Orchestra Underground: Border Vanguards Composer Spotlight – Derek Bermel

ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel
Grammy-nominated composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel has been widely acclaimed for his creativity, theatricality, and virtuosity. Derek’s works draw from a rich variety of musical genres, including classical, jazz, pop, rock, blues, folk, and gospel. Hands-on experience with music of cultures around the world has become part of the fabric and force of his compositional language. Derek currently serves as the Artistic Director of the American Composers Orchestra and was ACO’s Artistic Adviser from 2009-2013. Here he tells us about his piece Mar de Setembro which ACO will perform with Brazilian singer Luciana Souza during Orchestra Underground: Border Vanguards on April 4, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.
American Composers Orchestra: What inspired your work, Mar de Setembro?

Derek Bermel: Andreia Pinto Correia shared with me the work of the great Portuguese poet Eugénio de Andrade (José Fontinhas). I was immediately drawn to the direct lyricism of his language, his bold depictions of the natural world’s sensuality. At the time, I was privileged to be serving as Composer-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and their music director Jeffrey Kahane reacted with great enthusiasm to my idea of setting this poetry. I traveled to Porto in 2010 and met with Andrade’s translator of 25 years, Alexis Levitin, who introduced me to Andrade’s heir Gervásio Oliveira Moura, and we all spent a wonderful afternoon talking together.

ACO: How would you describe your composition process for the work?

DB: Each song arrived differently. The first one I wrote was “Mar de Setembro,” its lyrical rhythm suggesting the continual undulation of the sea; I notated it in short score and sang it while playing it at the piano. The short “Canção” cycles restlessly through two whole harmonic iterations of the circle of fifths, and the xylophone became my nightingale, a far-off descant over the final lines. I orchestrated “Ocultas Águas” directly into full score, away from the piano; it could not have realized in an abbreviated form. “Frutos” took form as a sort of fado/tango, a cabaret song with bold colors like the tiles of Lisbon. And the introductory prologue on the mysterious poem “Que voz lunar” I wrote last, adding aquaphone as a ghostly accompaniment.

ACO: Did you encounter any unusual challenges in writing this work? If so what were they and how did you resolve them?

DB: I had spent a good amount of time in Brazil, and had even written some chôrinhos. But it was my first time setting text in Portuguese. Throughout this daunting process, my lighthouse on the stormy shore was the magically expressive voice of Luciana Souza. The collaboration with her was nothing short of joyful; her generosity, sensitivity, and attention to detail were paramount, and she inspired me to seek my best compositional self.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of your piece at Carnegie Hall by ACO?

DB: Of course I am thrilled that Luciana is singing, and George Manahan is a conductor who is so closely attuned to the nuances of the voice and orchestra together, so I am particularly looking forward to this wonderful combination. I have a long history working with the gifted musicians in ACO, so it feels like a family reunion to me.

ACO: Is there anything that you hope the audience will get out of listening to your work? Anything in particular that they should listen for?

DB: I hope that the work can serve Andrade’s poetry and I hope that I’ve helped bring a taste of Portuguese “saudades” (longing) to American shores.

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