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PREVIEW | Composer Sebastian Currier Talks About Ongoingness — To Premiere At Toronto’s 21C Music Festival

By Anya Wassenberg on January 9, 2024

Sebastian Currier (Photo: Jennifer Taylor)
Sebastian Currier (Photo: Jennifer Taylor)

Composer Sebastian Currier’s piece Ongoingness will see its world premiere in Toronto as part of the 21C Music Festival at Koerner Hall. The piece was written for the occasion for harpist Bridget Kibbey, who will be performing it with the Calidore String Quartet on January 21.

Based in New York City, the American composer will be in Toronto for the piece’s debut.

Composer Sebastian Currier

Sebastian Currier is a native of Pennsylvania, and holds degrees from the Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music. His body of work includes chamber and orchestral pieces as well as compositions for solo instruments.

Sebastian’s compositions have been performed by prominent ensembles all over the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and the Kronos Quartet, among others.

Currier has received numerous awards and recognition, including the Grawemeyer Award, Berlin Prize, Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others.

Anne-Sophie Mutter has become a frequent collaborator. The renowned violinist, together with cellist Daniel Müller-Schott and pianist Lambert Orkis, premiered his piece Ghost Trio at Carnegie Hall in 2018. She has commissioned and recorded several of his pieces.

He’s currently working on a piece for violin and digital media that’s in the development stages. He’ll be collaborating with Anne Sophie Mutter again for the project. “It’s been a long association,” he says. Blending the violin and digital sounds is a deliberate statement on the times. “It’s meant to somehow relate to […] this strange moment we are in as human beings,” he adds. In performance, the piece may be performed by a human musician using digital material. “I don’t really know what it’s going to be.”

Bridget Kibbey, the Harp & the Concert

Bridget Kibbey has taken the harp, something of an outlier to the classical music world, and brought it into the spotlight. She’s done that by defying conventions and crossing genres, as at ease with baroque repertoire as she is playing in jazz or global music genres. Her technique is virtuosic, and her musicianship impeccable.

Also on the program for the evening is André Caplet’s harp quintet, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story Masque of the Red Death. The Royal Conservatory’s Executive Director of Performing Arts, Mervon Mehta, will join the cast to narrate Poe’s story.

Mehta talked about Kibbey in an earlier interview with LvT. “Someone has called her the Yo-Yo Ma of the harp, but she is really a fascinating artist,” he said. “We’ve never done a harp concert, per se,” he added. Local harp students will get the opportunity to learn from Bridget, who will conduct master classes while she’s in Toronto.

Other pieces on the program include Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Claude Debussy: Prélude from Suite Bergamasque, Fauré’s Une châtelaine en sa tour, and works by Jessie Montgomery and Isaac Albéniz, some of them arranged by Kibbey.

Sebastian Currier: The Interview

When it comes to the initial spark for a composition, Sebastian approaches it in various ways. “A lot of the time, I’d start actually with a concept,” he explains. His Microsymph, for example, written in 1997, takes a full-length symphony and condenses it into a frenetic ten-minute format. “Everything goes back to that idea,” he says.

As a composer, there is always a push and pull of pressures. “You’re trying to establish a voice, a sound over your career, but also to [produce varied work],” he explains.

In February 2022, Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave his piece Track 8 its world premiere. Inspired by the work of Beethoven, the composition references the original material, but weaves it into an idiosyncratic musical language of Currier’s own design.

For Track 8, the premise was already given: to riff off Beethoven’s 8th. “Composers are often asked to write something related to a specific composition,” he says. It led to his unique approach. “Why don’t I try to engage with it in a super direct way?” he wondered.

In the piece, instantly recognizable passages of Beethoven’s original score emerge and then develop and transform into music that is clearly Currier’s and not the Romantic master’s.

“It’s about the gradual, finding a balance between the things,” he says. The snippets of Beethoven are seamlessly integrated. “It becomes subsumed in my work.”

He describes a process of discovery as he works with the original material and his own ideas. In each movement of Track 8, he worked on creating a different relationship to Beethoven’s own 8th.

In contrast, Ongoingness, the piece he wrote for Bridget Kibbey’s performance at 21C, was not initially directed by a specific concept.

“I think the first thing to talk about is the instrumentation,” he notes. “I’ve written a lot for harp.”

Sebastian recalls coming to know French harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet, at the time performing with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. He became entranced with the instrument’s complex possibilities, and began to write for it.

“I think it’s my sixth piece for harp,” he observes. It’s an area where repertoire can be sparse, as he notes. Previous compositions have included a piece for harp with flute and viola, a concerto, a work for harp and small string orchestra, and one for two harps. “It’s proved fun, once you get over all the pedals,” he laughs.

It won’t be the first time he’s worked with Kibbey. “We’ve done a lot together,” he says. “I’m looking forward to working with Bridget again.”

The harp, while unusual on the face of it, seems a natural sort of addition to a string quartet. “In terms of raw acoustics and balance, harp [with a string quartet], it’s a really natural fit.”

For Ongoingness, he began with a musical idea alone. “But it did become this thing,” as he describes it — a thing that is constantly revolving, spinning on itself. “It transforms. The harp begins, then the harmonic language changes,” he explains. “We will all see how that works.”

  • Find tickets and more information about the January 21 concert [HERE].

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