A Sense of Singing
When Dean Mark Wait invited violinist Carolyn Huebl to commission a piece for “The Blair Commissions: Music for the 21st Century” project, she had never heard of Susan Botti.
“I happened to get her CD out of the library,” Huebl says, remembering the stacks of CDs she worked her way through during the process. “Michael Jones, one of our librarians, said, ‘Oh, listen to this.’ I latched on to it pretty quickly. Her music for violin—it’s beautiful, with lyrical, singing lines. The colors feel new and unusual. They grab you. It’s not like what I’ve heard before.”
During the same period, Huebl, cellist Felix Wang and pianist Amy Dorfman were looking for a composer for the Blakemore Trio, which is one of the three Blair ensembles participating in the commissioning project, thanks to generous funding from the James Stephen Turner Family Foundation. The trio, whose recent performances in Florida were described in a review as precise and exciting with “expressive phrasing” and “a high quality of artistry,“ was developing a shortlist of composers. Huebl shared Botti’s music with Wang and Dorfman. They loved her work.
“Botti’s music is very imaginative,” Wang says. “The thing that draws me—there’s often a sense of drama. Even in the dissonances and timbres, there’s a sense of singing in her work. The kinds of sounds she gets are very emotional and surprising.”
Eventually Huebl and the trio decided to combine the two commissions to create a larger-scale piece that they could perhaps record in the future. Botti is now composing Gates of Silence, three connected but independent pieces that can be performed together as a cohesive program or individually.
For the trio, an important part of the selection process was getting a better sense of the most current developments in contemporary chamber music.
“If you program something written 10 years ago, that’s considered new,” Huebl says. “But 10 years ago was very long ago if you’re composing something now. There are so many wonderful composers out there, but you have to decide what you really value in new music. That it was innovative was important to me. I knew we would be surprised by what we got from Susan.”
“The selection process was exciting, but exhausting,” Wang says. “It’s one thing to play new musical works, but it’s different when commissioning premieres. People who do this a lot, it’s almost all they do. We haven’t been together very long. We really have to get out there, to hear what’s going on. But it’s something the trio loves to do. We love embracing contemporary music, and we want to be more active in getting new pieces written for us.”
Once the trio chose Botti as their composer in early 2006 the long wait set in. Like prospective parents, the trio members knew to temper their sense of great anticipation and excitement with patience.
“All of us knew that we weren’t going to get anything very soon,” Wang says. “We were selecting composers in demand.”
So far, two of the Blair commissions have been completed. The first is the trio for horn, violin and piano that Lowell Liebermann composed for faculty member and horn player Leslie Norton through funding from the Office of the Dean. It premiered at Blair in April 2008. Peter Schickele’s A Year in the Catskills, commissioned for the Blair Woodwind Quintet through funding from the James Stephen Turner Family Foundation, premiered in March to great acclaim. Botti’s Gates of Silence will debut next.
The Botti work has three parts: “Lament: The Fallen City” for violin and piano; “The Journey without Her” for piano trio; and “Dido Refuses to Speak” for piano trio and soprano. Botti, widely acclaimed as both a soprano and a composer, will perform with the trio when Gates of Silence premieres in Nashville and New York City.
“I think that the biggest factor in being a singer—and bringing that into my composition—is that I have a strong sense of the music from a melodic standpoint,” Botti says. “There is a certain amount of line that I tend to use. But on the other hand, when I write for violin and piano, I’m not thinking of voice.”
In composing Gates of Silence, Botti was inspired by Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, and the rhythms of loss, renewal, hope and continuation that she feels resonate powerfully today.
“I was reading the description of the fall of Troy, and then I’d pick up the newspaper and read about the destruction of Baghdad or the devastation of a small town in Oklahoma after a storm—this experience of your home and community being devastated through war or natural disaster, the emotion of that, and the question of how people continue on,” Botti says. “I read about the people in Greensburg, Kansas. It’s been two years since the terrible tornados that devastated the town. And they’re rebuilding—it’s going to be this incredible green city. It’s remarkable, people’s sense of hope. So the line of the piece is inspired by that in a way—that no matter what we lose, there’s a sense of hope and the ability to look forward. I find it very inspiring and beautiful.”
For “Dido Refuses to Speak,” Botti commissioned original poetry from Linda Gregerson, whom she met during her tenure on the composition faculty at the University of Michigan. She has used Gregerson’s poetry in her work before.
“Linda knows my music well. Her words are meant to be sung,” Botti says. “The more I work with them, the more I love them. Linda has a background in theater, so they have a sound world to them, because they were meant to be performed.”
The members of the Blakemore Trio are excited by the prospect of working so closely with a composer. They have commissioned pieces before, but their interaction with Botti has been much more extensive, especially since it culminates in a joint performance.
“Susan’s visited here,” pianist Amy Dorfman says. “She’s come to hear us play. She wants to meet with us individually.”
Botti says she loves to write with musicians, rather than just instruments, in mind.
“It’s very important to me that there’s a certain level of risk
and terror to the whole process. I love that moment in the theater when the lights come down, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a fragile, wonderful thing.”
—Composer Susan Botti
“I’m writing for these players,” Botti says. “It’s very personal, but I don’t think that makes it so particular. I use the example of Handel. The arias are so powerful, and they’re such
great writing, and each time he had a production, he rewrote the aria for who was singing it.”
Like the members of the trio, Botti has high praise for Dean Wait, his approach to the commissioning project and the process he has created for his faculty.
“Mark Wait is a visionary,” Botti says. “He’s creatively looking at what is going to make his faculty and his school grow and empowering them. What greater gift to give them than to say, ‘Here is something to be created for you.’”
Wang, Dorfman and Huebl especially appreciated the autonomy they were given over their choice of composer and the process.
“It’s all centered on chamber music, which is really exciting,” Dorfman says. “That we can play in a major city—it benefits the school, it benefits the groups. It’s a far-reaching gift.”
The trio members also feel that the commissioning project gives them a new avenue to contribute to the musical community.
“We view our work with our students as having a long impact,” Huebl says. “And then there will be our impact through this. When we talk to our friends and tell them about this opportunity we have, they are floored.”
“It’s very important to me that there’s a certain level of risk and terror to the whole process.” Botti says of performance in general. “I love that moment in the theater when the lights come down, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a fragile, wonderful thing.”
The premiere of Susan Botti’s Gates of Silence will take place at Blair at 8 p.m. on February 19, 2010, in Ingram Hall. The New York City premiere will take place in Merkin Concert Hall on March 13, 2010.