Tune in on Friday, October 7 at 7 PM, when VC will present the world premiere of the dramatic song cycle
“A Year to the Day” with music by composer Lembit Beecher and lyrics by librettist/lyricist Mark Campbell, examines the life of a musical artist during the pandemic with virtuosic music, accompanied by poignant and witty text.
The world premiere of the hour-long work will feature artists including tenor Nicholas Phan and violinist VC Artist Augustin Hadelich, as well as pianist Orion Weiss, and cellist Karen Ouzounian.
VC had the privilege to catch up with Campbell, Beecher, and Hadelich to discuss the work and the process behind it. Tune in here on October 7 for the premiere on The Violin Channel.
Mark, tell us about this A Year to the Day project. What was the inspiration behind the new song cycle?
Mark Campbell: I must credit a canine kinship for the origin of A Year to the Day. My dog Finley was playing with Elgar, the dog of Geoffrey John Davies (Founder and CEO of TVC), when Geoffrey suggested I write something for violinist and voice, to be streamed by his company. At the time, the pandemic was destroying the morale of the performing arts community and many musicians I know began reevaluating their relationships with their careers. I resolved to create a dramatic song cycle that captures their struggles and honors their vital role in society and was happy when the Alphadyne Foundation agreed to support it.
Lembit, how was the collaboration with Mark and the musicians? Were there challenges due to the pandemic?
Lembit Beecher: The collaboration with Mark was fantastic, and involved quite a lot of back and forth, especially as he was finishing the lyrics and I was beginning to compose. Though I couldn’t work in person with any of the musicians before the rehearsals (except for Karen, who is my wife, and who worked with me closely, especially as I was figuring out some of the very fast pizzicato sections for cello!), I was able to have some email exchanges with Nicholas and to work with Augustin over zoom to workshop the solo violin moments.
In many ways, the most important thing for me was just sitting down and listening to many recordings of Augustin and Nick. The more I can absorb a musician’s sound and approach before I write, the better the music will be, I think! It was an incredible feeling to finally rehearse with everyone in person and to hear all the choices they were making about musical interpretation.
Augustin, can you tell us how this opportunity came to you?
Augustin Hadelich: In October 2020, Mark Campbell wrote to me about his idea for a new song cycle, featuring both violin and voice, and he sketched out the premise of the quarantined protagonist, and that the violin would “represent all that is beautiful and powerful in music, all that will get him through this crisis.”
I was hooked! I have always loved the Lieder repertoire — it’s the first music I ever heard as a child. It was exciting to be a part of the creation of a new work for voice, violin, cello and piano!
Mark, the storyline is something I’m sure many of our readers can directly identify with. What would you like listeners to take away with them?
Mark Campbell: While our main character both sorrowfully and sarcastically reviews his career as an opera and concert singer—the hectic pace of his work, the influence of his first music teacher, his need to practice every day even when the future of performance is in doubt—he eventually finds a way to renew his love for music. The message of A Year to the Day, reduced to two words, is “music sustains.”
Lembit, what is your personal creative process while writing a score?
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, take walks and showers, and record myself playing and singing sections of music, overdubbing different parts. I always like to build in some workshopping time with individual musicians, to hear them play particular passages before they are set in stone, since I always find that hearing actual sound 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.
Augustin, what was the experience like working with this instrumentation?
Augustin Hadelich: The human voice and its expressive qualities have been a big influence in developing my own sound on the violin. The voice has such an enormous dynamic and expressive range and can sound so beautiful.
A few times in rehearsal, I forgot to play my part because I was so hypnotized by the voice and the text!
Lembit, did you compose the music after seeing Mark’s lyrics? Before? Or concurrently?
Lembit Beecher: The songs for this cycle I composed after seeing Mark’s lyrics, though as I began to write, we discussed and Mark changed a number of sections of the text. For this piece, I also wrote the instrumental interludes (mostly for solo violin), and these I wrote quite independently of the lyrics.
As I wrote, I tried to channel my own deepest connections to music — all of the little things I remember growing up, especially as I listened to my brother practicing in the room next to mine: soft and soulful playing high on the low strings of the violin, fierce virtuosity, gently lyrical but slightly strange melodies, and joyously uplifting passages.
Augustin, how do you approach the challenge of preparing and interpreting new music?
Augustin Hadelich: I never know quite what to expect before I first see the score to a brand-new piece of music! There is no recording to help give an easy first impression of the piece. It’s exciting though to be the first one to explore a piece!
I immediately started playing the solo violin movements on the instrument, but for the others, I mainly studied the score, trying to imagine what it would sound like with the others.
But it was only when we ran through the entire song cycle for the first time, after 3 days of rehearsal, that we all knew the emotional impact of the work as a whole. It was overwhelming!
Mark, how important was it to you to artistically document this time in history?
Mark Campbell: When the pandemic struck, I involved myself in several benefits to raise money for musicians. I also worked with composer Paul Moravec, OPERA America and 100+ singers to make a video of a song called Light Shall Lift Us to create solidarity in the community. But it wasn’t enough. And I was grateful when this opportunity came along to let people know what musicians were going through during the pandemic.
Augustin, as an artist, did you resonate with the story of the work?
Augustin Hadelich: I think most musicians went through some version of what the protagonist of this work goes through. The interruption of normal life, followed by isolation, anxiety, manic efforts to keep busy, reflection, grief, and eventually new hope. I recognized many of these emotions and thoughts!
I think the story of A Year To The Day will resonate deeply with listeners.