As California grapples with the ravages of wildfires, the San Antonio Symphony begins rehearsals for the world premiere of Something Miraculous Burns, the newest work by local composer David Heuser. The 10-minute piece for winds, percussion, piano, and strings deals with the things we lose, or perhaps destroy – lives, cultures, histories, entire species – potentials that cannot be regained. It’s a stark and passionate piece, written well before the fires began but uncannily punctuated by them.
The work was commissioned specifically for the Symphony by Music Director Larry Rachleff, who says, “Oftentimes when a new work is premiered, you get an eight to 10 minute, highly pyrotechnical, overture-like piece. This piece has some of those elements, but it’s also a touching, soulfully-oriented work. It’s a very thoughtful, dramatic piece.”
That Heuser has created another moving, beautiful work should come as no surprise. In addition to his associate professor “day job” teaching composition, theory, and electronic music at UTSA, Heuser is a prolific and sought-after composer commissioned both locally and abroad. In December, SOLI Chamber Ensemble will premiere a 20-minute work called Thin Green Traces, written specifically for ensemble members Ertan Torgul, violin, and Carolyn True, piano. Another new work, borne by constellations of green birds, for saxophone and piano, will be included in the UTSA Monday night artist series featuring saxophonist Valerie Vidal in April, along with Deep Blue Spiral, a 7-minute work for saxophone and tape written in 1998. He’s currently working on a piece for the Texas Music Festival Orchestra for June ’08.
Something Miraculous Burns exhibits Heuser’s typical sense of structural balance and emotional impact, yet it’s atypical in being a direct homage to Shostokovich – the String Quartet No. 8 in C, Opus 110 in particular.
Shostokovich wrote his quartet in response to a trip to Dresden and the massive destruction wrought during WWII on the once thriving, beautiful city. It’s a powerful and fearsome work filled with trepidation. A comment on man’s power for destruction, the Opus 110 is generally regarded as autobiographical. Shostokovich incorporated musical elements that reflected his growing sense of intimidation, censorship, and physical danger at the hands of the Soviet regime that stifled his intellectual and artistic expression, and limited his physical and political freedom.
Heuser makes obsessive use of two characteristic motives from the Op.110, but the non-musical elements bear the greatest resemblance. He feels we have our own contemporary versions of the same fears and crises: domestic spying and increasing surveillance, the stifling of dissent, destruction of our complex ecosystem. As Heuser states it, “The World Trade Center burns, Iraq burns, Darfur burns, and even the planet is burning up, leaving extinctions of so many ‘miracles’ in its wake.”
Structurally, the rhythmic and melodic themes slowly accumulate in the piano and strings with a slow, insistent beginning section, which then splinter and mutate. It builds to a faster, intimidating, almost combative middle section with a fuller sound, exploiting the resonance of the brass, woodwinds, and piano, with the strings carrying the bulk of the melodic and rhythmic drive. The structure of that full sound begins to break down again into another slow section, repeating motives from the beginning, but more somber, almost dying away. The opening has a sense of foreboding, the closing bears the scars of the experience.
Yet Heuser isn’t morbid by nature. There’s a beauty and sinister poetic appeal to Something Miraculous Burns that keeps it from being completely fatalistic.
Heuser will oversee rehearsals for the premiere, which will be conducted by Rachleff, and host pre-concert discussions before both performances.
Heuser’s “loss of potentialities” permeates Something Miraculous Burns, and the fact that this is Maestro Rachleff’s final season with SAS can’t be ignored. He’s been a champion of new music, responsible for commissioning both this work and last season’s premiere of Timothy Kramer’s Party Favors. Hopefully, the lack of administrative vision that cut Rachleff’s tenure short won’t eliminate the possibility of future commissions. •
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