Complex Portraiture, Fragmented Yet With Teeth (Boston Musical Intelligencer 11/14/2014)

From Classical Greece to Ukraine to Broadway, Roomful of Teeth mixed another powerful motley of mood,
affect, experience, and premieres at Kresge on Friday.
After rebuffing Apollo, Aeschylus’s Cassandra is cursed with the gift of prophecy no mortal will believe. When she first appears in the Agamemnon, time is suspended: Cassandra, goaded by the chorus, details the fall of Troy, her home, then her journey to Greece as Agamemnon’s booty, and, ultimately, the proleptic mourning of gory end (known to no one but her) at the hands of Clytemnestra—events we know to be fated are but the bewildering ramblings of a harried PoW.
True to curse, she is ignored, only to see her visions come true. That is the prototype for what takes place more than two millennia later in I Puritani and Lucia di
Lammermoor—the first mad scene existing in drama.
Madness was well‐reimagined in Elena Ruehr’s Cassandra in the Temples, premiered by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth in Kresge Hall on Friday evening. The opera is a fruitful collaboration with Gretchen Henderson, whose 13‐part libretto takes place in the head of Cassandra as she remembers her curse and prophesies her demise. The text is as much poetry as artwork: the libretto at times taking the form of prose, at others defiantly stylized. One poem is a serpentine extension of the word no; another elegantly drapes itself around two intersecting columnar lines. Still further is the poetry shrouded in an oracular aura of ambiguity, shattering dialogue and interchanging speakers. Voices rarely arise individually to provide meaning, and Ruehr’s text settings were equally fragmented, altogether not unlike the worm‐eaten papyri that are our sources. Ruehr’s setting for a cappella ensemble meets the substantial challenges of the libretto with a highly stylized minimalist language that imbues each scene with distinct character, as if in imitation of the theater masks employed in ancient Greek theater. Although there are moments where individuals are heard above dense vocal texture, creation of character and narration alike is largely motivated by combinations of voices and vocal effects.
The character ambiguity and lack of narrative clarity make it difficult to envision Cassandra as an opera in the traditional sense (notably, Friday’s performance was unstaged). Regardless, the dramatic structure of the work, from the approach to Cassandra’s temple to a procession away from the tomb that lies beneath, illustrated by splintered text and fractured sound of tragic madness, makes for a strikingly effective experience.

Cantata Singers give life to premiere of thought-provoking “Eve” (Boston Musical Intelligencer. 11/10/2014)

Elena Ruehr’s “Eve” received its world premiere Saturday night by the Cantata Singers.
In their season-opening program Saturday night at Jordan Hall, the Cantata Singers paired two cantatas by Bach alongside the world premiere of a new work by Boston-based composer Elena Ruehr.
Programs of this type have graced many a Cantata Singers concert in their fifty years of operation, and the ensemble, led by David Hoose, has a sterling reputation for combining commissioned pieces with Classical and Baroque repertoire for enriching concert offerings.
Ruehr’s cantata, Eve, a Cantata Singers commission, made for a delightful and thought-provoking opener. Scored for chorus, orchestra, and soprano and bass soloists, the work draws its text from the third chapter of Genesis, which concerns the buildup to the fall of mankind into sin after eating of the apple from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. But rather than simply retelling this well-worn story, Eve poses an honest question: was gaining knowledge of good and evil such a terrible thing? “In a sense,” the composer stated in her program note for the work, “[Eve] is choosing light over darkness, sight over blindness. It’s an astonishing idea.”

Indeed it is, and Ruehr’s work brings the question forcefully and affectingly to life. The piece begins with glassy harmonies in the strings with serpentine woodwind lines winding their way through dissonances that are left to shimmer in the balance. As the music becomes more agitated, the choir enters in waves of statements to set the scene in the Garden of Eden.
Bass Will Prapestis was an effective serpent. Through his seductive and warbling melodies, he enticed the first woman to eat of the apple. Soprano Farah Darliette, with her glittering and clear voice, captured the innocent curiosity of Eve.
Ruehr’s music does its part to tell the story, with the chorus and orchestra spinning webs of slithery lines to underscore the
serpent’s insistence that eating of the fruit will grant God-like knowledge to Eve. The most arresting moments in the score come at work’s end as Eve shares the apple with Adam. There, the chorus intones the phrase “and the eyes of them both were opened.” Singers and orchestra fuse their lines together into unresolved dissonances, which seem to cast a light on the uncertain future that will result from that climactic moment.
The Cantata Singers sang with clear diction and sensitive phrasing of the score’s declamatory phrases. Hoose led the orchestra and chorus with deliberation, making a strong case for Ruehr’s work.

Cantata Singers elevate with Bach, Ruehr (Boston Globe. 11/11/2014)

Ruehr’s telling of Eve and the apple in the Garden of Eden provocatively ends before Adam and Eve’s banishment, turning a tale of hubris into one of enlightenment: “The eyes of them both were opened.” The music hints at a more cyclical conception. The orchestral opening superimposes harmonic categories — major and minor, anticipation and resolution — into dissonant clouds; after the fateful bite, the chorus drives to a ringing minor-key cadence only to return to that initial ambiguity: a back-and-forth of grim certainty and known unknowns. (The chorus was especially excellent in those final phrases, precisely modulating from hymn-like solidity to intricately-voiced disquiet.) Eve (soprano Farah Darliette) and the serpent (bass Will Prapestis) refrain from dramatic heights, as if still finding their allegorical roles.
Both score and performance likewise rationed grand moments, keeping the story’s apocalyptic reputation in restrained check. “Eve” is a reflective fable, thoughtful rather than fierce. The provocation turned out to be unusually, effectively clement.

O’Keeffe Images

“Orchestral music of sweeping vistas and a strong pulse by an American composer.” Audiophile Audition

“The four orchestral works of composer Elena Ruehr that are assembled on this alluring disc by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project are striking for their combination of rhapsodic, almost sinful lushness and a robust force that keeps the effect from cloying. Her signature orchestrational move is to pull you in with the strings and then let the brass punch you in the gut, and it works every time — even when you know it’s coming. Even the overall course of the disc works that way. It opens with the aptly named “Shimmer,” an enticingly patterned work for string orchestra that establishes just how beautifully Ruehr can write when that’s her goal. Then come “Vocalissimus,” in which a pugnacious solo trumpet keeps weighing into the process, and “Cloud Atlas,” a winningly detailed treatment of the great David Mitchell novel, in which cellist Jennifer Kloetzel of the Cypress String Quartet takes a solo role. The title work, a triptych inspired by three of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, brings things to an expansive and evocative close.” — Joshua Kosman, San Francisco ChronicleAverno

All Ruehr Concert at Trinity ChurchMs. Ruehr’s music, sumptuously scored and full of soaring melodies and piquant harmonies…vivacious rhythms and smart, colorful orchestration; performed in a seamless sequence, the works formed a satisfying arc. “Gospel Cha Cha,” a grand solo part for the baritone Stephen Salters, whose soaring delivery intentionally conjured the intensity and singsong cadence of great black orators. “Averno,” a striking and contemplative cantata based on 11 remarkable poems by Louise Glück. Concerned with mankind’s relationship to the natural world, the poems intermingle ancient Greek myths and pensive observations, keenly detailed; Ms. Ruehr set them in vocal lines passed among Mr. Salters, the elegant soprano Marguerite Krull and the choir. At times the choral writing was too luxuriant for the text to register clearly in the resonant church. (Printed texts were provided.) But the music — which included fleeting snatches of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” and Mahler’s “Lied von der Erde” and a final quotation from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — balanced communicativeness, melancholy and grandeur in a manner befitting the poetry’s sustained intensity. For the Trinity Choir, this was one more job well done; for Novus NY and Ms. Ruehr, a most auspicious introduction.” The New York Times. Full review here.

How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr

“…unspeakably gorgeous… Ruehr’s engaging quartets are performed with conviction…” (Gramophone/May 2010 Vittes)

“It’s a brave move by the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet to devote its new disc entirely to a contemporary composer, and a little-known name at that. But the music of Elena Ruehr, raised in Michigan and now teaching at MIT, is so appealing, and the performances by the Cypress players so persuasive, that the project brings rich rewards. Ruehr’s music hovers between a resonant neo-Romanticism and more cerebral contrapuntal techniques, and it’s full of rhythm, life and colour, immediately accessible to the listener but rich enough to repay repeated listenings. It’s hard to imagine it being given more committed performances than these by the Cypress players.” Strad Magazine Review (April 2010 by David Kettle)

“Immediately likeable but clothed in rhythmic and harmonic complexity that engages the emotions and stimulates the musical mind….” Audiophile Audition. Full review here.

“Here is the fine young Cypress Quartet’s cellist Jennifer Kloetzel explaining to Saint Paul Sunday’s Bill McGlaughlin how the San Francisco Quartet’s close relationship to 46-year-old MIT composer Elena Ruehr came about: “A few years ago we decided to champion the composers whose music we like—by playing their music a lot and playing a lot of their music. We commission and recommission them and really get into their world, that’s become something that’s very important to us— Elena’s become a real part of our musical lives.” Her music is “infectious,” says the ensemble’s violist, Ethan Filner. You can say that again many times over after hearing the Cypress Quartet’s recordings of Ruehr’s Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 4. The result of the quartet’s immersion in Ruehr’s musical world is one of the most appealing contemporary quartet discs in a very long time. The disc’s title, “How She Danced,” (Ruehr is a trained dancer as well as musician and composer) comes from the allegro third movement of Ruehr’s Third Quartet and, as with so much of this, it sounds like the strongly tonal meeting point of Philip Glass’ minimal-ism and the pan-ethnic folk-influenced music of the great early 20th century experimentalist Henry Cowell. In other words, it’s where country reels and hoedowns and Hindu ritual and Balinese gamelan all somehow come together with the restless unison ostinatos of what was once “downtown” new music. A beautiful disc. ” Buffalo News – Listening Post (March 2010 review by Jeff Simon)

“I was enchanted with this, my first acquaintance with the music of American composer Elena Ruehr, and I think you will be, too. A strong, engaging personality suffuses her music. She was born and spent her early years in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, an area of much natural beauty that is said to have the most beautiful fall colors in America. Her music reflects a variety of traditional and world influences in addition to her formal education under mentors William Bolcom, Milton Babbitt and Vincent Persichetti. The daughter of a mathematician, she admits to a fondness for solving intellectual puzzles such as 12-tone rows, but she decided at an early stage in her career to leave the complicated stuff beneath the surface of what people hear, incorporating it into the musical form (For the record, Mozart did much the same thing).’”As a result, her music, of which we get a good sampling here from String Quartets 1, 3 and 4, written between 1991 and 2005, is both accessible and challenging. We sometimes forget, in analyzing the art of the string quartet, how sensually beautiful the sound of these four strings can be. Ruehr reminds us. Her art consists in large part of long melodies, long intonations and exhalations, gorgeously swelling tones and smartly struck pizzicati. The members of the Cypress Quartet – Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello – attest to the challenges they encountered in performing these works in an interview with radio host Bill McGlaughlin, excerpted in the program notes. They speak from experience of the 17-bar melody with a canon in 3 parts, with all four players playing fragments of it here and there, in the slow movement of Quartet No. 3. In this movement, entitled “The Abbey” and taking its inspiration from the style of 12th Century Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, the chant-like melody is supported by a catchy rhythm derived from it. The trick, which the Cypresses bring out with deceptive ease, is to make the music sound as simple and natural as possible.” Review (Feb 2010 by Phil Muse)”  

“This CD is a revelation….which just might be the model for 21st century music-making.”  Classical Voice of New England. Full review here.

Jane Wang considers the dragonfly

With a light touch, Elena Ruehr’s music grabs your attention in a “what’s that over there in the distance?” sort of way. Upon a closer look the music is a careful balance of gorgeous sonorities, descriptive themes, and vibrant rhythm. – Endless Possibilities, WRSU, Doug

Toussaint Before the Spirits

This impressive chamber opera is an illuminating historical musical fantasy… – Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News, August 2007
… had the audience on its feet, cheering, whistling, and applauding…combines a lyrical outpouring energized by motor rhythms that never become mechanical…compelling, emotional, theatrical….takes us back to the beginnings of the art, and to one of the first great operas, Gluck’s ”Orfeo”— Richard Dyer, Boston Globe, June 2003
Ruehr writes for the voice with a naturalness and beauty that’s both purposeful and immediately appealing. More operas from her, please.— T.J. Medrek, Boston Herald, June, 2003
… atmosphere and tension charged with African rhythms and earthy melody.—George Loomis , London Financial Times, June, 2003

… premiered to a packed, on-its-feet crowd …not in recent memory has an opera premiere stirred such overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from a Boston audience.—Bay Windows, June, 2003


Fourth String Quartet

“Music with heart and …a forceful sense of character and expression”  (The Washington Post November, 2007).


Ladder to the Moon

Underneath the music’s surface serenity was a primal energy that built to a powerful climax both thrilling and disturbing –T. J. Medrek, Boston Herald, March 2003


Third String Quartet

An astounding success, conveying an emotional directness the audience could easily grasp, yet still holding musical complexities that should make it a performance staple in the quartet repertory—Keith Powers, Boston Sunday Herald, June 2001


Gospel Cha Cha

A tightly linked chain of musical episodes, each more riveting than the last.—Gwendolyn Freed, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb 2001


Cymbal and Spice

A score of vivid aural colors….jeweled with surprising syncopations—Debra Cash, Boston Globe, May, 2000<


Law of Floating Objects

Stunning…a landscape beautifully lighted by Ruehr’s canny instinct for knowing when and how to vary key, timbre, and harmony—Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, May, 2000

Masterfully crafted and magically beautiful to hear—David Cleary, 21st Century Music, December 2000



Canonic imitation and bright Orchestration bring joy to the listener—American Record Guide


Lullabies and Spring Songs

Ruehr’s concepts are complex, full-blown and florid…the bittersweet “Stars” is a song to treasure–JaneShaw, Hilton Head S.C Island Packet, March 2000


First String Quartet

There’s no mistaking the profusion of ideas, the adroitness of technique and the restlessness of spirit that permeate this music—Josiah Fisk, Boston Herald, November 1993