Posts Tagged “Conducting”

A few things to report as I surface to breathe. First, as an update to my entry of a few months back, I was accepted into the European American Musical Alliance summer program in Paris. I will go there for the month of July to study conducting with Mark Shapiro (from Mannes in New York). Should be great fun, and from what I understand, a fairly intensive experience. And an expensive one too, as I discovered after sifting through the available apartments for the month of July via craigslist.

Second, on a whim, I threw my hat in the ring to be considered for a commission from the Manhattan Choral Ensemble, directed by Tom Cunningham. They run a small commissioning program that echoes the Dale Warland Singers’ model. They commission three or four composers to write short works, give them a performance, and then select one of those composers to receive a larger commission for the next season. To my happy surprise, I was chosen, along with composers Patrick Castillo, Karen Siegel, and Davide Zannoni. Six degrees of separation / Small world spoiler alert: I’ve known Davide for years. The only hitch was I had less than a month to write the thing.

No matter. I had it in the back of my mind to set some of Carl Sandburg’s poetry. A former composition student back in New York kept bringing in these amazing Sandburg poems, and I resolved to get around to setting Sandburg at some point, and this seemed a good a time as any. I dug through a batch, and settled on the anti-war poem Jaws:

SEVEN nations stood with their hands on the jaws of death.
It was the first week in August, Nineteen Hundred Fourteen.
I was listening, you were listening, the whole world was listening,
And all of us heard a Voice murmuring:
“I am the way and the light,
He that believeth in me
Shall not perish
But shall have everlasting life.”
Seven nations listening heard the Voice and answered:
“O Hell!”
The jaws of death began clicking and they go on clicking.
“O Hell!”

For obvious reasons, one usually just uses the title of the poem as the title of the piece, but in this case, for equally obvious reasons, I’m not calling it Jaws, but rather The Whole World was Listening. I set it for soprano solo, tenor solo, off-stage quartet and divisi choir, and for the first time, included some aleatoric elements as well as specific movements the choir must make. They will perform it on June 8 in New York. The concert is not announced on their web site yet, but I trust it will be soon enough.

In the meantime, I interrupted a piece I was working on for Putni, a setting of a Federico Garcia Lorca poem, called El Paso de la Seguiriya:

Entre mariposas negras,Ӭ
va una muchacha morena Ӭjunto
a una blanca serpienteӬ de niebla.

Tierra de luz,Ӭ
cielo de tierra
.

Va encadenada al temblor
Ӭde un ritmo que nunca llega;
”¨tiene el corazón de plata
Ӭy un pu̱al en la diestra.

¿A dónde vas, siguiriya”¨
con un ritmo sin cabeza?
”¨Â¿Qué luna recogerᔨ
tu dolor de cal y adelfa?

Tierra de luz,Ӭ
cielo de tierra.

I was attracted to the possibilities inherent in the lines, Tierra de luz, cielo de tierra (Earth of light, Sky of Earth). Spring-boarding off the Flamenco workshop I gave them in February, I’m trying to engage with (yet not limit myself to) Flamenco rhythms and harmonies, and this piece also includes palmas and contrapalmas parts for the singers to clap. I hope to finish it soon.

Also in the meantime, preparations for my All Griffin concert are proceeding as we make our mad dash for the finish line. We’ve got about 75 minutes of my music in rehearsals, which have been going essentially smoothly. I gave an interview for the city’s main daily, Kurzemes Vards, yesterday, and the posters are coming tomorrow. We will give four or five performances over the next six weeks in Liepāja (2), Durbe, Cesis, and possibly RÄ«ga. I did arrange for a recording engineer, and will enlist the daughter of one of the pianists to video record it. So, I’ll post some stuff on YouTube and/or make a podcast of it for anyone who wants to hear it.

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Wow, it’s been a month since my last post. But I’ve got good reasons, being on the road for most of the time since Christmas. I welcomed in the New Year in Switzerland. We were there for an expensive week of bears, fondue, mountains, markets, churches and art. We went to Lucerne, Bern, Interlaken and Zurich. Beautiful country. Efficient rail system. Friendly people. Did I mention expensive? So expensive, getting the check is like a twice-daily ice-water bath. Brr.

After a two day stop in Riga, I headed for New York for two weeks, where I enjoyed a performance of a song cycle of mine for high voice, clarinet and piano called The Far Field, attended the Chamber Music America Conference in Manhattan, went to a good friend’s wedding, and also managed to squeeze in some business and shopping errands between visits to friends and family.

The Far Field performance was special for me, as it’s one of those pieces of mine that I have always felt especially close to, yet it isn’t performed much. Sort of like that awkward kid with a heart of gold that sits off to the left somewhere in third grade and you know can grow up to be somebody if people just give her a chance. It’s a big piece, about 22 minutes long, a setting of a difficult poem by Theodore Roethke that basically looks death in the face and comes to accept it as a beautiful and necessary thing. You can read the poem here. Soprano Melissa Fogarty, did a really great job with it. The whole occasion was doubly special because Melissa and I were also friends in high school together. We had a mini high school reunion of five after the performance at a local lounge together with the other musicians, Chris Cullen and Laura Barger.

Anyway, one of the errands I ran while in New York will allow me to segue back to my narrative about Latvia. Actually, I’m just going to do the reverse: jump back to Latvia and then tie it back to New York.

One of the friends I’ve made in Liepaja is Oleksiy Demchenko, the third trumpet player in the Liepaja Symphony. Helping our friendship along is the fact that he studied in Holland and thus speaks English fluently. And since he is originally from Kiev, we also share something of the outsider status.

If Oleksiy were born in America in the last 20 years, he’d be medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder. He has a million ideas and lots of energy but little mind for details or organization or follow-through. He manages occasionally to get things done in spite of himself in a place like Liepaja because 1.) Latvians don’t typically take initiative but hey, want to be entertained as much as the next guy, and 2.) They are too shy to tell him to go to hell when they find themselves suddenly doing so much of the work.

Back in July, Oleksiy managed to get a little money for him and three other musicians to form a quartet called ÄŒetri VÄ“ji (Four Winds, in this case trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and bassoon), and to pay me a little something to write them a new piece. It was for a festival of music and art with a theme of water, so I wrote an 8 minute piece inspired by the Stevie Smith poem Not Waving But Drowning. I wasn’t there for the performance, but the musicians raved about the piece.

A week or so later, I got a call from Oleksiy. A freighter ship had destroyed the 100 year-old swing bridge that connects Karosta with the rest of the City of Liepaja. BridgeKarosta (Navy harbour) is a northern neighborhood occupying one third of Liepaja city, and by way of analogy sort of plays the same role to Liepaja that Brooklyn plays to New York. And for the residents of Karosta, it was as if the Brooklyn Bridge had just been destroyed. Well, maybe not. The Karosta Channel Bridge was not beautiful and was in awful disrepair, but its destruction cut off one of only two connections to the rest of the city, now forcing every commuter to a newer, longer route. It was big news, and many people were affected by it.

Karosta was the western-most military base of the USSR during the Soviet occupation. Many streets and houses of Karosta are now empty, as the population dropped from roughly 25 -30,000 in 1994, to approximately 7,000 living there today. Its architecture reflects an interaction between tsarist Russian elegance, epitomized by a gorgeous orthodox cathedral visible at a fair distance, and soviet militarism, epitomized by the graceless rows of abandoned concrete housing blocks.

It is a Russian tradition that a memorial service is performed 40 days after a death. And Oleksiy had the idea that he wanted to organize a sort of public art multimedia Requiem for this bridge. Which meant my composing the music, and I’m still not sure why I agreed to it, but I did. I guess it appealed to my occasional campy side. I’m going to tell my campy side to shut up next time. A videographer gathered footage, while I wrote a 13-minute piece for 11 musicians from the Liepaja Symphony to go with it.

Did I mention the A.D.D.? I had a little more than 2 weeks to do it, as not all the musicians were secured right away. I compensated by cannibalizing Monteverdi, as the brass were to be placed originally on the other side of the bridge, and I wanted to get something equivalent to his polychoral stuff while cutting down on the actual amount of music I needed to write. The deadline loomed large and fast, and I suggested putting off the performance, but Oleksiy was determined to pull it off. I told him that he needed to buckle down and get all his organizational ducks in a row, especially given all that work I was doing out of friendship. And he did.

All except get a conductor, which at the last minute fell to me. That shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. Conducting frightens me. I’ve done it a few times anyway, conducting a handful of choral premieres in New York from time to time. But I’ve never felt comfortable with it, partly from lack of experience, but also because the two times I ever studied conducting were lackluster experiences at best.

When I was an undergraduate at Queens College in the late eighties, the professor who taught conducting that semester was, frankly, half blind. Maybe more than half. Seriously. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. He simply had an ailment that was getting past him and he should have retired by then but hadn’t yet. He had enlarged copies of the music and couldn’t see three feet away, best I could tell. Glass lenses as thick as a sponge. I was probably nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t care that I wasn’t learning much. I happily skated through with a completely undeserved A-. I have no idea how he determined my grade.

Fast forward to graduate school in Minnesota. My roommate was also a composer in the program, and he got the idea that we should put together an independent study witht the orchestra conductor called “Conducting for Composers”. Knowing that it was time to take my medicine, I signed up too. There were at least seven of us. Now this guy wasn’t blind. But he did become invisible. Meaning, we all met twice, as far as I can remember. The first session he talked about how he had to practice conducting underwater as a student, how that helped with gesture. Cool. The second session he showed us a picture of himself with Aaron Copland. Cool. Then I think he went out of town and I can’t for the life of me remember another session.

Fast forward again back to Liepaja. Maybe now you understand my trepidation, standing in front of this group of professional musicians. I’m not claiming total stupidity. I’ve been watching conductors for years and can tell a good one when I see one, and have picked up a few things by observing them. I stole my mother’s car when I was 15 and drove it perfectly, never having taken a lesson, never having been behind the wheel. I learned what I needed to know just by watching her drive. I made it through the rehearsals (two) and performance without (I think) coming off as a complete hack, and for one small minute, I’d felt like I’d understood something I hadn’t understood before. There was one passage, where I got a rush, that sense of driving the orchestra, of playing it rather than following it, and I realized something viscerally in that instant why conductors are attracted to the profession.

About 100 or more local residents and a television crew showed up by car, on foot or bicycle for the outdoor, nighttime screening and performance. Conducting

There are many reasons why I came to Liepaja, and one of them was to have a place where I could do a personal and creative reassessment of myself, as a person, a composer and as a musician. A few months ago I surfed to the website of the European American Musical Alliance, which offers amongst its programs a month-long summer conducting workshop in Paris. One of the errands I ran while in New York a few weeks ago was to put in my application for this program. Wish me luck.

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