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Bienen School presents the Midwest premiere of ‘In a Grove’

Cerrone’s opera explores memory and multiple perspectives in a famous tale of murder

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University Opera Theater at the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music will present the regional premiere of composer Christopher Cerrone and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann’s opera “In a Grove,” Nov. 17 to 20.  

Performances will take place at the Ryan Center for the Musical Arts’ Ryan Opera Theater, 70 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus.

Following the world premiere at Pittsburgh Opera in early 2022, the Northwestern University Opera Theater production of “In a Grove” is directed by Joachim Schamberger with music by the Contemporary Music Ensemble conducted by Alan Pierson.

Based on the same short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa that provided the plot and characters for Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film “Rashōmon,” “In a Grove” is set in the ghostly remains of a forest in the Pacific Northwest in 1921. Seven witnesses — some of whom are suspects — provide testimony about events that transpired in a mountain grove, after aspiring botanist Leona Raines goes missing and her schoolteacher husband Ambrose Raines appears to have been murdered. However, all is not as it seems, and each new revelation in this suspenseful tale draws the audience deeper into an examination of the subjective nature of truth and the human experience.

Content warning: “In a Grove” contains material that may be distressing to viewers, including implied sexual assault, and portrayals of physical violence, self-harm and other upsetting topics as well as prop firearms, gunshot sound effects, strobe lights and artificial fog.

Cerrone returns to the Bienen School after prior collaborations that include most recently the April 2022 world premiere of “The Last Message Received” (also with libretto by Fleischmann) and a performance of his 2015 work “The Branch Will Not Break” in February 2020.

On composing “In a Grove,” Cerrone said, “I tried to take something unconventional — a story told over and over again from different perspectives — and marry it to music, where themes, repetition and variation help us navigate and understand this mysterious tale.”

Throughout the work, Cerrone transforms the voices electronically to exemplify the flawed roughness of memory using reverb, pitch-shifting and granulation — effects that Cerrone said, “suggest that our characters’ memories are flawed, foggy or plain wrong.”

“The truths and untruths that we perceive, gloss over, embrace, refute or deny drive the trajectories of our lives,” said librettist Fleischmann. “The story’s form, that of seven testimonies, asks us to listen differently — to approach narrative, language, image and sound in new ways, and in so doing, perhaps, to see and hear anew.” 

Also on the program is François Sarhan’s “Hands,” conducted by Alan Pierson and performed by the Contemporary Music Ensemble. Inspired by Charles Reznikoff’s “Testimony,” a document-poem drawn from late 19th- and early 20th-century criminal court transcripts, the short musical-theatrical pieces that comprise “Hands” refer to both manual labor and the physicality of the performance itself. The world premiere of “Hands” was performed by Alarm Will Sound, co-founded by conductor Pierson.

“‘Hands’ is a series of short pieces in which the musicians tell stories,” composer Sarhan said. “They involve immigrants, families, children — all are people who don’t get media exposure. The musicians tell the stories as if they were their own, while playing their instruments. The music, the instrument and the story interact in order to produce a mini drama between theatre and music.”   

Performance times for Christopher Cerrone and Stephanie Fleischmann’s “In a Grove” and François Sarhan’s “Hands” are 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 17 to 19 and 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 20.

Tickets are $18 for the general public and $8 for full-time students with valid ID. Tickets may be purchased online at, by calling 847-467-4000 or visiting the Bienen School Ticket Office located at the southeast entrance of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, on the Evanston campus. Ticket Office hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday and noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Artist Bios:

Composer Christopher Cerrones recent projects include “A Body, Moving,” a brass concerto for the Cincinnati Symphony; “Breaks and Breaks,” a violin concerto for Jennifer Koh and the Detroit Symphony; “The Insects Became Magnetic,” an orchestral work with electronics for the Los Angeles Philharmonic; “The Air Suspended,” a piano concerto for Shai Wosner; and “Meander, Spiral, Explode,” a percussion quartet co-commissioned by Third Coast Percussion, the Chicago Civic Orchestra of the Chicago Symphony and the Britt Festival. His first opera, “Invisible Cities,” was a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist and he received Grammy nominations for “The Pieces that Fall to Earth” (a collaboration with Los Angeles-based chamber orchestra Wild Up) and “The Arching Path” (featuring performances by Timo Andres, Ian Rosenbaum, Lindsay Kesselman and Mingzhe Wang). Cerrone is the winner of the 2015-16 Samuel Barber Rome Prize in Music Composition and is currently a fellow at the Laurenz Haus Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. He holds degrees from the Yale School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music, and he is a member of the composition faculty at the Mannes School of Music. 

Librettist Stephanie Fleischmann is the recipient of Opera America’s 2022 Campbell Librettist Prize. Recent opera libretti include “Dido” (music by Melinda Wagner, for Dawn Upshaw and the Brentano Quartet); “Poppaea” (music by Michael Hersch, for Wien Modern/Zeiträume Basel Biennial for New Music and Architecture); “After the Storm” (music by David Hanlon, commissioned by Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco); and “The Property” (commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago). Her current collaborations include three projects with Opera America Female Discovery grant composers: “The Visitation,” with Christina Campanella; “Seven Sisters,” with Justine F. Chen; and “L’Autre Moi,” with Matthew Recio. Other honors and awards include a Café Royal Cultural Foundation Performance Grant; a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Playwriting; and a Virginia B. Toulmin grant. A graduate of Wesleyan University and Brooklyn College, she has taught at Sewanee, Bard and Skidmore colleges.

French composer, director and visual artist François Sarhan studied composition with Brian Ferneyhough, Jonathan Harvey, Magnus Lindberg, Philippe Manoury, Tristan Murail and Guy Reibel. He is a graduate of the Conservatoire National de Paris and the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris. Recent projects include a chamber opera for Deutsche Oper Berlin titled “Nacht bis Acht,” the ongoing electroacoustic composition “Log Book” and a feature film with Ensemble Mosaik titled “Aberwasistabermusik.”

Joachim Schamberger is the director of opera at the Bienen School of Music. His productions have appeared in the U.S., Germany, Italy, France, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Norway, Israel, Japan and China. An avid opera educator, he is on the faculty at many young artist festivals and guest lectures at conservatories throughout the world. Prior to joining the Bienen School, he served as visiting professor of opera at DePauw University. Schamberger is a graduate of the Musikhochschule in Würzburg, the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Mannheim and the Merola Opera Program of the San Francisco Opera. He studied digital film production and 3-D animation at the New York Film Academy.

Alan Pierson is co-director of the Bienen School’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and director and conductor of the acclaimed ensemble Alarm Will Sound. He has served as artistic director and conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and has appeared as guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, the Steve Reich Ensemble, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble ACJW, the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, the New World Symphony and the Silk Road Project. He is principal conductor of the Dublin-based Crash Ensemble and has been a visiting faculty conductor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and the Eastman School of Music.