Thursday, January 24, 2008

First Impressions and Last Acts

Learning Last Acts: The Music

I can remember clearly the first time I ever heard the name Jake Heggie. It was the August before I entered graduate school at the University of Michigan to study with esteemed pianist Martin Katz, and Martin invited me to a recital he was playing with Frederica von Stade at Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. On the program, they premiered Jake’s song cycle Songs to the Moon and acknowledged Jake (who was seated a row away) after performing it. Me? I was thrilled.

Since then I’ve met Jake several times, but this is my first real opportunity to work with him. Patrick Summers, on the other hand, has known him quite a while, and if you haven’t read his article on Last Acts in HGO’s Opera Cues, start here.

Patrick writes of Jake:
For all of his surface humor, he is, more than almost anyone I’ve ever encountered, a deeply spiritual and just person. He is unnervingly empathetic. He views life not as a complex series of causes and effects, but as a simple matrix of shared emotions, and he loves tender, humanizing similarities.
This is exactly what comes through in Jake’s music. As I wrapped my fingers around Last Acts for the first time, what struck me immediately was that this is music that serves the drama. Funny, conversational, angry, pensive – whatever the mood, Jake’s musical language is one of empathy and color with rare directness. When it's a beautiful sentiment, his music is gorgeous – really, really gorgeous. When the characters are confrontational, his music becomes dense and more challenging.

As concerned as he is for the drama, first and foremost he is a singer’s composer. He loves the voice (most of his compositions are vocal), and it’s clear he KNOWS the voice. It’s beyond writing pretty melodies, which he clearly does well, but knowing where the drama lies in each singer’s range and how and when to capitalize on it. And singers love him for it. You can even hear me in my studio wailing like a banshee through sections of Last Acts because it’s just so….sing-able.

An added bonus in Last Acts is Jake letting his musical theater hair down. Part of the story is Maddy making her Broadway singing debut, so of course, there HAS to be a big musical theater number written specifically for Frederica von Stade. The Cullen will be a-rockin’, that’s for sure, and you can bet that I'll be just as thrilled as I was ten years ago.

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