Photo: Jamie Jung
American composer Lembit Beecher has collaborated with librettist/lyricist Mark Campbell to write “A Year to the Day,” a new song cycle rooted in, but not about, the pandemic. The concept was Campbell’s, and it was he who approached the composer. Together, they wrote six songs, along with five instrumental interludes for tenor Nicholas Phan, violinist Augustin Hadelich, cellist Karen Ouzounian, and pianist Orion Weiss.
Beecher and Campbell’s cycle delves into an artist’s relationship to music and how separation and isolation affect them as performers and human beings. Beecher sums the narrative this way on his website: “the center of the cycle is the question of what we do and whom we become as performing artists when the act that defines so much of our lives, performing, is taken away. The cycle does not focus on the pandemic but rather on an artist’s complicated love of music.”
OperaWire connected with Beecher for an insider view into “A Year to the Day,” which will premiere on the Violin Channel on October 7, 2022.
OperaWire: At what point in your life did you begin composing, and whom do you consider your composer “kindred spirits?”
Lembit Beecher: I was a pianist from a young age and started improvising at the piano early in high school. During the last few years of high school and first few years of college, I began to be more intentional about writing music down. Throughout my youth, I remember moments when Chopin, William Grant Still, Tchaikovsky, and Bartok were each incredibly important.
These days, I think I tend to feel incredibly strong connections with specific works rather than the entire output of a composer. Bach cantatas, late Beethoven and Schubert, Sibelius Symphonies, and pieces by Shawn Jaeger, Kate Soper, Scott Wollschleger, Anthony Cheung, Claude Vivier, Marcos Balter, and fellow Estonians Veljo Tormis and Arvo Pärt, have all been meaningful and deeply moving to me at different times.
OW: How would you describe your creative process?
LB: As much as possible, I like to have a visceral, physical connection to the music I am writing. Though I sometimes sit at my desk and just try to imagine the music, I also sing, improvise at the piano, gesticulate wildly, close my eyes, and imagine the physical act of singing and playing instruments. [I also] take walks and showers, and record myself playing and singing sections of music, overdubbing different parts.
I always like to build in workshopping time with individual musicians, to hear them play particular passages before they are set in stone. Hearing actual playing both rejuvenates my musical imagination and often leads me in unexpected directions (or sometimes highlights problems with what I am writing!).
In every movement or section of music, I try to find a kernel of energy or emotion or conflict that is at the core of the music. And as I write, I am largely focused on how this core relates to the larger shape of the piece: the relationship of the individual gestures to the overall form of the music is one of the most interesting and potent things for me about music.
OW: What inspired “A Year to the Day?”
LB: Mark Campbell brought me into the project and came to me with the concept for the cycle in late 2020. I really resonated with the idea; I think since the relationship of musicians to music during times of upheaval is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. My grandmother was a young pianist when WWII broke out, and she had to escape her homeland of Estonia: her relationship to music through the war, years of immigration, and her new life in America was critically important, both professionally and emotionally.
For the first year-and-a-half of the pandemic, I had weekly Zoom calls with a small group of musicians, mostly string players. This group became a very tight circle of friendship and support, and we talked a lot about our intense and complicated emotional connections to music and how the lack of performing opportunities and lack of opportunities to make music with each other were affecting us.
Everyone’s experience was different, but I think we all experienced moments of darkness, sorrow, self-discovery, and rediscovery. These potent personal experiences were always on my mind as I wrote the music for “A Year to the Day.”
OW: Tell us about your working relationship with Mark Campbell.
LB: Mark has both an incredible clarity about what he wants to achieve in a piece but also is wonderfully not precious about individual words and phrases. So, as we worked, there was plenty of room for discussions about details and a few spots where I asked him to cut lines based on the rate at which the music was unfolding. But I think we established our sense of the overall shape and form of the piece quite early on in the process.
OW: What are the key themes the work examines?
LB: The song cycle explores first and foremost the intense and intimate power of music while also touching on themes of loneliness, isolation, self-discovery, and the complicated relationship between the professional and personal sides of music.
OW: How would you describe the musical language of “A Year to the Day”?
LB: I think my musical language prioritizes physicality and emotion and is always driven by a sense of storytelling: my music always wants to end in a different place than it begins! However, there is a fair amount of variety in the harmonic and textural worlds that my pieces inhabit. “A Year to the Day” is somewhat more tonal than some of my other works and leans a little more into melodic line and counterpoint rather than intricate textures. It is also a piece filled with references to older music, some subtle, some direct.
OW: Have you worked previously with the musicians performing “A Year to the Day”?
LB: I had worked with Orion Weiss briefly and Karen Ouzounian extensively (she is my wife!), writing a cello concerto, “Tell Me Again,” for her in 2021 as well as working with her through her string quartet, The Aizuri Quartet. I had met both Augustin and Nick years ago but hadn’t had a chance to collaborate with them until now. What an honor and joy!
OW: What stood out to you about tenor Nicholas Phan?
LB: The two things that really stood out to me were Nick’s range of expression (his voice has such a special combination of beauty and power, and he has so much control over nuances of musicality) and his thoughtfulness as a performer, thinker, and writer. Nick is also a generous collaborator, excellent musician, and so well suited for the intimate type of communication that this sort of chamber music requires.
OW: What were your greatest challenges and joys while writing the cycle?
LB: Many of my pieces are quite serious, and I think there is certainly a darkness and edge to this cycle, but I loved having the chance to write funny, optimistic, and joyous music as well. Mark’s lyrics take the piece on quite a journey through different emotions, but the core of the piece is about our love for music. And it was such a pleasure to be able to focus on why I love music and to try to channel the sort of musical moments that most draw me in.
An initial challenge of the cycle was figuring out how the violin part would fit in–Mark and I knew that we wanted it to be special, to represent in some ways the soul of music. But it took me a little while to figure out how I wanted to approach this: formally, writing instrumental interludes between almost every movement, and emotionally, channeling my childhood memories of music.
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