Living Among Legends: Andreia Pinto Correia's Life and Work

Andreia Pinto-Correia is an award-winning Portuguese composer, a student of John Harbison, and the featured composer on the final concert of Winsor Music's 2015-16 season. Born and raised in Lisbon, educated in both Lisbon and Boston, and now commissioned by ensembles and institutions all over the world, Ms. Pinto-Correia "writes music of visceral sonic impact, combined with an eclectic, even scholarly curiosity about music’s place in the world. With a strong tendency toward drama and theater, she frequently draws on literary sources for inspiration" (Robert Kirzinger, Boston Symphony Orchestra). 

Andreia's composition for Winsor Music, Dalla Legenda aurea, is a response to her encounter with a famous Italian fresco, Piero della Francesca's "Legend of the True Cross," and was written specifically for Peggy Pearson's sound. Do not miss the opportunity to hear a world premiere by Andreia Pinto Correia alongside stellar performances by rising star George Li, piano, and our own artistic director Peggy Pearson, oboe. As one of the major Portuguese newspapers, Expresso, wrote: "Andreia Pinto-Correia. Remember this name."

How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before? 
I am very attracted to instrumental colors and timbres, and harmony has always had a very important role in my work. As I descend from a family of scholars and writers, my compositions are often influenced by literary works.
I tend to do a lot of research prior to my “composing mode,” since I enjoy writing with a strong sense of tradition. In the case of Dalla Legenda aurea, I studied in depth several oboe quartets by Mozart, Elliott Carter, Harrison Birtwistle, Benjamin Britten, and Colin Matthews as well as writings about Piero della Francesca, including biographies, monographic works, and articles by Della Francesca’s scholars such as Marilyn Aronberg Lavin.
Regarding Dalla Legenda aurea: I started to write this work while in Umbria, Italy, where I was a fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. I was fortunate to spend a substantial amount of time looking at Piero della Francesca’s frescoes, traveling throughout Umbria and Tuscany to cultivate the appropriate frame of mind.
How did you come to composition?
I have a somewhat atypical background. I started studying music as a performer simultaneously in two different institutions with two different approaches: classical and jazz. When I arrived in the United States I was enrolled in a performance degree. During my first semester I suffered an accident that left me paralyzed in my right arm. I returned to my country, Portugal, and I curtailed my studies for 6 years while I underwent several surgeries.
Eventually I returned to the United States and, knowing that I could not be a performer any longer, I decided to make the most of my education. I studied theory, orchestration, conducting, and film scoring. Eventually I wrote my first work Aljezur, for jazz orchestra, during the last semester of my undergraduate studies. After that I never stopped writing music.
What do you remember about the first piece you wrote? Did you know at that point that you would want to make this your profession?
Aljezur was influenced by Iberian folk traditions and rituals, and in particular by the processions in southern Iberia. I think these are aspects that informed my writing. Alzejur is much more rhythmically oriented than my recent works. Curiously, there is a large section that shows my early interest in set theory without me being fully aware of it.
After Aljezur, I started to receive commissions yet I felt the need to further develop my skills. So I went back to school (New England Conservatory of Music) where I studied for a masters’ degree – with the late composer Bob Brookmeyer – and a doctorate – with composer Michael Gandolfi. I was also fortunate to have crossed paths with John Harbison, a composer that who has been a major influence on my music.

I can say that I am pretty much a Boston “product”!

One of my most important “teachers” was the Boston Symphony Orchestra. During my student years at the New England Conservatory, I deeply cherished my College Card and would attend concerts and rehearsals almost every week, having studied previously the scores to be performed. Being accepted as a fellow at Tanglewood in my early composer years was also very important. It opened many doors and possibilities for my growth as a composer. I can say that I am pretty much a Boston “product”!

In answer to your initial question, I would not say that one single moment defined my choice to become a composer, rather a set of circumstances, some more sanguine than others. One of those moments was when I realized that I could never become a soloist, the other when I heard my work being performed with an orchestra for the first time. That was like discovering a whole new world for me. But, I was extremely fortunate to have crossed paths with fantastic mentors and to have them as my role models. That was part of my ultimate decision to become a composer.
What composers and/or other musical traditions would you cite as influences?
I am a huge Mahler fan, although it might not be immediately evident for someone listening to my music. Messiaen, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartók, Ravel, Ligeti, Dutilleux, and Birtwistle are some of the composers who have influenced me in one way or another. And Bach, of course. More locally, I would say Elliott Carter, Jacob Druckman, and John Harbison.

Regarding other musical traditions, I was lucky to have grown up surrounded by music from various parts of the world. My father listened mostly to classical music and in particular to opera. He also had a very good Jazz LP collection at home. Growing up in Lisbon, Portugal, I was exposed to fado (our urban song), flamenco, and music from our former colonies such as Brazil, Cape Verde and Angola. Later on I became curious about music from South of India, and in particular from Goa (a former colony of Portugal). This is all during my teenage years...

I owe this curiosity to my parents and in particular my father, who is a Medievalist. I often accompanied him during his fieldwork, and later on I worked with him in his Center of Research at the University of Lisbon. I am very interested in his work on Medieval Iberian traditions, tales, prayers, superstitions, and songs such as the incredible Cantigas de Santa Maria, a thirteenth century collection of medieval songs attributed to King Alfonso X, El Sabio (The Wise One).
My mother is a translator from German to Portuguese, and was a professor of German literature also at the University of Lisbon. I grew up watching her incessantly trying to find the word or expression that could do justice to Goethe or Zweig. My passion for detail is probably derived from my mother’s search for refinement and precision.

Are there places in the piece you wrote for Winsor that we might hear some of those influences?
I doubt that you will hear these influences in an immediate way. Probably, you will hear my affinity towards certain “ritualistic” atmospheres, in a more abstract, perhaps even subconscious way. I do tend to be attracted to certain emotional ambiences as a response or counterpoint to a source of inspiration – Della Francesca’s The Legend of the True Cross (1454-1458) in this case.
As I started to enter della Francesca’s world, and to know more about his personal story and work process, I gradually became more aware of his use of perspective, spatial
organization, proportion, and detail. Certainly my acute awareness of these elements in his work and in this cycle influenced my process of composition.

Can you give us a tour of some of the musical landmarks of the piece? 
I chose to divide my work into ten separate parts corresponding to the main sections of Della Francesca’s cycle The Legend of the True Cross. These parts are performed continuously in an identical sequence to the events depicted in the frescoes.
On a smaller scale, and as indicated in my program notes, Della Francesca's rich array of colors, landscapes, personages, and parallel narratives – in continuous movement from one side of the cycle to the other – appear in my composition in association with particular musical gestures and instrumental textures.

For instance, the two battle scenes Section VI (Victory of Constantine) and Section IX (Victory of Heraclius) share the same harmonic material. While they both represent the two peaks of intensity, dynamics, and texture, these elements manifest in very different ways. Victory of Constantine presents continuous ascending lines (derived from the original oboe flurries) in a more predictable and organized manner, while in Victory of Heraclius, the texture is more raw, a de-construction of the former battle material. Similarly, Section II (The Story of Queen Sheba and King Solomon) and Section VII (Invention of the Cross) are related thematically mirroring the narrative arch and movement of della Francesca’s cycle.
The Raising from the Well (Section VII) is believed to have been painted by a disciple of Della Francesca. In my composition this section is shorter, and as though it were an unfinished imitation of something more refined. Throughout the piece a “unifying” chord, played at a pianissimo dynamic, functions as an anchor, continually emerging as a far-away remembrance.
Finally, The Death of Adam: Three Death Scenes Under the Blue Sky, the opening section, consists of three short expositions, each an exploration around pitch “A”. Curiously, it was only after the work was written that I realized that these three expositions were all developed around “A” as in Adam. At the very end, the work is reduced to its core skeleton, a simple recitative that reiterates the pitch “A” underlying its importance in the arch of the musical narrative.

Why did you apply this inspiration to this instrumentation? What about the Legenda painting sparked this particular sound in your mind?
I first heard Peggy Pearson many years ago while I was a student in Boston, and I remember that I was completely taken away by her sound, lyricism, and expression. I heard her many times at the Emmanuel Church, and perhaps in an unconscious level that association of her sound with the sacred remained with me. So, rather than being a piece that “adapts” or translates a certain work of art (della Francesca’s Legenda della Croce), this composition is a work written for a very specific soloist with her unique sound in mind.
Regarding your question about instrumentation: Paradoxically my reaction towards the overwhelming experience of the frescoes was one of scarcity and reduction of forces. There is so much color, detail, movement, and richness in Piero della Francesca’s cycle that I felt the need to relate the sensory explosion into a more confined and reduced impression. The instrumentation of Oboe Quartet with Peggy Pearson as a soloist seemed perfectly suited for the occasion.

Can you explain some of your approach to writing chamber music, specifically chamber music for a mixed (woodwind/string) ensemble?
Although I am at ease with larger instrumental forces, such as orchestral, I find myself enjoying more and more writing for smaller groups with particular performers in mind. I really appreciate the whole process of writing for a specific soloist, getting to know their sound, discovering their personal tastes, quirks, and repertoire.
In the case of Dalla Legenda aurea, I wanted to integrate key moments of virtuoso playing and lyricism, balanced within tutti ensemble textures. In addition, I wanted to incorporate some soloistic moments for the string trio.
Finally, do you have a favorite piece (or pieces) of chamber music by another composer?
I find myself enjoying certain pieces at different phases of my compositional life. Thus, I am not a big fan of lists. But, here is an effort, a list of some pieces that have influenced me in the past (not in any particular order):
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Quintet
Olivier Messiaen: Quatour por la fin du temps, Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
Henri Dutilleux: Ainsi la Nuit
Igor Stravinsky: Histoire du soldat
György Ligeti: String Quartet Nr. 1 and Nr. 2
Peter Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad King
Elliott Carter: A Mirror on Which to Dwell, Night Fantasies, String Quartet No. 5
Luciano Berio: Sequenza
Bela Bartok: String Quartet Nr. 4
Harrison Birtwistle: Silbury Air
John Harbison: November 19, 1828, Mirabai Songs, Wind Quintet
Franco Donatoni: Omar
Jacob Druckman: Reflections on the Nature of Water, Second String Quartet
Georg Friedrich Haas: String Quartet No. 3 “ In iij. Noct”

From her website: 

The prestigious literary magazine Jornal de Letras describes Andreia Pinto-Correia’s compositions as “a major contribution to the dissemination of Portugal’s culture and language, perhaps a contribution larger than could ever be imagined.” Her music — described by the Boston Globe as “compellingly meditative” and by the New York Times as an “aural fabric” — is characterized by close attention to harmonic detail and timbral color. Following a family tradition of scholars and writers, her work often reflects the influence of literary sources from the Iberian Peninsula and beyond.

Ms. Pinto-Correia is a 2015 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow. Honors include commissions from the European Union Presidency, League of American Orchestras and the Toulmin Foundation, Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, Boston Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet, American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood Music Center, Albany Symphony Orchestra, and Culturgest National Bank of Portugal. Her work Timaeus, a concerto for orchestra commissioned by the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood Music Center in memory of Elliott Carter, was recently premiered at the opening concert of the Contemporary Music Festival’s 75th anniversary.

Her works have been performed by the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Orchestra, Orquestra Metropolitana de Lisboa, and the Borromeo and the Mivos String Quartets. She has also been the recipient of a League of American Orchestras/ New Music USA Music Alive Composer Residency, a Rockefeller Foundation Center Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship, the Alpert Award in the Arts/Ucross Residency Prize, and the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award by the Japan Society. In addition, she was the curator of the Fertile Crescent Festival for Contemporary Music at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Born in Portugal, Ms. Pinto-Correia began her musical studies in her native Lisbon and received her Masters and Doctoral of Music degrees with Academic Honors from the New England Conservatory of Music as a student of Bob Brookmeyer and Michael Gandolfi. She attended the Minnesota Composer Institute, the European Network of Opera Academies (ENOA), the American Opera Projects (AOP), the Composers Conference, and the Tanglewood and Aspen Festivals.

Photos of Ms. Pinto-Correia by Daniel Blaufuks