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Recital Report: Elizabeth Robinson

Elizabeth Robinson
Elizabeth Robinson

Elizabeth Robinson approached the music stand, center stage at the Founders Recital Hall in the Oscar Larson Performing Arts Center. After months of preparation for her recital, it was time to perform in front of a healthy audience of students, staff, fellow faculty members and members of the community.

For faculty members in South Dakota State University's School of Performing Arts, recitals are an opportunity to showcase recently commissioned pieces and perform in front of a live audience. They are also an opportunity to showcase and highlight music of their choosing and area(s) of interest. Each faculty member holds one recital per academic year.

Faculty members find out when they will have their recital nearly 12 months before their performance. This gives them ample time to select a theme, determine potential collaborative performance partners and select the pieces they will perform.

"Choosing what pieces to play can be the most challenging part of preparing for a recital," Robinson, assistant professor of music in SDSU's School of Performing Arts, said. "It's kind of like planning a meal. You don't want to make everything based on the same ingredient."

Robinson, a flutist, found out that her recital for this academic year would come on Feb. 1. Preparation started almost immediately. The theme she landed on was "living composers" — each of the pieces she would choose was prepared by a composer who is still alive. Her thematic choice was influenced by her passion for new music and desire for diversity among composers.

"I tend to focus on music of underrepresented composers because I want music that I play to represent the world," Robinson explained. "I want to make sure that I have a variety of styles with some music that was influenced by styles from outside of traditional classical music."

Of course, traditional classical music — at least the classical music most familiar to the general public — is dominated primarily by composers who are dead, with very little variety. As Robinson explains, if she wanted to choose a piece from a female composer from the 1800s, she would be left with just a few choices to select from. This is why she is passionate about platforming new music, and living composers, as much as possible.

"Music is an evolving field with new styles, and new ways of approaching instruments are always being written or created," Robinson said.

Originally from Tennessee, Robinson has continuously worked to expand the flute repertoire and create performance opportunities. In 2013, she co-founded the Flute New Music Consortium to facilitate these efforts and currently serves as the organization’s vice president. She holds degrees in flute performances from Drake University, San Francisco State University and Ball State University. In March 2023, she released her debut album — "Aviary" — through Aerocade Music.

She has been with SDSU since 2022.

Bunun Fantasy for alto flute prerecorded electronics (2016)

Robinson's first piece at her Feb. 1 recital, composed by Roger Zare in 2016, was influenced by the Bunun people, an aboriginal tribe from an area that is now known as Taiwan. Titled "Bunun Fantasy for Alto Flute and Prerecorded Electronics," Zare uses spectral analysis to manipulate the recordings of pasibutbut — a four-part chorale sung by the Bunun men during the Sowing Festival that rises very gradually in pitch — which he pairs with an alto flute melody in this piece.

The composer describes his work as a "web of microtonal illusions" as it moves from one harmony to the next.

Listen to All Things Burning (2011)

Anna DeGraff, a mezzo soprano and an instructor in the School of Performing Arts, joined Robinson for the second piece, a 2011 track from Lisa Neher titled "All Things Burning." In this piece, Neher sets two poems from the ancient poet Rumi that allows the mezzo soprano to fill the space with reverence and trust for the divine, drawing spiritual nourishment from following in the footsteps of the beloved.
In the second part, the mezzo soprano moves from idea to idea, pulling the voice up and down, in search of an answer. 
"For this piece, we started digging through the catalog and found that (Neher) had written a piece for both of us," Robinson explained after the performance. "The piece overlapped with our research interests, and now we have some cohesion in the direction that we want to go in the future."
Robinson and DeGraff had previously performed this piece at a conference in Miami, Florida, and will perform it again this spring in Washington, D.C.

Amazonia for flute and piano (2020)

Commissioned by the Flute New Music Consortium in 2020, composer Valerie Coleman's "Amazonia for Flute and Piano" saw Mark Stevens, assistant professor of piano and music theory in SDSU's School of Performing Art, join Robinson on stage. Starting with animal like sounds, the opening flute motives hints at grooves and rhythms of Brazilian music. The central section introduces a simple melody that represents the carefree children of the Amazon before the entrance of poachers and mercenaries in the next section, titled "Menacing." 
In the final stages of the piece, Coleman includes the word "fire" in Morse code, anticipating the dramatic finale. Brazilian samba emerges in the final stages, symbolizing the greed and corporate interests that threaten the Amazon. The piece ends with shrieks and screams, depicting the intensity of fires that consumed thousands of acres of forest. 
The piece commemorates the Amazon Rainforest and depicts scenes from before and after the 2019 wildfires that burned more than 2 million acres. 
Don't Forget to Write (2022)

Robinson returned to the stage, solo, for the penultimate piece of the evening — composer Amanda Harberg's "Don't Forget to Write." The piece, commissioned by the Oklahoma Flute Society, coincided with the time in which Harberg's son prepared to leave for college, the emotions of which can be inferred in the piece's composition. 
In the first movement, Harberg balances a warm wistfulness with melodic phrases that occur first in major, and then immediately in minor. The second movement is filled with exuberance, a mix of motoric rhythms, and some surprising twists and turns.
"One imagines that any new college student might begin their journey with a similar drive, but also with similar twists and turns," Robinson said.

Giantess for flute and piano (2018)

The final piece of the evening, composer Carter Pann's "Giantess for flute and piano," brought Stevens back out onto the stage for a true test of his piano skills. As Stevens notes, when Pann first wrote “Giantess,” the piano portion of the piece was deemed nearly too difficult to play. This only increased Stevens' interest in learning and performing the piece, which includes thick harmonies and full, dense cords and was commissioned by the Flute New Music Consortium in 2018. 
The flute portion of the piece presents a far-reaching melody that seemingly never ends and explores the entire range of the instrument at all times, Pann notes.