Rare pairing of musicians and composers nets 3 new works for Philly Orchestra

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Harpist Elizabeth Hainen, bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa and flutist Jeffrey Khaner will play pieces written for their unique talents.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Harpist Elizabeth Hainen, bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa and flutist Jeffrey Khaner will play pieces written for their unique talents.
Posted: October 31, 2013

THIS WEEKEND, the Philadelphia Orchestra premieres three newly commissioned works, each composed specifically for one of its principal players.

These renowned soloists, who can't ask Mozart or Brahms for advice on how to play their music, had the unique chance to be collaborators. Each creative process was different, yet all three composers were inspired both by ancient traditions and by our orchestra's legendary sound.

We asked the creators and artists to share their thoughts on the collaborations. Here's what they had to say.

'Write me a concerto'

Behzad Ranjbaran wrote the Concerto For Flute and Orchestra for Philadelphia Orchestra flutist Jeffrey Khaner.

Recalling the process, Ranjbaran said, "After the first rehearsal of my Piano Concerto, which the orchestra played in 2010, Jeff Khaner asked me if I would write a concerto for him. Though I had never written for solo woodwinds, there's no artist I'd rather write for.

"The flute is the most universal instrument, bamboo in most countries, and most closely emulates the human voice. Since my childhood in Iran, I have always loved the plaintive, embellished sound of the Persian flute called the ney, which embodies a thousand-year-old tradition, as well as the modern instrument with enough agility and brilliance to emulate its idiom.

"The piece contrasts a sense of grief and loss to the joyfulness of living, represented by the styles of these two flute traditions.

"Normally, I require enough time and solitude to fully develop the organic character and emotion of a piece in my head. When it's fully formed, I write it down, so there wasn't any collaboration during the process. I sent the completed solo part to Jeff."

That was fine for Khaner, who prefers to see the completed piece "because part of my job is to figure out how to make it work as an interpreter.

"Behzad is a very professional composer who knows what instruments can do, and I suggested very few minor changes," Khaner continued. "It's very technically challenging, not a light, fluffy piece. I did not want him to make it easier, but to extend the technique of the instrument, to do things I thought impossible, to give myself a chance to master them.

"Most of our time was discussing whether the notes, rhythms and unfamiliar tonalities that I'm learning were correct, because I can't refer to any previous performance. It's a big responsibility to set the standard - although it's fun."

A secret language

Tan Dun composed "Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, Symphony for Micro Films, Harp and Orchestra" for harpist Elizabeth Hainen.

He explained that "Nu Shu was the only calligraphy and language invented by and for women [in China], and I wanted to create a soundscape monument to them. Some women who sang in this language, longing to connect with their family after forced marriages, were tortured for 'witchcraft.'

"Nu Shu exists in calligraphy, sewing and music, expressed in 13 microfilms on three projections screens. The past is visuals, the future is the orchestra.

"When I mentioned to my wife that we might have to sell our house to fund this project, she said that would be all right - as long as this would help to get this project finished!"

Hainen recalled, "I asked Tan for a piece at Saratoga back in 2001, and he sees the harp as feminine in form, like the slender calligraphy of the Nu Shu language.

"This nearly extinct, intuitive secret language was created by women forced to marry at 13 or 14, who communicated with family members only by singing it or by sending messages on fans, wedding gifts and even shoes. I find it incredible that he preserves his Chinese heritage through art pieces, as he sees his society moving away at a rapid pace from its ancient traditions.

"He sent me the videos long ago, and I worked with him in Shanghai on the first drafts and visited again recently, with manuscript fragments coming constantly by email. . . . I have to be very creative and bold to match his imagination as a colorist, but the harp is the perfect instrument to tell this story. It's fun to explore how much I can make my harp sound like a Chinese native instrument, in a way no one ever has."

Hainen noted that the piece "will go with us on tour to China this spring, and there are many Chinese who don't know about this language. It's a wonderful dream of mine that this piece would be popular enough to empower women not to be bound by fate, but to create their own fate.

No clowning here

David Ludwig wrote "Pictures From The Floating World" for bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa.

"I was thrilled to write for Danny and the orchestra - the gold standard," Ludwig said. "Because the bassoon often is used in a comedic role, Danny wanted the instrument to be seen as a flowing, lyrical voice. That most beautiful part of the bassoon's personality is most interesting to me anyway, because I wanted to write something poetic.

"Danny showed me how every note in the bassoon's range has a different quality - sweet spots and a little grit, and he only suggested a few tweaks. . . .

"Danny's Japanese ancestry, and [orchestra music director] Yannick's background from a French-speaking region, made me recall the floating impressionism and imagery of Japanese woodblock artists and Debussy, and it evolved into a one-movement piece.

"Music has to touch hearts and minds equally, it has to have a reason to be, otherwise it's just details."

Matsukawa could have picked any composer, but he said he'd "always been impressed with David's music, because he seems to speak my musical language, which is to be able to move one's soul more than to impress.

"The bassoon is often thought of as the bouncy clown of the orchestra. I wanted him to avoid that, and make it human, soaring, like a tone poem. . . .

"I was like a father in a labor-waiting room, wondering what the baby would look like. This is the dream of a lifetime, and it humbles me to have this chance. . . . My aim is a musical mission, a reflection of life, and we're not great musicians until a listener gets goose bumps."

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