Arts & Events

Steven Stucky Sets Czeslaw Milosz Poems for Berkeley Symphony Premiere

By Ken Bullock
Friday March 22, 2013 - 12:54:00 PM

"One of the lovely things about 'making noise,' being a composer, is that what you make ends up belonging to everyone. And everyone has their own interpretation--and some of them make sense!"

Composer-in-residence Steven Stucky was discussing the world premiere of his piece The Stars and the Roses, an orchestral setting of three poems by the late Nobel laureate, longtime Berkeley resident and UC professor Czeslaw Milosz, commissioned by Berkeley Symphony for the final performance in Zellerbach Hall this season, 8 p. m. Thursday, March 28--and the question of whether The Stars and the Roses is a song cycle.

Symphony music director Joana Carneiro suggested Stucky write orchestral songs, and that they work with well-known tenor Noah Stewart, a former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow and Merola program alumnus.

"I've been a fan of Milosz for a long time," said Stucky. "And his connection to Berkeley was too good to pass up." 

Stucky described the Milosz poems as "celebrating life--not like his more famous--and dark--World War II poems." The poems are titled "Happiness," "The Sun" and "The Bird Kingdom," the first two beginning: "How warm the light ..." and "All colors come from the sun ... ". Asked about any relation to the program's other piece, Anton Bruckner's 1874 Symphony in E-flat Major ("Romantic"), Stucky commented, "In a sense, there is a link [with The Stars and the Roses]--both are pastoral, idyllic ... " 

Are the three poems sung together a song cycle? "I'm not sure that what I created is a song cycle in the historical sense ... I don't know if the poems vary enough for that, though they come together nicely in atmosphere and language--and I hope in music, too. But Noah Stewart's already developed his own interpretation, that the three poems are three views of life from three different times of day. I have to go back and look at them. If he's right, it's a cycle! And Joana, who's a great artist, will have some ideas, too! I'll be relearning them ... " 

Stucky has also been working this season, along with Berkeley composer Paul Dresher, with the Symphony's Under Construction New Music Series, which will have its second and final orchestral reading of the new works this Sunday at 7 at Crowden Music Center. "Paul and I try to be hands on, meeting and talking--collegial chats--with the composers before it happens ... Since my last trip here in February, one of the three composers has very thoroughly revised his piece, another made smaller but significant adjustments, and the third left his untouched, but composed a second movement." Commenting on the effectiveness of the program's orchestral readings of new work, Stucky said, "in theater, almost nothing goes up that's not workshopped, but that's not true in music--and it's a great thing for the music." 

Stucky, a Pulitzer Prizewinner, has had the longest working relationship between a composer and an orchestra in American history--over 20 years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he's been composer-in-residence, and also served as consulting composer for new music, as well as founding the Composer Fellowship Program. His pieces Radical Light and Elegy for August 4, 1964--the second commissioned by Berkeley Symphony--were played here in December, 2009, with Carneiro presiding. 

Commenting on Carneiro, formerly a conducting fellow with the LA Philharmonic, and on Berkeley Symphony, Stucky said, "Joana does have some kind of rapport, some kind of special communication with the orchestra. That's not universal. And I think Rene Mandel [Symphony executive director] is doing a great job. The Symphony's firing on all cylinders--and it's not an easy time in this business. I feel lucky to be attached to it for this season." 

Berkeley Symphony: Under Construction New Music II (Andrew V. Ly's Lair, Michael Nicholas' The Wraith, Davide Verotta's Untramarinus [Ceruleus]), 7 p. m. Sunday, March 24 at Crowden Music Center, 1475 Rose Street (at Sacramento Street). $10-$20. Concert: The Idealists (Steven Stucky's The Stars and the Roses, Anton Bruckner's Symphony no. 4 in E-flat Major ("Romantic), 8 p. m. Thursday, March 28, Zellerbach Hall, UC campus (near Bancroft and Telegraph Avenues), $15-$68. 841-2800;