For its fifth week in the just-renovated Music Hall, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is shining a light on the May Festival Chorus. The program looks back to the event that precipitated the construction of Music Hall, when a thunderstorm pounding on the tin roof of its predecessor, Saengerhalle, ruined a May Festival concert.
Besides revisiting the works from that 1875 program by Bach and Brahms, the orchestra and chorus have commissioned a young American composer, Julia Adolphe, to compose a new work for the chorus.
“Equinox,” an a cappella piece for chorus, will have its world premiere this weekend (8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday) in Music Hall.
Adolphe, 29, a New York native, has already written three works for the New York Philharmonic. Her work is also championed by May Festival music director laureate James Conlon, who presented one of her pieces at the 2016 May Festival. She is now at work on her second opera.
We spoke by phone this week after she had taken the red-eye from Los Angeles where she is earning a doctorate at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California (USC).
Question: I recall hearing your atmospheric piece at the Cathedral Basilica during James Conlon’s final May Festival season. Did your Cincinnati connection come about because of Conlon?
Answer: Yes, I was named his intern in graduate school and worked for his OREL Foundation (which champions music by composers affected by the Holocaust). He’s always been supportive and wanted to hear my music. So he and the May Festival Chorus commissioned “Sea Dream Elegies” which premiered in his final season.
Q: You’re not yet 30. How does one get commissioned and performed by organizations such as the New York Philharmonic and the Cincinnati May Festival?
A: In 2014, I won the EarShot new music competition, which is run by the American Composers Orchestra in New York City. It’s a discovery program that holds its annual competition for emerging composers. The prize is a premiere with a major orchestra. And that year, they happened to be partnering with the New York Philharmonic. So it was kind of this incredible timing.
I was in the second year of my doctorate. I composed an orchestra piece called “Dark Sand, Sifting Light,” with the intention of it being premiered at USC. It was the same deadline for the EarShot competition. I thought, great, I’ll just send it in. I was one of the six finalists, and ended up being one of three that was premiered.
The USC premiere was a few months before the EarShot readings with the New York Philharmonic. So I was able to hear my work and make revisions and changes to the orchestration. That’s really the challenge for a young composer in terms of making it in the orchestral world. You don’t have experience with an orchestra, so to be given that in advance really helped me and helped my music.
Q: Your new piece for Cincinnati is 15 minutes long, and scored for SATB a cappella chorus. What was the appeal of this commission for you?
A: I am a singer. That’s really where my love of music began, singing as a kid. I used to be in a youth musical theater company in New York called “TaDa!” I grew up loving music and loving theater. Ultimately what I realized is I have a passion for storytelling with music, particularly through the voice. So, writing for choir and writing opera is a dream come true for me, because it feels like I’m back in my element.
Q: Tell us about your text for the piece.
A: This is an incredibly moving poem called “Equinox” by Elizabeth Alexander, who is an amazing figure. She wrote the inaugural poem for President Obama. Her worlds are very rich and very evocative. In fact, I picked three of her poems to set for this commission. But the first poem ended up being 15 minutes, so I had to stop! (She laughs.)
What I love about the poem is that it is an incredibly universal experience described in a very specific way. There’s all kinds of incredible movement. The (imagery of) swirling bees at the very beginning is ripe for a musical setting. But the autumn landscape that she describes, coupled with this image of her grandmother in the snow, to me what I find compelling is that there is a specific story you can picture. It taps into something that we’ve all experienced in one way or another.
Q: How do you compose? Do you start with the text?
A: The reason why I love writing for voice is I love having the imagery and the language of the text as a jumping-off point. So I started this piece by writing the very end of it, which is unusual for me. But, the last lines, “We are waiting. She is silent, light as an empty hive, and she is breathing,” those were just the words that really jumped out to me musically. I heard them right away when I sat down to write the piece. I created this meditative music of waiting, almost like a spiritual observance of the family sitting by her bed, waiting.
Q: What kind of experience would you like the audience to have from your piece?
A: There’s no one message or feeling that I’m trying to create. I just want to give the space for reflection. With every piece of music I write, my hope is that the audience is transported in some way and has an emotional experience. Like me when I’m writing in that moment, just put everything else aside for those 15 minutes and become absorbed and surrounded by the music.
For tickets and information: 513-381-3300, cincinnatisymphony.org.