Faculty Tuesday: ‘Odysseys from Nicaragua to New Hampshire’

Contemporary song cycles by Gabriela Lena Frank and Herschel Garfein will be performed Dec. 7

By Izzy Fincher Dec. 3 at 1:55 p.m.

The genre of song cycles, popularized by Schubert in the early 19th century, is traditionally associated with tenor and piano. However, there is also a rich history of baritone song cycles by classical and contemporary composers, including Beethoven, Verdi, Ravel, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Benjamin Britten. 

Baritone Andrew Garland

At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7, baritone Andrew Garland will perform two contemporary song cycles for “Odysseys from Nicaragua to New Hampshire,” a concert for CU’s “Faculty Tuesdays” series. The program features Gabriela Lena Frank’s Cantos de Cifar y el Mar Dulce (Songs of Cifar and the sweet sea) with pianist Jeremy Reger and the baritone premiere of Herschel Garfein’s Mortality Mansions with pianist David Korevaar. 

Frank, a Grammy Award-winning pianist and composer, is known for her multicultural influences, combining Latin American musical styles with Western classical music. This reflects her diverse background, growing up in California with parents of mixed Peruvian/Chinese and Lithuanian/Jewish ancestry, as well her creative travels throughout Latin America. 

Her song cycle Cantos de Cifar y el Mar Dulce is an odyssey from Nicaragua, the largest country in Central America. Set to poems by Nicaraguan poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra, it tells the story of the harp-playing sailor Cifar, who travels around Lake Nicaragua.

Gabriela Lena Frank

“The poetry is very simple and direct, yet deep and meaningful,” Garland says. “There’s definitely magic realism in there.”

The eight-song cycle lasting 30 minutes is a work in progress, which Frank plans to expand to 70 minutes with soprano and then orchestrate with guitars and marimbas. In 2007, Garland premiered the last two songs in the cycle, “Eufemia” and “En la Vela del Angelito”(In the little angel’s candle). Fourteen years later for his Faculty Tuesday performance, he wanted to perform the rest of the cycle, which he describes as cohesive and compelling even in its incomplete form.

“Within the arc of these eight songs, you get a great variety of magic, solemnity, comedy, mystery, intensity and darkness,” Garland says. “They are very powerful and memorable.” 

This will be followed by the baritone premiere of Mortality Mansions by Garfein, a Grammy-Award winning composer, librettist and stage director. Mortality Mansions, originally written for tenor, is set to selected poems that span former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall’s 60-year career. Drawing from his personal experiences with the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, Hall depicts a moving portrait of love, sexuality and loss in later life.

Herschel Garfein

“When I first read Hall’s poetry, I was amazed,” Garfein recalls. “I was immediately attracted to these very vivid poems about life and especially about sexuality over the age of 60, which is something no one talks about. He’s both very frank and very moving about it.”

“These poems are so insightful and illuminating, but he doesn’t show off or lecture the reader,” Garfein continues. “That’s extremely important in great art.”

To complement Hall’s writing style, Garfein chose to keep the vocal lines melodic and mostly tonal. This is accompanied by dissonant harmonies and virtuosity of the piano part, a contrast inspired by Schubert’s lieder style. 

Garfein selected the title, Mortality Mansions, from the second poem, “When I Was Young,” a contemplation of how youthful lust has evolved with aging. The poem ends with the line, “Let us pull back the blanket, slide off our bluejeans,// assume familiar positions,// and celebrate lust in mortality mansions.” 

Given the long time span of the collection, each poem feels like a vignette of love and life, cohesive yet independent. The work opens with “When the Young Husband,” depicting an ill-fated affair between the young husband and his wife’s friend, accompanied by an energetic motif. 

“In the first song, what needs to come across is the recklessness and brazen disregard or the desire for chaos and downfall, that Don Giovanni-esque, bring-it-on attitude,” Garland says. 

Then the focus shifts to bittersweet recollections from Hall’s relationship with Kenyon, beginning with “When I Was Young.” This flow is briefly interrupted by “Woolworth’s,” an ode to the iconic American five-and-dime business that closed in 1997, and “The Green Shelf,” in which a neighbor is killed in a lawnmower accident, a disturbing scene accompanied by an agitated piano part in an ominously low register. 

Over the next six poems, Hall shares happy memories of making love and cooking together with Kenyon, before shifting to painful reflections on endings and death. The cycle ends with “Otherwise” by Kenyon, a poem about enjoying the beauty of small moments in daily life, while acknowledging the ephemeral nature of existence.  

Mortality Mansions evokes both the grandeur and the fatality (of human existence),” Garfein says. “It’s a call to enjoy life while you can because it’s not going to last forever. Love and sexuality are a hedge against mortality, against death.”

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“Odysseys from Nicaragua to New Hampshire”
Andrew Garland, tenor

  • Gabriela Lena Frank: Cantos de Cifar y el Mar Dulce
    with Jeremy Reger, piano
  • Herschel Garfein: Mortality Mansions
    with David Korevaar, piano

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7
Grusin Recital Hall, CU Imig Music Building
Admission free 
Livestream available from CU Presents

Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra presents “Diverse Voices”

Program features three living composers, one African-American pioneer

By Peter Alexander Jan. 26 at 11:10 a.m.

Searching for diverse repertoire for the Pro Musical Colorado Chamber Orchestra, conductor Cynthia Katsarelis found works by three living composers and a pioneering African-American composer of the 20th century.

Their concert featuring those composers, titled “Diverse Voices,” will be Saturday in Denver and Sunday in Boulder (Feb 1 and 2). The three living composers are Jessie Montgomery, a New York violinist and composer who has been affiliated with the Sphinx Organization, which supports young African-American and Latinx string players; Rudy Perrault, a Haitian native who is director of orchestras at the University of Minnesota, Duluth; and Gabriela Lena Frank, a California-born composer who has mixed Peruvian, Chinese, and Lithuanian-Jewish heritage.

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William Grant Still

William Grant Still, the fourth composer on the program, was associated with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, and later had a successful career arranging popular music as well as music for television and films. His Symphony No. 1 (“African-American Symphony”) was the first symphony by an African-American composer to be performed by a major orchestra.

On the all-string orchestra program, Pro Musica will perform his Danzas de Panama, Montgomery’s Starburst, Perrault’s Exodus and Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout. This program reflects Katsarelis’s personal commitment to diversity, meaning not only composers of color, which describes all four composer on the program, but also female as well as male composers (two of the four), and new music as well as recognized classics (three of the four).

“I think we come to a more healthy place if we’re inclusive of the different talent and the different voices that we have in the 21st century,” Katsarelis says. “Pro Musica has a mission of [performing] classic to cutting edge [music], and we also present works that were under-represented.”

Katsarelis includes new works among the “under-represented.” “Where the classics touch something universal in us, new music speaks to right now,” she says. “It may or may not last, but it has something to say to us today.”

The entire program is for string orchestra, which is where Katsarelis had to do some searching. “When I encounter a musician that I really respect and am really intrigued by, I go on a Sherlock Holmes-like hunt for music that is appropriate for Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra,” she says.

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Jessie Montgomery. Photo by Jiang Chen

Needing music for strings alone, she found several pieces that are written for string quartet or string orchestra. The one exception is the opening work on the program, Montgomery’s Starburst, which was written for the Sphinx Virtuosi chamber orchestra. “It’s a great piece, really energetic, as you would expect a starburst to be,” Katsarelis says.

“It’s inspired by a cosmic phenomenon, and for her that involves rapidly changing musical colors. It’s only a three-minute piece, but you’re getting all these different colors that a string orchestra can produce. They’re playing on the bridge to get this eerie sound, they play harmonics, they have various kinds of pizzicato, and [Montgomery] combines them in various ways. It’s a musical burst as well as a starburst.”

Katsarelis met Perrault through her own work in Haiti. Since 2004 she has gone to Haiti every summer to teach at a music camp, and sometimes during the year as well. “It’s a very musical culture, and they’re always hungry for more,” she says. “It’s really rewarding to work there.”

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Rudy Perrault

Perrault’s Exodus was originally part of a piece for string quartet. It was inspired by and dedicated to people who have been forced to leave their homelands as refugees. “I hear a very strong musical personality,” Katsarelis says of the score.

“He knows what he’s doing, and he knows how to use a wide range of musical language for the wrenching emotion that is part of the piece. I hear little hints of Bernstein and Shostakovich with a little bit of an island rhythm.”

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Gabriela Elena Frank

Frank’s mixed heritage plays a very large role in her work. “Her mother was Peruvian-Japanese, and her father was Lithuanian Jewish,” Katsarelis explains. “She became a kind of musical anthropologist and explored her roots, and she was really captivated by Peru and the Andean music, the Andean instruments and genres and character—they’re all reflected in her piece.”

For example, she imitates the sound of Andean instruments—the panpipes, a heavy wooden flute called the tarka, guitars—in her writing for strings. Other movements depict the chaqui, a legendary runner who covered large distance to deliver messages from town to town, and the llorona, a professional crier hired to mourn at funerals.

Katsarelis often describes pieces of music as a journey, with a return to home providing closure. But in this case, she says, “Peru is part of Frank’s background, and in her exploration she finds another version of home. So we have a journey; home is just a little bit different.”

Photography by Glenn Ross. http://on.fb.me/16KNsgK

Cynthia Katsarelis. Photo by Glenn Ross

Thinking of her musical mission  beyond the individual pieces she selected to illustrate diversity, Katsarelis says “I always thought that classical music could help bring world peace, so this is just one more step.” In addition to that lofty goal, she adds, “What I’m presenting is terrific music. It’s beautiful, it’s inspiring, it’s entertaining, it’s thought provoking and it engages the world today.

“I hope young people will come to the concert, because it’s part of what they’re growing into: a world that’s just so global, and so diverse.”

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“Diverse Voices”
Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra of Colorado, Cynthia Katsarelis, music director

Jessie Montgomery: Starburst
Rudy Perrault: Exodus
William Grant Still: Danzas de Panama
Gabriela Lena Frank: Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

7:30 p.m. Saturday Feb. 1, First Baptist Church of Denver
2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2, Mountain View United Methodist Church, Boulder
Tickets