The International Contemporary Ensemble is a collective of three dozen musicians. Photo by Armen Elliott, courtesy of ICE

Growing up in North Yarmouth, Suzanne Farrin liked to frolic in and among the tide pools at the coast. One time, she remembers sitting on a large boulder while peering at a tiny beach pebble, which she placed on the end of a finger and held close to her eye. In that moment, the little girl recognized both the immense size and scope of the world around her, as well as its intimacy.

Farrin is 44 now and hasn’t lived in Maine since she was 15, when her father’s work took the family to Massachusetts. But that experience on the coast stuck with her, and has informed how she sees and experiences her world. “I could feel really smallness and really largeness that was around me in Maine,” she said. “I look for similar experiences in other places, but for me it all started in Maine.”

Suzanne Farrin, who was raised in North Yarmouth, has written new music for the International Contemporary Ensemble, which will premiere on Thursday. Photo by Luke Redmond, courtesy of Suzanne Farrin

A composer of modern music, Farrin attempts to capture some of that transcendent wonder in her writing, and we’ll get a sample of her work on Thursday when Portland Ovations teams with the Library of Congress and the International Contemporary Ensemble for a virtual concert, livestreamed on YouTube and other platforms, that will include a premiere of a new work by Farrin, “Nacht,” commissioned by the Library of Congress. She has created atmospheric settings for poems about the night by ancient Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz, with voice, percussion, bass, harp, piano and the ondes martenot, an early electronic instruments that sounds like a theremin. Farrin will perform on the ondes martenot with members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, or ICE.

Thursday’s concert begins at 7 p.m. and is titled “Aural Explorations: Farrin, Fure and Messiaen.” In addition to music by Farrin, the program includes new work by composer Ashley Fure, written specifically for this time of social distancing to draw people into the music-making experience. Her piece is interactive, and she suggests those listening at home keep Mason jars and large glasses handy to serve as makeshift instruments. There also will be a performance of the final section of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” and another piece by Farrin, from 2008, called “Polvere et Ombra.”

As with so many events this spring, the premiere was supposed to happen in person in Portland, and was lost to the pandemic – but not completely lost. Instead, the premiere and the concert will exist in an evolving virtual world. Thursday’s event will mark the first time the Library of Congress has created a virtual event and, accordingly, also the first time it has delivered a premiere of a new work on a digital platform. It’s also the first livestream of a concert hosted by Portland Ovations.

And while everybody involved would much prefer presenting this music together on stage with an audience present, they’re also pretty excited about this new opportunity.

“All presenters worldwide are re-envisioning the future,” said Anne McLean, senior producer for concerts and special events at the Library of Congress. “It’s a new world for all presenters. We must balance the need to keep great music alive in our concert halls, but also reach out to a new digital world and a new audience. It’s a great platform and a great way to reach people who maybe were not interested in new music before. … The medium of video offers new intimacy in the world of concert presenting.”

For Portland Ovations, it means the organization can continue to pay artists, which is vitally important right now, said executive director Aimee Petrin. “If this had been a straight cancellation, it would have been a different story. This allows us to hold and honor the space that would have been for live performance and reimagine it in a new way,” she said.

Before the pandemic, the concert was scheduled for late April at Halo at Thompson’s Point, and the idea was to tie it to Earth Day by focusing on climate change and other ideas related to the environment. As a virtual event, the 90-minute concert will include many components. “It’s a little bit like a radio hour, with hosts and interviews and a number of musical pieces, some live and some recordings,” Petrin said.

The International Contemporary Ensemble will perform a virtual concert on Thursday night. Courtesy of Portland Ovations

The musicians will be in New York, and Petrin will participate from her home in Maine. The concert is free, and donations will be solicited online. Petrin said it was important to find a way to present the music, despite the circumstances. “To me, this project connects us to our mission and vision so strongly in terms of how we support artists and make connections with artists. We asked, ‘How do we take what we have done and expand on it?’ What I love too, the program mirrors that ideal. It’s about how artists are problem solvers and how they work under crisis.”

For Farrin, who now lives in New York, the concert touches on two worlds she holds dear. Growing up, she viewed Portland as her cultural hub, and she views the Library of Congress as the nation’s greatest repository of art, culture and knowledge. “Both locations are emotional, psychologically and spiritually important to me,” she said. To be able to create art for both at once is something she never imagined, she said.

Farrin’s “Nacht” is a snippet of a larger song cycle. We’ll hear somewhere between 3 and 4 minutes of larger piece on Thursday night, and it will be different than what we would have heard had the original concert gone as planned in April at Thompson’s Point. Among other things, she added music for the harp, which was not part of the original instrumentation. “The piece was written and ready to go, and I was excited to go back to my home city and reconnect, and then all this happened. Everything was thrown up into the air, and we weren’t sure what was going to survive from it. The piece represents to me an important moment and an imaginative space that felt sad to give up.”

With the musicians from ICE, she began looking at what parts of the piece could be re-constructed and presented effectively from the perspective of distance, and settled on a movement called “Nacht.” She described the music as “an emotional push and pull with a consistent pulse” that creates an atmospheric setting for the poems of Rumi and Hafiz and allows room to explore language, translation and identity. She is using a German translation of the poems, which will be presented in English on screen. Because the Library of Congress has manuscripts of the writings that Farrin is referencing in her work in its collections, it will include links so viewers can explore them more fully, McLean said.

The International Contemporary Ensemble is an orchestral collective. It has about three dozen members, who work as composers, performers, curators and educators and who specialize in modern classical music. The performers on Thursday will include Farrin on the ondes martenot; Alice Teyssier, vocals; Ross Karre, percussion; Randall Zigler, bass; Nuiko Wadden, harp; and Jacob Greenberg, piano.

New music isn’t new to the Library of Congress, McLean said. Since 1925, it has commissioned more than 600 pieces of music. Farrin’s happens to be the latest – and the first and so far only that will get its debut in a virtual world.


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