No restrictions: Serenata of Santa Fe breaks through walls

Yi-heng Yang

The vocal recital ain’t what it used to be — at least, judging from the latest offering in Serenata of Santa Fe’s invigorating concert series.

A glance at the program presented at SITE Santa Fe on Friday, Jan. 10, shows an intriguing array of 20th- and 21st-century works that incorporate wordless singing and dramatic speaking.

The concept for the latest Serenata concert — one of four Riffs & Digressions programs — originated with Serenata artistic director Pamela Epple, New York pianist Yi-heng Yang explains. “Pam is incredible. She’s very collaborative, always asking, ‘What would you like to do?’ She told me she was thinking about walls and how they marginalize people.”

The theme of this concert, entitled Barriers, focuses on a search for freedom without walls. Two works are by composer Leslie Wildman: Solo Flight, inspired by Amelia Earhart, which captures the joy of flying; and Tubman, a freshly completed piano work honoring abolitionist Harriet Tubman. There’s also a charming piece for spoken word with playful piano accompaniment titled Landscaping for Privacy, by Eve Beglarian, which describes a road trip to escape New York City and its fearless rats, a drive in search of a pastoral scene under “a Disney sky.”

Locally based soprano Gail Springer is also featured in the program. It’s offbeat repertory, but “I like being stretched,” Springer says. “I’ve always been interested in different [musical] styles. I was drawn to rock singing. Now, with the Beglarian, I’ll be able to draw on my experience as an actor. I’ve done theater and musical theater. Back in 1978 or ’79, I studied with [performance artist] Meredith Monk.”

A regular at Serenata concerts from 2003 to 2010, Springer will be collaborating with Yang for the first time. “I’ve known of her playing,” Springer says. “Since she’s busy teaching at Juilliard, I’m not sure how much [rehearsal] time we’ll have.”

Being back East has its advantages for Yang. A member of the piano faculty at New York’s renowned Juilliard School, she was able to commission new music from fellow Juilliard colleague Conrad Cummings and from Wildman, who divides her time between New York, where she is one of Yang’s piano students, and Berkeley, California.

The fact that Epple presented the Serenata event as “a political concert” influenced Wildman’s compositional approach. But her new piano piece, Tubman, wasn’t generated by the abolitionist’s efforts to help enslaved people via the Underground Railroad. Instead, it came out of the recent decision by the U.S. Treasury to delay replacing President Andrew Johnson’s likeness with Tubman’s on U.S. currency. “I heard about people creating their own $20 bills, pasting her picture on existing bills,” the composer says.

It was a quest for freedom in the sky that inspired Wildman to create Solo Flight, which premiered in Vienna in 1995, sung by Norwegian soprano Kristin Nordeval. Fueled by Earhart’s groundbreaking solo traverse of the Atlantic in 1932, the composer read letters by the aviation pioneer and crafted a soprano part that consists only of rising and falling “ahs” and the occasional words “solo flight.” Wildman and Nordeval fashioned an electronic soundtrack underneath the piano accompaniment. In planning the Santa Fe performance, the composer pondered turning Solo Flight into a theater piece, suggesting that the singer don a flight jacket and goggles. “Gail had a different idea about it,” Wildman says. “She told me she’d prefer to just come onstage and sing it. And I’m fine with that.”

Springer was drawn to the simple poignance of Solo Flight, noting how it calls for a vocal sound that is “childlike, with a lower mezzo quality. I love how the music evokes feelings of power and freedom,” she says. “It imagines a moment when Amelia reached cruising altitude, where she can finally relax. The piece is all about the ecstasy of flight. In that way, it’s better without any sung text.”

In addition to Wildman’s Tubman, Yang commissioned Cummings, a member of Juilliard’s composition faculty, to write a solo piano piece. Reached at his New York office, Cummings explains that the six-minute work, A Fantasy Again, is drawn from a nearly completed one-act opera written with librettist Mark Campbell (whose work appears in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs and The Shining, among other places). The piece is titled Again and Again and Again, and it spins a fanciful tale involving time travel, reincarnation, and a surprise ending. “Promise not to tell anyone,” Cummings whispers.

“The story is based on Pierre Corneille’s play The Comic Illusion [1636]. We’re pretty much doing this on spec, and hopefully it will be presented by the National Opera Center in late spring or September.”

As for the piano fantasy, Cummings says he stitched together four sections from the opera. “I actually thought about writing a fantasy before, rather than after finishing the opera,” he recalls. As for describing his compositional approach, Cummings couldn’t point to a specific style. “I’m no good at doing imitations of other kinds of music. I don’t want to sound egotistical, but everything I write ends up sounding like me.”

Two quirky works appear on the Barriers program — both by music’s irrepressible, iconoclastic, radical elder statesman, the American composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski. No surprise that his music is included here, since he’s known for expressing a fearless political bent. There’s also a theatrical element in each selection, calling for the pianist to double as a strongly opinionated speaker. In “Stuporman,” the first of three excerpts Yang will play from Dear Diary (2014), Rzewski (pronounced SHEV-ski) mixes pounding angry piano chords with spoken sentiments such as “Capitalism: a system that should have died a hundred years ago.”

Yang will also perform an excerpt from Rzewski’s eight-part collection titled The Road. Part Six is called “Traveling with Children, Mile 42.” Her selection, The Prodigal Parents, depicts a grandfather’s apology to his grandchildren for the damage done to the planet by their parents’ generation: “We tore up the earth and killed what lived on it,” the narrator decries, begging the children’s forgiveness. Those words are accompanied by angry rhythmic drumming on the piano’s wooden frame, augmented by the pianist’s occasional extended, weary exhalations.

Combining virtuosic playing with dramatic speaking offers quite a challenge for any musician, but Yang says she’s unfazed. “I’ve done some pieces with spoken word. Really, everything’s right there in front of me [on the page]. The words are all rhythmic with no pitch. It takes practice, but I’m comfortable with it.” ◀

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