“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, I try to bring the audience along with me wherever I’m going.”
Having graduated from Harvard University in 1979 with a degree in music, Susan 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 and ensembles resulting in a growing catalog of orchestral, chamber, vocal and choral works characterized by a vivid, often chromatic tonal presence and rhythmic variety. Her instrumental works span the spectrum from solo works for violin, viola and bassoon to a “symphonic adventure” commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra entitled Miranda’s Waltz, with original story and text by Washington D.C. award-winning playwright/director Mary Hall Surface. Her most recent commission was an opera adaptation of the seminal young adult novel The Giver by Lois Lowry. The joint commission from Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Minnesota Opera resulted in a 90 minute opera that sold out in both cities and received added performances and two on-line streamings of the Minneapolis production.
In her chamber music, Kander readily admits to pursuing ways to bring instrumental composition and theater into the same experience. Two recent commissions feature text to be read by a performer before each movement: Postcards from America, for oboe and piano, tells the story, in three movements, of a newly-arrived immigrant to this country; The Lunch Counter, for solo bassoon, is subtitled “A musical play in seven movements,” and described by the composer as presenting seven “character studies.” Her interest in using classical forms for dramatic exploration has led to two extended song cycles, both of which are featured on Kander’s CD Five Movements for my Father (Loose Cans Music.) The 30-minute title work, featuring baritone Keith Phares and chamber ensemble, with texts by Sam Ashworth, William Carlos Williams and Kander, has been praised for its “exceptional interweaving of melodic lines and textures” (NY Concert Review) and a live performance of the work by Mr. Phares at Wolf Trap has been featured on radio host Bill McLaughlin’s “Live from Wolf Trap” broadcasts. Also on the disc and featuring soprano Roberta Gumbel, A Cycle of Songs, for soprano or mezzo, trumpet or clarinet and piano is another extended theatrical chamber work, in Kander’s words “a real Frau’s liebe und leben.”
Kander enjoys writing for a wide variety of instruments and forces. Solo Sonata for violin-viola-violin, her first composition after 9/11, was commissioned and premiered by Yuval Waldman both in New York and at the celebrated Composer’s Union in St. Petersburg, Russia. Museum Pieces, for string quartet and bassoon, was described as “patently sexual, with a shimmering viola solo,” by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The choral cycle The News from Poems, “a richly varied” group of William Carlos Williams settings (Kansas City Star) was commissioned by the Grammy Award-winning Kansas City Chorale.
A deep commitment to music for young audiences and family programming has led to many commissions for a wide variety of works. Her close ties to musical theatre are readily apparent in Two Tricky Tales, commissioned by the Southampton Chamber Music Festival for narrator and chamber ensemble, which present multi-cultural tricksters Hermes and B’rer Rabbit and feature 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, 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, ending (as all dramas properly should) with everyone eating ice cream together. The audience showed its approval with clapping, emphatic squeals and much bouncing in the seats.”
Susan is also nationally recognized as a leading composer in the field of youth opera. Her operas all feature a central role for youth chorus, meant for expandable numbers of children, who sing alongside adult professionals. The one exception to that formula is One False Move, conceived and commissioned by Director of Education Paula Winans at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, which is entirely sung by young singers. “An anatomization of girl bullying,” the 35 minute opera has been done by opera companies, schools, colleges and choruses all over this country and internationally. It is 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 teens who witnessed it likely made two mental notes: stop bullying classmates and learn more about this whole opera thing.” (The Pitch – Best of Kansas City.) Never Lost a Passenger, also commissioned by Lyric Opera of Kansas City, has introduced children across the nation to the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Rail Road.
Current projects include the libretto and score for The News from Poems, a full-length opera about William Carlos Williams, the New Jersey doctor/ poet (begun during a residency at the MacDowell Colony.) It will have a staged reading of the first half in New York by the Center for Contemporary Opera in 2013. Susan’s opera catalogue, formerly with Boosey and Hawkes, is now published by Loose Cans Music and distributed through Subito Music; vocal, chamber, orchestral and choral works are published by Subito Music.