Q&A: Composer Lembit Beecher talks about his new ‘A Year to the Day’ song cycle

Photo: Jamie Jung

American composer Lembit Beecher has collaborated with librettist/lyricist Mark Campbell to write “A Year to the Day,” a new song cycle rooted in, but not about, the pandemic. The concept was from Campbell, and it was he who approached the composer. Together they wrote six songs, as well as five instrumental interludes for tenor Nicholas Phan, violinist Augustin Hadelich, cellist Karen Ouzounian and pianist Orion Weiss.

Beecher and Campbell’s cycle delves into an artist’s relationship to music and how separation and isolation affect them as performers and as human beings. Beecher sums up the narrative on his website this way: “Central to the cycle is the question of what we do and who we become as performers when the act that defines so much of our lives, performance, is deleted. The cycle does not focus on the pandemic but rather on an artist’s complicated love for music.

OperaWire has connected with Beecher for an insider preview of “A Year to the Day,” which will premiere on Violin Channel on October 7, 2022.

OperaWire: When in your life did you start composing, and who do you consider your composer to be a “soul mate?”

Lembit Beecher: I was a pianist from an early age and started improvising on the piano at the start of high school. During the last years of high school and the first years of college, I started to be more intentional about writing music. Throughout my youth, I remember times when Chopin, William Grant Still, Tchaikovsky and Bartok were each incredibly important.

These days, I think I tend to feel incredibly strong connections to specific works rather than a composer’s entire output. The cantatas of Bach, the end of Beethoven and Schubert, the symphonies of Sibelius and the pieces of Shawn Jaeger, Kate Soper, Scott Wollschleger, Anthony Cheung, Claude Vivier, Marcos Balter and fellow Estonians Veljo Tormis and Arvo Pärt, have all been meaningful and deeply moving to me. at different times.

OW: How would you describe your creative process?

LB: As much as possible, I like to have a visceral and physical connection with the music that I write. Although I sometimes sit at my desk and just try to imagine the music, I also sing, improvise on the piano, gesticulate wildly, close my eyes and imagine the physical act of singing and to play instruments. [I also] taking walks and showers, and recording myself playing and singing sections of music, dubbing different parts.

I always enjoy building workshops with individual musicians, hearing them play particular passages before they are set in stone. Hearing both play rejuvenates my musical imagination and often leads me in unexpected directions (or sometimes highlights problems with what I’m writing!).

In each movement or section of music, I try to find a core of energy or emotion or conflict that is at the heart of the music. And as I write, a lot of my focus is on how that core relates to the larger form of the piece: the relationship of the individual gestures to the overall form of the music is one of the most interesting and most powerful for me about music.

OW: What inspired “One Year to the Day?”

LB: Mark Campbell brought me on board and pitched me the concept for the end of 2020 cycle. I really resonated with the idea; I think the relationship of musicians to music in times of upheaval is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. My grandmother was a young pianist when the Second World War broke out and she had to flee her native Estonia: her relationship to music during the war, the immigration years and her new life in America were difficult. critically important, both professionally and emotionally.

For the first year and a half of the pandemic, I had weekly Zoom calls with a small group of musicians, mostly string players. This band has become a very tight circle of friendship and support, and we’ve talked a lot about our intense and complicated emotional connections to music and how the lack of opportunities to play and the lack of opportunities to make music together affected us.

Everyone’s experience was different, but I think we’ve all had moments of darkness, grief, self-discovery, and rediscovery. These powerful personal experiences were always in my mind when I was writing the music for “A Year to the Day”.

OW: Tell us about your working relationship with Mark Campbell.

LB: Mark has both incredible clarity about what he wants to accomplish in a piece, but he’s also wonderfully invaluable about individual words and phrases. So while we were working there was plenty of room for discussion of details and a few places where I asked him to cut lines depending on how fast the music was going. But I think we established our sense of the overall form and shape of the piece quite early in the process.

OW: What are the key themes that the work examines?

LB: The song cycle first and foremost explores the intense and intimate power of music while addressing themes of loneliness, isolation, self-discovery and the complicated relationship between professional and music personnel.

OW: How would you describe the musical language of “A Year to the Day”?

LB: I think my musical language prioritizes the physical and the emotional and is always driven by a sense of storytelling: my music always wants to end somewhere different from where it begins! However, there is good variety in the harmonic and textural worlds my pieces inhabit. “A Year to the Day” is a little more tonal than some of my other work and leans a little more on melodic line and counterpoint rather than complex textures. It’s also a piece full of references to older music, some subtle, some direct.

OW: Have you ever worked with the musicians performing “A Year to the Day”?

LB: I worked briefly with Orion Weiss and Karen Ouzounian (she’s my wife!), writing a cello concerto, “Tell Me Again”, for her in 2021 and working with her through her string quartet , The Aizuri Quartet . I had met Augustin and Nick years ago, but I had not had the opportunity to collaborate with them until now. What an honor and what a joy!

OW: What stood out to you about tenor Nicholas Phan?

LB: The two things that really stood out to me were Nick’s range of expression (his voice has such a special combination of beauty and power, and he has so much control over the nuances of musicality) and his thoughtfulness as as interpreter, thinker and writer. Nick is also a generous collaborator, an excellent musician, and so well suited to the kind of intimate communication that this genre of chamber music requires.

OW: What were your greatest challenges and joys while writing the cycle?

LB: A lot of my pieces are pretty serious, and I think there’s definitely a dark side to this cycle, but I also loved having the chance to write funny, upbeat, happy music. Mark’s lyrics take the piece on a journey through different emotions, but the heart of the piece is about our love for music. And it’s been such a pleasure to be able to focus on why I love music and try to channel the kind of musical moments that appeal to me the most.

A first challenge of the cycle was figuring out how the violin part would fit in – Mark and I knew we wanted it to be special, to somehow represent the soul of the music. But it took me a while to figure out how I wanted to approach this: formally, writing instrumental interludes between almost every movement, and emotionally, channeling my childhood memories of music.

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