A Composer Will Listen: Overheard Talk Inspires Piece

Lisa Bielawa is the composer of 'Drama/Self Pity.' (Liz Linder)
Lisa Bielawa is the composer of ‘Drama/Self Pity.’ (Liz Linder)

ORLANDO – Re-energized by an interest in new and contemporary repertoire this season, the Orlando Philharmonic presented the world premiere of Lisa Bielawa’s Drama/Self Pity on Dec. 3.

A short fanfare that evokes the irritating commotion of city life, Drama/Self Pity is adapted from Bielawa’s song-cycle Chance Encounter, which she wrote for soprano Susan Narucki and the New York chamber orchestra The Knights, who recorded it.  Devised for performance in transient public spaces, Chance Encounter was premiered in 2007 at Seward Park, New York City. The new piece is an instrumental arrangement of songs from the earlier vocal piece that represent real-life collective disgruntlement, annoyance, and public bickering.

Extramusical subject matter and inspiration are hardly exceptional, but novel indeed are the origins of Chance Encounter, and in turn Drama/Self Pity. Bielawa, a 2009 Rome Prize winner in musical composition, found herself stuck at San Diego International Airport between flights one day, when she turned her attention from several aborted attempts to read (a voracious reader, she’s constantly casting about for subjects for new music) to the chatter all around her. She then started collecting snippets of conversation overheard in public places, with the help of Narucki and other close collaborators, among whom was Eric Jacobsen, the current music director of the Orlando Philharmonic.

“I started grouping the fragments in trends,” Bielawa recently told me in an interview. One of the groups ended up being this whiny group that I called ‘drama/self-pity.’” Seeing the whirlwind of energy and the specific dramaturgical tone of the whiny sections of Chance Encounter, she quickly jumped at Jacobsen’s invitation to present a premiere with the Philharmonic.

Music director Eric Jacobsen conducts the Orlando Philharmonic in rehearsal.
Eric Jacobsen conducts the Orlando Philharmonic in rehearsal.

Bielawa, 48, flew to Orlando collaborate with Jacobsen and the musicians during rehearsals. The daughter of an early-music performance scholar and harpsichord player, and a retired music professor and composer, Bielawa shows influences ranging from music before Bach to the high-voltage minimalism of the Philip Glass Ensemble, which she joined at age 22.

After a brief introduction by Jacobsen and Bielawa, the premiere of Drama/Self Pity was given at downtown Orlando’s Bob Carr Theater. Among the random lines incorporated in the work: “I’m always on the wrong side,” “I missed the announcement,”and Jacobsen’s own contribution, “Do you solve everything by crying?,” which he overheard somewhere and readily texted to Bielawa. It became her favorite.

Drama/Self Pity opened with strings playing fast-tempo short notes, promptly giving way to two solo trumpets – principal Lyman Brodie, and William Cooper – opposite each other. They showed an abrasive, raspy tone, suiting the short-tempered mood of the piece. Restless piccolo soared above the mania, as fractions of a distinctive melody began to materialize, later becoming the main motif: the syllabically notated “Do you solve everything by crying?” figure that the composer singled out in her introduction.

Eric Jacobsen is the Orlando Philharmonic's music director. (Dario Acosta)
Orlando Philharmonic music director Eric Jacobsen. (Dario Acosta)

The “crying” motif served as the backbone of the six-minute piece; it kept dipping its toes in very short phrases while solo turns by oboe and clarinet howled from underneath. The first full iteration of the “crying” motif came toward the end from the violin section, led by New York-based guest concertmaster Emily Smith, substituting for Rimma Bergeron-Langlois. It gave coherence to the piece; the previous fragments seemed to all come together, capped by a final climactic orchestral outburst.

Jacobsen, who is also artistic director of The Knights, kept the orchestral voices under control while standing center stage with no podium.

At times cartoonish, and somewhat Zappa-esque in its deceptive frivolity, Drama/Self Pity is a strap-yourself-in kind of high-speed ride through a busy city. “The music escalates the disgruntled phrases; it does more than just emulate the mood,” Bielawa said.  The resulting score shows crafty creativity and imaginative orchestral coloring.

The program also offered an immaculate performance by Emanuel Ax of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto and a straightforward, albeit unevenaccount of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor.

These are innovative times for the Orlando Philharmonic: another world premiere follows on March 18, this time by the young Russian composer Lev Zhurbin and led by New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New. Last spring, the Philharmonic also premiered under Jacobsen’s direction the programmatic Venus and Vulcan in America, the large-scale first symphony by Orlando-based composer Keith Lay.

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