Biography

Susan Kander“For better or worse, I don’t come from the academy, I come from the theater where if you lose your audience you’re dead.  So in any composition, in any style or venue, it’s always about the listener’s experience.”

Having graduated from Harvard University in 1979 with a degree in music and a passion for theater, Kander spent the next 15 years working as a playwright for both theater and television before coming home to full time composition. Since then, she has been commissioned by a wide range of performers, ensembles, symphony orchestras and opera companies resulting in a growing catalog of works characterized by a vivid, often chromatic tonal presence, dramatic vocal writing and intensely rhythmic vibrancy. Her instrumental commissions span the spectrum from solo works for violin, viola, oboe and bassoon to a “symphonic adventure” for the Kennedy Center’s National Symphony Orchestra.  These have been performed across the United States and beyond including London, Birmingham, Paris, Provence, and St. Petersburg, Russia.  Her operas have been produced by opera companies, conservatories, colleges and schools all over this country and as far away as Capetown and Guanzhou.  Her most recent opera commission, an adaptation of the seminal young adult novel The Giver by Lois Lowry, was jointly commissioned by Minnesota Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City and premiered in 2012.  A “remarkable new work… In a particularly clever stroke, Kander briskly handles the novel’s expository details and narrative movement by means of a Greek-style chorus; her instrumental scoring is atmospheric and unobtrusive… But the vocals take priority… This adaptation is a sophisticated and subtle work, in terms of both music and story.  Like Lowry’s novel, it never panders.”  (Knight Arts, St. Paul)  Tulsa Opera will be presenting The Giver in January, 2015.

In addition to Minnesota Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the National Symphony Orchestra (two commissions), Kander has written works for Opera Theater of St. Louis, the Copland Fund/Boosey and Hawkes and Columbus Opera.  Chamber music commissions include from the Grammy-award winning Kansas City Chorale and the Bach Aria Soloists of Kansas City, the Columbia Foundation, Southampton Chamber Music Festival and an array of individual musicians.  She has received multiple Meet the Composer grants, served on panels for both Opera America and the National Opera Association and is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony.  Her chamber music has been recorded on MSR, Navona and Loose Cans Music.

In her chamber music, Kander often pursues ways to bring instrumental composition and theater into the same experience. Two commissions feature text to be read by a performer before each movement. The Lunch Counter, for solo bassoon, is subtitled ‘A musical play in seven movements;’ Fanfare magazine wrote “Kander’s The Lunch Counter alone is so fascinating that it is worth the price of the recording.” Postcards from America, for oboe and piano, is “a poignant narration of the immigrant experience.” (BBC Music Magazine)  Her interest in using classical forms for dramatic exploration has led to three extended cycles, two for voice and chamber ensemble and one for violin and piano.  Five Movements for my Father (baritone and chamber ensemble) was praised for its “exceptional interweaving of melodic lines and textures” (NY Concert Review) and has been performed as both a concert piece and as a mono-opera.  The thirty-minute cycle was featured on William MacLaughlin’s Live from Wolf Trap radio series.  A Cycle of Songs (soprano/mezzo, clarinet or trumpet and piano) is, in Kander’s words “a real Frau’s liebe und leben,” and has been staged both as a concert piece and with dancers.  Hermestänze, for violin and piano, presents the god Hermes, his tribe and his exploits, “but more importantly, we become aware of [Kander’s] virtuosic compositional ability to use the range and abilities of the violin and piano.” (Ani Kavafian, violinist)

A deep commitment to music for young audiences and family programming has led to commissions for a variety of works. Miranda’s Waltz, commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra for actor/narrator and large orchestra, text by Mary Hall Surface, explores the orchestra as a whole in all its thrilling flexibility and color, and pays homage to specifically American 20th century styles and stylists including jazz, big band, Charles Ives, John Adams and Richard Rodgers.  Two Tricky Tales, commissioned by the Southampton Chamber Music Festival for narrator and chamber ensemble, features the kind of exciting instrument doubling routinely found in a Broadway pit but rarely showcased in the classical world. The Donkey, the Goat and the Little Dog, commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra for the Kennedy String Quartet, is described by Kander as the “first all-talking, all-acting, in-motion string quartet.” The Washington Post called it “a friendly, pain-free and often hilarious introduction to the string quartet for the 4-and-older crowd…. hugely enjoyable.”  And You and I, a choral work commissioned to accompany the opera Brundibàr, is a setting of a poem by a child interned at Térézin; Kander’s original manuscript for the piece resides, by request, in the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Kander is nationally recognized as a leading composer in the field of youth opera.  Her most-produced work, One False Move, “an anatomization of girl bullying,” has been done by opera companies, conservatories, schools, colleges and choruses all over this country and in South Africa and China. It has been found to be a highly effective tool in generating discussion among both teens and adults about bullying. “The disquieting story line hit home with the largely underage audience, as did the multi-layered melodies and the pitch-perfect harmonies.” (The Weekly Pitch – Best of Kansas City annual awards listing)

Kander’s current project is the libretto and score for The News from Poems, a three-act opera about New Jersey poet/doctor William Carlos Williams.  Act One was given a staged reading in New York by the Center for Contemporary Opera in November 2013.  Her most recently completed commission, Hermestänze for violin and piano, premiered at the Yale School of Music in Janjuary 2014.  Her orchestral, chamber, vocal and choral works are published by Subito Music.  Her opera catalogue is published by Loose Cans Music and distributed by Subito.  Kander lives in New York with her husband, architect Warren Ashworth and they have two sons.