Composer Steven Mackey Releases Electric Guitar Opera, Orpheus Unsung, on New Amsterdam; World Premiere of Through Your Fingers at Carnegie Hall


Composer Steven Mackey – a Grammy Award-winner lauded by Gramophone for his “explosive and ethereal imagination” – releases a CD of his wordless electric guitar opera, Orpheus Unsung, on the New Amsterdam label this fall, on which he performs with Sō Percussion member Jason Treuting. A combination concert and CD release party will be held at New York’s DiMenna Center on October 11. Premiered in the spring of 2016, Orpheus Unsung will also receive its second fully staged performance this fall, in celebration of the opening of Princeton’s new Lewis Center for the Arts. Mackey’s Through Your Fingers, written for cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan, receives its world premiere at Carnegie Hall, followed by performances at Houston’s Wortham Center and London’s Wigmore Hall; his 2010 music theater piece, Slide, for tenor/actor, electric guitar and mixed chamber ensemble will be staged in three performances in Philadelphia, Princeton, and at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust; and both the St. Louis Symphony and New World Symphony give performances of his five-movement magnum opus for orchestra, Mnemosyne’s Pool. Capping the composer’s banner fall is a residency at the New Music Festival at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.

Directed by visionary film and stage director Mark DeChiazza, and featuring three dancers along with guitar and percussion, Orpheus Unsung is Mackey’s fresh 21st-century take on the Orpheus myth, with the title character portrayed by the electric guitar. The world premiere of the piece was in the spring of 2016 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and Mackey and Treuting performed excerpts from the work at National Sawdust this past spring as part of the “Alternative Guitar Summit: Guitars of Heaven, Guitars of Hell.” The composer also performed a solo guitar version of the piece this summer in Melbourne. A review in Minnesota’s Pioneer Press, which lauded Mackey for his “fascinating musical vision” and called him “a unique voice in American music,” ran under the headline “‘Wordless opera’? ‘Performance piece’? Whatever ‘Orpheus Unsung’ is, it’s excellent.” The piece will get its second fully staged performance this fall at Princeton University, as part of the festivities surrounding the opening of the school’s new Lewis Center for the Arts complex. Mackey is currently Professor of Music and former chair of the Department of Music at Princeton, where he has been on the faculty since 1985.

MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”-winning cellist Alisa Weilerstein and celebrated Israeli-American pianist Inon Barnatan have long been enthusiastic champions of new music, regularly premiering new works both as a duo and in their solo careers. The frequent recital partners have what Voix des Arts calls “a level of musical symbiosis that transcends casual partnership;” after a duo performance in Boston’s Celebrity Series in 2015 the Boston Globe raved: “Their interpretations were like a series of marvelously expressive close-ups: every note and phrase pinned to an exact emotion.” This fall the pair gives the world premiere of Mackey’s Through Your Fingers at Carnegie Hall (which co-commissioned the work), with additional dates scheduled at Houston’s Wortham Center and at London’s Wigmore Hall, which served as the other co-commissioning entity.

Mackey has a catalogue of orchestral works dating back to the 1990s, including three electric guitar concertos that he often performs himself. His violin concerto Beautiful Passing, co-commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and St. Louis Symphony for violinist Leila Josefowicz, was also performed last spring by the Baltimore Symphony and Marin Alsop with 2016 Musical America instrumentalist of the year Jennifer Koh as soloist. Mackey’s five-movement Mnemosyne’s Pool, an exploration of the role of memory in musical creation and reception, was premiered in 2015 in Disney Concert Hall by the co-commissioning Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, and this season it receives performances by the St. Louis Symphony, led by Music Director David Robertson, and the New World Symphony. The latter orchestra was another co-commissioner of the work, along with the Kennedy Center and Sydney Symphony. As Musical America declared at its premiere:

“To these ears, Mnemosyne’s Pool is the first great American symphony of the 21st century … Stunningly well-integrated, unfolding with logic and conviction, the 38-minute, five-movement work is more a concerto for orchestra than symphony. Mackey’s marvelous score features vital and often lovely solo passages for flute, oboe, cello, violin, saxophone, an energetic passage for piano and woodwinds, and more. But somehow it never feels overstuffed, because Mackey consistently finds an appropriate musical language for his ideas about the role of memory in musical creation.”

Mackey’s 2010 album Dreamhouse, nominated for four Grammy Awards, featured tenor/actor Rinde Eckert; the composer won a Grammy for another Eckert collaboration, the music theater piece Slide, as recorded on the album Lonely Motel: Music from Slide. That piece will be staged this fall in performances at Princeton, Venice Island in Philadelphia, and National Sawdust in Brooklyn. Finally, Mackey spends four days in October as composer-in-residence at the New Music Festival produced by the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music (MACCM) at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, together with his wife, composer Sarah Kirkland Snider. As the late Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky said of the festival in 2012: “Believe it or not, a little town in northwest Ohio is one of the liveliest spots for new music in the whole United States. For 25 years, MACCM has pursued the latest musical ideas and the highest musical standards with fearless vision.”

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© 21C Media Group, September 2017