipatedly rich and strange. I hope this is the case in my 'Faustus' Suite.
My current project is a work for the percussion-piano duo of Marie Josée Simard and Louise Bessette - both renowned, fabulous musicians - to be entitled 'Echoes from the Odyssey.' Marie-Josée Simard and I have wanted to collaborate on an artistic project for a long time, and have been engaged in active discussions over the last four years as to the form such a project might take. Her desire for a new work with a narrative component corresponds well with my lifelong operatic obsession, and the choice of subject reflects my abiding interest in Homer and in classical Greek poetry.
Through the percussionists' arsenal of instruments, and the piano's wide range of expressive and technical resources, they will incarnate, successively, the lovely goddess Calypso, the Cyclops, Circe, the angry god Poseidon, Penelope, and Odysseus himself; while also shaping the extraordinary universe within which these characters trace the course of their destiny. The quest of a wanderer to find a safe and welcoming harbour in a dangerous and often hostile world takes on particular poignance in today's world. The opportunity to work with this splendid percussionist, and with the distinguished pianist Louise Bessette, is an inestimable gift. I cannot help reflecting on how lucky I have been with performers throughout my musical life!
Which brings me to saxophonist Jennifer Bill, who did me the honour of traveling to Middlebury College to perform 'A deep clear breath of life' with me on the occasion of my class reunion in June. It was the first time I've ever played the piano part, and I was a bit daunted by the cohort of superb pianists who've played it before me, but Jennifer's inspired performance seems to have brought out the best in me. Peter Kovner, who commissioned this piece, was in the audience; he came onstage to introduce the work in his own inimitable manner. Thanks to my classmate Charlie Tilford, you can watch this performance (though not, alas, Peter's introduction) on YouTube, under the 'Links' heading of this website.
I'd like to conclude with my heartiest wishes for a joyful and prosperous New Year to all, with a particularly fervent shout out to all you performers and listeners, so indispensable to the life of music!
|Posted by John Plant on June 4, 2017 at 8:45 PM||comments (2)|
Last weekend, the men's choir which I accompany, Coastal Voices, gave the first and second performance of my setting of Lawrence Raab's poem 'Voices Answering Back: The Vampires' - the premiere in St. Genevieve's Catholic Church in East Chezzetcook, and the second in the historic old church in Sherbrooke Village. The work was commissioned by the choir, and is dedicated to its members and to its brilliant conductor Janet Gaskin. Janet had asked me to make the work a bit of a challenge, and I did.
The spirit with which the choir rose to the challenge, and the deep insight and wisdom with which Janet guided them every step of the way, was an immensely rewarding experience for me. The choir made me feel as if it was rewarding for them as well. Their faith in my music sustained us through the first few months of rehearsal, when the work's direction must have been glimpsed 'as through a glass darkly' - but growing steadily clearer and more confident week by week.
By the final week the choir was deploying a rich range of colours, singing with sustained intensity and projecting the work with such vividness that many audience members spoke to me of the 'frisson' - of the 'spookiness' and dark musical imagery of the work.
Ken Vaughan, one of the basses and a considerable poet in his own right, set the stage by reading Raab's poem beautifully and eloquently beforehand. Janet's rare blend of intuition and technical mastery, working in synchrony throughout the whole process, brought out the best in this fine ensemble. The choir intends to keep the work in its repertoire next year; I am delighted and deeply grateful at the prospect of continuing this adventure.
|Posted by John Plant on April 16, 2017 at 5:10 PM||comments (0)|
On February 10 Jocelyne and I traveled to Wolfville to hear the first Canadian performance of 'Faustus: A SaxOpera' - neatly sandwiched between blizzards. Wolfville only regained power at noon on the day of the performance, and some of the musicians (incuding the indispensable - and splendid! piccolo player) arrived just in the nick of time. Once again I was moved and delighted by the skill, imagination, virtuosity and utter commitment which saxophonist Tristan de Borba, conductor Mark Hopkins and the Acadia Wind Ensemble brought to this work.
Tristan wished to bring Faustus to the North American Saxophone Alliance congress in Sackville, New Brunswick, on the following Saturday - one week later! - but of course he could not bring the 34 Acadia musicians with him. So he commissioned me to make a chamber version. Following the brilliant suggestion of Jennifer Bill, I settled on sax, piano and harp, and had a wonderful time reworking and rethinking the sometimes massive sonorities of Faustus into this very different context. The result was an independent work, shorter and more intimate. Unfortunately the flu prevented us from traveling to New Brunswick, as we had intended, but luckily the piece was recorded, and I am deeply grateful to Tristan and to the wonderful musicians who performed with him: Ellen Gibling, harp, and Jennifer King, piano.
Distance and time prevented me from flying to San Diego for the West Coast premiere of the full version, but once again a Recording Angel came to the rescue and preserved the magnificent performance of Michael Couper with the San Diego State University Wind Symphony, brilliantly conducted by Shannon Kitelinger. I am richly blessed to have encountered this wonderful double triad of saxophonists - Jennifer Bill, Tristan de Borba, Michael Couper - and conductors: David Martins, Mark Hopkins, Shannon Kitelinger, not to mention the fine ensembles under their direction. Each one provided new illuminations; it is the most priceless of gifts to hear my work sparked into life by the intersection of such profoundly committed individual sensibilities.
I have not yet heard the performances of Joseph Murphy and the Mansfield University wind ensemble under Adam Brennan, which included not only performances at Mansfield and Keystone College, but also at five high schools in northeastern Pennsylvania. But I have been promised a recording, which I await with great eagerness. I spent a large chunk of my childhood in rural Pennsylvania and it's lovely to think of my music being performed there.
Still to come in 2017-2018: performances in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Calgary and Taiwan! Watch this space....
|Posted by John Plant on November 14, 2016 at 6:05 PM||comments (0)|
It seems incredible that the first performance of Faustus: A SaxOpera happened six weeks ago. Traveling to Boston to attend the dress rehearsal and the performance was a brief but shining moment. I already knew that Dr. Jennifer Bill, the saxophone soloist, had an intuitive insight into my musical, expressive, dramatic intentions; but to find a similar degree of profound comprehension in the conductor, Dr. David Martins, with the ability to convey that understanding into the hearts, minds and fingers of his brilliant young musicians, surpassed my expectations.
The first burst of inspiration came when I connected this project to Gertrude Stein's inimitable
version of the Faust myth, a text which I have lived with for well over half of my life. That the saxophone was the ideal voice to personify her wonderfully idiosyncratic transformation of the archetypal principal figures in this myth: Faust himself, the restless, frustrated seeker of knowledge who knows everything except who he is; Marguerite, lost and terrified in the world of her potential desires, longing for clarity of vision; Mephisto, the ultimate deceiver, the bearer of false promises. And the wind ensemble could evoke the dark corners of Faustus's studio and of his soul; the wild wood of Marguerite's terror and desire; the luminous landscape of enlightenment; the self-inflicted solitary torment of hell and the faint, poignant promise of liberation. (For more on the genesis of this work, see my 'SaxOpera' blog.)
The marvel for me in those early days of October was to hear how thoroughly and intensely Jennifer, David, and those valiant young musicians grasped the colours and shades of my intention, and projected them so atmospherically into the beautiful acoustic space of the Tsai Center.
My joy was immeasurably enhanced by the presence of so much of my family: Helen, Norman, John and Mary Elizabeth from Scotland; Mary and Jim from Arlington; my ancient friend Peter Kovner, whose commission of 'A deep clear breath of life' introduced me to Jennifer and started me on a new and adventurous path, in company with Larry Raffel; and Jocelyne, whose trace is palpable in every note.
Some dark days have ensued since those luminous, warm, sunny days in early October, and it seems that a shadow has passed over the land. I am reminded that Gertrude Stein wrote her Faustus in 1939, and her work reflects the darkness of those times, and yet it concludes with a faint intimation of hope, as does the Doctor Faustus of Thomas Mann, another inspiration for my SaxOpera. The fragile wisp of hope in the final notes of my piece is now perhaps more poignant than I intended or foresaw, but I'm glad that it's there.
|Posted by John Plant on September 6, 2016 at 5:50 PM||comments (0)|
My friend John Barnstead, discussing Julian Barnes' new novel about Shostakovich on Facebook, said something so precious and precise about what should happen when a composer sets words to music, that I can only add a fervent Amen. After quoting Pushkin's poem in Russian, he very kindly appended John Fennell's prose translation, so I shall follow suit.
'Barnes really does have the kind of fine, unobtrusive control of language, allusion, and narrative voice that is one of the signs of a master craftsman. Where I find he falls short of mastery is in his use of aphoristic language, "для констатации факта," as it were, when the facts asserted are in fact not facts at all, and run contrary to what we know of Shostakovich as an artist, e.g. (on the same page) "Let Power have the words, because words cannot stain music. Music escapes from words; that is its purpose, and its majesty." No way José, folks. It's not an escape: music doesn't *escape* words; words *release* music the way the prisoner dreams of releasing the eagle in Pushkin's poem "Узник" ' (J.A.B)--
The Prisoner (Pushkin, trans. J. Fennell)
I sit behind bars in a damp prison My sad companion, a young eagle reared in captivity, flaps its wings and pecks at its bloody food beneath my window.
It pecks, then stops, and looks in through the window as though it shared the same thought as I. It calls me with its look and its cry and would say 'Let us fly away!
'We are free birds: it is time, my brother, it is time! Thither, where the mountain shines white behind the cloud, thither, where the expanses of the sea are blue, thither, where only the wind roams - and I!'
After reading John's inspired words and Pushkin's poem, I was haunted by the appropriately soaring key phrase from Janacek's Dostoevsky opera, From the House of the Dead: Orel car lesu! The eagle, king of the forest!
The prisoners free the caged eagle just as the hero is released from prison.
And this brings me, circuitously, to a mild rant. The current issue of Diapason, an indispensable French monthly devoted to 'l'amour du classique' contains a stimulating debate on operatic staging. Christian Merlin is encouraged by stagings whose 'dramaturgical viewpoint is so strong that a plot which we considered superficial suddenly begins to speak to us,' such as Tcherniakov's staging of Verdi's Il trovatore - which is transformed into 'a role-playing game for idle members of the bourgeoisie.'
That anyone could experience Il trovatore as superficial takes my breath away; that a work of such intense, committed passion and vitality could somehow be improved by turning it into a role-playing game is beyond my grasp.
I do not wish to place any limits on a director's imagination. Even the most outrageous transpositions of time and space in the work of Peter Sellars are clearly inspired by a profound love and knowledge of score. The same applies to many inspired radical stagings by Katie Mitchell, David McVicar, Harry Kupfer and others. I am objecting to the kind of reductionism whose purpose seems to be to disenchant the listener, to persuade us that what we thought was beauty, passion and truth was in reality a cheap, empty, lifeless husk. Brünnhilde and Waltraute can eat corn flakes in their trailer park, whose entrance is posted with warning signs: 'Transcendence Forbidden.'
|Posted by John Plant on August 4, 2016 at 6:00 PM||comments (0)|
My ever-intensifying love affair with the saxophone is intimately bound up in my mind with the discovery of the amazing expressive resources offered by large wind ensembles. Just a week before the premiere of my first work for saxophone, I was in Wolfville for the 2013 "Shattering the Silence" festival, when I heard Dr. Mark Hopkins conduct Michael Colgrass's Urban Requiem, a thrillingly revelatory experience. Then I traveled to Boston, for the premiere of my 'A deep clear breath of life,' for alto sax and piano, magnificently played by Dr Jennifer Bill and Yoshiko Kline. I've written about these life-changing experiences in previous blogs.
But my great adventure of the past eight months has been the invitation, from 'World Wide Concurrent Premieres Commissioning Fund,' to compose a full-scale concerto for alto saxophone and large wind ensemble. The result was Faustus: a SaxOpera. I've been obsessed with Gertrude Stein's powerfully idiosyncratic revisioning of the Faust myth for years. This commission inspired me to imagine a work in which the versatile and passionate voice of the saxophone could incarnate the characters in Stein's drama, with the instruments of the wind ensemble evoking the haunted, mysterious world in which that drama unfolds.
WWCPCF is an beautiful initiative of the pioneering American saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky. Among the composers who have received WWCPCF commissions are John Harbison, Michael Colgrass, Frank Ticheli, David Amram, Shih-Hui Chen, Chris Theofanadis and Gunther Schuller - I am humbled and honoured to be in such company.
The work is co-commissioned by ten saxophonists and/or ensembles, and they have exclusive rights to the work for the 2016-2017 season; each of their performances counts as a premiere. Three of them are already expressive, committed, brilliant advocates of my music, my wise and valiant mentors as I took my first steps into the deep and dazzling world of the sax : Jennifer Bill, Michael Couper, and Tristan da Borba. You can imagine how eagerly I await their performances, as well as those of the distinguished artists who are joining them in the commission!
Jennifer Bill's performance with the Boston University Wind Ensemble, conducted by David Martens, is scheduled for October 6. As soon as I have dates for the other performances, I will post them here and on Facebook. I can't overemphasize my joyful gratitude toward all the commissioners for their interest and support.
Here is what I wrote in the preface to the score: This work is inspired by Gertrude Stein's magnificent libretto on the Faust myth, 'Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights". The saxophone personifies and brings life to the principal characters, delineating the individuality of each by stylistic means, while the wind ensemble establishes the atmosphere -both emotional and physical- and participates in the action of the 'plot' - even sometimes taking on the function of chorus. At certain passages, the music articulates the precise rhythm of Stein’s prose.
It is not necessary to know the narrative of the SaxOpera to follow and enjoy the music, any more than it is for Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, or Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel . But in each case the story adds an extra imaginative dimension. Though of course there is a precedent for concertos with narrative content (e.g. Berlioz' Harold in Italy, Strauss's Don Quixote), my intention is to imbue the work with an authentically operatic idiom, together with the theatrical intensity inherent in the form: hence the designation: SaxOpera.
The short passage which concludes the opera was inspired not only by Stein's ending, in which a boy and a girl appeal to the Man from Over the Seas, (Please Mister Viper, do not forget to be), but also by the moving penultimate chapter of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, in which the narrator describes the final moments of the fictional Faustus cantata: 'The work admits of no consolation, no reconciliation.. but if the entire work produces lamentation, perhaps there is a paradox: so that from hopelessness and irremediable despair, hope (in the form of a whispered question) might germinate...’ I've been obsessed with Stein’s text for many years; I used it as the basis for a dance piece in 1980, and a chamber opera with piano in 1988. The music (apart from a few motivic germs) is quite new; I see Gertrude Stein's masterpiece with new eyes (and ears) after many decades of marinating!!
Here is the complete (and very exciting) list of commissioners:
1) Jennifer Bill, soloist/ Boston University Wind Ensemble, David Martins, conductor; Joshua Thomas; Joseph Murphy, soloist/ Mansfield University Wind Ensemble, Adam F. Brennan, conductor; Michael Couper, soloist/ San Diego State University Wind Symphony, Shannon Kitelinger, conductor; William Chien; Amy McGlothlin, soloist/The Gordon College Wind Ensemble, David W. Rox, conductor; Emily Cox; Tristan de Borba, soloist/ Acadia University Wind Ensemble, Dr. Mark Hopkins, conductor; Adam Pelandini, soloist/Central Washington University Wind Ensemble; The Calgary Wind Symphony.
|Posted by John Plant on November 10, 2015 at 7:55 PM||comments (3)|
The past month has been one of the most rewarding times in my compositional life. Two premieres: my Piano Quintet, in Halifax on October 4 with Blue Engine String Quartet, and Insomnia, at Carnegie Hall on Hallowe'en, with saxophonist Michael Couper, soprano Yungee Rhiee and pianist ChoEun Lee. Two peak experiences with matchless musicians; in the first I was a nervous and happy participant, in the second, a wide-eyed and goggle-eared member of the audience.
To experience two collaborations with two groups of musicians, who devote their breathtaking musicality, insight and intensity to my music, and who display an uncanny ability to meld themselves into a psychic unity - this is to be richly blessed.
i had never met Michael Couper, though I felt that we were old friends; we had corresponded extensively on the preparation of ''A deep clear breath of life'' for publication, and throughout the gestation of 'Insomnia.' He made many recordings for me of various extended techniques, alternate multiphonics, Aeolian sounds. Just a few days before our arrival in New York, Michael learned that he was a finalist in the prestigious Concert Artist Cuild's Victor Elmaleh Competition. He played my 'A deep clear breath of life' in the final concert. I was unable to attend, and expressed my wish for a TARDIS, so that I could travel backwards in time to hear him. He responded with a photo of himself wearing a t-shirt 'Trust me, I'm the Doctor...' He was wearing the same T-shirt when we met, in the studios of Opera America where the initial rehearsals took place.
That rehearsal began with a complete runthrough of the first movement. I was astounded, not only by the superb musicianship of all three performers, but by the unmistakeable communicative current which flowed among them, as if they were burning with a single flame. In my notes for the piece, I had written: Throughout the work the intensity and intimacy of the poet's encounter with the night are reflected in the intertwining of the saxophone's melodic line with that of the soprano, while the piano evokes and reveals the mysterious world in which she moves, at times echoing the sound of the poet's footsteps, at times providing shadows or glints of light.
As I listened, Yungee and Michael were indeed like the voice of a single soul, while ChoEun at the piano created - with mastery and mystery - the strange nocturnal world they inhabited. This impression only intensified as they worked on details, then rehearsed the movement again. This culminated in a performance of great intensity and beauty, one which continues to resonate in my mind. In a sense my wish for a TARDIS has been fulfilled!
Speaking of time/space travel, our Montreal friend Marsha sent us a long-distance celebratory treat: high tea at the Russian Tea Room, right next door to Carnegie Hall! - Given Jocelyne's Slavophilia dating from early childhood, and our love for Russian music, art, and poetry, this was a richly evocative feast in intoxicating and inspiring surroundings.
|Posted by John Plant on September 4, 2015 at 10:25 AM||comments (1)|
I have been deliciously, insanely busy this summer. Many of the projects I envisioned for my 'retirement', such as learning Russian properly and taking flamenco lessons, have been put on indefinite hold.
Ma il furto non m'accora - the loss doesn't disturb me, as Rodolfo sings to Mimi in a different context - because they've been utterly supplanted by the joys (and occasional agonies) of making music, writing it and performing it.
It's my immense good fortune to be blessed with magnificent musicians to work with. On October 4, with mezzo-soprano Marcia Swanston and the Blue Engine String Quartet, I will be performing in a concert of my own music - this is a first for me - as part of the St. Cecilia Concert Series here in Halifax. Marcia and Blue Engine were both part of Opera Nova Scotia's presentation of 'I will fly like a bird' in May of this year; they also took part in the Scotia Festival premiere in 2012. Their insight into my intentions and their poignant, heart-stopping performances constituted a powerful blessing.
The concert will include three of my vocal works, all new to Halifax: Canciones del alma, an evocation of spiritual experience through the metaphor of physical love, to a poem by San Juan de la Cruz, a 16th century Spanish mystic/monk/poet; Invocation to Aphrodite, to a poem by Sappho, greatest of classical Greek lyric poets; and Somnus et Amor, a hedonistic hymn to the joys of physical love, to the magical transition from lovemaking to sleep - and back again to love. This poem comes from the medieval Carmina burana manuscript, the same collection from which Orff drew his famous cantata of the same name. The fourth vocal work is my transcription of Haydn's cantata 'Arianna a Naxos' for voice and piano trio.
The event also includes the world premiere of my Piano Quintet, composed thanks to a grant from Arts Nova Scotia, and written with Blue Engine's expressive virtuosity, versatility, and matchless musicality in mind. I've given a detailed description of the work in the 'Program Notes' section of this site. For more information, please consult St. Cecilia's website: http://www.stcecilia.ca/home
Blue Engine and Chris Wilcox have also very kindly invited me to compose a new quartet, commissioned by Blue Engine, for the Music Room Chamber series. To compose a string quartet is the most exciting and demanding of challenges, not only because of the form's illustrious lineage, but because the relative homogeneity of timbre impels a concentrated emotional intimacy, a kind of distillation which requires maturity and truthfulness of expression. It is, after all, the medium to which composers from Beethoven to Murray Schafer (and beyond) have confided their deepest thoughts, intuitions and aspirations.
Preparation for this work involved immersing myself in the study of quartets of all kinds. Along with many new discoveries, the opportunity to deepen my acquaintance with this inexhaustible repertoire has been irresistibly inviting. New to me were the magnificent quartets of Grazyna Bacewicz; the terrifying and moving quartets of Helmut Lachenmann; the irrepressible vitality of both Ginastera quartets. And it was essential to plunge again into all six of Bartok's quartets, to continue to explore those of Ligeti, Penderecki, Murray Schafer, Carter; and to deepen my acquaintance with those of Schumann, Borodin.... and Beethoven.
The Music Room concert is scheduled for February 3; and I've recently learned that in January the extraordinary team of saxophonist Tristan de Borba and pianist Simon Docking will be giving the Canadian premiere of my 'A deep clear breath of life' in the same series!
And I would like to add an important postscriptum to my 'Pecorino' blog: my Insomnia, commissioned by Michael Couper and Jennifer Bill, for soprano voice, alto sax and piano will be premiered at Carnegie Hall on the afternoon of October 31.
I will have more to say about these events in a future blog, ideally to be written shortly after the October 4 concert.
So if Russian, classical Greek and flamenco have taken a back seat to all this, I certainly cannot complain, though I'm inclined to join in the immemorial kvetch about the shortness of life, not to mention the vertiginous brevity of every single day! And I'm full of gratitude to the incomparable artists who have immersed themselves in my work with such devotion and enthusiasm; to Larry Bent and Missy Searl of St. Cecilia Concerts, and to Chris Wilcox of The Music Room Chamber Series; and finally to my wife and life partner Jocelyne, who is an integral part of my creativity and the deepest source of my inspiration.
|Posted by John Plant on May 28, 2015 at 10:50 AM||comments (0)|
In July of last year I received a most welcome phone call from Dr. Walter Kemp: Opera Nova Scotia was planning to stage 'I will fly like a bird', my opera about the Robert Dziekanski tragedy, composed to Andy Wainwright's poignant libretto. And nine months later, on Tuesday, May 5, the rehearsals began! From May 9 we rehearsed every day, with a last-minute break on Victoria Day; staging rehearsals, music rehearsals, first separately, then together. The intensity which everyone brought to this enterprise was staggering, exhilarating, profoundly rewarding - splendid singing actors Clayton Kennedy and Marcia Swanston, the amazing Blue Engine String Quartet; the adventurous, irrepressible clarinettist Dominic Desautels; stage director David Overton, who brilliantly vindicated the operatic quality of our work; and myself in the triple role of composer, rehearsal pianist, and ensemble member. Andy Wainwright was a vital presence at many of the staging rehearsals. Both of us were profoundly gratified by David's penetrating, visionary insight into our work, and by his openness and receptivity to whatever we had to say as the process unfolded.
We rehearsed mostly in the bowels of the Dalhousie Arts Centre, two floors underground, in windowless rooms of varying sizes, shapes, acoustic attributes, and pianos. The music rehearsals - some with the singers, others with the instruments alone - evolved in a curious, fascinating parallel with the staging rehearsals, in which I tried to be all the instruments at once. But in both cases it was thrilling to sense the shared passionate determination to master the work's complexities and to navigate its emotional currents, without a conductor, relying utterly on each other to create the texture, tempo and mood implicit in the score.
Lots of driving - two and a half hours per day, back and forth from West Jeddore. My ipod shuffle received an excellent workout: I had loaded it up with Boris Christoff singing Musorgsky songs, Boulez conducting Webern, a tasty blues anthology, Maria Callas, some favourite Motown, historic recordings from La Scala, Stravinsky, Janacek, wonderful new music by Lisa Bielawa and Thierry Pécou, scattered little bits of Rautavaara's Vigilia - o that basso profondo! - the amazing treble Peter Jelosits from Harnoncourt's Bach cantata recordings - Mozart's C minor mass and his uncompleted operas, vintage James Brown and Aretha Franklin ... and of course lots of Verdi. This chaotic jumble of music perhaps acted as a counterweight to the singleminded intensity of rehearsals, over 60 hours of rehearsal for just under one hour of music. Oh, to see that hour of music emerge over the space of three weeks! - as initial uncertainties and confusions slowly but surely vanished, bringing the music and drama into keener and keener focus. It seemed to me that the rehearsal time could not have been more precisely calibrated: we reached a state where we could perform with confidence, but without the faintest shadow of routine, always with the necessary, exhilarating sense of risk.
We had two dress rehearsals, the second one being public - with an audience of high school students, who sat spellbound and attentive. As for the performances on May 22 and 23, they could not have been more gratifying. Many people who had seen the 2012 Scotia Festival concert performances remarked on how much more powerful, gripping and convincing the work became in David Overton's staging. Opera directors who are so deeply sensitive to the musical contours of a work are rare, but David is certainly among them. But it was not until I saw a video that I could grasp the coherence and poignance of his vision, aided and abetted by the beautiful, haunting and apt videographic projections of Garrett Barker, the stark, spare set design of Katrin Whitehead, the subtle atmospheric lighting of Matthew Downey.
My friend the poet Lawrence Raab liked to quote Robert Frost on the role of education: "you know, it lifts sorrow and trouble to a higher plane of regard." And Larry goes on to say, in his beautiful essay 'Poetry and Consolation' : 'the education that art can provide is keener sight. Great art simply makes its subject more visible.' I wrote to Andy Wainwright that I felt we had achieved something like that. Our opera cannot bring Robert Dziekanski back, or repair the immense injustice of his death. But perhaps we've lifted his story to that higher 'plane of regard', and that's something.
I am eternally grateful to Dr. Walter Kemp for presenting our opera, within a surprising but strongly effective context, between Monica Pearse's eloquent tribute to Helen Creighton, and Pergolesi's delightful and timeless farce La serva padrona. I would like to salute the excellent performers of the other operas: soprano Maureen Batt incarnating two diametrically opposed 'aspects of woman', with Lynette Wahlstrom as her sensitive, subtle pianist in Aunt Helen; bass-baritone Jon-Paul Decosse as the put-upon 'padrone', and the inimitable mime Bill Wood as the servant.
And I feel blessed and incredibly lucky to have such inspired and committed collaborators: Andy Wainwright, whose libretto took me into directions I would never have foreseen; Clayton and Marcia, singers burning with sustained intensity, vocal beauty and dramatic insight; and an ensemble of world-class musicians, illuminating every detail of the score, seismographically and poignantly sensitive to each nuance. My heartfelt thanks to you all.
|Posted by John Plant on March 14, 2015 at 5:10 PM||comments (2)|
Tonight I was eating a piece of pecorino cheese, and remarking to my wife how the smell reminded me of my childhood - specifically, the milk-house in our neighbour's barn in rural Pennsylvania, where I played - innocently enough! - with Judy and Anne, the farmer's daughters. This sparked a memory of how their mother organized a surprise farewell party for me, as we were about to move to southern New Jersey, just as I was entering seventh grade. All my classmates were there, and they chipped in to buy me a present. It was an LP of highlights from Wagner's Die Meistersinger, in the Decca Grand Opera Series, the first record of Wagner's music I owned. From a taste of pecorino to that glorious quintet 'Selig wie die Sonne' - top that, Marcel Proust!
And thank you, Mrs. Whittaker, and my contemporaries from Alexandria Public School, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, 1957... I couldn't have had a better going-away gift.
It's been a long time between blogs. I've been working! - Two major projects on the heels of the Concerto for Orchestra. First, a very welcome commission from Michael Couper (who published A deep clear breath of life, and has also performed it in many venues) and Jennifer Bill (who premiered it in Boston in 2012) - to compose a new work for voice, saxophone and piano. The resulting work is Insomnia, a setting of excerpts from Marina Tsvetaeva's cycle of poems, written on the verge of the Russian Revolution. Michael will be performing it at Carnegie Hall on October 31, and Jennifer plans to include it as part of her Tanglewood Faculty Recital this summer, with soprano Elissa Alvarez. ( Michael will also be performing A deep clear breath of life in San Diego on May 6.)
The collaboration with Michael and Jennifer was delightful, rewarding and intense, involving much correspondence about the saxophone's astonishing arsenal of possibilities. Michael made recordings for me of multiphonics, trills, Aeolian sounds, and other special techniques; and both he and Jennifer were generous, patient and unbelievably helpful with technical advice. Insomnia extends the theme of the 'dark night of the soul' - which is not just the desolation of 4 A.M. so painfully evoked by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but also the dichosa ventura - blessed adventure - mentioned by St. John of the Cross - forth into the unknown territory of night, with its sense of infinite possibility, the terror and ecstasy of the unknown - I'm beginning to see that these things are a recurring theme in my work - they are also at the heart of Canciones del alma, La notte bella, Somnus et amor, and the song Anoche cuando dormía (from Babel is a blessing).
The other major project was a Piano Quintet, composed for Blue Engine String Quartet, who have been such faithful and invaluable collaborators and friends. Composed with the help of a grant from Arts Nova Scotia, the Quintet will be premiered at a program devoted to my music on October 4, as part of the St. Cecilia Concert Series, with Blue Engine and mezzo-soprano Marcia Swanston. I cannot overemphasize how much the support, friendship and artistic affinity of these magnificent artists means to me.
The Piano Quintet opens with an elegy to my parents, and closes with a rather riotous passacaglia. In between these violently contrasting outer movements, there is a somewhat vertiginous scherzo, dedicated to Blue Engine in homage to their virtuosity and sensitivity, and a very quiet movement evoking birdsong at twilight - this in memory of my mother's oldest sister, my Aunt Helen, founder of Kingston Field Naturalists and a passionate lover of birds all her life. The program will be completed by Canciones del alma , Invocation to Aphrodite, and Somnus et amor - a setting of one of the poems from the Carmina burana manuscript which Orff overlooked, the first work I wrote for Jocelyne - in a new version for piano and string quartet; and my transcription of Haydn's Cantata Arianna a Naxos for piano trio.
My opera about the Robert Dziekanski tragedy I will fly like a bird (libretto by J. A. Wainwright) is being staged by Opera Nova Scotia on May 22 and 23, with the same fine singers: Clayton Kennedy and Marcia Swanston, and - once again - the wonderful Blue Engine String Quartet. The stage direction is in the very capable hands of David Overton.
I am truly spoiled for performances this year - in Halifax, Toronto (Invocation of Aphrodite with mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig with the Talisker Players), San Diego, Tanglewood, Ottawa (my Capriccio for flute and marimba, at the MusCan conference), and New York! Much to be grateful for - and now it's time to stop blogging and start practicing!