World premiere of acclaimed composer Jake Heggie's symphony
From left to right, Jake Heggie and Richard Croft at rehearsals
The April 24 concert of the University of North Texas Symphony Orchestra featured the premiere of internationally renowned composer Jake Heggie's Ahab Symphony, which included the UNT Grand Chorus and celebrated faculty tenor Richard Croft as soloist. Heggie's first full symphonic work, Ahab Symphony expands on ideas he first explored in his critically acclaimed opera Moby-Dick, with text from Melville's novel as well as W.H. Auden's poem "Herman Melville."
The work was commissioned by the College of Music and the Institute for the Advancement of the Arts, and written for the UNT Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Itkin; the Grand Chorus, directed by Jerry McCoy; and Croft, professor of vocal studies at UNT. The commission was part of Heggie's artist-in-residence award from UNT in 2010-11. The concert is sponsored in part by the UNT Fine Arts Series.
Man versus nature
The first movement, "Dawn," is the most heavily influenced by Moby-Dick, including direct quotes from the opera. The second movement, "The Wind," inspired by the challenges faced by both the character Ahab and Melville, explores the eternal battle of man versus nature, and the inherent powerlessness and frustration of this conflict. That leads to an aching third movement, "The Narrow Balcony," and a fourth movement, "The Pieces," that takes a tone of yearning simplicity and resignation.
"The opera Moby-Dick pushed me into a new world of musical language and expression, and this is part of the evolution of my musical style," Heggie says. "In a symphonic work, you don't necessarily have to have action like in a staged drama – you can really go inside and meditate on the ideas. There was so much we couldn't touch on in the opera that I was yearning to explore further in a symphonic work."
Returning to UNT
From left to right, Richard Croft and David Itkin at rehearsals
Based in San Francisco, Heggie said he was eager to return to UNT, where he made friends with students and faculty and was able to work with Croft.
"The first time I heard his voice was in Otello at the Met in 1996," Heggie says. "He came on stage and I was blown away. At that moment, I had in the back of my mind that he was a person I would love to write for one day."
Seeing Croft's performance as Ghandi in the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha sealed Heggie's desire to work with the tenor. Glass's minimalist style was also an influence on Ahab Symphony, itself, Heggie says.
"I'm very proud of this piece," Heggie says. "It pushed me and forced me to explore different kinds of musical styles. Everyone at UNT has been so supportive. I'm very grateful."
Honor and pride
Croft, the UNT Symphony and Grand Chorus will also record Ahab Symphony for commercial release. The recording is sponsored in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
"This concert represents a high point of pride and honor for the UNT College of Music – pride in the quality of our Symphony Orchestra, our Grand Chorus, its conductors and our faculty soloist; and the honor of presenting to the world the premiere of the first major symphonic work of one of America's most celebrated living composers," says College of Music Dean James Scott.
The first half of the program introduces the "sea theme" of the evening with Felix Mendelssohn's Overture: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Opus 27, and Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes, Opus 33a, from the opera Peter Grimes.
About Jake Heggie
Jake Heggie is the composer of the internationally acclaimed operas Moby-Dick, Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers and The End of the Affair. He has also composed more than 250 songs, as well as concerti, chamber music, choral and orchestral works. His operas -- most of them created with the distinguished writers Terrence McNally and Gene Scheer -- have been produced worldwide on five continents. Dead Man Walking is one of the most performed new American operas with more than 200 international performances since its premiere in October 2000.
As pianist and composer, Heggie collaborates with many of the world's great singers, including Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, Joyce DiDonato, Audra McDonald, Kiri Te Kanawa, Ben Heppner, Stephen Costello and Bryn Terfel. Upcoming projects include a new opera, Great Scott (libretto and story by McNally) for The Dallas Opera's 2015/16 season, starring DiDonato, directed by Jack O'Brien and conducted by Evan Rogister; plus works commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, Pacific Chorale, the Pittsburgh Symphony, Music of Remembrance and the Ravinia Festival. Heggie lives in San Francisco.
About the UNT College of Music
Robert K. Wallace's book, Heggie and Scheer's Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the Twenty-first Century
The UNT College of Music is one of the largest and most respected comprehensive music schools in the country. About 1,500 music students attend UNT each year, participating in more than 50 widely varied ensembles and pursuing specialized studies in performance, composition, music education or music scholarship.
UNT faculty members and students have made appearances on the world's finest stages and have produced numerous recordings, many receiving Grammy awards and nominations. Distinguished UNT alumni can be found around the globe, in top music ensembles, opera companies, universities and schools.
The University of North Texas Institute for the Advancement of the Arts was launched on Oct. 21, 2009. The institute's goal is to further the university's reputation for nurturing artistic and creative expression by recognizing artistic contributions and sharing them with the public, and enhancing the learning environment for UNT students.