St. Thomas premieres operatic melodrama 'Christina's Memory Garden'
Upon arriving at St. Thomas University 27 years ago, band and orchestra director Matthew George created a commissioning series focused on wind band. By now, the program has commissioned more than 90 new works, bringing artists from around the world to St. Thomas' deceptively quiet corner of St. Paul. This weekend, the program will debut its most recent commission, an operatic melodrama that is epic in scale and probably better heard than explained.
The new work came about after an audience member approached George at a previous premiere. He was so taken by Belgian trumpet virtuoso Harmen Vanhoorne and British composer Nigel Clarke's work that he wanted them to make more. It turns out that audience member was UST chemistry professor Thomas Ippoliti, whose daughter, Christina, is a soprano and current student.
Fast forward two years, and the UST Symphonic Wind Ensemble is putting the final touches on Christina's Memory Garden under George's baton. The work stems from a concept and story by Malene Sheppard Skaevard, a Danish-born, U.K.-based writer who lived in St. Paul as a teenager. Clarke wrote the music, which features Vanhoorne on trumpet and Christina Ippoliti as the work's one singer.
The piece tells the story of different Christinas throughout history, so the soprano's name was a jumping-off point for a work that Sheppard Skaevard describes as like an apartment building or an amusement park. It blends seemingly disparate parts — music, singing, spoken word, and sound effects — into a full experience.
"I like these kinds of pieces of art. I did film, and film doesn't exist as a script. It's a blueprint, really, just like an architect would have a blueprint and the house doesn't exist before you build it," Sheppard Skaevard said, "by having music which can take you emotionally to other places."
The three acts start with a memory all share but ironically end up forgetting: being born from a mother. The words and music recreate a childbirth including data from Sheppard Skaevard's son's birth. Then, it moves into the tale of Queen Christina of Sweden, who was famous for doing exactly what she wanted, including converting to Catholicism (she is one of only three women buried in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome). The last movement depicts animals speaking of human stupidity as it relates to climate change. These varied glimpses of life, from gruesome to optimistic, are meant to explore who we are and celebrate women both known and anonymous.
Clarke worked to balance all of these elements while keeping the music loyal to the subject. A prolific composer who has also worked in film, he approached Christina's Memory Garden a bit like a film score — reflecting on what just happened or preempting what is to come. Likewise, Vanhoorne's trumpet plays the role of an unseen actor who almost tells people what to think.
Like Foley artists, the performers use everyday objects to make sounds of nature, life and death: they tear paper, use clay bird whistles and blow up rubber balloons. "We're all children at heart, so you find that people always have quite a bit of fun when they do things that don't just involve playing their instruments," Clarke said.
The piece, the program
When they started the project, the creative team had no idea it would be so massive — it clocks in at an hour and 40 minutes, a good educational stretch for the students. The UST commissioning series shares that scale. Beyond its sheer volume of new work, though, the program focuses on using unique instrument combinations or music "spun a little bit differently," George said. They'll next premiere a work by an Argentinian composer written for guitar and wind ensemble.
"The first thing was to try to create a culture ... and then continue to raise the bar in terms of the expectations," said George, who has chaired the music department for 20 years. "It's not a matter of if we can do it. It's a matter of how well we're going to do it. That's cultural; you build that up over time."
Sheppard Skaevard said one of the great things about working in this educational setting was having the freedom to both fail and succeed rather than meet a financial target. "You can't do science if you know what's going to come at the end, because then you won't be able to really experiment. To me, that's very exciting when art is allowed the same privilege as that," she said.
Both she and Clarke have traveled from their homes in Europe to St. Paul multiple times. They reflected on how nice it has been to see people here, from commissioner Thomas Ippoliti to the wider public of individual donors, putting money toward large-scale art endeavors.
Sheppard Skaevard's Minnesota connection runs even deeper: she went to high school at St. Paul Academy. With her trips back over the years, she's noticed a growing combination of biking, public transit, sports, university life and art — and people making the most of all of them.
"It does feel like people are actually engaged with life. And I think that is partly because money is being put into more than just surviving," she said. "You should always want more than what you have, but the Twin Cities are a happy place."
Christina's Memory Garden premieres Sunday, May 6 at 2 p.m. at The O'Shaughnessy Auditorium at St. Catherine University. The event is free; more information here.