Composer Katherine Balch had ideas in her mind. She knew there was inspiration from French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s prose-poetry collection Les Illuminations, a text with beautiful, abstract language that stirred her years ago. (The work has inspired many, most notably Benjamin Britten.) Throw in a bit of Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, and excerpts of poems by Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds. “I knew I wanted to fragment the text and intertwine it with some of my favorite female poets,” Balch recalled. “The question was, how.”
Cue the Swiss Alps. Right after Balch tackled many new works at once, including a violin concerto, a double bass septet, and a string quartet, she spent days in solitude hiking the Alps, in June 2019. She trekked from hut-to-hut along snow-smattered trails, singing melodies aloud. “This is a great time to dream about this piece,” she remembers deciding. “I’m going to let this material, this text, sort of float in my head a bit.”
The fruit of that labor is now Illuminate, a song cycle for three voices and orchestra. The world premiere by the California Symphony will be on Saturday, March 14 (with a second concert Sunday, March 15), at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. [Editor’s note: These performances have been canceled, following ongoing concerns about the novel coronavirus in the Bay Area.] Soloists are mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra, soprano Molly Netter, and soprano Alexandra Smither. It is the final work the California Symphony commissioned during Balch’s three-year tenure as their Young American Composer in Residence.
The premiere is part of a busy, Bay Area-themed March for Balch, who resides in New York City. On March 21, the Santa Rosa Symphony performs Balch’s 2018 work like a broken clock, conducted by guest conductor Gemma New, as part of their Showcasing Contemporary Women series.
Illuminate marks not only the end of her residency with the California Symphony, but a vital period of growth. Balch said Illuminate may resonate to audiences as an intricate sound world built around the singers’ melodies and their expressions of these interwoven texts. Balch surmises the experience will feel abstract, less like a direct conversation between poems and poets. “I think the way most people experience my music is very textural and timbre oriented ... I think [the audience will] experience something that feels very much like vocalists and the orchestra are a very integrated entity.”
The structure loosely follows the archetype of the four seasons. Spring summons it all to life, with Rimbaud’s words, translated “Oh world, oh sound, oh music.” Balch painted summer as one evoking New York City mugginess. “It’s a heavy, sweaty, humid, New York summer,” she says. An interlude capturing a warm-weather thunderstorm, where vocalists momentarily join the orchestra, tapping rocks to mimic rain falling on roofs, follows. Fall, after the deluge, is the heart of the work. Rimbaud’s poems begin after a similar storm. Balch stitched in words from Sappho to respond. After winter, an expansion of her 2017 work Phrases — four songs for soprano, double bass, and jingle bell — there’s a return to a feeling of spring.
“Marinating” is a key part of her process, Balch says. The work sprang forth from her engagement with John Ashbery’s English translation of the Rimbaud text. “What resonated most with me is all these seemingly fleeting references to women and children,” she explained, adding that she read the poems from her perspective — an inherently female point-of-view. “I’ve intertwined these texts in such a way that they are very much a celebration of the women portrayed in the Rimbaud, the women who are the poets, the women that these poets are evoking,” Balch said. “It’s also a celebration of my three years with the symphony, which I’m so grateful for, which have been immensely transformative for me artistically.”
It’s also a celebration of the soloists, three artists Balch describes as close friends. Writing for voices she knows intimately was pivotal. “Their voices are in my ears when I’m writing. I know each of their singing styles and preferences,” she says. Balch kept practical aspects in mind, such as their range and what they like to do. But most important: “The timbre of their vocal apparatus is in my ear,” she says. A recent text from Guerra made Balch cry: “Your piece fits like a glove.”
Throughout the process, Balch says she received a wealth of feedback from California Symphony Music Director Donato Cabrera. “It’s an education that I could never replace,” she recalls, naming Cabrera’s insights on even the smallest elements. It’s all part of a residency Balch describes as invaluable. “This orchestra has asked me, ‘What is it you want to do? Who do you feel you need to write for? What is it you want to write?’ That’s a question that a lot of young composers don’t get asked, especially from an orchestral organization.”