“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 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 chamber, vocal and choral works characterized by a vivid, often chromatic tonal presence and rhythmic immediacy. She recently completed her first orchestral commission, a “symphonic adventure” for the National Symphony Orchestra entitled Miranda’s Waltz, with original story and text by youth theater expert Mary Hall Surface. Rather than serve as another introduction to individual instruments, the piece displays the versatility of the orchestra as a whole, and specifically celebrates the contributions of American sounds and styles of the last century or so. It premiered May 31, 2009 at the Kennedy Center.
Another frequent hallmark of Kander’s work is a theatrical orientation. 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 title work, for baritone and chamber ensemble with baritone Keith Phares, is essentially a thirty minute one-man opera, with texts by Sam Ashworth, William Carlos Williams and Kander. It has been praised for its “exceptional interweaving of melodic lines and textures” (NY Concert Review) and a 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 theatrical chamber work, in Kander’s words “a real Frau’s liebe und leben.” In a recent faculty concert at Kansas City Conservatory of Music, two dancers were added to the performance creating an unusual opportunity for faculty from three separate departments to work together on a single project.
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, 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. One False Move, conceived and commissioned by Paula Winans at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, about what have since come to be called “mean girls,” 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.
Kander’s most recent projects include the 2011-12 season premieres of her newest opera The Giver and the vocal chamber work A Garden’s Time Piece. Based on Lois Lowry’s award-winning childrens’ novel and featuring Kander’s own libretto , The Giver was co-commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Minnesota Opera with each company presenting its own production in January and April 2012 respectively. A Garden’s Time Piece-a 10-minute work for soprano and violin-was written in celebration of the 90th birthday of educator and poet Leslie Laskey, who taught taught design at Washington University School of Architecture in St. Louis, MI. Kander’s text-settings are based on Laskey’s own poetry.
Kander is currently working on the libretto and score for a full-length opera about New Jersey-native William Carlos Williams, a general pratitioner, pediatrician, and influential 20th-century Modernist poet.