Meet the Composers of This Weekend's 21c Liederabend

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If you tuned into this week’s show on The New Canon, you probably heard me talking about 21c Liederabend. Producer Beth Morrison (dubbed by Zachary Woolfe of The New York Observer as “the opera lady who likes it crazy”) along with Opera on Tap and VisionIntoArt have created a series devoted to contemporary opera and art song that is continually satisfying—and continually ambitious. It started as a one-night program in 2009 but has since exploded into a three-day festival featuring the works of 20 composers. With so many composers converging April 7th through 9th, we’re here offering a bit of a primer for each one—and what you can expect to hear this weekend. Click on the composer’s name to sample their works off-site.

Theo Bleckmann
Though he has a strong connection to the jazz world, German-born composer and performer Theo Bleckmann is no less devoted to advancing the classical/new music genre in riveting ways. He’s teamed up with jazz outfit Kneebody to deftly re-orchestrate songs by Charles Ives (which netted the team a 2010 Grammy nomination), and has also recently turned to meditative and simple pieces inspired by the 1960s Italian art movement arte povera. Hear Bleckmann Thursday night performing two of his own songs, “Happiness” and “To what shall I compare this life?”

Douglas J. Cuomo
With a list of commissioners spanning Chanticleer to cellist Maya Beiser, Douglas J. Cuomo can still count as his most popular work the theme to TV’s Sex and the City. Perhaps his most endearing one, however, is Arjuna’s Dilemma. Loosely based on an episode from the Bhagavad Gita, this opera was originally premiered at BAM’s Next Wave Festival and is sampled Friday night. Performers include the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, tenor Tony Boutte and ACME. 

Du Yun
Part of Du Yun’s presence at this year’s Liederabend will be a world premiere commissioned by the festival. As she describes it, the work “tells a snapshot of memory-flashback… A desire withered.” Earlier this week on The New Canon’s live chat, Du Yun also said, “I often live in my own fantasy world.” It’s a fantasy world that makes its way into her richly-textured and strongly-visual works. On Friday, Du Yun shares some pop songs from her new album Shark In You, and on Saturday ACME premieres A Few Stops on the N Train, narrated by Du Yun herself.

Daniel Felsenfeld
Just as composers like Mozart and Rossini worked popular tunes into their operas, so does Daniel Felsenfeld with his musical resetting of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. “This is a project I’ve desired to do since I was a teenager,” he writes in the program notes, “When my love of this record was so severe that I wanted to not have written it per se, but for it to be re-written through my own lens.” Vocalists Corey Dargel and Mellissa Hughes are joined by ACME to give a first listen of two settings, “See My Eyes” and “The Lady Stardust.”

Peter Golub
A prolific composer with hands in several genres, Peter Golub’s music tends to be very cinematic in scope (no big surprise there: He’s written scores for The Great Debaters, Frozen River and Countdown to Zero). What we haven’t heard too much of from Golub, however, are works for solo voice. His Dark Carols for chorus and orchestra was recorded by the Kiev Philharmonic for ERM in 2006 and sounds like a mix of Mussorgsky and Korngold. But with the Liederabend world premiere of Boxes, Buckets and Bags on Friday night (performed by ACME and soprano Amelia Watkins, here portraying a hoarder), we should hear a different side of Golub. 

Ted HearneTed Hearne
Hearne made a mark in last year’s new music ledger with his hour-long song cycle Katrina Ballads, based on the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina and historic quotes from the likes of Anderson Cooper, Kanye West and George W. Bush (yes, there is a song called “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”). He’s also been heard with New York City Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Bang on a Can Marathon and the MATA Festival. On Thursday night, Hearne and Mellissa Hughes sing his work “Is It Dirty,” based on Frank O’Hara’s poem Song (Is It Dirty). Ted also conducts Julia Wolfe’s The Carbon Copy Building for the Liederabend and can heard at Carnegie Hall later this week with a choral work commissioned by the Yale Glee Club.

Gabriel Kahane
Where would Schubert have been if Craigslist existed in 19th-century Vienna? Probably where Gabriel Kahane is now. Kahane takes Schubertian impulses and blends them with the influence of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim, most notably in his quirky yet affecting Craigslistlieder, based on actual texts of ads found on the infamous website. Kahane performs three of his indie art songs: Charming Disease, Merritt Parkway and Where Are the Arms? Thursday night and also performs vocals and pianos for works by Paola Prestini and Missy Mazzoli.

Sarah Kirkland Snider
Historically, Homer’s Odyssey has given composers from Monteverdi to Fauré ample inspiration. Add to that list Sarah Kirkland Snider, who in 2007-08 co-authored a musical monodrama with McLaughlin Worden based on the story of Penelope and meditating on memory, identity and coming home (here Odysseus is a veteran of an unnamed war returning home—with brain damage—after two decades). Haunting and affecting, Shara Worden recorded this work in 2010 for New Amsterdam records, and reprises two movements from the cycle—“Home” and “The Lotus Eaters”—with ACME on Saturday night.

Phil Kline
One December evening each year, New Yorkers convene in the East Village to take part in Phil Kline’s annual "Unsilent Night,” a winter’s walk accompanied by Kline’s composition of the same name pumped out of as many speakers as can be carried. Kline is also well-known for his work Zippo Songs, inspired by poems that American GIs inscribed on their lighters in Vietnam. Four selections from this electro-classical cycle are sung by Theo Bleckmann, accompanied by Logan Coale on double bass and ACME.

David T. Little
Heard at New York City Opera and Carnegie Hall, David T. Little is rapidly asserting himself as one of the most promising compositional voices of the new millennium. He was heard at the inaugural 21c Liederabend with selections from his multimedia performance piece Soldier Songs (sung by David Adam Moore), a work that will send you diving for the covers. For a Liederabend world premiere on Saturday night, Little turns to the 1981 massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador for his newest work, Last Nightfall, told from the perspective of one of this bloody event’s few survivors. Singing is Mellissa Hughes, a member of Little’s new music rock band, Newspeak.

Matt Marks
There’s something ingeniously charming about Matt Mark’s trippy, poppy, neo-Baroque melodies, as featured in his self-described post-Christian-nihilist pop-opera The Little Death, Vol. 1 (Vol. 2 is on the way). Love and lust factor equally into Marks’s Liederabend world premiere, I[XX], based on a grammatical formula “I[verb p.t.].” Mellissa Hughes (who performed alongside Marks in The Little Death) sings, backed by the Brooklyn Brass Quintet—a nod to Marks’s roots as a French horn player with such ensembles as Alarm Will Sound.

Missy Mazzoli
Finding depth and beauty in both the works of Beethoven and Ravel and indie rock, Missy Mazzoli balances out both in her career as both a composer for ensembles like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and American Composers Orchestra and a bandleader in her post-rock ensemble Victoire. Over the last few years, however, Mazzoli has been working on and refining her disarmingly poetic opera, Song from the Uproar, based on the brief life of Isabelle Eberhardt, a 19th-century Swiss explorer and Islam convert. Song has been heard at the Bard College Conservatory, New York City Opera’s VOX Festival and the first 21c Liederabend, and a sample of it (“Mektoub,” or “It is Written”) will be heard on Friday night courtesy of mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer.

Milica Paranosic
Always genuine and always inventive, Serbian composer and performance artist Milica Paranosic shares herself unsparingly with audiences through a seamlessly autobiographical melding of traditional folk tunes (such as those from her native Serbia), improvisation, punk rock, hip hop and classical music. On Friday night, however, she turns to another woman to highlight musically: author Neela Vaswani. Little Wounds is based on Vaswani’s You Have Given Me a Country, with cadences and rhythms based on the author reading her own work.

Paola PrestiniPaola Prestini
A cofounder of 21c Liederabend co-producer VisionIntoArt, Prestini never fails to delight the senses with her arabesque-like works. Matching Prestini word-for-note in Saturday night’s world premiere of Aging Magician is the rockstar author Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated, Eating Animals). With a nod to Benjamin Britten (old man, young boy, a ride through Venice), the third facet of this Liederabend triumvirate is Mark Stewart, whose sculpture-cum-instrument promises to illuminate in response to the musician’s touch. Actor Melvin van Peebles narrates; also performing are Rinde Eckert, Gabriel Kahane and John Buffalo Mailer plus ACME’s strings section.

Russell Platt
A writer for the New Yorker, Russell Platt’s sharp intelligence is reflected in his musical compositions. Notes are arranged like carefully constructed sentences and well-chosen words. How apt, then, that Thursday night’s program features his setting of two texts by one of the country’s greatest writers—Walt Whitman. Baritone Keith Harris, accompanied by Timo Andres on piano, gives life to the vividly wholesome and nostalgic “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” and “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing.” Here’s proof that not every 21st-century art song needs electronic loops (not that that’s unwelcome, either).

Kamala Sankaram
Like many of her colleagues on this program, vocalist and composer Kamala Sankaram pushes the boundaries of rock-pop and classical-opera. No wonder, then, that her operatic resume includes Einstein on the Beach with the Philip Glass Ensemble and La Didone with the Wooster Group. A world premiere on Friday’s program pairs Sankaram with playwright Susan Yankowitz, who creates the lyrics for The Thumbprint of Mukhtar Mai, a ballad for a young Pakistani woman and the first to successfully sue her attackers in an honor crime. Musically, Sankaram ensures that East meets West and traditional singing meets operatic—she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Gregory Spears
There’s something thrilling about the way Spears creates shimmering, impressionistic vocal lines. At times unabashed and at others more judicious, it’s no less captivating. Spears has been performed by American Opera Projects, eighth blackbird and So Percussion, but perhaps the most intriguing item on his resume is his composer-in-residence position at New Jersey’s Buttonwood Psychiatric Unit. Fast-rising countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and soprano Amelia Watkins perform two of Spears’s settings of texts by Wilfrid Owen on Thursday night, accompanied by Timo Andres on keyboard and David Kaplan on piano.

Julia Wolfe
One-third of the Bang on a Can trinity, Julia Wolfe shakes the ear out of its complacency and challenges the way we hear the world with her finely-wrought post-minimalism pieces. This week, her newest release Cruel Sister is Q2’s album of the week for its chilling and gripping evocation of love, passion, jealousy and murder—all elements we’ve come to happily associate with opera. Wolfe’s rocking 1999 opera The Carbon Copy Building (co-written with Bang on a Can colleagues David Lang and Michael Gordon and titled) gets a reprise Thursday night conducted by Ted Hearne and featuring vocalists Theo Bleckmann, Tony Boutte, Katie Geissinger and Toby Twining.

Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin
Best known around town as the front man for Ljova and the Kontraband (sort of a folksier, classical version of Gogol Bordello) and a virtuoso violist, Ljova is also a pretty seductive composer—as evidenced in his solo album, Vjola. In classical circles, he’s also arranged a healthy amount for Brooklyn Rider, the Knights, the Kronos Quartet and Alondra de la Parra. But for all the charm we’ve come to expect from Ljova, we see a different side of him in Niña Dance, a politically-charged, five-part song cycle sung by mezzo-soprano Sofia Rei and based on the unsolved murders and disappearances of women and young girls in Juárez, Mexico.

John Zorn
If you skipped out on Monodramas at New York City Opera (which featured Zorn’s La Machine de l’Être), we genuinely feel sorry for you. And if you saw Monodramas and can’t get enough, we feel your pain. That being said, you can get another Zorn fix with Frammenti del Sappho on Saturday night (the day after Monodramas closes). Zorn is the grand-master of downtown music, and he has a particularly keen knack for writing for the female voice. Here, Zorn restricts himself to ancient modality and pantonality, a nod to Sappho’s Grecian roots, and with a top-flight cast of singers—Abigail Fischer, Lisa Bielawa, Martha Cluver, Kirsten Sollek and Kathryn Mulvhill—this may be another required listen of 2011.