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Composer Lisa Bielawa to Expand on Philip Glass' Legacy

Lisa Bielawa conducts the Kronos Quartet | Remsen Allard
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Vireo, the groundbreaking made-for-TV opera, is now available for streaming. Watch the 12 full episodes and dive into the world of Vireo through librettos, essays and production notes. Find more bonus content on KCET.org and LinkTV.org.

Lisa Bielawa, the 2009 Rome Prize Winner in Musical Composition and the recipient of a 2018 Los Angeles Area Emmy nomination for her unprecedented, made-for-TV-and-online opera, “Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser,” has been named the inaugural Composer-in-Residence and Chief Curator of the newly launched Philip Glass Institute at the New School’s College of Performing Arts (CoPA).

As composer-in-residence, Bielawa is tasked to help preserve Glass’s inimitable legacy in music, but also to create new courses and curricula that build on the principles and vision of Glass. “It is a huge honor and pleasure to spearhead this new initiative at The New School, which has a long history of charting new territory in the way that artists share their work and lives with the next generation,” said Bielawa in a statement. “The Philip Glass Institute is a new and lasting way to celebrate Philip’s ethos: an NYC incubator for the sharing of ideas, among a multi-generational community of composers, performers, and music industry professionals.”

In a way, Bielawa was a natural inaugural choice for the position. Over the last quarter century, Bielawa has been in Glass’s orbit. First as a vocalist with the Philip Glass Ensemble (PGE) in 1992. (She continues to be part of the group to this day.) In addition, in 1997 she co-founded — with Glass and Eleonor Sandresky — the MATA Festival, which celebrates the work of young composers.

Vireo composer Lisa Bielawa | Daniel Clark
Vireo composer Lisa Bielawa | Daniel Clark

PGE will also be in-residence, creating a unique opportunity for students, faculty and the public to immerse themselves in all things Glass.

“What happened,” said Bielawa, 50, “was that Richard Kessler, the [Executive] Dean at [CoPA], wanted me to join the composition faculty, and I was also interested in workshopping “Vireo” live. At the same time, I was working closely with Philip – I’ve moved into a kind of executive management role of the Ensemble – and I mentioned it might be cool for the Ensemble to be in residence there. Richard was excited about that, and we ended up melding it all together.

“I brought it up to Philip, who was also excited, and it started spiraling upwards,” continued Bielawa. “The more I talked about it and the curriculum, which we talked about quite a bit because Philip has specific ideas about how the curriculum and community can function since he sees it as a reflection of what is possible — that an institution can be dedicated to this ethos — the more he got excited. We came up with this all-encompassing role for me to provide leadership within The New School to make all of these things happen.

“Philip also has a warm spot in his heart for The New School,” added Bielawa, “not only because so many of his colleagues who think outside the box were there – Cage and others, but because his second and third performances back in 1969 were at The New School.”

As part of the Institute’s launch on January 6, 2019, there will be a panel discussion with Glass, Kessler and Bielawa, as well as a performance by PGE and a live excerpt from Bielawa’s “Vireo." The opera was 20 years in the making and shepherded to reality at the Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) in Santa Ana, California. Shot in a number of unique locations, including Alcatraz, and featuring more than 350 musicians such as superstar violinist Jennifer Koh, the Kronos Quartet and opera great Deborah Voigt, the original 12-episode “Vireo” which debuted in 2017, will also be what Bielawa calls, “curricularized in the spring of 2020,” when it will premiere in its newest live iteration.

 Jennifer Koh plays Einstein in Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's "Einstein on the Beach" in 2012 | Lucie Jansch
Jennifer Koh plays Einstein in Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's "Einstein on the Beach" in 2012 | Lucie Jansch

“That will require some rewriting,” notes Bielawa, “and Charlie [Otte, the director], Erik [Ehn, the librettist] and I are creating a shorter form, 90 minutes down from 2-1/2 hours — a hybridization that we can tour. We’ll also be repurposing the film in a broad variety of ways. Sometimes the film with audio will be projected with new elements that are also live and sometimes there will be projections from the filmed material, but the action will be live.”

For the January excerpt, Bielawa says that her original “Vireo” star, 20-year old Rowen Sabala (she was 16 when first tapped for the lead), will be performing, and that Glass’s Orange Mountain Music is also releasing a 3-disc set, comprised of a DVD and two audio CDs.

“It’s so exciting to be available in this form,” said Bielawa of the serial opus that follows the adventures of the titular character who hears and sees things and is ultimately accused of witchcraft, a work that also received the 2015 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award.

“The idea we’ve remastered it so you can listen to it the way people listen to operas, it’s going to be a whole different experience.”

Philip Glass Emsemble performing "La Belle et La Bete."
Philip Glass Emsemble performing "La Belle et La Bete."

But perhaps what most excites Bielawa are the connections that will be forged as a result of her new gig at the Glass Institute. “There are all kinds of ways I can participate in musical life there, both with my own music, Philip’s music and other composers I’ll be bringing in. The thing that makes it have a focus is that the sort of unique, community-centric way in which Philip has always made his work and his career are the things that he and I have in common.

“Not every composer sees the evolution of his own work in that way,” added Bielawa. “He creates it with these kinds of cross-fertilizations in mind. It’s something to celebrate in terms of the impact he’s had on the field.”

And while Bielawa’s triple-hyphenate duties at the Institute might seem daunting, she says that she’s perfectly positioned to take on all the responsibilities. “It’s huge, but if you think about it, given all the things that I want to accomplish — wanting to celebrate the way in which Philip and I have worked together my entire adult life, and I’m very grateful to him — this is something I want to do, make a palpable difference in the way his legacy is understood and celebrated in our field.

“The fact that I’m at this point in my career and he’s at that point in his career — he’s 81,” noted Bielawa, “is kind of fantastic. If you think about it, doing any one of these things without the rest of them would probably be harder. And it’s organic. That’s the thing I love about the Glass Institute. It’s massive, yes — but also organic.

“And another reason Philip is excited about this,” added Bielawa with a sly laugh, “is that it’s ten blocks from his house.”

Top Image: Lisa Bielawa conducts the Kronos Quartet | Remsen Allard 

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