COMPOSER SPOTLIGHT: Jessie Downs

Unlike composers from the classical canon – whose music is contextualized by a greater body of works – when hearing a new opera, it is important to learn about the individual and emergent voice of the composer in question. For this week’s post, we asked one of Jessie Downs’s frequent collaborators – pianist Jonathon Vogtle – to give an overview of her work for the audience of The Second Sight. He writes:

Jessie Down’s compositional style focuses on taking a specific image – [such as a] Van Gogh painting… and invoking the minutiae of that image as accurately as possible in sound.

“Jessie Down’s compositional style focuses on taking a specific image – be it a Van Gogh painting, a babbling brook, or a pack of fireflies emerging at twilight – and invoking the minutiae of that image as accurately as possible in sound. For example, in her Van Gogh-inspired vocal ensemble piece “castings of Light,” Ms. Downs not only captures the mood and shapes of the painting View of Saint Marie, but allows the listener to see each irregular, curving line that makes up its background. In the wind band piece “Dismal Harmony, she does not stop at evoking the motions of the Dismal Brook’s water currents; instead she invites the audience to perceive every stone off of which the water ricochets, and every insect that congregates along its path. When she imitates a music-box – a recurrent sonic image in her output – the listener can both hear its haunting tune, and feel the metal pins being pulled across the tines of the cylinder.

In the wind band piece “Dismal Harmony, she does not stop at evoking the motions of the Dismal Brook’s water currents; instead she invites the audience to perceive every stone off of which the water ricochets

To accomplish all this, Ms. Down’s music makes ample use of extended technique and atypical instrumentation: microtonally sung phonemes, tea infusers struck with serving utensils, felt tipped guitar picks pulled over piano strings. Perhaps more important than this, however, is the creation of a sense of space; Ms. Down’s compositions are built to give each pitch time to appear, sustain, influence the harmonics around it, and then gradually dissipate. The end result is music that physically surrounds the listener, not with amorphous, formless shapes, but with the images that it hopes to reflect. The music is not avant-garde for the sake of novelty; it is meant to create richly detailed acoustic art.

Ms. Down’s compositions are built to give each pitch time to appear, sustain, influence the harmonics around it, and then gradually dissipate.

The question arises – How can one create that level of intimacy in a large-scale work like an opera? It would certainly require precise knowledge of vocal mechanics, different styles of singing, and the operatic canon. Fortunately, Ms. Downs’s experience as a soprano and vocal pedagogue would suggest that she is up to the task, and that the audience of her first opera The Second Sight is in for a treat.

Listen to Jonathon playing a solo piano piece based on the final scene of The Second Sight at the link below, and come out to see the opera’s premiere this June!

SECOND SIGHT SCENE PREVIEW #1:

Between now and the opera’s premiere, we will be sharing videos of select scenes, to help you get better acquainted with the work. Our first preview is of Act I Scene 2, “The Rain Chorus,” in which the Spirits guide the visionary Diskana to the home of Freyaria and Sashatya, the mother and child in her opening scene vision. This recording was made at the 2019 June in Buffalo festival, and features many members of the premiere cast, including Claudia Brown as Freyaria; and Jessie Downs, Mariami Bekauri, Julia Anne Cordani, and Suzanne Fatta as Spirits. Conductor Matthew Chamberlain, as well as many ensemble members (Michael Matsuo, flute; Michael Tumiel, clarinet; Jade Conlee, piano; Rosanna Moore, piano; and Katie Weissman, cello) will also be involved in the premiere. Stay tuned for new previews of the premiere cast in the months ahead!

NEW – Second Sight Donor Give-Backs!

For the rescheduled premiere of The Second Sight, we are creating special give-back gifts to thank you for your donations.

This week’s GIVE-BACK SPOTLIGHT: When you donate $50 to The Second Sight today, you will receive a unique page from the score of The Second Sight with a note from the composer. Put it with your keepsakes from other events, or hang it as a unique piece of personalized wall art.

The production still needs your help! Consider donating today either online or via mail, by making a check out to Art Services Initiative (ASI) of Western NY, writing “for Sotto Voce Vocal Collective” in the MEMO section, and sending it to the following address:

ASI2495 Main St, Suite 422Buffalo, NY 14214

We appreciate all your support!

The Second Sight – coming soon!

We are now just under 5 months away from the premiere of Jessie Downs’s new opera The Second Sight – YES, IT IS ON! Please consider buying your tickets today.

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-second-sight-a-new-opera-tickets-139116183249?fbclid=IwAR2EjVDrTy2WQsbmxmu2UcLGZkvRgAlEFac-T1y5RNdVkSOArmba9pVAIbc

You can also donate to the project and receive one of our fabulous give-backs: music and artwork that will be sent to your home and allow you to hold a bit of the show in your hands before it even premieres!

https://tonywalker.com/help-fund-the-first-performance-of-the-second-sight-a-new-opera-by-jessie-downs/?fbclid=IwAR0I3-P9Nyw8QieO0wCNdV1xMuNW_cCuxEatKjbNQdOqhSwyF1HtKas-Yrw

We are currently finalizing our cast and ensemble and are thrilled to introduce internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Ola Rafalo as the titular “second-seer,” Diskana. She will be joined by a fantastic and diverse group of local stars including Claudia Brown, Mariami Bekauri, Julia Anne Cordani, Suzanne Fatta, Brandon Mecklenburg, and myself. Please help support your local arts organizations Sotto Voce Vocal Collective and NICKEL CITY OPERA so that we, our local artists, and our special guest stars can bring you a healing performance for our times.

You can now also watch a video overview of the opera by the composer herself, in which she talks about the intersection of story-telling and vocal-writing in the work. There are also musical examples in the background that give a good overview of the arc of the piece! We hope you will join us to hear and see the full production this June!

June 2020 Preview of The Second Sight

It is now June, and the Sotto Voce team was originally planning to begin preparations for the premiere of The Second Sight at this time, but due to the COVID-19 postponement to June 26th and 27th 2021, we have decided to bring you a preview video instead! This teaser features a short musical clip from the opera – Act III Scene 1 “The Mourners’ Chorus” – and home-made visuals capturing aspects of the opera’s story and mood. Our Artistic Director and the opera’s composer Jessie Downs will be releasing more videos like this one on her Youtube page between now and next June, as well as videos of her classical performances with accompanying vlogs about the connections between her practice as a classical performer and new music composer. We can’t wait to share live music with you again, but in the meantime, stay tuned for these exciting sneak-peaks!

THE SECOND SIGHT – POSTPONED

SS-LOGO-FINALpostponed

NEW DATES: June 26th and 27th, 2021

Due to the current health crisis, Sotto Voce and Nickel City Opera’s production of Jessie Downs’s new opera “The Second Sight” will be postponed to June 26th and 27th 2021, a year after initially planned. While we are sorry that we will not be able to share this new work with our audiences this summer, we believe that this extended incubation period will result in an even more special end result.

If you have bought tickets to the previously scheduled 2020 production, these will still be good for June 2021. If you would like your ticket refunded, or if you would like to donate your ticket purchase (if you know you can not make the 2021 show), please contact us at sottovocevocalcollective@gmail.com. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused, and hope to see you next summer!

Tickets for The Second Sight are now available for purchase!

second sight logo 4 finalThe Second Sight, a new opera by Sotto Voce’s Artistic Director Jessie Downs, is scheduled to receive its first working performances in June of 2020. Performances will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo (695 Elmwood Avenue) on June 27th at 7pm and June 28th at 2pm. The opera is produced in cooperation with  Nickel City Opera.

Purchase your tickets now!

We are also still looking for SPONSORS to help make this dream project a reality. All donations are tax-deductible and we are offering give-backs like reserved seating, libretto booklets, and backstage passes for different levels of giving. Go to our DONATE PAGE to learn more.

ABOUT THE OPERA

The opera is based on an original libretto by the composer that explores the spiritual connections between generations of women. The plot centers around a young woman named Diskana who has a clairvoyant ability called “second sight.” After Diskana foresees the death of a young child (Sashatya), and feels the pain of the child’s grieving mother (Freyaria), she vows to defy fate and attempt to intervene to prevent the child’s death. Supernatural forces ultimately weave together the lives of mystic, mother, and child in unexpected ways.

The music of the opera both draws on the bel canto tradition, and features innovative approaches to dramatic vocal writing. You can watch previews of the opera – recordings of previous workshop performances of the first two scenes – on our MEDIA page. On our MEMBERS page, you can read about the cast. Sotto Voce is proud to have brought together phenomenal vocalists – some familiar faces, as well as new friends of the ensemble – who bring with them a variety of unique approaches to singing and to life!

Stay tuned to this website and our facebook page for updates as we count down to the show!

Sotto Voce to perform at 2019 June in Buffalo Festival

Sotto Voce is excited to announce that 4 weeks from today – on Tuesday June 4th at 4:30pm in Lippes Concert Hall (on the University at Buffalo North Campus) – we will be performing Act I, Scene 2 from the opera-in-progress The Second Sight by Jessie Downs at the 2019 June in Buffalo Festival.

ThesecondSight3

Act I, Scene 2 – otherwise known as “The Rain Scene” – prominently features the Sotto Voce Vocal Collective as rain spirits that call the rain and set the wheels of fate in motion. For this performance, Sotto Voce is the composer and our Artistic Director Jessie Downs (soprano), Mariami Bekauri (alto), and Blake Hurlburt (baritone) as the ‘Color Trio’ and Julia Anne Cordani (soprano), Suzanne Fatta (alto), and William Zino (baritone) as the ‘Base Trio.’ We are also lucky to have conductor Daniel Bassin helping to rehearse the group in preparation for the performance.

The scene also includes the entrance of the character Freyaria – a mother, an optimist – played by Claudia Brown, and the first meeting of Freyaria and Diskana – a young woman with the gift of the second sight, who was introduced in Scene 1 (watch last year’s BMP performance HERE) – played by Tiffany DuMouchelle.

Additionally, this will be the first time that an excerpt from the opera will be performed with its full accompaniment: a small 10-instrument sinfonietta. The ensemble will consist of piccolo (Michael Matsuno), English horn (Megan Kyle), clarinet (Michael Tumiel), French horn (Sara Petokas), percussion (Tomek Arnold), harp (Rosanna Moore), piano (Jade Conlee), violin (Hanna Hurwitz), violoncello (Katie Weissman), and contrabass (Megan McDevitt). Maestro Matthew Chamberlain will conduct and help with final stages of preperation.

We are excited to be involved in this wonderful festival and performing alongside many other wonderful musicians. We hope you can make it out to hear us if you’re in the area!

Voces featured at MuGSA Conference

JessieJuliaSonnets
photo courtesy Su Lee

This past Saturday March 30th at 7pm in Baird Recital Hall on the University at Buffalo’s North Campus, Voces Jessie Downs and Julia Anne Cordani performed an excerpt of Alex Huddleston‘s “The Sonnets”at the 2019 Buffalo Music Graduate Student Conference. “The Sonnets” was one of  Sotto Voce’s first commissioned work from our Spring 2018 season.

The duet that Jessie and Julia presented features intense registral leaps and undulating harmonies from this dramatic work’s grand finale, set to the fragmented text, “What was I looking at, not to see the wetness spread?” and the exclamation, “Water!” As many of Huddleston’s works, this piece seems to capture of the intensely disturbing beauty of the suffering split self. The full work consists of several “movements” like this one, that overlap and juxtapose different materials as performed by subsets of the full vocal sextet, as well as a noisy fixed electronics part. You can hear the full version of “The Sonnets” as we performed it in Cleveland last summer on our “Living Voices” tour through the link below.

Although the Voces do not have a spring concert planned as per usual, we are in the process of workshopping exciting materials for both a new opera and a new mass by current and former Voce composers. Further details about these upcoming presentations will be released shortly, so stay tuned!