On Sunday, March 4, the American Youth Symphony and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus will jointly premiere Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason’s The Isle is Full of Noises at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Bjarnason’s music is, if I do say so myself, damn amazing (scroll down to the video below for proof).
AYS just sent out a newsletter with an interview with Bjarnason about the new piece. They also very kindly gave me permission to reprint it here. Enjoy!
Did you play in a youth orchestra growing up or sing in a children’s chorus?
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much experience with youth orchestras as a kid, since my main instrument was piano. However I managed to sneak into the school orchestra sometimes when they needed extra percussion. My main instrument on those occasions was the bass drum, and I consider the highlight of my percussion career playing Tchaikovsky 4 on the bass drum. Later, when I was studying conducting in Freiburg, Germany, I got to play a lot of piano and celeste in the university orchestra, which was great for me, both as conductor and as a composer. I have a great deal of experience with choir singing, and sang in a chorus both as a kid and as a teenager. There is a rich choir tradition in Iceland and many people who are not musicians sing in choirs.
Please tell us about some of your recent projects.
I recently released an album called Sólaris, which is a piece of music that I wrote with Ben Frost. We performed and recorded Sólaris with the Sinfonietta Cracovia from Krakow, Poland. It is a piece based on the original story of Stanislav Lem and the movie by Andrei Tarkovsky (some people might recognize the Hollywood remake by Soderbergh).
Is this your first premiere in the United States?
This is my first large scale premiere in the US. I believe my only other US premiere was when I played a small piano piece that I had written on John Schaefer’s radio show in New York City a couple of years ago.
What would you say about The Isle Is Full of Noises to the orchestra, to introduce them to your work, before the first read through?
I would talk about the words of Shakespeare, and tell them how when I was writing this I imagined the orchestra to be the Island on which The Tempest happens, this enchanted island that has many sounds and moods and atmospheres, from very gentle and beautiful to the most violent and raging.
What is the audience going to experience?
One of the things that I find wonderful about music is that everyone can experience it in their own way, and a piece of music can have many different meanings to many different people. I don’t want to say what is right or wrong and I don’t even believe there is such a thing. This is also the reason why I usually don’t write program notes.
Now, if you could invite anyone you like to this concert, who would you invite?
Shakespeare. And my grandfather.
What is next on your calendar? What other commissions are you working on?
I am working on a piece for the LA Phil that will be premiered in October, conducted by John Adams as part of the Green Umbrella series. Then there is a new chamber opera on the horizon, my first opera. But currently I am rehearsing La Bohème at the Icelandic Opera, which opens on March 16th.
For complete details, and to order tickets, to the March 4 concert, visit aysymphony.org/concert-calendar/current-season/march-4-2012.
Grant Gershon is a busy guy. You would be too, with a season as jam packed as the one he has programmed for the LA Master Chorale. He’s also an LA local, having studied at USC and working – in addition to his duties as the LAMC’s music director – with the LA Opera, LA Phil, LA Children’s Chorus, and others. I’m amazed and honored that he had the time to answer a few questions about the chorale’s current season, which began this past weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
I’m going to open with a loaded question: what concert or piece are you most excited about this season?
Hmmm, you’re asking me to choose my favorite kid! That can be very hurtful to the siblings, you know. Okay…I’m very interested to see what Gabriela Lena Frank comes up with for the chorale and Huayucaltia. David Lang and James Newton are two very good friends of mine, and I’m eager to share their music with our singers and audience.
You’ve got a lot of variety programmed, both throughout the season and within individual concerts. Could you talk about how you prepare differently for, say, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion than you do for David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion?
Someone once asked Helmut Rilling how he prepares a score, and he said, “I look at it.” Pretty much the same for me, whether it’s Bach or someone else!
Could you talk a little bit about the “LA is the World” commissioning project, and this year’s composer, Gabriela Lena Frank?
I love Gaby’s music and her sense of fantasy. “LA is the World” is a commissioning initiative that we started in 2006. The idea is to pair composers with master musicians that represent traditions within the various communities that make up Los Angeles. Gaby will work with the terrific band Huayucaltia, which specializes in Andean music. Gaby comes to this project with a lot of experience and perspective on this music of her mother’s roots.
Were you involved in the creation of the expanded choral version of The Little Match Girl Passion, or did David Lang take that on himself?
That was his deal.
You mentioned that in programming this season, you’ve focused largely on texts, and said that you would be doing “pieces of tremendous political import and works with profound spiritual implications.” Could you discuss some of the philosophical nuances of programming and performing music?
Whoa, that’s a lot to chew on! First off, did I say that? Okay, I probably did. One of the things that I find most fascinating about programming a season of choral works is that you have to deal with the spiritual implications of this repertoire. Since the most ancient times, singing in groups has had a strong ceremonial or religious underpinning. Certainly the great choral repertoire that has come down to us over the last 600 years was more often than not written either for liturgical use or to communicate the composer’s own religious or spiritual quest.
The LA Master Chorale is not a religious organization, and I’m not interested in proselytizing. The music itself has to be of such a high quality that it universalizes any dogma that the words alone would suggest. To me, that is the ultimate test of what is worthy of our programs.
At the same time, the “political” message behind a piece like Gorecki’s Miserere (support of the solidarity movement in Poland) or Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion (the responsibility of society to aid the least fortunate) is amplified and made even more compelling by the brilliant musical structure of each work.
I know you’re running out of time, so just a few quick LA questions! What is your favorite:
Eagle Rock, of course!
2. Place to hear music
Walt Disney Concert Hall, of course!
Too many to say!
4. Bar/hang out
Kendall’s (after a concert).
Apple (just shoot me now!).
6. Thing to do/see
Star gaze through the light pollution!
For more information on Grant and the LA Master Chorale, visit lamc.org.