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Jazz opera to make U.S. premiere at Zoellner

George Gruntz talks with students in a jazz composition class Wednesday.

While attending an international conference for jazz arrangers in Germany two years ago, Bill Warfield became enamored of a new opera with an inescapable link to a much-loved classic.

Almost as soon as he heard portions of composer George Gruntz’s jazz opera The Magic of the Flute, Warfield, director of the university’s Jazz Ensemble, resolved to bring the work to Lehigh.

“I really loved the music,” says Warfield, who is also an associate professor of music. “It has a very contemporary jazz, Big Band sound. I asked George if we could do the work at Lehigh.”

Magic of the Flute will have its U.S. premiere at 8 p.m. Saturday in Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall. Gruntz will direct the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra in a performance of a condensed, 45-minute concert version of the opera that is scored for three voices along with eight brass, five woodwind, and four percussion players.

While at Lehigh preparing for the concert, Gruntz lectured Wednesday afternoon at a jazz composition class taught by Paul Salerni, professor of music and director of the Lehigh University Very Modern Ensemble (LUVME).

`Clever, fun, and sophisticated’

Gruntz is a world-renowned pianist as well as composer.

Gruntz, a world-renowned jazz pianist, was commissioned by the Paris and Hamburg State Operas to write Magic of the Flute. The opera, which is three hours long, was given its world premiere in 2003 at the Yehudi Menuhin Festival in Gstaad, Switzerland.

Neither the full-length opera nor the shortened concert version has been performed before in the U.S.

Magic of the Flute, say Gruntz and Warfield, is based loosely at best on The Magic Flute, which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote just before his death in 1791. Some of the traits that distinguish Mozart’s music are present in Gruntz’s opera, and several characters from Magic Flute reappear in the newer work. But the libretto is different and the musical themes are not at all connected.

Magic of the Flute is very clever and very fun musically,” Warfield says. “It is very sophisticated; it definitely will not offend in terms of simplicity. It most closely resembles the Stan Kenton Band sound; it’s more than swing, more than Count Basie. It’s wonderful contemporary jazz that will be played here by Broadway musicians who are used to performing on half a dozen instruments. You’ll see saxophonists doubling on flutes and clarinets, trumpeters also playing the flugelhorn, trombonists playing the euphonium.”

Gruntz says Magic of the Flute uses a new libretto by German writer Peter O. Chotjewitz that is based on the original libretto written for Mozart’s opera by Emanuel Schikaneder.

The Magic of the Flute is an entirely new work,” Gruntz says. “It uses the basic story of Schikaneder’s libretto, rewritten by Chotjewitz—and an entirely new composition written by myself.

“When Rolf Liebermann [the Paris and Hamburg State Operas] gave me a commission to do ‘a first real jazz opera for improvisers,’ he suggested three librettos, of which I liked the most the idea of Peter Chotjewitz. Peter said it would be a ‘wild idea to compose jazz within the form of a classical opera and to let the music be challenged by one of the great opera librettos.’

“This procedure—writing a new work based on an existing work—has been done many times by composers. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Puccini’s Tosca are two well-known works that come to mind.”

Gruntz has composed two other jazz operas – Cosmopolitan Greetings, based on a libretto by Allen Ginsberg and staged by the Hamburg State Opera, and World Jazz Opera, based on a libretto by Amiri Baraka and performed at LaMama Etc. Theatre in New York.

“As a jazz artist,” says Gruntz, “everything I do to earn a living is connected to jazz – whether as a pianist, composer, arranger or musical director.”

Tickets for Magic of the Flute are $18 for faculty and staff and can be purchased by online or by calling the Zoellner ticket office at (610) 758-2787.

--Kurt Pfitzer


Photos by Josh Kovar

Posted on Thursday, February 23, 2006

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