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UDDER DELIGHT

World premiere of ’Cows of Apollo’ meditates on music’s mythic start

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Even though she’s a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera stage, soprano Heidi Grant Murphy isn’t yet an operatic household name.

Murphy, who sings in the world premiere of "The Cows of Apollo" - a new one-act musical theater work by composer Christopher Theofanidis and librettist William M. Hoffman - with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Dec. 14 and Dec. 15 at the BAM Harvey Theater, obviously doesn’t mind her current place in the operatic scheme of things. As witness, her most recent Brooklyn Philharmonic appearance: singing the role of the Angel last spring in several excerpts from Olivier Messiaen’s five-hour 1983 opera, "St. Francis of Assisi." Contemporary music doesn’t faze her in the least.

"I always love to do that Messiaen piece, which isn’t done often enough - for obvious reasons [length the most prominent one]," Murphy tells The Brooklyn Papers. "It’s so difficult to do - the rhythms are just ridiculous to get right! It was the first time I really heard it done tightly, where it made some sort of sense instead of just seeming ’out there.’"

For that, credit Brooklyn Philharmonic music director Robert Spano, who has made a name for himself not just conducting unfamiliar works like "The Cows of Apollo," a modern-day interpretation of an ancient Satyr play, but commissioning this new work. Theofanidis and Hoffman’s collaboration combines dance, theater and song to give a bracing new slant on the ancient myth of how music was invented.

The soprano, who hadn’t yet started rehearsals for the work when this interview took place, discussed what she knew of it solely through a reading of the score.

"The part of it that I know is really beautiful to hear," says Murphy. "It’s a very interesting-sounding piece, mostly because you can hear [Theofanidis’] operatic tendencies - much like Carlisle Floyd [composer of the popular American opera ’Susannah’]. It’s beautifully vocal, which for a singer is a plus, of course." Especially when that singer is known for her lovely voice.

Murphy plays Maia, a nymph who dwells in a cave with her son Hermes, whose father is Zeus, the god of gods. "It’s definitely not a tragedy," Murphy says. "It’s definitely a comedy, which is more appropriate for these times than a tragic Greek myth."

In "Cows of Apollo," Maia’s son Hermes had stolen his big brother Apollo’s 50 sacred and beloved cows. Hermes killed one of the cows to make a new toy - the first musical instrument, the lyre. To placate the enraged Apollo, Hermes gives the lyre to him, which Apollo puts to use by inventing music.

Following her performances with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Murphy’s next local stage appearance is at Carnegie Hall in February as soloist in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, played by the Munich Philharmonic under her usual Met conductor James Levine. The soprano doesn’t mind doing a work that only requires her to make her sole vocal contribution during the very last movement.

"It all depends on whether you’re made to sit out in front of the orchestra during the whole performance or you just come out right before the final movement starts," she says. "But it’s such a wonderful piece, I love to simply hear it even if I have to just sit there."

Murphy often performs with her husband, pianist Kevin Murphy, whether on recordings or in recital. They’ve recently released a selection of songs by the wonderful French composer Lili Boulanger on the Arabesque label, "Clearings in the Sky." But the couple also has two young sons, Christopher and Sean, that they have to think about, particularly now, post-Sept. 11.

"I love performing with my husband, but we have to pick our spots," Murphy admits. "But we do have some recitals [together] coming up in March, so I think we’ll end up making a family outing out of them."

 

Modern composers & ancient Greeks

In keeping with its season-long theme, "Songs of the Earth: Mysteries of the Ancients," the entire Brooklyn Philharmonic program for Dec. 14 and Dec. 15 explores how modern composers were inspired by the ancient Greeks. Opening the concerts are "Three Greek Dances" by composer Nikos Skalkottas, and following that is Leonard Bernstein’s "Serenade" for violin and orchestra, a virtuosic concerto based on, of all things, Plato’s essay "Symposium."

Brooklyn Philharmonic concertmaster Laura Park takes the difficult solo violin part in the "Serenade;" the other vocalists in "The Cows of Apollo" are baritones Earle Patriarco and Nathaniel Webster, with the New York Virtuoso Singers supplying the choral parts. Spano, of course, will conduct the program.

 

The Brooklyn Philharmonic will perform at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St.) on Dec. 14 and Dec. 15 at 8 pm. Tickets are $50, $35 and $20. To order tickets, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at www.brooklynphilharmonic.org.

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