Martin Brody writes music, he says, in the decidedly modern idiomatic zone of composers like Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, and Elliott Carter. But, though he doesn’t know exactly why, Brody, a music theory and composition professor at Wellesley College since 1979, has always had a fondness for Felix Mendelssohn.
Harvard University’s Fromm Music Foundation commissioned Brody, 61, to write a composition for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a chamber symphony, in residency this year at Wellesley, that specializes in contemporary music. Brody became obsessed with reworking Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but from the point of view of Bottom, the craftsman whom the trickster elf Puck turns into a donkey and couples, absurdly, with the fairy queen Titania. In Brody’s nine-minute work, titled “Touching Bottom,” which will receive its premiere performance this weekend by the BMOP under its artistic director, Gil Rose, Shakespeare’s temporary coupling of Bottom and Titania is not undone and revealed as fantasy, but is, rather, the central reality.
The piece is both continuation and departure from Brody’s recent efforts, he says. For some 15 years, he has concentrated on chamber operas, giving great thought to character, narrative, and their relationship to music. In “Touching Bottom,” Brody is continuing to “play around with questions about narrative conventions in a nonvocal context.”
Animals have had prominent roles in Brody’s chamber operas “The Heart of a Dog” (based on a novel by the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov) and “Earth Studies” (partly based on the Japanese 17th-century play “The Crab”). In “Touching Bottom,” Brody explores characterization through instrumentation and tone. In the beginning, Bottom’s awakening is portrayed in low registers, primarily through bass, cello, bass clarinet, trombone, and the lower harp strings. But, Brody says, “there’s another whole aspect of the piece that is evocative of the world of Puck and the fairies. Not just high instruments but overtones, shimmers that are very high, based on the natural tuning of the overtone series.”
The work’s tensions involve how those lower primal and upper shimmering aspects are reconciled, he says, “and how the middle range comes into focus.” In turning Shakespeare’s dream perspective upside down, Brody also, in a sense, upends Mendelssohn by ending “Touching Bottom” with the chord progression with which Mendelssohn’s overture begins.
Brody explains that he thinks of Mendelssohn’s overture in terms of Mendelssohn’s liberal Jewish enlightenment family in Berlin, with the Midsummer fantasy elements being played with but then “coming back into the world, into a kind of social reality.” Brody, on the other hand, wanted to write a piece “more indulgent toward Bottom and his worldview,” making an outlandish figure’s dream the narrative truth.
A strange conceit? Perhaps, but then isn’t that romance all over. Or, as Bottom put it, “to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.”
—Alexander C. Kafka
Martin Brody’s “Touching Bottom” will receive its premiere performance as part of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s concert Saturday, January 29, at 8 p.m. in Wellesley College’s Houghton Chapel. Also on the program will be music by Milton Babbitt, Arthur Berger, Wayne Peterson, George Perle, Wayne Peterson, and George Rochberg. Brody is scheduled to give a preconcert talk at 7 p.m. For more information, visit artsboston.org or call (781) 283-2028.
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