Thursday, November 6, 2014

Eric Huebner discusses Doug Fitch's "How Did We…?"

Doug Fitch

Internationally renowned producer, designer, artist, and choreographer Doug Fitch has been in residency at UB as the first ever WBFO Visiting Professor.  Fitch is working with with UB students, staff, and faculty in the Theatre and Music departments to produce an elaborate and surreal new theatre work called How Did We…?.  The project will be performed on November 13, 14, and 15th at 7:30pm in the CFA Drama Theater.

Fitch is well known in the contemporary music world for directing the New York premiere of György Ligeti's absurdist opera, Le Grand Macabre, with the New York Philharmonic in 2010.  Fitch, along with his production company, Giants are Small, has also directed productions of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen (NY Philharmonic), Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (LA Philharmonic), Puccini's Turandot (Santa Fe Opera), in addition to works by Carter, Stravinsky, Weill, Hindemith, and Thomson.  Beginning in his family's touring puppet theatre and going on to team up with the likes of Peter Sellars (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Robert Wilson (The Civil Wars), and Jim Henson (The Muppets), Fitch is no stranger to collaboration, and excels at bringing diverse artists together to create great works that are far more than sums of parts.

How Did We…?, Fitch's production at UB, has been described as an "opera of images."  A recent press release describes the (seemingly indescribable) work:
The show features odd characters, giant ships passing in the night, digital people-surfing, a “Ballet of the Sensory Organs,” water drumming (in which drum chambers are filled with varying amounts of water to create unique sounds), a jungle of social media, high tea, dancing Tibetan Buddhist icons and much more.
The performance will be supported with live music by composers Alfred Schnittke, David Felder, Paul Moravec, Doug Cuomo, Su Lee, Franz Schubert and Frederick Chopin performed by UB’s Slee Sinfonietta, a Balkan banda and an onstage string quintet.
Eric Huebner, world-renowned pianist and member of the Music Deptartment faculty, has worked with Fitch before, playing in the NY Phil's performance of Le Grande Macabre.  Huebner—who is also the coordinator of the June in Buffalo Performance Institute—is playing a big part in the production of How Did We…? acting as the project's music director.  I had a chance to interview him about the work, and his insights only made me more excited about seeing the production!

Eric Huebner
How did this project come together? How many departments and students are collaborating on it?

I, along with Music Department chair Jeff Stadelman and Theater and Dance chair Lynne Koscielniak, proposed Doug Fitch for the inaugural WBFO Visiting Art Professor position. The production of Doug’s show, How Did We…? is a collaboration between students and faculty from the Music Department and the Department of Theater and Dance. The ensemble cast includes 18 student actors and dancers and nearly two dozen student designers and technicians.

What role does the music play in the production? The piece has been called an "opera of images," how does that phrase relate to the music's role?

The phrase “opera of images” means the story is told primarily by the scenes on stage and the music. In this case, the music moves the action forward. It is the catalyst for nearly all of the scenic changes taking place on stage. Each image or scene morphs organically into the next. Characters (some quite strange!) appear and disappear as if in a dream.

The piece seems to pull together a lot of diverse elements, do they all serve a continuous narrative?

Yes, absolutely. The show is about one man’s journey to become more comfortable with himself. The main character is played by actor Connor Graham, a student in the department of Theater and Dance.

Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre
Fitch is no stranger to contemporary music, having worked on The Grand Macabre and The Civil Wars among so many others. How does that aesthetic sensibility manifest itself in this work, or in particular, in how he utilizes the music in this work?

Mostly, I think it’s his general openness to contemporary music and his own highly developed musical sensibility from having worked with so many orchestra and musicians over the years in addition to his work in opera. He revels in musical abstraction and senses immediately the possibility of connection between the world he is seeking to create on stage 
and the music that might go with it.

There is a very diverse grouping of composers represented in the piece, from 19th century composers to UB faculty and students. How do the different pieces work together?

As de facto Music Director for How Did We…? my biggest concern was finding music that fit Doug’s vision of a particular scene while making sure the overall collection of pieces and electronic excerpts worked musically together. There are moments when one piece overlaps with another in musically interesting ways and still others where very different pieces of music are juxtaposed, one right after the next. The excerpts from the Schnittke Piano Quintet that open and close the show helps to give the musical score a dramatic underpinning. Mostly the music was excerpted from pre-existing works. In choosing the music, I was looking to include excerpts of works by our own students and faculty as well as my two composers, Paul Moravec and Douglas Cuomo, that Doug Fitch had expressed an interest in working with. The composer Douglas Cuomo wrote original music to accompany the penultimate scene which features Yamantaka—the Tibetan killer of death—which features a part for Alex Glenfield, a Buffalo-based Tuvan throat singer. Additionally, the Pulitzer-prize winning composer and Buffalo native, Paul Moravec arranged a portion of his orchestral work “Capitol Unknowns” for the Slee Sinfonietta. Of course I wanted to include work by our own excellent faculty and student composers and found the perfect compliments for several scenes in works by Professor David Felder and current PhD composition student Su Lee.

The works by Schubert, Chopin and Dinicu provide a depth and dimensionality to the musical score and in the case of the Schubert and Dinicu, are part of the action on stage.

Who is conducting the Sinfonietta? How about the Balkan banda or the string quintet, are they also made up of musicians from the department?

Dan Bassin will be conducting the Sinfonietta. Moshe Shulman, a recent PhD in composition graduate from UB and a violinist will be heading up a trio of musicians, including Miguel Benitez on guitar and Jeremy Spindler on accordion. They will be playing Grigoras Dinicu’s “March Hora” from on top of a tall piece of scenery on-stage at one point in the show.

The opening of the Adagio to Schubert's string quintet in C Major will be played on-stage by a group of student musicians from the Music Department and includes: Aidan Scoccia, Blair Sailer violins; Jessica Oemcke, viola; Lisa Gagnon, cello; Stanzi Vaubel, cello.

Do you know anything about the piece with the "water-drumming”?

Yes! It was choreographed with assistance from Jason Ross—a graduate student in percussion who happens also to be a champion clog dancer! A portion of the stage will be covered in water. I think to say much more will spoil the surprise!

What is it like as a performer being a part of a multimedia production such as this?

These kinds of productions always bring with them an added sense of excitement as well as organizational challenges. We're fortunate in this regard to have the support of a number of individuals associated with the Music Department and the Center for 21st Century Music as well as of course, the technical staff at the Center for the Arts and from the Department of Theater and Dance.

In the video below, Fitch says the piece is about the "unanswered questions we have hovering in the back of our minds." This, of course, makes me think of Ives's The Unanswered Question. What do you, as a musician and teacher, think about music's role in helping us grapple with difficult questions?

I think that it tells us these questions are, in some way, universal. We all hear different things in the music we listen to, but still there is a sense of discovery while listening to any worthwhile piece of music that enriches us and let’s us know that difficult questions may not have “right” answers.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this project?

Please come see it! Everyone who’s worked on it is very excited about it!

Douglas Fitch and the Slee Sinfonietta
How Did We…?
November 13-15, 2014
Center for the Arts, Drama Theater
ticket info

—Ethan Hayden