Pictured Above: Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.  Photo Credit: Matthew Placek.

Inherent Gifts for Expression through Music and Artistry

By: Lori Goldstein

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s concerts on January 13 and 14 promise an auspicious delivery of music for the New Year. Maestro Rossen Milanov explains how he curated the program: “I have brought together some of today’s most creative voices, each with strong ties to Princeton. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and composer Gregory Spears met while at University there, and composer Nina Shekhar is currently in the fourth year of her doctoral program at Princeton. Each of them possesses inherent gifts for expression through their music and artistry.”

The concert program opens with Lumina, an orchestral work composed by 28-year-old Nina Shekhar when she was completing her master’s degree in composition at the University of Southern California. Lumina premiered just before the pandemic, in February 2020.  Nina was thrilled that her work had received a live performance, and astonished when The New York Philharmonic sent her an email that went to her spam folder: “We’re programming your piece. Can you send us the materials?”  Since the Philharmonic performance in May 2022, Lumina has been performed by more than 15 major American symphony orchestras, and it won the ASCAP Award in 2021.

“I had no idea that it would take off the way it did, and I’m very grateful that Princeton, my home orchestra now, is programming it,” says Nina.”It feels much more special when it’s in my own community.”

Nina makes the analogy between a composer and a painter, who has a whole palette of colors at her disposal. “When you’re writing for a chamber ensemble or a solo instrument, you have a much more limited palette. [With Lumina,] I was thinking about orchestration from a color standpoint: how can I achieve as many different colors and kinds of textures within the group that I might not be able to achieve if I had [been working with] a smaller ensemble? And because of that I was thinking about contrast…of light versus dark, of bright, light kind of textures versus shadows.”

Pictured Above: Composer Nina Shekhar.  Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez.

“When I think of shadows, I think of murkier, less defined textures.  And to capture the idea of the murkiness, I was playing with the idea of microtones (tones that are smaller than a semi-tone).  The beginning of the piece starts with a limited pitch language, just D and F basically, but then it slowly gets muddier and muddier because there are many different inflections of D–microtones up, quarter tone below, the same thing with F and with other notes like that.  It creates this kind of muddy effect, less defined sense of pitch, which I think of as similar to shadows.” 

“Sometimes you don’t always see the defined edges of shadows, and on the other side, in terms of light, I was trying to think of ways that you could capture these kinds of bright sound, but also these kinds of hard edges, much more sharp contrasts.  There are certain techniques of the strings, such as harmonics, the way the vibraphone is bowed, and the swell gestures that have much more edge to the sound, this bright kind of quality.  So I was trying to capture the duality between the murkier sounds and these brighter textures.”

Pictured Above: Composer Nina Shekhar.  Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez.

Nina uses the term ‘sonic clouds’ to describe that murky, all-encompassing kind of texture.  “If I’m thinking of even just density within the orchestra, if there’s this mass sound, more and more instruments joining, and in this slightly unclear way with the use of murky pitches, it’s smearing of the paint. It’s how I’m thinking of this idea of sonic clouds.  And the way the piece functions, you’ll have these bright textures and this cloud slowly moves in and gradually creates this more and more murky effect.”

Another element of Lumina is derived from Nina’s ethnicity: her parents emigrated from India to Detroit, Michigan in the 1980s.  “The piece uses a lot of moments of silence, there’s a lot of space within the piece, and that actually is an element that I was drawing from Hindustani music.  In Hindustani music you might have one musician that is playing some sort of melodic line, and then other instruments might be following the same line, but maybe in a more heterophonic kind of way, where it’s going against whatever the first musician is doing.”

Does Lumina contain the Hindustani melodic line known as a raag? “I’ve heard of a raag described as a scale with personality. It’s a collection of pitches, it follows a particular ascent and descent pattern, and within that raag you can come up with these different melodic structures that maybe can help signify that that’s the raag you’re playing,” says Nina.  “My work is similar in that I’m using a fixed set of pitches.  Technically it’s not following the rules of any particular raag, but it is similar in concept.”

“In terms of an improvised performance, the way that a lot of Hindustani performances are structured is through this idea of listening.  One person is playing something, it might be improvised, the other players have to listen to be able to know when they play, and how do they relate to that other musician. There are a lot more of these moments of open space or silence that are important to Hindustani music performances.  In a similar way, there’s this idea of silence in Lumina.”

“Empathy requires space and listening, or else you’re not actually putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes and knowing what they’re feeling.  I think this piece could relate to a lot of experiences of empathy.” 

Pictured Above: Anthony Roth Costanzo. Photo Credit: Matthew Placek.

While Anthony Roth Costanzo was completing his undergraduate degree at Princeton, he was also shaping the trajectory of his operatic career. Anthony’s ethereal countertenor voice went viral in 2019, when he premiered the title role in Philip Glass’s opera, Akhnaten, at the Metropolitan Opera. He had been singing as a boy soprano in Broadway shows since he was 11.  At age 13, he was invited to sing as countertenor in The Turn of the Screw, and he realized this range of voice–equivalent to that of a female mezzo-soprano and soprano–was his “home.”  

“It’s not something that necessarily comes fully formed,” says Anthony.  “You have to work at it, and so I did work at it from really straight through my voice change.”

After a hectic holiday season concert schedule, Anthony is eager to perform two works with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.  The first is the aria, “Quella fiamma” [My fire of love] from Handel’s opera Arminio.  As Sigismondo, he sings of his problematic love for Ramise, whose brother, Arminio, has been arrested by Sigismondo’s father. 

Anthony first learned of this aria through his friend, oboist James Austin Smith. It employs an obbligato oboe, obbligato meaning a required instrumental part, integral to the music and not to be omitted in performance. The oboe was a favorite obbligato instrument of Handel’s, as he was an oboist himself, and the oboe is often considered the instrument closest in sound to that of the human voice. In the Princeton Symphony Orchestra concerts, Lillian Copeland will be the featured oboist.

Pictured Above: Oboist Lillian Copeland. Photo Credit: ©EMMA at emmaexperience.com / MUA: Priscilla Perez

“As singers, we’re always trying to have the finesse and accuracy and seamlessness of an instrumentalist,” says Anthony. “And the instrumentalist is always trying to have the kind of humanity and character and warmth of a human being.  So it’s important to have that interplay musically between the instrument and the voice.”

“What’s so wonderful about Handel in general is that he illuminates the internal world. During the arias, you go on this extended journey into the character’s mind,” says Anthony. “For me, the oboe, and all of those florid lines that it plays, are an extension of the character’s thought in that situation, which is a very beautiful thing to witness and think about.” Interestingly, the oboe is heard first in the aria, and at the end it has “the last word.” 

“Quella fiamma” is just four short lines of text, yet the ornamentation of the melody, known as coloratura, allows for an aria–practically a duet -between the oboe and countertenor for a little over three minutes.  Anthony makes a modern-day analogy: “If you imagine how often we get a text or an email with some good or some bad news, we don’t just read it once and keep moving forward with our thoughts.  We return to those ideas and they spin around in our head as we’re brushing our teeth, going to bed, making breakfast.  And then they take on different colors.  That original primary source, whatever it was, the thought, takes on all these different guises as we turn it around in our head.  That’s exactly what’s happening in the…Handel aria, so we’re able to, in a way, illustrate the human experience with more fidelity.”

“One of the really fun [elements] of singing Baroque music is that you get to be the composer for a minute and write some of your own decorations and variations,” says Anthony. “You’ll hear some of that for sure in ‘Quella fiamma.’ I have an idea for a cadenza that involves both of us, so we’ll play around with that. It’s something we can intuitively figure out fairly quickly.” 

The second work Anthony will perform with the orchestra, Love Story, was originally commissioned by the New York Philharmonic when he was its artist-in-residence.  It premiered on February 3, 2022.  The text is a poem written by Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate, and Chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton in 2019.  The composer is Greg Spears, who was a doctoral candidate in music composition at Princeton when Anthony was an undergraduate student there.

Pictured Above: Gregory Spears. Photo Credit: Contributed.

Greg vaguely recalls Anthony introducing himself when they were both in the music library, but he distinctly remembers the first time he heard “this magnificent voice” coming from behind a closed door. Greg was “imagining a mezzo-soprano was in there.  And then Anthony came out.  What a rare and wonderful gift he has.”  The two never worked together on anything when they were Princeton students, but they would occasionally see each other in New York, in their travels through the music world there. “So in a way this will be our first [project together] in Princeton.”

When Anthony and the Philharmonic reached out to Greg to write a piece, Greg thought, “I knew his voice well, so I know how to do this.” Greg had also met Tracy while she was at Princeton, but the three never sat down together to discuss “what the piece should be about. Tracy just said I’ll write a text and send it to you…It was this beautiful, exquisite poem, but it wasn’t a very long poem,” says Greg. “I could have gone back to Tracy and asked for more poems, but no, she’s written this.  Something is saying this should be the piece.”

“You have to figure out how [to make] this a 15-minute piece.  The text was asking me that question as an artist. How do I make what is essentially a text for one song into a song cycle.  And then I just started thinking about the word ‘cycle.’  Cycle means to repeat, to go through something again, but often there’s change involved, both repeat and change.  And then I looked in Tracy’s poem, there’s very much a cycle of seasons that it goes through, and of course everything that has to do with time in nature is like a circle in which there’s repetition.”

Love Story is about the end of a relationship. Greg thought, “Maybe I’ll just try to write four songs, like the four seasons.” Instead, he decided that the poem would be sung four times, with different melodic material for the countertenor and correspondingly different orchestral accompaniment each time.  

“When you read poetry you read it over and over, it’s meant to be read over, it’s not like a play that happens once,” says Greg. “I could give the experience of reading a poem over and over, it’s a poem that at some level is about loss and rebirth, grieving a broken heart.  When someone writes you that final email, and you read it twelve times, looking for something, what’s in there, what’s not in there.  This all turned into a drama in my head. And so I decided to approach the text that way, and this is the piece that emerged.” 

Thus Love Story became a song cycle. Greg describes the first song as “mysterious and hovering, with chords that are expansive [to evoke the lover’s] first processing the loss of the relationship.  There’s that sense that it’s not quite real yet.  The second song is more of a lament. In the third song, you hear the orchestra swelling, and this bright quality [expresses the process of] trying to rebuild the ego, ‘it’s better off this way,’ turning it into a kind of positive thing or at least trying to.  But there’s melancholy throughout the piece, even as the protagonist is trying to escape the gravitational pull of the loss of this relationship.”

“The fourth movement combines elements of the first three, so it’s everything together in a way that it’s processed and reimagined into a new kind of form…They fuse in the fourth song, there’s a sense of all this experience that we’ve had with this text, coming into some final understanding.”

A clip of “Love Story” by Gregory Spears / Tracy K. Smith (excerpt), New York Philharmonic.

During the creation of Love Story, Anthony recalls that he and Greg collaborated closely “and there was such a joy in that…We got together early on with early sketches, and he’s known my voice for more than twenty years, so he knows what some of my assets are and what some of my deficits are, and how to write with that in mind.” 

Anthony recently visited Handel’s house in London, where singers would often visit to work with the composer.  On display at what is now the museum are original scores with numerous notes that indicate the changes Handel made as he worked with singers.

Greg and Anthony have had a similar composer-singer working relationship. “I might say, I need more time to breathe there, the phrases are too long and I just need a second to breathe,” says Anthony.  “Or I might say, that note could go on for longer, and then he might scratch out a whole phrase or redo something. So we were able to work together, and of course a composer is not a singer, so they can’t always imagine exactly what it feels like.  And equally a singer is not a composer, so I don’t know exactly the effect something will create.  Together we are able to accomplish a lot I think.”

“What Greg does incredibly well is put emotion into vocal lines,” says Anthony.  “A lot of composers nowadays really focus on the musical context and the vocal line is a kind of puzzle piece that fits in, but Greg is really obsessed with singers and opera, so what he’s able to do is shape a vocal line that allows space for all of this emotion to come through.”

“He uses all different kinds of tools in the vocal writing, which is really important for me as a singer.  And then orchestrally…[he employs] different tactics throughout the piece to change it.  So it feels like we go through a whole journey. It’s akin to the repetition within Handel and the psychology that changes over time…It has some principles of minimalism in the same way Philip Glass[‘s music] does–in the repetition and the way he uses it. But it really has an almost Romantic scale of vocal writing which I’m really able to sink my teeth into.”

Greg describes his vocal composition process in this way: “The idea of thinking of musical content divorced from emotional or psychological storytelling content to me doesn’t compute. I have to hear the character emerge, and then sometimes I’ll do a modulation, or I’ll work with the vocal line, and all of a sudden it’s like the character disappears, and then oops, I took a wrong turn, I don’t know why…So I have to go back and try to go another way and keep the character alive, keep the character emotionally true.”  

“I find when I do that, it’s not in the notation too much, it’s not in obsessive crescendos and decrescendos, it’s not there.  It’s actually in the line itself. If I can keep it there through the whole piece without dropping it, it’s like a ball you can drop, then I find when I give it to a singer, [she or he] knows exactly what to do. I don’t have to say much, and then all of a sudden [the singer] just sings it.”

“Handel does this.  Handel’s so great at this.  There’s nothing on the page, yet the singer knows exactly what to do. I’m always trying to write music that does all the things that you want me to do with the material and development and virtuosity, but it’s always connected to some sort of emotional truth.  It’s one of the most mysterious things for me, but one of the most important.”

The Princeton Symphony Orchestra will also perform Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36, dedicated to his patroness, “my best friend,” Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a Russian railroad magnate. She gave him a stipend so generous that it allowed the composer to devote his life full-time to composition.

Pictured Above: R: Maestro Rossen Milanov with Gregory Spears during a pre-concert talk in 2023. Photo Credit: Contributed.

Prior to the Anthony Roth Costanzo concerts, composers Gregory Spears and Nina Shekhar will converse about their creative process and the state of modern orchestral music with Princeton University Music Department Chair Dan Trueman at the PSO Soundtracks Talk: “Meet the Composers” on Wednesday, January 10 at 7pm at Princeton Public Library’s Community Room. 

Rossen Milanov will host the 3pm Sunday, January 14 pre-concert talk at Richardson Auditorium, which will include composers Gregory Spears and Nina Shekhar. The talk is free to concert ticket-holders.

To purchase tickets for the January 13 and 14 concerts, visit princetonsymphony.org.

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