June 1, 2006
Rising Singing Star Pitches New Sound
Many young girls dream of a life on the stage, but few could have envisioned the career now enjoyed by Hila Plitmann, a Jerusalem-born soprano who these days makes her home in Studio City. Plitmann, 32, is not famous in the way that, say, sopranos like Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Anna Netrebko are. She is not a star. But she is making a name for herself, and not by singing music by Puccini, Mozart, Strauss and Wagner.
Instead, Plitmann is building a career based largely on new music by composers like David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, Roger Reynolds and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the latter the longtime music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and something of a Plitmann champion. Indeed, Plitmann was one of two featured soloists in the premiere of Salonen's "Wing on Wing," written for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and dedicated to its architect, Frank Gehry.
That work -- for orchestra, two sopranos and Gehry's voice sampled on tape -- has become something of a calling card for the soprano, who most recently sang it at Disney Hall on May 31. That concert came on the heels of another at Disney Hall on May 9, in which she participated in premieres of Unsuk Chin's vibrant "Cantatrix Sopranica" and Reynolds' sprawling, multidimensional "Illusion," two works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group.
On June 7, she'll appear in a less likely space, at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, joining two other singers -- mezzo-soprano Alma Mora Ponce and tenor Mark Saltzman, cantor at Congregation Kol Ami synagogue -- for a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's "From Jewish Folk Poetry" and a selection of Yiddish songs. (The trio gave the same program at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla on May 24.) She's doing this in part, out of friendship for Neal Brostoff, who is producing the concert and accompanying the singers.
Though Shostakovich, who died in 1975, used Russian translations of the poems for his song cycle, musicologist Joachim Braun restored the original Yiddish texts in the 1980s. And it's that version Plitmann and her colleagues are singing.
"From Jewish Folk Poetry" doesn't require Plitmann to enter the vocal stratosphere, but her ability to do so has served her well and marked her for distinction. A coloratura soprano with a silvery tone who seems utterly at ease projecting high notes, Plitmann says, "I was always a screamer."
She describes her father, an academic, as having "a beautiful voice" and her mother as a classical music enthusiast, but neither was more than a hobbyist. Both remain in Israel, as do the singer's sister and brother.
Early on, Plitmann was an ambivalent pianist, and though she sang in a youth choir, she gave it up for athletics, particularly gymnastics, dancing and running -- something her needle-thin dancer's body still attests to. But she missed singing and soon found herself taking private lessons and enrolling in a music high school.
Unable to find the advanced vocal training she needed in Israel, Plitmann, at her teacher's urging, enrolled in New York's Juilliard School, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees. But talented singer or not, she still had an obligation to the Israel Defense Forces.
"I did my basic training for the Israeli army in the summers, during my second and third years at Juilliard," she says. "I learned how to shoot Uzis and run around in the dirt. It was very bizarre."
Juilliard is also where she met her husband, Eric Whitacre, a composer.
"He wouldn't leave me alone, so I married him," she says. They now have an 8-month-old son, Esh.
Whitacre is composing an opera for his wife. Titled, "Paradise Lost," and described as "opera electronica" on Whitacre's Web site, the work is an amalgam of styles, including, techno, rave and ambient. Plitmann likens the music to that of Bjork and the Postal Service (the band, not the letter carriers).
Often, classical artists come to appreciate the rigors of modern music once they mature, but not Plitmann. Her interest in the new dates back to her childhood. That youth chorus her mother sent her to emphasized contemporary Israeli music. At 14, she appeared in her first opera, singing the role of Flora, the bewitched little girl at the center of Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw." And while still in high school, she sang Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" with the Israel Philharmonic.
Plitmann describes her specialization in new music as "an accident that turned into a choice," noting that she likes "the challenge of learning something difficult, whatever the era," yet singling out modern works for their "many dramatic elements."
She says that audiences can't be forced to love new music but insists that committed performances from artists like her can help sway them to be more open-minded.
"I find there's more in contemporary music that can be used expressively than both musicians and audiences realize," she says. "People think contemporary music is cold and intellectual, but that's not always true."
Plitmann is certainly no snob when it comes to music. Her personal interests extend to various forms of pop music, and even professionally, she makes choices that some might consider too populist. Her limited discography will soon include a song cycle to Bob Dylan texts called "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score to the film, "The Red Violin." And though she isn't exactly getting star billing, Plitmann is the vocal soloist on Hans Zimmer's soundtrack to "The Da Vinci Code."
She got the job through a close friend of her husband's and made the recording in London, an experience she calls "amazing." The lyrics, she says, are meant to mimic Latin, though no actual language is being sung. The soprano admits that the score is "not the most complex music," yet it has another virtue: it sounds good.
"I love singing beautiful music," Plitmann says.
The "Shostakovich at 100 Concert" will be held at 8 p.m. on June 7 at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For information, call (818) 788-6000 or visit www.vbs.org.
David Mermelstein is a critic for Bloomberg News and a contributor to various publications, including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.