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Preview: Singer-composer Susan Botti to bring ancient connections through her “Gates of Silence”

Susan Botti (right) with cellist Felix Wang from the Blakemore Trio. (Photo by Jenny Mandeville)
Susan Botti with cellist Felix Wang of the Blakemore Trio. (Photo by Jenny Mandeville)

Susan Botti can blur the line between theater and concert with ease. A composer and singer, she will perform her chamber work “Gates of Silence” with the Blakemore Trio this Friday at 7 p.m. in the intimate space of the Dance Studio at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. The event is free to the public.

“I come from a theater background, and so my process is still rooted in theater,” Botti says of her composing. “Especially when I’m writing for myself, it naturally has theatrical aspects to it. Even as I’m conceiving the music, I’m seeing it in space, in movement, in staging.”

She nevertheless attends to the craft of composition in a very thorough way, as a distinct discipline of its own. In the case of “Gates of Silence,” she knew in advance that the work was going to be primarily a concert piece. “Yes, it does blur the lines, but I think of it more as a theatricalized concert, which has to have embedded in it a certain flexibility in order to be [presented] in a concert space,” she says.

Commissioned by the Blakemore Trio, “Gates of Silence” was to be three independent but connected chamber pieces. They share the overarching theme of being inspired by Virgil’s “Aeneid,” which Botti uses as a springboard for relevance to tragedies of our own times. In each, she says, “there is a reiterated rhythm of loss, but also one of renewal and hope and continuation.“

The first, “Lament: The Fallen City,” is for violin and piano and reflects upon the fall of Troy as metaphor for modern cities that have experienced natural or human-made disaster, such as New Orleans; Baghdad; Pisco, Peru; and Greensburg, Kansas.

The composer points to the passage in the “Aeneid” where Aeneas is confronted by the ghost of his dead wife, Creusa, and admonished to drop his rage, leave Troy and move on to his destiny. “I knew I wanted to represent after the rage and the loss and the expressions of intensity in the ‘Lament,’ to find the moment represented by that encounter where it turns into hope,” Botti says.

In “The Journey Without Her,” which follows, cello is added. The music is associated with related “physical passages” — the Mediterranean Sea in the “Aeneid,” with intended allusions to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.

It is in the final piece, “Dido Refuses to Speak,” that Botti adds human voice to the mix, to address “our personal interactions with each other and with our destinies.” For the lyrics, she commissioned poetry from author Linda Gregerson. It’s not the first time she has set Gregerson’s words to music. “I love setting poetry, especially poetry like that,” the composer says. “It’s so rich. It has demands, the story has demands. It can’t be just a vehicle for the voice.”

In the “Aeneid” when he encounters Dido in the underworld, Aeneus tries to talk to her but she refuses to speak to him.  Botti wondered, “what if Dido had spoken?” – not just then, but at other moments — and asked Gregerson for a group of poetic “windows” addressing that question. It’s worth noting that, for “Dido Refuses to Speak,” Gregerson subsequently won the 2011 Pushcart Prize for poetry.

“Within them are these themes that represent love,” says Botti. “The last song talks about walking in the garden and talking about something I had seen before, a scent, a memory.” So in the end, she sings about memory, upon musical material she presented in the opening “Lament” and has subtly woven into the work elsewhere, hinting at the importance of the play of the audience’s own memory.

Additionally during her brief residency at Emory University this week, Botti is taking part in a “Creativity Conversation” with Gregerson and Robert Spano today, March 22, at 4 p.m. The Blakemore Trio, with Carolyn Huebl on violin, Felix Wang on cello and Amy Dorfman on piano, will perform its own noontime concert on Friday at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

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