Cube Calendar Articles from 2000

More about Maria Niederberger and Yehudi Wyner

composers of works premiered by CUBE in February

Maria A. Niederberger was born in Davos and raised in Oberdorf-Stans in the canton of Nidwalden in Switzerland. Her early education included violin lessons with Ida Jann. She also sang in the Children's Choir and played in the Youth Ensemble directed by Heinz Hindermann. She taught elementary school for a short time in Zurich, where she helped to implement and test the pioneering Elementary Music Education Program (MEZ). She enhanced her own musical development at the Lucerne Conservatory, where she was enrolled in the violin class of Herbert Scherz.

In 1975, she emigrated to California with her American husband and two children Adrian and J. Sarah. Niederberger later matriculated at the University of California Davis where she majored in music. After her graduation (summa cum laude), she enrolled in the doctoral composition program at Brandeis University in Massachusetts from 1982 to 1985. Among Maria Niedererger's composition teachers were Richard Swift (student of Leland Smith), Arthur Berger (student of W. Piston and N. Boulanger) and Martin Boykan (student of Piston, Copland, and Hindemith). As a guest student at Harvard University, she attended the composition class of Donald Martino (student of R. Sessions and L. Dallapiccola) for a year. Niederberger earned her Ph. D. degree from Brandeis University. From 1985-99 she taught music theory classes at the University of California Davis. She was appointed Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition at East Tennessee University in the fall of 1999.

Maria Niederberger won many honors and prizes while a student at the University of California. Her recent work was honored by Composition Fellowships from Pro Helvetia, the National Endowment for the Arts in Switzerland, a grant from the Schindler Cultural Foundation, and a commission from Opus Novum. Niederberger also received artist fellowships from the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony and from Villa Montalvo. Many distinguished international artists have requested her compositions and her works have received numerous performances in the US and Europe.

Maria Niederberger's compositions blend distinctive melodic strands into a web of balanced contrapuntal organization. Niederberger's compositions demand musical intuition and, at times, even virtuosic ability of the players and appeal therefore to highly skilled performers.

"The Concerto for Oboe and Instrumental Ensemble was commissioned by the IAWM for Patricia Morehead of Chicago. I feel very privileged to have been chosen as a composer, especially since Ms. Morehead is a distinguished oboist who is able to produce sounds on her instrument that far exceed traditional expectations. I wish to thank the ensemble, the IAWM, Pro Helvetia Swiss National Endowment for the Arts, and especially Patricia Morehead and conductor Monica Buckland for their efforts and for their support of my compositional endeavors."

From a review by Susan E. Erickson of the world premiere performance in Washington, DC in June: "The program's most expansive piece, using the full ensemble of winds, strings and harp, was Maria Niederberger's Concerto for Oboe and Instrumental Ensemble (1999), commissioned by the International Alliance for Women in Music for oboist Patricia Morehead.

"I've always found her musical ideas to be focused and her use of instrumental combinations inspired, and this oboe concerto lived up to my expectations.

"As Niederberger explains, this is not intended to be a traditional concerto, but rather a celebration of the oboe surrounded by a supportive musical ensemble. It is expansive in two sections: "Mirrors for Reflection" and "Pulse of Life." The soloist and ensemble work in partnership from the very beginning; it is not until the quieter second movement that the oboe is featured in a cadenza, which Morehead played brilliantly."


Yehudi Wyner (b. 1929) is a composer, pianist and conductor. He studied first at the Juilliard School, then at Yale University, where his teachers were Donovan and Hindemith, and finally with Piston for a year at Harvard University. In the early 1960s he directed the Turnau Opera, a small repertory company, and in 1963 he joined the faculty of the Yale School of Music, where he served as chairman of composition from 1969 to 1973. During this period he was music director of the New Haven Opera Society and keyboard player with the Bach Aria Group. In 1975 he joined the faculty of the Berkshire Music Center and in 1978 he became professor of music at SUNY, Purchase, serving as dean of music from 1978 to 1982. He joined the faculty of Brandeis University in 1986, where he is Walter W. Naumburg Professor.

His compositions range from works for small vocal and instrumental ensembles to works for large orchestra, from theater pieces to liturgical music for the synagogue. Recent commissions include a cello concerto for the BBC Philharmonic, Lyric Harmony for Carnegie Hall and the American Composers Orchestra and a Psalm for soprano Dawn Upshaw with instrumental ensemble. He is married to soprano/conductor Susan Davenny Wyner. The Quartet for Oboe and String Trio was commissioned by a consortium of oboists; the project was initiated by prominent Boston oboist Peggy Pearson.


Abbie Conant was recognized as especially talented at an early age and received a scholarship to the Interlochen Arts Academy, where she received a diploma in 1973. In 1977 she received her Bachelor¥s Degree (cum Laude) from Temple University where she studied with Dee Stewart of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1976 she studied at Yale University, and in 1979 she received her Master¥s Degree from the Juilliard School in New York City where she studied with Per Brevig of the Metropolitan Opera. In that same year she was a finalist in the Young Artists Competition in New York City. In 1979 she studied with Vinko Globokar at the L¥Accademia di Chigiana in Siena. In 1984 she received a diploma from the Meisterklasse of Branimir Slokar at the Staatliche Hochschule f¸r Musik Kln.

In 1979-1980 she was solo trombonist of the Royal Opera of Turin. From 1980 to 1993 she was solo trombonist of the Munich Philharmonic.

The International Trombone Association Journal has featured Abbie Conant in a cover article and described her as "in the first rank of world class trombonists". She has recorded a highly acclaimed CD of trombone and organ music and performs internationally as a concerto soloist, recitalist, and performance artist, including appearances with the Hessische Rundfunk Symphonie Orchester, the M¸nchner Kammer-orchester, the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, the St. Joseph¥s Symphony, and the Halle Symphony Orchestra. Her work as a performance artist has taken her to most of the large state theaters in Germany, where she has performed to great critical and public acclaim. She has been nominated for the professorships of trombone at the state colleges of music in Cologne, Berlin, and Graz.

In 1985 she was a featured soloist at the Semaine Internationale du Trombone et du Tuba in Metz. In 1990 she was selected by her peers as a featured soloist at the Internationale Posaunen Verein Werkstatt at the Bundsakademie in Trossingen, where she was also asked to deliver a lecture, "Die Posaune als Dramatikerin" ("The trombone as Actress"). In 1992 Abbie Conant was elected to the Board of Directors of the International Trombone Association by its 3000 professional members, a group of ten trombonists representing the highest professional standards. In both 1992 and 1995 she was selected to be a featured soloist at the International Trombone Association Workshops in Detmold, Germany, and Las Vegas, Nevada.

In the last three years she has performed as a soloist in over 30 American cities. These performances have been written about in articles in both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Because of her international reputation Abbie Conant¥s highly acclaimed "International Trombone Camp" draws students from all over the world. In 1992 Abbie Conant was featured in the cover article of The Trombonist, the journal of the British Trombone Society.

In 1992 the Baden-W¸rtenburg State Ministry for Education, in recognition of her international reputation as a trombonist, named her full tenured Professor of Trombone at the Staatliche Hochschule f¸r Musik in Trossingen where she replaced Branimir Slokar. In 1996 Abbie was elected as Vice-President/President Elect of the International Trombone Association, though it has been necessary for her to resign due to the obligations of her solo career.

CUBE expresses its sincere sorrow for the sudden death of William Ferris shortly before CUBE's premiere of his last work, commissioned by CUBE.

CUBE Co-Artistic Director Pat Morehead chats with William Ferris and M. William Karlins

about their new works being premiered on CUBE's May concerts.

William Ferris (1937-2000)

William Ferris, who is Chicago-born and -trained, has had his music performed by major American orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony, premiered at Britain's prestigious Aldeburgh Festival in 1986 and broadcast world-wide by the BBC. He is the conductor of the internationally acclaimed William Ferris Chorale, an ensemble that specializes in 20th century choral music. Snowcarols, a work he wrote for the Chorale in 1980, was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. Ferris studied in a master/apprentice program with composer Leo Sowerby. His other principal artist/teachers have included Alexander Tcherepnin, Paul Stassevitch, James Welch and Arthur Becker. For seven years, Ferris was organist of Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral. During Fulton J. Sheen's episcopacy as Bishop of Rochester, New York, Ferris held the position of organist/choirmaster at Sacred Heart Cathedral. He is the Music Director and Composer-in-Residence at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Chicago. Ferris, who has received numerous awards and honors for his outstanding contributions to the musical arts, is the first American composer to teach at the Vatican. His Holiness Pope John Paul II conferred a Papal knighthood upon him in 1989 and Radio Vaticana broadcast a concert of his music world-wide. Northwestern University has recently established the William Ferris Archive, which will contain all his musical compositions, preliminary sketches, correspondence and memorabilia.

PM: What is the significance of the title Eden Garden, a musical menagerie for instruments and a singer?

WF: First of all, the title of course refers to the Garden of Eden and the Creation. The texts come from the opening of Genesis and from Job in the Old Testament, and from the poetry of St. Patrick that deals with nature and the force of creation. The instruments help to characterize the drama of the singer's text.

PM: What was your initial source of inspiration?

WF:The beautiful texts of Genesis, Job and St. Patrick. The instruments are used like protagonists and are of equal importance with the singer. The text from Genesis deals with the story of Adam and Eve; the text from Job is one of the very few happy texts in that book and deals with the sounds of the creatures of creation; and the extraordinarily poetic text of St. Patrick deals with the force of creation.

The movements are:

Preamble -- All. Dealing with Creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden from Genesis

Reflection I -- bass clarinet and cello

Statement -- Vocal. Somewhat happy text from the Book of Job

Ritual Dance -- Exuberant and strong

Prayer -- Text of St. Patrick with the oboe and flute/piccolo

Reflection II -- Cello solo

Summation -- All

PM: How does this work fit stylistically into the body of your work?

WF: From earliest childhood I have been very strongly influenced by the chant tradition of the church. My style is what I would describe as modal/polymodal chromaticism. It is essentially rich and sonorous, lyrical and vocal. This work is dead center in my musical output with a harmonic language that is all my own.

PM: What are you working on now?

WF: My Epitaph for an Artist, commissioned by former students of Herman ShapiroóJustin Kolb, John Downey and Robert Muczynskiówill be premiered in Santa Barbara, California, in May 2000. The psalm This is the Day the Lord has Made, an anthem for the millennium with 250-voice chorus and orchestra, commissioned by the city of Naperville, will be performed on June 2, 2000. Most recently, Christie Vohs performed my Rhapsody for clarinet and piano; Christie is the one who facilitated the commissioning of a new work for CUBE.

M. William Karlins, Harry N. and Ruth F. Wyatt Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Northwestern University, is a composer of international distinction. He has composed numerous works in large and small instrumental and choral genres. His works for saxophone are particularly well known. Karlins has had compositions performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Dallas, Albany, Nuremberg, and Grant Park Symphony Orchestras; Fine Arts, Vermeer and Lydian String Quartets; Chicago and Vienna Saxophone Quartets; Quintet of the Americas. Recent performances in Austria, Germany, Canada, and United States and at Budapest Spring Festival. His music is published by Carl Fischer, Southern Music, C. F. Peters, Leduc, Apoll-Edition Wien, Tritone Press, and Seesaw Music and recorded on Opus One, ACA Digital Recording, Centaur, Music from Northwestern, Arizona University Recordings, and Arktos. Karlins has been guest lecturer in Vienna and Budapest and at Bowdoin College.

PM: What is the significance of the title Kindred Spirits?

MWK: The original working title was Zing, Zing, Zing in reference to the Benny Goodman tune Sing, Sing, Sing, because the three instruments pluck and zing, and this somehow reminded me of the quality of that famous tune by Benny. However, I was persuaded by Dimitris Marinos to change the title to Kindred Spirits, which also expresses the character and friendship which exists between the three players for whom it was written.

PM: What was your initial source of inspiration?

MWK: Really Dimitris Marinos had the most to do with it. Several times he said, "Please Mr. Karlins, write me a piece." I also knew the superb playing of Paul Bowman, guitar, and Alison Attar, harp. I know Paul Bowman and his wonderful mezzo-soprano wife, Bonita Hyman, for several years and I know Alison Attar from her student days at Northwestern University.

PM: How does this work fit stylistically into the body of your work?

MWK: If I consider my compositions from the last 30 years, I have been working to create new ideas through the use of the basic twelve-tone row or series as foreground/background material in a very flexible way. I have been able to find and develop flexibility by starting with a series and then being inspired by it. Often, I use free rotation of segments of the rows and by moving from one segment to another I find I can move fluidly from a segment of one row to a segment of another. By the use of three, four or even five common tones from hexachord to hexachord I can create the illusion of tonality or a tonal center. Therefore, I am able to create a hierarchy of pitches and arrive at what I call "tonality without a key." I am also able to chose with great freedom what common tones I would like to emphasize. I might redesign a row around ny altering a chromatic hexachord into a limited pitch scale by adhering to the pitch names and order, but altering the accidentals to adhere to a special scale.In the first movement of my Chameleon for harpsichord, I alter the pitches to the different forms of e minor and E major. In my Suite of Preludes for piano, I have hooked together five note groups creating a sixty-note row from four different rows. Of course, the row connections are carefully arranged to hook together with common tones. Another procedure I use is to suspend the row activity in order to freely insert or reuse important gestures. All of these techniques are used in a very intuitive manner.

PM: What are you working on now?

MWK: I am writing a piano piece for Ursula Oppens to be used in her complete Beethoven Sonata Cycle of concerts. My Concerto Grosso (1959/60) will be played on May 24 in Symphony Center by "Music Now." On May 16th, my Yesterdayt's Memories for soprano saxophone and piano will have its first performance at Regenstein Recital Hall, at Northwestern University. Jan Berry is the saxophonist. On May 21st my Drei kleine Cembelastücke will be played in Bonn, Germany, by Paul Ray Klecka. He recorded both of my harpsichord pieces for a Music From Northwestern CD. A portrait CD of my work will be issued on Hungaroton; it will include Kindred Spirits.



Photo: Ann Fuller

The Music

Opera thrives on the telling of stories set in a remote time or place. Audiences relish the visual aspects. Composers contribute local color through use of exotic musical ideas.

Some stories, however, make stylistic claims that run much deeper, as is the case with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Music is a constant point of reference in Fitzgerald's descriptions of the book's characters and events. But beyond serving as an effective literary device, music -- a particular kind of music -- defines the Gatsby culture: the Jazz Age.

So it is that genres of the 1920s figure prominently in John Harbison's operatic setting of Fitzgerald's classic book -- the Foxtrot, the Charleston, the Tango, and above all popular song. These are not the actual songs of the day mentioned by name in the novel; rather, the examples are all newly-composed. The idioms are unmistakable, a testimony to the composer's life-long interest in jazz.

Yet, by no means has Harbison composed a "jazz opera." Nor is he a composer likely to be given to pastiche. And so one of the crucial issues necessarily concerns his handling of two distinct sets of musical material -- one rooted in the 1920s popular style; the other representing a style of a more personal nature. Harbison's strategy becomes evident at the outset, in an Overture that also tells of an early stage of this opera's history.

Harbison started working on a Gatsby setting in the early 1980s, shortly after the premieres of his two earlier operas, Full Moon in March and The Winter's Tale. Unable to secure rights for the use of Fitzgerald's novel, he abandoned the project, resuming ten years later when the situation became more favorable. But he fashioned some of his initial ideas for the opera into an independent orchestral piece, Remembering Gatsby (1985) that now serves as the opera's Overture.

In its operatic context, the Overture shows what is actually a time-honored design. It begins with a slow section with heavy dotted rhythms, dramatic and foreboding, and concludes with a livelier section, marked allegro. The style of the first of these sections is wholly Harbison's, as is that of the opening passage of the allegro, distinguished by brusque, syncopated writing.

But the syncopated passage proves to be introductory, leading to our first encounter with the sounds of the Gatsby era. It is a Foxtrot, to be precise -- to all appearances, disarmingly authentic. And so the setting is vividly transformed, an aural counterpart to the rising of the stage curtain.

The initial presentation of the Foxtrot melody -- a first "verse," if you will -- is entirely straightforward. (The verse structure fully materializes later in the opera, when the Foxtrot melody reappears as a popular song, presented at one of Jay Gatsby's famous parties.) But thereafter, the melody begins to be infiltrated by foreign material -- some drawn from earlier passages of the overture, some echoing the melody itself with a seemingly ironic tone. Initially, these insertions are merely parenthetical. Gradually, they prevail.

This process culminates in a concluding section that corresponds, in terms of proportion, to what might have been another "verse" of the Foxtrot, but which is actually marked by the return of material from the opening slow section. Yet, vestiges of the Foxtrot melody remain. Persisting as an undercurrent through it all is the characteristic rhythmic pulse of the Foxtrot, its basic identity is sustained up to the Overture's final bar.

Much of the rest of the opera is poised, in highly varied ways, on this combining or juxtaposing of contrasting styles. One admires how deftly Harbison brings the various idioms in and out of focus; and how he is gradually able to reduce any one of these to only its most essential features, so that even the slightest gesture calls forth vivid musical and dramatic associations.

What makes this mode of operation all the more meaningful is that the division between musical styles is ultimately tied to a fundamental point of conflict in the story -- namely, the conflict between the extroverted ways of Jazz Age society (embodied musically, of course, by the popular style) and the inner needs of the individuals who struggle against these. Dramatic tensions that arise in the novel thus have a direct musical manifestation. This means that as the book's protagonists lose their footing in the external world and are drawn increasingly into their individual longings and desires, there is a corresponding change in the balance of stylistic elements in Harbison's score.

The sensitivity reflected here to the novel's essential rhythms, and the composer's commitment to conveying these, also determines another of the opera's distinctive features. Many listeners will be struck by the seeming absence of full-length arias and ensembles. In this respect, the score continues structural developments in operas of (to use Harbison's words) "the post-Falstaff, post-Wozzeck era." But Harbison's means are so fluid and so economical that one feels there is an additional value at hand. Though the score contains moments of compelling lyricism, these never call a degree of attention to themselves that would prove disruptive to the essential pace of Fitzgerald's narrative. Preserving this pace emerges as one of Harbison's highest priorities.

Along with the Overture, much of Act I, Scene I, and Gatsby's account of his early life (Act I, Scene 11) come from the first engagement with the piece in the mid-1980s. When a commission agreement for the opera was concluded in 1994 with the Metropolitan Opera, work resumed first with the popular songs: after Murray Horwitz completed his lyrics, it was clear where they would fit in the dramatic contour.

The composer completed the vocal score at the Instituto Studi Ligure, where his friends Jim and Marina Harrison have established a retreat for artists and scholars. Some retouching of the scoring was possible after two readings, covering almost an hour of the opera, by a student orchestra of the Aspen Music School, conducted by the school's Artistic Director, David Zinman.

--Michael Nott


The Novel


It was a near thing: F. Scott Fitzgerald could have been deflected from the novel to the musical stage. As a schoolboy he wrote four plays for a St. Paul amateur group, and he provided the lyrics for three Princeton Triangle Club shows. If his 1923 play The Vegetable had succeeded, he might have written The Great Gatsby as a musical. During his Hollywood bondage he wrote his daughter, Scottie: "Sometimes I wish that I had gone along with that gang [Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart], but I guess I am too much a moralist at heart and really want to preach at people in some acceptable form rather than to entertain them."

The most widely read and taught 20th-century American novel had a mixed reception when it was published in 1925. The initial reviews of The Great Gatsby were receptive -- although no critic predicted that it would become a world classic -- but sales were disappointing. Charles Scribner's Sons printed less than 24,000 copies during Fitzgerald's lifetime, and there were unsold copies in stock when he died on 21 December 1940; the English printing was remaindered, and the 1934 Modern Library reprint was withdrawn for lack of customers. The process through which The Great Gatsby achieved classic status began in 1945 when inexpensive reprints became widely available.

Before it was a literary icon, The Great Gatsby provided the source for dramatic productions. Owen Davis -- a prolific playwright of the time -- dramatized the novel in 1926; the play, which starred James Rennie and Florence Eldridge, ran for a Broadway season and went on the road. In 1926 a now-lost silent movie based on Davis's play was produced by Famous Players with Warner Baxter and Lois Wilson. During what became known as the Fitzgerald Revival, The Great Gatsby was made into a 1949 movie starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field, and radio and television versions were broadcast. The third Gatsby movie was the 1974 flop d'estime featuring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.

There have been abortive attempts to produce a musical version -- most lamentably a proposed collaboration by Cole Porter and John O'Hara. The Pittsburgh Ballet production with music arranged by Gunther Schuller and choreography by Andre Prokovsky premiered in 1987. In 1991 the Takarazuka Revue Company produced a Japanese operatic version with an all-female cast.

It is not difficult to account for the staying power of Fitzgerald's text: the brilliance of his writing and the romantic appeal of Jay Gatsby. Great novels are remembered for their great characters; Jay Gatsby has added a term to the language: "Gatsbyesque," vaguely defined as ostentatious, lavish, extravagant. People who have not read the novel -- or any book -- recognize the connotations of "Gatsby." Concomitantly The Great Gatsby has become the defining literary document of the Jazz Age (Fitzgerald named the decade but knew nothing about jazz), the Roaring Twenties, the Boom. Its social-history content and its evocation of a glamorous, ebullient era have contributed to the popularity of the novel.

The longevity of the novel as the inspiration for dramatic and musical productions can be credited to its emotional content. Doomed love and betrayal are recurring opera subjects: Madama Butterfly, Carmen, Rigoletto. Fitzgerald's episodic novel accommodates opera's structure of lyrical episodes. Music expresses theme and mood -- as does Fitzgerald's prose. The Great Gatsby and Jay Gatsby have been waiting seventy-five years for a composer to provide the notes for Fitzgerald's lyrical language: "The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music [the term for this stylistic device is "synesthesia": the sensation of one sensory response combined with another -- here color and sound] as the opera of voices pitches a key higher."

--Matthew J. Bruccoli


Both articles are from the program notes for the premiere performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.


John Eaton's Pocket Opera

In this year's series of performances, the Pocket Opera Company of Chicago is adding to its usual format -- i.e., a one act opera which uses only the instrumentalists as characters coupled with an opera which uses both instrumentalists and singers as characters. It is presenting the world premiere of a short opera, John Eaton's Youth, which features only the singers as characters. The three evenings, December 14th, 15th and 16th, will each contain three operas instead of the usual two. They will open with a revival of the highly successful Peer Gynt, the first of the so-called "Eaton operas," which the composer prefers to speak of as romps for instrumentalists. They will close by popular demand with a repeat performance of Golk, based on Chicagoan Richard Stern's novel which spoofs the television industry, an opera which employs both instrumentalists and singers in the action. In between, Youth uses only the singers to create the moving drama, with the instrumentalists in a purely accompanying role.

The libretto of Youth was written by the author of last year's highly acclaimed Travelling with Gulliver, the composer's daughter, Estela Eaton. She describes the new opera thus: "The characters and language of this dramatic poem are more important than the action or emergence of plot. However, performance is ultimately the goal ó either auditory or visual, imagined or enacted."

Youth is based on the conceit that Adam and Eve had no youth. The action is surreal, it moves between the present day and the mythical past and future. The mother of Adam and Eve, the earth goddess Gaia, is portrayed as an impoverished drug addict. Eve is working to support both Gaia's habit and the ne'er-do-well Adam, whose passion is old books and video games. Gaia recounts an old romance she had with a sailor in her youth. Venus is pursuing Adam, whereas Eve is resting in the arms of Pluto, who whispers in her ear that he wishes to be an alternative to her depressing and incestuous reality. She awakens in terror from an apocalyptic dream prophesying the fall of Adam (humanity). She turns on Pluto and demands to be taken home. The opera ends with Gaia overdosing and seeing her lover return to her, She is in ecstasy over the sailor's apparent youth, and dies.

All performances will take place in the -state of the art theater at the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts on 1001 West Roosevelt (at Racine). They will begin at 8PM. There is free parking behind the theater. There will be an extra matinee of Peer Gynt only at 2:30 on Dec. 16th for children of all ages. All performances will be conducted by Carmen Tellez and directed by Nicholas Rudall.


New Philip Glass Opera

at Court Theatre

Internationally-renowned composer Philip Glass has created a spellbinding and stirring original score based on one of Franz Kafka's literary masterpieces. In the Penal Colony is a heart-stopping tale about the dehumanization of the individual. Using Kafka's resounding voice as a starting platform, Glass and celebrated director JoAnne Akalaitis complete an approach to theatre that will stretch the boundaries of conventional storytelling. This deeply provocative story of obsession and transcendence features a string quintet, three internationally-acclaimed singers (John Duykers, Herbert Perry, and Eugene Perry), choreography by local treasure Pat Graney, and scenery, lighting, and costume designs by three of the most gifted artists working in contemporary opera and theatre: John Conklin, Jennifer Tipton, and Susan Hilferty. The work will be performed November 1 through December 10 at the Court Theatre, 5535 Ellis Ave., in Hyde Park. For information call (773) 702-8068.

"I call it an opera," Glass said in a recent phone conversation from his summer home on Cape Breton Island, in the easternmost part of Canada's maritime provinces. "To me it's an 80-minute opera. It is completely sung. But [the term] ëmusic theater piece'Öseems more acceptable to theater subscribers.

Glass says he read "In the Penal Colony," Kafka's most horrifying story, some 40 years ago. He thought from time to time about using it as the basis for an opera. And now here it is.

If the adjective "kafkaesque" means despair in the face of incomprehensible cruelty, then "In the Penal Colony" is one of Kafka's most kafkaesque works. A traveler comes to an island prison. The administrator shows him around. As it happens, the visitor is just in time for an execution. The means of torture/killing is so ingenious and horrific that even the master tormentors/exterminators of the 17th-century Roman Catholic Inquisition would be awed and envious.

"We don't actually see the execution onstage," Glass says reassuringly. "You just glimpse a shadow of the machine on a wall, with its gears turning."

Glass is quick to put in a good word for his choice of material. "We think of Kafka as tormented and grim," Glass says. "But he didn't necessarily see himself that way. His contemporaries reported that when he was reading to them from something terrifying like ëThe Trial,' he'd actually be cracking up with laughter.

"There's humor in ëThe Penal Colony.' And the theme has an element of lyricism and transfiguration. It's not just one long march to the gallows."

Glass is 63. During the winter he lives in Manhattan, the East Village. He has two grown children, a son who is a musician and a daughter who is a magazine writer. His wife died some 10 years ago of cancer.

Glass grew up in Baltimore. His father had a record store. One of young Philip's earliest jobs was to shatter unsold 78 rpm records so they could be returned for refunds. At six, he started violin lessons. In school he played flute and glockenspiel. To get money to put himself through the Juilliard School, he worked as a crane operator in the nail mill of the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrow's Point, Md.

Glass, along with his contemporaries Steve Reich and Terry Riley, has been labeled a "minimalist."

"I haven't actually worked in that stripped-down idiom for 25 years, not since ëEinstein on the Beach,'" Glass protests. "But the label sticks; at least it does with the older crowd. Anyone who listens to my recent works, though, can tell you that I've become quite lush, even romantic.

"My generation broke away from the serial method of composing. We returned to the basics: melody, harmony and rhythm. And, boy, did we pay for it. The reigning serialists, Stockhausen and Boulez, were completely pissed off. None of us is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. No Guggenheim fellowships. No MacArthur grants. The academic composers who just hate us are on all those juries."

Glass makes up in productivity and popularity what he may lack in orthodox respectability. His film scores include music for "The Thin Blue Line," "The Truman Show" and "Kundun." A recent CD, "Dracula," presents background music Glass composed for the 1931 silent movie. Seattle Opera audiences saw his "Satyagraha," based on Indian materials, in 1988.

reprinted in part from a preview

article by Seattle Post-Intelligencer theater critic Joe Adcock for the world premiere performances at Seattle's

A Contemporary Theatre


New York Report from

Janice Misurell-Mitchell


The Midwest came to New York during the first week of October in a concert and colloquium on the music of Herbert Br¸n (professor emeritus, School of Music, University of Illinois, Urbana). The concert was sponsored by ThreeTwo, Inc., a New York new music group which presents a concert series in New York annually. Speaking at Columbia University on October 4, Br¸n introduced his concept of music as anti-communicative, i.e., challenging the listener to understand it through an analogy formed from observations about the music's (and the listener's) behavior.

The October 8 concert, given at Barnard College, ran for five hours and featured music of Br¸n and composers influenced by him. There were chamber works, pieces with electronics, and spoken word pieces. Recent music by Br¸n which may be programmed in Chicago in the near future include "Öyet with a heart of gold," for solo double bass, "The Laughing Third," for solo piano, and "on stilts among ducks," for viola and tape. The Co-artistic Directors of ThreeTwo are Taimur Sullivan, concert saxophonist, and member of the Prism Saxophone Quartet, and Keith Moore, composer and doctoral student in composition at Columbia University.