American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?
Liliya Ugay: Honestly, I was very surprised. I applied to Underwood before with the piece that I would consider more impressive and competitive in terms of its subject and complexity, and it was not selected. In contrast, Rhapsody in Color is a light unpretentious piece – very different from a lot of orchestra music – and writing it I had lots of fun.
ACO: What is it about Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that inspired you to write your own rhapsody? What do you especially love about these works by Liszt and Gershwin, and what aspects of them do you try to emulate in your own Rhapsody in Color?
LU: Being born and raised in Uzbekistan in a Russian-Korean family I always felt the influence of the various cultures on my music. Rhapsody in Color is my reflection on American music, and particularly on Gershwin and old jazz, which one can hear in both the harmony and rhythm of this piece. I take simple and conventional motives and, using different combinations of timbres and counterpoint, give them a more modern sound. The effect is similar to re-creating old sepia photographs into contemporary colors. On the other hand, it is written in the form of variations with a substantial fast and dance-like coda, which, certainly, can be found in multiple example of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. Hence, the title Rhapsody in Color seemed to me very appropriate for this piece.
ACO: Your biography mentions the series of lecture-recitals you give at Yale School of Music on repressed composers from the Soviet era. Can you tell us a little bit about one of these composers, and perhaps share a piece that you particularly love or admire?
LU: This is my long-term passion, which started several years ago with the first piano lecture-recital I gave on this topic, which I took as an Independent Study project course at Yale with the generous guidance of Boris Berman. In 2017, as a highlight of my studies and for the anniversary of Russian Revolution, I co-organized the concert series Silenced Voices at Yale, featuring and performing the works of repressed and neglected Soviet composers. The series included solo, chamber, and even choral music of such composers as Mosolov, Roslavets, Ustvolskaya, Gaigerova, Weinberg, Slonimsky, Gubaidulina, and many others, and the pieces were performed by various members of Yale community (including faculty and non-music majors) and beyond. This series was very exciting and intense, and we gathered great audience. For my last recital at Yale I took the theme of Russian/Soviet composers-emigrants, and there I also performed my own music. In future, I plan the series of the music by Soviet composers from Caucasus, Baltic, and Central Asian regions.
It is hard to name a single favorite piece, but one day I would particularly love to perform Alexander Mosolov’s piano concerto, which I truly admire and think fully deserves to be in a standard repertoire – just like Prokofiev’s piano concertos. Music of the USSR hides inconceivable amount of gems that could truly enrich the repertoire of each instrument and genre. I, as a descendant of that culture, feel that it is my direct duty to promote these works to the audience in the United States, and to preserve the memory of the culture that was either lost or never fully exposed.
ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you have made to your piece?
LU: Rhapsody in Color received readings last summer at the Aspen Music Festival. I was not happy with how the piece turned out there, so for the Underwood readings I made a completely different orchestration. Hearing it today for the first time, I can tell I am happy with how I have done it, because now the piece has the character I intended it to have – light, joyful, fun, and excitingly cute.
ACO: What do you hope to gain from the Underwood New Music Readings?
LU: I hope to gain more skills and practical wisdom in writing for orchestra. It is very important that here we have two sessions of readings, and we get feedback from mentors as well as the musicians. And of course, I am looking forward to the final reading and the recording of my piece.