Matti Kovler’s music has been described as “part mystical, part comical” (Grade A Entrepreneurs) and praised for its “emotive potency” (New York Times) and “bold colors of orchestration” (The Boston Globe). Called by Steve Smith of the New York Times “a potentially estimable operatic composer in the making,” Matti wrote his first opera at the age of 17. His works have since been performed worldwide by the Metropole Orchestra (Holland), Fox Studios Orchestra (Los Angeles), Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the American Composers Orchestra, the Brillaner Duo (Berlin) and others. Recent performances included the premiere of Fanfare to Israel, by the Israel Philharmonic.
Kovler’s musical influences include folklore research, improvisation, a deep fascination with Janacek and Bartok polymodality and the cult writings of the French theatre philosopher Antonin Artaud. From 2000 till 2008, Matti appeared as a singer, pianist and arranger in the productions of the Ha’Oman Hai Ensemble, led by composer André Hajdu.
Inspired by his work with Ha’Oman Hai, upon moving to the US, in 2010 Kovler founded the Matti Kovler Ensemble specializing in creating new works of Jewish Music Theater (see website for more details). Kovler’s recent works bring sacred texts or melodies from the Jewish tradition in a contemporary context:
Here Comes Messiah! — a monodrama for soprano and chamber ensemble, commissioned by the Carnegie Hall in 2009, is based on a musical motto from a Hassidic chant. A tour-de-force for a soprano singer, this theatrical score follows a young woman in the process of giving birth.
The Escape of Jonah — an oratorio for soloists, choir and brass orchestra, is a parody on the story of the prophet Jonah, from today’s perspective. The work juxtaposes the biblical text performed by the choir with the agitated speech of Jonah, the wandering Jew, voiced by the trumpet.
Cokboy for actor and orchestra is yet another take on a story of a displaced Jew—this time in America—in search for his cultural identity. The work is based on Jerome Rothenberg’s post-Holocaust poem Cokboy (a Yiddish mispronunciation of cowboy), comparing between the extinction of two cultures—the Eastern European Jews and the Native Americans.
Born in Moscow and educated in Israel and the US, Matti is a recipient of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship — he is a doctoral candidate at the New England Conservatory in Boston and a teacher at the Northeastern University. Among other recognitions are fellowships at the Tanglewood and the Aspen Music Festivals, the Theodore Presser Award and two ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Awards.
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American Composers Orchestra, George Manahan (cond.) Miller Theater, NY – May 2010
Mr. Kovler’s “Unsung Serenade,” in which a gloom akin to Ravel’s pregnant murk in “La Valse” gave birth to brighter sonorities, had an emotive potency that suggested, of all things, a potentially estimable operatic composer in the making.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose (cond.) Jordan Hall, Boston – January 2009
A setting of a Jerome Rothenberg poem that surreally evokes the experience of Eastern European immigrants in America…the music was notable for its pacing and the bold colors of the orchestration.
Selected from the BMOP/NEC composition competition, “A Jew Among the Indians (Cokboy)” was a setting of Jerome Rothenberg’s poem and movingly captured the anxiety and placelessness of the immigrant transported to a new world and finding himself among other disenfranchised peoples. The orchestra provides a wandering backdrop to the poem’s narration, performed Saturday night by the piece’s composer Matti Kovler. Tonal displacement predominates through much of the work, interrupted only by a G major chord corresponding to a vision of the sunrise and again when the music fades into a Hassidic delivery of Psalm 139 (“Where can I go from your Spirit?”). Overall, an intensely moving piece about immigrant experiences in America.
Here Comes Messiah!
Carnegie Hall Upshaw/Golijov Workshop, Allan Pierson (cond.) Tehila Goldstein (soprano)
Matti Kovler’s “Here Comes Messiah!” — a monodrama, in some onomatopoetic detail, about giving birth — was sung, spoken, whispered and breathed, heavily, by Tehila Goldstein, an agile soprano. It, too, had a folk touch: its ending is a graceful setting of “Peliah,” a Hasidic song based on a Psalm text.
(…) Most memorable for me was Matti Kovler’s three-part song cycle Here Comes Messiah! In remarks before the performance, Kovler said he completely changed his conception of the work after hearing the remarkable soprano Tehila Goldstein, who is at least as much an actor as she is a singer. Sure enough, Goldstein whistled, keened and grunted through the poetic and religious texts, while Kovler looked on from the piano. His music bore a close resemblance to Bernstein’s, filled with all the same joy and wonder: “Where can I escape from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend up to heaven You are there, if I descend into the netherworld, You are there. Such knowledge is too wondrous; I cannot attain it.” (Psalms 139) How these performers (who were led by Alarm Will Sound’s Alan Pierson) pulled off such warm, technically sound performances of brand new works with less than a week’s rehearsal time is a mystery, if not a miracle. Almost as much as the songs themselves.
…It is not surprising that I felt a particularly strong connection to Matti’s piece: I was there namely as part of his retinue. I am also familiar with his compositional idiom, and Here Comes Messiah! was clearly marked with the Kovler stamp. Matti’s instruments are not merely textural tools, but characters themselves. As the piece began, the breaths and physical movements of his solo singer, Tehila Goldstein (see picture with Matti), were echoed and magnified by the ensemble. From this point, there was no question that we were not watching a poem with orchestral accompaniment, but instead the group effort of a large cast of players – in which extraordinary poet-translator, Janice Silverman Rebibo unambiguously belongs. It was particularly in the second part of the piece that this group dynamic gained a strong hold over the audience’s attention. In the climax before the third and final part, the performers’ grip on the room was visceral, tangible, in a series of fortissimo pulses (labor pangs) from the instrumentalists, and exclamations from Tehila Goldstein. Here the expressivity she had already demonstrated earlier intensified exponentially, in her face, her stance, the timbre of her voice. Matti was at the piano, and he brilliantly made use of it in this passage, as both a harmonic and percussive instrument, driving the sound of the others around him. Although his part in Here Comes Messiah! is less central than in his Cokboy (performed earlier this year in Boston), and the work revolves around a woman’s experience in child birth, it is, nonetheless, entirely an extension of Matti himself. He is wholly present in his music, and not simply because of his compositional language or aesthetic. The audience does not need to be introduced to the composer, or his thought process, to become privy to his internal world – he wills us to come in.