& the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop
& the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop
Soprano Suzie LeBlanc will return to our stage for her third MCO appearance, but this time she’s planned the concert around a personal project.
The Acadian singer first connected with the work of American poet Elizabeth Bishop five years ago after finding a leaflet in the basement of a church on the Bay of Fundy. She felt strangely drawn to the little photo of the poet and set out to learn all she could about her.
The power in Bishop’s words had a profound effect on LeBlanc and several composers became aware of her interest — they, too, were fans!
Christos Hatzis has set music to the poems I Am in Need of Music, Insomnia, The Unbeliever, and Anaphora; and we will hear Silken Water from The Bishop Suite by Alasdair MacLean.
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was the Poet Laureate of the United States in 1949 and 1950. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1956 and the National Book Award in 1970 and, in 1976, was the recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
Bishop was born in Massachusetts, but lived for a time in Great Village, Nova Scotia. It was in the basement of a church on the Bay of Fundy that Acadian Suzie LeBlanc began to explore the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.
The concert begins at 7:30 pm on February 18th in Westminster United Church, 745 Westminster at Maryland. Tickets are $28 for adults, $26 for seniors and $8 for students, including GST, at McNally Robinson, the West End Cultural Centre (586 Ellice at Sherbrook), Organic Planet (877 Westminster Ave) or MCO’s Ticketline (204.783.7377).
Available August 6th. Click ticket above to add to shopping cart; adjust quantity in cart and return to purchase other types of tickets.
Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
Anne Manson, Music Director and Conductor
Karl Stobbe, Concertmaster
Westminster United Church
18 February 2014
Suzie LeBlanc, soprano
Four Songs on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
The Elizabeth Bishop Suite
Acadian soprano Suzie LeBlanc is one of the most sought after early music vocalists before the public today. She has sung with many of the world’s leading early music ensembles in concert and opera performances as well as on film and on disc. Concerts have taken her to festivals all over the world and on the opera stage she has performed for De Nederlandse Opera, Festival de Beaune, Opéra de Montréal, the Boston Early Music Festival, Tanglewood, Festival Vancouver and Early Music Vancouver.
She explored and recorded much previously unpublished material while living in Europe, and her musical curiosity has led her toward the repertoire of Acadian folk music, French mélodies, lieder and contemporary music as well as to the art of improvisation with jazz violinist Helmut Lipsky and his ensemble Melosphère. She now shares her time between Montréal and Nova Scotia and continues to tour the world with her many and varied projects.
Her contributions to early music and to Acadian culture, with the CDs La Mer Jolie and Tout passe and with the documentary Suzie LeBlanc: A Musical Quest, directed by Donald Winkler, have earned her three honorary doctorates.
Highlights in 2010 included a collaboration with Kent Nagano and the Montréal Symphony in a programme of traditional Japanese songs. She also performed in France, England, the US, Brazil and Argentina with Daniel Taylor and the Theatre of Early Music.
In 2011 she co-chaired the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Festival in Nova Scotia, and premiered several Canadian pieces commissioned for the centenary celebrations in honour of this great poet. She made her Minnesota Symphony debut as soloist in Messiah and was heard in the same work with the Toronto Symphony. She also performed with Les Voix Humaines and le Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal.
Ms LeBlanc’s engagements for the 2012/13 season included Mahler’s 4th Symphony with Yannick Nézét-Séguin and Orchestre Métropolitain, Graupner cantatas with Les Idées Heureuses, Amante Seggreto with Ensemble Constantinople, a recital with Alexander Weimann, a recital tour in Ontario with Robert Kortgaard (‘The Last Rose of Summer’), Bach’s Mass in B minor for Kitchener’s Grand Philharmonic Choir and Messiah for Symphony Nova Scotia, as well as in Warsaw with Il Fondamento.
As a legacy project from the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary, Suzie Leblanc has recorded a CD of the poet’s work set to music by composers Christos Hatzis, John Plant, Alasdair MacLean and Emily Doolittle. A documentary film, directed by Linda Dornan, on her Newfoundland walk following the 1932 diary of Elizabeth Bishop was released in the fall of 2012.
Wojcieck Kilar is one of Poland’s most esteemed composers. After attending several musical institutions in Poland, he studied — on a scholarship from the French government — with Nadia Boulanger. Subsequently, together with Boleslaw Szabelski, his student Henryk Gorecki, and Krzysztof Penderecki, he belonged to the Polish avant-garde music movement of the ‘60s. In 1977 Kilar was a founding member of the Karol Szymanowski Society. He chaired the Katowice chapter of the Association of Polish Composers for many years and from 1979-81 was vice-chair of this association’s national board. He was also a member of the Repertoire Committee for the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ International Festival of Contemporary Music. In 1991 Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi made a biographic film about the composer.
Having received critical success as a classical composer, Kilar in 1959 wrote his first domestic film score and has since written music for some of Poland’s most acclaimed directors. He made his English language debut with Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula. His other English language features — Roman Polanski’s trio Death and the Maiden (1994), The Ninth Gate (1999) and The Pianist (2002) and Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996) — were typified by his trademark grinding basses and cellos, deeply romantic themes and minimalist chord progressions.
In addition to his film work, Kilar continues to write and publish purely classical works, which have included the acclaimed Baltic Canticles, the epic Exodus (famous as the trailer music from Schindler’s List) and his major work, the September Symphony (2003). Having now abandoned avant-garde music almost entirely, Kilar these days employs a simplified musical language in which sizable masses of sound serve as a backdrop for highlighted melodies. This occurs in compositions that reference folk music (especially Polish Highlander Gorals folk melodies) and in patriotic and religious pieces.
With two Junos, a SOCAN award, and several national and international prizes to his credit, and recent commissions by internationally recognized artists such as violinist Hilary Hahn, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and soprano Suzie LeBlanc — as well as pop celebrities such as George Dalaras and Sarah Slean — Christos Hatzis is widely recognized as ‘one of the most important composers writing today” (CBC) and “a contemporary Canadian master” (New Yorker). The numerous performances and CD recordings of his music for Naxos, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Analekta, Sony, CBC and other major and independent labels, as well as wide internet distribution of his audio playlist (over 1,700,000 hits since 2008), have garnered a loyal and growing international following for his music. Recent and current works include: the premiere and US and European tour of Coming To and Dystopia by Hilary Hahn with the CD release on DG following in November 2013; Lamento, a song cycle for Sarah Slean and Symphony Nova Scotia released as a music video on CBC; the premiere of Redemption: Book 3 by the Winnipeg Symphony in 2013; Departures, Hatzis’ second flute concerto, which was premiered in August 2011 by Susan Hoeppner and the Kyoto Symphony and by Patrick Gallois and the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra and will be commercially released in 2013 by Naxos (Gallois/TSSO); The Isle is Full of Voices, which will be premiered by the Montréal Symphony Orchestra in October 2013 and a full-length ballet for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, a collaboration with choreographer Mark Godden, for 2014/15.
Recent and upcoming orchestral performances and tours include: Hatzis’ Telluric Dances with the Thessaloniki State Orchestra, which culminated in a concert at the Herod Atticus open amphitheatre at the foothill of the Acropolis in 2012; Pyrrichean Dances, with the Wiener Concert Verein orchestra in Vienna in 2012 and a cross-Europe tour of Mirage? (an MCO commission) with Dame Evelyn Glennie and the Berlin Chamber Orchestra in November 2014.
Hatzis’ music is influenced by early Christian spirituality, Pythagorean and Hermetic ideas, world cultures and religions, and various classical, jazz and pop music idioms from the past to the present. He is a believer in borderless culture and the uninhibited flow of cultural information, and in the power of contemporary classical music to perform a leading and healing role in social transformation around the world. A professor of composition at the University of Toronto, Hatzis writes extensively on these and related subjects. His writings, audio playlists and other information about the composer are available at hatzis.com.
Alasdair MacLean grew up in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, where, after youthful piano and voice lessons, he spent his teenage years playing in rock and prog-rock bands. Initial composition studies began at Mount Allison University, and continued at the Juilliard School, the Conservatoire Américain (Fontainebleau), McGill University and the University of Toronto. He has written more than forty commissions, including orchestral, operatic, music theatre, chamber, vocal and solo compositions. MacLean held consecutive positions as composer-in residence with Symphony Nova Scotia and Debut Atlantic, during which he was active in educational outreach, visiting more than thirty schools throughout Atlantic Canada.
Wojciech Kilar composed Orawa in 1986. The title refers to a region in the Carpathian Mountains that has been the subject of dispute between Poland and Czechoslovakia. It also means a sloped area of land where the grass has been cut by scythe. This dynamic piece for string orchestra may be taken as a depiction of either the potent forces of nature that come into play in this area, or the exuberant folk festival that takes place there once the scything season is over.
Four Songs on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
The composer has written the following note:
My relationship with Elizabeth Bishop started rather abruptly. I must confess that I was not familiar with her or her poetry before Suzie LeBlanc, the great Canadian soprano, asked me to set some of these poems to music for a Bishop centennial event with Symphony Nova Scotia in February 2011. I accepted the invitation without checking out the poetry first but, as I read the poems Suzie sent me, I realized that they would be a challenge to set to music. My philosophy about poetry turned into song is that, if the setting obscures more of the structure and meaning of the poem than it elucidates, the poem is best left alone. The music ought to serve the poem, not obscure it or appropriate it in any way.
At first, Bishop’s complex and often non-periodic rhythms and occasionally inscrutable meanings show a brilliant intellect at work that needs no assistance from a composer. At other times, however, her disciplined verse allows glimpses of lyrical abandon overtly or implicitly ‘in need of music.’ Elizabeth Bishop loved music and refers to it often in her work: classical, jazz, popular — hers was an eclectic but uncompromising ear.
My starting point in the setting of these four poems was a decision to visit musical worlds that Bishop might have experienced during her lifetime, but only if these worlds could be argued for by the poetry itself. My quest was to discover the song inside each poem by searching for symmetries behind the convoluted asymmetries of each poem’s surface: a rhythm implied by punctuation, a change of mode implied by a peculiar indentation in the text, a sequence of words which are reminiscent of lyrics of a popular music genre or a sound image in the text (like the ‘whistles from a factory’ in Anaphora) which can convincingly be paired with a particular genre of music.
In I am In Need of Music, the first song, an appropriately romantic (almost ‘new-agey’) treatment of the text gives way to music reminiscent of big band era pop songs, back to lyricism in ‘there is a magic made by melody’ and eventually to musical impressionism as the music attempts to painterly depict the ‘subaqueous stillness of the sea.’ Set in C Major, the music is either tonally still or modulates methodically before it settles on the supertonic key of D Major for the ‘big band’ segment of the song, returning to C Major for its conclusion.
The supertonic acts as a strange attractor in the second song too, Insomnia (She is a Daytime Sleeper). This poem’s peculiar structure has the first four lines of the first two six-line stanzas match in rhyme and rhythm implying pop lyrics, while this predictable symmetry is offset by the two remaining lines in each stanza which do not rhyme. Borrowing from folk/pop music idioms of the 1960s (the Beatles were particularly in my mind as I was writing this song), the two ‘free’ lines end suspended on the supertonic and are answered by an instrumental line in the tonic which could be sung to the words ‘she is a daytime sleeper’ (the listener is invited to imagine these lyrics as s/he hears this repeated instrumental line.) Bishop’s extravagant wit in this poem, particularly the closing and surprising ‘and you love me,’ is driven home musically, resulting in a strophic pop song which deceptively appears to be appropriating the poem. The fact is that, in spite of its ‘catchiness,’ the song follows the semantics of the poem closely and even engages in word painting by associating the ‘inverted world’ of the third stanza with eighth-note displacements of the beat, precipitously toying with the listener’s rhythmic perception of strong and weak beats.
The Unbeliever, the third poem, is a surrealist depiction of an anxiety dream. The music is a waltz, a cross between the two Strausses (Richard and Johann), constantly modulating from the opening C Major and hardly ever staying in any single key for more than a few seconds. The rampant chromaticism and gesturing make this song feel like a tightrope act, plunging into the depths at the very end and evaporating upwards along the C overtone series. It is by far the most virtuosic of the four songs for both the soprano and the orchestra. After completing this song, I had originally considered the composition finished and sent the score to Suzie and the SNS.
After repeated listening, however, the song cycle felt incomplete. I asked the commissioner for permission to add one more song, a setting of the poem Anaphora, and my request was graciously granted. Anaphora is a remarkable poem. Inscrutable in its deeper meaning, it introduced itself to me as a meditation on the cosmic advent and fall of Adam, followed by his transformation into a Christ-like figure, redeeming the world through a ‘fiery event’ in a continuing process of ‘endless assent.’ The opening, a lyrical unlocking of our inner sanctum using sound and music as a key, instantly suggested a strophic song hidden inside the asymmetry of this poem’s lines and rhythms.
Of the four poems, my original goal of discovering the song inside the poem was best realized in Anaphora. The title itself gave me the hint as to where this song was hiding. Anaphora (Gr. ‘ana-phora’) literally means ‘Report.’ Etymologically, ‘re-port’ means to re-carry, re-introduce. It is a cryptic allusion to Bishop’s extensive repetition of words and phrases in this poem. By resorting to some additional repetitions of key words, I managed to discover a strophic structure, which made possible not only this Broadway-like song but also an unlikely (I would even say impossible) semantic correspondence between the important moments of this convoluted poem and the strophic song structure itself. The song literally wrote itself and was completed in record time.
It is in the key of D Major, the supertonic of the original C Major key of the first two movements, which, like this song, had been yearning to be born and come into prominence from the very beginning. At the opening of the second stanza there is a harmonic and melodic allusion to the first song of the cycle at the occurrence of the words ‘more slowly falling into sight.’ It is the only attempt in the entire cycle to melodically cross-reference these very different songs, even though their evolution from one to the next feels strangely natural and belies their unrelatedness on the surface. They are like four strangers connected by some inexplicable ties that do not stem directly from their own individual histories and natures, thus allowing for both tension and cohesion in the structure.
Four Songs on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop is dedicated to Suzie LeBlanc, Symphony Nova Scotia and its conductor, Bernhard Gueller.
The Elizabeth Bishop Suite
The composer has written the following note:
After an initial conversation with Suzie LeBlanc about a project based on the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, we agreed to each come up with a short list of poems, from which we would choose a group for the project. One of the first poems I considered was ‘, an evocative poem about the people and landscape of Cape Breton Island, and when I read the line ‘The silken water is weaving and weaving,’ a musical idea emerged in my mind which compelled me to sit down at my desk and start writing. By the following day, I had more or less finished a work for string orchestra, so, in the quirky way that the creative process leads us forward, I had begun The Bishop Suite with an instrumental work inspired by Bishop’s poetry.
In subsequent discussions with Suzie, we pared down a list of many favorite poems to a final grouping of three which pleased us: Dear, my compass; Close, close all night; and Breakfast Song. This triptych creates a narrative of family and community, long-lasting love, and, finally, the approaching separation brought about by life’s end. My intent in setting the poems was to capture, as much as possible, the mood of the words without attempting to be programmatic, and to highlight the poems in a clear, uncomplicated presentation for the voice.
Serenade for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 6
Suk played a major role in the musical life of his native land (Bohemia, later renamed Czechoslovakia). He was active as a composer and teacher, and as a violinist for more than 40 years in the acclaimed Czech Quartet. He composed numerous piano works, songs and chamber pieces. His finest creations are his orchestral compositions, headed by the dramatic Asrael (Angel of Death) Symphony, and the delightful suite, A Fairy Tale.
Suk graduated from the Prague Conservatory in 1891, but he stayed on an extra year to study composition with the great composer, Antonín Dvořřák. This proved crucial to his professional and personal lives alike. He became Dvořák’s favourite pupil, and some of his music — early works such as this delectable Serenade in particular — is cast in the mould of his teacher’s warm-hearted, folk-influenced style.
Serious and sombre describe much of the music which Suk composed for Dvořák’s class, however, including the Dramatic Overture he created for his graduation in 1892. At that time, Suk entered into a romantic relationship with Dvořák’s daughter Otylka. They married in 1898.
Soon after Suk’s graduation, Dvořák sent him off on holiday with the following suggestion: “It’s summertime now, so go and make something cheerful for a change, some respite from these eternal pomposities in minor keys.” The eighteen-year-old Suk responded with this Serenade. He composed the first three movements while visiting his home town, and the finale that autumn. The Prague Conservatory Orchestra gave the first complete performance on 25 February 1894. It so strongly impressed Johannes Brahms, who had already done much to promote the music of Dvořák, that he recommended it to his publisher. It came into print in 1896.
Suk’s piece does show the influence of the Serenade for Strings, which Dvořák had composed in 1875, but it has enough individuality and creative assurance to stand as much more than a simple act of imitation. The first movement is relaxed and genial. Suk follows it with the sort of gentle, lilting waltz which both Dvořák and Tchaikovsky had included in their serenades for strings. The poignancy which wells up in the central section of the waltz comes to the fore in the third movement, the most substantial and serious of the four. The finale is vigorous and joyful, but Suk finds room in it for more thoughtful moments, too.
Dvořák didn’t have a chance to hear Suk’s Serenade until 1894, when he returned from his first visit to America. He expressed his approval, adding this playful comment: “You will never get very far: you write too big notes — save paper! Still, Handel also wrote big notes and yet he was a great composer!”