Composer Larsen to Premiere Newest Work in South Florida

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Libby Larsen. (Photo by Ann Marsden)

It’s shaping up to be a season of premieres here: Music from Richard Danielpour and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich later this season, works from University of Miami student composers (Oct. 7) and six 10-minute chamber operas from UM faculty (Oct. 13) during the upcoming Festival Miami, and on Oct. 10 in Boca Raton, a world premiere of a big new work by Libby Larsen.

Larsen, one of the best-known of all contemporary American composers, did a two-year residency at Florida Atlantic University, and has now completed one of the pieces she had planned to write for the school. Called The Encircling Skies, the work is for orchestra, wind ensemble, chorus and instrumental soloists, and is based on a poem by the eminent African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906).

I talked to Larsen back in 2008 for a lengthy interview on a blog I was writing at the time, and I found her to be energetic, passionate, friendly and eager for new musical experiences. One of the things we talked about was the idea of how you write music for different communities; South Florida, she said, had a very different energy than her home in Minnesota, and she felt it was important to reflect that in teaching she did in Boca, and the music she then went home to write.

She said when she goes out on residencies at various educational institutions away from home, she always tries to figure out the “why music” of an area; in other words, why would music be there, and what would it reflect?

“Because where I go to try to understand ‘why music’ and ‘how music’ in a place is; I always go to language, and I listen to people talk,” she told me. “I listen to them, and I try to hear how people are rhythmically matching each other in order to create a community, if that makes any sense to you … and the music then comes through that filter.”

This is a fascinating idea, and somewhat allied to the speech-song ideas of older composers such as the Czech Leos Janacek, who used to try to write down the notes of the speech patterns he was hearing, and would incorporate that in his music (operas in particular), to get a more authentic Czech feel to everything he was writing. I didn’t think Larsen was trying to do anything that specific; it was more as though she was trying to soak up the local vibe and derive new colors and new patterns for her music.

Larsen is a very skilled composer, and a forceful advocate for new music, for new American music, and for the arts in general. She likes all kinds of music (the rapper Nelly is one of her favorites), and she has an admirable openness to the new that is matched to an urgency for it that makes you realize you’re in the presence of someone for whom creative work is a mission.

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This is a major premiere of a new work by a major American composer (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, at FAU; admission is free) and it will be good to see how Larsen is able to match her feeling for our local cultural vernacular with the high Romantic style of Dunbar (pictured at right):

Silence, and whirling worlds afar Through all-encircling skies. What floods come o’er the spirit’s bar, What wondrous thoughts arise. The earth, a mantle falls away, And, winged, we leave the sod; Where shines in its eternal sway The majesty of God.