American Composers
September 27, 2022
5 min read

Composer Spotlight: Mark Adamo + Jeffrey Zeigler in conversation with Garrett McQueen

ACO's Director of Artist Equity, Garrett McQueen, sat down with composer Mark Adamo and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler in preparation for the NY premiere of Adamo's Last Year, written for Zeigler, planned for ACO's concert "The Natural Order" at Carnegie Hall on October 20th, 2022. Get your tickets now.

The commission and NY Premiere performance of Last Year by Mark Adamo is made possible with lead funding from Susan W. Rose Fund for Music and additional support from American Composers Orchestra’s 2019-2020 Commission Club.

American composer-librettist Mark Adamo's work has returned to the stage in force. Opera Holland Park gave the U. K. premiere of his first opera, Little Women, in July of 2022;  Pittsburgh Festival Opera completed and introduced its filmed version his second opera, Lysistrata, that same month, which also saw the Tanglewood Institute’s premiere of the wind-orchestra version of the Overture to Lysistrata, arranged by Peter Martin.  Up next is the New York premiere of Last Year, his concerto for cello and string orchestra which refracts Vivaldi’s Four Seasons through the prism of a changing climate; Mei-Ann Chen leads soloist Jeffrey Zeigler and the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in October. Teatro Colón, in Buenos Aires, gives the Argentine premiere in Buenos Aires of Little Women in November; that same month, Boston Modern Orchestra Project gives the East Coast premiere of The Lord of Cries, the opera he co-created with composer John Corigliano for Santa Fe Opera in 2021. These performances will be recorded for the work’s premiere release on CD. The autumn of 2021 saw the first performances of Last Year in San Francisco and in Houston, followed, in December, by Chicago Opera Theater’s new production of Becoming Santa Claus, Adamo’s fourth opera, which was conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya and directed by Kyle Lang. This followed the warmly received Dutch premiere by the Dutch National Opera Academy of Little Women, given in Amsterdam in January of 2020.

While Adamo's principal work continues to be for the opera house, over the past five years he has ventured not only into chamber music but also into symphonic and choral composition. In addition to Last Year, Adamo's first concerto, Four Angels, for harp and orchestra, was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra and debuted in June 2007: the Utah Symphony, led by their Music Director Emeritus, Keith Lockhart, presented Four Angels in January 2011. In May 2007, Washington's Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, for which Adamo served as its first composer-in-residence, performed the revised version of Adamo's Late Victorians, a cantata for singing voice, speaking voice, and orchestra: Naxos released Late Victorians in 2009 on Eclipse's all-Adamo CD, which also included Alcott Music, from Little Women, for strings, harp, celesta, and percussion; "Regina Coeli," an arrangement of the slow movement of Four Angels for harp and strings alone; and the Overture to Lysistrata for medium orchestra. In April of 2010, Harold Rosenbaum's New York Virtuoso Singers paired six of Adamo's newly published choral scores with the complete chamber-choral work of John Corigliano. This concert featured the New York premières of Cantate Domino (after Psalm 91), Pied Beauty and God's Grandeur (Gerard Manley Hopkins; commissioned by the Gregg Smith Singers), Matewan Music (Appalachian folk-tune variations), Supreme Virtue (Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao te Ching), and The Poet Speaks of Praising (Rilke: commissioned and introduced by Chanticleer).  His music is published exclusively by G. Schirmer, Inc.  More at Keep Reading .

Jeffrey Zeigler is one of the most innovative and versatile cellists of our time. He has been described as “fiery”, and a player who performs “with unforced simplicity and beauty of tone” by the New York Times. Acclaimed for his independent streak, Zeigler has commissioned dozens of works, and is admired as a potent collaborator and unique improviser. As a member of the Kronos Quartet, he is the recipient of the Avery Fisher Prize, the Polar Music Prize, the President’s Merit Award from the National Academy of Recorded Arts (Grammy’s), the Chamber Music America National Service Award and The Asia Society’s Cultural Achievement Award.

This Fall, Zeigler will release his next album, Houses of Zodiac: Poems for Cello with music by Paola Prestini. It will be a multimedia experience that combines spoken word, movement, music, and imagery into a unified exploration of love, loss, trauma and healing. The project takes its title from the twelve houses of the zodiac as facets of the self, and draws inspiration from explorations of the subconscious including Anaïs Nin’s House of Incest and the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Natasha Trethewey. Filmed by Murat Eyüboglu at MASS MoCA and Studio Polygons in Tokyo, Japan, the digital experience will feature the performances and original choreography of New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin and Butoh dancer Dai Matsuoka, a member of the acclaimed Butoh troupe Sankai Juku.

About Last Year - In the Composer’s Own Words

In 2018, for reasons that don’t really matter now, I’d listened—really listened—to a  new-to-me recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  And I marvelled: not only at the  score’s vigor and clarity, but at its innocence, too—as it portrayed each season offering its own delights and terrors while still yielding, safely, to the next.  The  recording finished: I turned to the news, and learned that—due to the latest in our  series of once-in-a-lifetime-except-now-every-year storms—a hurricane had left the  city of Houston nearly drowned. 

Vivaldi couldn’t write those scores today, I thought. But—if he were alive now, and  knew what we know—what would he write? 

Last Year is my answer. While Four Seasons is a cycle of four concerti for violin and  strings, mine is a single concerto in four movements (the last three played without  pause) for the richer-voiced cello; I also add to the string ensemble a choir of piano, harp, timpani, and ringing percussion.  A fanfare that shifts, uneasily, between the  major and minor modes precedes I: Autumn: Dismissing Eunice.  The title  remembers Eunice Foote, the American scientist who was the first scientist— in  1856!—to describe and theorize what we now call the greenhouse effect. This music  weaves a single melodic thread from Vivaldi’s Autumn concerto into a polymetric  scherzo of nervous and glittering character; it’s interrupted, twice, by a tolling procession of chords in the percussion choir—too slow and separated in register,  just now, to comprise a recognizable theme.  Ignoring those interruptions, the  scherzo barrels headlong to an ambiguous conclusion.  

In January of 1998, a once-in-a-lifetime ice storm struck North America, causing so  much havoc that Canada had to deploy more military personnel than the country had sent during the entire Korean War to address the damage. Because the available  images of that storm remain stunningly beautiful—the Canadian terrain seems  rendered an eerily silent ice-sculpture of itself—one could forget that the area south  of Montreal was without power for so many weeks that English media nicknamed it “The Triangle of Darkness.”   Remembering this, my second movement, Winter: Le  Triangle Noir introduces an original theme of hushed, awed character as more  rumours of Vivaldi murmur in the background: when the percussion choir interrupts again as it had before, its material accelerates and condenses until we can  identify it as one of our oldest musical tropes of warning. 

The text which gives that trope its name can be read in the title of the next  movement. Two solo cadenzas—one stunned, one vehement—frame Spring:  Zephaniah 1:14-15, in which the motto from the Vivaldi’s Spring alternately outruns  itself at breakneck speed or slows to a crawl in the lowest registers of both cello and  orchestra: spurred by the racing soloist, the ensemble attempts a final time to  retrieve the feeling, the faith of that baroque theme. It cannot: and the orchestra  refracts into, almost literally, a thundercloud of sound—a cluster which begins in  noise, little by little acquires pitch, and just as gradually loses pitch, evanescing until  only the soloist, serenely maintaining a low B-natural, can be heard. 

Now begins, without pause, the finale: Summer: For Julia, born 2045, in which the  cello, in a harmonic landscape emptied of everything but sustained bass tones and  the cries of seagulls, attempts to speak a promise into the future. But—even as the orchestra takes up and develops, harmonically, that determined theme—the solo  cello cannot help, for a moment, but lose itself in recrimination.  Memories of chaos,  and that opening premonition, return to haunt the final moments: but the cello  maintains the last word. 

It’s hard to claim that I enjoyed composing Last Year: to try to give voice to the fears  and hopes we experience during this moment of crisis pushed me both emotionally  and technically in ways I’ve never experienced before. But I was, and am, humbled to have been offered the privilege to attempt it. I thank, generally, the consortium of  four ensembles—American Composers Orchestra in New York, New Century  Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra on Houston,  and Manitoba Chamber Orchestra—who committed to the work of a composer who  is, after all, scarcely known for his work outside the opera house; and, specifically,  the woman who has done as much as, if not more than, anyone else of her  generation to support the institutions, composers, and performers who host and  make and play the music that tries to sing the way we live now.  This piece—but not  only this piece—would not exist without her.  With all warmth, gratitude, and  admiration, I dedicate Last Year to Susan W. Rose.

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