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The Era of Lera

April 23, 2013

In Jeff Dunn's photo illustration, Lera Auerbach appears as the incarnation of Parvati, a goddess with the number of heads and arms that would explain the composer's productivityWhere in the world is Lera Auerbach?

The world's new manifestation of John Adams-type fecundity/success is constantly in motion and in demand. Reaching her on Monday was possible only through the persistence of her crackerjack publicist, Joseph Correia, who found her even as Lufthansa's one-day strike stopped Auerbach from her appointed rounds, trying to find an alternative flight to Switzerland where she is due on another of innumerable tours.

The result: information from the composer herself about the world premiere of her work on the May 24-26 New Century Chamber Orchestra's programs — see next item.

Who is this flying Russian-American, Valeria Lvovna Auerbach, levitating between a dozen premieres in coming months around the world, emerging as perhaps the busiest contemporary composer? And I don't even have to get into the matter of gender because "female composer" is virtually immaterial at this point, thank goodness.

Born in the Urals, bordering Siberia, Auerbach wrote her first opera at age 12, went on to obtain dual degrees from the Juilliard School, where she studied piano with Joseph Kalichstein and composition with Milton Babbitt, and later graduated from the piano soloist program of the Hochschule für Musik Hannover.

Lera Auerbach Photo by F. ReinholdWhile not busy writing poetry and prose in Russian and English (six volumes published already), painting, going on concert tours, or acting as a member of the forum of Young Global Leaders at the World Economic Forum, Auerbach composes.

Among those performing her works: Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica, David Finckel, Wu Han, Vadim Gluzman, the Tokyo, Kuss, Parker and Petersen String Quartets, the SWR and NDR symphony orchestras, and the Royal Danish Ballet.

Auerbach’s music has also been commissioned by and performed at Caramoor International Music Festival, Lucerne Festival, Lockenhaus Festival, Bremen Musikfest, and Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival. Her opera, Gogol, premiered in Vienna last year.

In the Bay Area, we have had a good sampling of Auerbach's work already — works played by New Century Chamber Orchestra, the visiting Aviv String Quartet, and San Francisco Ballet's pastiche-y The Little Mermaid, but until Thursday of what I heard up to that time — except for her stunning Russian Requiem — I was only moderately impressed.

Auerbach in a <em>Little Mermaid</em> frame of mind The click came in Herbst Theatre, with Auerbach's String Quartet No. 6 at the Tokyo String Quartet's farewell concert, and I instantly became an esurient fan. Here, sandwiched between Mozart's "Hoffmeister" and the Brahms Op. 51, No. 1, no less, the Auerbach piece hit home: a substantial, vital, intriguing, dramatic work, making a big impression on first hearing, and demanding to be heard again.

It is one of the most impressive new chamber works I have heard recently — especially as Kurt Rohde seems too busy teaching at UC Davis, and Mark Volkert is all tied up as assistant concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony.

This is how the Tokyo's cellist, Clive Greensmith, has described String Quartet No. 6, subtitled "Farewell":

We’d already talked to the [commissioning] 92nd Street Y and the promoter in Madrid, and when she heard we were retiring, she responded with an ambitious piece to tell the story of the life of a string quartet, which is quite a bit to ask in terms of the demands she places on performers and listeners.

It starts with a strong declamatory opening, with the first violin, in some senses, pitted against the three others. Then other relationships are explored, and rather than smoothing over and creating a homogenous sound, there’s more a sense of disparate personalities. I think she was trying to say we have to try to understand each other’s differences and work to find a way through conflict.

Along the way, there are these quasi-cadenzalike passages, so she exploits the range of timbre of each instrument. In the end, everything is resolved, and we hit this beautiful, tranquil C Major.

Auerbach's oil painting, <em>The Birth of Sound</em> When you look, you shall find, and the Herbst experience was followed immediately by coming upon an amazing bunch of Auerbach's upcoming premieres, beginning today (if she finds a flight) with Theatre de Vevey's at-home and on tour (Germany and Greece) performances of Auerbach's Arcanum, a sonata for viola and piano. Commissioned for the 850th anniversary (that's the correct number) of Vevey's Arts & Letters organization, the sonata is performed by Auerbach and Kim Kashkashian.

Then on Sunday (and to run though July), Munich's Bavarian State Ballet presents Helden (Heroes), by Terence Kohler, to music by Auerbach and Schnittke (what a "co-composer"!).

There is more: Auerbach's Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano will be premiered on May 3, in Colmar, France, commissioned by Les Musicales Colmar. Auerbach is allowing another pianist, Peter Laul, to perform the piece, with violinist Liana Gourdjia and cellist Marc Coppey.

Our own New Century Chamber Orchestra jumps (again) on the Auerbach bandwagon, with May 23-26 commissioned world premiere performances of her String Symphony No. 1, Memoria de la Luz. Auerbach will be in good company: Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, and Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. (See next item.)

At the end of May, Auerbach will be back in Germany for the WDR Radio Chorus world premiere of her Galbenlieder (Gallows Songs), for saxophone quartet and women's choir. The composer will be represented again at the July Lincoln Center Festival in New York, with an a cappella opera, The Blind, to her own libretto, after Maeterlinck's strange play about 12 depersonalized beings. (It preceded Waiting for Godot by 30 years.)

Then back to Switzerland, and another world premiere, at the Verbier Festival in July, of In Praise of Peace for soprano (Lisa Milne), mezzo (Lilli Paasikivi), tenor (Pavol Breslik), and baritone (Matthew Rose) ... and more.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].