Composer's `Creation' reveals original talent

JOSEPH DALTON Special to the Times Union
Section: Arts-Events,  Page: H1

Date: Sunday, December 10, 2006

When Nicholas Anthony Ascioti of Brunswick tells casual acquaintances he's a composer, he says he often gets a response along the lines of, ``Oh, really? My cousin writes songs, too.'' ``It's not exactly the same thing ... but I hate to sound like a snob,'' Ascioti says.


"We're not talking about having a guitar, writing some songs and hanging out in the lounge. It's even more remote than that; it's writing music of a kind you've never heard before."


The 32-year-old composer faced a similar disconnect with his parents, when as a sophomore at The College of Saint Rose, he switched from studying music education to composition. (After completing undergrad work in Albany, he earned a Master of Fine Arts in composition from Bennington College.) "Maybe (my parents) not understanding exactly what I was doing helped," recalls Ascioti. "If they knew how difficult a career could be, they would have really tried to make me get the teaching degree."


Ascioti is indeed making a career of it. His first full-length CD, "Creation's Voice," was just released on Albany Records. Though a solo CD is always a landmark accomplishment for a classical composer, "Creation's Voice," which features 30 songs, affirms Ascioti as a songsmith. Grouped in five cycles, the songs were written between 1999 and 2005 and are performed by tenor Mark Lawrence and soprano Eileen Strempel.


Of course, with one listen, it's obvious these aren't pop or folk ditties.


Actually they aren't typical art songs either, since only one cycle, "Four Settings of Margaret Atwood," is written for the usual combination of voice and piano. Instead, Ascioti pairs the voice with some unexpected instruments, such as cello, flute, oboe or harp. It lifts the instrumental writing beyond the role of vocal accompaniment to a more independent and evocative creative element. For example, in "Music of the Spheres," the oboe and harp become an almost visual counterpart to the poetry by Richard Hibbert.


Though Ascioti didn't go for that education degree, he does do some teaching. For the past 10 years, he has been an artist-in-residence at an elementary school in Syracuse, as part of an education program sponsored by Syracuse's Society for New Music. Showing fifth-graders how to write songs has brought some surprises.


"I'm in an inner-city school, and we like to draw from what (the children) are interested in, which is hip-hop and rap, where there's an absence of melodic line," says Ascioti. "The kids are brilliant with rhythm ... but we spend a lot of time on what is a melody."


When Ascioti isn't making his periodic trips to Syracuse or fulfilling his part-time duties as director of music at the Burnt Hills United Methodist Church, he's a stay-at-home dad. Time for composition comes when his 3-year-old daughter, Melody, is napping or after she's put to bed for the night. Ascioti and his wife, Emily, a schoolteacher, are expecting their second child in January.


A concert Saturday at the Burnt Hills United Methodist Church celebrated the release of Ascioti's disc. The program featured two song cycles from the CD and Ascioti's Rhapsody No. 1 for flute and piano, plus the music of Samuel Barber, Clara Schumann and Judith Cloud. Performances were by soprano Eileen Strempel, pianist Sylvie Beaudette and flutist Sophia Gibbs Kim.


"Creation's Voice" is available for purchase online at http://www.albanyrecords.com or through Amazon.com. For more information on the music of Nicholas Ascioti, check out his Web site, http://www.naamusic.com.


The Met at the mall


For quite a while, Crossgates Mall didn't even have a bookstore, although Borders opened there this fall. But soon, Crossgates is going to have live opera.


Opera broadcasts, that is. In high definition, too.


Thanks to the Metropolitan Opera and its bold new general director, Peter Gelb, the new initiative, "Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD," is coming to Regal Crossgates Cinema 18 for six Saturday afternoons.


The series kicks off Dec. 30 with the Met's new, 100-minute, English-language version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," directed by Julie Taymor ("The Lion King") and conducted by Met music director James Levine. The remaining offerings are more standard fare with some big-name singers, plus the season's one new opera.


Here's the rest of the lineup: Bellini's "I Puritani" with soprano Anna Netrebko on Jan. 6; Tan Dun's "The First Emperor" with tenor Placido Domingo on Jan. 13; Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" with soprano Renee Fleming on Feb. 24; Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" with tenor Juan Diego Florez on March 24; and Puccini's "Il Trittico" conducted by Levine on April 28.


The broadcasts start at 1:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 to $18 and are already on sale for all dates. They can be purchased at the Crossgates box office or online at http://www.bigscreenconcerts.com.


The HD broadcasts are only a part of the Met's embracing of new technologies. In September, the company launched a 24-hour satellite radio channel, broadcasting live and rare historical performances on the Sirius network. The Met also presents free live streaming of performances from its Web site, http://www.metopera.org, once every week. And the beloved radio broadcasts continue. The new season began Saturday and can be heard every Saturday afternoon through May 5 on WAMC (90.3 FM).


Operatic changes


Don Marrazzo has been named director of artistic operations at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown. He joined the company as director of public relations in 2005 and, since September, has been functioning in the new post after the departure of Nicholas G. Russell. Russell was with the company for 10 years. Marrazzo will work with general and artistic director Michael MacLeod on planning and casting, will be responsible for contracting and scheduling, and will also oversee the company's Young American Artists Program.








Joseph Dalton is a local freelance writer who contributes regularly to the Times Union.