Camera set, focus set, and…action!


A special moment between Kevin and I caught on camera by Photographer Jill Steinberg.

There are moments in life when, all of a sudden, everything falls in place; when some of the craziest ideas seem actually possible; and when one comes to the realization that dreams may, in fact, materialize. Those brief moments of lucidity, those epiphanies are rare, but they surely make a lasting impression. On August 13th, 2016, our last day of shooting, I was standing in front of the monitor watching Catherine Curtin deliver her final scene when it all finally sunk in and I experienced one of those rare moments. As I heard Kevin Newbury, our brilliant director, say “cut!”, a surge of emotion poured out from me; I looked for Kevin, hugged him and wept. For seven days, I had witnessed a group of extraordinary people make extraordinary things, but I, like everyone else, had been solely focused in making this film work. It was only when we entered the final stretch that I actually comprehended that everything happening around me was real. After that moment, Reed Luplau entered the set one more time and we finally heard the magic words “it’s a wrap”. We had finished our #epiphanyfilm shooting.

With Raylene & Ron, Kevin Newbury's parents, at Camp Wakuta.

With Raylene & Ron, Kevin Newbury’s parents, at Camp Wakuta.

I landed at PWM airport on Sunday, August 7th. Ron, Kevin’s dad, went to pick me up and he drove me to his and his wife’s property in New Hampshire. As soon as I arrived I was welcomed by Raylene, Kevin’s mom, who during our stay went to incredible lengths to make sure all the guests were comfortable and well fed. Their property consists of several acres of land, complete with a lake and several cabins located all throughout the property. Camp Wakuta, as it is officially known, was started by Raylene’s grandfather back in 1953 and it continued until 1967. After that, the family continued to host summer camps sporadically but nowadays they keep it exclusively for family and friends. We were incredibly lucky to count with such a vast and varied location for our shooting (especially considering the many different types of scenery where Screenwriter David Johnston’s otherworldly “Another Dance of Death” takes place) and Kevin made the most out of it.

Vita Tzykun, Production Designer & Clark Parkan, Art Director, building the canopy on top of the dance floor.

Vita Tzykun, Production Designer & Clark Parkan, Art Director, building the canopy on top of the dance floor.

I started to work as soon as I arrived, helping Vita Tzykun, our masterful production designer, and Art Director Clark Parkan, tackle the construction of the most complex set: the dance floor. Also present was Assistant Director Marcus Shields, who performed the most varied functions with his accustomed unflappable discipline and calm demeanor. On Monday, August 8th I woke up to the magical sounds of numerous birdcalls, some of them more familiar than others, but all beautiful and clearly distinct. One, however, caught my attention above all: the loon. The loon’s call pierced throughout the forest amplified by what seemed like the acoustics of an impossibly large cathedral, dissolving into the dawn as magically as it had emerged from it. Work on the sets continued that day and in the evening a much-awaited van driven by our resourceful Producer Matthew Principe arrived from New York with several more members of the cast and crew. That’s when we started to get a sense of the scale of our project.

Director of Photography, James Daniel & 1st Assistant Camera, Zachary Mills.

Director of Photography James Daniel & 1st Assistant Camera Zachary Mills. Photo by Jill Steinberg.

Tuesday, August 9th was perhaps the most challenging day of all. It started with a sense of optimism as Vita and Clark resumed work on the canopy and dance floor, while I took care of painting the boat that would make an appearance in one of the lake scenes. As the day progressed, however, our camera crew began to experience all sorts of setbacks, including equipment malfunction and mishandled deliveries, prompting a last-minute road trip to Boston to retrieve the right piece of equipment that very same day. In spite of all the delays, our camera crew, lead by Director of Photography James Daniel, began filming that same night, but we had to stop shortly after, once the clock hit 3:00am. I won’t lie, the spirits were not high that night, but Kevin assured me that the first day of shooting is always like this (he later admitted to being slightly nervous about the whole situation, so kudos to him for not letting his nerves show!). On the other hand, I must admit that I was a little concerned about whether we were going to be able meet our deadline.

Actor Reed Luplau, 2nd Assistant Camera John Mofield (carrying the MoVi), 2nd Assistant Camera Zachary Mills, Director of Photography James Daniel & Assistant Director Marcus Shields.

Actor Reed Luplau, 2nd Assistant Camera, John Mofield (carrying the MoVi), 2nd Assistant Camera, Zachary Mills, Director of Photography James Daniel & Assistant Director Marcus Shields.

Wednesday, August 10th. Everyone wakes up eager to get started. I began the day with my accustomed swim across the lake followed by a canoe ride by whoever was willing to take me back to shore. (Thanks be to Clark, Sarah and Tyler for not leaving me stranded on the other side!) Once we had all had breakfast (prepared by our lovely hosts Ron and Raylene), we left for Parsonfield Seminary, a gorgeous 19th century building where we were going to shoot for most of the day. Our three actors, Reed Luplau, Cole Horibe and Catherine Curtin, took part on that shoot which, thank God, went smoothly, leaving everyone with a much-needed sense of accomplishment. After that shoot we were all pumped and ready to tackle perhaps the most challenging scene: the dance sequence, choreographed by the extraordinary Larry Keigwin. I had seen some of the rehearsals earlier that day, but nothing prepared me for the actual shooting, especially after I saw our two male actors dressed in their gorgeous tuxedos and our beautiful Cathy Curtin glowing in a nightgown designed by Paul Carey, our costume designer.

Actor Cole Horibe prior to shooting the dance sequence.

Actor Cole Horibe prior to shooting the dance sequence. Photo by Jill Steinberg.

That night, we all gathered around the glittering dance floor conceived by Vita & Clark, and assembled by an army of helpers including our PA’s Taylor Bradford & Nicholas Corder; members of the extended Newbury family, including Kevin’s sister, Sarah; our screenwriter David and his husband Danny; and myself. The expectation was mounting, especially since the camera crew made the decision to film that sequence in a single shot. How, you might think, would this be possible? Well, it’s all thanks to the MoVi, which is essentially a portable camera system attached to the body by a harness that allows the camera operator to move freely while stabilizing the shot electronically (unlike the steadicam which tries to achieve the same effect through mechanical means). The hero of the night: First Assistant Camera Zachary Mills, who essentially had to dance along with our actors countless times and during several hours until we got the perfect shot, which we undoubtedly did. Of course it helped that our actors, Reed and Cole, are also accomplished professional dancers, so it was incredible to see how consistent their movements were on every single take. This allowed James and Zachary to choreograph his movements along theirs in what turned out to be a dance of three, even though the camera only shows two dancers. It was a taxing and excruciatingly difficult shot, but in the end we got exactly what we wanted. As everyone prepared to go to bed, our tireless Matthew Principe drove Reed to the airport to catch a flight the next morning so he could arrive to NY in time for his Thursday audition. It was all worth it in the end, because the next day we all learned that Reed got the part. Congrats, Reed!

Actor Cathy Curtin during a gorgeous shot at the lake.

Actor Cathy Curtin during a gorgeous shot at the lake. Photo by Jill Steinberg.

How different was the mood on Thursday morning compared to the day before! Wednesday had been a day of accomplishments and we were now sure to be on the right track. Thursday was, for me, one of the most physically demanding days in memory, but also one of the most fun. Our departments are so small that we constantly had people from other departments volunteering to help. This was the case especially that day, when Paul and Herin Kaputkin, our assistant costume designer, joined myself, David, Danny, Taylor and Nick in helping Vita and Clark build another complex set, this time inside the hallway of Parsonfield Seminary. As if torn from the pages of Narnia, Vita had conceived a forest inside the hallway of the seminary. As you can imagine, this was no easy feat, and it involved lots of wallpaper (pre-designed by Clark), wooden panels, small trees, branches, leaves, dirt, nails, staples and all sorts of heavy-duty tools. Thankfully we had some air conditioning to assuage the heat, which that day lingered between high eighties and low nineties. Even so, the task of building the forest was a sweaty undertaking, which demanded all the hands available to help. We were not able to finish that day, so Clark and Vita had to return the next morning to complete this daunting task by themselves. Once back in camp we immediately began to prepare the set for that evening’s main shoot: Cathy on top of a bed, in a tiny floating island surrounded by floating lamps anchored to the bottom of the lake. It was surreal, but as everything Vita conceives, it was strikingly beautiful and poetic. It gave me great joy to help build this tiny marvel, but its shooting was not without its difficulties.

Zach and the underwater camera.

Zach and the underwater camera.

The plan was to get one shot from the shore with the camera mounted on a horizontal railing and another group of shots from a drone operated by our second assistant camera operator, the sharp, charismatic and always cheerful John Mofield. We did indeed get the shots we wanted, albeit not exactly as we had initially planned. First, our shots from the shore were not turning out as striking was we had first thought, and second, the floating lanterns proved immensely difficult to handle, even though they all had weights attached to them so they could get anchored to the bottom of the lake. Many of us spent hours inside the water trying to control the trajectory of the lanterns, but the wind made that impossible, so in the end they disappeared in the background. Also, our drone had experienced some technical difficulties that day, so instead of being operated by two people, as is the case usually, it had to be operated by a single person, John, who had to control the focus and the flight trajectory of the drone by himself. Kevin was slightly discouraged with the results and so was I, but a few days later, when we had the chance to look at the footage on a larger screen, we realized that it had turned out many times better that we had thought.

Look! There's a forest at the end of the hallway!

Look! There’s a forest at the end of the hallway!

Friday, August 12th: our fourth and second-to-last day of shooting. Vita and Clark head to the seminary to complete their dreamy hallway forest while the rest of us remain in the camp to witness and assist in the shooting of two important scenes. We begin with Reed entering a path of the forest, strangely furnished with beds from the hospice in progressive states of decay, when he suddenly sees Cathy and Cole walking up a hill. This sequence was also shot with the MoVi –a brilliant tool for shooting on uneven terrain- this time operated by John, while Zach took care of pulling the focus. (Oh, by the way, you can imagine how happy I got when Zach let me hold the MoVi the day before, even if only for a few seconds. I felt like a kid with a toy… a very expensive one!) Anyway, back to the forest. Once we wrapped up that scene we went back to the lake in what would be another full evening spent in my swimming trunks. This was one of the most exciting moments because we finally got to use the underwater camera. Reed had only one chance to get it right because once he dipped into the lake and got wet, there was no going back. The drone was back in business, this time fully functional, and we got all the shots we wanted right before the rain started to pour like crazy. The only glitch we had that day was due to a slight miscalculation of mine. You see, I had the mission to go out to the lake to locate and mark the spot where we were first going to shoot, so I got into a canoe with our Gaffer, Robert Newman and our Grip, Omar Nasr. Unfortunately, as I jumped off the canoe, I brought Robbie and Omar –camera in hand- down to the water with me (sorry guys!). Aside from that, everything else went smoothly… oops!

The Genie, holding some potent lights to create the impression that we are shooting during the day.

The Genie, holding some potent lights to create the impression that we are shooting during the day.

Saturday August 13th was our last day of shooting; we were on schedule, but this day ended up being as busy as any other day of shooting. We spent it at the Seminary shooting the remaining scenes, especially those where the hallway turned forest took center stage. I learned a lot about the technical aspects of shooting a film, and I kept hearing the camera guys drooling all over our master primes, which seem to be the pinnacle of camera lens craftsmanship, and which have only been around for the past ten years or so, making shots that were impossible, possible. (The same can be said of the MoVi, which has entered the market only recently.) Our actors were called to the set and magic ensued. Each take looked like a beautiful painting, with carefully calculated contrast and lighting. I was mesmerized. The most emotional moment, however, came when Cathy came to shoot the very last scene (the one I mentioned right at the beginning). Emotions poured and… you know the rest of the story. I have to give it up to our Hair and Make-Up Designer, Anne Ford-Coates, for creating some of the most heart breaking looks I’ve ever seen. One could simply not take one’s eyes away from Cathy. It was brilliant. We then all wrapped up our stuff, cleaned the set in record time and went back to the camp to celebrate with a celebratory meal followed by drinks, hugs, and tears of joy, exhaustion and excitement. We had accomplished what we had come to do.

Time to pack! John, stop playing around with the drone ;-)

Time to pack! John, stop playing around with the drone 😉

The next morning I had to dive to the bottom of the lake to retrieve the chain than had anchored the dock and which we had had to let go a couple of nights before for our lake shots. (Thanks, Clark, for your help and for being ready to perform CPR on me if needed!). Next, we went on to tear down the canopy and dance floor, took a shower, packed our stuff, and got ready to say our good-byes. Personally, this was one of the longest and shortest weeks ever. It’s strange but it all felt like a single, incredibly long day. There is so much to take in, of course, but I must say that I’ll cherish the friendships we built in the course of that week. Everybody gave their absolute best to make this project a success. I want to give special thanks to Ron and Raylene for being such wonderful hosts and to everyone else for creating a fantastic work atmosphere devoid of egos and full of hard-working, down-to-earth people. We all did more than was asked from us and I am absolutely positive that this will reflect in the final product. Our film has now entered post-production, so we should be able to have a rough cut within the next few weeks. James and Kevin are now hard at work and we just can’t wait to share it with the world! Stay tuned.


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Epiphany: a sonic vision

Film location #1

One of our gorgeous film locations

Eight years ago, at the start of my second year at UC Berkeley, I was talking to a good friend of mine in the lobby of the International House about my desire to break the barriers that hinder contemporary classical music from reaching a wide audience. As we exchanged ideas, we realized that if we really wanted to lure new listeners to this kind of music, we had to get out of our figurative lawns and go knock on their doors. In other words, we had to get out of our comfort zone and go meet those listeners in a territory that was familiar to them but unfamiliar to us. This is how I came about the idea of creating a music video, a well-known genre in pop music, but one that has remained virtually unexplored in the classical music world. That conversation with my good friend Adrian (who became my best man last year), planted a seed that continued to grow inside me, but it was not until earlier this year that it finally fell on fertile soil. This is the journey of Epiphany: A Sonic Vision.

Director Kevin Newbury

Director Kevin Newbury

I have said many times that working on Bel Canto has been one of the greatest blessings of my life; especially because of all the people I have met during its five-year gestation period. Back in 2008, there was no way I could have made this video a reality, chiefly because I hadn’t yet met most of the key people who are making this project come true. It was through Bel Canto that I met Kevin Newbury, a brilliant director who, in addition to working in opera and musical theater, has also directed two successful short films: Monsura is Waiting and Stag. His love and respect for music makes him one of the few directors out there who truly knows how to appreciate and harness the power of music. He was the missing link between my world of sound and the world of visuals, of which I understand so little. Like in every project, there is a more earthly aspect to it; we needed to raise funds and we needed to do it quickly. During the years leading to the premiere of Bel Canto I had the privilege of meeting a group of generous Chicago-based donors who are known for professing a life-long unconditional love for the arts. It is they, our “Epiphany Angels” as we call them, who made it possible for us to bring this project from concept to reality. Some of them prefer to remain anonymous, but the names of those who don’t will be revealed at the appropriate time. Last but not least, I could have not done this without the help of my dear husband, Heleno, who in addition to being a music-lover is also a savvy businessman. Heleno galvanized our donors and went to incredible lengths to make sure all the pieces fell into place. He is now President and CEO of Epiphany Foundation for the Arts Inc., a non-profit organization that is now lawfully established in the state of California and which we hope will continue to live and sponsor future artistic endeavors. I am sure you can now fully understand why this complex undertaking couldn’t have been brought to fruition eight years ago. Now, however, we are ready, so much so that we will start shooting the video just a few days from now in New Hampshire.

Film location #2

Parsonfield Seminary

Before we go there let me tell you what is the concept behind all this. Young people, “millennials” in particular, are rarely seen in concert halls and opera houses. This is something that concerns, not only music creators like myself, but also performers and leaders of arts organizations. We have all been trying to come up with a solution for years now but ticket sales keep dwindling, attendance keeps shrinking, and important arts organizations in the U.S. like the Minnesota Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, and New York City Opera have faced innumerable challenges in recent years, not to mention several organizations overseas. By now most of us have just resigned ourselves to the fact that this is a sign of the times and that the trend is simply irreversible. Not so fast. The 20th century has been a century of innovation, and we welcomed a new genre in the arts: moving pictures. This new technology, which is now over a hundred years old, became the great entertainment for the masses, a position that only opera had achieved prior to the former’s invention. The 20th century was also a visual century par excellence, so confronting people with abstract music sometimes makes them feel a little disoriented, especially because of the lack of context. Of course there is context in opera, but it is mostly sung in languages other than English, and even when it’s sung in one’s mother tongue, it is not always easy to make out what the singers are saying, hence the now ubiquitous use of surtitles. Unlike opera, where music leads the action, the script is what drives the story forward in movies, while the music takes a back seat supporting the visuals. Next time you go to a movie theater think of this: when people are given context, they are more likely to embrace a wide variety of musical styles. Say you watch a fantasy film or a horror film. If you pay close attention to their soundtracks, you will find many adventurous sounds and harmonies; sounds that those same spectators wouldn’t be as attracted to were they to listen to them played by an orchestra in a concert hall totally deprived of the visuals. That is why when those same moviegoers buy the soundtrack of a film, they are brought back -in their imaginations- to the movie theater, because by then they have associated those sounds to specific images from the film. This is the reasoning process that led me to understand that we might still have a chance to attract new and fresh audiences to classical music, in particular music that is being written now, if we provide them with a visual context. This is one of the reasons why I believe in this project.

Scriptwriter David Johnston

Playwright, librettist and screenwriter David Johnston

What we are going to create is a hybrid between a music video and a short film (7 minutes), where music, dance and theater come together to convey a fantastic story. It is too early to reveal the plot, but our brilliant screenwriter, David Johnston, has come up with a story that combines love, death, and hope -all universal and archetypical concepts- and blends them into a truly touching and unexpected story involving three main characters. Not a single word will be uttered, instead, it will all be told through visuals and music. The soundtrack: the fifth movement of Epiphany, concertino for piano, brass, strings, and percussion performed by pianist Javier Arrebola and the kohoBeat Orchestra with Leo McFall conducting a live recording at Helsinki’s Temppeliaukio Church.  Completing our main crew are production designer Vita Tzykun, cinematographer James Daniel, costume designer Paul Carey, choreographer Larry Keigwin, and producer Matthew Principe. Our brilliant cast: Reed Luplau, Cole Horibe and Orange is the New Black’s Catherine Curtin. The shooting will take place in Maine and New Hampshire during August 7-14 in several outdoors and indoors locations, including the haunting Parsonfield Seminary whose architecture shows a heavy Victorian influence and which is comprised of three floors, each with its own strong personality. It is beautiful and haunting, almost like a film-ready set!

Film location #3

Parsonfield Seminary

I have never been involved in a project of this kind, and for this reason I am particularly excited about it. The whole Epiphany team has been preparing for this moment since the beginning of the year, so it feels a bit surreal to have finally arrived at this point. We have had several work meetings, not only in person (New York and Cincinnati) but also via phone, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facetime… and we continue to be in touch constantly via email. The video will enter post-production this coming fall and we should have a rough cut ready by the beginning of next year. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; I promise to give you an account of our project as it evolves and progresses. All I can say for now is that I feel incredibly blessed and thankful to everyone who is making this possible. It truly feels like a dream come true. And now… let’s get to work!

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The birth of a symphony

merge_from_ofoct (1)I have just delivered the score of my first symphony, “Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda: Symphony in Four Movements” titled after the homonymous novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Commissioned by the Orquesta y Coro Nacionales de España to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death, it will be premiered by conductor David Afkham and the National Orchestra of Spain in Madrid on September 30, with two additional performances also in Madrid on October 1st & 2nd, and two performances in Mexico: one during the Festival Internacional Cervantino on October 11 and a second one in Mexico City on October 13.

What a journey it has been! What surprises me the most is how well the creative process flowed. I started writing it in mid-January and concluded it in mid June, which means that it took me five months to complete, or to be exact, 19 weeks (I had to take one week off due to a trip to NY in May). Naturally, I still had to spend an additional five weeks editing the score, but that is not part of the creative process itself. To be honest, the writing of this piece went much more smoothly than expected, especially if one takes into account how not very optimistic I was at the beginning, when I was about to face this daunting task.

Back in early January I traveled to Chicago for the last four performances of “Bel Canto” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Back then, my mind was still completely immersed in “Bel Canto” and there was not much more room in my head for additional notes. The good thing about my two-week stay was that the rehearsals were over and that I was on my own and had a lot of time in my hands…at least for the first few days, because then it got really busy with interviews, social events and other engagements. In those few precious days when I had all the time of the world I listened to lots of music, in particular David Bowie’s experimental instrumental music and Giacinto Scelsi’s orchestra works. I must confess I hadn’t listened to David Bowie’s music before, but after his passing I took an interest in his very last album and that led me to discover his previous songs. Scelsi interested me because of his obsession to write using solely a single note, and I was interested in understanding how he was able to create monumental orchestral works with such limited materials. This is not to say that my first symphony was directly influenced either by Bowie’s or Scelsi’s work, but rather it was more a reflection of my desire to explore music that I wasn’t at all familiar with and which challenged my conception of how to employ music materials. You see, after “Bel Canto”, I was incredibly exhausted both intellectually and emotionally. I wouldn’t say I was drained or out of ideas because I wasn’t; I just wanted to explore a new path, but I was weary of doing so because during the previous five years, since 2010, I had been using a system that I pretty much employed in every single composition I wrote during that period of time. I thought I had finally found my working method, a method that I would use for the foreseeable future, but “Bel Canto” pushed me to my limits, effectively leaving no stone unturned. I had given it all. I could have had continued to use my system, a system which I had already begun to master, but after five full years of exploring it, I wanted to try something else.

I will now try to briefly explain the system I am talking about. I will, however, refrain from a full analytical explanation because that is not the main topic I want to address today. Also, if you have never had any kind musical training, please feel free to skip to the next paragraph. The system employs as its basic building block a fixed group of pitches that are always associated with a specific frequency. For example, if I want to use an A, that A needs to be always 440Hz. Normally I favor spacing out the notes in more or less equidistant intervals, and in “Bel Canto” my preferred intervals were the 4th and the Augmented 4th, but the system allows for all kinds of intervals to be included. Now, as I said, this is only the basic building block; the skeleton, sort to say. Once one has chosen the fixed-frequency pitches one wants to use, a scale is derived. I tend to like 9-note scales, so those abound in many of my works, but the system allows for any number of notes. I do limit myself to the chromatic scale; in other words, I don’t employ microintervals. Once a scale is derived, one may begin to build chords on top of the scales and, consequently, many harmonic and intervallic relations arise. My system is purely harmonic and melodic because so far I haven’t tried to regulate rhythm or timbre in such strict ways, although I do try to create very tight motivic relationships through the use of recurrent intervals and rhythmic patterns.

After so many years I felt like I needed a new challenge. For all its worth, the system (like any other system) had shown its limits and there were places it wasn’t allowing me to go to. The biggest issue at hand though was time. I only had six months to write a 45-minute piece, so I didn’t have the luxury of developing another fully-fledged system before I started to work. While in Chicago I borrowed an electronic keyboard from the Lyric Opera and I spent hours improvising and trying to come up with something fresh. After a couple of days I reached a dead end, utterly frustrated by the limited amount of notes that I had in front of me. Harmony and counterpoint are incredibly important in my work, so I knew I wouldn’t go the route of focusing primarily on timbre, like the saturation movement does for example, especially as it is practiced in France. I find many of those works truly beautiful, but they were just not signaling a path that was appealing to me at that moment, or even now. I felt I had reached a dead end and this is when I decided to go back to the most basic element: a single note; a note devoid of rhythm and thus frozen in time. This is when I remembered the works of Giacinto Scelsi, which I had first encountered as a student at the Sibelius Academy.

To me it was quite unbelievable how a composer was able to deliver so many works on this unique principle, but the truth is that as interesting and daring as those works are, I knew I could not go down that path, first because it had already been done (and how!), and second because if you have ever heard my music, you know that I am not a particularly austere composer and that I love diversity and a wide stylistic and emotional range within the course of a single piece. Besides, my conception of the symphony is closer to that of the great symphonists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and although I won’t go as far as Mahler who said: “a symphony must be like the world, it must contain everything”, for me, a symphony must be -in and on itself- a clear proposition depicting the governing laws of its own self-contained world, very much like a scientific theory describing the mechanics of our universe. I know I might be pushing the comparisons a little too far, but please bear with me. I think of this symphony as describing a journey, not an open-ended journey, but a journey in the quest of enlightenment with a clear trajectory that culminates in the realization that everything is connected. I perceive Scelsi’s music as a mystical journey inwards, in permanent search for answers to the fundamental questions, and this was the trigger I needed to kick-start my symphony.

Cervantes_Persiles y Sigismunda_Book CoverTo make things even more complicated, the symphony is based on Cervantes’ “Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda”, his very last novel, which he completed just days before this death. Here is one of humanity’s greatest authors leaving us a complete novel right before he undertook a journey to where we couldn’t follow him. All I can say is that if I could ever have the chance to read someone’s account of life in the afterlife, I would definitely want to read Cervantes’, as I’m pretty sure it would be incredibly entertaining given his wit and quirky humor. Jokes aside, the novel is an incredible journey fueled by the unbreakable love that a man and a woman profess to each other throughout the course of innumerable vicissitudes, all while having to pretend to be brother and sister, at times even cross-dressing in order to deceive their suitors. Their journey takes them from the gelid waters of Scandinavia to the warm Roman soil where after four books (each one corresponding to a movement of the symphony) they finally reveal their identities and are wedded under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. This is a story of love and resilience that culminates in your, perhaps, foreseeable happy ending, but a very hard-fought, well-earned one indeed. Reflecting all of this in the symphony was not an easy task, and I chose to transmit the spirit of their struggle and subsequent joy in more loose terms rather than trying to recreate the story musically page by page. When I say “loose” I mean this in reference to the fact that I did not attempt to write a score that would literally and chronologically relate the events narrated in the book. Instead, I focused on the great arch of the story and the emotional reactions that it spurred in me.

Now is a good time to explain why I bothered so much to describe the system I had been using until now. When I began the symphony I decided to go back to following my instinct and my ears. I did of course outline a plan containing the motifs and overall arch of each movement before sitting down to write the first note, but I had by no means figured out the precise harmonic or melodic language that I would use. At times it truly felt like walking in the dark. I started by delving deep into the main four-note chromatic motif: C-C#-D-C#; this was my point of departure. Imagine a musical theme trying to emerge out of a single note (C) but as soon as it strays even the tiniest bit, it is immediately brought back to its starting point by its own weight and sense of futility. The theme starts to open up gradually and it truly permeates the whole symphony until, in the last movement, it blossoms and opens up to expose its full potential. The beginning of the fourth movement is also very telling because of its austerity. All it consists of is a single note played to a very insistent rhythmic pattern, but when it starts to merge with the theme of the first movement, it begins to realize its own potential. At some point toward the second half of the 4th movement all three previous movements are quoted, a technique that Beethoven famously used in the last movement of his 9th symphony. In my symphony, however, I decided against quoting them literally, so I presented them through the lens of the 4th movement’s theme instead. This is the kind of journey that I’m talking about, where all the characters of the novel (themes and motifs) come back and merge into a single musical manifestation therefore making us realize that everything is connected.

Writing this symphony has been a great adventure, and as I said before, I couldn’t have done it just a few years ago. I just wasn’t ready. Now I feel eager to tackle more challenges and I am thirsty for more symphonies, operas, and large-form compositions! I can now, more or less objectively, detach from my own perspective and see that I have grown from a composer who used to struggle to create a structurally cohesive 10-minute symphonic work to one that can tackle a 45-minute composition. It is rewarding, but above all, I can’t wait to share it with you. I don’t share the vision that all a piece needs to be complete is to be written on paper, rather I do believe strongly that for it to truly come to life it must be played and listened to. I have poured my soul into this symphony and although a few years from now I might look back and smile condescendingly at my present self for how seemingly daunting the task was at first, I can say that right now, right this moment, I have -in Roxane Coss’ final words- most definitely pushed myself “forward and ahead”.

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This is it!

This is it 1This is it, ladies and gentlemen. Bel Canto has made its final transition from book to opera. Practically 5 years after the World Premiere Announcement, 14 years after Ann Patchett’s riveting novel was first published, and 19 years after the real events on which it is based took place, this unique and oh-so-relevant story will be seen on stage for the first time. The dates: December 7, 10 & 12, 2015 and January 5, 8, 13 & 17, 2016 at the Civic Opera House, home to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that Bel Canto is one of the most awaited opera events of the year. The expectation surrounding it is at an all-time high and Lyric Opera has made a remarkable job in nurturing and now promoting this show. I’ll be in Chicago for the next three and a half weeks supervising the final phase of its transition to the stage, but I’ve already had the privilege of attending the first two weeks of rehearsal (Oct 26-Nov. 8) and during that time I witnessed the devotion and passion with which our wonderful cast is bringing our characters to life. What was most striking though was having the opportunity to see director Kevin Newbury in action.

Director Kevin Newbury (center right) in action at the set of Bel Canto.

Director Kevin Newbury (center right) in action at the set of Bel Canto.

Kevin directs with surgical precision but he never comes to rehearsal with fixed ideas; instead, he comes armed with and arsenal of possibilities which he tries over and over during the course of rehearsal, never resting until he is satisfied. His collaborative approach gives enough creative liberty to the actors so that they too are able to contribute to the storytelling, thus bringing the best out of everyone involved. As a composer, I am used to working in the solitude of my studio, so watching Kevin create in front of everyone’s eyes is particularly fascinating to me. He had already earned my respect throughout our countless work meetings in the past few years, but there were moments during rehearsal which left me in complete awe. There was one particular rehearsal when we were going through the third scene of Act I and, all of a sudden, Kevin came up with an idea that neither Nilo nor I had envisioned at all. There is plenty of dialogue and music in that section so it never occurred to me that it necessitated anything else, but by recontextualizing that particular passage, both, words and music, were elevated to a completely different level. Everyone in the room felt the magic, because there’s no other word to describe it properly. I won’t give it away, but I will tell you to look for Alfredo’s aria: “We are not temporary warriors” on Act I, Sc. 3. It is simply chilling.

Sir Andrew Davis conducting the first orchestra rehearsal of Bel Canto.

Sir Andrew Davis conducting the first orchestra rehearsal of Bel Canto.

Another highlight were our first two rehearsals with the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra. Never in my life have I spent so many years writing so much music without having the possibility of listening to it! I may spend many months working on an orchestra piece, but I know that I will be able to listen to it just a few months after delivering the final score. With Bel Canto it has been completely different and on Wednesday, November 4, three years after I first sat down to write the first notes, I listened to the music being played for the first time ever. That music had been living in my head (and in some ghastly MIDI versions) all this time, so you can imagine the excitement that I felt. The orchestra is simply remarkable and saying that Sir Andrew Davis knows the score inside out would be an understatement. Not only has he diligently studied and internalized every measure; he has been a witness of the whole creative process.

Danielle de Niese and I recording Roxans Coss' first aria: "You Were Destined to Come Here".

Danielle de Niese and I recording Roxane Coss’ first aria: “You Were Destined to Come Here”.

Sir Andrew recently said during a fundraising dinner that there is no other example in history in which composer, librettist, director, conductor, and curator had worked so closely and for such a long gestation period. He is actually right; normally you would have the composer and librettist working very closely in the creation of the piece, then the director would come a few weeks prior to opening night to begin with stage rehearsals, and finally, the conductor would join to supervise both stage and orchestra rehearsals. Curators and/or producers are rarely involved at all. Bel Canto is unique in that Renée Fleming, our curator, originated the whole project out of her love for Ann Patchett’s book. She and Sir Andrew Davis set out to find a composer, and then, once I was on board, all of us began to search for a librettist. Kevin was our final piece in the puzzle (and what a brilliant piece it is!). The five of us have been working together for years and by now our bond has transcended work and become friendship. Even our diva, superstar soprano Danielle de Niese, who is not only an outstanding singer but a remarkable actress and team leader, has been actively involved for the past two and a half years to the point that we held a workshop exclusively for her about a year ago. In other words, what you’ll see on opening night will be a finished, polished product and the result of years of cooperation. This show has been sketched, written, rewritten, workshopped, cut, expanded, teched, and revised numerous times already, and although there is always room for improvement, you can be sure that we have taken care of every single detail. Our team is complemented by a wonderful group of designers who are household names in the world of opera: stage designer David Korins, costume designer Constance Hoffman, lighting designer Duane Schuler, and video projection designer Greg Emetaz.

The Chamber Music Concert I presented in cooperation with Lyric Unlimited at the Chicago Cultural Center's Bradley Hall. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

The Chamber Music Concert I curated in cooperation with Lyric Unlimited at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Bradley Hall. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

In preparation for opening night, Lyric has organized three events: a chamber music concert on November 8, a public conversation with Renée Fleming and Ann Patchett on November 18, and a discussion panel with the creative team, which is scheduled for December 2. The first of these events took place at the Chicago Cultural Center and in the words of an audience member it was “a transfixing experience”. Rarely does a composer have the luxury to curate and present a program of his own design, so I was thrilled when Cayenne Harris, Director of Lyric Unlimited, invited me to do it. The program included works by other composers who have had a great influence on me: Bach’s “Fugue” from the Sonata for solo violin No.1 in G minor BWV 1001 in transcription for viola, Stravinsky’s suite from “The Soldier’s Tale” in its version for trio, and Gerard Grisey’s “Talea”. In addition to these I presented three of my own compositions: Warped Symmetry for solo flute, K’asa for violin and piano, and Of Bells and Broken Shadows for cello and piano. Having the opportunity to present this concert was already remarkable in itself, but working with the musicians was an added bonus because most of them are members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, so this was an excellent opportunity for us to get to know each other in a more intimate context and not just during orchestra rehearsals. As I said in my introductory remarks from the stage, all orchestra musicians and musical guests who graced us with their artistry that day deserve a major applause. I knew I was pushing the boundaries when programming some avant-garde works like Talea, so you can imagine my joy and relief when I found out that the audience had, in fact, greatly enjoyed every single piece in the program. I don’t know if this is going to happen any time soon again, but curating a concert like this was so much fun and so rewarding that I can’t wait to do it again!

With Lyric Opera's General Director Anthony Freud and Music Director and Principal Conductor Sir Andrew Davis. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

With Lyric Opera’s General Director Anthony Freud and Music Director and Principal Conductor Sir Andrew Davis. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Lyric Opera has undergone a great transformation under the leadership of its current General Director, Anthony Freud. It is he together with Lyric’s former President and CEO, the late Ken Pigott, who brought Renée Fleming to serve as Creative Consultant, and it is he who embraced the idea of commissioning a new work for the main stage, something that Lyric hadn’t done in over ten years. This is a momentous production and an important one in the history of Lyric and the city of Chicago. Everyone involved in it is giving their all to make this an unforgettable experience for the audience. You might not hear much from me in the next couple of weeks, and that’s a good sign, because it means that I’ll be fully immersed in rehearsals. This is why I wanted to take the time to write this blog entry today, so that you could all feel and share the excitement that we are experiencing at this very moment. This is an opera of firsts: my first opera, Nilo’s first opera, Renée’s first opera as creative consultant and, surprisingly, the first time that Sir Andrew Davis will conduct an operatic world premiere. The most experienced member of our team is Kevin, who has already established a name for himself as director of new opera, film, and musicals. Come to the theater with open eyes, ears, minds, and hearts and I promise that you won’t be disappointed.

And now, I must conclude this entry because the captain just announced that we must prepare for landing. See you on opening night!

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InspirationWhat is inspiration? What is that spark that ignites our thoughts and makes it possible for us, creative artists, to produce a work of art where there was nothing before? A walk in the woods, a book, a movie, or even a look at the night sky can all serve as sources of inspiration and elicit the most original thoughts within our minds; but the concept of inspiration itself is far more elusive. Where does it originate and is it absolutely essential for the creation of new art?

Inspiration is, for me, a fully physical, mental, and spiritual experience. It may manifest itself in ways similar to the surge of energy that one feels while deep in meditation, when –for a brief moment- reality reveals itself as an endless stream of interconnected events. It is transcendental, existing in a realm beyond time and space, and it is unique and unrepeatable. It may come in a dream, while daydreaming, or while deeply concentrated in one’s work; and it can happen spontaneously, after hours of unconscious laboring by our mind, which never ceases to work.

It would be naïve, though, to think that it is eagerly trying to reach us. It does not gratuitously knock on our doors and it does not visit the undeserving. One has to earn its presence by tirelessly showing up to work every day and one can’t wait for it to show up before starting a new project. It may come at the beginning or at the middle, and chances are we might arrive to the double bar without having being graced with its presence at all. I have written works that were the result of long hours of hard work where I poured all my knowledge and technique without ever feeling inspired. Such is the life of a professional composer. It doesn’t mean I like those works any less and I might love them even more precisely because their birth was so incredibly laborious. But there are other works during which I felt that unmistakable spark, and such was the elation I experienced that I couldn’t help but getting off my seat and jumping in joy or bursting into tears. These very personal ‘eureka’ moments, which I am now candidly sharing, might not be frequent but they are one of the reasons why I keep doing why I do. They make me feel real, in the full sense of the word, and they make me feel connected to everything else. These moments come accompanied with a musical “embryo”; it may be a short melody, motif, theme, rhythmic pattern, or interval sequence, but they feel inexplicably complete in the sense that they come filled with an enormous potential waiting to be unraveled. This moment lasts for a few seconds, but it can give enough material for a whole composition. It is then the job of the composer to bring about this idea to its full potential and this is when years of learning and discipline kick in.

Beethoven :: Symphony No. 5, 1st mov. Manuscript, pg. 77. Source: Staatsbibliothek, Berlin.

Take for example the classic Theme and Variations form. The greatest composers have always used this particular form as a great muscle-flexing exercise. Think of Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. They start with a simple theme that serves as “inspiration”, but what really makes those works great is not the themes themselves, but what Bach and Beethoven did with them. In the same manner, one may experience the most incredible moment of inspiration accompanied with the most brilliant of melodies or motifs, but if the composer is not equipped with a formidable arsenal of tools to chisel and shape it, that melody won’t reach a fraction of its true potential. Perhaps the most celebrated motif of all time is that of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. With only four notes he created a full symphony, and I am pretty confident that he could see it all unfolding at once, although judging from Beethoven’s sketches, we know that writing that symphony was not an easy task whatsoever.

It is often the case that young composers delight in showing their prowess by displaying an enormous palette of materials within a single piece (take for example Felix Mendelssohn’s String Octet, written when the composer was 16 years old) but, in general, when they grow older, they become more economic and concise. This is a sign of confidence and maturity, and it shows that they have arrived to a point where they have understood and internalized the phrase “less is more” and have learned to effectively focus their efforts on a few ideas until they are perfectly polished. Works created under this mindset feel round, solid, and self-contained, and they are usually produced in the more mature years. When composers reach this stage, they don’t rely anymore so much on the musical ideas themselves (at that point even the most simple of melodies can serve as inspiration), what really counts now is how their minds can mold and transform practically any material that comes their way. They become alchemists, making gold out of anything they touch. It may seem as if all of this might diminish the importance of inspiration, but the truth is when this level of craft and the highest inspiration are combined, the results can be the equivalent of a spiritual revelation. These are the works that have borne the test of time and remained in history for decades and centuries.

Tracing the origin of inspiration itself is frankly not that relevant in the end. Every human being has experienced it at some point in his or her life, perhaps while witnessing the birth of a child, the death of a relative, or in a deep moment of prayer or meditation. What artists, and specifically composers, do differently is being able to share it with others. Experiences like the ones I just mentioned elicit the strongest emotions in us, and as a composer I strive to communicate and rouse these feelings in other human beings as well. For that to happen not only must the music material be good, but also the composer must be able to harness and subject it to a process of transmutation, and that’s when all those years of training, knowledge and hard work come to play. We can’t count on inspiration to show up every time we write a new piece, but we must always be ready when it does. We must strive to be the best possible vessels and we can only achieve this with discipline and hard work by, for example, keeping the habit of writing every day. This, in turn, will help us achieve fluency in our writing. Most importantly, we must remember that we are not simply receptacles but that our ultimate aim must be to become alchemists of sound. Whatever we do and however we do it, inspiration must never be taken for granted. It will come to us when it must; all we can do in the meantime is keep writing with deep love and devotion for our art.

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The Final Stretch

Bel Canto_Stage_8_PV Score

Complete piano/vocal score

All things must come to an end, but sometimes the end can signify new beginnings. Just a few days ago I delivered the final piano/vocal score of “Bel Canto”: over 400 pages of some of the most inspired music I’ve ever written. There it was, the culmination of two and a half years of hard work; the product of thousands of hours of intense mental concentration and emotional investment; my largest and most ambitious work to date. Writing “Bel Canto” has not been, however, a lone endeavor. Quite the contrary; much like the gears of a Swiss watch, it is the result of finely-tuned cooperation between myself and librettist Nilo Cruz, director Kevin Newbury, creative consultant Renée Fleming, conductor Sir Andrew Davis, soprano Danielle de Niese, general director Anthony Freud, Filarmonika Publishing House, and the wonderful staff of Lyric Opera of Chicago. “Bel Canto” has now ceased to be a project and is now starting to make its transition into becoming a reality.

Much has happened between November 18, 2010 (the day I got an auspicious call from conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya asking me to upload my vocal music to YouTube so Renée Fleming could listen to it) and now. Among the highlights: I completed my PhD at UC Berkeley; had my music played at Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, and Gewandhaus Leipzig; was granted an EB1 visa; lost two dear friends (Martín Portugal and Andrew Patner); completed six new compositions; had an new orchestral album recorded for Harmonia Mundi; and recently, in May, got married to my loving husband, Heleno, in the wedding of our dreams. I am five years older –and I’d like to think wiser- than I was back then, and I am ready for future challenges. But let’s take one step at a time: much of the second half of this year will be devoted to making “Bel Canto” the best possible show, so it can live up to the mounting expectation that has been surrounding it.

The world premiere announcement took place over three years ago, on February 28, 2012, but I still remember distinctly one of the questions, posed by the late Andrew Patner. As the conference was drawing to a close, he asked: “Jimmy, I’ve been looking at you throughout this announcement and you don’t seem the least intimidated by the scale and prominence of this project. How do you feel about all this?” I replied: “Far from being intimidated I am happy and relieved that I will finally have the opportunity to pour all the ideas I’ve been accumulating over the years”. And that’s exactly what happened; what a luxury it has been having the opportunity to write a three hour-long opera for full orchestra, two choruses and 16 soloists! It has given me the chance to explore new musical and emotional territories, and it has forced me to find creative solutions to seemingly impassable problems.

Language, for example, was a major issue that Nilo and I discussed at length. We have several different languages in the opera (English, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, French, German, Quechua, Latin, and Italian) mainly because we made a decision early on to have each character speak on his/her own language whenever possible. One of our characters, Gen, the interpreter, could have easily become a nuisance had we not found ways to make him interesting. Since all opera houses are equipped with supertitles nowadays, having him repeat the same text in a different language could have turned out to be extremely boring and redundant. Fortunately in opera many people can be made to sing simultaneously without creating chaos, and since each language has a particular cadence, I decided to exploit both aspects musically so that Gen’s translations never come across as superfluous. Another thorny issue was setting languages I don’t speak to music. I am fluent in English and Spanish, can speak a little bit of French, and recognize the structure of Latin and Italian because of their proximity to Spanish. The other languages I speak, Finnish and Portuguese, are not featured in the opera, so I had to seek help for all the other languages. I was lucky enough to count with the talent of three excellent translators: Michiko Kitayama Skinner (Japanese), Derek Matson (French, Russian, and German), and Odi Gonzáles Jiménez (Quechua). I asked each of them to supply me with four things: a standard written translation, an additional translation where each word was separated into syllables highlighting which syllable carried the stress, a recording of the text at conversational pace, and finally, a recording of each phrase at a very slow pace. Only after studying and analyzing these materials was I able to set the text to music. In addition to this, I would contact them whenever I didn’t understand the structure or thought process, the latter being especially true for Quechua, which comes along with a different perception of the world. The most challenging, however, was definitely Japanese, not only because I understand nothing of it, but also because every idea requires almost twice the amount of syllables as in English, and this got me into trouble quite a few times. One duet between Roxane and Hosokawa is particularly telling in this regard. In the first scene of Act II Nilo has them exchange a few brief verses, each one averaging five words, much in the manner of haikus. The problem, however, was that the symmetry was completely broken when I got the Japanese translations, because while Roxane keeps uttering short English verses, Hosokawa, on the other hand, ends up having much longer verses in Japanese. Let’s take a look at their duet as originally conceived:

Outside, the flight of a bird.

Outside, a boy shouts…

…a woman runs…

…a butterfly dies unseen…

There’s a certain musical cadence to this exchange that begs for a kind of contrapuntal question-answer treatment. But notice how the delicate balance that Nilo managed to create is broken when Hosokawa’s phrases are translated to Japanese:

Outside, the flight of a bird.

Sotono sekai de-wa, otokonoko ga sawaideiru.

…a woman runs…

Chyou ga, hitoshirezu, shindeyuku.

After many hours of head banging and almost giving up, I came up with the idea of having Hosokawa sing each word as if reciting it, bringing a drone-like quality to it (especially because he doubles the bass line every second measure) while Roxane simply floats above him in an ever-ascending melodic line. Finding this solution encouraged me to tackle other more complicated sections. As I mentioned in an earlier article, I don’t work chronologically, so even though this duet belongs to the second act, I wrote it in August of 2013, way before I wrote the second and third scenes of Act I. I won’t say that the task of setting many languages became easier after this, but I would definitely say that I became more confident and resourceful when facing similar challenges.

If I ever write another opera, and I certainly hope to do so, I will be much better equipped to face the challenge. For starters, now I know that I can’t possibly produce a piano/vocal score before the orchestral score because I very much prefer to write either a short score or a full score right from the start. Many of my ideas are very strongly associated with a particular timbre right from the start, so it’s really hard for me to conceive a fully abstract piece of music and decide its instrumentation later. Could you imagine the beginning of Debussy’s “Prelude à l’après midi d’un Faune” played by any other instrument but the flute? Neither could I. Another thing I’ve learned is that when working with a creative team, it is much more helpful to hear their ideas and suggestions before writing the music rather than getting their feedback after the music has been written. Both are good of course, but their real chance to help shape and influence the composer comes before he/she sits down to write; that way everyone agrees with the inner conception and structure, which are things that are very difficult to change after the fact. Once the music is written one can alter many things, but the architecture of the piece is sounder when it doesn’t have to undergo major structural changes later in the process. I have also learned how to make the most out of a workshop. When we had our workshop back in the summer of 2014, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but to my surprise, almost everything turned out to sound exactly as I had imagined. The good thing, of course, is that by the time we reached the workshop, we had had several work sessions with the creative team, so I had been able to polish many of the details before we played through the score. In this sense the workshop helped everyone get a better idea of the piece, especially our stage director, Kevin and our set designer, David Korins. I, however, didn’t gain as much from it as I would have wanted to. For example, were I to have another workshop, I would ideally request to have the exact voice types. The effect is quite different when a mezzo sings the part of a countertenor or a baritone sings the part of a bass. Also, rather than just singing through the score, I would encourage the singers to interact a little as if they were actually on stage, so that I could gain a better feeling of the dramatic tension of each section. Finally, I would have the workshop at a very early stage of the process, let’s say six months into the writing, rather than a year and a half later, when most of the score has already been written down. Live and learn, they say, and I have certainly learned much from this experience. Thanks be to Lyric Opera of Chicago for sparing no effort or expense when it comes to ensuring the success of this show.

"Bel Canto" tech rehearsals

“Bel Canto” tech rehearsals

I am now in Chicago for tech rehearsals and a few media interviews. Now that the piano/vocal score has been delivered, the chorus and cast members can begin studying their parts; (the full orchestral score will be ready by August 1st). It is now time to hand the reins to Kevin and Sir Andrew, so they can translate my score to the stage. Renée Fleming is the dedicatee of the score and I am convinced that no one deserves it more than her; her vision and determination have been instrumental in the creation of this piece and her support has been an unending source of inspiration to all of us in the creative team. Last but not least, I have to thank my dear husband Heleno for his undying support during these past five years. He and I met in September of 2010, shortly before that auspicious phone call. He has seen my ups and downs, joys and struggles, and he has been with me all along, supporting me in every possible way that a partner -now husband- could. I can’t wait to see “Bel Canto” on stage. It will mark the culmination of an important period in my life which has seen me reach a great degree of artistic maturity, and which points to the beginning of a new and exciting time where I will apply everything I have learned during this extraordinary journey called “Bel Canto”.

“Bel Canto” set at Civic Opera House

I want to dedicate these last few lines to two extraordinary men who left us too soon: journalist, broadcaster, and critic Andrew Patner, and Ken Piggott, former President and CEO of Lyric Opera of Chicago. Their departure has left a hard-to-fill void in Chicago’s vibrant cultural life. May their genuine love for the arts continue to serve as an example for future generations. They were truly excited about the premiere and I am sure that they will be with us in spirit on that long-awaited date: December 7, 2015.

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Ojai at Berkeley 2015


Speaking as part of the Community Response Panel. Photo: David Bellard

Last month the 70-year-old Ojai Music Festival came to Berkeley for the fifth consecutive time, bringing with it a wealth of talent, great music, and mind-boggling performances. This year I was invited for a second time to be part of the Community Response Panel, along with musicologist William Quillen, conductor Lynne Morrow, and vocalist-composer Amy X Neuberg, moderated by Cal Performances Associate Director, Rob Bailis. I attended all but one concert, and was left with the renewed conviction that contemporary music is alive and well, and that human creativity is indeed limitless.

John Luther Adams'

John Luther Adams’ “Sila” kickstarted the festival

The festival got off to an auspicious start on Thursday, June 18 with John Luther Adams’ “Sila: The Breath of the World”. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, Alaska-based composer has been gaining more prominence on the national and international stage in recent years. His works are inspired by nature and Sila was not the exception. The performance took place outdoors, at the faculty glade. It is scored for 80 musicians, grouped according to their instrumental family (woodwinds, brass, percussion, voices, strings) and placed several feet apart from each other while surrounding the audience. At the same time, however, the audience was encouraged to walk around and in between the musicians so they could experience the sound from different angles. The performance lasted an hour and one was left with the feeling that the piece had emerged from and disappeared back into nature. Walking in between the musicians during the performance gave one the feeling that one was walking through a labyrinth full of hidden treasures. At every turn of the corner one discovered a lone violin or a fragile flute producing a minimal sound that was only possible to perceive when in close proximity. At the other end of the spectrum, one would remain content by listening to the brass from afar, especially when playing fortissimo. It was quite an experience. Toward the end of the piece, as the music was fading away, one could hear the children playing, only to realize that they had been playing all along.

“A Pierre Dream” at Zellerbach Hall. Photo: David Bellard

That same evening we were treated to “A Pierre Dream – Pierre Boulez: A Portrait”, a remarkable staged concert performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and soprano Melissa Hughes, conducted by Steven Schick -Music Director of the 2015 Ojai Music Festival. The stage set was designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry, a personal friend of Boulez’. The concert featured excerpts from several works by the veteran composer (who turned 90 this year) spanning decades of his creative output and interspersed with video commentaries by the composer himself. It was a multimedia feast, which included readings of several poems that the composer set to music, and live video feed from cell phone cameras projected onto a number of mobile screens that were continually set in motion by a group of dancers on stage. It was, without doubt, one of the most engaging multimedia concerts I have ever attended and one that shed light on Boulez in a way which a regular performance of his music couldn’t have.

Claire Chase, Executive and Artistic Director of ICE

Claire Chase, Executive and Artistic Director of ICE

Friday began with a fantastic pre-concert talk by Steven Schick and Claire Chase, who is Executive and Artistic Director of ICE, and moderated by Matías Tarnopolsky, Executive and Artistic Director of Cal Performances. Both speakers demonstrated incredible charm, eloquence, and a very sharp sense of humor. Not only did they talk about the upcoming concert of the evening, but they also performed during the talk, involving the audience in the process. Steven Schick’s performance of “Trans” by Chinese-American composer Lei Liang was particularly special because it took audience participation to the next level. We were each handed two small pebbles that we had to play when instructed and as directed. There is something particularly magical about the sound hundreds of pebbles in and out of sync, and in this piece it was meant to represent rain in its different stages. It certainly added a layer of drama to the sound produced by the percussion instruments on stage.

Percussion master Steven Schick was this year’s Ojai Festival Music Director

At 7pm Steven Schick began his solo performance. It was a tour de force and, in my opinion, the most memorable concert of the festival. He navigated with incredible ease through some of the most demanding solo percussion pieces ever written, all of them played by memory. The sheer physicality and level of coordination needed to perform these pieces is stunning, and it was amusing to see how each movement had been choreographed in advance with surgical precision. If you think I’m exaggerating just attend the next performance of Xenakis’ “Psappha” o Stockhausen’s “Zyklus” and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The second half of the program might have struck the regular concertgoer as rather eccentric, but one that was definitely not to be missed. We are talking about the staged version of Kurt Schwitters’ “UrSonate”, an early example of sound poetry, written in an invented language devoid of meaning. This performance, directed by Roland Auzet, lasted about 40 minutes and it was a true assault on the senses. Steven Schick, once again demonstrating an exceptional capacity for memory, recited the whole poem by heart. Apart from himself all he had was a set of mobile mirrors to play with, a series of projections, and a microphone that processed his voice in real time (much in the same way that a live electronics piece would do). After a few minutes of listening to an endless string of nonsensical words one actually started to feel as if there was an underlying structure behind them, and in time it just felt like listening to a foreign language. The performer’s intention when uttering those words is key because any “word” could have any meaning, and one mostly assigned meaning to them based on the facial expressions and intonation with which the speaker uttered those words. All in all, the performance and the staging were quite thought provoking and rewarding. My only suggestion to Mr. Auzet would be to avoid pointing bright lights directly into the audience through the use of mirrors. It defeats the purpose because, in the end, one has to cover ones eyes to avoid being blinded, forcing the audience to miss some key moments of the performance.

At 11am of Saturday, June 20 began a 12-hour marathon of three remarkable concerts which included many pieces that are rarely heard live. The first was an all-French concert featuring Messiaen, Ravel, and Boulez, which had the interesting effect of showing Boulez, not necessarily as the reactionary composer that broke ties with the past, but as part of a distinctly French, uninterrupted lineage that has inherited its traditions from the past and which continues to pass them on to younger generations. The second was perhaps the most traditional of all concerts, but not less interesting, because it showcased a classic: Bartók’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” and Boulez’s “Dérive 2”, a relentless 45-minute piece for eleven musicians that has a certain soft, hypnotic quality to it and which reinforced the notion that Boulez’s sound world, especially his most recent work, owes indeed a lot to the subtlety and refinement of the great French composers of the past.

From left to right: Amy X , Neuberg, Lynne Morrow, Rob Bailis, William Quillenand myself taking questions from the audience. Photo: David Bellard

From left to right: Amy X Neuberg, Lynne Morrow, Rob Bailis, William Quillen, and myself taking questions from the audience. Photo: David Bellard

Right before the closing concert, we, the members of the Community Response Panel, took on stage to share our impressions on the festival. I enjoyed being part of it because each one of us brought a different perspective to the discussion. As a composer of course, I focused on the minds behind the music scores: their contrasting thinking processes, varied sources of inspiration, and the influence they have had on newer generations. Bill, on the other hand has the talent to dwell into the score itself and unlock its most striking features, identifying their background and placing them in context. Lynne, as an active conductor, brought the performer’s point of view to the forefront, while Amy focused on language and its relation to sound and music. We took some questions from the audience and I was happy to see that our observations helped, in one way or the other, to shed light on the music and the musicians featured during the festival.

Virtuoso pipa player Wu Man

Virtuoso pipa player Wu Man

The very last concert was a rare opportunity to listen to seldom performed pieces. I was particularly struck by Wu Man’s remarkable performance of Lou Harrison’s “Concerto for Pipa”. Wu Man is an incredible musician, and I do hope to have the opportunity to listen to her more often. The second half was dominated by Latin American sounds; we listened to Percussion Ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish play Carlos Chávez’s exciting “Toccata for Percussion” and Alberto Ginastera’s massive “Cantata para América Mágica”. The choice of repertoire was the perfect conclusion to a percussion-filled festival, wonderfully curated by Steven Schick. I am already looking forward to next year’s festival, which will be directed by Peter Sellars, one of the great theater directors of our time.

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