It’s all about connections: NOVA Chamber Music Series announces 2022-23 season

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The word “connections” would be an ideal one-word summary for the 2022-23 season of the NOVA Chamber Music Series. As music directors, in programming the six Libby Gardner Hall concerts and the two Gallery Series concerts, the Fry Street Quartet has assembled an impressive lineup. The season includes world and Utah premieres and with the exception of four works (two from Mozart and two from Beethoven), represents composers from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Every work selected for the forthcoming season represents some aspect of connection. In some instances, it is a composer’s connection to another composer, whether through a specific musical piece or through their respect and fellowship in the creative community. In some instances, the music emerges from the personal bond a composer has with a place, event, phenomenon or crisis. And, then there are two notable instances where the connection arises from the individual composer or musician’s affiliation with the NOVA series as a collaborator and supporter.

To wit, the season will culminate in a May 21, 2023 concert featuring Thierry Fischer, who will be leaving the Utah Symphony as conductor and music director next year after a tenure that justifiably can be described as triumphant. Fischer will conduct a performance of the Schoenberg arrangement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).

Sarah Kirkland Snider.

The season’s lineup of concerts in the Libby Gardner Hall at The University of Utah will open on Sept. 18, including a 1978 work likely familiar to audiences, Arvo  Pärt ‘s Spiegel  im  Spiegel (1978). The music is versatile — a favorite of ballet and contemporary dance choreographers, documentary filmmakers and in remixes by club DJs. Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov commissioned Pärt to write a piece for violin and piano, which he premiered in 1978 at the Moscow Conservatory with the pianist Boris Bekhterev.

Serendipity guided the Fry Street Quartet members to discover Sarah Kirkland Snider ‘s You are Free , a 2015 work that was part of a commissioning project for Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble. Snider was one of nine composers commissioned for the Music In Their Words project, which asked the musicians to write music that incorporated the speaking voice of a 20th century composer who had influenced their own work. Scored for six instruments (flute, clarinet, marimba, piano, violin and cello), Snider’s work, as she describes it in a program note, honors Pärt’s music as “‘both infinite calm and a house on fire,’ which struck me as poignantly apt.” As for the field recording incorporated in the work, she used a video clip from an interview he did with Björk, the quintessential eclectic pop star. Snider adds, “As I listened to their conversation about the ways music in which music affects a listener, I heard a simple F major triad undulating in marimba, piano, and clarinet. From there, I tried to let the piece unfold relatively free of agenda or judgment, something I don’t often do.”

Nathalie Joachim.

Also on the concert will be the Utah premiere of a 2020 work, Seen by Nathalie Joachim, which is scored for woodwind quintet. The Imani Winds premiered the work in 2021, which was commissioned by The Phillips Collection. Joachim connects the work to themes of cultural memory in Whitfield Lovell’s Kin Series, in which the artist incorporates found objects of symbolic importance into his conté drawings of ordinary African Americans.

The first concert will conclude with the 1949 piano quintet composed by Russian composer Nikolai Medtner. Joining as pianist will be Cahill Smith, who is a colleague of the Fry Street Quartet members in the Utah State University’s music school.  

The Oct. 23 concert zips through the sonic spectrum with the bookends being two masterpiece serenades written respectively by composers who were both in their mid-twenties at the time – Hungarian composer Ernö Dohnànyi’s 1902 work and Mozart’s Serenade in C Minor K. 388 from 1782. 

Meanwhile, George Crumb was even younger – just 18 when he composed Three Early Songs in 1947 for mezzo soprano and piano. The other work is Iannis Xenakis’s Dikhthas, a 1979 piece for violin and piano, which demonstrates in 13 minutes why the composer was also one of the greatest game theorists of his time.        

Sidney Boquiren.

The 2023 portion of the season continues on Feb. 19 with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59.1, which was completed in 1806. But, the connection comes with elements from the Beethoven chamber piece incorporated in Maja Ratkje ’s Tale of Lead and Light, which will be performed by the Utah Symphony’s Fremont Quartet. Ratkje had received a commission for the 2011 work, which dramatically became the backdrop for a work remembering the mass shootings in Norway in 2011 that also involved a bomb. Drawing the connection to Beethoven who epitomized the life and mission of the free artist, Ratkje writes in her own note at her website, “As a free artist, one has to reflect upon our own time, and not be afraid of allowing reality [to] affect our work. When I was in the middle of writing this piece something horrible happened in my neighbourhood. A bomb exploded in Oslo and a killer shot teenagers on an island summer camp. My nation’s reputation as a peaceful country to live in was drastically and forever changed. It was hard to compose. Papers and online media were soon filled with horrible pictures from the events. The lead-coloured skies being a recurring sight.The ambiguity in the title reflects both hope and dread. Beethoven’s light shines through, strong and full of life!”

The ideal of reframing in a new light is carried through in Ellen Reid ’s Fear | Release, a 2017 work for percussion quartet. Reid, who won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music, was commissioned to write the work by the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. In a note at her website, she explains that “the composition is built around a five-note phrase that is echoed and developed in both melodic and textural ways. To create a sense of hyper resonance and spatialization, no note is struck by itself; each hit is doubled by another player on a different but similar instrument.”

Nicolas Lell Benavides. Photo Credit: Karli Cadel.

In commemorating another mass shooting, this one being the 2018 tragedy that occurred at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, Sidney Boquiren    wrote Book of Mourning, Quarto III: Tala. Boquiren, a composer of Filipino descent, cast the piece for two pianos and two percussion, which premiered just four months after the shootings at the nief-norf Summer Festival at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Boquiren explains in a note at his website, that “Tala is a multivalent Philippine (Tagalog dialect) word that, depending on pronunciation, can mean “star” (bituin), “count” (bilang), or “remembering” (paggunita).” Tala, which is part of a set of four pieces on grieving and mourning, according to Boquiren, “uses two sources: the names of three of the Parkland survivor-activists transformed into pitches and harmonies, and the number of victims of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in the United States since 2009 translated as durations.”

Appearing on the March 12 concert is a work by a composer who has appeared several times in recent years on NOVA concerts and with whom Fry Street Quartet has collaborated. Gabriela Lena Frank’s Las Sombras de los Apus, which was composed in 1998, marks elements of her Peruvian heritage:the Andean mountain range and Quechua mythology, which relates tales that each Andean peak is occupied by apu, a minor god. She uses Ian Cameron’s Kingdom of the Sun God as a literary anchor for her musical rendering. 

Laura Kaminsky (left) and Rebecca Allan, whose paintings are featured in the Crossroads Project. Photo: The New York Times.

Utah composer Miguel Chuaqui has been commissioned by NOVA to write a new piece which will be premiered at the same concert. Chuaqui, who is set to leave his post as director of The University of Utah music school, has long been one of NOVA’s most widely engaged community members. The concert also will include works from composers with whom Frank has found a significant influence. Bela Bartók’s Second Violin Sonata, composed in 1922, has elements that have found parallels in Frank’s compositional voice. Also, Frank, who was born with a neurosensory high-moderate/near-profound hearing loss, has deep respect and connection to Beethoven and his total loss of hearing. Among the works he composed after he had lost his hearing, was the Trio in D major, Op.70, no.1, known as the Ghost, an 1808 work that opens with a short incredibly dense exposition.  

Connections become just as clear in the April 16 concert, which includes the 1998 work Songs from Letters by Libby Larsen, another composer who has been part of the close orbit of musicians with whom the Fry Street Quartet collaborates. Larsen’s inspiration is from the diary of Martha Jane Canary Hickock, more widely known as Calamity Jane. As Larsen explains in a note at her website, “In her time she was odd and lonely. One hundred years later, her life sheds light on contemporary society. She chooses rough-tough words to describe her life to her daughter. I’m interested in that rough-toughness and in Calamity Jane’s struggle to explain herself honestly to her daughter, Janey.”

Libby Larsen.

Frank, who has a composition slated on the previous concert, pops up as a connection in a different way. Her Creative Academy of Music commissions various projects to serve various purposes, including the Climate Commitment, and the program Composing Earth is intended to produce new music works on the climate change issue. Among those commissioned is Nicolas Lell Benavides, a Los Angeles based composer who is writing a chamber opera that connects his New Mexico heritage and various issues including climate, immigration and the environment. Frank’s academy and the Fry Street Quartet have jointly commissioned Benavides for a string quartet that is based on part of field recordings of the sage grouse and its natural habitat.

The concerns about climate and the environment also anchor Laura Kaminsky‘s Desert Portal, which also will receive its world premiere at NOVA.  The 2020 work (whose premiere was delayed by the pandemic) is scored for two flutes, clarinet, trombone, cello and two percussion; with optional projections and/or dance. Kaminsky wrote the original music that was featured in the film Rising Tide: The Crossroads Project with the Fry Street Quartet, which NOVA presented as a streaming video on demand option. As The Utah Review noted in 2020, it is a transfixing film that signifies the enlightened intertwining of science, social conscience, music and art that strikes the precise, relevant tone for the challenges of human sustainability and the achievement of human vibrancy.

Thierry Fischer.

Along with the two world premieres will be a work by a composer who was on the Utah State University music faculty for a short while and with his wife, they became Logan, Utah celebrities by presenting concerts. Roy Harris, who also enjoyed the cowboy festivals in Wyoming, truly captures a sense of Utah as a natural wonder in his music. His 1936 Piano Quintet will be performed. 

The May 21 season closer will be epic for various reasons. As part of the final spate of farewell performances in Salt Lake City, Fischer will conduct the Mahler masterpiece, less than one week before the Utah Symphony performs Mahler’s Third Symphony. Among the world class singers to be featured in this NOVA performance will be mezzo soprano Anna Larsson, regarded as one of the world’s most definitive Mahler interpreters. 

Iman Habibi. Photo by: Deborah Grimmett.

This concert will be highlighted by an all-star lineup. In 2019, Fischer led György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) Chamber Concerto, a 1970 work for 13 players, to close out the season which was the final concert for Utah Symphony concertmaster Madeline Adkins’ final turn as NOVA music director. As The Utah Review noted at the time, “The musicians for the NOVA performance elucidated all of those subtle changes, as they were continuously contrasted and blended anew. It was a dream team, of sorts: Adkins and Laura Ha on violin; Elizabeth Beilman on viola; Anne Lee on cello; Jenn Tenbroek on bass; Mercedes Smith on flute and piccolo; James Hall on oboe, oboe d’amore and English horn; Nicholas Morrison on clarinet; Daron Bradford on clarinet and bass clarinet; Edmund Rollett on horn; Mark Davidson on trombone; Jason Hardink (NOVA’s artistic director emeritus) and Kimi Kawashima on piano, celeste, harpsichord and Hammond organ. All of the musicians came from the Utah Symphony with the exception of Bradford (Brigham Young University), Morrison (Utah State University) and Kawashima (Westminster College).”

There also will be two Gallery Series concerts at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. The Nov. 13 concert will feature works by Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, who managed to correspond with each other despite the language barriers. The concert includes two works composed by each composer in 1964: Britten’s Cello Suite No.1, which he wrote for Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and Shostakovich’s  String Quartet No.9. The Fry Street Quartet also will complete its cycle of Britten’s string quartets with No. 1, which he wrote in 1941. Britten was inspired to write the work for Rostropovich after hearing the London premiere of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, which Rostropovich played.

Dai Fujikura. Credit: K.I.

The Jan. 29, 2023 concert will include the Utah premiere of Iman Habibi‘s Beloved of the Sky, a 2014 work inspired by the paintings of Canadian artist Emily Carr. Habibi is another alumnus of Frank’s creative musical academy. The title comes directly from one of Carr’s paintings, as Habibi explains, “that I first encountered at the Vancouver Art Gallery many years before I started writing this piece. It shows an unusually tall isolated tree, reaching up to a bright spot in the center of the sky.”

The musical imagery of nature abounds as well in Dai Fujikura  ‘s  Prism Spectra, a 2014 work for viola and electronics, designed to mimic the movement of tropical fish in the sea. Fujikura, a Japanese composer who lives in the U.K., explains in a note at his website how he originally had hoped the composition would be set with a virtual string orchestra led by violists. “Sometimes being a composer – a wizard who aims to make an instrumentalist’s dream come true – is challenging,” he wrote. “This virtual string orchestra had some ‘ego’ problems. Sometimes they don’t obey the soloist, sometimes they are late, sometimes they play much louder than they should and sometimes they play out of tune…so in this sense, it is really a virtual orchestra.” The semi-improvised live electronics became the vehicle for rendering the effects of the fish swimming in the sea. 

Jessie Montgomery. Photo Credit: Jiyang Chen.

A 2018 work that was postponed from last season’s schedule will finally receive its Utah premiere on the Jan. 29 Gallery Series concert: Jessie Montgomery‘s Source Code. As Montgomery explains in a note at her website, she begins with transcriptions “re-interpreting gestures, sentences, and musical syntax (the bare bones of rhythm and inflection) by choreographer Alvin Ailey, poets Langston Hughes and Rita Dove, and the great jazz songstress Ella Fitzgerald into musical sentences and tone paintings.” From there, Montgomery returned to the Black spiritual as the coalescing force.  The spiritual is a significant part of the DNA of black folk music, and subsequently most (arguably all) American pop music forms that have developed to the present day,” she wrote. “This one-movement work is a kind of dirge, which centers on a melody based on syntax derived from black spirituals. The melody is continuous and cycles through like a gene strand with which all other textures play.”

Wrapping up the concert will be one of the most widely known chamber music piece: String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516, which was written by Mozart when he was approximately the same age as the other composers who are featured on this concert.

Season subscriptions are now available and can be purchased at the NOVA website

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