Classical Notes

Hyla in town with his ‘Life on the Plains’

Composer’s new piece touched by the West

Lee Hyla, a Chicagoan now, wrote his work for Boston’s Firebird Ensemble. Lee Hyla, a Chicagoan now, wrote his work for Boston’s Firebird Ensemble. (Katherine Desjardins)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / October 1, 2010

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Lee Hyla’s new piece written for Boston’s Firebird Ensemble is called “My Life on the Plains,’’ and at first blush the title seems like a bit of a goof. “My Life on the Plains,’’ after all, is the title of George Armstrong Custer’s autobiography, and Hyla is a composer who’s rooted himself in urban centers like Boston and Chicago. Not necessarily the guy you’d link to anything to do with cowboys and Indians.

But like his music, he is good for a surprise or two. “I’ve always been kind of a George Custer, Little Bighorn nut,’’ says Hyla from his Chicago home. And the title turned out to be appropriate, since most of the material for the new piece was written during a 2009 residency at the Ucross Foundation, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming located about 50 miles from Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The battleground is “one of the most beautiful places — you really do feel a kind of presence there,’’ Hyla says.

The Firebird Ensemble premieres “My Life on the Plains’’ Monday at the Longy School of Music, on a program that also includes Hyla’s “Polish Folk Songs’’ and music by Thomas Adès and Pierre Jalbert. (The program will repeat the following Friday at the City University of New York.) It’s one of a number of the composer’s works — including “Warble,’’ for flute and piano, and “Mother Popcorn Revisited,’’ for piano trio — that have been premiered here since he left Boston for Northwestern University in 2007.

But the new piece is the largest new work to be heard in Boston in recent years, providing a convenient opportunity to catch up with a man who was an undergraduate at New England Conservatory in the 1970s and on its faculty from 1992 until his decampment. He was, in other words, a quintessential Boston composer.

“I had a special relationship [there],’’ Hyla says. “I’d open my office door, I’d see [pianist] Steve Drury walk by, [violist] Kim Kashkashian had an office down the hall, so did [jazz singer] Dominique Eade. . . . So we’ve missed people there.’’ He says it’s been fascinating to make the transition from a conservatory to a large research university, where many of his undergraduate students are double majors: “They’re deeply involved with Russian history, physics, mathematics. So it’s an incredibly diverse intellectual community.’’

The cities’ music scenes are different, too — at least the new-music cultures. In Boston, Hyla explains, “almost all the new music groups have been around for a very long time — they’re kind of venerable.’’ Whereas in Chicago, “the oldest new-music groups are probably something like 10 years old. It’s less entrenched in a certain respect.’’

Hyla wrote “My Life on the Plains’’ with the particular qualities of the Firebird Ensemble’s players in mind. The three-movement piece of around 25 minutes begins with a cello pizzicato solo; gradually the other instruments steal in, and Hyla often picks out duos and trios among the seven instruments to spotlight in music that ranges from rambunctious to serene.

“I wanted to push everybody a bit into areas where they might not ordinarily live,’’ he explains. “That approach of taking individual members of the group and trying to turn my sense of them into formal ideas that would work as a coherent piece of music was what I started [to do]. It would have turned out to be a very different piece if it had been a different ensemble.’’

Hyla’s schedule will keep him busy after the premiere, including the composition of a new piece for the Chicago-based sextet eighth blackbird. He is also scheduled to be composer in residence at a gathering at the University of California Davis called the Madness and Music Festival. The other featured composer is Robert Schumann, who spent the last years of his life in an insane asylum. Hyla is trying not to take the pairing to heart, though he admits that “any number of former students’’ would probably find it appropriate.

Podger at H&H
Rachel Podger has a new recording of Bach violin concertos on the Channel Classics label. It features the light, focused sound of Podger’s baroque violin against the background of a period-instrument group consisting of two violins, viola, cello, bass, and harpsichord. Such a small-scale ensemble is nothing new in early-music circles, but the fluid, dynamic playing makes these very familiar pieces work well, especially in the bracing outer movements.

Podger plays Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A major, K. 219, in this weekend’s season-opening concerts by the Handel and Haydn Society.

Emmanuel cantata series
Emmanuel Music has announced its series of Sunday Bach cantatas for the fall season. Each cantata is performed in the context of the Sunday service. The series begins this Sunday with “Jesu meine Freude,’’ BWV 227, and runs through “Ich freue mich in dir’’ on Dec. 24. Music director Ryan Turner conducts the majority of cantatas; principal guest conductor John Harbison will lead one, as will artistic administrator Michael Beattie.

David Weininger can be reached at