horn, piano, 2 violins, viola, cello, bass
Composed 2003 (orchestral ballet score), 2014 (chamber version).
First performance: May 20, 2003, Metropolitan Opera House, New York. American Ballet Theatre. Lar Lubovitch, choreographer.
First performance (chamber version): October 15, 2014, The Joyce Theater, New York. Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. Lar Lubovitch, choreographer. Le Train Bleu. Ransom Wilson, conductor.
What makes music American? There are as many answers to the question as there are composers in the Americas, but we still find ourselves looking for something in common, an identity we might share in this hemisphere. There is a certain urge to reconfigure institutions and forms shared among American composers, conductors, and performers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Classical music, after all, is a European transplant. Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions were convinced that it could only survive in America with a transfusion of new ideas, so from 1928 to 1931, they hosted a series of concerts in New York City designed to foster young American composers. With a similar concern, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge endowed a foundation at the Library of Congress in 1925 to commission and perform new works, a legacy that included Appalachian Spring (1944). More recently, Robert Spano’s commissions and public outreach as leader of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have led to the emergence of the “Atlanta School” of composers, including Christopher Theofanidis, for whom accessibility is not a byword. The newest work from John Luther Adams, there is nothing, not even the wind, is the result of an innovative co-commission from five partners, including the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center and the Redlands Symphony Orchestra. But what about the sound and the spirit of the music? Another shared attitude that this program reveals is the awareness of nature—whether human physicality, natural landscapes, or the living web of our environment—that inspires many American composers. American composers look to the future and to the horizon.
Like Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Christopher Theofanidis’ Artemis (2003) is a ballet that has been recast as a concert work. Commissioned by the American Ballet Theatre and choreographed by Lar Lubovitch, Artemis honored the upcoming 2004 Olympic Games in Athens with a story drawn from classical mythology. Julie Kent embodied Artemis, the virginal goddess of the hunt forbidden from men’s eyes, who strives to save the hapless Aktaion, whom she has turned into a deer to avert his death. As with many Greek myths, the ending is (at best) bittersweet, with the hunter Aktaion pierced by the arrows of his former friends and near death when Artemis finds him at last. Lubovitch’s scenario is a gentler version of Ovid’s myth, in which Artemis transforms Aktaion out of anger at his intrusion and is only satisfied once his own hounds have torn him to pieces. In either version, the story is a natural fit for Theofanidis’ generally humanistic approach to music. He describes the process of composition as “the transformation of emotions, how you care about something” and assigns a crucial role to narrative in his works as “something to hang the flow of time on that makes sense.” The music of Artemis unfolds organically, often more gestural than thematic in a way that both suits the choreography and is typical of many of Theofanidis’ works. His melodies tend to reappear several times, with new layers and colors, much the way a pearl forms through a process of accretion. In the way this score develops, we can hear his commitment to the notion that “an ensemble, or even a solo player, is an organism.” For Theofanidis, “music moves as an organism does” with a naturalism that is both distinct from and related to the others on this concert. With the orchestra untethered from the specificity of Lubovitch’s narrative, we might choose to hear Artemis in her earlier, wilder incarnation—before she was the maiden hunter and protector of women, she was a mother goddess and guardian of nature.