Monday, March 16, 2009

Talking with Shulamit Ran before a World Premiere

It was a last minute thing, finding out Shulamit Ran would be here for the concert Saturday night when Concertante would give the world premiere of the work they’d commissioned as part of their “1 + 5 Project.” So after talking to Zvi Plesser, the “1” in the “1 + 5” combination for this piece, Friday afternoon, I called the composer on Saturday and invited her to drop in on the pre-concert talk I was giving if she had the time. As it turned out, she was delighted to do so. I warned her that there might not be many people there – once there was over 40 but another time there was 7 – but she said “Oh, I know how that goes.”

They were rehearsing the piece when I got there – and I was concerned they might not be done in time for the talk – so I stuck my head in the door and listened a bit. My reaction was “wow!”

Shulamit Ran is a busy composer with pieces being commissioned and performed far and wide. But as often happens with contemporary composers, it’s not always easy to hear their music. This was not the first piece of hers I was hearing but the first one I was going to hear live. There’s a big difference between listening to it unfold before you in a live concert and listening to a recording of it by yourself. Being one of the first people to hear it anywhere in the world is also very exciting: you never know what you’re going to get – it’s as close to gambling as a music lover can get.

So what I heard in those few minutes as they worked over a couple of sections – an added fermata here someone didn’t have written into the part, watching the dynamics there to balance better with the cellist – was exciting to hear knowing (a) it was the first time I was hearing anything from this piece but also (b) I was hearing a bit of it even before the audience would hear it in its official first performance.

And I knew from that sampling I would like this piece. As a composer myself, I was thinking “okay, we’re on the same wave-length, here,” stylistically speaking. Even though I can enjoy music written in many different styles, this was music that spoke to me more closely. I was, as they say, “psyched.”

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As I was ready to start my talk – I had spent a few hours putting a script together about Mozart and Mendelssohn in case she was unable to make it – she walked in the door ready to go. In a few minutes, then, I began by telling the audience, even though Mozart and Mendelssohn were unable to be here tonight, Shulamit Ran is – and that we had a rare opportunity of not only hearing a brand new piece by an internationally acclaimed composer right here in our own musical back yard, but also hearing about it from the composer herself.

This was the second world premiere by an internationally acclaimed composer to be heard in Harrisburg in two weeks – Philip Glass’s Violin Sonata was performed at Market Square Concerts on February 28th – and several people in the audience here had heard that performance, too. It makes you begin to think that maybe we’re not such a provincial small-town state capitol, after all.

We began with the last stage of the creative process – what is the title and where did it come from? The program book was printed up before the season actually began and so her work is listed as “Commissioned Work” since at press time it hadn’t been finished yet much less given a name.

She explained as she was working on it, she didn’t know what she was going to call it. As she was nearing its completion, one title came to mind – not even a “working title” – but she didn’t want to mention what it was. Finally, the title “Lyre of Orpheus” appeared out of nowhere, even though the music had nothing to do with the ancient Greek myth – how Orpheus goes into the Underworld to bring Eurydice back to life only to lose her again; or, as the legend concludes, with Orpheus, playing his lyre and taming the savage beasts of the forests, is torn apart by Maenads, the wild women under the influence of Bacchus, his body parts floating down the river but his lyre still playing.

Looking back over what she had just composed, she could see the emotional points that might correspond, here and there, maybe not in chronological order but enough to give a sense of this timeless story of love lost, found and lost again. One of the reasons these stories survive in modern culture is because they are timeless and can be appreciated in any number of ways because of their universality.

Even though the story was not in her mind when she composed the piece, a listener might still be able to hear details of it reflected in the music. For a couple of generations growing up on the likes of Walt Disney’s Fantasia or more recent MTV music videos where music was represented in a visual medium meant to enhance (or “explain”) the aural one, I joked it would be interesting to poll the audience afterward to discover what they thought the story was, where it fit the music – what the music was “about.” We could get several different interpretations!

If coming up with the title was the last step of the creative process and the first step was receiving the commission, I asked her what the second step was, getting it started.

She was given a deadline of February 1st to deliver the finished score and parts for a performance six weeks later. She completed writing it in December of 2008, but then the work has to be copied. So within this time-frame, she set to work.

Rather than just being given a blanket commission to write anything at all, she said, she was given certain parameters or limitations to work in – it was for six players and the idea was to feature one of those - why they call it “1 + 5.” She was supposed to highlight the playing of cellist Zvi Plesser. How she was going to do that was up to her.

The “easy way out” might be to write a mini-concerto – put him up front like a soloist with the rest of the group forming a small orchestra. But it’s a chamber music group, not a chamber orchestra, so she wanted to be more mindful of the interplay between equals that makes chamber music what it is – the give-and-take, collaboration and state-of-mind that makes it different from just being music for a small number of players. In that sense, she knew she wanted to have the cellist play in certain parts like a soloist but at other times as part of the group, also giving other players prominence at certain times (even in the few minutes I heard in rehearsal, in addition to the cello’s lyrical lines there were solos for the first viola and the first violin).

One of the things an audience-member may feel before a premiere is “dread of the unfamiliar.” Not knowing what style the composer is writing in may cause some uncertainty – that’s part of the gamble. So we talked a bit about her style.

She explained that while she’s trying to write in a 21st Century way, the music combines elements of a certain intellectual approach to its structure but always with the sense that music is an emotional experience - we respond to it emotionally.

I mentioned Harold Shapey, an important Chicago-based composer who was a mentor of hers and, like many important composers, one not all that well known to the general American public. He had been described as a “radical traditionalist,” meaning that he used traditional means to express his musical ideas in a “radical” way. I asked her to explain what that was and if it applied to her own music (which I felt it did).

“If someone wants to call me a ‘radical traditionalist,’ I would gladly accept that,” she said. Essentially, it means there are chords that move in certain expected ways – “everything is about ‘tension and release,’” the whole concept behind dissonance in 19th Century music – but the chords will sound different by themselves than chords from Beethoven or Brahms might sound.

Music – or at least music involved with harmonic motion – moves from one point to another and draws you along with it. Dissonance is like spice and helps propel a chord toward its resolution. While there may be a lot of difference between the sound of Vivaldi and the sound of Brahms, if you get beneath the “surface language,” you’ll discover that in most ways they’re very similar, maybe even the same, no matter how simple or complex the style.

Hearing Mozart before Lyre of Orpheus may make them sound like different worlds, I said, but in reality they are just two different ways of doing the same thing: creating a musical world to which you can respond on different levels, both intellectually and emotionally. There are phrases in Mozart that move from here to there – there will be phrases in Ms. Ran’s piece that will do the same thing, essentially, not the way Mozart would do them but comparable (after all, they were written 230 years apart).

(Interestingly, in the context of the concert, I found Mozart’s sense of dissonance and release much closer to Ms. Ran’s style, especially in that incredible slow movement, more than Mendelssohn’s style which was written only 183 years ago!)

During the course of this conversation the composer and I were having, I saw the cellist sneak in on the side. Zvi Plesser said he wanted to hear what we were talking about but I decided later to put him to work.

Zvi talked about the process – choosing the composer (the first of these six commissions was performed two seasons ago, so this has been an on-going process in addition to being a long wait), then out of nothing, receiving the completed work in the mail and holding the score in his hands, then playing through his part to hear what it sounded like and then, after everybody’s had a chance to practice their individual parts, getting them together to read through it so he could get an idea how it all worked together, hearing the piece take shape finally as they work out the details. In a sense, it’s just like they might do with something by Brahms but only here there are no recordings or other performances to guide them. It was a very elastic process, figuring everything out on your own. Then a few days ago they had their first rehearsal with the composer present and their last rehearsal just a few minutes ago. In all, they’d been working on the piece for about a week.

But the process wasn’t finished yet: though the commission may have been announced over two years ago, it wasn’t finalized until the audience has heard it. That, Ms. Ran said, is the continuum, going from what she had in her mind, getting it down on paper, then having the performers interpret what she’d written to lift it (as she extends her hands forward to the audience) off the page so the listener can hear it. Only then is it “complete.”

Twenty minutes later, the concert began and after the Mozart, Shulamit Ran’s Lyre of Orpheus was complete.

And we in Harrisburg PA were the first to hear it.

I'll post about the performance itself a little later.

- Dr. Dick

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