New work by local composer nears world premiere at Carnegie Hall

Internationally-renowned composer Francis Schwartz frequently can be found strolling deliberately through downtown Sarasota, seeking out the perfect cup of coffee. This local musical superhero has reached audiences with his provocative and challenging work for many years. On Nov. 13, New York City audiences (as well as locals who make the sojourn to this musical mecca) will experience the world premiere of a new work titled Caliban’s Dance, performed by the Sybarite5 string quintet.

Caliban’s Dance is a sequel to Schwartz’s 1975 piece Cannibal-Caliban, which has been performed all over the world and includes performers’ facial gestures as part of the piece. Sybarite5 will also making their Carnegie Hall performance debut on Nov. 13, and it’s worth noting that the quintet has another local connection through their bassist, Sarasota native Louis Levitt.

Caliban’s Dance encompasses the use of instrumental, vocal and audience sounds with a theatrical component from the performing musicians. Schwartz created the new work specifically for Sybarite5 because he was so impressed with their interpretation of Cannibal-Caliban.

I first made acquaintance with Schwartz several years ago when interviewing him for a profile I was writing about his dear friend Stephen Miles, Provost of New College and Director of New Music New College. (For updates on Miles’s work, see last week’s preview of the 2012-2013 New Music New College season.) I felt an instant connection with this sweet and charming man. 

Later, on behalf of the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee and Humanity Working to End Genocide, I participated in commissioning Schwartz and Leymis Bolaños-Wilmott of the Fuzión Dance Artists to create an interdisciplinary performance piece inspired by the drawings of children in Darfur who experienced genocide first-hand. While working toward the debut of the piece, Darfur, Help!!! I got to know Schwartz better and felt he would surely become a lifelong friend. This unassuming man brilliantly uses his music to convey the kind of emotional range that can cut so deeply, it can never be spoken. In the Darfur piece, his haunting music, which included the dancers’ repetition of the word “hate” innumerable times, made the audience feel the impenetrable dread of unrelenting hate that victims of genocide must feel on a daily basis. At that time, he stated: “My goal is to awaken consciousness about this terrible thing that has transpired and that is currently taking place. … Hopefully, the people who see this piece will think, ‘We really must do something.’”

Schwartz said he is frequently thanked by audience members for helping them confront difficult and painful issues through his art.

“People who have been victims of terrible violence very often don’t want to talk about it,” he said, but recognized they do not want the truth of their experiences forgotten or ignored. “It is my civic, social or human responsibility to address my art to these themes,” he added. In that way, he helps us bear witness to important social issues and raises awareness.

Not all of Schwartz’s work delves into the dark recesses of the human existence; he also is playful and whimsical. When he collaborated with Bolaños-Wilmott last year for “Dancing through the Eyes of Women,” Schwartz sat dressed in black, disguised as a member of the audience. During the performance, he began quietly uttering “shhhh,” and then cajoled the audience to follow his lead with more and more vigor until the entire audience caught on. I was the first to begin saying “shhhhh” in response to his request, but audience members who didn’t see him thought I was rudely trying to force their silence. He carefully and cleverly involves audience participation, often with great humorous effect, in an effort to jolt us out of our comfort zone and into a deeper connection with the performers and the work itself.

“I always incorporate the audience into the work … which establishes a very tight communion between the professional performer and the audience.  It’s almost as if it was a religious ceremony of any faith; most of the religions have so-called ‘audience participation,’” Schwartz said. In this way, his work is intended to form a sense of community and of shared experience. 

To get a sense of Schwartz’s unique style, check out this video. 

Those who have the opportunity to attend the world premiere of Caliban’s Dance are sure to be richly rewarded with an exciting performance. But don’t despair, Caliban’s Dance is also scheduled to be performed locally. Stay tuned to This Week in Sarasota for details.

– For tickets to the Carnegie Hall world premiere of Caliban’s Dance, click here. 

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