Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s multiple-genre work “The No One’s Rose” in October 2020 was among many anticipated performing arts productions upended due to COVID-19. Yet the pandemic has brought new significance to Aucoin’s rich mosaic of music, poetry, dance and theater, which at last makes its debut in Stanford Live’s Bing Concert Hall this week.
PBO was billing “The No One’s Rose” — also the name of a poetry collection by Holocaust survivor Paul Celan providing inspiration to Aucoin, a co-founder of American Modern Opera Company — as a “meditation on loss and recovery” when it promoted the composition in 2020. Since the pandemic, there’s additional poignant relevance.
“‘The No One’s Rose’ is the story of a group of people in a community, who each share individual stories,” says Aucoin, 31, about his latest opus. “These stories are very different from one another, but what they have in common is that they’re about how to recover and rebuild the world after a catastrophe — in our case, the year and a half of loneliness and separation that we’ve all just experienced because of the pandemic.”
Aucoin likens the stories in “The No One’s Rose” — a collaboration presented by PBO, AMOC and Stanford Live directed by AMOC co-founder Zack Winokur — as a series of portraits, the way that Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” is about “pilgrims on a journey who each tell their story over the course of their travels.”
Still, it’s the German writing by Celan, who was born Paul Antschel to a Jewish family in Romania in 1920, that most energizes Aucoin’s piece. (“The No One’s Rose” originally was slated to premiere to coincide with the centennial of the birth of the poet.)
After the Holocaust, Aucoin says, Celan felt alienated from his own mother tongue and from German artistic traditions: “He felt a fierce inner need to reinvent his poetic language — and in a sense the German language itself — if he was going to say things that felt true to him. And he did this by turning the language into music. He drains language of its familiar qualities; he treats individual words as mysterious musical objects,” Aucoin says.
For Aucoin, Celan’s work also provides an “exploration of how to rebuild the world, and rebuild a sense of community, after a catastrophe.” He calls Celan “our spirit guide.”
Another of Aucoin’s inspirations is the poem “Deep Water Trawling,” by his teacher Jorie Graham, which is woven into the entr’acte of the mostly English “The No One’s Rose.” (Subtitles are provided for the brief portions in German.)
Aucoin, who will conduct PBO’s ensemble of period instruments, has an eclectic, sometimes even close-to-home, reasoning for his instrumental choices, mentioning that his husband is a Baroque bassoonist.
“I had an in-house consultant about how to write for period instruments,” Aucoin says, adding, “The woodwind writing is the aspect of the piece that’s most different from modern-instrument writing. I worked with a very dark-hued palette —three oboes, including oboe da caccia, plus flute and bassoon, but no clarinets. And there’s a special crunchiness to Baroque winds. I’m a sucker for Baroque contrabassoon, which has a fabulous buzzing quality, and which is so tall you need 10-foot ceiling to bring it into the house.”
While Aucoin says the core musical language of “The No One’s Rose” has an “explosive tonality” not unlike his operas “Eurydice” (2020) and “Crossing” (2015), it’s also imbued with broader influences, from Bach to Sam Cooke. A song by Cooke underpins bass-baritone Davóne Tine’s part in the piece, which also features soprano Julia Bullock, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and tenor Paul Appleby.
“My role is deeply personal because it is based, like the other roles, off in-depth group conversations we’ve had over many years, and the relationships we’ve built,” says Tines, PBO’s first-ever artistic partner. “The ‘Canterbury Tales’ structure allows my personal vignette to live in community with the vignettes of my fellow collaborators. The structure allows our stories to connect, juxtapose, counter and bolster each other. It’s a stunning tapestry.”
For ballet dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, who choreographed “The No One’s Rose,” the production has grown dearer to her due to strains posed by the pandemic.
“It is full of so many beautiful artists I hold dear to my heart and whom I have missed being in the same room with for the past two years,” Smith says. “The choreography is full of that longing, going from the extremes of waiting and despair, to something ecstatic and joyful; the process is very collaborative and intuitive, and it’s been so exciting to dance to Matt’s new work.”
IF YOU GO
The No One’s Rose
Presented by American Modern Opera Company, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Stanford Live
Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25-26; 2:30 p.m. Aug. 29
Tickets: $15 to $225
Contact: (650) 724-2464, stanfordlivetickets.org