From Tragedy to Joy

Composer Jake Heggie's Epic for Cello and Orchestra makes a post-9/11 spiritual statement.

Something special will occur when the Oakland East Bay Symphony opens its fourteenth season on November 15 at the Paramount Theater: the world premiere of San Francisco-based composer Jake Heggie’s 25-minute Epic for Cello and Orchestra. Written especially for San Francisco Opera cellist Emil Miland, the work will be conducted by Michael Morgan.

Heggie’s star is on the rise. His songs are frequently performed by Susan Graham, Bryn Terfel, Jennifer Larmore, and Frederica von Stade, and his opera Dead Man Walking has been produced across the country. Its recent San Francisco Opera world premiere reduced many attendees to tears, while a just-completed run at New York City Opera received a rave review in New York magazine.

“I’m a very tonally based composer,” notes Heggie. “The same intense, arching lyricism I like in my vocal writing is present throughout this mini-opera for cello and orchestra. I explore some different kinds of chromaticism I haven’t done before, but at its heart is the singing line that I just love, and that’s very connected to my soul and Emil’s soul.”

Epic for Cello and Orchestra is based on Annie Dillard’s 1977 story “Holy the Firm.” “It’s about the struggle to reconcile the presence of a loving God in a world that is fraught with such terrible violence,” says the composer. “The events of September 11 inspired me to write it. I found the story shortly after, and it spoke to me because I think I’m in a spiritual crisis on a daily basis.

“The three-part work is based on a simple four-note motif,” explains Heggie. “The first part, the longest and darkest, asks: What is this all about, why is this going on, why am I here, and why is there such violence and such incredible beauty all around? The second part is a very solemn, hymn-like movement that only could be sung after a great tragedy. The last part is very positive and meant to buoy up, to show that we can live through this and come out the other end with a sense of joy and gratitude in being able to experience it all.”

Heggie’s previous cello works have all been written for his good friend Emil Miland, whom he met shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1994. “The cello is such a vocal instrument,” Heggie explains, “and Emil is a singer at heart — he’s a warm, generous baritone, and his playing really reflects that.” Heggie previously wrote three “wacky” arrangements of Noel Coward songs for Miland; entitled “The Coward Cabaret,” they debuted at San Francisco’s Old First Church.

This hometown premiere holds special significance for Heggie. “I feel very close to the Bay Area,” he says, “and I wished to do something here. Emil went through the Oakland and Alameda public school systems. I’ve always wanted to work with Michael Morgan, who is one of the biggest blessings in the Bay Area. He’s a remarkable musician and person, and he’s so concerned with the future of the arts. His attitude about music and its way of building community is incredible. He’s so dedicated to music education, and there’s always a sense of adventure in his New Music programming.”

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