Chapter 13 for soprano and ensemble (world premiere, LA Phil commission)
Prodigiously gifted composer/singer Agata Zubel is very present even in mainstream media these days. Her recent profile in The New York Times was headlined “Agata Zubel, Contemporary Music’s Multiple Threat.” “The 37-year-old Ms. Zubel has, in a relatively short career so far, become one of Europe’s most accomplished and internationally successful contemporary classical composers and vocalists,” the article affirmed, noting that this month she will perform at New York’s Ferus Festival and that the Los Angeles Philharmonic will premiere her Chapter 13, based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. (And in technological testimony to how intertwined art and commerce, reality and virtuality have become, viewing the article brought a pop-up ad for a “Little Prince” watch.)
Chapter 13 is just that, a setting of Chapter 13 of The Little Prince, in Zubel’s own translation. This chapter is the little prince’s dialogue with the businessman who is counting the stars, which he claims to own.
A solo duet may seem paradoxical or schizophrenic – or both – and Zubel keeps the exchanges tight. Both characters are inclined to melismatic raptures on the word “stars,” but the businessman is otherwise more matter-of-fact, with his signature rat-a-tat exclamation “I’m a serious man.” His acquisitive effort to quantify the stars – to monetize wonder, in effect – baffles the prince.
In Zubel’s music, the prince’s puzzlement rises beyond lyrical naiveté to defiance and rejection. She draws protean colors from the instrumental ensemble, with extended techniques and quarter-tones; the harp is detuned a quarter-tone, for example, adding a shimmering ironic jangle to its unison passages with the piano. The instruments track and reflect the shifting rhetoric of the dialogue, sometimes literally, when the players speak phrases of the text. In fact, the ensemble – and conductor – have the last words: “certainly absolutely extraordinary,” which seems a fair comment.
— John Henken