Thursday, March 31, 2016

Highlight of Butler ArtsFest's first weekend: Premiere of James Aikman's "Peacemakers" with the ICO and soloists

The crowning achievement of James Aikman's residency with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra so far is likely to be the premiere of "Peacemakers" at a Butler ArtsFest concert on April 15.

This 80-minute "filmic oratorio" gathers together portraits in music and pictures celebrating the legacy of world figures who worked toward peace — work that was cut short by assassination for many of them. In a recent interview, the composer said the idea for the new composition came to him on a solitary walk along Lake Michigan in 2010.

Jamie Aikman was moved by the lives and words of great world peacemakers.
"I thought of everyone who had worked steadfastly for peace and has been assassinated," Aikman said. "Looking for peace is a dangerous business. I thought, 'Let's keep this idea (of peace) alive — use their words in a piece of music."

Initially, the composer planned a work for chorus and orchestra. But the opportunities for a breadth of collaborations started to creep in. This particularly interested ICO executive director Elaine Eckhart, who sees the completed work as divisible into its 15 "modules" (or sections), performed in various combinations, and has invited dozens of Indiana orchestras to send representatives to the concert in Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts.

"This will be a fine educational tool," she told me. "We will be working on marketing it in future years. The ICO is adding to the body of literature for small orchestras."

The completed work, to be conducted by ICO music director Matthew Kraemer,  uses two local choirs — Encore Vocal Arts and the Indianapolis Children's Choir — and four soloists: Dan Tepfer, American Pianists Association Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz (2007), mezzo-soprano Kathryn Krasovec,  sitarist Robert Spalding Newcomb, and jazz saxophonist Rob Dixon. Prerecorded, Indianapolis native George Shirley, a prominent operatic tenor in the 20th century's third quarter, will narrate words of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who made peace with Israel, as well as Yitzak Rabin's final speech. "Invictus," a poem that inspired Nelson Mandela during his most difficult years, will also be given voice by Shirley.

Video imagery by Mike Halerz, with whom Aikman worked when he was on the University of Michigan music faculty, will accompany all modules. Aikman's other heroes, besides Sadat, Rabin, and Mandela, are John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Jimmy Carter. The long-range stature of these people, together with their crucial role in the modern era, ensures that "Peacemakers" reinforces this year's ArtsFest theme, "Time and Timeless."

The Indianapolis-born Aikman has had his composer-in-residence status with the ICO since 2013. He had a major work, "Triptych," given its premiere and recorded last year as a tribute to former music director Kirk Trevor in his final season on the podium.

The different sections of the work are more unified by the theme "Peacemakers" than musically, except for a few motives and a modal reference in the Gandhi section, the composer said. Aikman makes each part stand on its own, introduced at the premiere by Steven Stolen, tenor and longtime nonprofit-organization executive, with a spoken biographical overview.

The work uses few extended techniques for either singers or instrumentalists. A couple of examples: In "Gandhi," the cellos and double basses sustain a drone for five minutes; the module also incorporates the sitar soloist. And in "Eleanor Roosevelt," the orchestra musicians say a few words of text in interplay with soloist Krasovec and the two choirs.

"Peacemakers" uses its expansive resources with great variety, sometimes paring away everyone but one or two players. "John F. Kennedy" is a piano solo, accompanied by a video of Kennedy's visionary American University Commencement speech in 1963. It is followed by "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., " with Shirley's narration supplemented by the live component of Tepfer and Dixon in duo.

Of his chosen heroes, Aikman said: "I know none of these people need my music. But if I can direct people toward their concepts, then I've done what I wanted to do."

He also pointed to the thoroughgoing use of video imagery as a major aesthetic value of any work he writes for large forces from now on.  "I don't think most people today have the attention span for a long piece of music without the visual aspect," he said. "I won't write another piece for orchestra without it."

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