For the first time, I listened to Copland’s “Inscape”. This piece to my ear is stronger than “Connotations”, which was written 5 years earlier. Even though it’s not my favorite Copland, it is strong and bold (in the sense of Ruggles), and like Stravinsky, Copland maintains enough of his stylistic elements from the past to still sound like- Copland! In both these pieces, it is curious that the rhythms and meters are not nearly as complex as those elements his earlier works- even pieces like El Salon Mexico and Appalachian Spring (works in his popular tonal style)! Copland seems to concentrate in these 12 tone works entirely on sound, intervals, line, and color. What fascinates me is when tonal composers adapt to an atonal style, and visa versa! (Del Tredici, Rochberg, etc.) Indeed, music history is full of surprises!
Over the years, one of my greatest pleasures in composing has been writing vocal music – operas, choral works, and lieder. The reason is my deep love of the singing voice. Orchestrating these pieces is a special pleasure, but I will save that for another posting.
Certainly every instrumentalist has his or her own musical personality, but these differences between singers are even stronger. No two voices sound the same, and I have never met two singers who have approached my music in exactly the same way. That is why it is a wonderful thing when a composer receives a commission to write for a SPECIFIC singer. This has not happened for me very often, but when it has, it really makes the job easier, as I can then hear and think about a specific voice and person as I am composing. An example is a song cycle I composed for soprano ERIE MILLS called “Images and Reflections”. I knew Erie’s voice well, and also knew her to be a top notch singer, both vocally and intellectually. Therefore I wrote her a rather challenging (read “difficult”) set of songs, knowing she would do a beautiful job with them – and she did. Her tone color, agility, and accuracy were all factors I kept in mind during the writing process. Of course, I made sure to include a fair share of high notes, as she is able to produce such extraordinarily beautiful sounds in the upper range – and she did!
Another example of writing for a specific voice is the song cycle “Five Love Songs”, which I composed for my longtime dear friend MARIA SPACAGNA. I have been listening to her sing since we grew up together in Providence, RI, and truly enjoyed writing this cycle with her lovely voice in mind. The gorgeous Italianate color of her sound is unique, and I wanted to write the most lyrical and melodic material I could to take advantage of that quality. A very intelligent and musical singer, she performed these pieces and made them sound as beautiful as could be.
As I said, it is not always possible to have the opportunity to compose music for a specific person. When a composer does not know who will perform his or her vocal work, the composer must at least consider the level of difficulty, and decide whether the music is being written for a highly trained professional, an undergraduate singer, etc. A good knowledge of vocal mechanics (range, tessitura, stamina, etc.) is most necessary to do this successfully, and spending a lot of time working with vocalists really helped me to acquire that knowledge. I have been blessed to work with wonderful singers over the years (especially when working at NYC Opera), and this was probably the best training I could have received.
I am happy to say that my website now contains a new SONG page, which gives details (and many musical representations) of all of my songs.
It’s true what they say: “The voice is the only instrument invented by God.”
Kurt Ericson, Erling Wold, Kirke Mechem, and I all went to the excellent production of OTELLO at FESTIVAL OPERA in Walnut Creek, CA. Their lovely general director Sara Nealy noticed us chatting and took a picture.
How nice to see these friends at this performance of one of my very favorite operas: four opera composers paying tribute to the great master Verdi! The first three are all fine composers, and know how to write well for la voce (I can’t speak for the last guy).
As for the performance and production, it was excellent in all respects. The voices were wonderful: Cynthia Clayton as the lovely Desdemona sang beautifully, and portrayed the character in a very moving way (her high notes were “to die for”); David Gustafson was a powerful and strong Otello both vocally and dramatically; Phillip Skinner was pure evil as Iago – his powerful performance of the “Credo” gave me a chill; Michelle Rice, Adam Flowers, and Nadav Hart were likewise first-rate, and Daniel Helfgot’s production was powerful and skillful; sets and costumes were quite appropriate.
The chorus was excellent, and Maestro Michael Morgan and his fine orchestra brought it all to life with skill and musicality.
I truly love this great work, which Verdi finished when in his 70s, before composing his last opera, FALSTAFF. The poor man – he tried to retire in his fifties to spend more time working on his farm and philanthropic activities, but wife Giuseppina and librettist Boito lured him back to composing, bless their souls.
A fine night at the opera! Bravi to general directors Sara Nealy and Jose Luis Moskowitz (West Bay Opera) for making this a joint production.
Anyone interested in classical music and/or jazz should not miss reading Gunther Schuller’s new book: GUNTHER SCHULLER, A LIFE IN PURSUIT OF MUSIC AND BEAUTY. It is the first book of a two-volume autobiography, but more than that, a historical account of 20th century classical music and jazz.
Schuller worked with most of the great jazz and classical musicians of the times, played in (as a fine horn player) and conducted most of the great orchestras, and was (is) a prolific composer. In fact, in his 80s, he is still composing lots of new music. The book, filled with so many interesting details and fascinating stories involving his friends who were important historical figures – from Stockhausen to Samuel Barber to Miles Davis, makes for an unforgettable read!
Having studied composition at Tanglewood with Schuller, I also had the opportunity in my student days at New England Conservatory to play orchestral piano under his baton, and observe him as a musician. He was and still is a great inspiration to me, and one of the most fascinating people I have ever encountered.
I just came across this interesting and somewhat humorous article written some years back by the librettist of my opera THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR and EMPEROR NORTON, my friend John S. Bowman. Truly, librettist’s do not get proper credit for their work, and Bowman manages to write about that with some good humor:
“One of the prices I have paid by being a “jack of all trades” is that, aside from being “master of none,” I have never established a reputation in any field. For example, only immediate family and old friends are aware that I had a minor career as an author of opera librettos. That’s another story. But in 1978, the one that has since enjoyed the most success, The Face (on the Barroom Floor) — that is, the opera by my collaborator-composer, Henry Mollicone – had its “world premiere” at the Central City (Colorado) Opera Festival.
I went out just to be present and after a short stay for the first couple of performances, took my return flight home. The first leg was from Denver to Chicago, and after we were airborne I got out some of the materials from the occasion and began to look at them more closely. I was on the aisle and at some point the woman in the middle seat spoke up: “Excuse me,” she said, “but I can’t help noticing that you’re reading a program from the Central City Opera Festival. Were you just there?” I said yes and she pursued her questioning, and after being asked if perhaps I had been a singer in the production, I felt I was justified in saying, “No, but I wrote the libretto.”
Well, that really got to her — imagine, meeting an opera librettist! True, she asked the question that everyone asks upon hearing that I have written an opera libretto: “So, tell me, after the composer has written all that music, how do you manage to fit the words to it?” And I patiently — and I hope modestly — explained that in fact the librettist writes the words first and the composer then sets them to music.
Anyway, the man on the window seat had been studiously avoiding appearing that he had any interest in this ongoing conversation, but the irrepressible lady in the middle now turned to him and said, “Imagine, this gentleman here has written an opera libretto!” The window-seat man acknowledged this without showing any particular interest, but the middle-seat lady was not to be deterred. “And what do you do for a living?”
Aha! I’m thinking — this unprepossessing gentleman, forced to confess that he sells widgets, is going to have to show some appreciation that he has been placed in a row with an opera librettist. Finally — recognition!
Instead he replies, “I’m a painter.”
“A painter!” she exclaims. “Really — what kind?”
“Watercolors,” he somewhat grudgingly admits.
Well, that did it. She lost all interest in me and now turned her full barrage on him, gradually forcing him to confess that he was, in fact, a watercolorist with a major reputation – Irving Shapiro, represented in many major museum collections and the teacher of generations of watercolorists in Chicago. (I confirmed this when I arrived home, And you need only google him to discover how many still pay tribute to him!)
The middle-seat lady did try to put me back on a pedestal by exclaiming at one point, “Just imagine, on an airplane in the 20th century, I’m sitting between an opera librettist and a watercolorist!” But it was quite clear: an opera librettist of no reputation, with only one short work in Central City, was trumped by a watercolorist with a national reputation. Fortunately she would never discover that I also wrote baseball books…
-JOHN S. BOWMAN
“First and Lasting Impressions”, the new memoir by Julius Rudel, is a wonderful read for anyone interested in the Maestro and in the NYC Opera. More than a memoir of NYC Opera, the book contains a lot of biographical material regarding Rudel’s early life, moving to America, and his international conducting activities after leaving NYC Opera.
For those interested in the wonderful things accomplished under Rudel’s leadership, this is the book to read. I was amazed myself (as a former member of the staff there) to read that prior to my arrival, Rudel had done some successful seasons consisting solely of new American Operas. Of course many of the most interesting behind-the-scenes details are detailed in the book.
So many of the great singers blossomed under Rudel’s reign: Sills, Carreras, Domingo, and Neblett just to name a few; he describes the golden days of the company, and the influence it’s policies and philosophy had upon other opera companies in America: the concept of an ensemble company (rather than a “star house”), the attention to new American operas (many commissioned by Rudel), and the Herculean energy Maestro Rudel had to make this all happen. (He was director of several other prominent organizations during the 70s while he was general director of NYC Opera, handling administration and conducting duties.) It’s an amazing story, and I myself am very saddened to see the difficult times this company is now going through.
Working with him on the music staff was an amazing experience. With all the stress that came with the job, he was always fair, and although prone to some justified anger (and in retrospect, he was always right in his criticisms), I have warm memories of working with this man, who was both kind and a strong leader. (With all of his duties, he was able to find time to show interest in my own music, and was responsible with Gunther Schuller for my receiving my first important opera commission).
Looking back at my time there in the 70s, I marvel: what a wonderful time it was! I had the chance to work with great singers, directors, and conductors – including Maestro Rudel, whose performances were often masterful and always musical and tasteful. How could I ever forget the wonderful new productions of Ginestera’s BEATRICE CENCI, Hoiby’s SUMMER AND SMOKE, Korngold’s DIE TOTE STADT, as well as Floyd’s SUSANNAH, and Menotti’s THE CONSUL, (not to mention the ongoing fine performances of standard repertoire)? As a composer/pianist, it was thrilling for me to work on so many operas – particularly the newer pieces, often with the composers present. I only wish that I was mature enough as a person fresh out of school to realize how great and unusual all of this activity was.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in opera and this wonderful conductor.
A big influence in my own work is the music of Leonard Bernstein. Having grown up watching his “Young People’s Concerts” on TV as a boy, it was a thrill when I was in my 20s to work with him as a musical assistant on his show 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, which he wrote with Allen Jay Lerner. Sadly, the show was a flop, but working with the inspiring Maestro was still a great experience. I am often asked about this, and will tell one anecdote.
Personally, I found him always to be a gentleman, treating people with respect. At one point in the rehearsal process, the show was in Philadelphia in it’s pre-Broadway version. The choreographer asked me if I would write a new piece of dance music based on Bernstein’s tunes; I asked Bernstein, and he gave me the go ahead to do it. (I was thrilled).
When the piano score was completed, I brought it to his hotel in Philly and we sat together at the piano as I played it for him. (The show was in trouble, so the general atmosphere in rehearsals was tense). He liked what he heard (which made me very happy!), but said we need to work on a few things. So we stayed at the piano for about an hour and a half, as he made subtle changes here and there. Finally, after this “composition lesson” with the Maestro, he said it was ready to give to the orchestrators Sid Ramon and Hershy Kay.
It was a cold, snowy day in Philly, and as I was leaving his hotel ready to brave the elements, I said to him, “Well, Mr. Bernstein (I never called him “Lenny”), we worked hard on this. I certainly hope the choreographer likes it.” He was sitting down ready to make a phone call and looked up at me sadly, saying: “If he doesn’t like it, fuck ‘em”! Having grown up thinking of him as a musical master, I was a bit amused at this and other similar incidents where he revealed himself to be a normal human being, susceptible to anger and frustration just like the rest of us!
Unfortunately, the failure of the show to have success on Broadway was very depressing to him; this is unfortunate, as it contains a lot of wonderful music and lyrics. Fortunately it has been “saved” by some of his musical assistants after his passing by putting a lot of the show’s best music into a work now called “A White House Cantata”. Check out the recording!
Title: THE PREMONITION: FREMONT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Location: Smith Center for the Performing ArtsOhlone College, Fremont, CA
Description: The Fremont Symphony Orchestra under music director David Sloss will perform a concert of film music. HM will be the piano soloist in music from CASABLANCA. As an encore, HM and the orchestra will perform the theme from THE PREMONITION, a feature film for which which HM composed the score.
Start Time: 20:00
At one of Leonard Bernstein’s NORTON LECTURES at Harvard University in the 60s, the Maestro predicted that we would be soon approaching a great age of eclecticism in music. This was at a time when the avant garde was predicting something very different- that tonality as we knew it was certainly dying a fast death. Alas, as the new century began, thanks to the “new romanticism”, the minimalists, and other strains, we realized that Bernstein was indeed correct. One only has to look at the output of one of our finest living American composers, John Adams, to see how effectively a composer can combine different stylistic elements in his work. Another successful example of this is the work of the American Canadian composer Robert Frederick Jones, most recently in his new “symphony for soloists, chorus, and orchestra”, the twelve movement LA TERRA PROMESSA (The Promised Land), premiered in Montreal a few weeks ago at Vanier College. The forces included the Vanier College Choir (Philippe Bourque, director) Le Chœur Saint-Laurent (Michael Zaugg, director), L’Orchestre symphonique de l’école Joseph-François Perrault (Richard Charron, director), and the soloists Tamara Vickerd (soprano), Erica Martin (mezzo-soprano), Sylvain Paré (tenor), and Clayton Kennedy (baritone), all conducted by Philippe Bourque.
The work is brilliant and beautiful from start to finish, and shows the large musical gifts of this composer, whose work I have had the pleasure of listening to for several years. (Most amazingly, much of this hour-long work was composed at a time when the composer was in and out of the hospital with a serious illness. I believe that he was too preoccupied with his musical vision to let that slow him down!)
Where to begin describing such a work, whose overall plan, to quote the composer, depicts his vision of “how we are carried up the ‘chain of being’ from the formless void before creation, through inanimate nature (the tectonic and meteorological forces that shape the landscape of the planet), the live of the plants, of the animals, leading to the human condition, and ending with an ascent beyond the material world to the divine”?With a lesser composer, this could all turn into a huge piece of pretentious work; Jones, however, delivers the goods- his creation is a score of great skill and beauty.
The piece is sung in six languages (!), which coexist and flow together in a seemingly effortless way, opening with a wonderful sense of mystery at the start (depicting the void before creation). Elements in the symphony are sometimes a bit reminicent of Webern, Messian, and more traditional tonality; there are hauntingly beautiful melodic and harmonic materials, simple elegant choral writing, complex and intense musical textures, and much more. All of it produces a language that is uniquely Jones.
This composer has always been a brilliant orchestrator, and uses his forces with great skill and contrast, sometimes creating spare textures with just a few instruments, juxtaposing these with the big sound of his large forces, including very effective use of his full percussion section. In fact the contrasts in this work keep the listener attentive throughout. One example: in movement five (Olympic Rainforest), there is majestic but appropriately dark music in the brass and an ongoing piano music that is foreboding; this is followed immediately with a lovely tonal setting of Blake’s “The Lamb”- simple and clean, and like a breath of fresh air in contrast to the intense previous movement.
The last movement (probably my personal favorite) is the final act in this dramatic journey through creation. Called “La Rosa Celestiale” (the heavenly rose), it has the listener moving “among the petals of the celestial rose stopping here and there to savour the heavenly music”, which uses Christian prayer, a Sanskrit hymn, and Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY, showing us the souls of the redeemed in ultimate perfection. It is quite beautiful, and a fitting finale to this grand piece.
LA TERRA PROMESSA is a mystical work, and comes from a very deep place . It has an Eastern sensitivity in its concept that all paths to the divine are mingled into one stream. It’s honesty and beauty of execution should make it an appealing work to many, and I hope to see more performances of this grand effort in the future.