Thursday, March 20, 2008

Composer brings world premiere of opera to Bard

By John R. Nelson
Poughkeepsie Journal

Composer David Bruce was born in Connecticut to British parents and is developing an international reputation in the field of opera.

You can hear his music this weekend at Bard College when the Graduate Program in Vocal Arts of The Bard College Conservatory of Music presents the world premiere of his one-act opera "A Bird in Your Ear" alongside the first fully staged, abridged, one-act version of Virgil Thomson's "Four Saints in Three Acts."

Bruce, who holds both U.K. and U.S. citizenships, recently answered some questions for Enjoy!:

Tell us more about the new production of "A Bird in Your Ear" you've composed for the Vocal Arts Program.

I worked with some of the singers at Bard on a commission for Carnegie Hall as part of the Dawn Upshaw/Osvaldo Golijov workshops there. After that, Upshaw, who coaches at Bard, kindly offered me this commission, to write for eight singers from the vocal faculty, the student choir and a colorful orchestral that includes mandolin, harp, accordion as well as more standard orchestral instruments. The story is based on an old Russian folk tale called "The Language of the Birds." In the story, the hero, Ivan, rescues some baby birds, and is rewarded by their mother with the gift of understanding the language of the birds. His father thinks he has gone mad and cruelly throws him out of the house. But the heart of the story is one of forgiveness as Ivan eventually forgives his father. The other message of the opera is one of listening - to nature, to yourself.

When did you first discover your interest in opera?

I've always been very interested in music and theater, although it took me until my first opera commission in my late 20s (a 10-minute chamber opera for Tete a Tete in London) for my love of opera to really flourish, as I developed a greater understanding of the art form from the inside, as it were. Like a great many composers, I initially found the operatic voice something of an alien culture, but now I write very naturally for it, and it feels like second nature to me. If you are ever in a room next to a classically trained singer singing up close, it's like an incredible force of nature. They put their whole bodies into it; its physical, awe-inspiring and can be very sexy!

Can you share any memories of a few performances and singers that made a big impression on you?

I love concerts that are full of life and energy. This past year, Gustavo Dudamel gave an incredible concert at the BBC Proms in London with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. This was music-making at the highest level but with such an irrepressible spirit.

You hold dual citizenship in the U.S. and U.K. Does your multicultural background help with your composing?

I've been working a lot with groups in the U.S. recently and have really enjoyed getting to know a new musical culture. It's not so different from the U.K., but it has its little differences. Whether it's helped my composing, I can't really say.

Are there any areas of the operatic repertoire that you don't feel a particular interest in doing?

I'm not a great Wagner fan; I tend to steer away from things that take themselves too seriously. I like things that say profound things but with a light touch.

Can you share anything with us about your current projects?

At the moment I'm working on a new commission from Carnegie Hall for clarinetist Todd Palmer and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. They're one of the world's top quartets, so it's very exciting. I'm meeting Todd after the opera premiere next weekend before I return to the U.K. I'm also writing an accordion concerto for the young New York Metropolis Ensemble.

Where do you write?

I write at home.

Tell us about your music and technology company, Red Balloon Technology Ltd.

One of the sites I run is called, which has lots of sheet music and music resources. It's proved to be very popular and I'm able to operate that business alongside my composing life, which is very nice.

Who is your favorite composer?

I love Janacek, Sibelius and Stravinsky, but I'm also a great fan of folk music, particularly klezmer and eastern European gypsy music.

What do you do with your time off?

I have two young children 5 and 1 so I don't get much time off! I like walking and nature so it's great to be here in the very beautiful surroundings of New England. Everyone here thinks I'm a bit strange because I prefer to walk than getting in the car everywhere, but the air here is great, even if it's colder than I expected!

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