Present Music: Kamran Ince, Pan, Apollo and Opera

"Judgment of Midas" began with an archaeological dig in Turkey, and premieres at UWM Friday.
April 12th, 2013 |
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Clockwise from left: Apollo, Tmolus the Mountain God, Pan and Midas, in mosaic watercolor illustrations by Crawford Greenewalt, courtesy of the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, Harvard Art Museums.

Kamran Ince’s Judgment of Midas, which Present Music will premiere in a concert setting Friday night, might seem the most unlikely of projects. Ince has written precious little vocal music of any kind before he took up the piece. Present Music has never presented an opera.

But in hindsight, Midas takes on a certain inevitability. Present Music’s relationship with Ince, a Turkish-American composer long based in Tennessee at the University of Memphis, goes back well over 20 years. They have toured Turkey together. Ince has gotten to know Present Music’s patrons over the years, and Present Music has grown to have the resources to put on what will be its biggest single piece.

But the impetus for it all began not with Present Music or even with Ince, but with an archaeologist, the late Crawford Greenewalt. Greenewalt’s life work involved the Lydian culture. From 1958 until his death in May of 2012, he worked on digs at Sardis, in ancient Anatolia and modern Turkey, where Lydian artifacts lay buried beneath the remains of Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman versions of the city.

“Maybe 13 years ago, ‘Greenie’ saw one of my Argo CDs in a record store,” Ince said, in an interview Monday. ” That CD included Arches, a Present Music commission performed by the Milwaukee group, and The Fall of Constantinople, played by the Albany Symphony. Greenewalt contacted Ince by mail — via a letter knocked out on a manual typewriter, the way Greenewalt would continue to communicate to the end.

“He had no phone, no TV, no computer,” Ince said.

Greenewalt, a professor at UC-Berkeley and a scion of the DuPont fortune, invited Ince to California to talk. Ince’s music intrigued Greenewalt, and Ince became intrigued by the Sardis dig. Ince gets to Turkey often, and Sardis isn’t that far from Izmir, on Turkey’s vacation coast. Ince began visiting the dig when he could.

“It’s beautiful there, and Turks hardly know about it,” Ince said. “The tombs — tmoli — of the Lydian kings are all rounded.”

After a couple of years of getting friendly, Greenewalt asked Ince what he would like to do as a composer, given ideal conditions. Ince replied, casually, that he would like to write an opera. Four or five years after that, in Ince’s fuzzy recollection, Greenewalt offered to commission an opera — provided it took Ovid’s tale of a singing contest between Pan and Apollo in the shadow of Mt. Tmolus as its subject.

“I was excited, but worried,” Ince said. “I thought that might be a little dry.”

On a trip to Philadelphia not long after, he met writer Miriam Seidel.

“She had just written the libretto for an opera about Nikola Tesla,” Ince said. “I got a good vibe. I thought I could work with her.”‘

Seidel produced a libretto on the prescribed subject matter, but sure enough — kind of dry.

Kamran Ince. Present Music photo.

Kamran Ince. Present Music photo.

“I like modern things,” Ince said. “It needed something. It needed a modern frame.”

Ince got the idea of adding a modern tourist couple, and Seidel ran with it in a new libretto. He’s a composer of the Apollonian tilt — high-minded, intellectual. She prefers pop culture. In these two, we have natural cheering sections for Apollo and Pan.

“He’s a formalist, she wants experience,” Ince said. “She’s thrilled to be in this thrilling place, he’s staring at his laptop. Then they meet this tour guide.”

The guide takes them through a forbidden door and presto! They’re whisked back to mythological times and the musical contest between Apollo and Pan, with the mountain god Tmolus as umpire. Their guide turns out to be Midas, the Lydian king and follower of Pan.

“The mosaics in the tomb come to life, and the contest begins,” Ince said. “Pan starts, and the music is pandemonium — a little like Rite of Spring. Then Apollo takes his turn and brings order again. I think of Pan as a street musician, a folk musician on the wild, human side of music. Apollo is deeply spiritual, orderly, mature.”

At one point in Ovid’s story, Midas annoys Apollo by rooting for Pan. Apollo promptly replaces Midas’ human ears with those of an ass.

“In Ovid, Midas is embarrassed and that’s that,” Ince said. “In the opera, Midas is embarrassed at first, but then begins to hear like a god.”

Ince likened Apollo’s music to that of the Whirling Dervishes, who are based about 350 miles east of Sardis, in Konya. Note that dervish music is not the wild stuff Westerners might imagine. It tends toward the meditative.

Ince has incorporated the ney flute, a key component of Dervish music, into his opera orchestra, along with four other traditional Turkish instruments. He has western alternatives indicated in the score, but Present Music will bring in three players from Turkey and two from New York to get the full effect.

In Milwaukee, we will hear the third incarnation of The Judgment of Midas. It began as a 75-minute one-act, which grew to 90 minutes in Midas 2.0. That was too long for a one-act and too short for two. Besides, Ince needed more breadth to make the music and the story — a subtle reconciliation of the two viewpoints, rather than victory for one — resolve properly.

Ince developed the piece through the American Opera Project, in Philadelphia. He work-shopped it again in the University of Memphis opera department, where he made a couple of crucial changes. He added a finale to Act 1 and recast Pan. Tenors struggled with Pan; at Memphis, Ince thought to bump the part up an octave and assign it to a coloratura soprano.

Ince has worked on and off on Midas for 13 years, but his fervor is undampened. He will conduct the premiere himself. He wishes Greenewalt could be here for it, but takes some comfort in the fact that the late archaeologist did hear the 90-minute piano vocal version.

“I’m excited, as excited as when I was 24 and having my first orchestra work performed,” Ince said.

“My music is wild, even barbaric. But it also has this spiritual, god-seeking side. As I was writing the music for Pan and for Apollo, I would find myself under their influence of one or the other and start to wonder whether this one might be the winner. But how can you say which is better? My music already has both elements. I think I’ve found a good balance.”

Present Music’s Midas Partners: Milwaukee Opera Theatre and artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik are assisting in this semi-staged concert production. Judgment of Midas is a headline event of UWM’s Year of the Arts.

Cast: Jennifer Goltz, Matthew DiBattista, Abigail Fischer, Mikhail Svetlov, Gregory Gerbrandt and eight-voice chorus; with the Present Music Ensemble (Kevin Stalheim, artistic director), Kamran Ince conducting.

Concert Info: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 12-13, at the UWM Helene Zelazo Center for the Arts, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd. Tickets are $15-$30, call Present Music, 414 271-0711, Ext. 5, or visit Present Music’s website.

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