Professor Has Two Operas - and Much More Music - On The Way

Kurt Rohde, UC Davis professor, music, new operas, San Francisco, Left Coast chamber
Kurt Rohde, music professor, center performing his opera as a member of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

UC Davis Professor of Music Kurt Rohde has been busy exploring new territory in recent years – the voice. “I like the voice, be it sung, spoken, snoring or muttering,” said the composer, who has been at UC Davis for 11 years.

The human voice and words take center stage in several upcoming performances of Rohde’s music, including his newest piece, “Never was a knight ...” and his 2015 opera “Death With Interruptions.” San Francisco’s Left Coast Chamber Ensemble will stage both productions on Nov. 4 and 5 in San Francisco. Rohde is a founder of Left Coast, which is calling the production the biggest – in terms of numbers of musicians, sets and cost -- in its 25-year history.

kurt Rohde
Kurt Rohde

The Department of Music will also present “Death With Interruptions” in the Ann E. Pitzer Center on Nov. 11. Another of Rohde’s works, a collaboration with poet Diane Seuss, will premiere at UC Davis in the spring.

“I want to use the voice not just as a means to have another body up there, doing its thing by singing, but to somehow become the words being sung or vice versa,” he said. “The action becomes the sound, a type of embodiment that is not mannered or affected, but natural and unpretentious.”

Performer and composer

An accomplished violist, Rohde went back and forth between performing and composing, earning degrees in both, and stopped writing music entirely for six years.

“It’s not a typical story for a composer,” he said.

After settling in San Francisco in the early 1990s he met Andrew Imbrie, a composer who taught at UC Berkeley for 40 years and encouraged Rohde to resume writing. Rohde founded Left Coast around the same time and for most of its existence he has been an active performer in the group as well as a composer.

Anna Presler, artistic director of Left Coast, has known Rohde since shortly after he came to San Francisco.

“I’ve played so much of Kurt’s music – probably more than any other living composer,” said Presler, a professor at California State University, Sacramento. “There’s a real sense of his music reflecting his personality, more so than many composers. It has a Kurt-like character: really energetic, generous, honest and imaginative.”

The quality of his music, which includes 25 works for chamber ensembles, a dozen pieces for solo instruments, seven for orchestra and another 10 for video, art installations, electronics and theatre, is widely recognized. He has won the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Music. In 2012 he was the selected from 430 composers as the first winner of the Lydian String Quartet Commission Prize, and he has received commissions from New Music USA, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lyris Quartet and eighth blackbird.

New and old operas linked

“Death With Interruptions” was Rohde’s first opera and the first opera mounted by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. In it, Death, in the guise of a beautiful woman, comes to claim the life of a cellist, but instead falls in love with him.

“Suddenly we get a new book of rules to work with and no one knows exactly what to do next – not even Death” Rohde said.

The opera is based on a 2005 novel by José Saramago; Thomas Laqueur, a UC Berkeley history professor, conceived of the opera and wrote the libretto.

Three singers, Nikki Einfeld as Death, Joe Dan Harper as the narrator, Death’s scythe and a dog, and a cellist, Daniel Cilli, will lead an ensemble of cello, piano, percussion, string quartet and electronics; and the Volti chamber choir. 

Death with interruptions
Joe Dan Harper in "Death with Interruptions."

“Never was a knight …” grew directly out of “Death With Interruptions.”

After performing in the original “Death With Interruptions,” Harper asked Rohde to write a piece based on Don Quixote. The early 17th century novel by Miguel de Cervantes recounts the adventures and misadventures of a minor Spanish nobleman.

“It became clear to me that Kurt was the compositional voice for this,” said Harper, who has wanted to do a Don Quixote project for 20 years. “His writing is characterized by non-traditional harmonic language that is modern, witty and insightful.”

“Never was a knight …” starts near the end of Don Quixote’s life, then takes a musical journey through that life.

“He is remembering his quest – it’s a set of recollections, not a reenactment of those events,” Rohde said.

A chamber ensemble of piano, viola, double bass, clarinet, percussion saxophone and trumpet will be on stage, with the players serving as characters and responding with music and speech.

Matilda Hofman, music department lecturer, principal conductor of the Empyrean Ensemble and director of the Early Music Ensemble will conduct both works.

On-campus impact and projects

Bringing a major work like “Death With Interruptions” to campus is important to Rohde as a teacher and mentor and is possible because he holds the Jan and Beta Popper Endowed Professorship that provides support for his projects.

“The Popper endowment is in part about producing performances, but it is also about bringing work to the university community so that people can see and hear what the faculty are making and doing outside when they are not teaching,” he said. “It’s also my hope that it provides a way for students who are interested in projects that don't just fit into one thing -- writing or theater or staging -- to say to themselves ‘I can do that, but I will do it my way!’ Doing this opera at UC Davis is a natural outgrowth of all of that.”

His next on-campus project will be a dramatic musical setting of poems from Diane Seuss’ collection “Four Legged Girl," one of three finalists for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. The two met during a residency last year.

“We connected, and voila!” Rohde said. She even wrote a poem called “What Is It You Feel I Asked Kurt.”

Seuss will be a visiting writer at UC Davis, giving a reading as part of the Department of English Creative Writing Reading Series May 8. Seuss and Rohde’s collaboration will be performed May 10. It also serves as a commission from the Brooklyn Art Song Society and will be performed in New York in June.

As a UC Davis Humanities Institute Faculty Fellow, Rohde is also overseeing a collaboration between doctoral music composition students and creative writing graduate students to make works that will also be performed in May.

Rohde isn’t the only UC Davis composer having works performed by Left Coast. The group will premiere works by doctoral music composition students Christopher Castro, Philip Acimovic and Aida Shirzai early next year in San Francisco and Berkeley.

“Our students have had works performed by Left Coast in the past,” Rohde said, “but never this many in one season. I am confident that Left Coast will continue to play works by our graduate composers."

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science

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