Opera Company of Philadelphia names first composer in residence

In a job-share program with two other troupes, the Opera Company of Philadelphia has named its first composer in residence.

New York-based Lembit Beecher, 30, will spend stretches of several weeks at a time at the Opera Company, as well as Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group in New York, observing productions and developing ideas for potential projects.

Beecher was chosen not for having big operas under his belt - he has to his name only a chamber opera he wrote as a student - but for his potential.

"We hope we've identified one of the next great American opera composers," said Opera Company of Philadelphia general director David B. Devan, who helped choose Beecher from more than 170 applicants.

What set Beecher's work apart? His music, Devan said, has "dramatic possibility written into it. For me, I heard a storyteller in the music. His musical vocabulary had a fresh sound to it I hadn't heard before."

Unlike other composer-in-residence programs that prescribe specific pieces to be written, this program is a learning opportunity for the composer, with fruits of the labor to be determined later. The position lasts three years and pays $70,000 annually plus benefits, Devan said.

Born and raised in Santa Cruz, Calif., the son of Estonian and American parents, Beecher said it would be some time before he knew what would come of his new residency. But he said he was interested in mining Philadelphia's neighborhoods and immigrant communities for texts and narratives to use in his works.

"Especially second-generation Americans, who have a bit of the U.S. in them," he says. He likes the idea of blending "fantastical" ideas with "people's real-life stories." His own grandmother's life - specifically her years-long journey to the United States from Estonia during occupations by the Russians and Germans - became the basis for And Then I Remember, a 50-minute work for chamber ensemble, vocal soloists, chorus, video, and taped interviews with his grandmother.

Another composer for the program is to be named in 2012. The two positions are funded over five years by a $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The program, Devan says, helps the company realize its goal of "being the go-to place in America for doing interesting work" - particularly for other companies that may be interested in collaborating on projects.

Beecher graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University (2002) and holds a master's in composition from Rice University (2005). His doctorate in composition is from the University of Michigan (2009).

He describes his style as something between minimalism and spectralism.

"Timbral color is pretty important to me. Rhythmic vitality is something that is very important to me. Emotional ambiguity - that's something I like to bring to music."


To view and hear a 2009 performance of "And Then I Remember," go to http://vimeo.com/channels/114262.

Contact Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at http://www.philly.com/artswatch.