John Plant, composer

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Pecorino, Proust, and Performance

Posted by John Plant on March 14, 2015 at 5:10 PM

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!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mg9sKjiQ5r4

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!

 

 

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2 Comments

Reply John Versteege
5:38 PM on March 14, 2015 
What a period!
Practising... Yes, always. That's the secret.
And Nature will help you stay put tomorrow.
And practise...:-)
(Very) Well done, my friend.
Reply Jessica Noyes
9:46 AM on March 28, 2015 
Glad to see that your projects, learning, creating, and practicing are happening so thick and fast. I admire your taking productive advantage of this endless winter.