Tom Strini
Present Music

Meet composer Alexandra du Bois

By - Nov 20th, 2009 06:47 pm
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Everyone seems to want to play music by Alexandra du Bois, who has composed a big piece for Present Music‘s Thanksgiving program Sunday.

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Composer Alexandra du Bois

Du Bois is just 28, but her music has been played from Alaska to Argentina to Armenia and nearly everywhere in between. Soon, a California chamber orchestra will tour a new du Bois to Vietnam. The hip, new-music Kronos Quartet commissioned a work from her, but so did Menahem Pressler, the grand old man of the Beaux Arts Trio.

Over breakfast Friday, I inquired after any theories she might have as to why commissions and performances have poured in for Alexandra du Bois at a rate most composers can only dream about.

“I believe in accessibility,” she said. “I don’t want to alienate the audience. Although that happens anyway.”

She meant that though she wants people to listen and to like, she doesn’t want to pander.

“The music I’ve enjoyed has always been on the more tonal side,” du Bois said. “I write music because I want to hear music that I haven’t heard yet.”

You can download two full pieces, the 10-minute Chanson d’orage, for two violins, and the six-minute The Speaking Tide, for bass clarinet, cello and piano, at du Bois’ website. Both feature long, open-ended melodies with striving, yearning qualities and a good deal of forward drive. These melodies, especially in the violin piece, brought the music of the underrated Eugene Ysaye to mind. These pieces also have static, meditative moments. Du Bois likes pedal tones, and she frequently resolves dissonances to open fifths, which give parts of her music a medieval cast. Those bits made me think of Arvo Part.

Du Bois said that Part is, indeed an influence, along with Sven David Sandstrom, her composition teacher at Indiana University. The two pieces I heard make her sound more akin to the North European mystics, as opposed to the Glass/Reich Minimalists (although a photo of du Bois and glass adorns her web site).

“I don’t consider myself a follower of one composer or group of composers,” du Bois said. “I listen to diverse music, and I write diverse music.”

Many of the composers Present Music has brought to town in the last few years will tell you they owe it all to rock ‘n’ roll. Not so with du Bois, who is steeped the Western classical tradition. She started the violin at age two and excelled. She played in all the best youth orchestras in Virginia. That changed somewhat when her parents bought a piano.

“I thought I was going to be a violinist,” she said. “And then, when I was 14, I got a piano. I started composing because, suddenly, I had harmony. Instead of practicing the violin, I sat at the piano all day writing things down.”

Still, she played in the very accomplished IU Symphony Orchestra for four years and finished with a double major in composition and violin. Her master’s degree, from The Juilliard School, is in composition. A burgeoning career as a composer has left her no time to be a performer.

She is in Milwaukee now because Kevin Stalheim, Present Music’s artistic director, heard something of hers somewhere and called to ask for more. She jumped at the chance to write for the choruses. The instrumental ensemble includes bass clarinet, two violas, violin, cello and bass.

Her text comes from a Navajo prayer about maintaining a joyful awareness of the nature around us.

“I chose that text because I knew this would be a Thanksgiving program,” she said. “I’m very sensitive to our early history as Americans. I didn’t want the piece to be about pumpkin pie.

The Milwaukee Children’s Choir, the Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group and the Milwaukee Choral Artists will all join Present Music in its annual Thanksgiving program at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 812 N. Jackson St.

Concert time is 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22. Tickets are $15, $25 and $35; half off for students. $5 off ticket prices for the donation of two “healthy, wholesome non-perishable food items” to Hunger Task Force.

Call 414 271-0711 or visit Present Music for tickets.

Also on this program: Osvaldo Golijov’s Yiddishbbuk, a Psalm by Peter Maxwell Davies, a collective Native American friendship dance and Native American song and drumming.

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