NEW YORK — Tod Machover is working on a new opera based on Richard Powers’ 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory. On March 7 at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, Machover gave audiences a glimpse of what he’s finished so far — the fragment is titled Overstory Overture, with “overture” intended more in the sense of a sneak peek than an operatic prelude — with help from the commissioning ensemble, Sejong Soloists, and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
The ecological novel tells the stories of nine Americans who have a unique relationship with trees. For this segment, Machover and librettist Simon Robson introduce the woman whom Machover describes as his main character, a scientist and activist named Patricia Westerford. Her focus is on trees as a society, as a network.
Machover, long based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, built his reputation on his innovative use of electronics and programming in music. While there is an electronic element in Overstory Overture, the emphasis is on acoustic instruments: strings, percussion, and a marimba placed center stage and played with dance-like grace by Ji Hye Jung. In fact, dance was a theme of the staging by choreographer and director Karole Armitage, who even asked the instrumentalists to clump and wander and sway like a society of trees. At two points, DiDonato and conductor Earl Lee interacted with large, slow movements, like two trees connecting at their branches.
The only choreographic element that didn’t work was the decision to start with all the music stands toppled over. The musicians came in playing what the libretto calls “tiny specks of sound” — even the cellists were expected to tap their bows on the strings while spinning toward a landing spot. Stranger still was the awkward moment when all the musicians had to reach down and pick up their music stands without dropping an instrument, allowing the sheet music to come unclipped, or any number of other potential disasters.
The electronic element consisted mostly of distorted noise, whether gentle like rain and rustling leaves or frightening like the violent infringement of human-run machines upon the forest. Ben Bloomberg, who studied with Machover as a graduate student at MIT and has collaborated with him before, artfully crafted the electronic sounds so they always seemed to be part of the same world as the acoustic instruments and voice.
DiDonato played the role of the scientist, first explaining her theory of the trees’ interconnectedness and then warning that the forest is in danger from “the high-vis insects on the ridge / That move like men / And buzz with petrochemical props.” A gifted actor, she remained deeply in character even through long passages when she did not sing; it was impossible not to fall in love with the trees as she sang about their community. And while the strings added dissonance and texture, often in the form of floating harmonic notes, DiDonato’s part was rooted in triads, and beautifully melodic. Often her line was doubled by the marimba, its resonant wooden keys a reminder of the scientist’s profound connection to the forest.
As Peter Torpey’s lighting design turned a glowing white-yellow like a shaft of afternoon sunshine, DiDonato began the work’s highlight, a long final aria centered on the word “Breathe.” Vocal and instrumental phrases grew from each other at a cellular level, like tendrils of sound. It was mesmerizing.
The 30-minute Machover work was preceded by three unrelated pieces that displayed Sejong Soloists’ wide range. For these, the string orchestra performed without a conductor, taking cues from concertmaster Xiao Dong Wang. Before they were scattered for Overstory, the ensemble played in an acoustically beneficial formation, with violinists, violists, and bassists standing in a semi-circle around the three seated cellists.
They used the first work, an Adagio by Michael Haydn from his Notturno in F major, to warm up. Not technically — their articulation and dynamics were precise to the tiniest detail from the opening bars — but emotionally. With so much vibrato, the Haydn seemed forced, not genuinely warm; the 1773 piece was also laden with incongruent rallentandos and other overwrought gestures that made it seem too Romantic for its year.
With that introduction out of their system, the ensemble was ready to play for real in a high-energy reading of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D minor (not the famous one in E minor). The tutti sections were taut and focused yet buoyant, and always responsive to the lead of soloist Stephen Kim, a Sejong member.
Kim’s distinguishing feature is his almost unbelievable attention to detail. He played the first movement with the exactness of a jeweler cutting stones; even in the fast passages, he distinguished each grouping of sixteenth notes with a unique pattern of dynamics and texture. His sweet, sad tone in the Andante second movement relied on infinitesimal changes in bow weight and speed. At times he made his instrument sound muted, even when it wasn’t. As for the final Allegro, it was a tornado of virtuosity and humor. Soloist and orchestra alike committed to the preposterously fleet tempo, playing with absolute clarity and lightness.
As a mood-balancer after all those bubbly runs, the first half ended with the rich darkness of Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz, composed in 1905. The ensemble demonstrated an exceptional sense of balance, allowing each voice to emerge organically when it was given the theme. All told, those opening three pieces served to build trust in the orchestra as the audience prepared to be led into the unfamiliar, wondrous world of Overstory.