Composer Robert Nelson Discusses the music of WatercolorsIn my many years of teaching composition, one of the best bits of advice I ever gave my students was this: Develop and nurture strong associations with talented performers who are capable and open to new music. Such has been my relationship with the multi-talented mezzo-soprano Sonja Bruzauskas. In addition to being a first-rate performer, Sonja has the most wonderful ear for contemporary music and has established a reputation as the go-to person for new music. I have been extraordinarily fortunate in having a years-long and quite fruitful period of collaboration with her.
Our relationship came about somewhat by accident. I had been invited to have my Zoo Stories performed by the Greenbriar Consortium, a group of Houston Symphony musicians eager to perform chamber music under their own auspices. I had a singer in mind who had performed some of my earlier music, and we had begun coaching on the piece. But Anne Leek, the director of the Consortium, had recommended a couple of other singers, one of which was Sonja. I had originally conceived this work for a singer/actor, and Sonja seemed the logical choice. I extended an invitation to her to do the piece, but she was initially very reluctant. After considerable urging by Brian Thomas, our French horn player, Sonja agreed to perform and, of course, she was spectacular—both in her singing and in her extraordinary theatricality. Later we had the opportunity to record the piece, which is included on the CD.My next opportunity to work with Sonja was the Houston Tuesday Musical Club Spring Musicale of 2013. The performers on the program decided that it would be fun to close the program with a composition featuring everyone, which meant an ensemble of voice (Sonja), violin, cello, and two pianists! The literature for this ensemble is a bit slim, so I was asked to write a new piece. As a composer, I always panic a bit when faced with writing a new work for voice because of the need for finding an appropriate text. My preference has always been to go with contemporary poetry whenever possible, and Sonja allowed that she knew a poet who would be agreeable to having her poetry set to music. It turned out that it was her mother-in-law, Ava Leavell Haymon. Thrilled at the prospect of working with a real poet, I asked Ava to send me some of her works. Among them was a set of poems titled Bowls that I just fell in love with, and I almost immediately began working on the music. But I quickly realized that this set of poems wouldn’t work for this particular occasion, so I reluctantly set them aside and turned to another poem titled “On the Question of Angels.” This poem turned out to be perfect for the occasion.
The poem is very dramatic and intense and that is probably why I was attracted to it. But at the performance, two difficulties arose. First, the venue was an old church that had a very long reverberant period, which had the unfortunate effect of blurring the diction. Normally we would compensate for this by printing the text in the program, but that led to a second difficulty: One of the lines in the poem referenced suicide (although by a bird), and the term raised the hackles of the elders of the church where we were performing. There was a good possibility that we would be forced to drop the work. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby we could perform the piece but couldn’t print the text in the program. It bothered me greatly that the audience was thus unable to truly appreciate Ava’s wonderful poem, so we decided to do the piece again on one of the regular Tuesday Musical Club programs. This program would be given over entirely to my settings of Ava’s poems. We not only were able to print the text of “Angels” but also had the additional pleasure of hearing Ava read her poem. This program gave me the opportunity to finally complete my work on Bowls, and I was also able to set Ava’s colorful and evocative Watercolor Lessons. This program then became the core of our CD.
I have since had the great pleasure of writing a number of other works for Sonja, several of which are also included in this album.
Watercolors: Music of Robert Nelson
Sonja Bruzauskas, mezzo-soprano
Robert Nelson is a wonderfully inventive and stylistically versatile composer known for his prolific output and his forays into a broad range of musical idioms. Many of his creations feature artful fusions of classical, jazz and even hard rock. He has a particular affinity for vocal music of all kinds: operas snd choral creations – as well as the art song, as exemplified in this stunning release.