Blue Skies and Balmy
Composer Lisa Bielawa discusses the evolution of The Right Weather
By Molly Sheridan
We have heard the tale of a traveler making his way home a thousand ways since Homer, and still the story speaks to us. There is a passage in Eugene Onegin, (Pushkin's poem, not the opera) in which the narrator briefly leaves his tale to recall his own longing as he waited for a break in a storm to start his journey home from exile.
The lines so spoke to composer Lisa Bielawa that they became the foundation for The Right Weather, a large-scale work for solo piano and chamber orchestra that opens ACO’s inaugural “Orchestra Underground” concert at Zankel Hall on February 27.
Her discovery and study of the somewhat obscure lines betray an overarching curiosity in her character that touches much of her work and art. Fascinated by the disparities in several English translations of Pushkin's poem, she started studying Russian with a private tutor to better understand the author's original intentions. That the process of getting so close to a piece of text led to musical inspiration is not an unusual situation for Bielawa, who was a literature major at Yale. "I read all the time," she explains. "Composers all have different inspirations. Some have a muse, some have collaborators that get them going, but for me it's almost always reading. That's the case even in a piece like this where no one is actually singing."
Taking the four verbs in the text as her starting point, she originally intended to create a four-part symphonic work, but when she finished Roam in 2001, it was a complete piece that stood on its own. Bielawa submitted Roam to ACO’s annual new music readings, winning the orchestra’s coveted Whitaker Commission. Later the Minnesota Orchestra also read Roam. Wait for piano and drone, was completed the following year and premiered in January 2003 by the Contrasts Quartet.
When Bielawa and ACO Executive Director Michael Geller first started talking about the work she would write for this program, he asked if she planned to write another part of The Right Weather set for the occasion. He also showed her photographs of the still-under-construction Zankel Hall. Bielawa credits Geller for finally pushing the commission to include the performance of all four parts of the piece, allowing them to tell their complete story for the first time.
As it turns out, the Russian study was time well spent. Bielawa had the opportunity to try out her new language skills and finish the piece in a hotel room in Moscow while on tour with the Philip Glass Ensemble (she's been the ensemble's vocalist since 1992), penning a sort of prologue scored for two solo flutes based on the carillon that rang in Red Square. "I used the fact that this trip was right at the end of my writing this piece to sort of finish a few things on purpose in Russia," Bielawa confesses. "It was a really inspiring place to be."
For as adventurous as ACO is, the complete performance of this work will be no small feat considering the logistical challenges inherent in the sound world Bielawa hopes to create. In the course of the 35-minute piece, the orchestra players move on and off the stage and station themselves all around the hall, enveloping the audience in the experience. After the opening flute prelude, Roam calls on the forces of the entire chamber ensemble on stage, whose members depart as piano soloist Andrew Armstrong takes over. He holds the stage for Wait, with musicians creating a drone effect by playing unseen just outside the auditorium's walls. Groups of players re-enter the hall during Beckon, and they all regain the stage for the sort of one-movement piano concerto, Start, that concludes the work.
Trying to finish up the details of the piece last December, Bielawa was on her way over to Zankel for the third time with Daniel Brodney, the ACO's director of programs and operations, in tow. "Daniel knows as much about the details of this piece as I do," she admits with a laugh. "I was on the phone with him for an hour yesterday trying to figure out exactly where the trombones could stand in this one section. Now I'm going to go over to Zankel and bringing my little stop watch to time how long it takes to walk from one place to another so there's enough time for everyone to get where they need to be." While preparing the score she's also been working closely with ACO assistant conductor Jeffrey Milarsky and music director Steven Sloane, who will lead the performance, to make sure the choreographically complicated piece in her head is transferred clearly to the page.
After her first hard hat visit to the space last February, Bielawa began to conceptualize the piece as a way to show off Zankel Hall acoustically and spatially. She remembers, "I went in there with [piano soloist] Andy Armstrong and Daniel Brodney and I actually had them walk around the hall while I sang from different places trying to figure out where I would put people and I really got a sense for how incredibly intimate this space is."
After hearing several of the Boulez concerts in the halls since its opening this season, she says she has a deeper understanding of level of detail that can be heard even in a larger ensemble context and has incorporated that aspect into her work as well.
Though the production notes run on for pages, Bielawa won’t be back stage directing traffic the night of the premiere. "I want to write the piece so I can sit [in the audience], not just for me but also because I want the piece to be able to move forward organically." The action of the piece does seem to follow the very simple instructions of the text at hand. In Roam, the musicians work their way on and off the stage. Wait has many of them just outside the hall's doors anticipating their entrance in the next movement. In Beckon, the first group of players moves into the hall and musically "calls" the others inside.
"[The movement] was always organic to the piece," Bielawa explains. "I like the idea that the feeling the audience will be able to share is that all of the music making in happening right there. I don't want to have to have anyone on head set—there's nothing behind the curtain. The second group is entering because they hear the first group's cue. I'm a little bit of a luddite that way maybe, but I like it. It's exciting as live performance. It can be very moving to see that kind of collaborative process, of having a piece unfold like that. "
Though it seems very site specific, with tweaking the piece can (and likely will) be performed elsewhere as a whole and in part. But Bielawa is pleased to have it heard in Zankel first. "The way that it feels to hear music in there reflects a new philosophy of coming together to hear music. It's the perfect space for rituals of intimate listening but with a grandeur as well."
Despite her success to date, it's evident in her voice how much this performance at this hall and with this orchestra means to her. "That Carnegie Hall is actually opening its arms to a whole new fresh world of music making is incredible," she says. "I feel like our community has been really revitalized through this wonderful loud gesture of openness, of having this hall and having it programmed as it has been. It's been an incredible success and it's a huge honor to be a part of that."