Archive for December, 2007

Time to take a holiday from blogging to catch up with seldom-seen family members. By my last count, we’ll have @15-18 relatives traipsing through our home in the next couple of weeks – it will be fun to play host, however briefly, to these wonderful people.

I’ll be back next year.

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We’ve just finished our Intensive Arts session – two weeks in which classes are suspended so we can focus on practice, rehearsal, performance and special seminars.

We had several activities for the Composition majors. Michael Rothkopf presided over a Dance-a-Day Workshop, pairing composers and choreographers, giving each pair the task of coming up with a new collaborative work every day for two weeks – a grueling, and ultimately resource-expanding experience.

We also had a rehearsal-recording session with our wind faculty. Flutist Tadeu Coelho, oboist John Ellis, clarinetist Igor Begelman and saxophonist Taimur Sullivan worked on four student pieces, giving feedback to the composers on notation and idiomatic writing. At the conclusion, they recorded all four works, and selected two of them, by James Stewart and Felix Ventouras, to premiere next month.

And I gave a seminar on creating works for musicians and actors. My guests were Robert Beseda and Cinny Strickland, who premiered Exit and Entrance last month.

One of the most pleasurable things I’ve found in working with actors is the type of commitment they bring to a performance. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of terrific musicians, who have given me many wonderful performances. But there is nothing like collaborating with people whose very existence is defined by their ability to disappear, to completely submerge their egos, into your work. These two actors asked to rehearse with me over and over during the course of the two months preceding their performance. They wanted to understand everything about the pieces they were working on. They wanted to “be” the composition, in a way that is hardly imaginable for a musician.

For their part, the actors were stunned that the musicians could sit down and immediately make beautiful music. As Beseda said, “the first rehearsal of a play is a very rudimentary thing. The whole rehearsal process is a very gradual, almost excruciating.” By contrast, good musicians can read down most anything, and the second time through is often gorgeous.

Reminds me of an interview with Edward Albee I read once. Albee’s one of the most successful playwrights of his generation, so it surprised me to learn about his envy of composers. He talked about the way composers can specify exactly how they want things to sound, as opposed to writing a line of dialogue and praying that the actor delivers it with the approximate pacing and intonation the playwright imagines. Our system of notation, though it often causes us to tear our hair out and curse our existence, is actually pretty nicely adapted to our needs, it seems.

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Conductors seem to be in the news as never before these days. Dudamel, Alsop, Gergiev, Levine, Gilbert, Tilson-Thomas, etc. – a day doesn’t go by without a substantial article about one or more of these figures in one of the nation’s prominent newspapers or Classical-internet stomping-grounds.

I had a conversation recently with a retired violinist-conductor, whose many years on both sides of the podium gave him an interesting perspective. “I can assure you,” he said, “the conductor does not have more impact on the performance than the concertmaster.”

But articles on concertmasters are few and far between. I can imagine a fascinating study comparing the concertmasters of various orchestras and what they bring to each orchestra’s sound world and interpretation. Why have I never read such an article, yet every day I read about the men and women who stand on the podium and don’t play a note?

Don’t get me wrong – great conductors are wonderful beasts, and their impact on orchestras is undeniable.

But our fascination with conductors often seems out of proportion to their roles in shaping the music. Why is that? Is there a process of identification taking place? I suppose if you don’t play an instrument, it might seem easy (it’s not) and gratifying to imagine yourself waving your arms around in time to the music. Surely it’s easier to imagine mastering that skill than mastering the intricacies of the violin.

Or is it the baton itself, the wand that seems to magically pull forth lush sound with each wizardly stroke? Do we have an innate desire to believe in supernatural powers, a desire gratified by the visual-aural confluence of a maestro cutting an enormous swath of sound?

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Here are some pics from the premiere of Exit last month. Fun piece, fun performance. You can read about it here.

And I can’t resist including one shot of me conducting the premiere of Dark Circles, from my best side:

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I’ve got a major new project underway: three orchestral pieces, which may be played together or separately, on the elusive and contradictory figure of Robert Schumann. Commissioned by the Idyllwild Symphony Orchestra, this trilogy – Fantasiestück, The Marriage Diary and Florestan and Eusebius – will be premiered in May 2010, marking the Schumann bicentennial.

Schumann’s not the most popular figure these days, but I’ve always found him intriguing. When he was at his best, there was nobody like him for fantastical experiments in melody, harmony and rhythm.

I also find Schumann the man both fascinating and disturbing – a figure of oddly matched parts. He was a radical and a homebody. He was a writer and composer who chose the latter path somewhat late. He was incredibly arrogant and oddly shy. His music criticism can shift from strictly rational to intensely sensual in a butterfly’s heartbeat.

Okay, I couldn’t resist the butterfly image – because I think the metaphor of the butterfly’s metamorphosis is a key to understanding Schumann’s life and work. It plays a major role in part three of my trilogy, Florestan and Eusebius – I’m even rewriting a famous Heine elegy to include a set of butterfly wings in the culminating passage:

Um mein Bett erhebt sich die Hülle,
Drin tanzt die junge Schmetterling;
Sie tanzt die Schritte der Liebe -
Die Flügel erscheinen in Fülle

And Schumann’s final disease, which put him in an asylum for his last three years, brought him both raving lunacy and intense solitude — he wasn’t even permitted to see his wife Clara until just before he died.

At this point, I’ve sketched some of the music, and given a lot of thought to some of the themes – musical and otherwise – I’ll be exploring. I’ll be working intermittently over the course of the coming year, then everything else will be set aside for about six months so I can completely immerse myself in the process. ETA is fall 2009.

You can read more about this trilogy here. And if you know any other orchestras that might be interested in this, drop me a note!

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