Posts Tagged “Conductors”

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Conductor James Allen Anderson, director of Orchestral Activities at the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina will give a brief lecture presentation on my Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (Weaving Olden Dances) at the Conductors Guild Annual Conference for Conductors at the Park Central New York Hotel.

Anderson, along with Barry Hoffman of the Westchester Chamber Orchestra (NY), John Gordon Ross of the Western Piedmont Symphony (NC) and Barbara Day Turner of the San José Chamber Orchestra (CA) are all co-commissioners of the piece.

The piece was premiered last May by the Westchester Chamber Orchestra at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY.

Here are five excerpts from the four movements taken from a live recording of the premiere: concertoexcerptscg.mp3

To view/download a PDF of the score that matches the recorded excerpt, click here.

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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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LSO
My first two posts focused on positive aspects of being here in Liepaja. This one will represent an opposing experience.

In the summer of 2005 I was thrilled after a meeting with the second conductor of the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra, Jekabs Ozolins. I’d brought a couple of scores along, including a short, brisk, opener of a piece, which Ozolins, through a translator, agreed to premiere in December of that year, on a concert that was also to be a birthday celebration concert for him. I was astounded. Wow! Easy as that! This piece had been selected for a reading by Philip Brunelle and the Plymouth Music Series Ensemble Orchestra in Minnesota through the American Composers Forum a couple of years earlier. I made some revisions to the score based on that reading, but the piece had never otherwise been performed publicly, so I was quite excited.

I feel compelled to momentarily digress here. I wonder about the role of orchestral music in building a career. Must I have at least one successful orchestral piece to have a successful career? (I guess here comes the concomitant question: how does one define success?) Can I build my career one chamber music piece at a time? These are legitimate questions because orchestral performances are generally higher profile, generate higher commissions and royalties, etc., than most chamber music performances. To be quite honest, I get that nagging, negative voice in my head about my orchestral stuff. I wish I had as much confidence in writing orchestral music as I have in writing chamber music. I haven’t had as many opportunities to hear what I’ve written for orchestra and learn from my mistakes. I have had some string orchestra pieces performed, and my doctoral thesis piece, a 24-minute work for piano and orchestra, won a performance prize at the University of Minnesota, which lead to a second performance of one movement from it on Long Island. Aside from that, a sort of feedback loop has evolved. I focus on chamber music and choral music, which leads to chamber and choral music commissions, which leads to writing more chamber and choral music. I have developed almost no relationships with orchestral conductors, and find them often impossible to reach or requiring an inexplicable amount of ring-kissing. But I also stop here to admit that I haven’t tried to reach them with the same zeal as I began approaching chamber musicians when I got out of grad school. In part it was because I could get to good chamber musicians without going directly through the filter of their management. Anyway, in short, my working knowledge of orchestral writing is lagging behind my other work. I will expand on this later, as I revised the piece that was performed here in Liepaja, the silver lining in this particular black cloud.

Okay. So I thought I would let my uncensored (but arbitrary or unrelated stuff edited out) emails speak for themselves, a sort of countdown to the performance and wrap-up.

4 DAYS TO GO:
I am having a frustrating experience with the local orchestra. The trumpet is featured prominently in my piece and is a bit virtuosic. The performance is supposed to happen THIS SUNDAY, and the trumpet player doesn’t want to learn his part. I quickly rewrote it a bit, giving some of his stuff to the oboes, some of the oboes’ stuff to the clarinets. Which all meant about 4 hours of surprise work. Only to find out that the conductor during the rehearsal today (I didn’t go because it was the first rehearsal, but I’m going tomorrow) was babying the trumpet player (who still was unhappy… basically doesn’t want to practice… it’s partly not his fault: the conductor had the parts last week and never warned the trumpet player his part was challenging) and rearranging things on the fly (I got all this second-hand, so who knows the details…). So I told the trumpet player (through a translator) that he needs to learn his part. I’m sorry, but the part is for trumpet and it’s not my fault you didn’t get your part earlier or that you didn’t know about it. The orchestration is built around the trumpet, because it can cut through the orchestra even if there’s a lot of stuff happening around it. He reportedly agreed to try this time. We’ll see what I get tomorrow. (Do you think I should pull the piece? I’ve never done it, ever, but I’m considering it.)

2 DAYS TO GO:
The trumpet player seems to be on the way to working out his shit. Rehearsal was scary at first yesterday, but improved after an hour spent on it. I think maybe I’ll get an hour today too. I’m leaving for the rehearsal in about 30 minutes or so, I don’t know about Saturday. There were still some musicians that didn’t show up if you could believe it. One of the percussionists was missing as well as one of the clarinets. I have no idea why. But I feel a great deal of relief. I won’t have to pull the piece from the concert, and I don’t expect to be embarrassed to take my bow when it’s done. Whew. I had Kristine call the trumpet player that evening to thank him… Try to get some good will coming my way. Otherwise, the musicians were typically Latvian… I got no real vibe from them at all. Enigmatic. The piece is the one that Philip Brunelle read through a few years ago and I rewrote after. They’re going to be recording the concert, so I’ll post it on my site ASAP. Oh and I finished rewriting the Trio today.

1 DAY TO GO:
Man o man. Where to begin… Over the last few days, the conductor has hardly acknowledged me, and the guy who has been translating has acted increasingly burdened. Some people aren’t making eye contact while others look at me sympathetically. But I’ve been getting little information and no insights into how the conductor is thinking. So, yesterday was a bust at the rehearsal. The trumpet player wasn’t there, as well as one or two of the French horns, because they are part of the Latvian Army Orchestra too, and they had a rehearsal. Still no bass clarinet or full percussion section. So, in some ways the piece seemed worse. One of the percussionists was playing louder than before. Some of the changes I’d asked for the previous day weren’t made. It was still under tempo. They ran through it twice and I made some corrections at the end (some of them repeated) and hoped that today’s rehearsal would be the one where everything came together. So today everyone was there except two of the three percussionists. And the trumpet player, since he has gigs tonight decided to hold back, play down the octave, sometimes, quietly. Most if not all of the changes still weren’t made. And they played through it once. Without turning around to where I am sitting at the rear of the hall for my reaction, the conductor begins moving on to the next piece. At this point, I start feeling more infuriated than I can take. As the musicians are rearranging their music, I shout out “This is RIDICULOUS!!!” (Realizing afterwards how very Harry Potter that sounded”¦) The conductor freezes and motions to Dzintars, who doesn’t apparently translate, but maybe because he doesn’t need to. Dzintars asks, “You… have some… wishes?” I then shout, “DAUDZ!!” (MANY). They confer for a minute and then Dzintars asks if it can wait until the end of the rehearsal. I say that I’m concerned because there’s only one rehearsal left but yes. I then go have tea with my friend Oleksij and calm myself. He comes back with me and translates instead of Dzintars. Which is a good thing because I’m sick of thanking Dzintars anyway and I’m sick of his acting so put out by it.
So, I think yelling is a good thing because Jekabs (the conductor) is acting friendly again and a little sheepish, I guess, and apologetic because the musicians aren’t exactly reliable. I apologize for my outburst. We sit down with him and I go through my list of suggestions, and he promises that the piece will get a half hour of rehearsal tomorrow, that he’ll start with all my corrections and that all the musicians will finally be there. (I think that since there is no union allowed (it was forbidden by the principal conductor), and since basically the administration and city give the musicians the bare minimum they can get away with, many of the musicians give them exactly that in return). I left the meeting feeling a helluva lot better, but we’ll see what fruit it bears. Nothing like waiting until the last minute to know what the musicians are gonna do.
I already caught wind of some of the blowback too… some of the musicians of course agree with my reaction, while others were offended on the conductor’s behalf. Not that it really matters. Sometimes I guess it really is more important to be right than to be liked, as much as I want to be liked by everyone I deal with professionally. I just like it better of course when there’s good will there. I don’t expect perfection, just professionalism and effort, I guess.
And of course, I realized that I need to keep in perspective that this is simply a concert happening in a small city in Eastern Europe. This is not the Kennedy Center or Avery Fisher or Royal Albert Hall or whatever. I just hate taking a bow for a shit performance. Whew. Thanks for reading all this venting.

THE DAY OF THE CONCERT:
Okay, so how it went. I’m really at a loss to describe the performance and the experience in general. I think I’m confused, really. So, I told you that after the yelling episode, the conductor spent 40 minutes going over the score with me, promised me to give it 30 minutes the next day at rehearsal. I left feeling good despite having ruffled some feathers. Sunday comes and I show up at 3, my slot in the rehearsal. All the players are there. They’re running late, which is no surprise, because there’s also a choir and soloists involved in the concert. Rather than 30 minutes of focused rehearsal, I get what I got yesterday, a few comments and a single run through, this time with an angry preliminary exchange with one of the percussionists. Again, he moved on right away, no word to me. He did, though, fix two or three things with the comments at the beginning. One of them wasn’t the fact that HE always slowed the tempo down from about 132 to around 120 by two thirds through the piece.
By the way, I realize I didn’t mention that one of the other issues on the table for me was that the orchestra didn’t have all the instruments I’d asked for, namely the Eb Clarinet, which takes a bunch of solos. But that’s the only one. I couldn’t tell WHICH instruments would ultimately be there for the concert, because the FINAL rehearsal was the only one with all of them there. And I remind you that the first trumpet’s initial reaction to the piece was that he couldn’t/didn’t want to do it. Remember I also rushed a quick edited rewrite to accommodate the trumpet, which everyone promptly ignored. Ozolins, the conductor, had his own rewrite ideas. He gave some of the trumpet’s solos to the oboe, which of course, isn’t going to cut through what the trumpet can cut through. And he also, inexplicably, gave one of the clarinet’s solos to the oboe. Ultimately, in retrospect, if he’d forced the trumpet player to do his f***ing job, there would’ve been a hell of a lot fewer balance issues. (The trumpet player in Brunelle’s orchestra could play it better than this guy after 45 minutes of sight-reading.) And also remember I’d said that it seemed like the trumpet player in the second rehearsal was going to pull it together. But he wasn’t there for the third rehearsal, claimed to be holding back because he had a gig that night of the fourth rehearsal, and here we were at the final one. It seems in the end that Ozolins told the trumpet player to take whichever ones he wanted to take, because he’d doubled them in the oboe or clarinet or whatever. He didn’t take many.
Okay. So, I leave the rehearsal and resign myself to whatever is going to happen during the performance. The concert starts at 5. The concert, by the way, if I didn’t say it before, is in celebration of the conductor’s 60th birthday. The first hour is all choral pieces. By the way, there is NO printed program, so I can’t even get credit with ASCAP. Anyway, my piece is third or fourth after a short break. The first third of the piece (A): not bad despite the wussy trumpet… second third (B, a big swing band-style section): also not bad if a little sloppy and beginning to get a little cacophonous… final third (A’) slower and sloppier and the trumpet player’s being even a bigger whimp but Ozolins makes a big gesture of the finish. I take my bow and receive a big flower. The performance was better than any rehearsal had been. I feel okay. Not great, but okay. And I decide also that there are still a handful of things I would like to change in the piece regardless of the performance.
Now. The concert goes on. And on. And on. I’ve mentioned that Latvians are a pretty shy culture. Unless they’ve got a captive audience and a microphone. This guy Ozolins has directed many of the city’s ensembles over the course of the years, and, since the funding I guess comes from municipal sources, there were literally a couple dozen people who took the mic, made some speech, gave flowers, blah blah blah. For how long? Four and a half hours in total. By eight o’clock I don’t care a damn about my performance and I want to chew my own leg off. By nine I fantasize about tackling various speakers. Between speakers there are cheezy Latvian pop/folk song arrangements for choir and orchestra. Daudz.
One of the other pieces on the program was Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, and I realize just how different the American pieces are from everything else on the program. My piece, which I think of as conservative and accessible, seemed almost radically dissonant.
I begin doubting the piece itself, thinking whether I should just throw it out, rewrite it or what. I do think, honestly, that the piece suffers a bit from the same things I was talking about recently. It’s overly dense. Too bad that Argento wasn’t a better or more engaged teacher. I need to let it sit before I decide my next move.

WRAP-UP and back to the present:
I realize that some of this last email makes me look a little bit like a baby, but it does also speak a little to Latvian culture, so I left it in. Some of this was also part of a continuing conversation I was having with a fellow U of Minnesota graduate, and I mentioned Dominick Argento because he is such a brilliant and light orchestrator. (But by the time I was studying with him, his foot was half out the door on his way to retirement, and he didn’t really invest himself in his students the way that some of my other professors did.)

SILVER LINING:
So, in the end, several months later, I sat down with the piece again and gave it a good butchering. I mean, a real overhaul. It was so different by the end of the process, I changed the title of it, something I’ve never done before. But I guess I wanted to somehow reflect its new essence, and to shed what felt like baggage.

Also, there were several musicians in the orchestra that liked my piece, which led to two new pieces being commissioned and other pieces getting performances. These commissions and performances involved musicians that were so enthusiastic that the idea of forming my own ensemble emerged.

In my next posts, I’ll describe those intermediate projects.

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