Matthew Aucoin, an American composer, conductor, writer, pianist, MacArthur Fellowship winner, Artist-in-Residence at Los Angeles Opera and co-artistic director of the American Modern Opera Company, also has strong Boston connections. He will be in town to witness performances of two of his works virtually at the same time on February 18th when the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra includes an orchestral suite from his opera Eurydice in its Sanders Theater concert and the New England Philharmonic plays his Two Dances. Complete information at the end.
FLE: The hook for this story is your peregrination from Sanders, where the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra is playing a suite from your opera Eurydice, to Jordan Hall, where the New England Philharmonic will be including Two Dances in its program. Is the timing is going to work?
MA: We hope so. All I knew before these two orchestras announced their seasons was that my pieces for each ensemble would be played at some point in the ’22-23 season. I didn’t have the dates. And so I did a big face-palm when I realized that not only were they the same day, but that the concerts started at the same minute! But both ensembles have been really gracious in trying to time the pieces such that I can be present for both performances. I think the plan is for the Eurydice Suite to kick off the concert in Sanders, and then the New England Phil has added a brief intermission before Two Dances. So if traffic is light, I should make it.
And would you like some of the audience from Sanders to come to Jordan Hall with you?
It’s tricky, because I don’t want —
You know I’m kidding, of course.
I don’t want to cause a disruption in the concert. I may make the journey with a few friends, but I would really advise people to buy tickets to one concert or the other. Don’t be an orchestral bar-hopper like me!
How about beginning by telling readers about the Suite.
In conversations with Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, the idea arose to create an orchestral suite; originally the Philadelphia Orchestra was going to premiere it in the weeks leading up to the Met premiere of the opera, as a kind of hors d’oeuvre, but COVID rescheduling wreaked havoc on that idea. So the suite ended up premiering in Philadelphia a few months after the Met production, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who also conducted the full opera at the Met.
And the Suite, presumably, has instruments playing vocal lines?
Sometimes, yes. But it’s really, it’s more of a fantasia on the opera, rather than a direct transcription. It’s a miniature symphony, in a way. It even has four movements. Only one of the four is cut and pasted from the opera: there’s one extended orchestral interlude, “A Room Made Out of String,” that it felt natural to keep as is. But in the other three movements, I’m pushing and pulling the material, which is course vocal in its original incarnation, to transform it into orchestral music. When you perform an opera, of course, you’re always working to maintain a good balance between singers and orchestra, which often means asking the orchestra to rein it in slightly and play more quietly. So it feels fantastic, in this suite, to let go of the reins and let the orchestra really play.
Do you think that you have been able to step away from it enough to transcribe it the way Liszt might have transcribed something he was hearing?
[LAUGHTER] That’s a great question. By the time I wrote the suite, yes, I had stepped away from it, because the opera was finished in late 2019, and the suite wasn’t assembled until 2021. And it does feel a little bit to me like a Liszt improvisation in that that there’s a dreamy, almost lazy quality to the way I treat the material: I take an idea and imagine what other directions it might go. There’s a slow, languorous clarinet solo in Eurydice that I knew I wanted to expand for the orchestral suite, and now it practically has a whole movement to itself. (It helps that I was composing for Ricardo Morales, principal clarinet of the Philadelphia Orchestra and one of the greatest clarinetists in the world.) Anyway, I’m a pianist, so that feeling of improvising on familiar material does feel very much like what I do.
So you could actually, after dinner at a party, sit at the piano and give a ten-minute account of your 70-minute opera fairly easily?
[LAUGHTER] Sure. You know, you give me enough to drink, I would absolutely do that.
Well, you know, there are a lot of operas and orchestral works that are better known as suites. I think of John Harbison’s Gatsby is one of the latest examples. But you would rather that the opera itself have a life on the stage, wouldn’t you?
I think you can have it both ways. Symphony orchestras are unlikely to present the full opera in concert, but they could certainly handle playing the suite. And I don’t really see a contradiction between the two. I mean, I do hope that Eurydice, the full opera, will come to Boston in the not-too-distant future. And here’s hoping.
Is it as good as the movie “Black Orpheus?”
You mean my opera?
[LAUGHTER] I have to admit I have not seen “Black Orpheus.” I know the song, of course. I do know the Cocteau Orphée, which I love.
I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll watch your opera if you watch “Black Orpheus”
It’s a deal. I’ve always heard it’s great.
So the other work(s) of yours that we’re going to hear is/are “Two Dances.” From whence cometh these?
Let me lay it out. Two Dances is an orchestration of two dance-like movements from two different pieces. “Shaker Dance” is from The No One’s Rose, which I wrote for AMOC (American Modern Opera Company) and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra out in San Francisco. And the second movement comes from Family Dinner, also written for AMOC, which we premiered at the Ojai Festival last year.
And what these two movements have in common is two things: first, they’re both explosively dancelike; second, they both feature two string soloists. “Shaker Dance” originally featured violin and cello, along with a Baroque orchestra. The movement from Family Dinner featured two violins and a chamber ensemble. In this new arrangement, both movements feature two violins and orchestra.
Another thing that unites these two movements was that I felt that they could benefit from the added horsepower of a full orchestra. [LAUGHTER] That extra oomph.
Keir GoGwilt will be heard as one of the violinists. Was he one of the dedicatees? Is he part of AMOC? The other one is Danielle Madden, who is perennially around in Boston. I don’t know whether she was in the original. But the original wasn’t for two violins. So presumably he’s from the original performances?
Keir is a member of AMOC. He’s a founding member. And in fact, he and I went to college together, and we’ve been friends for a very long time. Danielle is the concertmaster of the New England Philharmonic, so her connection is via the orchestra.
Anyway, so you first came to the attention of the Intelligencer probably when you were doing some “Run AMOC” things at the American Repertory Theater.
I think I talked to you guys when my opera Crossing was produced by the A.R.T., before AMOC was even a gleam in our eye.
OK, and that was a very good 2015 interview with Patrick Valentino HERE.
Yes, that’s right.
And the Run AMOC! Festival at Loeb?
We had a residency with the A.R.T. between 2017 and 2019, where we put on a little festival every December.
AMOC has a core constituency of about 17 artists, and depending on the project, we also bring in guests. And those core 17 include dancers, instrumentalists, and singers. So it’s not an opera company in the conventional sense. It’s an interdisciplinary ensemble, a collective.
Yeah, well, I don’t know what opera is in any case. Do you?
[LAUGHTER] I wouldn’t venture a definition, no.
Right. So the singers that you’ve had over the years that are really impressive, like Julia Bullock and Davóne Tines and Paul Appleby. Are they part of your essentially permanent roster?
Yes, they are core members. There are four singers who are core members, and they are, as you mentioned, Julia, Davóne, Paul, and also Anthony Roth Costanzo, the countertenor.
Are you typically writing for these people, with their voices and talents in mind?
When I’m writing an AMOC project, certainly. You know, I don’t exclusively compose for AMOC by any means.
Right, you might even venture an opera for the Metropolitan?
[LAUGHTER] Exactly. What unifies AMOC projects is that they are created by and for these people. Anybody in the company can come up with an idea, and generally they’re created in collaboration among company members.
Are you the only composer in the organization?
Actually no—several of the other core members, even if they might primarily be performers, are also composers. Just last week, AMOC put on a chamber music concert in Williamstown, MA that featured original music composed by three AMOC members: Keir GoGwilt, Emi Ferguson, and Doug Balliett. So I have some competition!
But we often perform and even premiere pieces by composers outside the ensemble. For example, last year, AMOC collectively served as the music director of the Ojai Festival in California. And with that festival’s particularly rich history of presenting new works, we used it as an occasion to commission a bunch of composers, including Anthony Cheung, Carolyn Chen and myself, as well as presenting a lot of other new music.
Right, because you’re, as prolific as you seem to be in recent years, you’re not going to come up with an entire summer of music year after year.
I can’t compose that fast! If AMOC had to live off of new music by yours truly, we’d starve artistically. We need lots of sources.
Your next opera? Your next major concert? Anything you want people to be thinking about?
One project in a very early stage is a big piece—I’m not sure what to call it! Maybe a staged song cycle?—that’s based on Jorie Graham’s poetry. I’m working on it with Peter Sellars, who will direct the production; Peter and I are also assembling the text together from Jorie’s recent poetry. Jorie was a teacher of mine in college, and her work means a lot to me.
You mean the text, the connective text? Since you’re talking about poetry.
It’s a kind of song cycle, so all of the text will be poetry. I’ve always wanted to do something with Jorie’s poetry, which in recent years has become pre-apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic, or both.
Is it narrative?
I wouldn’t say so, no. I would say it isn’t narrative so much as it’s internally interconnected. Jorie’s recent work is concerned with the current state of the world at many different scales: the runaway toxicity that’s poisoning the earth’s atmosphere as well as the runaway, untrustworthy, unselfconscious intelligence of algorithms and AI. So it will be a cycle of songs about where we are today, as a species.
And will that be a full program?
It’ll be a full evening, yeah.
So do you want to hear my suggestion for an opera subject?
Lay it on me, Lee.
Readers can scroll to the bottom for my suggestion.
Saturday, February 18, 2023 at 8:00 pm
HARVARD-RADCLIFFE ORCHESTRA presents
Sanders Theatre, Memorial Hall, Harvard
Matt Aucoin’s Suite from the opera Eurydice
Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5.
Federico Cortese, conductor
Saturday, February 18, 2023 at 8:00 pm
New England Philharmonic (JH) presents
Zwilich: Thank You Notes for Richard Pittman
Kareem Roustom: Ramal (2014)
Elijah Daniel Smith: Wraith Weight (2021)
Matthew Aucoin: Two Dances (arr. 2022)
Danielle Maddon & Keir GoGwilt, violins
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
There is a famous anti-Semitic movie, “Jud Süß,” or Jew Swiss, that Veit Harlan directed on behalf of Goebbels; it was vile and cinematic at the same time. And Veit Harlan was also the father Stanley Kubrick’s wife, so there are some modern connections. Of course the movie is horrible in its presentation of the story and its horrible anti-Semitic propaganda. However, a lot of people don’t realize that it was based on a very successful play by Leon Feuchtwanger, who was a Jew; afterwards he expanded the play into a bestselling novel of the same title. In the play, and in the novel, the Jew is the hero (in a Sidney Carton twist), and there’s a British movie, “Power,” by Lothar Mendes. The novel is quite good… even better than the play. And it’s, got everything you need: sex, nudity, violence, heroism, cupidity… it’s funny and sad….and it’s in public domain.
… which doesn’t hurt.
I don’t think Veit Harlan should get the last word on this property. So I’ll send it to you at some point.
I will definitely check it out, but I think I’ve got my hands full operatically for the next few years. But I’m always looking. So much appreciated.