Student's senior composition evokes family's World War II hardships
July 2, 2008
It was a busy final semester for senior music major Ezra Axelrod as he raced toward the finish line of his Middlebury career. In January he sang the lead in the college's production of "Sweeney Todd," the Tony winning musical by Stephen Sondheim. He presented a work of his original writing at the spring student research symposium, and in April he played a much less visible role - that of composer - as the Middlebury College Orchestra premiered his senior composition "The Vilnius Duet." Axelrod's 10-minute piece for two soprano voices and orchestra is especially meaningful because he enlisted the help of his father, a poet and professor of English at Eastern Oregon University, to come up with a text for the piece.
"My father's texts easily inspire musical composition and so I was very eager to have an original text created for my senior project," he says. The Vilnius Duet is the name of the final movement of a full cantata his father wrote. Having previously performed a piece of music set to one of his father's poems, Axelrod knew he had a great resource at his fingertips. Axelrod says the text was inspired by a trip his parents took to Vilnius, Lithuania - where the family has deep roots - while on sabbatical a few years ago. "Many members of the Axelrod family were victims of World War II and the Holocaust," he said, "and I think that when my father and mother traveled to Vilnius, they suddenly felt face to face with the past when they saw memorials with the Axelrod name or even a plaque in memory of a soldier who was an Axelrod."
The finished work is somber, pensive and deeply expressive - just what Axelrod had hoped for. He says the neo-romantic sound was inspired partly by what he describes as Gustav Mahler's "seamless wandering between tonalities." He was amazed at how well the text his father had written paired with his own concept of the music and its sonority.
"I had this image from my father's poem of an old city square in the middle of the night, and it's silent and snowing. It's timeless and you can just feel those thousands of years of history all around you."
The calming image of a silent city square was a far cry from the stressful process of completing his ambitious orchestral work. "Writing this piece was an enormous challenge for me," says Axelrod. "In October, I composed a three-minute section of the piece that both my adviser (Professor of Music Su Lian Tan) and I felt were the best three minutes of music I had ever composed." Axelrod says he tried not to panic when his professor announced that "Everything from here on out has to be at this level," but the pressure made him nervous, and as a result, he says he was unable to compose anything worthwhile.
Axelrod says he took the piece in many wrong directions before his professor gave him an end-of-semester ultimatum that the piece had to be finished by the end of final exams. He says the only thing to do was to lock himself in a room and compose for 10 hours a day until the piece was finished. "Looking back on what could have happened to this piece had I included those sections I composed throughout the semester, I shudder!" he laughs.
In the original poem by his father, the two characters in the duet are a man and woman -Axelrod is fairly confident they are his mother and father - but in the musical composition, he took the liberty of writing both voices for women. He says he particularly loves the blending of the two soprano voices that gives the piece a very specific feel. Axelrod describes the text as both a philosophical and historical journey of two characters witnessing a world crumbling around them, yet believing in the promise of life. "They are themes that could apply to any historical time period, but seem especially relevant in today's world," he said.
After many months of composing and rehearsing, Axelrod says it was a thrill to see his piece finally come to life on stage at the college's Center for the Arts. Conductor of the College Orchestra Troy Peters led the student musicians and professional singers Beth Thompson and Carol Christensen who sang the duet parts. "It's wonderful to see Troy put so much effort into my piece and to see him push the orchestra to get the sound that he knows I want from it," he says. "To have all these people enthusiastic about performing my composition is an honor. a huge honor."