Lisa Bielawa is a phenomenon. The perky San Francisco native who, judging from her booklet photo, appears to be very much on the sunny side of life, started her career as a singer. After touring with the Philip Glass ensemble from 1992 and founding in 1997 the MATA Festival to promote the work of new composers, she began writing her own music about ten years ago. Right from the beginning, she showed a decided preference for the larger forms of music. And her dense, robust symphonic style is not at all what you would expect of a vocalist turned composer, although she does not ignore the lyrical element in her music.
Roam (2001), one of the earlier works on this program, already reveals Bielawa’s gift for persuasive, moody orchestration and her passionate love of literature. The inspiration in this case was a quote from Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin: “I roam above the sea, / I wait for the right weather, / I beckon to the sails of ships. / … / When shall I start on my free course?” In keeping with the verse, which has more to say about the inner state of the speaker than it is a tone picture of the sea, Bielawa focuses on the tension between the exhilaration of freedom, like a ship moving freely on the sea, and the danger that freedom entails.
Double Violin Concerto (2008) was dedicated “to Colin, Carla, Gil, and BMOP” and reflects Bielawa’s close personal and professional relations to three key figures in the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (see above). It represents a further step beyond Roam in its great melodic and tonal warmth. After the contrapuntal solemnity of the opening movement, “Portico,” we are in for a surprise in “Song,” as violinist Kihlstedt sings an English translation of a passage from Goethe’s Faust, accompanied by her own scordatura violin and Jacobsen’s deft arpeggios in support of the vocal line. The text is appropriate, too, a tribute to the transformative power of the imagination: “Leave the great world, let it run riot, / And let us stay where it is quiet. / It’s something that has long been done, / To fashion little worlds within the bigger one.” Jacobsen takes the center stage in the final movement, “Play with a Play,” which begins in deeply moving music inspired by Gregorian settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, grows more intense, and almost imperceptibly metamorphoses into, first, a stately dance episode, and then an evocation of gypsy fiddling with an improvised cadenza.
Bielawa herself is the vocal soloist in unfinish’d, sent (2000), inspired by a line from Richard III in which the protagonist excuses his evil proclivities by blaming them on his physical deformity: “Unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.” In the first half of the piece, which is all orchestra, a gesture struggles mightily to no avail, to coalesce into a melody. When the singer enters with an eery setting of Shakespeare’s verse, it reinforces the sense of something (such as a work of music?) striving to be born. Sound echoes sense again in an unsettling, rhythmically-recast, quote from Vivaldi’s Winter, emphasizing the play’s opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer.”
Lisa Bielawa saves the best for last on CD1. Titled In media res, the 2009 work is perhaps the most exacting of all genres, the concerto for orchestra. Bielawa wrote it to commemorate her tenure with BMOP and her friendships with its members. She based it, in turn, on her 15 Synopses, pithy, aphoristic pieces lasting on the average about five minutes that typically develop out of small kernels and crystallize to give a distinct impression of the personality and prowess of each musical artist. The individual Synopses are further distinguished with whimsical 6-word titles, such as “In The Eye Of The Beholder,” “It Takes One To Know One,” “No-No-No, Put That Down” and “Two days after you left, I” further underscoring the orchestral concerto genre itself as a species of serious play. (The 15 Synopses are collected together on CD2, which, at 68:45, cannot exactly be considered an “extra” on this program.)
What Bielawa did, amazingly, was to fashion her Concerto for Orchestra (which truly deserves the name: it is not by any means a pastiche) by assembling the various Synopses like a skilled lapidary into a very impressive and solidly cohesive whole that is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Like the major work of symphonic music that it is, it ranges over all the emotions, from rising excitement mounting to terror at the very opening, to sadness, pensiveness, hope, and even joyous affirmation. Add the glowing, luminous orchestration, revealing a composer who understands well the range and expressive capability of every instrument, and you have a concerto for orchestra that will stand up with the most distinguished achievements in this genre of the past hundred years. Seriously, I urge every aficionado of 20/21 music to give full attention to this rising star.