LIVE VIDEO STREAM: A Far Cry’s “The Blue Hour” on Friday, Nov. 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET

by Maggie Molloy

One woman’s story comes to life through the voice of five composers tonight in A Far Cry’s performance of The Blue Hour. Based on Carolyn Forché’s abecedarian poem “On Earth,” the song cycle explores the last hour of one woman’s life, the fleeting memories from A to Z that flash before her eyes—and how her one single story is ultimately many stories: an intimate snapshot of our shared humanity.  

Grammy-winning jazz singer Luciana Souza joins the chamber orchestra in this song cycle written by a collaborative of five leading composers: Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Shara Nova, Angélica Negrón, and Caroline Shaw.

And although the concert itself is in Boston, you can still hear every minute of this musical tour de force right here on Second Inversion during our live video stream of the performance this Friday, November 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET. Visit the video link below to tune in to tonight’s live stream, or click here to stream directly from Facebook.

In anticipation of tonight’s performance, we asked each of the five composers one question about the poetry, music, and meaning behind The Blue Hour:

Second Inversion: What is this poem about, and how did it inspire the music?

Rachel Grimes: Carolyn Forché’s remarkable poem “On Earth” is a profoundly beautiful and devastating exploration of the last moments before death from the perspective of a woman recollecting her life in shards of crystalline memories. Through the lens of these visceral personal moments are glimpses into different points in time in human history, recalling childhood, the fallout of war, a sense of home, intimacy, loss, nostalgia, the mundane, and the epic. 

In a phone conversation with all of the composers, the poet welcomed us to excerpt the poem in order to better serve the music and the new work as a whole. We were overwhelmed at this generous invitation, and vowed to honor the poem and to be true to the feeling of the whole work. We set about to excerpt it, choosing passages that felt ripe for music-making, while maintaining her original abecedary form. We consulted with Joseph Cermatori to sculpt a unified libretto, and to follow that original intent of the form. The poem was endlessly inspiring: so many images, particular and visual, and so many emotions and opportunities to investigate the human experience on a very intimate scale. Especially inspiring was the chance to explore, through this perspective of this one life coming to an end, the experience of facing death and the treasury of life’s myriad experiences that are in so many ways universal to all.

SI: What makes Luciana Souza the perfect singer for this song cycle’s premiere?

Shara Nova: When we composers first got together, we knew we wanted to find a singer who was able to read what we anticipated to be a challenging score, who had a wide vocal range and also had a sound closer to folk or jazz. Luciana Souza (pronounced like Loo-See-Ah-Nah Soh-za) has a dynamism and a warm, natural voice that really excited us.

Once I knew that she was going to be the singer, I started writing some of the movements on guitar, influenced by the great Brazilian songwriters like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and then once I had that foundation, I expanded the arrangements for A Far Cry and removed the guitar parts. I wanted the music to be very tuneful and song oriented, as well as take the opportunity to really show off and explore the color and vibrancy of this extraordinary ensemble.  

SI: What was the composition process like?

Sarah Kirkland Snider: We got together one weekend and spent a lot of time reading through the text together, talking about it, brainstorming ideas. We each highlighted the bits of text that we felt the strongest connection to and then divided it up along those lines, with the idea that we’d interweave our voices in movements of varying length, texture, style, and emotion.

We decided there would be moments of spoken text, moments in which the ensemble sang and spoke, and a canonic refrain that happened three times, written by Caroline. Shara was the first one to start writing, and she sent us some computer mock-ups of her drafts. Some of my assigned bits of text followed hers, so in those movements I used a motive of hers as an ostinato or jumping-off point, or made harmonic and rhythmic decisions based upon hers, depending on whether I wanted contrast or continuity.

We all worked in this fashion, brick by brick, sharing our drafts with each other and responding to them musically, striving to maximize cohesion between the movements and forward momentum in the overall form. It was great fun getting inside the compositional mind of some of my favorite fellow composers. What I love about this piece is that, to my ear, it hangs together as a single journey, but you can hear our different voices emerge at different moments. This lends the music the same sense of collective consciousness that is innate to the poem itself. 

SI: How does the process of collaborative composition serve to illustrate or enhance the meaning behind this poem?

Angélica Negrón: There’s moments of deep sorrow, empathy, mystery, despair, warmth, confusion, intimacy and so many other layers and nuances in between. By bringing together five different composers each with a unique perspective and a distinctive sound, we’re able to explore more profoundly these layers of meaning and capture the complexity of this person’s life. Each composer opens up a new world of possibilities of the text and by allowing ourselves to being vulnerable and receptive of other’s interpretations, we find new connections and make new discoveries.

I feel this piece weaves together not only each composers’ individual interpretation of the text but also the common ground among us that we found along the way.  I’ve never been a part of such a deeply meaningful and truly collaborative project in which everyone’s voices are highly complementary to each other yet add a unique and essential ingredient to the whole. There’s a shared sensibility and an unusual connection between the composers that’s hard to describe, and this poem is at the center of it all. 

SI: What does this piece sound like?

Caroline Shaw: I’d say it sounds like micro and macro visions of the earth—precious sonic details emerging from and receding into a mysterious whole.


Visit our website on Friday, November 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET to watch a LIVE video stream of A Far Cry’s The Blue Hour with Luciana Souza. To learn more about our live-streaming video broadcasts of A Far Cry, click here.

Second Inversion & A Far Cry

by Maggie Molloy

Philip Glass, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider are just a few of the composers you’ll see on the Boston-based A Far Cry‘s star-studded 2017-2018 season. This year Simone Dinnerstein premieres a new Glass piano concerto, the Miró Quartet breathes new life into Kevin Puts’ Credo, Luciana Souza lends her luminary voice to a new commission by five of today’s top women composers—and you can watch it all unfold on Second Inversion.

We are thrilled to continue our media partnership with A Far Cry this season, presenting live video streams on our website of each of their performances at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall!

Take a peek at the programs below and mark your calendars now:

Friday, September 22, 5pm PT / 8pm ET: Dinnerstein Premieres Glass
featuring Simone Dinnerstein, piano

Philip Glass: Symphony No. 3
J.S. Bach: Concerto for Keyboard and Strings in G minor, BWV 1058
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048
Glass: Piano Concerto No. 3 (New AFC Commission)


Friday, November 10, 5pm PT / 8pm ET: The Blue Hour
featuring Luciana Souza, voice

The Blue Hour, a new AFC commission by Rachel Grimes, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, is an evening-length song cycle based on the poem “On Earth,” by Carolyn Forché. Delivering the vocals with A Far Cry is the luminous young jazz vocalist Luciana Souza.


Friday, January 19, 5pm PT / 8pm ET: Albion
featuring Nicholas Phan, tenor

Matthew Locke & Henry Purcell: Selections from The Tempest and The Fairy-Queen
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Concerto Grosso

Benjamin Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31


Friday, March 30, 5pm PT / 8pm ET: Loss and Resurrection
featuring the Miró Quartet

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet, Op. 135 (arr. AFC)
Kevin Puts: Credo (arr. AFC)
Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen, study for 23 solo strings


Friday, May 18, 5pm PT / 8pm ET: Next Generation
featuring Alexander Korsantia, piano

W. A. Mozart / Ethan Wood: Variations on “Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman”
Galina Ustvolskaya: Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani
Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10

Women in (New) Music: Just Like a Woman Video Premiere

by Maggie Molloy

Lara Downes, photo by Rit Keller.

An entire chorus of women’s voices has risen up this year in unparalleled numbers—and not just through protests and political marches, but also through the beautiful subtleties of music, performance, and poetry.

Women in (New) Music is proud to premiere pianist Lara Downes’ Just Like A Woman: a brand new video series which weaves together the work of today’s top women composers and poets. Each episode features Downes performing a solo piano work by a woman composer, paired with a poetry reading by a woman writer.

“As an artist who works in both music and words, I want to create a space for women’s voices to come together in the expression of shared desires, dreams, and destinies,” Downes said. “These videos are meant to be glimpses into the creative lives of women.”

The first episode, which just launched on International Women’s Day, features Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove’s achingly nostalgic “Singsong” paired with composer Rachel Grimes’ introspective “Every Morning.”

We’re thrilled to premiere Episode Two right here on Second Inversion. In this second installment, Downes lends her fingers to Sarah Kirkland Snider’s liquidly lyrical “The Currents,” the music woven together with Safiya Sinclair’s vividly emotive poem “Hands.”

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, January 6 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Unremembered: VIII. The Witch (New Amsterdam)

unremembered_cover-300x300“The Witch” is the 8th vignette in a 13-piece song cycle titled Unremembered from fabulous composer Sarah Kirkland Snider. Aggressive strings and a militant orchestration set the scene for a spooky narrative that takes us into shadowy woods full of subtle horrors. Shara Nova’s growling vocals capture both the beauty and foreboding of this imagistic and vivid score. Snider’s “The Witch” is layered, grisly and intense from start to finish. Highly recommended for listeners of all ages, just maybe not before bedtime. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Aphex Twin: Mt. Saint Michel performed by Alarm Will Sound (Cantaloupe Music)

acoustica_300dpi_cmykStarting the new year swamped with work and already behind from the previous year is not ideal, but it is the situation many of us find ourselves in this January. Alarm Will Sound’s version of Aphex Twin’s Mt. Saint Michael is the perfect music for this situation. Perhaps embracing the chaos along with pursuit of self-care

is the way forward. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Conlon Nancarrow (arr. Evan Ziporyn): Four Player Piano Studies performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars (Cantaloupe Music)

55805527bd9c35da77388ee16ee84cb456d8fd53You could say the 20th century experimental composer and expatriate Conlon Nancarrow was a bit of an introvert. He lived most of his life in isolation, and for decades composed only for player pianos—working alone, by hand, to produce and perfect a massive library of swingin’ blues and boogie-woogie piano rolls, his famous 49 Studies for Player Piano among them.

Well, composer Evan Ziporyn decided to take a few of those piano roll etudes and put them into human hands—the hands of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Ziporyn created a mixed ensemble arrangement that retains the visceral intensity and mechanical energy of Nancarrow’s original rolls, but reimagines them through the Technicolor timbral palette of Bang on a Can. It’s snazzy, jazzy, and full of color—proof that although player pianos have become largely obsolete, Nancarrow’s music is still very much alive. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.


Lisa Bielawa: Synopsis No. 12 “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” Michael Norsworthy, clarinet (BMOP/Sound)

bmop1017sI have to confess that I was super biased to love this piece even before I heard it; as a clarinetist, I am a huge fan of the unaccompanied clarinet repertoire, and as a musician, I am huge fan of Lisa Bielawa. Incredible, bizarre, enigmatic works have been written for clarinet alone by composers like Igor Stravinsky, William Bolcom, and Shulamit Ran. As they require one single voice to command the listener’s attention, they are tremendously difficult to compose and perform. Luckily, the clarinet’s huge range provides ample opportunity to create a wide variety of colors and characters, and a bit of extended techniques can help as well. Bielawa’s work presents the performer with a number of different fragments and gives them free reign to decide the order in which they are played, and how many times they are used. The idea behind “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” and the other 14 Synopses (all with six-word titles) is tied to Hemingway’s six-word short story “For sale, baby shoes: never used.” Apparently, Bielawa’s musical fragments each represent a different vacation activity. BMOP’s clarinetist Michael Norsworthy does a lot of trilling and running around the register of the instrument – sounds like he had a busy summer vacation.

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

Women in (New) Music: Timeline of Women Composers

by Maggie Molloy

women-in-music-timeline

“New” music didn’t just start up out of the blue. The contemporary classical music we know and love and treasure today is the product of centuries of innovation and experimentation in the field.

Likewise, women didn’t just pick up instruments and staff paper in the 21st century—we are the product of hundreds of years’ worth of women who fought to have their music heard. So if we’re going to celebrate Women in (New) Music, it’s important to pay tribute to the women who paved the way.

The following timeline briefly outlines the contributions of a number of history’s most influential women composers, past and present. Please note that this list is by no means comprehensive, but rather is meant to summarize some of the key accomplishments of women composers in the Western classical music tradition.

So the next time you’re looking for some fiercely empowering musical inspiration, check out some of these ladies:

HISTORIC COMPOSERS:

inanna

Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE): Regarded by scholars as the earliest known author, poet, and composer (regardless of gender), Enheduanna was a high priestess of the moon god in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. Her temple hymns were held in high esteem, and were in use at temples across Sumer and Akkad long after her death.

Image is of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, and warfare.

 


hildegard

 

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179): Hildegard was a German Benedictine abbess, Christian mystic, and one of earliest female composers. There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the entire Middle Ages, and she was one of the first composers (male or female) to create her own idiosyncratic compositional style.

 


maddalena-casulana

 

 

Maddalena Casulana (1544-1590): Casulana was the first woman in Western music history to print and publish her music, and the first to regard herself as a professional composer.

 

 


francesca-caccini

 

 

Francesca Caccini (1587-1645): Caccini had a successful career as a singer, teacher, and composer, and was one of the most prolific composers of dramatic music in the 17th century. She was also the highest-paid musician at the Florentine court.

 


barbara-strozzi

 

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677): Strozzi was the most prolific composer, man or woman, of printed secular vocal music in Venice during the mid-17th century. Her father, a poet and librettist himself, nurtured her ambitions as a composer and introduced her to the intellectual elite of Venice. Unlike her male contemporaries, she was restricted to performing at intimate, private gatherings rather than for large, public audiences.

 


elisabeth-jacquet-de-la-guerre

 

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729): Born into a family of musicians and instrument makers, Jacquet de la Guerre was the original child prodigy in music. From the age of five, she sang, composed, and played the harpsichord at Louis XIV’s court, supported by the king’s mistress. Throughout her life, she enjoyed the patronage of the king and dedicated most of her works to him.

 


maria-szymanowska

 

Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831): Szymanowska was one of the first professional virtuoso pianists of the 19th century. She toured extensively throughout Europe and composed for the court at St. Petersburg, gave concerts, taught music, and ran an influential salon. She wrote a number of piano pieces and songs which made her an important forerunner to Chopin.

 


fanny-mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Later known as Fanny Hensel (after her marriage), she was the sister of the early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. Though she was as talented and musically precocious as her brother, a musical career was considered inappropriate for a woman of her wealth and class at the time. After her marriage she played piano and performed her compositions at small, private gatherings of friends and invited guests, and she published much of her music under her brother’s name.

 


clara-schumann

 

Clara Schumann (1819-1896): Clara Schumann was one of the most distinguished composers and pianists of the Romantic era. Though she was married to the composer Robert Schumann, she tended to be the more famous of the two, and was the main breadwinner for their family. Together, Robert and Clara championed the musical career of Johannes Brahms, and she was the first to perform any of his works publicly.

 


amy-beach

 

Amy Beach (1867-1944): A child prodigy, pianist, and composer, Amy Beach taught herself to compose by studying and playing the works of other composers. Though social conventions of the time excluded her from studying or teaching at any of the top universities, she went on to become the first American woman to publish a symphony and other large-scale works.

 


marion-bauer

 

Marion Bauer (1882-1955): Bauer was an influential composer, teacher, and music critic who played an active role in shaping American musical identity in the early half of the 20th century. She held leadership roles in a number of composers’ societies, and helped found the American Music Guild, the American Music Center, and the American Composer’s Alliance.

 


rebecca-clarke

 

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979): Clarke was a classical composer and violist best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She became one of the first female professional orchestral players. Most of her works have yet to be published (or have only recently been published).

 

 


florence-beatrice-price

 

Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953): Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. Though she was classically trained, her music incorporated elements of African-American spirituals, emphasizing the rhythm and syncopation of the spirituals rather than just the text.

 


nadia-boulanger

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979): Boulanger was a composer, conductor, and one of the most influential pedagogues of the 20th century. Many of her students went on to become leading composers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Philip Glass, Ástor Piazzolla, and many more. Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia orchestras.

 


germaine-tailleferre

 

Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983): Tailleferre was the only female member of the group of French composers called Les Six, who were known for writing highly individual works which drew from a wide range of influences, including neoclassical. She composed hundreds of works in all genres, including many film scores.

 


lili-boulanger

 

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918): Lili Boulanger was a child prodigy and a student of her older sister, Nadia. At the age of 19, she became the first woman composer to win the Prix de Rome for her piece Faust et Hélène, but her compositional career was cut short when she died at the age of 24 from chronic illness.

 

 


ruth-crawford-seeger

 

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953): Seeger was a modernist composer and American folk music specialist, and she was the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in music. She was a prominent member of a group of American composers known as the “ultramoderns,” and her music influenced later composers including Elliott Carter.

 


LIVING COMPOSERS:

ellen-taaffe-zwilich

 

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Zwilich was the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. She is one of the most frequently played living composers, and her works draw from a wide range of influences, including atonal, post-modernist, and neo-romantic.

 

 


libby-larsen
Libby Larsen:
 
One of America’s most prolific and most frequently performed living composers, Larsen has cultivated a catalog of over 500 works spanning virtually every genre. She was the first woman to serve as a resident composer with a major orchestra, and she went on to become one of the founders of the American Composers Forum.

 

 


julia-wolfe

 

Julia Wolfe: Perhaps best known as one of the three founders of the wildly innovative Bang on a Can new music collective, Wolfe’s compositional style is just as urgent and relentlessly powerful as her career. In 2015, she earned the Pulitzer Prize for music, and this year, she was named a MacArthur Fellow—the first full-time classical composer to receive this distinguished award since 2003.

 


jennifer-higdon

 

Jennifer Higdon: One of America’s most critically-acclaimed and frequently performed living composers, Higdon has both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award under her belt. She enjoys several hundred live performances a year of her works, and her compositions have been recorded on over four dozen CDs.

 

 


lisa-bielawa

 

Lisa Bielawa: A prominent composer and vocalist both within and beyond New York’s thriving contemporary classical scene, Bielawa takes her inspiration from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. In 1997, she co-founded the MATA Festival, which has gone on to become New York’s leading showcase for vital new music by emerging composers.

 


amanda-harberg

 

Amanda Harberg: A New Jersey-based composer, pianist, and educator, Harberg’s music has been widely commissioned and performed both in the United States and abroad. She is also the founder and director of the Music in Montclair series, which pairs performances of traditional classical music with new works by living composers.

 


shara-nova

 

Shara Nova: Best known as the lead singer and songwriter for her chamber pop band My Brightest Diamond, Nova is also equally at home as a composer, mezzo-soprano extraordinaire, and musical chameleon. Career highlights include composing and starring in her own psychedelic Baroque chamber opera titled You Us We All and collaborating with practically every major musical voice in New York City (and beyond).

 


sarah-kirkland-sniderSarah Kirkland Snider: Perhaps best known for her rapturous and vividly orchestrated song cycles Penelope and Unremembered, Snider’s utterly immersive compositions have been commissioned and performed by many of the most prestigious orchestras, ensembles, and soloists throughout the world. A passionate advocate for new music, Snider also serves as co-director, along with William Brittle and Judd Greenstein, of New Amsterdam Records—a label which consistently churns out adventurous and thought-provoking new music.


anna-thorvaldsdottir

 

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: As a composer, Thorvaldsdottir is known for creating large sonic structures which immerse the the listener in their austere, somber, and utterly spellbinding soundscapes. She’s the recipient of the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize and The New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer Award.

 

 


angelique-poteat

 

Angelique Poteat: A powerful compositional voice and new music advocate, Poteat is a Seattle-based composer and clarinetist whose works have been commissioned and performed by the Seattle Symphony, North Corner Chamber Orchestra, and many others. Her five-movement composition Listen to the Girls, scored for girl choir and large orchestra, explores harmful and unfair societal expectations of women.

 


kate-moore

 

Kate Moore: Moore’s award-winning compositions blur the line between acoustic and electroacoustic media, at times even crossing over into sound installation territory. She specializes in creating surprising performance scenarios which feature virtuosic instrumentalists and musicians set amidst unusual and alternative performance circumstances.

 


missy-mazzoli

 

Missy Mazzoli: Mazzoli is a Brooklyn-based composer and keyboardist who’s works flow seamlessly between chamber-operatic, electronic, and abstract sound worlds. She’s also the founder and keyboardist of the all-female new age art pop ensemble Victoire, a group dedicated to the performance of her works.

 

 


caroline-shaw

Caroline Shaw: Perhaps best known as a Grammy Award-winning singer in the boundary-bursting vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Shaw is also a prominent violinist and composer in contemporary music. She has performed around the world as a violinist in ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), and in 2013 she became the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her a capella composition Partita for 8 Voices.

 


Are we missing someone? We plan to continue updating and expanding this index of women composers as time goes on. Send your submissions to maggiem@king.org and we’ll make sure your favorite female composers are added to the list.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: You Us We All by Shara Nova & Andrew Ondrejcak

by Maggie Molloy

“Dear Beyoncé,” Shara Nova sings dotingly above the excited clattering of an antique typewriter. “Do you ever think that you’re like everybody else? Just another human, fartin’ around this damned earth?”

Queen Bey makes no reply.
600x600Regal, royal, and ridiculously talented, Beyoncé is just one of several modern pop gods called upon in Nova’s contemporary Baroque chamber opera, You Us We All. The album-length opera is a mixed-up, mashed-up court masque about five allegorical characters searching for meaning in the modern age, filled with corny fan letters and cornetto solos, broken hearts and Baroque instruments.

It’s a work of 21st-century musical theater written for 17th-century instruments—an ornate, Baroque-style pageant of life and death with music by Nova, libretto by Andrew Ondrejcak, costumes by Zane Pihlstrom, and choreography by Seth Stewart Williams.

Shara Nova (previously known as Shara Worden) is one of those musicians who is notoriously impossible to pin down. She’s an artist in every sense of the word—a composer, a singer-songwriter, a mezzo-soprano extraordinaire, and a musical chameleon.

Perhaps best known as the frontwoman her own avant-garde rock band, My Brightest Diamond, she has also collaborated with composers and artists as diverse as the Decemberists, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Sufjan Stevens, Colin Stetson, David Byrne, and many more. For Nova, writing and starring in her own Baroque chamber opera was simply the next logical step in a career of beautifully unusual musical endeavors.

You Us We All began with a commission from the Belgian ensemble Baroque Orchestration X (B.O.X.), a collective that is committed to creating new music on old instruments. Inspired by their wide range of rare period instruments, Nova began working with writer, director, and production designer Andrew Ondrejcak to craft a new theatrical work that would combine the lavish nobility and grace of the Baroque era with the boldness and artistic experimentation of the 21st century.

The opera premiered last year with performances in Belgium, Germany, Amsterdam, and New York. And though no performances made it over to the West Coast (yet!), we can still live vicariously through the original cast recording, starring Nova herself with her hand-picked skeleton cast of curious characters.

0006082696_10

The opera takes its structural form from the Baroque masque—a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in 16th and 17th-century Europe and involved extravagant music, costumes, sets, and dances. Masques typically featured a series of tableaus in lieu of a standard plot, and opted for allegorical characters to represent abstract virtues such as Beauty, Strength, or Justice.

At its core, You Us We All adheres to this basic structure of pomp and circumstance—but what begins as lighthearted courtly entertainment quickly turns into something much darker: a radical look inward at how we define our culture and, perhaps more importantly, ourselves.

Nova’s warm, lustrous vocals sparkle in the role of Hope, along with acclaimed New York-vocalist Helga Davis as Virtue, baritone Martin Gerke as Love, performance artist Carlos Soto as Time, and countertenor Bernhard Landauer as Death. The 10-piece B.O.X. collective provides a backdrop of clean, courtly, polite, and precise accompaniment reminiscent of a Baroque dance suite—but with some more contemporary percussion thrown in for a 21st-century edge.

The opera tells a tale of Love, Virtue, Hope, and Death—four dreadfully superficial characters who define themselves solely through their fabulous costumes, ornamented melodies, and material possessions. Surrounded by the glitter and glamour of riches and wealth, they begin to reflect on the meaning of their lives in the modern world only as Time strips away their carefully-crafted layers of pomp and artifice.

The opera unfolds through a number of modern-day arias and recitatives: Death falls for Love, Virtue and Hope head out to a strip club, Time drinks away his sorrows—you know, the usual operatic drama.

But it’s all tied together will introspective little letters Hope writes to the pop divinities, almost like philosophical prayers to the gods above. In her own little 21st-century way, Hope’s fan letters harken back to the Baroque tradition, when philosophers sought to reconcile the existence of life and God through their writings.

It just serves as a reminder that although we’re three centuries past Baroque music and philosophical musings, we are still just as lost as ever. But at least we’re not alone—the opera reminds us that you, us, we all still have each other. And Nova’s prominent role reminds us that above all, we still have Hope.

“Dear Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, is it true that you’re split from one single chromosome?” she sings sweetly above the antique typewriter. “Are we not us each all split from one single chromosome, and spend our lives trying to put the pieces back together?”

ALBUM REVIEW: Michael Mizrahi’s “Currents”

by Maggie Molloy

Mizrahi-Hi-Res-10_oClassical music is fluid. Try as we might, we can never pin down a definitive “beginning” or “end” to the arbitrary musical eras we’ve created. And while we may broadly categorize music as Baroque or Classical, Romantic or Modern, ultimately all of these seemingly individualized movements blend into a much broader pool: the Western classical music tradition.

But this pool is not static—it continues to change and evolve as composers and performers continue to make waves in the contemporary music world.

That’s the premise behind pianist Michael Mizrahi’s new album of solo piano works, “Currents.” Recently released on the New Amsterdam record label, the album brings together six impeccably performed and expertly recorded new American piano works, almost all of which were written specifically for Mizrahi’s idiosyncratic sound, style, and musical approach.

The result is a unique addition to the 21st century solo piano repertoire that, as the title suggests, embodies movement forward, building on the great piano works of the past while also expanding and propelling the solo piano works of the future. The album features works by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Troy Herion, Mark Dancigers, Asha Srinivasan, Missy Mazzoli, and Patrick Burke.

 

The album begins with the title track: “The Currents” by Sarah Kirkland Snider. Perhaps best known for her song cycles (which feature the inimitable voices of Shara Worden and Padma Newsome), this solo piano piece carries the same flowing lyricism and sensitivity as Snider’s vocal music—but without any of the words. Mizrahi’s fingers swim gracefully through the ebb and flow of the piece, beautifully capturing the depth and breadth of colors that make the currents come to life.

The piece is followed by Troy Herion’s pseudo-Baroque solo piano work, cheekily titled “Harpsichords.” Heavily peppered with trills and musical ornaments, the piece evokes the pristine, transparent textures of the Baroque era while venturing into 21st century melodies and musical forms (or, you know, lack thereof). Mizrahi blends both eras seamlessly.

The slow-moving and sincere “Bright Motion Ascending” is nothing short of sparkling. The work was composed for Mizrahi by his NOW Ensemble bandmate, guitarist Mark Dancigers, as the third installment in his “Bright Motion” trilogy. Mizrahi’s fast fingers transform the piano into a harp, his fingertips gliding effortlessly across cascading arpeggios, from the glistening upper registers of the piano all the way down to its earthiest tones.

Asha Srinivasan’s introspective “Mercurial Reveries” draws upon her Indian-American heritage, weaving in elements from Indian classical scales and modes, along with the occasional (and ever so subtle) jazz piano lick. Over the course of five short movements, she explores a vast terrain of distinctive musical textures, at one point even instructing the pianist to physically reach inside the piano and stop the strings’ vibrations with one hand while playing on the keys with the other. Mizrahi, as it turns out, plays the inside of the piano with the same precision and grace as the outside.

The work is followed by Missy Mazzoli’s “Heartbreaker,” an intimate piece which showcases Mizrahi’s virtuosity without bleeding over into the showy (and at times superficial) pitfall of many virtuosic solo piano pieces. The piece starts out deceptively simple, but quickly spirals into freewheeling abandon, dancing just within the limits of the pianist’s control.

The album comes to a close with Patrick Burke’s poignant and pensive “Missing Piece.” Mizrahi’s fingers pace across slow-moving triadic harmonies and yearning dissonances, uncovering the work’s clear Romantic underpinnings.

Ultimately, each piece on the album reminds us that there is no clear line between the music of the past and the music of the present. We don’t always have to separate the music into arbitrary categories—sometimes we just need to sit back, relax, and get swept up in the “Currents.”