Music of the Earth

Ensemble 20/21 | February 11, 2023 8:00 p.m.

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Critically acclaimed Chickasaw composer and pianist Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate explores the intersection of classical and Indigenous musical cultures through his compositions, and the title of this astounding piece for solo timpani comes from the Chickasaw word for thunder and lighting. Throughout history, the Chickasaw people believed thunderstorms were the holy people at war above the clouds. Defying death and displaying courage, these warriors would shoot their guns into the sky during the storms. Talowa’ Hiloha (Thunder Song) is an homage to this tradition.

Inspired by Oiseaux, a collection of poems by Saint-John Perse, award-winning Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Terrestre is a reworking of the second movement of her flute concerto, Aile du songe (Wing of Dream). This beguiling chamber piece uses the rich metaphor of birds to describe life’s mysteries. However, unlike Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques, another avian-influenced composition featured later in the program, Saariaho seems to be more intrigued by the idea of birds than referencing the sounds they make. 

Terrestre is divided into two parts. The first frenetic movement, Oiseau dansant” (“Dancing Bird”), refers to the Aboriginal tale of a bird teaching an entire village how to dance. The second, “L’Oiseau, un satellite infima,” likens the bird to a satellite in celestial orbit. Not only does this spirited work explore intriguing soundscapes, but it calls for the flutist to occasionally sing while simultaneously playing, creating a conversation between voice and musical instrument. 

The evening concludes with a riveting performance of Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout by Gabriela Lena Frank, Latin Grammy winner, pianist, and recent composer-in-residence with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Within her compositions, she pays homage to her Peruvian, Chinese, and Lithuanian-Jewish heritage, often integrating the mythology, poetry, art, and folk music of South America into western classical forms. This complex and imaginative six-movement suite, performed by a string quartet, is a fascinating collection of miniature tone poems. 

Inspired by the “idea of mestizaje as envisioned by Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, where cultures can coexist without the subjugation of one by the other,” Frank’s captivating work explores aspects of ancient Peruvian civilization with modern musical influences. The piece immediately draws the listener in—from the imitative sounds of large panpipes and wooden duct flutes to Incan messengers sprinting across the Andes, professional crying women, and sensual love songs. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, conductor, pianist, and educator Tania León returns to Curtis this season, following her role as 2021–22 composer-in-residence, with the world premiere of In the Field. Commissioned by the McCollin Fund and the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia in celebration of the organization’s landmark bicentennial, this highly anticipated song cycle for voice and piano quintet features Spanish and English text by Cuban-American writer, playwright, and award-winning poet Carlos Pintado, recipient of the prestigious Paz Poetry Prize. Ensemble 20/21 and captivating Curtis student, soprano Sarah Fleiss, breathe life into León’s exquisite score and Pintado’s nuanced poetry, a meditation on the beauty, mythology, and historical complexity of Philadelphia’s iconic landmarks and its symbols of patriotism and justice.

A passion for birds and music collides in French composer, organist, and ornithologist Olivier Messiaen’s dazzling 1956 piece for piano and small orchestra, Oiseaux exotiques. Based on the recorded songs of 47 exotic species of birds throughout China, India, Malaysia, and North and South America, this chirping, squawking celebration of life is full of colorful noises, both strident and shrieking, cheerful and richly sonorous. The virtuosic musicians of Ensemble 20/21 invite the audience to witness a feathered frenzy inside an imaginary aviary, as they play this delightfully jittery, cacophonous score, with percussive Indian and Greek rhythmic patterns scattered throughout.

JEROD TATE Talowa’ Hiloha (Thunder Song)
GABRIELA LENA FRANK Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout
TANIA LEÓN In the Field
OLIVIER MESSIAEN Oiseaux Exotiques
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  • Ensemble 20/21’s repertoire features works from the 20th and 21st centuries. With bold collaborations and striking productions, Ensemble 20/21 embraces the cutting edge of contemporary classical music through the highest level of artistry.

Special Thanks

Generous support for Ensemble 20/21 is provided by the Daniel W. Dietrich II Foundation.

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