Concert Celebrates ‘Cycles’ for Composer

Pablo Ortiz
Pablo Ortiz

During any given year, the music of composer and professor Pablo Ortiz can be heard across the globe — from his native Argentina to Switzerland to San Francisco. Just a few weeks ago, a piece he wrote to be played on a giant metal sculpture was performed in Athens, Greece.

The UC Davis Department of Music professor’s 60th birthday will be celebrated with a concert of his music at the new Ann E. Pitzer Center recital hall Oct. 21.

At 60, Ortiz said, “Creatively, you just do what you do. You don’t struggle as much and you rely on intuition more and more. “

That outlook is reflected in his “Cycles,” a piece for solo harpsichord that will have its premiere at the concert. The title and music reference the lunar calendar in which the 60th birthday ends one cycle and starts another, Ortiz said. The title is also a bit of an inside joke — Ortiz started writing the piece while laid up from a bicycling accident in which he broke his collarbone and a rib.

The concert by the department’s contemporary music group, the Empyrean Ensemble, will also include Ortiz’s “Garden Songs for Soprano and String Trio” (2014),  “Milonguitas” (1998) and “Two Short Songs” (2011).  

Nearly everyone performing at the concert has a long association with Ortiz.

“Cycles” was written for San Francisco keyboardist Eric Zivian; he and Ortiz have known one another for about 25 years.

“He’s one of the greatest pianists anywhere,” said Ortiz, who came to UC Davis in 1994.  “He has a kind of nervous, edgy way of playing that I like. I wrote something I felt would fit his temperament.”

The singer for “Garden Songs” will be soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, a native of Davis who is friends with Ortiz’ daughter. Fitz Gibbon gave the first performance of the songs in early 2015 in New York. The piece was written for acclaimed soprano Dawn Upshaw, but due to illness and scheduling difficulties she did not perform it until later. At the time, Fitz Gibbon was studying for her master’s degree from the Bard College vocal program Upshaw directs. 

“Garden Songs” is based on poems by Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Gluck. 

“They are confessional, but have some restraint, and the music is very romantic but also somewhat restrained,” Ortiz said. 

Empyrean Ensemble clarinetist Peter Josheff will perform “Milonguitas” for solo bass clarinet. Ortiz wrote the piece for Josheff in 1998 and it is included on Ortiz’ 2005 CD “Oscuro: Chamber & Vocal Works” by the San Francisco Contemporary Players and Chanticleer. 

“It’s a piece I still feel very happy about,” Ortiz said. 

The concert mixes older and new pieces, said Mika Pelo, Empyrean Ensemble director and fellow UC Davis music composition faculty, “to show at least a glimpse of the scope of his production.” 

“Pablo has found a unique voice, mixing western art music practices with tango music from his native Argentina,” he said. “That is to grossly simplify Pablo's production however — there are many more depths to the music that are harder to describe, and should really much rather be heard.”

Growing up in Buenos Aires, Ortiz was surrounded by music.

His mother played the piano and his family regularly attended concerts and the opera. When he was about five years old, his uncle gave him an accordion. As a teenager, he studied piano seriously. 

“I started writing music when I was around 16 – I never wanted to be a performer,” said Ortiz who earned his doctorate from Columbia University in New York in 1991. 

He has written two chamber operas and a multimedia oratorio for the Centro Experimental Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires; works for the Orquestra Nacional de Catalunya in Barcelona; the Kovacik, Dann, Karttunen trio at the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in Madrid; and Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices in Copenhagen. He has also worked with many poets and writers over the years as well as visual artists, theatre directors, choreographers and filmmakers.  In early October, Ortiz was in Athens for the performance of a piece he created that was played on monumental steel sculptures by artist Venia Dimitrakopoulou. 

Ortiz said entering this new “cycle” will not mark any major changes in his life or work. 

“When you’re young, you’re not sure where you are going,” he said. “Later you still don’t know where you are going, but you don’t care as much. As you age you lose a lot of things, but you gain others such as the knowledge that you have nothing to lose.”

Tickets for the 7 p.m concert are $10 Students and Children, $20 Adults with discounts for faculty and staff.

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science