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Virginia Symphony responds quickly to curveball thrown for world premiere

April 7, 2017

By David Nicholson

The world of contemporary music can be unpredictable in more ways than sound.

For months, classical music enthusiasts have been looking forward to the premiere of “Poems of Life,” this weekend’s Virginia Symphony presentation that was to feature brothers Mike and David Daniels. Mike Daniels is the symphony’s principal cellist, and David Daniels is one of the world’s leading countertenors. In the first time the two had performed together professionally, they would premiere a work composed for them by Kenneth Fuchs.

But last weekend, David Daniels backed out because of vocal problems. The likelihood of finding another capable voice in that rare, high range, roughly equivalent to a female contralto or mezzo-soprano, on such short notice seemed remote.

This story has a happy ending, though. Monica Meyer, the symphony’s director of marketing, said that as soon as they got word, JoAnn Falletta started making calls. The symphony’s music director and conductor got a name, then checked in with Fuchs. He liked the suggestion and sent the potential singer the music. Would the singer do it? Meyer said the answer was: “Absolutely.”

So, replacing David Daniels is a young countertenor, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who recently hit the ball out of the park at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

“There were several good singers onstage Sunday afternoon ... But there was only one complete artist,” wrote music critic Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times two weeks ago. “At just 23, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, a baby-faced countertenor from Brooklyn, already possesses a remarkable gift for intimate communication in a vast hall.” Woolfe went on to praise Cohen for his “voice of velvety gentleness” and his “taste of adventure” in the vocal selection he chose.

Cohen graduated from Princeton University in 2015, where he majored in history and received certificates in vocal performance and Judaic studies. He has won other competitions and in the coming season will join the Houston Grand Opera’s Studio program as its first countertenor.

In Hampton Roads, in addition to “Poems of Life,” he will sing the aria “Pompe vani di morte ... Dove Sei” from the Handel opera “Rodelinda,” according to his website.

“Aryeh is really amazing. ... We’re thrilled to have him,” said Fuchs, whose “Poems of Life” has an interesting history of its own.

The project began when Falletta was working with the Phoenix Symphony. The Arizona orchestra had a commissioning club, and Falletta was asked to pick 10 American composers from which the club could choose to commission pieces of music. Her list included Fuchs, a Connecticut composer who has written several works for the Virginia Symphony. “They fell in love with his music,” she said, “And he’s currently writing a concerto for them.”

In addition, the president of the commissioning club, Judith Wolf, a psychologist and poet, told Falletta she was intrigued by music for the voice.

Eventually, she commissioned Fuchs to write a piece based on her poems.

“His special talent is writing for the voice in a particularly beautiful way,” Falletta said.

Fuchs chose 12 poems from “Otherwise,” a collection of Wolf’s poetry that deals with love and loss.

“She observes everyday life, relationships with family and friends, and relationships of love,” Fuchs said. “She writes about the pain of grieving and loss, the pain of losing someone in life.”

Here’s one of the poems he chose:

Watching for Death

If I knew we were

romancing with death

I would hug you again.

In the night

chest rise and fall

into another day.

If we knew

death was

lying in wait

we would hold it at

bay with remedies

hands clasped around

the wall of pain.

Fuchs grouped the 12 poems into five movements, with the countertenor in the role of the protagonist and the cello serving as the “instrumental doppelganger of the protagonist’s spirit and emotions,” as he described it. The high-pitched countertenor vocal range lends a “unique and unusual” sound to the piece, he said.

“The poems weave a narrative of eternal love, the pain of loss through death, emotional transformation through grief, and spiritual enlightenment,” Fuchs wrote in the preface.

Working with Wolf’s poems caused him to reflect on his own relationship with his husband, Chris von Rosenvinge. The two men – Fuchs is 60 and von Rosenvinge is 75 – have been together 37 years.

“It’s a very intense, personal piece for me,” Fuchs said.

For Mike Daniels, vocal music has always been a thread in his family relationships. Parents Perry and Phyllis Daniels were voice teachers and opera singers.

“When I grew up, singing was all I heard, so I’m very comfortable with singers,” he said.

The family lived in Spartanburg, S.C., where Perry Daniels taught at Converse College. The college also had connections to Brevard Music Center, a summer institute in western North Carolina.

“Dad got on the faculty at Brevard, so that was a big deal,” Daniels said. “We grew up going to Brevard every summer. It was really cool.”

Daniels studied cello with Hans Schmettau of the Converse faculty and went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He joined the Virginia Symphony in 1990.

For him, the weekend of concerts will be bittersweet.

“I am of course very disappointed,” he said by email, “but still glad to be playing the premiere.”