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Elena Kats-Chernin: from the Silk Road to rhapsodic Liszt

(March 2017)

KatsCherninMSOResidency2.jpg Two new works by Elena Kats-Chernin, the harpsichord concerto Ancient Letters and the orchestral opener Big Rhap, are premiered in May as part of her composer residency with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, capturing early memories from Samarkand and Yaroslavl.

Elena Kats-Chernin is Composer in Residence with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra this year, featured in four concerts including two commissioned works receiving their premieres in May. The harpsichord concerto Ancient Letters, featuring Mahan Esfahani as soloist receives its first performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 4 May as part of the Metropolis New Music Festival with the MSO conducted by Brett Kelly. The programme opens with Kats-Chernin's arrangements of the Prologue and Toccata from Monteverdi's Orfeo, part of her full instrumentation of the opera created for the Komische Oper in Berlin.

The title Ancient Letters refers to the first known documents of the Sogdian people who lived across what is today Uzbekistan, the place where Kats-Chernin was born. The composer describes how "the letters were found far to the east of the main city Samarkand along the Silk Road to China and date from the fourth century. They were packed with string and covered with silk, discovered almost 700 years after being written, in an abandoned watchtower."

The opening movement Tiger Cub refers to a woman who is a character in two of the five Sogdian letters. She is a mother whose huband has disappeared somewhere along the Silk Road who dreads being sold with her daughter into slavery. Kats-Chernin relates how the movement, launched by the harpsichord alone, "is a portrait of this feisty, desperate, beautiful, deserted woman the way I see her." The second movement Musk Trade is a diptych depicting two aspects of commerce along the Silk Road: musk, the aromatic scent which was one of the main commodities along with silk and silver, is raised musically with "harp and celeste alongside the harpsichord in a series of orientally dusted melodies", followed by "the fast Trade of deal-makers, rush-hour and negotiations".

The final movement recalls memories of the composer when she lived in the fabled desert city of Samarkand and the sense of displacement and yearning for home that is communicated strongly in the Sogdian letters. "In Goodbye Samarkand I have written a little ballad to home - the place, to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, you can never go to again. It is the winds that feature first in this movement. The melody came to me as I imagined looking back at a desert horizon and realising that life is different forever; a mix of misgivings, hopes and longings."

Kats-Chernin's new ten-minute orchestral work Big Rhap opens the Melbourne Symphony's concert on 25 May under the baton of Bramwell Tovey. The title puns on Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 and the idea of 'wrapping up' that composer's virtuosity in a short orchestral piece. Neither a transcription nor an arrangement, it is more an attempt to capture Kats-Chernin's memories of her mother playing the piano work when they lived in Yaroslavl in Russia: "In writing this piece I am transferring my early memories of the spectacle, the merriness and the hyperbole of what I saw and heard in my living room to paper!"

The composer writes: "When I think of Franz Liszt, I think of a virtuoso with an open and seductive nature, and an intriguing composer who was unambiguously dramatic. His music always reminds me of elements like wind, fire and water. Certain things imprinted themselves indelibly on my imagination; the noble (and a bit scary) opening that suggests both triumph and treachery, the motoric regularity of the ‘friska’ and the way the ‘lassan’ made me feel the pain of a shivering and wounded heart."

Other Kats-Chernin events within the Melbourne residency include a chamber concert by members of the orchestra at the Iwaki Auditorium on 10 September, with influences ranging from Bach to ragtime, and a performance of Ornamental Air for basset clarinet and chamber orchestra on 12 and 13 October with Michael Collins as soloist.


>  Further information on Work: Ancient Letters

Photo: Bruria Hammer

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