Archive for March, 2005

Random Notes:

  • March is the month when Petersburgians are most likely to be killed by falling icycles. This morning I was whistled by a traffic cop for walking too close to a building that was tossing deadly chunks of ice down at the passing pedestrians.
  • The Cyrillic alphabet is like John Cage: first it is annoying, then it’s fun, then it’s annoying, then it’s fun, then it’s annoying, then it’s fun, etc., etc., etc.
  • Health Notes: 1] Nobody here is overweight. 2] Everybody here smokes.
  • Sidewalk shoveling seems to be the exclusive provenance of women.
  • It’s been snowing two days straight, but weather seems to have no impact on the steady, heavy flow of pedestrian traffic and daily business on Nevsky Prospect. Even street musicians continue to perform, with temperatures in the single digits (Fahrenheit).
  • I tried to buy some sausage at a market around the corner, but the grocers refused to sell it to me, insisting that I really wanted hot dogs. Who was I to argue? But I really wanted the sausage.

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A lesson on how the internet has changed our profession:

Last fall, I was googling for an article on my Amadeus ex machina when I came across an entry under St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic. I clicked on the link and learned that the orchestra had scheduled my piece on its 04-05 season. I emailed the Music Director, whose name is Jeffrey Meyers, and we decided it would be splendid if I could come for the performance. He got funding from the State Department, I got a grant from my place of business, and now here I am. Without Google, I’d be sitting at home, unaware that the concert was taking place.

I met Jeff on Thursday morning on the Bridge of Sixteen Balls. Sixteen Balls is its nickname; I didn’t catch the official name. The nickname comes from the fact that the bridge is guarded by four naked, substantially endowed men and their equally impressive horses, all in bronze.

We had lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant, and I quickly found that I liked Jeff quite a bit. He is intelligent, earnest and witty, and he has a very pleasant energy. He founded the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic three years ago as a way to fill a niche that was missing in this culturally rich city: a chamber orchestra that would be equally at home with new and standard repertoire.

This particular program is entitled American and Russian Composers of the Twentieth Century to the Present Day. The Americans of past and present are Samuel Barber and me; the Russians are Tcherepnin (1899-1977), Slonimsky (b. 1932) and Buzina (b. 1977).

I have to hand it to Jeff: the concert is getting great coverage in the St. Petersburg Times, despite the number of other events going on this weekend: Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Oedipus Rex, and any number of orchestra, chamber and solo performances.

Off to rehearsal; I will try to get back soon.

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This post is a bit of an experiment, to see if what I am sending from St. Pete’s will transmit safely back home. I’m borrowing my title from Dostoevski’s novel Notes from Underground that serves as both an ode to this city and a celebration of self-loathing on a level that is truly stupefying, and instructive to the general civic character.

I’ve had many adventures to recount in two days here, some of which will be of great interest to readers of Sequenza21. But let me begin by setting the location.

Physical: St. Petersburg is on the Northern European Plain, at the end of the Gulf of Finland, on a latitude with Oslo, Norway and Anchorage, Alaska. Yes, it’s cold. In my very thorough preparations for this trip, somehow I forgot to bring gloves.

Historic: This city was Tsar Peter the Great’s gift to Russia 300 years ago: a dose of European sophistication for his ignorant peasants. Dostoevsky called it “the most abstract and premeditated city on the whole earth.” He should have known, having spent his entire adult life here, except for a few years in Siberia for offending the Tsar’s sense of propriety. The city blossomed in the 19th century, then morphed into Leningrad, Petrograd and back to St. Petersburg in the 20th, with a level of neglect that is difficult for Americans to imagine. But the 300th anniversary celebration last year brought many improvements, or so I’m told.

Cultural: St. Pete is dominated by three very conservative cultural institutions, The Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire, the Hermitage Museum and Music Academy, and the Kirov Ballet. More on each of these in posts to come.

So that’s a brief encapsulation. As I have time, I will report further on a fascinating composers seminar, orchestra rehearsal standards, and other observations from the other side.

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From time to time, I get junk mail addressed to me and Ann Merriman. Credit card offers, complimentary magazines, etc. I’ve never met Ann Merriman, but I guess I know her better than anyone else could.

Who is Ann Merriman?

She’s a character in my opera.

Why do I get mail addressed to the two of us? I have no idea. I didn’t realize that fictional characters could be eligible for promotional interest rates, senior citizen discounts and free coffee mugs.

The other day Ann and I got an offer for a subscription to Forbes Magazine, with a complimentary travel bag, and I suddenly realized that all of the mail she’s been getting is targeted at people with expendable income.

My opera (it’s called Buffa, which should give you a good indication of its tone) is about a small American opera company struggling to deal with tight budgets and fundraising challenges. Ann Merriman is a local donor: enthusiastic and wealthy. In other words, she is exactly the kind of person advertising agencies would be eager to court.

I find it very impressive that Madison Avenue has put together such a focused consumer profile for someone who doesn’t exist.

Is this a common thing? Do all authors get mail addressed to their creations? Did I miss some fine print when I signed that contract with the devil that led me to write an opera in the first place?

Would this be a good subject for my next opera? A composer whose life is overtaken by a fictional mezzo?

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On Tuesday (the 15th), I leave for Russia. On Thursday I will give a class on my music to composition students of the St. Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory — the same place where Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich learned their trades. Friday and Saturday will feature rehearsals with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic. Sunday night (March 20) I’ll have the Russian premiere of my Amadeus ex machina. Afterwards, I’ll be joined by composer Sergei Slonimsky, whose Symphony No. 8 will also be on the program, for a post-concert talk.

In between those scheduled events, I hope to spend some time at the Hermitage Museum, catch other performances, and meet with some of the musicians who make the city hum.

With a little bit of luck, I will figure out how to make use of St. Petersburg’s internet cafes, and keep you posted on what I learn. My Russian is absolutely horrible, though, so I’m not holding my breath. Right now, I have to dig up some Arctic apparel in a hurry!

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If you find yourself in Joplin, Missouri tonight, go hear Renee Siebert and the American String Quartet play a piece of mine at the Joplin Pro Musica, 2700 E. 15th Street, at 7 pm. But don’t look for me: I’m packing for a trip to Russia — more on that later.

And for those of you who have been wondering, Rebecca is doing just great. Thanks.

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Spent a couple of hours at the Red Cross today, donating blood. I thought it would be pretty quick, but I was painfully mistaken. After digging around in my left arm for a few minutes, they finally found a vein. Just one problem: they couldn’t get it to cough up any blood. So they took a few jabs at my right arm, with similar results.

For two hours, I had four very gracious and increasingly frustrated Red Cross nurses hovering over me with needles and tubes, trying desperately to squeeze the life out of me.

I know some people who refuse to believe that there are such things as living, flesh-and-blood composers, so I guess I was just doing my part to prove them right.

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On Friday, I attended a composition seminar given by Kenneth Frazelle on his Sonata-Fantasy for piano, a work in progress. It was a fascinating ninety minutes. Ken is scheduled to premiere the piece on May 7 at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, which commissioned the work. At this point, with just two months to go, he is maybe 70-80% of the way through the first movement, and the second movement is complete. Once he finishes the first movement, he will assess his options and dive into the third.

So this seminar was a rare look inside another composer’s creative process, as the process unfolds. Ken played the portions of the piece that he has completed so far, and shared how he got where he is, and where he hopes to go with the remainder. He fielded questions from the 25 or so people in attendance, about a third of them composers.

I’ve known Ken for almost twenty years, and in that time, my appreciation for his work has steadily grown. It is fair to say that the depth, craftsmanship and meaning of his work have also grown over that time span. Listening to him play his music is like no other experience. Rhythms that may seem fussy and complex on the page sparkle to life in his hands, with a precision that paradoxically contains boundless freedom. The harmonic language is often panmodal, but with none of the fuzziness that designation can sometimes imply: the harmonic density is always carefully calibrated, and the harmonic rhythm ranges from mercurial to infinitely spacious.

Even at this early stage, the first movement is shaping up to be a spectacular, monumental work. It opens with a series of unpredictable runs and surges that set the stage for the wide-ranging Allegro ritmico to follow. Themes are introduced and evolve in mind-bending directions. Ruminative passages suddenly morph into virtuosic explosions. Ken’s performance trailed off at the point where he said some kind of return of the opening was imminent, although he was reluctant to call it a recapitulation.

That reluctance, by the way, is pretty typical of how many composers approach creating a new work: from the inside, the creative process is one of discovery, rather than simply connecting the dots. Will the piece have a true recapitulation? It’s not out of the question. Nor is it a prerequisite for a satisfying conclusion. At this point, it is up to the composer to listen to the logic of the piece, and allow it to find its own symmetries.

As discursive as the first movement is, the second movement is thoroughly concise, but in a truly fantastical way. A series of ten miniatures, the second movement bears, even more than the first, the influence of Schumann — not in terms of language, but in spirit. Each miniature is a character piece evoking a wildflower Ken has found on his land, some of them fairly common, but many of them rarities, like the Slender Ladies Tresses (actually a kind of orchid) or the Birdfoot Violet. Many of these wildflowers are so tiny, their details are barely discernable to the human eye.

Again, the music in these minatures is tremendously focused, from the dark, brooding harmonies of Indian Pipes to the spiraling quintuple rhythms of Fire Pink. Some of them last for just a few measures, while others, like the Flame Azalea tango and the cartoonish boogie-woogie of the Viper’s Bugloss, are fairly extensive. But despite the variety, Ken’s compositional voice is evident throughout. I think I would recognize his piano writing almost instantly if I came upon it unawares, which is a compliment, not a limitation — he doesn’t repeat himself, but there are textures and harmonic motions that clearly carry his signature.

The yet-to-be-written third movement, according to the composer, may take any one of a few directions. Finding just the right complement for what comes before will be a challenge. I will certainly be in the audience on May 7 to hear the outcome.

So there you have it, a preview of a coming attraction. This is the point where I should say that this work is surely destined to become a cornerstone of early 21st-century piano repertoire, but I am too wary of the range of marketing obstacles that stand between outstanding music and widespread dissemination. I will put it this way: if this piece does not become a cornerstone of early 21st century piano repertoire, it certainly won’t be because of any shortcomings in the music. It’s absence would be our loss.

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Questioner: “Don’t you think it’s terrible the way the academic establishment suppresses creativity?”

Edna St. Vincent Millay: “As far as I’m concerned, the academic establishment doesn’t do enough to suppress creativity.”

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As promised, here is a review (though it might be more accurate to call it a practitioner’s confession) of the Carolina Chamber Symphony concert of February 25th, on which I conducted the premiere of Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, with David Jolley as the soloist.

I won’t comment on the first two works on the program for two reasons: 1) They were by Bach and Haydn, and this site is primarily concerned with new music, and 2) I was snoozing on a sofa in a hallway beneath the stage while they were being performed.

But the concert closed with my piece, for which I was wide awake and standing on the podium, baton in hand.

The performance got off to a very good start, especially considering that I almost forgot to put on my reading glasses before beginning. It’s the first time I’ve had to use that particular pharmaceutical enhancement in performance, so I was a bit out of my comfort zone. Without the spectacles, though, I’m afraid the performance would have been a complete disaster. So part of the credit for the success of the evening should go to Ben Franklin.

The first movement (Resonance) is a dirge, or, more accurately, the memory of a dirge. Again, I thought it got off to a fantastic start: the balances were excellent, the colors blended really well. In the middle section, which has a fast, hallucinatory, carnival atmosphere, the occasional slips in ensemble were more than made up for by the headlong momentum and energy.

But the final section, which is a transformation of the opening material, didn’t work quite as well as the beginning. As a conductor, I think I was coasting a bit to the finish line, not really on top of every nuance. As a composer, I think I need to rethink and refocus the way the horn part ends. The first of these problems is irretrievable; the second is one of the reasons I love being a composer: I can always go back and improve myself.

The second movement is the trickiest to carry off. It’s very slow and static, so every phrase has to be shaped perfectly. I don’t think I ever felt comfortably in control of the ending, and the performance bore out my fears. The oboe and piccolo were too loud, and it’s clear to me in retrospect that the musicians didn’t have 100% confidence that I knew how to get what I wanted. Having said that, I have to add that many people told me afterwards that the end of the second movement was their favorite part, so maybe I’m being too hard on myself. But maybe I’m the only one who knows how much better it could have been.

The third movement (Revelry) was a piece of cake… for me, that is. It’s a fast, exuberant dance movement, so all I had to do was keep moving and trust the musicians to play what was on the page. It’s the kind of piece that has a lot of flash, but isn’t really as difficult as it sounds.

Overall, I’m very happy with the conciseness of the composition. I always have great respect for pieces that know what they are about, and this one definitely does. There are some details I will clean up in the next couple of weeks, but no major overhaul is necessary.

As a conductor, I know I did a credible job, but conducting is not really something that excites me, and that lack of interest is what keeps me from really excelling.

By contrast, as a critic, I think I leave a lot to be desired. I have no intention of quitting my day job.

Saving the best for last: with the exception of one late substitute who was a bit overmatched, the orchestra was outstanding. They put the whole program together in two rehearsals and a dress, and I couldn’t have asked for more enthusiasm, consideration and technical/artistic excellence. And David Jolley was phenomenal: what a sweet, soulful, magnificent sound.

Finally, the audience was amazing. I keep hearing all the death knells for Classical music, or whatever this stuff should be called, so I’m always taken aback when I see a huge crowd giving a standing ovation to an outstanding performance. When will I stop being so surprised?

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