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On Sunday afternoon, Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music will present the world premiere of two works the organization has commissioned from one of America’s rising young composers, Pierre Jalbert.

Jalbert (pronounced JAL-burt), a professor of music at Rice University in Houston, has composed two vocal works - "Icefield Sonnets" and "Four Porter Songs" - that will have their world-premiere performances during a typically wide-ranging Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music (BFCM) concert at Fort Greene’s Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The program, which will be conducted by Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra’s maestro, Nicholas Armstrong, also includes a trio for clarinet, violin and piano by Russian composer Aram Khatchaturian (best-known for his ballet score "Spartacus," part of which was featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film "2001: A Space Odyssey") and a quartet by Romantic-era Viennese composer Walter Rabl for the unusual combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The ensemble Antares will perform these works.

Jalbert’s "Icefield Sonnets" and "Four Porter Songs" were each written for two vocalists, a soprano and a baritone, and were commissioned by Fleck for specific singers, Jalbert said during an exclusive phone interview with GO Brooklyn from his home in Houston.

"Soprano Judith van Wanroij is a Dutch vocalist that Wanda had heard a while back, whom she wanted to use for another BFCM concert, and baritone Thomas Meglioranza is another singer Wanda had heard and wanted to hear again," said the 37-year-old composer. "Wanda wanted to bring them both together for a duo recital, and she also wanted them to sing new works."

Fittingly, Jalbert’s two new song cycles are based on the poetry of a pair of his contemporaries.

"The texts for ’Icefield Sonnets’ come from poems of Anthony Hawley, who is an acquaintance of mine," Jalbert explains. "The other cycle, ’Four Porter Songs,’ is based on poems of Christina Porter, a Brooklyn Heights resident who was in her early 20s when she tragically passed away last year. Wanda knows the Porter family, so she wanted to commission this piece to be played here first."

Jalbert’s musical palette extends back to his younger days playing rock and jazz, and he’s also been heavily influenced by composers as disparate as Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen and George Crumb (who was Jalbert’s music professor while he was an undergraduate at Oberlin).

Jalbert’s instrumentation for "Icefield Sonnets" is also a nod to his talents as both pianist and percussionist.

"What I had to work with for the ’Sonnets’ is that, basically, I knew I wanted to use piano and to have the percussion instruments color the piano sound," said Jalbert. "I also wanted other instruments to round out the ensemble. So the strings provide one sort of timbre, the piano another and the percussion can color all of it. I like that combination."

As for "Four Porter Songs," Jalbert decided that fewer musical adornments would work best for the young poet’s texts.

"I wanted to keep the instrumentation simple and straightforward, so it’s just the vocals and the piano," he explained.

Another musician who is regularly associated with BFCM is percussionist Svet Stoyanov, so when Jalbert included percussion in "Icefield Sonnets," "Wanda immediately thought of him," explained the composer.

Stoyanov also returns later in the same program to perform two movements from Jalbert’s Marimba Sonata, which had its premiere in 2001.

Jalbert explained the genesis of this unusual choice for a solo instrumental sonata.

"Another percussionist based in New York City, Mikoto Nakura, who commissions a lot of new music, asked me to write him a marimba sonata," he says. "I’m a pianist and a percussionist myself, and the marimba, although it is set up like a keyboard, utilizes a different technique; it’s played with mallets and it’s made of wood. I found it very enjoyable to write, although it was very challenging. Marimba was an instrument that I knew, and it has a great, unique sound."

Why is Stoyanov only playing two movements of Jalbert’s Marimba Sonata?

"I decided that it would be too daunting to do the whole sonata, and it would have made for a very long program," explained Jalbert.

Just two days after his world premieres in Fort Greene, Jalbert will travel across the river to hear the first local performances of his latest orchestral work at Carnegie Hall.

"The Houston Symphony will be playing my work, ’big sky,’ which they just world-premiered in Houston," he says. "The inspiration for ’big sky’ was me thinking what the Houston Symphony could bring up from the Southwest to the New York area. There’s something about the sky down here, where it seems that the horizon goes on forever.

"I grew up in Vermont, and it’s a very different kind of landscape down here," said Jalbert with a laugh. "I’m not trying to paint a portrait of any particular thing, but it’s an attempt to translate a wide-open environment into sound through very wide-open chords which are spread throughout the whole piece."

Between the attention his work will receive at Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music world premieres, Jalbert’s journey away from Houston’s skies will definitely be one for the composer to savor.

The Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music present "Rhythm and Rhyme: Music of Pierre Jalbert to Poetry of Anthony Hawley and Christina Porter" as well as works by Khatchaturian and Rabl, on Jan. 22 at 3 pm at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, 85 South Oxford St. at Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene. Tickets are $15, $5 for students. For more information, visit www.brooklynfriendsofchambermusic.org or call (718) 855-3053.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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