Aaron Alter seemed to have the kind of career prospects any young composer-pianist would dream of after receiving a graduate degree from Princeton University, where he studied with Milton Babbitt. It wasn’t to be however, at least not then. Frustrated by the emotional sterility of 12-tone music, Alter gave up composition for 25 years in the computer world.
Then he bought a Steinway piano, which led to re-launching his composing career. Alter will be in Santa Fe for his newest work, Earth Cantata, written for a chamber orchestra of 13 and eight vocalists. The world premiere is a Friday, March 3, concert by the New Mexico Performing Arts Society, along with J.S. Bach’s sacred cantata BWV 8, “Liebster Gott wenn werd ich sterben?” (“Beloved God, when will I die?”)
NMPAS Artistic Director Franz Vote commissioned Alter’s new piece, requesting that it be “in the style of Bach.” For the composer, that meant drawing inspiration from Bach’s style, not imitating it literally. “Many things in it are fundamentally original, but it’s grounded in the world of his cantatas,” he says. “I also used the notes B-A-C-H in the bass [H is the name of a note in German musical notation] and used the theme from Bach’s Art of the Fugue in one movement.”
Earth Cantata is part of what Alter calls his “new beginning,” in which the Chicago native combines aspects of the jazz and rock music he wrote and performed growing up with techniques derived from his classical training. “I liked the spontaneity of jazz, but the lack of structure frustrated me,” he says. “I liked the intellectual stimulation of the academic avant-garde but missed the emotional aspect of music. Now I can have the best of both worlds.”
The cantata’s text is a version of Psalm 66 by the highly regarded Elizabethan writer Mary Sidney Herbert. The psalm can be interpreted as an allegory about climate change, Alter says, and he was immediately captivated by Herbert’s language. “It was perfect. The rhythm was there, the cadences were there, so I set 31 lines of the poem to music.”
7 p.m. Friday, March 3, Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel, 50 Mt. Carmel Road, $20-$60 ($25 for live-stream option), 877-466-3404, nmpas.org