Friday, March 13, 2009

Concertante: Another World Premiere in Harrisburg This Weekend

It’s the second world premiere by an internationally acclaimed composer to take place in Harrisburg PA in the past two weeks.

On February 28th, Market Square Concerts presented Maria Bachmann and Jon Klibonoff in the first performance of the new Violin Sonata by Philip Glass (you can read posts about it here, from the Market Square Concerts Blog).

Tomorrow at 8pm – and my apologies for the late notice – listeners in Central Pennsylvania will have the chance to be the first to hear a new work by Shulamit Ran (photo at right), an Israeli-born composer now living in New York and teaching in Chicago where she has been a composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony and the Chicago Lyric Opera. Her Symphony won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. She was the soloist in the premiere of her “Concert Piece for Piano & Orchestra” with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic in 1971. Since then, she has received numerous commissions, premieres and performances across the United States and around the world.

Philip Glass, unfortunately, was busy performing concerts of his music in California when his Violin Sonata was being performed here for the first time.

But Shulamit Ran will be joining Concertante for all three of their performances this weekend – the world premiere in Harrisburg on Saturday, in Baltimore on Sunday and New York City’s Merkin Recital Hall on Monday. With any luck, she’ll be able to meet the audience at my pre-concert talk if her schedule is open (composers are often very busy with things like this, so I make no promises). Regardless, you'll be able to meet the composer after the performance.

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THIS JUST IN: Shulamit Ran will be my guest tonight at the Pre-Concert Talk at 7:15 before the world premiere of her Lyre of Orpheus. - (posted Saturday 4:45pm...)
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She is one of six composers commissioned by Concertante in their “1 + 5" Series, creating new repertoire for the sextet of string players with each member of the ensemble commissioning a composer to write a work that will feature them in relation to their colleagues.

I just spoke with Zvi Plesser (photo at left), the cellist who’ll be the featured artist in this new work Concertante is premiering tomorrow night at the Rose Lehrman Center of Harrisburg Area Community College. Oh, and wouldn’t you know, I forgot to ask him what the actual title is! The program (printed at the start of the season) refers to it only as “Commissioned Work” since it hadn’t been finished yet. Well, I’ll get back to you on that detail...

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Update: According to the listing in the Patriot-News on-line (if you've scrolled through to page 5 of the Events Listings to find it) it's called Lyre of Orpheus. I should also mention, the Patriot-News listing has it for 4pm but it's really 8:00. You might be early but at least you'll get a good seat...

In her program notes, which Zvi forwarded to me, Ms. Ran said she finished the work late in 2008 but the title, Lyre of Orpheus, actually came about after the fact, so the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the ageless tale of love lost, love found and then lost again, was not actually in her mind when she composed the music. Still, she felt the title was appropriate to the cellist’s role of protagonist in the music’s dramatic give-and-take. She also mentions the sextet’s 2nd cellist tunes the lowest string down a minor third to obtain some additional lower notes than usual.

About writing the piece, the composer says,
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This particular commission was made with the goal of giving center-stage to the ensemble’s first cello, a choice I was especially grateful for, not only because it features Zvi Plesser, the outstanding Israeli cellist, but also because it gave me an opportunity to highlight an instrument for which, from a very early stage in my life, I have felt a special affinity. The cello’s “soul”, so naturally combining passion and lyricism, has always touched me in a special way.

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Zvi said the whole process of the group choosing their composers involved lots of discussion and listening to lots of CDs and performances. One of the deciding factors for him was hearing the Violin Concerto she had written which Ittai Shapira, one of his colleagues in Concertante, had premiered with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2003. He knew her work but didn’t know her, personally, but liked her musical style to take the plunge and choose her as his composer.

So what’s it like going from asking a composer to write something to performing it?

As Zvi explained it, you go from nothing – before the music even exists – to getting the manuscript in the mail and holding the score in your hands. He immediately started playing through his part to hear what it sounded like and fell in love with it.

After their own rehearsals, they worked with the composer for the first time last night in New York. He commented about how well she communicated what it was she wanted from them at certain points and that she had the piece very much in her mind (it may seem obvious, but composers can often be very vague about their own music after it’s finished, especially when it comes to smaller details). So it was a very exciting experience bringing it to THAT point – and now, to place it before a live audience and experience an actual performance of it.

Since there are many solutions to the idea of “1 + 5,” I asked Zvi if it was more of a “mini-concerto” in which he’d be the soloist while the others form the equivalent of the orchestra, or more like a piece of chamber music where all the players are integrated on a more equal level except, in this case, he’d be a little more equal than the others.

He described it as a combination of the two: at times, he’s part of the ensemble and at other times, his prominent role may verge on something like a concerto, complete with some solo cadenzas.

I’ve had the chance to hear about a dozen of Shulamit Ran’s pieces over the years, and those I have heard (or scores that I’ve looked at) show a style that combines what some might call “intellectual design” with an expressive sense that aims directly for the heart as well as the mind.

Zvi agreed, telling me it’s exciting to be able to express himself through this music he helped bring into being.

Also on the program are works by Mozart and Mendelssohn who, however, are unable to attend the concert. Mozart’s Symphonie Concertante for Violin and Viola may be well known but in the days when amateur musicians made their own music at home before there were stereos and TV-sets, it was arranged for various combinations, including this one for string sextet. Last month marked the start of the Mendelssohn Bicentennial Year and on this program you can hear his String Quintet in A Major, Op. 18, which he composed the year after the more famous (and more extroverted) Octet – that would make the composer 17 when he wrote it.

The concert is at 8:00 at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center of Harrisburg Area Community College. My pre-concert talk starts at 7:15 back in the “Black Box” (take the hall off the left from the front entrance).

– Dr. Dick

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