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Composing for Cerddorion: An Interview with Elliot Z. Levine
by Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco for Vocal Area Network
Posted January 28, 2006

Elliot Z. LevineOn February 7 and February 11, the 28 voices of Cerddorion will reprise Elliot Z. Levine's Aguas Puras del Nilo, commissioned last year for the group's tenth anniversary. Part of a four-movement work entitled Un Prodigio Les Canto, Mr. Levine's composition is set to 17th-century villancico texts by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the most brilliant writers in Mexico's history. Un Prodigio Les Canto is Mr. Levine's homage to Spanish and Latin American music of the period.

Mr. Levine, who has received six Meet-the-Composer grants, is also well-known as a singer. He has been the baritone for the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble since its inception in 1969, as well as a featured soloist with the RAI Orchestra, the Rome Opera, Teatro La Fenice, Musica Sacra, The Folger Consort, Mannes Camerata and the Ensemble for Early Music.

VAN talks with Mr. Levine about how he approached his most recent large-scale commission.

VAN: How did you become familiar with the writings of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz? Tell us more about her.

EZL: The life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz followed a trajectory from humble birth outside of Mexico City in 1648 to great renown in her time as a published poet, dramatist, scholar, theologian, feminist, scientist and musician. She died during the plague of 1694. She wrote about topics that have continued relevance today, such as the role of women in society and a woman's right to an education. I've known of her poetry and inspiring life for more than 15 years.

VAN: Why did her work appeal to you for this commission?

EZL: I was attracted by the vivid imagery, the humor and the directness of the villancico texts she wrote in 1691. Also, the Spanish language is so beautiful to speak and sing, and Kristina Boerger [Artistic Director of Cerddorion] is fluent in Spanish. So, browsing through a volume of Sor Juana's poetry in the library one day, I thought, what a good idea!

VAN: How did you go about selecting the specific texts from her oeuvre that you wanted to set to music?

EZL: These particular poems leapt off the page and demanded music from me! Aguas Puras del Nilo was written for St. Catherine. Sor Juana must have identified with St. Catherine, as a female saint who converted many Romans and dazzled a court of scholars convened to discredit her. We know that Sor Juana was also was tested on her prodigious knowledge of Latin, Greek, philosophy, and theology by a group of scholars when she was a lady-in-waiting to the Court in Mexico City.

VAN: What challenged you about this commission?

EZL: Knowing Cerddorion's talents as an ensemble rather well already--they have performed several of my works--I knew I could push myself to write a more harmonically and rhythmically complicated piece. That made the project more exciting and challenging for me. Also, I was intrigued by the dramatic possibilities of writing a piece for double chorus.

VAN: How does being a singer yourself impact how you compose?

EZL: First of all, as a singer I've become intimately familiar with a wide span of music--from early medieval to contemporary--which gives me many inspirations for my compositions. I consider myself text-driven--it's the words that get me going. And, I consider it my duty to provide a good part for each singer in the chorus. I don't want singers to be bored when they perform my work. I wanted to make the singers of Cerddorion work hard. And, I can tell you, having seen the première last year, they did!


Cerddorion will reprise three works of Elliot Z. Levine as part of "The Ears of My Ears," a diverse banquet of new music by New York composers. Performances will be held on February 7 in the Oratory Church of St. Boniface in Brooklyn and on February 11 at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Manhattan. For more details, consult the VAN Concert Calendar or www.cerddorion.net.

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco works for Fraiche PR and Communications LLC.

Content Contact: Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
Revision Date: January 28, 2006.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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