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INSPIRED BY THE ANCIENTS

for The Brooklyn Paper
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After a tragedy of epic proportions like the events of Sept. 11, new perspectives become the norm. And so it is with the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s upcoming season, which opens with a program of two local premieres and one heralded masterwork on Oct. 12 and 13 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House.

When Philharmonic Music Director Robert Spano introduced the 2001-2002 season, "Songs of the Earth: Mysteries of the Ancients," to the press last spring, he discussed in general terms about how the five-concert series celebrates the musical diversity on each continent throughout world history.

The current season certainly is that. But as composer Ramon Zupko - whose "Life Dances" is the first piece on the first concert program - told The Brooklyn Papers in an exclusive interview from his home in Michigan, "This season has to do with the celebration and reaffirmation of life, which seems especially important after all we’ve gone through recently."

Celebrating and reaffirming life, and our humanity, is what the greatest music, and the highest art in general, does best. During the past two millennia, mankind has always striven for the ideal, creating works of art that not only mirror the world as it is but also show what we can possibly achieve.

For these first concerts, Spano has taken three works with distinctive sound worlds, which also are influenced by three ancient cultures. "Yarregeh" is subtitled "Nocturne for Solo Percussion and Orchestra"; composed by Australian Ross Edwards, it is based on mystical themes originated by the Aborigines, a people indigenous to Australia. "Yarregeh" - for which Brooklyn Philharmonic principal percussionist James Priess is featured soloist - is Spano’s way of nodding to the ongoing "Next Wave Down Under," BAM’s annual avant-garde series that is currently highlighting Aussie art.

After "Yarregeh," Igor Stravinsky’s "The Rite of Spring" closes the program. As famous as it is infamous, Stravinsky’s bludgeoning ballet (which caused a riot when it premiered in Paris in 1913) rhythmically hammers away for half an hour in a merciless manner as it depicts pagan religious ceremonies in ancient Russia.

Zupko’s "Life Dances," which was originally commissioned by the Berkshire Music Festival and had its premiere at the Tanglewood Festival in the summer of 1981, takes as its influence a culture much closer to home.

"I’ve always been extremely interested in American Indian folklore," Zupko explains, "and I wrote a number of compositions in the 1980s that were based on American Indian culture. I ended up writing five or six large works based on American Indian sources, and I still return to it occasionally."

A 17-minute work in four movements, "Life Dances," as Zupko tells it, explores his fascination with American Indian art. "Each of the four movements is based on an American Indian folksong," he says. "I also have four short American Indian poems accompanying all of the movements, all of which are printed in the program in order to give listeners an orientation to the work’s context."

The 68-year-old Zupko, who retired from Western Michigan University in 1999 after serving on the music school faculty for 26 years, has known Spano a long time. "(Robert) was my student for a few years," recounts the composer. "He entered our high school music seminar at the college. We had never allowed a grade-school pupil into the program before that, but he was so precocious and so talented that we made an exception."

That precocious, talented musician has now returned the favor to his professor by giving the first New York performance of one of his most original works.


Notable season

The remainder of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s 2001-2002 season includes:

The Ancient Greeks: Bernstein’s "Serenade" (based on Plato’s writings) and the world-premiere of Christopher Theofanides’ opera "The Cows of Apollo" (Dec. 14-15, BAM Harvey Theater).

Hispanics and African-Americans: Darius Milhaud’s "Le Creation du Monde" and Aaron Copland’s "El Salon Mexico" (Feb. 15-16, BAM Howard Gilman Opera House).

Norse Mythology: excerpts from Wagner’s "Ring Cycle" and Jean Sibelius’ "The Origin of Fire" (March 15-16, BAM Howard Gilman Opera House).

Chinese Culture: Mahler’s "Das Lied von der Erde" (based on Chinese writings) and two works by the Chinese composer Bright Sheng, including a world premiere (April 26-27, BAM Howard Gilman Opera House).

The Brooklyn Philharmonic will perform works by Ramon Zupko, Ross Edwards and Igor Stravinsky on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13 at 8 pm at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave.) Tickets are $50, $35, $20 and $8 day of concert. For more information visit www.brooklynphilharmonic.org on the Web or call (718) 636-4100.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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