Festival showcases riches and reach of UC Davis music department

January 2015 – The University of California, Davis, will be new music central for the Music and Words Festival Jan. 27-31. The festival exploring the intersection of text and sound will include concerts of landmark works from the last 50 years and new pieces by emerging composers, along with residences by internationally known musicians. Music and Words is a collaboration between the UC Davis Department of Music, and the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

“The festival allows us to present important contemporary works and premieres of new works while broadening the reach of the UC Davis music program,” said composer Sam Nichols, a lecturer in the music department and festival co-director. “It’s a way for us to show the important work the music department is doing and connect the department and our students to the wider musical world.”

Among the performances:

  • Three concerts by the acclaimed group Sō Percussion.
  • Performances of three pieces by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner, festival composer-in-residence.
  • Luciano Berio’s rarely heard Sinfonia and Wagner’s Pulitzer-winning piece performed by the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra.
  • A rare regional performance by Bob Ostertag, sound pioneer and cinema and technocultural studies professor.

The Music and Words theme grew out of orchestra music director and associate professor Christian Baldini’s wish to perform Berio’s Sinfonia for orchestra and eight amplified voices. The Sinfonia,commissioned for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, uses fleeting excerpts of music by Mahler, Debussy and Stravinsky, and spoken words from the writings of Claude Levi-Strauss and Samuel Beckett.

‘Perfect’ music and words piece started it

“It is the most perfect example of music and words, a rarely performed masterpiece,” Baldini said. “It’s a challenging work, very complex and expensive to mount, but a performance is long overdue.” Members of San Franciso vocal group Volti will join the orchestra for the work.

The last performance in this region was by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1979.

“It’s such an ambitious piece, and it uses text in such an interesting way,” Nichols said. “For our programming, it made sense to start with Berio’s Sinfonia and expand outward.”

Pulitzer winning composer visiting

The orchestra will also perform Wagner’s Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion, for which she won the Pulitzer in 1999, and the university’s Empyrean Ensemble will play two of her pieces. Wagner, whose work often includes text, will work with UC Davis students and seven composer fellows invited to the festival.

“We wanted to have a composer emblematic of the Music and Words concept,” said Kurt Rohde, music professor and festival co-director. “It’s important for our students and composer fellows that the composer-in-residence is someone who is clear about what they’re trying to do with their music, and Melinda is. She’s also a great person, a good teacher and a solid musician as well as a terrific composer.”

Sō Percussion’s participation came through a collaboration with the Mondavi Center to find a group that would work as a popular public offering and make a significant contribution to the festival. The group will perform music by Steve Reich, Steve Mackey and John Cage, with undergraduate students performing with Sō at one of the concerts.

Ostertag will perform his solo piece for live electronics, “Sooner or Later,” which is based on a recording of a boy in El Salvador burying his father, who was killed by the military.

“It’s an unusual and powerful work with the text actually becoming music,” Nichols said. “He has only performed once at UC Davis in the decade he has been here, so we are really excited about this.”

Developing new composers

A significant component of the festival is a composition workshop that will bring emerging composers from around the nation to work with faculty, ensembles, guest artists and UC Davis students. Four of their pieces will be performed during the festival.

A former composer-fellow, David Coll, will create and perform a new work at the Nelson Gallery, and the work will be transformed into a sound installation at the Mondavi Center.

The festival will also include a colloquium with UC Davis music, theater and dance, and English faculty.

“This festival raises the profile of our department on a national scale,” Nichols said. “People are able to see what we’re doing here at UC Davis and that we’re doing an excellent job pursuing our goals.”

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