Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Articles

Update on Composer Jake Heggie

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for October 27, 2006, under headline,
Composer Heggie keeps seeking higher ground. [Additional material was added after attending the performance of To Hell and Back in San Francisco. This additional material was not printed in the ANG Newspapers.]

"THE marriage of words and music, and the way this union can tell the whole story — including that which is not spoken — inspires me," says Jake Heggie, the Bay Area's pre-eminent young resident composer. In so saying, Heggie is in harmony with the rarified company of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner. All have had the near-magical gift of being able to meld words with music in such a way that words are endowed with great emotional color and significance. Often this rare musical skill adds a strong psychological dimension as well, thereby transporting mere words up to a profound level.

Heggie, with the expert help of the Pacific Chorale and the Pacific Symphony, made such a thing happen on Sunday [November 5, 2006] at the sumptuous new Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County's Performing Arts Complex during the premiere of one of his new works, Seeking Higher Ground, which he describes as "a theater piece for chorus and orchestra."

Bay Area audiences will likely experience more of the same this week when the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra premieres Heggie's latest work, a one-act opera for Baroque instruments, To Hell and Back, composed to a text by New York-based librettist Gene Scheer. Nicholas McGegan will conduct.

As far as I know, this will represent Philharmonia Baroque's first musical foray into music of the 21st century. But perhaps the group still has a figurative foot back in the 4th or 5th centuries B.C., as well. To Hell and Back turns out to be a modern-day variation on the tale of the Greek goddess Persephone, daughter of Demeter and Zeus, who was abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld, thus depriving the world of springtime — until a compromise was reached.

The Heggie-Greer adaptation is updated to our times by transposing elements of the old Greek myth into a depiction of the plight of many heroic women of our times as they deal with spousal abuse.

During a conversation Heggie told me, "When I'm composing, I strive for themes that will have resonance with many people. I want my music to not only reflect my own thoughts, but to cross boundaries to universal issues and concerns."

The production's stars include vocalists Isabel Bayrakdarian and Patti LuPone.

Heggie is best known as the composer for the opera Dead Man Walking, based on the novel by Sister Helen Prejean and libretto by Terrence McNally (also made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), which had its world premiere with the San Francisco Opera in 2000. It has since been performed in major opera houses nationally and internationally; in September 2007, it will open in Vienna.

Other works the prolific Heggie has written, the vast majority of which have been enthusiastically acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, are the opera The End of the Affair to a libretto by Heather McDonald and Leonard Foglia and the musical scene At the Statue of Venus, again with a libretto by McNally.

Besides being one of the most sought-after young composers in the world today, Heggie is also an accomplished concert pianist, a perceptive writer, and an avid reader of great literature. His compositions have attracted some of the world's best singers, many of whom have recorded and/or performed his many songs. Among them are Frederica von Stade, Renee Fleming, Audra McDonald, Susan Graham and Bryn Terfel.

Heggie, known as "Jake," was born John Stephen Heggie in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1961. Soon after, his family moved to Southern California and then on to Bexley, Ohio, where at age 6 he began piano lessons and at 12 launched into composing. His father, who was of Hungarian descent, was a medical doctor and played jazz saxophone. His mother was a nurse. He has two older sisters and a younger brother.

After graduating from high school, he traveled to Paris where he studied at the American University and the Paris Conservatory of Music. But California's siren song beckoned, and eventually, he returned to UCLA where he studied with the great American composer Roy Harris. It was during this period that he was awarded the Henry Mancini Prize for composition. One of his most recent major awards has been a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In comments Sunday to his Orange County audience, Heggie explained that Seeking Higher Ground was a response to Sister Helen Prejean's thoughts after dealing firsthand with the traumas of people in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina. Amid the destruction, she attended a concert presented to these masses of suffering people by Bruce Springsteen. When he started singing the song "We are climbing Jacob's ladder," she was deeply moved by how the people were filled with hope and seemed to "come together."

Equally filled with feeling in response to her poem, Heggie crafted a piece that starts with a divided choir singing music of an almost panicky character, and without a pitch center. He also requires heavy, rhythmic breathing by the choir as a dramatic, percussive device.

Then the piece moves into storytelling mode and its emotional intensity escalates. The music forms a chillingly apt frame for the ensuing words, "Did you know the storm was comin'? Did you hear the people cry as they drowned? Did they ever stand a chance? No money, no car, no hope of being found. Wading through the water. Seeking higher ground."

"Seeking higher ground" repeats at key points thoughout the piece as the tension mounts. Then a sudden shift occurs as the second choir introduces Jacob's Ladder, with a quiet hum to portray the moments when Springsteen's song brought the crowd together.

By the end, both choirs are singing together, using all the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements of the piece at the same time, to create a huge climax of unity, harmony and hope.

Sunday's audience responded in the inevitable way to such a surge of emotion by echoing with a standing ovation.

I'll let you know the minute I find out a Bay Area performance date!

[Added after the performance of To Hell and Back]

After attending the San Francisco performance of To Hell and Back I am adding my views on this performance to the contents of my column printed in the ANG Newspapers prior to the performance.

Jake Heggie's One Act Opera, To Hell and Back, is both rhythmically and harmonically powerful, augmented by the period instruments' mellower-than-modern sounds, so as to mold a piece that is poignant, yet pungent. Scheer's libretto imbues the piece with the linguistic color and punch of our age, grafted onto thematic material from Greek mythology typically used for operas in the Baroque period. The combination achieves a multi-level contemporary-plus-classic impact rare in new operatic offerings - perhaps one has to go back to Benjamin Britten for comparable achievement.

Patty LuPone was right on the mark in her role as Anne, the wise, high-mileage older woman. She created a cutting counterpoint to Isabel Bayrakderian's beautiful, beleaguered Persephone by morphing into a seasoned, but bruised woman who was willing to stick her neck on the chopping block so that an Innocent would not have to suffer as she evidently had. Her so-called "Broadway" intonation and style of delivery created a brilliant, perfectly natural musical vehicle to drive that point into the sensibilities of the audience - vividly, and most effectively as drama in the intimate venue of Herbst, which has a seating capacity similar to most Broadway theaters.

Jake Heggie has matured into one of the leading music drama composers of this age. While some of my colleagues among the Bay Area's music critics do not seem to agree with my evaluation, I believe Heggie's achievements will eclipse those of most other contemporary composers, and hopefully, will endure through the ages.

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