Ahead of Earth Day, NOVA Chamber Music Series to feature two new commissioned works from Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music’s Composing Earth project

NOVA Chamber Music Series’ final Libby Gardner series concert of the 2023-24 season is nicely timed for this month’s celebrations of Earth Day and the ever-intensifying focus on changes in the climate and environmental impacts.

The concert will feature two new commissioned works, courtesy of Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music’s Composing Earth cohort. They are Night Fire by Akshaya Avril Tucker, scored for the Fry Street Quartet and tenor Thomas Glenn, who is on the Utah State University faculty, and They Need to Remember by Aida Shirazi, scored for the quartet and soprano/mezzo-soprano Jin-Xiang Yu. Texts for both works were created specifically for the Composing Earth project.

Shirazi set They Need to Remember, with text by Canadian poet Wren Brian. The structure of Brian’s poetic verse is based on strong rhythmic patterns, with each terse line punctuated by words or very short phrases that frame a counterpoint that is simultaneously vivid and profoundly poignant. The opening line, for example, is 2,668, which represents the number of billionaires who were in Forbes’ 36th annual world billionaires’ list in 2022. It is the only statistic that appears in Brian’s verses but it propels a bristling litany about the impacts the vast development made possible by enormous wealth (collectively representing more than $12.7 trillion in the Forbes listing) has had on compromising the integrity of nature. In composing, Shirazi took her cues from verse phrases such as “numbing skin,” “thunder ripping across the sky,l “bones rattled,” “black water will clear,” “thick air will purify” and “scorched earth will heal.”

Aida Shirazi.

“My central musical concern was making sound intense not just by making it loud or through explosive movement,” she explained, in an interview with The Utah Review. “I wanted to express the discomfort and friction, as it appears in the text.” Shirazi added that the string and solo vocal parts call for extended effects, to heighten these textures.

A native of Iran, Shirazi focuses on timbre for organizing structures inspired by Persian and English languages and literature. Shirazi’s music has been featured at international festivals and concert series, including venues such as Maison de la Radio France, Radialsystem Berlin, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center.

She originally joined the Frank Academy composing cohort in 2019 but then it was disrupted by the pandemic shutdown and when it was resumed in 2021, Shirazi became part of the Composing Earth cohort. The composers received a large volume of information and presentations dealing with climate, nature and environmental topics, as they began to think about how some of this might inspire or inform their language and creativity as a composer. 

With Brian’s text, Shirazi readily found her gateway into the project. “It was inseparable from the way I have thought about colors and timbres in instruments and voice,” she said. Shirazi was able to find parallels in writing music that also matched the character and voice of Brian’s poetic text. 

Akshaya Tucker.

Tucker said that learning about the science along with the impacts that the climate crisis would have on human civilization and our natural surroundings inspired difficult and complex emotions. “It positioned us as cultural witnesses to these events,” she added. 

Her aesthetics foundation is rooted in two different worlds: western classical, as she was trained as a cellist, and Odissi classical dance and music from the eastern coastal region of India. Hence, she focuses on creating a world of musical sounds which encompasses mythic and ancient voices that remain profound in the contemporary world. She is pursuing her doctorate in composition at the University of Southern California, studying with Ted Hearne, Nina Young and Don Crockett. 

Through the Frank Academy, Tucker connected to Karen Elias, who is a photographer and climate activist living in rural Pennsylvania. After retiring from teaching college English, which she had done for 40 years, Elias turned to photography to chronicle the natural world’s more fragile aspects, as a way of heightening the compelling urgency of climate change. Her work has been part of numerous gallery exhibitions. 

As part of the project, to portray the urgent need for more responsible human stewardship of the planet, Elias wrote a poem about the November 2018 Camp Fire in northern California which destroyed most of the town of Paradise and left 85 people dead. This became Tucker’s Night Fire.

Elias’ verses re-imagine what it must have been like to escape from the fire on foot, as the fire quickly engulfed the town and road access to the area (see the accompanying photo). Tucker said she focused on composing music that reflected that extreme sense of urgency and how the grief of those directly affected by the fire struck and resonated with distant outsiders who watched or read accounts of the wildfire. 

Tucker said the Composing Earth cohort experience has inspired her to explore the value of creative expression going beyond the tendencies to romanticize nature which sometimes can make us feel complacent despite the growing alarm about what is actually happening in the climate and the potential impacts the crisis will have. A quote from Elias, taken from a 2022 interview, reiterates the objective that Tucker is striving for, in connecting art to meaningful activism: “What choices can we make as photographers, as artists in general, to frame our nature-stories in new ways? Is it possible to use art to envision a new, complex, thriving world? What are the stories we’re choosing the arts to tell? 

Fry Street Quartet.

The nod to vocal soloists in this concert will continue with Ned Rorem’s Four Santa Fe Songs (1980), scored for mezzo soprano, violin, viola, cello and piano. Rorem set the songs to poems by New Mexico poet Witter Bynner. Aubrey Adams-McMillan is guest vocalist.

The concert will open with Beethoven’s Magic Flute Variations (Seven Variations for cello and piano on Mozart’s “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen”), with Walter Haman on cello and Mitchell Giambalvo on piano.

As in other concerts this season, the program will close out the year’s Libby Gardner series with another rarely heard jewel: Mel Bonis’ Piano Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 69 (1905), scored for piano, violin, viola and cello.

For tickets and more information, see the NOVA Chamber Music Series website.

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