With art and dance integrated, Laura Kaminsky’s Desert Portal set for exciting world premiere at NOVA Chamber Music Series’ March 10 concert

The programming for NOVA Chamber Music Series’ upcoming concert (March 10, 3 p.m., Libby Gardner Hall) is an “embarrassment of riches,” Robert Waters, Fry Street Quartet’s first violinist, said in a previous interview. The centerpiece of a marvelous offering of works spanning more than 130 years will be the world premiere of Laura Kaminsky’s Desert Portal, a multimedia composition she completed in 2020 but its then scheduled premiere was canceled because of the pandemic shutdown. 

Desert Portal promises to be one of NOVA’s most exciting performances of the current season. It is scored for two flutes, clarinet, trombone, cello and two percussion; with digital projections by internationally renowned artist Rebecca Allan and choreography for four dancers, set by Myriad Dance Company’s Kendall Fischer. 

Laura Kaminsky.

The forthcoming world premiere, which will be conducted by Gabriel Gordon, in Salt Lake City is serendipitous. Kaminsky and Fry Street Quartet, whose members have served as NOVA’s music directors for five years, have collaborated previously. 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 four years ago. 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. Kaminsky also is in the midst of composing a new chamber piece for the quartet.

Evoking a broad spectrum of the life, sounds and climate of nature in the high desert geography surrounding Tempe, Arizona, the composition retains all of the hallmarks Kaminsky had set out when she wrote Desert Portal. “It was conceived for a major community event to inaugurate Arizona State’s desert humanities initiative,” Kaminsky explained. The work was set to be performed as a procession with desert rocks being carried, which would be signaled by a drummer. Dancers and musicians would walk in rhythm, and would encircle the audience members, while projections of art images by Allen would provide the visual entertainment before the event began. 

Kendall Fischer, Myriad Dance Company.
Photo Credit::Casey Grimley.

Kaminsky added that details of Desert Portal emerged, with the specific involvement of the campus community talent that was available at the time, in Tempe. For example, the musical scoring was based on the instrumentation on hand in the music school’s contemporary music ensemble while a graduate dance student was recruited to choreograph movement to the music, as part of her master’s degree studies.

In its newest manifestation, Desert Portal will be staged as a dance theater production, which also sits nicely with the deep bench of talent in Utah’s internationally respected contemporary dance scene. 

Set in eight sections, Desert Portal represents a full day in the desert, Kaminsky explained. The soundscapes open with the predawn desert world, and then progresses to the brightening morning light and the sounds of birds awakening. A sudden rainstorm occurs but then whatever precipitation has fallen, it quickly evaporates, as the day’s most suffocating heat takes hold. Eventually, the soundscape transitions to twilight mode, with more sounds of the desert wildlife and then to the total disappearance of the daylight and, finally, the sounds of nocturnal movement. 

As choreographer, Fischer said that Kaminsky’s music and Allan’s artistic images vividly capture the contrasts of a day in the desert. “It represents a deep relationship with the desert — not only with the desert’s harshness and fear it can instill but also with the peacefulness and wondrous beauty that allows us to celebrate the desert through this project.” Like many choreographers, Fischer builds a vocabulary of movement from numerous sources of music and poetry as reference points. In focusing on the imagery evoked by the music of Kaminsky and the art created by Allan, Fischer was reminded of examples of desert imagery such as cactus blooms, rattlesnakes, dusty mesas, boiling sun, thorny brush and a silver moon. Thus, one reference point came from a song she already knew well: Far From Any Road by The Handsome Family band, which was released in 2003 and is featured on the soundtrack of HBO’s True Detective.

Jessica Rudman.

Fischer said that she typically comes into the studio “with a lot of detail designed ahead of rehearsal because she wants to be respectful of the dancers’ time.” Usually, she works with a much larger group of dancers, but she decided to switch to a more collaborative approach for this project. Fischer will perform with three other local dancers she invited to participate: Fiona Gitlin, Sarah Lorraine and Tawna Waters.

Also on the program is Jessica Rudman’s The Time Before We Became Strangers (2015), a nine-minute work she wrote for the Ensemble Mise-En. Rudman, who is on the University of Utah music faculty, said she wrote the piece at the same time she was working on a large dance project, influenced by ballet. In a program note, Rudman explained, “To me, the music depicts a vignette: two strangers meet, have an intense relationship, and part ways almost as if their whole involvement was imagined during a brief moment where they pass by one another on the street.” The work is scored for flute, clarinet, horn, trombone, violin and bass.

Among the virtuosic highlights will be Shawn E. Okpebholo’s On a Poem by Miho Nonaka: Harvard Square (2011), which is scored for solo flute (and will be performed by Mercedes Smith, a Utah Symphony principal flutist). In a program note, Okpebholo explained how he built the piece on the word “resonance” from Nonaka’s poem. “The word can also mean evoking images, memories, and emotions which she beautifully achieves in Harvard Square,” Okpebholo noted. “This composition is for the virtuoso flutist, utilizing various extended flute techniques. For example, the composition begins with the flute playing bamboo tones, a way for the modern western flute to, by using nontraditional fingerings (which I notated in the score), sound like a shakuhachi flute, a Japanese bamboo flute.”  

Shawn Okpebholo.

Pianist Viktor Valkov, who also is on The University of Utah music faculty and has performed before on a NOVA concert, will play Brahms’ Fantasies for Solo Piano, Op. 116 (1892), a collection of seven short pieces that presumably were dedicated to Clara Schumann. She later wrote that the Fantasies are, “a true source of enjoyment, everything, poetry, passion, rapture, intimacy, full of the most marvelous effects […]. In these pieces I at last feel musical life re-enter my soul, and I play once more with true devotion.”

The concert also has a rare treat: Lili Boulanger’s D’un Soir Triste (1918).The sister of Nadia Boulanger, the teacher of many composers, Lili composed this work, whose title translates to “Of A Sad Evening,” shortly before she died at 24. Composed as part of a diptych that included D’un Matin de Printemps (Of A Spring Morning), the work was brought forward by Nadia for others to reconstruct, shortly before her own death in 1979. 

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

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