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Composer Michael Gandolfi's 'Ascending Light' Remembers Armenian Genocide

Composer Michael Gandolfi's "Ascending Light" premieres on March 26. (Mosaic Classics/YouTube)MoreCloseclosemore
Composer Michael Gandolfi's "Ascending Light" premieres on March 26. (Mosaic Classics/YouTube)

The commission of Michael Gandolfi’s “Ascending Light,” the organ concerto that the Boston Symphony Orchestra will premiere on March 26, began with influences long ago and far away.

The BSO had originally conceived of a new organ work back in 2004, after the passing of Berj Zamkochian, the orchestra’s organist for nearly four decades. In an effort to remember both Zamkochian and his Armenian heritage, the BSO had approached the Gomidas Organ Fund, and the idea began to take shape.

The BSO officially commissioned Gandolfi three years ago, during the waning days of the James Levine era at the BSO. Levine, whose tenure in Boston got derailed by health issues, “was going to conduct the work,” says Gandolfi, “but things changed.”

And then, as the years passed, the centenary of the Armenian Genocide was approaching, and remembering all these events became part of the intent of the commission.

Now the work will finally be performed, with the BSO’s new music director, Andris Nelsons, at the podium. Incorporating a historic remembrance of the Armenian tragedy, paying tribute to Zamkochian and the orchestra’s legacy and still finding his own voice for an instrument that rarely receives concerto commissions—all these factors faced Gandolfi before he had composed a single note.

“I wanted to write a solid piece, first and foremost,” Gandolfi says. “It did not have to have any overt connection to the genocide—in fact, it could have simply been an inscription on the cover page of the score. I knew the tragedy was not something that I could simply brush aside, but still, I did not want to make it a requiem.”

Gandolfi, born in Melrose, now lives in Cambridge. He chairs the composition faculty at the New England Conservatory, and serves on the Tanglewood Music Center faculty as well. He has had dozens of commissions from major orchestras and ensembles, and a Grammy nomination for the recording of his orchestral work, “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.”

Categorizing his music in a simple way would be risky business, but it’s safe to say that he shares ideas with contemporary composers like his friend Osvaldo Golijov, facilely blending musics that originate in multiple styles. Many of his inspirations, like in “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation,” have come from the scientific sphere. He has also written a substantial amount of music for children.

But this commission broke new ground. “I’m not an organist, and I hadn’t written for organ or paid much attention to the issues involved,” Gandolfi says. “So I had to give it a lot of thought, and go through a lot of research on the instrument, and organ works."

“And Armenian folk music as well. I have a lot of Armenian friends and colleagues, and have been aware of the culture. And also how invested they are, and supportive of their own musical tradition.”

Who would sit at the console of the BSO’s restored Aeolian-Skinner organ was another decision to make.

“It took us a while to settle on a soloist,” he says. “I relied on Tony Fogg (BSO artistic administrator). He was prescient. He knows what’s going on, and he’s a genius at matching people. We eventually settled on Olivier Latry, who has great stage presence and is a brilliant organist.”

It wasn’t until this past October that Gandolfi actually met up with the French organist, who was on a North American tour.

“I hadn’t written any music at that point, but I had been doing some research. I wanted to incorporate some Armenian folk music, and I was thinking that a lullaby might be appropriate. I found this melody, ‘Lullaby of Tigranakert,’ in instrumental and vocal versions, but I couldn’t find any printed music. So I transcribed it for organ, and brought it with me. It was a productive meeting.”

The lullaby became the focus of the second movement of “Ascending Light,” transformed into a set of variations that includes a scherzo.

“I had also envisioned how the piece would start,” he says, “but I was reluctant to reveal it at that time. I work visually, and after reading and viewing photos of all these folks who had died, I envisioned projections of these folks on a screen.

“Suddenly I just started hearing music, powerful and defiant music, and the piece started forming in my mind. It was full of energy. We had this terrible event, and lost these incredible people. But the life force is winning, and the music supports that.”

Another melody from the Armenian folk tradition found its way into the work as well: inspiring the title and leading to a surprising coincidence about the commission itself.

“Shortly after I found the lullaby, I heard this simple, elegant melody. It dates back to the Renaissance. The melody is sung to a lyric that translates as ‘Ascending Light,’ and I uncovered some harmonizations for it as well."

“They were done by an Armenian musicologist, and I first found his name to be Komitas. I found a nice recording of the harmonizing, but I couldn’t find much about the tune. Later I found out that his name was really Gomidas—the same person that the commissioning foundation is named after.”

“Ascending Light” gets paired with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, a continuation of the ambitious programs that have characterized Nelsons’ first full season as music director. Paired with an outsized work like the Sixth, Gandolfi tries to take advantage of the strengths and unique quality the organ can bring to orchestral performance.

Organist Olivier Latry will perform Michael Gandolfi's "Ascending Light." (Philippe Guyonnet)
Organist Olivier Latry will perform Michael Gandolfi's "Ascending Light." (Philippe Guyonnet)

“I don’t really consider this a concerto in the Romantic sense,” he says. “The soloist plays a lot, and he drives the piece. It’s almost like the piece is built out of the organ, and there’s a way in which the organ informs the orchestra."

“But the organ also has the potential of overwhelming the orchestra,” he says. “It’s not the virtuoso instrument that the piano is. It has to release the notes, and it’s a wind instrument after all. It’s like writing for a wind orchestra and an orchestra. I had to work to mitigate too much wind sound."

“If the harmonies get too complex, it gets too dense. It reminds me of using distortion with electronic signal processing on the guitar. You have to revert to simpler harmonies, or things get out of control. Based on the feedback I’m getting from Olivier, it’s working out well."

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs Michael Gandolfi’s organ concerto “Ascending Light” March 26 through 31 at Symphony Hall. The soloist is Olivier Latry and BSO music director Andris Nelsons conducts. Also on the program is Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. For tickets and information visit www.bso.org.

Keith Powers, former music critic at the Boston Herald, now freelances for a number of newspapers and magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @PowersKeith.

Keith Powers Twitter Music Critic, The ARTery
Keith Powers is a classical music critic for The ARTery.

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