To say that music is organized sound in motion is merely to say something obvious and non-controversial about it.
But for composer Hannah Lash, the idea of movement is central to the very bones of her artistic project. Lines, harmonies and intervals constantly shift and alter in a relatively generous sonic environment that is tonal without being retrograde.
“What was interesting to me and why I called the piece ‘Facets of Motion,’ is that in my mind the piece was all about change, and how material moves, and how we perceive it through time,” Lash said of her newest orchestral work, which will receive its world premiere Wednesday night in Palm Beach Gardens. “And when I’m thinking of material, it’s far from abstract. You can’t think of material unless you think about the way it moves.”
Facets of Motion, a 15-minute piece that in an older time would have been called a tone poem, is featured on the closing seasonal concert by the Atlantic Classical Orchestra. The Fort Pierce-based group’s Gardens concert at the Eissey Campus Theatre also features pianist Alon Goldstein as the soloist in the Prokofiev Third Concerto, and the concert concludes with Second Symphony of Brahms (in D, Op. 73), all led by ACO director David Amado.
The concert will be repeated Thursday night in Vero Beach at the Waxlax Center, and twice on Friday, once in the afternoon and again in the evening, at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart.
Lash’s piece is the most recent winner of the Rappaport Composition Prize, which was established by the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation at the ACO under former director Stewart Robertson, and which for five years now has presented new pieces by composers such as Garth Neustadter, Jeffrey Parola and Zhou Tian, among others.
A full-time teacher of composition at Yale, the 36-year-old Lash hails from Alfred, N.Y., where she and her sister, whose father D. Barry Lash was director of libraries at Alfred University, were home-schooled through high school. She has gathered an impressive number of degrees since then, including a bachelor’s from the Eastman School, master’s and doctorates from Harvard, a performance degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and an artist diploma from Yale.
All that academic work has not kept her from turning out a steady stream of compositions , orchestral works including the large-scale Voynich Symphony, an opera on the Beowulf legend, a choral requiem for dead birds, and numerous solo and chamber pieces, including some with whimsical titles such as Music for Eight Lungs, a quartet for male voice, trumpet, bass clarinet and trombone that premiered in New York two years ago.
Next month, her first piano concerto, subtitled In Pursuit of Flying, will be premiered by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Teddy Abrams, with the brilliant American pianist Jeremy Denk as the soloist. Her music has been recorded by the JACK Quartet, and she is the recipient of major composition awards including a Yaddo fellowship, the Naumburg Prize and a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
“I love her music,” Amado said over lunch in West Palm Beach last month. “There’s a sensitivity to color that I responded to immediately, and then there’s a discipline in terms of dramatic unfolding that got me past ‘Ooh, it’s shiny.’ That was very appealing to me.
“I think the fact that she’s a [harp] player, and a really good player, also makes a difference. So she’s also practical,” he said.
A perusal of the score of Facets of Motion shows a vivid soundscape rich in woodwind and percussion color and a lyrical central motif introduced in the first violins in which a barcarolle-like theme, as well as the pizzicato accompaniment in the second violins, suggest minor and major tonalities simultaneously.
“For me, all intervals are directional … the way certain modalities interact with each other drive the whole piece forward,” she said, speaking by phone from New Haven, Conn. “The clashes between major and minor occur because of the linear motives that drive the piece. This, too, is something that I’ve observed a lot in Bartok, and which is fascinating. When he works with thirds, say, the thirds can be treated as major or minor thirds, the seconds can be treated as major or minor seconds, and this kind of flexibility in how the material is treated creates so much direction and harmonic possibilities.
“And that’s something that’s really interesting to me,” Lash said.
More broadly, Facets of Motion is a work of variation in which that initial material is transformed and unfolded in such a way that the music’s shape-shifting sonic character is what remains at the end rather than any recall of the first moments of the piece.
“The piece plays with sonata form, and instead of being traditional sonata form, what I was more interested in doing was taking the Brahmsian principle of directed variation” and altering the music in other ways, she said. What amounts to her first and second themes evolve elaborately, so that by the time she comes to where a traditional development would be, the music enters its most static phase.”
Again, the suggestion for that comes from Bartok, “who will do that in a few of his string quartets, because the material in the exposition has developed so intensely that when the development happens, the material needs to unfold a little bit,” Lash said.
As Amado noted, Lash also is a harpist, an instrument to which she devotes four hours of daily practice. It’s important to her that she remain a fluent performer, unlike many composers who lose touch with their original instruments.
“To be able to produce music physically is of extraordinary importance for me as a composer. I never want to lose touch with that. It feels to me as though it’s part of being a healthy musician, too, to know what it is to connect with something like that, to be able to sit down and actually make something happen, and not on paper,” she said.
“It really feeds my need as a composer as well as being in and of itself a satisfying, compelling thing for me to do. And as I think about my favorite composers, particularly those from the past, they’re all instrumentalists as well as being composers, and they never really let that go. So I find that to be an inspiring model as well as encouraging, too, because nowadays people tend to say, ‘Well, you have to choose. You can’t be at the highest level of both.’ And I think to myself, ‘Hey, what about Brahms? He kind of was’ … so I feel deeply encouraged and kind of emboldened to carry on, on that path,” Lash said.
She thinks of the harp as being more akin to a piano, and in addition to writing a sonata and two concertos for her instrument, has recently been working through the piano music of Schumann, putting Waldszenen and the Fantasy in C through their harp paces.
“I think of these very much not as transcriptions, because I’m not changing any part of the music … I think of it as a different voice bringing this music to life,” she said. “For me, the harp is a much more expressive, colorful, polyphonic and flexible character than we think of it as.”
Amado said Lash’s familiarity with the harp surely helps her in imagining orchestral music.
“The thing with the harp in particular is that it’s a lot like the piano in that a lot of what you do on the instrument is a magic trick: There’s no real sostenuto, there’s no real connecting of a line. Once it’s over, it’s over,” he said.
“The idea of creating illusion is really useful when it comes to orchestrating, because that’s kind of what you’re doing; you’re making those illusions more real,” Amado said.
A person who teaches courses in Schenkerian analysis at an Ivy League university is by definition someone who is fully conversant with the compositional techniques of the Western tradition. But as a woman composer, Lash has run into some criticism for wanting to continue operating in techniques that were largely created by male composers.
“One of the obstacles I have found is that in my music, I embrace all the techniques that have been associated with maleness for so long,” Lash said. “And a lot of people have trouble with that, because for them anyway, these techniques represent being oppressed, of being oppressive to women and to minorities. My approach is a little different in that I feel the music itself need not be oppressive. But what happens then? The only way to make it not oppressive is for women and others who have not traditionally owned that to appropriate it, to carry it forward, and then suddenly it no longer carries that connotation of exclusivity and privilege.
“So for me that has been a pretty intense struggle, and there a still a lot of people who don’t understand that point of view,” she said. “But I believe it very fully, and for me personally, the idea of appropriating as thoroughly and fluently as I can all the techniques that comprise our tradition, and carry them in my own way, is the way that I need to work.”
Nonetheless, she felt honored to be chosen to speak two years ago at the dedication of the grave of Helen Hagan (1891-1964), an African-American composer who studied at Yale before World War I and was its first black female graduate, in 1912. Her student work, a piano concerto, is the only piece of hers that appears to have survived. Hagan’s gravesite in New Haven was only recently rediscovered, and a crowdfunding effort was held to erect a new monument over it.
“I was very lucky when I was asked to speak at the dedication of her tombstone. I felt as though it was something really beautiful and worthy,” Lash said. “It’s tragic that no more of her music has survived … The other thing that was really sad about this was that clearly she was so suppressed by her colleagues and mentors and not given the kind of opportunities that she should have been given, and I just think she didn’t get the chance to develop much as a composer.”
Encouraging new composition is something Amado, who has been conductor of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra in Wilmington since 2003, says he’s committed to.
“I’m all for supporting living composers. That’s an incredibly important thing to do,” Amado said of the Rappaport Prize at ACO, where he has been the director since 2016. “One of the models I would like to see us work more toward is something like Paul Sacher had in Basel, establishing some kind of canon of new works for chamber orchestra. That would be great.”
Sacher (1906-1999) was a Swiss musician and orchestra conductor whose collection of contemporary music includes the estates of Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern, which has helped make the Sacher archive a central location for contemporary music research.
The Delaware Symphony has for years presented the A.I. duPont Composer’s Award to leading composers such as Aaron Jay Kernis, Kevin Puts and Christopher Theofanidis. “We don’t commission anything, but do draw attention to their work,” Amado said. “Where I guess we would like to get to is a place where we didn’t need substantial outside funding to get new music into the standard mix.”
Lash’s visit to Florida this week will be only her second visit to the state, and last month she said she was looking forward to making the trip. It marks another step in her already distinguished compositional career, a profession she has wanted to pursue since age 5.
“I had a couple diversions along the way. I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer, but I don’t think I ever lost sight of my goal to be a composer,” Lash said. “That was never put away in favor of something else. It’s a pretty single-minded focus I’ve had since I was tiny.”
The Atlantic Classical Orchestra performs Hannah Lash’s Facets of Motion at 7:30 pm Wednesday at the Eissey Campus Theatre on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens. Pianist Alon Goldstein is the guest soloist on the program in the Third Piano Concerto of Sergei Prokofiev, and the concert concludes with the Symphony No. 2 of Johannes Brahms. For more information or to buy tickets, call 772-460-0850 or visit atlanticclassicalorchestra.com.