Jake Heggie brings full orchestra to ‘Camille Claudel’

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COURTESY EMILY APPEL
Composer Jake Heggie’s new orchestration of “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire” gets its world premiere at Berkeley Symphony this week.
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For San Francisco’s Jake Heggie, as it was for French sculptor Camille Claudel, art is a flame that fuels the creative mind, and provides solace in times of hardship.

“I started composing at age 11, just after my father’s suicide. Music felt like an incredibly safe, empowering and comforting place to be, and I found ‘my people’ there. Once I started writing, I never stopped,” says Heggie, whose “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire” for Orchestra and Mezzo Soprano premieres at Berkeley Symphony on Thursday conducted by Joana Carneiro and featuring vocalist Sasha Cooke.

Heggie’s connection to Claudel (1864-1943) – a former student and lover of Auguste Rodin who spent the last 30 years of her life in an asylum after being diagnosed with schizophrenia – is a product of his fascination with Debussy.

“Claudel was a good friend of Claude Debussy,” says Heggie. “He kept a copy of her sculpture ‘La Valse’ on his mantle. As a young composer, I was obsessed with Debussy. So I thought it might be appropriate to use his musical world as a starting place.”

Debussy’s G Minor String Quartet, as well as an undercurrent of 3/4 time stemming from the central figure of “La Valse,” became Heggie’s touchstone for “Into the Fire,” a piece originally scored for string quartet commissioned by San Francisco Performances and presented in 2012 with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and the Alexander String Quartet. (The version for orchestra premiering this week was commissioned by Berkeley Symphony.)

Cooke, who appreciates Heggie’s skill at writing for voice, says, “The biggest challenge of performing ‘Camille Claudel’ is not crying your way through it. Jake has an uncanny ability to get inside the psyches of his characters and really live their experience, and he takes it even further with a score so beautiful and moving.”

Heggie, composer of acclaimed operas “Dead Man Walking,” “Moby-Dick” and “The End of the Affair,” was a pianist by training who turned to composition at 27 when his hand began cramping involuntarily. Focal dystonia, which claimed the prime years of another San Francisco pianist, Leon Fleisher, was the diagnosis.

A San Francisco resident since 1993 and former member of San Francisco Opera’s public relations department, Heggie and his husband Curt Branom, star of “Beach Blanket Babylon,” are big boosters of The City. Heggie says, “From the day I moved here, I knew this would be my home forever. We are out walking our dog, twice a day, up and over the hills of Noe Valley and the Castro. I am completely in love with this city!”

IF YOU GO

Berkeley Symphony

Where: Zellerbach Hall, near Bancroft Way and Dana Street, UC Berkeley campus, Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 26

Tickets: $15 to $74

Contact: (510) 642-9988, www.berkeleysymphony.org

Note: The program also includes Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and Brahms' Symphony No. 4.

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