Twelve years ago, Ezra Laderman decided he’d had enough of composing on commission. Fortunately for the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra, he hadn’t given up on composing entirely.
“I didn’t want to write another string quartet or another piano concerto,” he said.
Laderman had written a ton of music over a more than 40-year career with works that ranged from chamber music and solo instrumental and vocal works to concerti and large scale choral and orchestral music. He had also written for dance and film, been president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and dean of the Yale School of Music, where, at 88, he still teaches.
Instead, he would write what and when he wanted to, he said.
“One thing led to another, so I decided to take a stab at doing another musical work,” he said.
Laderman turned his attention to the one piece of literature that continued to haunt him even after almost 17 years: Robert Pinsky’s 1995 translation of “Dante’s Inferno.”
Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra
• 8 p.m. Saturday, Zankel Music Center Skidmore College; 7 p.m. pre-concert talk.
• 4 p.m. Sunday, Glens Falls High School, 10 Quade St., Glens Falls
HOW MUCH: $20, $15 (Zankel); $28, $25, $10 (Glens Falls)
MORE INFO: 580-5321; 793-1348; www.gfso.org
“I came upon the Canto V and it grabbed me,” Laderman said. “It’s unbelievably powerful. It has incredible impact. It’s the central moment of the Inferno.”
The GFSO will give the world premiere of “Canto V” on Saturday at Zankel Music Center at Skidmore College. The performance will be repeated on Sunday at the Glens Falls High School.
Canto V tells Francesca’s story of how she and her lover, Paolo, murder her husband. Although they are consigned to hell, she has no regrets and will gladly spend eternity in hell because her love for Paolo is so strong.
Laderman was also impressed with how the translation was published.
“It was fascinating,” he said. “On the right side of the page was the translation and on the left side was the original Italian. My Italian is OK, but you could see what Pinsky did. It was sensational, poetic. It was a terrific experience.”
He took six months to finish the piece, which calls for three singers, and submitted it to his publisher, who told him that because it took such a huge orchestra, it would be incredibly expensive to produce.
“He told me that he’d send it out to a couple of orchestras and whoever submitted a bid would get the piece,” Laderman said.
In the meantime, Laderman had run into GFSO music director Charles Peltz, who also teaches at New England Conservatory and had recently conducted a Laderman woodwind octet there.
“Ezra had envisioned it for a huge orchestra, but I said Glens Falls couldn’t play it with those forces,” Peltz said. “So he revised it for a smaller ensemble.”
Laderman was clever as to how he accomplished this. One thing was to have two of each woodwind, but have the second player in each section play only on what is termed the auxiliary instrument (piccolo, bass clarinet, contrabassoon).
“This means there are eight different colors all the time,” Peltz said.
The orchestration is very elaborate, especially with the extremely interesting and busy percussion parts. The two percussionists play many different kinds of instruments, including temple blocks, tuned drums, xylophone and vibraphone. There is also a timpanist.
The three singers are soprano Lisa Saffer, who represents Francesca; tenor Joseph Holmes as Dante; and baritone Philip Lima as Virgil. Peltz said he’s worked with Saffer, a specialist in early and new music, and Lima, who does much oratorio. Holmes came to him on recommendation and has proved to be a quick and agile singer.
When Pinsky, who knew Laderman from meetings at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, heard what he was doing, he said he felt fortunate that a composer as sensitive, imaginative and resourceful as Laderman was setting his work to music.
“In Ezra’s settings, musical sounds and feelings are in something like a conversation with the sounds and feelings of the poems,” Pinsky said in an email.
Laderman will be at the performances on Saturday and Sunday; Pinsky will be there on Sunday, and plans to do a reading at the concert.
Pinsky, who has served an unprecedented three terms as the U.S. Poet Laureate, been much awarded, is editor for the online magazine Slate, and teaches at Boston University, has been in the area before, reading at Skidmore College’s summer Writer’s Conference. He said he doesn’t know exactly what he’ll do Sunday.
“It will be something appropriate to the occasion, to how it feels for me and to how I feel,” he said. “I tend not to plan.”
The program also includes two works that will feature concertmaster Michael Emery: the autumn and winter sections from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” which Peltz will not conduct; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” which is also a violin solo. Emery is getting the spotlight because the orchestra’s theme this year is a focus on the violin; all the pieces on this program were inspired by poetry.
“I wanted the community to know that I had the same respect for Michael as I do for Sarah Chang [who was the soloist at the Oct. 14 concert],” Peltz said. “It would be unthinkable not to have Michael Emery as part of this season’s feature.”
As for the poetry, the Vivaldi is based on sonnets he wrote that were originally in a Venetian dialect; and the Vaughan Williams is based on George Meredith’s poem of the same name.
The concert on Saturday also represents a new joint venture between the orchestra and Skidmore College’s music department, making it the orchestra’s debut at the facility.
“The concert crosses the disciplines of literature and music, presents music from the Baroque era to a new work in chamber and orchestral ensembles as well as featuring Michael Emery, who teaches at Skidmore,” Peltz said. “It seemed perfect fit to bring the orchestra into the academic community.”