Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Seattle’s As One Tells Transgender Story Through Opera

Seattle Opera

As One
Washington Hall, Seattle

On Nov. 11, 2016, Seattle Opera will present the Seattle and west coast premiere of a thoroughly contemporary work in a historical venue that recently has been contemporized.

As One, conceived and composed by Laura Kaminsky, with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, follows the journey of a young man who battles with gender identity, leads a divided existence, and ultimately resolves his inner and outer conflicts by becoming a woman. 

The work, which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, will be performed at historic Washington Hall, an intimate venue long associated with Seattle’s vibrant multicultural arts scene. The cast consists of just two singers, a baritone and a mezzo-soprano playing a single protagonist, accompanied by string quartet. Singers Jorell Williams and Taylor Raven, composer Kaminsky, award winning librettists Campbell and Reed, conductor John Keene, director L. Zane Jones and set designer G.W. Mercier all will make their Seattle Opera debuts. 

In a recent interview, Barbara Lynne Jamison, Seattle Opera Director of Education & Community Engagement and former manager of the company’s youth programs, shared her insights on this groundbreaking project and the social issues that it raises. 

EM: Barbara Lynne, you are clearly multitalented: a performing soprano, conductor, and music educator, and now a recipient of Opera America’s coveted Leadership Intensive Fellowship in the field of opera administration. I’m so impressed. 

BLJ: Thank you! I stay busy [Laughs]. 

EM: I can see that. How did Seattle Opera make the decision to produce this groundbreaking work? Did you have a role in bringing it to Seattle Opera? 

BLJ: We are doing this through our Community Engagement arm. I had been looking for some works that I thought would resonate with our community, particularly our younger, social justice oriented community members. We know that opera is thought of as a historical art form but we forget that it’s a living, breathing art form, which I think has led to its longevity. We do a lot of historical works on our stage and wanted to look at doing a few more updated works, particularly ones with social justice themes that could tie to new members of our community who might not see themselves in works on the stage of McCaw Hall at a “grand” level. We have a lot of Fringe Theatre lovers in this town, and there’s also a similar type of opera - chamber opera - a little more “fringe-y.” As One is quite a beautiful work. It’s short, it’s got very small forces, and it deals with themes that can help our audiences today relate, learn more about the community in which they live, and the other people that we have in our community. 

EM: I’ve only been living here a few months, but that’s my impression of Seattle, that it’s very alternative, very forward looking. I think you’re right that the opera company should reflect that demographic. 

BLJ: It’s part of our new mission that we’ve just adopted. The core of that mission is to reflect that community and be an integral part of it This work is part of that initiative, to take that very seriously and make sure we’re reflecting the entirety of our area and meeting those needs in an artistic way. I also hope it will find some empathy and feeling for our community in certain ways. I know our city has not been as painfully impacted by some divisive issues as other cities, but we do feel the pain of our country. We feel this kind of work can also bring us together. The arts have a way of doing that so powerfully. 

Barbara Lynne Jamison, photo Philip Newton
EM: What you’re describing is very forward looking, because it’s important to be looking to the future as far as opera is concerned. I’ve read that As One has been described as “a different kind of opera experience.” What are some of the characteristics that make this opera stand out from other operas? 

BLJ: Part of it is how we’re producing the opera. It’s not in McCaw Hall. There is no proscenium stage. We’ll be producing this in an environment that’s in a different part of the city that we at Seattle Opera have not served as much as some other areas. It will be at newly renovated historical Washington Hall, with the ghosts of Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald - that very rich culture of jazz in the Central District, which historically has been a predominantly African-American community. Central District is undergoing quite a lot of gentrification right now, so it’s having some of its own difficulties, but we wanted to bring Seattle Opera into it, not in our typical way, but in the round. The action will be in the center of the hall, not on the stage. We’ll have seats all around and everybody will be very close to the action on the stage, only a few rows from it at the most. It’s a different way to think of opera, which we think of as this big, long stretch away from us, with an orchestra pit before we see the action. We don’t really get to see faces. Opera singers get to wear their hearts on their sleeves when opera is done in this intimate way. It will give us a different perspective on how music and drama play together to tell a story in an intimate way, not only a grand way as it does in Verdi, for instance. 

EM: The fact that it’s accompanied just by string quartet also contributes to the intimacy. 

BLJ: Right. All the forces are very small, just two singers playing one single role, two aspects of a single protagonist, and the quartet, very intimately created. We want to produce it intimately, too, and make sure everyone is really close to that story. 

EM: Why is this opera so relevant to the times in which we live right now? What social issues will the work raise among audiences? 

BLJ: We’re all searching to find ourselves in some way, we all have a journey, an awareness of finding ourselves at different points in our lives. Life, the whole process, is a journey. I hope we can find empathy with each other and realize that we’re all in this journey together. This journey happens to be represented by a transgender woman on the stage. But I’m hoping we can all be very much on that journey together during the course of this one 80-minute opera. It’s a journey we can all share - representative, not of every transgender person’s experience but one person’s journey. Right at curtain we’ll have a couple of transgender community members share their personal perspectives, so we can see that everyone’s journey is different and share that experience. We did something like that with An American Dream last year, an opera we commissioned. The story was about Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. 

EM: Who was the composer? 

BLJ: Jack Perla. Jessica Murphy Moo was the librettist. That was a community effort we made here. We had some eyewitnesses, people who lived during that time, speak before the opera started and give their personal accounts. Again, it was based in some reality but not our reality. This is an opera. Opera takes stories that are personal experiences out of the realistic and heightens them in a way in which we can all share an understanding. It’s not like a movie, where we can either fully relate or not; I think it pulls us in. 

EM: That’s a wonderful description of opera. 

BLJ: Yes. I think opera really brings everything to higher levels. Prior to the opera, when the doors open, we’re going to have some community partners’ tables downstairs, to help the entire community raise awareness of how we can be activists and allies for our transgender neighbors. The Pride Foundation, Greater Seattle Business Organization for the LBGTQ community, will be there. We’ll have a list of community partners that will be there with educational materials, ways to sign up and be more deeply involved in activism for our transgender and LBGTQ community. Then we’ll follow the performance with a discussion of any issues other than race, any questions we have, done in cooperation with our transgender partners, so that we’re not in any way presenting this work from our Seattle Opera perspective. We realize this is not our story to tell in the way I, Barbara Lynne Jamison, am not a transgender individual and cannot speak for somebody who is. What I can offer is the opportunity to bring healing and empathy to the community, that our transgender neighbors be the ones who speak for themselves and give them a voice and amplify that voice so that we can all be engaged together in a healing way. I don’t mean healing by transgender people but healing for our community to come together. 

Philip Newton
EM: That makes perfect sense. Given what’s been going on in our times right now, there’s a lot of that to be done. I think your mission sounds wonderful. How would you describe the opera’s music?

BLJ: Let me start with the libretto, the story itself. It’s so beautiful, written by Mark Campbell, who’s also done Silent Night. He’s a really active librettist in the opera community right now. Kimberly Reed is a transgender woman and a filmmaker. I think it’s important, especially for our transgender neighbors that their community be involved in the telling of the story. Kimberly was the quarterback of her football team. She’s been on Oprah telling more of her story. The two of them wrote this beautifully elegant, pithy libretto. Laura Kaminsky has a Seattle history. She used to be the Dean of Music here in Seattle at Cornish College of the Arts. The music is representative. Laura has used the viola to represent the spirit of Hannah, the protagonist, so it’s very symbolic in that way. 

EM: How was the cast chosen? 

BLJ: Seattle Opera thinks very deliberately about equity on our stage. We felt that going into Washington Hall we wanted to honor that. We wanted the two individuals to be similarly cast. So we actually did pay attention to the visual aspect, which opera doesn’t always do. Our stage director also wanted to bring in some undertones of Black Lives Matter and the higher percentage of black transgender women who are victims of violence. We wanted to highlight that transgender people of color are particularly afflicted by this issue of Black Lives Matter. This opera is becoming a work that’s being done throughout the country. Our singers are established, yet young. Taylor Raven, our Hannah, will be singing this role back east in February. She’s in Pittsburgh right now with their Young Artists Program. Jorell is doing a lot of great work throughout the country. They were chosen because they’re amazing singers and actors. We believed they would tell a convincing story and sing it beautifully. They were very eager to do it. Sometimes the acting of opera isn’t always at the forefront, but being an intimate story we wanted to find great acting singers to tell this powerful story in a powerful way. 

EM: Especially in a venue where you really can see their facial expressions. 

BLJ: Absolutely. It’s going to be a very intimate telling. No elaborate costumes or make up. Our stage director wanted to tell it very simply, let the story tell itself. 

EM: How do you think Seattle audiences will relate to Hannah’s struggles and her journey of self-discovery? 

BLJ: I think Seattle will relate very well. Seattle has a very long history of being very accepting and having community allied support and activism for the LBTGQ community. Every city has its own dynamic, but I believe Seattle has had this deep acceptance and support for our transgender neighbors for a long time. Our Ingersoll Gender Center has been around for about 40 years supporting our transgender neighbors. We’re excited that Seattle Children’s Hospital has just opened up a new wing to support transgender youth. So we have a rich history of social justice being a part of the fabric of Seattle. I think it will be very well received on that front. 

EM: This is groundbreaking work that you’re doing. 

BLJ: Yes. At the same time I think we all have a lot of learning to do about people. In this social media age when we think we know everything about everybody because it’s always popping up on our screens, we forget to just take time to reflect on the spirit of people. I think this opera will give us a few minutes to sit back and really settle with ourselves, to take us to that next level where we get to find commonality and learn about ourselves and our surroundings through the art form in a way you can’t do by watching television or even reading a book. That music really enriches our experience. Having all these things together along with the learning opportunities beforehand to engage on an activist level with our community partners, filling out the evening with a community discussion afterwards, getting to have a somewhat relaxed environment - we’re going to have a cash bar so people can have a drink-in-hand experience watching the opera - hopefully it will be a casual enough experience that we can let our guards down and yet let the reality of the opera and what that means for our learning about ourselves and others. I think that’s what art does in a way that other entertainment does not. Opera takes us to the level of exploration. I think Seattle opera audiences know that better than most cities in the US - very rich theatre town, we understand that here. This is a new way to think about opera for a lot of our community. We’re hoping that if they’ve been to an opera and didn’t think it was for them, they can give this a try to see opera differently, maybe give opera a new reputation. 

EM: I think for this century and beyond, that’s the key, to make opera relevant now and for the future. There’s nothing quite like opera. We want opera to be forever, and it should be. I think this new opera sounds like a great step in that direction. 

BLJ: We have to realize also, that opera has been here for so long because it was willing to evolve with the people, to change. Mozart broke boundaries, Monteverdi broke boundaries. Puccini broke his own boundaries. We put them all in one big lump, we see them all as opera. But at the time they were thinking differently about the art form. I’m really pleased to see Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kim Reed thinking about opera and helping to be part of that force that moves it forward and keeps it alive. I think that’s important for us to remember. 

EM: What are your, and the company’s, hopes for this opera’s impact? 

Seattle Opera
BLJ: I hope we will help people think differently about the opera and be able to relate to and find empathy through a transgender story. That’s really what I want people to walk away with. It’s a very limited run, only two weekends, and very small, just over 200 tickets a night, so we’re not going to have very many people, but we do hope that people who wouldn’t normally find themselves thinking of going to an opera will find through the music and story they have been changed in some way, walk away with a new understanding of themselves and the people around them, and relate to the humanity of it in a very real way. 

EM: Barbara Lynne, this has been so enlightening. I hope you will fulfill all your goals with As One, and I wish you all the best luck with the opening. 

BLJ: Thank you, Erica. That means a lot to us. 


As One premieres Friday, Nov. 11, at Washington Hall, and runs through Saturday, Nov. 19. Tickets are available online at

Photo credits: Seattle Opera, Philip Newton

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Hilary Hahn Will Thrill Seattle Audiences in Solo Recital


Benaroya Hall, Seattle

This season, Seattle audiences are being treated to performances by some of the world’s greatest musical artists. Among them is three-time Grammy Award-winning virtuoso violinist Hilary Hahn, named “America’s Best Young Classical Musician” by Time magazine in 2001, who in her impressive career track thus far has garnered the highest praise from audiences and critics alike. 

On Sun., Oct. 30, Hahn will join with brilliant pianist Robert Levin for a solo violin and piano recital at Benaroya Hall. The diverse program, which includes iconic works by J.S. Bach, Mozart and Schubert, also features the Seattle premiere of Solo Violin Partita No. 4 (“Art”) by contemporary Spanish composer Antón García Abril, as well as a solo piano turn by Levin in Hans Peter Türk’s Träume, dedicated by the composer to Levin. 

Not only is Hahn an extraordinary artist, she is also an astonishingly perceptive young woman, as I discovered in the interview below.

EM: You started studying Suzuki violin at age 3. Where did you grow up, and what do you remember about your first lessons at that incredibly young age? 

HH: I grew up in Baltimore. There was a branch of Peabody Prep just down the street from where we were living at the time. They had a sign up advertising the Suzuki program. That’s how I started [Laughs). I also had lessons on campus there. I remember the practice rooms. I think one time I went to my teacher’s house and she had a cat that wandered through the room [Laughs]. I don’t know why I remember that. But I loved the group classes. How familiar are you with Suzuki? 

EM: I never studied it, but I’m quite familiar. I remember reading and hearing about it when it started to become popular. 

HH: For me what was really great about it was that I had private and group lessons every week. I really looked forward to the group classes. The private lessons made it possible to not get lost in a group. I think it’s really a good combination of things. I listened to the tapes as I went to sleep at night, so I got the music in my head. I would go to the group class and hear other kids play the pieces and I would play the ones I’d learned, and you sit and watch or listen to other kids playing the pieces that are coming up for you. It’s a really good way of positively motivating people, but also making sure they have the individual guidance they need. I did that for about a year and a half. I actually met my teacher, Klara Berkovich, at a Suzuki day program in the summer. She was giving a master class. She wasn’t a particularly Suzuki method teacher, but had taught for 25 years in St. Petersburg, had just emigrated to the States and was teaching and giving master classes at Peabody Prep. We continued with the Suzuki books for a bit to stay on track with the repertoire I was looking forward to. She introduced pieces she’d taught in Russia and gradually we phased out of the Suzuki books and on to her more typical curriculum as a teacher of young violinists. 

EM: As a young violinist, which violinists did you most look up to? 

HH: Of course I had the great old recordings to refer to. Berkovich encouraged me to listen to Heifetz, Oistrakh, and her heroes - the Russian violinists. I don’t remember who gave me most of these - it could have been her - but for as long as I can remember, certain recordings have been in my life. I don’t remember where they came from, they were just there [Laughs]. Grumiaux, Milstein. Szeryng, his Bach recordings - all the classic old recordings. Those are the things I grew up on. I had a soft spot for those. There are great contemporary recordings as well, but those are the ones I’m sentimentally attached to as well as knowing the influences those players had on my teachers and on me. When I started studying with Jascha Brodsky at Curtis, I listened to a lot of Kreisler and Elman. Mr. Brodsky would tell me stories about his colleagues - he was born in 1907, so his colleagues of a generation higher, or his age or a little bit younger were those recording artists. So I felt more of a personal connection to them as well. 

EM: I can relate to that. My parents came from Russia and my father was my first violin teacher. 

HH: Oh my goodness! 

EM: Those recordings were just always there, especially Heifetz and Oistrakh. I remember thinking, “If I could grow up and play one note like Oistrakh I’d be happy.” 

HH: [Laughs.] Yes. When you have a teacher who is part of a tradition, the other people in that tradition are such stars. You just look at them like pop stars. It’s really cool to be able to listen to those recordings that were made so long ago. 

EM: They kind of live forever. 

HH: They do! 

EM: You’re not only talented on the violin, you’re multitalented in so many ways. You play piano, speak German and French impeccably and are a gifted writer, among other things. How do you balance the many aspects of your artistic life? 

HH: Not all of them are at one time [Laughs]. If you’re curious about stuff, you like to learn, you start taking classes, you go to the summer program and practice and prepare for your next lesson or whatever. If you do enough of that you acquire things along the way. I think everyone has a collection of things that makes them who they are. That may be stuff they’ve spent a lot of time on, or just good at. Everyone has interests. I think if you look carefully enough you see people are quite multitalented and accomplished. I actually didn’t like writing as a kid, but then I had a couple of classes at the Curtis Institute of Music where I got to do creative writing. It wasn’t all about essays or tests, the sort of dry writing that I’d thought of as writing. It was more like a poetry workshop, a fiction workshop. It was really great because the teachers were professional writers, so I got to see what it’s like to be a creative writer, how I think about things. Curtis is small, so those were also very small classes and electives. It was really a great way to be exposed to those subjects. As a result, I wound up really enjoying writing. It’s a creative outlet for me. 

EM: Creative writing is really the best. 

HH: You can do what you want to do with it. You’re not bound by other people’s expectations. 

EM: I’ve been reading your blogs, and I’m very impressed, but on top of that you’ve played almost 1600 concerts in 43 countries. Oh my goodness. 

HH: [Laughs] It just adds up. One after the other, before you know it. It’s funny. I bet if you counted up the number of times you went to the grocery store you’d be astounded. You don’t think, “Oh, the 300th time I’m at the grocery store.” But if you actually counted them up you’d be pretty impressed with yourself. [Laughs]. 

EM: Hilary, you’re incredibly modest. It’s not quite the same. On the subject of food, I read that you cook your own soup in your hotel rooms. 

HH: I haven’t done that lately. My luggage was getting voluminous. I had to minimize a bit. When you’re on the road you have to find solutions to challenges, especially in an intense orchestral tour. They’re probably the busiest ones, because when you’re touring with an orchestra as a guest soloist the concerts are almost every day and you travel basically on their schedule, so you travel during the day. So logistically you arrive at a time when, for example in Europe, the kitchens are closed because it’s the middle of the afternoon and that’s when you eat lunch because you arrive at 1 and get to the hotel at 2. You need to nap somehow and you need to practice and you’re going to be at the hall for sound check when the restaurants open again. So what are you going to eat - because you didn’t have time to bring stuff with you in your carry-on. I found it pretty convenient to just have a little rice cooker that I make soup in. It has an automatic shutoff, you just put in whatever you like and it keeps it warm for you! Noodles, rice, vegetables. And it turns out pretty well. 

EM: I’m impressed that you’re able to think of those things. With the kind of schedule you have it must be very important to maintain your health in order to sustain your active artistic lifestyle? Do you feel that’s an aspect people don’t always address? 

HH: It’s very challenging. There just isn’t enough time in the day to do everything that would be ideal. I think it’s the case for everyone with any career, finding the time to do your exercise, eat right, sleep enough, do the life stuff that comes up, do your work, have time with your friends and family - all of that, and other things along the way, too. You can’t do them everyday, you just do your best. I think it’s the same on the road. For me I’ve managed to figure out a way to combine things that I like and am very fortunate that my career enables me to determine what parts of my career I go into more deeply. So my interests are usually reflected in the activities I’m engaging in. I have an outlet for writing if I want, I get to play music, to travel [Laughs]. I work with people and with friends, I wind up traveling to places where my cousins, aunts and uncles live. Sometimes we have a little family reunion because I’m going to places where a couple of them are going to be for a concert, and everyone is like, “Hey, you’re all going to be there so we’ll come and visit.” It actually makes possible a lot of the things I enjoy. I’m very fortunate. 

EM: And they’re very fortunate to be part of your family. Let’s talk about the very ambitious program you’ve chosen for your recital this week. 

HH: Yes! 

EM: We’re all so excited to hear you. How do you choose your repertoire for your solo concerts, as opposed to which concertos you’re going to play with orchestra? 

HH: This is a duo concert. When I do a concert with someone else I do try to consider the collaboration and their interests and their favorite repertoire. Also things I want to do that I haven’t done yet, or stuff I’d like to try again. So I start with a big range of things and gradually narrow it down. Sometimes there’s a piece or pieces I really want to do for several seasons in a row but it just never quite fit into the program, so I keep it on the back burner for another season. You can’t do everything in one program [Laughs]. 

EM: If anyone could, you could. 

HH: [Laughs] Oh no, I have my limits. I have to consider the audience of course. So there’s a lot of consideration involved. I try to keep the program as consistent as possible throughout, so I’m not coming up with a lot of different programs to juggle over the course of a season. 

EM: As is often traditional for a violin recital, you will begin with Bach. Violinist to violinist, could you speak to the importance of his music to a violinist’s development? 

HH: Sure. This is actually the first Bach duo sonata I’ve ever worked on. I’m really grateful for this collaboration with Robert Levin because I think he has so much knowledge of Bach and Mozart and everything he’s studied. I wanted to learn more about these duo works, so I’m so glad to be able to explore that with him. Bach in general was so good with the violin. He just finds the genius way around his music on the instrument. When you think about the fact that the instrument has changed significantly since he wrote for it and his music still really works, it’s brilliant. He was definitely ahead of his time. There’s something so satisfying about his music. It’s beautifully organized and emotional at the same time. I find it highly exciting [Laughs]. You’re not guessing what you’re supposed to be thinking when you’re listening to it, you’re not trying to figure it out. You’re just in the music. That enables the music to speak more directly to the listener. As a player you realize how progressive his music is because it changes harmonically and melodically in ways that you don’t expect when you’re looking at the page for the first time. Your job as a player is to find those turns of phrase and harmony and make them more put-together, but also use them to bring more color to your own playing. He created a lot of those artistic opportunities.  

EM: Yes, most violinists relate to that. 

HH: The solo works are so definitive. There is a small violinistic tradition of a set of six, as you know - Bach, Ysaÿe. I asked Antón García Abril to write a set of six solo polyphonic works for me, my first solo commission, also my first commission of a set of pieces from the same composer. I started premiering the first three last season and this season I’m doing the second three. I’m doing the 4th one on this program. 

EM: How did you first become interested in García Abril’s music? 

HH: It was when I was in Spain that I heard and saw his music for the first time. He’s written a lot for singers and is very aware of what an instrument can do, especially the colors. He’s very impressionistic, abstract, very intuitive emotionally as a composer. The interpretation is incredibly free. You look at the page and it’s really only a starting point. Everything else is emotion, and a great deal of freedom and impulse. I find these pieces in particular, because they’re solo, have endless possibilities for interpretation. 

EM: And written for you, uniquely based on different aspects of your persona. 

HH: Yes, he wrote an acrostic of the titles out of my first name. “Heart, Immensity, Love, Art, Reflective and You.” Especially the one titled “You” is for me [Laughs] but it’s also the general “You” of the audience. I didn’t think about that when I commissioned him to write a set of six, that my first name had six letters. But he’s very sweet and thoughtful, so I guess he just wanted to make that gesture, which is really kind. 

EM: I’ve noticed you seem to have a keenness for contemporary music in general, having commissioned concertos by Jennifer Higdon and Edgar Meyer, not to mention being a rock band aficionado. Where did your interest originate? 

HH: Edgar Meyer’s violin concerto was the first piece of contemporary music I worked on in any depth. I was 18 or 19. My teacher, Jascha Brodsky, played Prokofiev #1 in Paris as the final round of a competition and Prokofiev was in the front row. The piece had just been written. For him the music was very much alive that he had a personal connection to. For me it’s probably more than the idea that, “Oh, we need something new.” For me it’s not about “new,” it’s about the continuum of classical music. If there’s a gap in what’s being written right now there’s going to be a gap in history when we’re looking back. I think it’s really important to play the range of eras and of style. If there’s a project you would like to do as an active artist today, I think it should be encouraged, because it’s something you can offer to the span of classical music if your idea comes to life. 

EM: What are you looking forward to in the near future? 

HH: I’ve started doing artist residencies. I have one in Seattle this season, and one in Lyon. I’m looking forward to developing with those locations and the presenters, local activities as well as the planned concerts connected to them. I started with my first residency last season at the Konzerthaus in Vienna. It was really great to work with an organization more in depth than just for my visit. That’s really exciting for me [Laughs]. I’ve got these partitas that I’m completing the premieres of this season. That’s very satisfying. I feel it’s indescribable when you have a commission in your hands. You have this new music that exists now that didn’t before, and it’s out there in the world, and it’s alive. It’s really quite an extraordinary feeling. 

EM: It is, and you’re making history. Hilary, thank you for all your insights. This has been so much fun. 

HH: Yes!! Thank you so much.


Hilary Hahn in Recital - Hilary Hahn, violin, Robert Levin, piano: Sunday, October 30, 2 pm, at Benaroya Hall

Photo credits: Michael Patrick O’Leary
Erica can be reached at:

Monday, October 24, 2016

Pacific Northwest Ballet Steps Forth with Brief Fling

By Erica Miner

'Brief Fling' Ensemble, photo Angela Sterling
“I LOVE TWYLA THARP. She is humor, irreverence, craft, and boogie all rolled into one pint-sized woman.”    

 -- Peter Boal, PNB Artistic Director

From Twyla Tharp to George Balanchine to Jiří Kylián, Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall will jump, leap and twirl with excitement in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s second program of its 44th season in the three contemporary ballets comprising its Brief Fling.

Of special note in this live-wire agenda is Music Director Emil de Cou’s revival of the original orchestra score for Tharp’s Scottish-themed title ballet Brief Fling, which was set to music by Percy Grainger and Michel Colombier.

The work, whose title reflects a combination of traditional Scottish dance and a romance that is fleeting, was Mikhail Baryshnikov’s last commission from Tharp during his tenure as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre. Since its 1990 premiere by ABT in San Francisco, when Tharp was new to the company's artistic staff, the piece has been performed only with a 1989 recording produced in Los Angeles.

“It was her wish to have something that could be performed anywhere, at any time as opposed to relying on whatever ‘house orchestra’ might be available while on tour,” says de Cou of Tharp. “That is the way Brief Fling has been performed over the past 26 years.”

Emil de Cou, photo Griffin Harrington
However, in 2013, when Tharp was participating in PNB’s Air Twyla, the choreographer had a change of heart, according to de Cou. She told him that the recording no longer had its former freshness and that she wished for the PNB Orchestra instead to perform the original orchestral score during those performances.

The timing was too tight to find the music materials at that time, but de Cou was determined to act on Tharp’s wishes. He prepared himself to jump through however many hoops necessary to create an orchestra score for PNB’s current offering.

It wasn’t easy.

“When I looked into the possibility of performing the score live, I encountered a series of musical roadblocks,” de Cou says. When Tharp’s New York office emailed him a photocopy of Colombier’s score that was near impossible to read, he went back to his hometown of Los Angeles to seek out the composer.

“The first thing I discovered was a terribly sad thing indeed - Michel Colombier died in 2004 at the all too early age of 65,” says de Cou. After researching exhaustively online, he was thrilled to discover a Dana Colombier living in Santa Monica. “I emailed her in hopes that she was the late composer’s widow and it was indeed the right place to go.”

Mme. Colombier invited de Cou to her home to wade through the boxes and envelopes in which her late husband’s music was stored. Since the Brief Fling score had never been performed live, de Cou took on the immense responsibility to make sure the individual orchestra parts were authentic and complete. Again, not easy.

'Brief Fling' composer's sketches, photo Emil de Cou
On the widow’s dining room table he found two large manila envelopes inscribed in the composer’s hand. “When I opened the first one my heart sank when I saw it filled only with sketches and early drafts of the ballet,” de Cou says. The second envelope, however, contained everything he was hoping for. “In it we found a set of the most beautifully hand engraved music on extremely fragile and transparent onion skinned paper… Amazingly everything was there and ready to be recopied for our late October rehearsals.”

'Brief Fling' composer's hand engraving
The next obstacle was Mme. Colombier’s reluctance to let her husband’s original parts out of her sight and her insistence that they be copied instead. Disappointed, de Cou left, but was overjoyed the next day when she ultimately decided to entrust the materials to him. In a cloak and dagger scene worthy of a Hollywood noir thriller, the widow hurriedly handed over the music to him.

“The music went into my carry-on luggage all the way back to our music library in PNB’s Phelps Center where it will stay until I return it in person to Dana Colombier,” says de Cou, who will be the first conductor to perform the live version in public. “I know Twyla will be thrilled as well to know that this music that she lovingly choreographed in 1989 will get the hearing that it deserves.”

De Cou also feels blessed at the opportunity to get to know Dana Colombier who, along with her daughters, will attend the PNB performances of Brief Fling. Due to her efforts and generosity in sharing Michel Colombier’s score, says de Cou, “We can all look forward to Colombier’s music and Twyla’s dance being performed the way it was meant to be, with great impact, energy, color, and life… with the full forces of the PNB Orchestra for the first time.”

'Air Twyla', photo Angela Sterling
Adding to the excitement of this Scottish-themed Tharp ballet, PNB presents two more memorable works. Forgotten Land, with music from Benjamin Britten’s 1939 Sinfonia de Requiem, depicts the land and sea of Britten’s East Anglia birthplace, taking inspiration from paintings by Edvard Munch.

The program ends with Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, created for New York City Ballet’s celebrated 1972 Stravinsky Festival, always a favorite with dancers for its physical and emotional challenges.


BRIEF FLING plays for seven performances only, November 4 - 13 at McCaw Hall.

Photo permissions: Angela Sterling (#1, 5), Griffin Harrington (#2), 
Emil de Cou (#3,4)
Erica Miner can be reached at: