I am waiting for a rehearsal, held in the living room of a beautiful home, to begin. It’s the first time I will hear the pianist and soprano who are performing an aria that I wrote the libretto for. Earlier I saw the composer, Peter Josheff, going over the music with the pianist. He was totally focused. What he was telling her matters.
After several singers and musicians have performed, the soprano gets up and says a few words about the aria: the character singing is Francesca da Rimini, the tortured soul doomed to the third ring of Dante’s hell where the damned, because they have been unable to resist the force of their desires, are blown about by an unrelenting wind.
The aria is Francesca’s explanation of why she is in hell. It’s the first aria Peter and I have completed in our longer work-in-progress based on Francesca’s story in the Divine Comedy. Peter Josheff and I have collaborated on vocal music and improvisation for over 10 years.
Even in collaboration, though, composing and writing are solitary processes.
At the beginning of each project we develop, Peter tells me in general terms what he is looking for: the voices and instruments he wants to compose for, the length of the piece, its emotional content. I figure out an appropriate “story” and write a text. He then writes the music. Occasionally he’ll question words or the sense of a section of the text as he is writing.
Although he has a clear idea of the piece in development, I only hear the finished product at the last moment: in final rehearsal or in performance. It’s in those moments that the work we’ve done changes, going from personal struggle in a solitary setting to a coherent event in a public setting. The collaboration between writer and composer has ended; the object created belongs to the performer and to the audience.
Listening to Francesca’s aria, I evaluate our work. The music is ominous and gorgeous at the same time: the complexity of notes rising from the piano supports the intensely melodic line of the words, and surrounds the listener. It seems to blend with the light reflected from the walls of the room and the silence of the audience.
You can hear the chilling despair of hell as well as the singer’s continuing desire for life and love; the soprano’s delicate interpretation is totally convincing. Peter has written this piece for her and he has woven the nuances of her voice into the music’s emotional threads. Though the aria will change once the rest of the opera is written, I find this version of “Francesca’s Complaint” perfect in and of itself. It has captured the constellation of meanings I endeavored to put into words and moved beyond them into something transformative.
Each year Peter Josheff and Allen Shearer, two of the Bay Area’s most interesting and noteworthy composers, put together a concert of songs and premier them at the Berkeley Art Center as “The Harvest of Song.” They not only present their own new work, they also showcase the work of other Bay Area composers who write for voice and chamber ensemble; the music is played and sung by some of the most accomplished musicians in the Bay Area.
We invite you to join us this year at the Berkeley Art Center.
HARVEST OF SONG
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28 and Sunday, Oct. 29. Pre-concert discussion at 6:30 p.m. Berkeley Art Center, 1275 Walnut St. in Live Oak Park. 654-8651.
Featured will be world premiere performances of new works by Allen Shearer, Ann Callaway, and the collaborative team of composer Peter Josheff and poet Jaime Robles, as well as recent works by Sue-Hye Kim, Dan Reiter, Mikako Endo and Don Walker. Also included will be a song from the 1930s workers’ musical Pins and Needles by Harold Rome.
This program will feature performances by the Harvest of Song All Stars: Tod Brody, flute; Peter Josheff, clarinet; Karen Rosenak, piano; Ellen Ruth Rose, viola and Dan Reiter, cello; with vocalists Eliza O’Malley, soprano and Allen Shearer, baritone.