February 20, 2018

Coco Chanel and igor Stravinsky

What a surprise- a film involving a 20th century composer in this time of cultural indifference!

Beautifully photographed, it does a great job of presenting the scandal of the famous premier of THE RITE OF SPRING, as it tells the story of the relationship/affair between these two famous people. Although a bit stiff and lacking in passion, it is well worth seeing.

Now we need some new films about the fascinating and dramatic lives of Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Bernstein, Chopin, Schumann, Mahler, etc.

New Sondheim Book

I have to talk about the great new book by Stephen Sondheim, FINISHING THE HAT. It is required reading for anyone interested in lyrics and good musical theater. His insights and comments, along with the great anecdotes, are wonderful; it is both informative and entertaining!

A Veritable Island of Hope and Sanity – My Visit to Indiana University

A Veritable Island of Hope and Sanity

My Visit to Indiana University at Bloomington
February 13, 2009

I am just returning from a very enjoyable visit to the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University at Bloomington, where my orchestral work IN TIME OF WAR was performed. Having heard about the unique and wonderful music program at this university for so many years, it was enlightening to finally visit the campus.

Although I arrived with high expectations, I was nevertheless impressed by the high quality of musicianship. The opera department is constantly in production, and I attended a performance of Massenet’s CENDRILLON, a rarely performed work. The singing, orchestral playing, sets, costumes, and stage direction were all top-notch, certainly up to the standards of many American regional companies. The Mac Center, their large performing hall, is state-of-the-art, with excellent acoustics, ample stage space, a large orchestra pit, and generally beautiful on an aesthetic level (why is it so difficult to build professional halls with good acoustics for orchestra and symphonic music in this country, when they could do it so well at Indiana University? How many millions have we spent on performance halls in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere, to improve poorly-designed acoustics?).

The orchestra concert, under the director of the conducting program, Maestro David Effron, was a revelation; performed by the youngest of the university’s three orchestras, the program consisted of Christopher Rouse’s compelling flute concerto, my own composition IN TIME OF WAR, and Beethoven’s 6th symphony (“The Pastoral”). I have known David Effron’s work for many years–this is the fourth piece of mine that he has conducted–and he ranks among this country’s finest opera and orchestral conductors. He has had an international performance career, having been music director of the Heidelberg Opera Festival in Germany and the Brevard Music Festival in North Carolina; he has led hundreds of performances with major American opera companies such as the New York City Opera, and was formerly head of conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music, and subsequently at the Eastman School of Music. Effron is a passionate and instinctive musician, with an impeccable sense of musical style, and he elicited brilliant and sensitive playing in the Pastoral Symphony; notable were beautifully shaped phrases and carefully crafted dynamics, textures, and orchestral timbres. One could feel the love of this music from both conductor and orchestra.

The Rouse concerto, truly a virtuoso work, juxtaposed beautifully lyrical tonal sections with highly virtuostic and energetic music, and featured prize-winning young flutist, Daniel Stein. Mr. Stein’s gifts as a flutist are substantial, and I think we will be hearing a lot more about him as he enters the profession.

My own composition, IN TIME OF WAR (for soprano solo, strings, harp, and percussion), features purely orchestra movements, juxtaposed with movements for soprano solo and orchestra. Having been at the final two rehearsals, I was able to witness this young orchestra attain a high performance standard in this not-so-easy piece, which attempts to show a paradox in the human condition- that we are all born to mothers–often loving mothers–and yet are capable of participating in the tragedy of warfare. (For more information on this piece, please see REVIEWS on my website.) Commissioned by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and its music director, Barbara Day Turner in 2002, the work was premiered in San Jose with the vibrant and popular soprano Erie Mills, conducted by Turner. At the Indiana performance a young doctoral student, Carolina Castells, performed with exquisite sensitivity. Her fine musicianship and warm lyric soprano voice was very appropriate for the work, and I feel she has all the earmarks for a substantial career.

This was a big program, containing two large new works and a substantial symphony. An amusing moment occurred toward the end of the final movement of the Pastoral Symphony (the final work on the program), when a woman a few seats away from me said to her husband in a quiet but audible voice: “Boy, this is a long one!” I guess the Pastoral Symphony was unfamiliar to her.

If you have an opportunity to attend an opera or concert performance at this university, I recommend that you do you. In our present-day atmosphere of junk culture saturation, this place is a veritable island of hope and sanity, not to mention the architectural beauty of its campus.

Composing Opera – Some Thoughts

I have gotten several inquiries from younger composers about writing in the opera/music theater medium, and would like to express a few thoughts. These reflect my opinions, which are certainly not universal among composers. But here goes…

First, and most importantly, if a young (or not-so-young) composer would like to embark upon an opera, he/she must know a good deal about the voice. As students, we are taught orchestration, but very little about the different voice catagories. This is unfortunate for those who aspire to write vocal works, as there is as much to learn about the voice as there is about an orchestral instrument. The way NOT to compose for the voice is to look up the range of, say, a lyric soprano, and write for it as if it were an orchestral instrument. Important considerations are tessitura, the use of open and closed vowels in different registers of the range, sensitivity to text setting, etc. I think some time with an excellent vocal teacher to get advice and ideas on vocal writing is a good first step; also, studying the vocal writing of Schubert, Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Argento, Barber, and others could teach one a lot about text setting and what a good vocal line is.

Next, realize that an opera or music theater piece is most difficult to get produced in our pop culture-oriented society, so if you want to spend the amount of time it takes to do this, I would recommend starting with a one-act opera, or at least writing one completed scene if you are doing a larger work. First, you must find an idea that grabs you, that you feel passionately about using as the basis for a dramatic work. Find the BEST librettist you can (I would not recommend writing your won libretto unless your name is Richard Wagner), as good writers can do a much better job. A librettist must be completely flexible, willing to do rewrites and make changes; he/she, in my opinion, should know opera, and have some working knowledge of serious music and theater. I have been blessed in the fact that my two most recent librettists – Sheldon Harnick and William Luce – are not only fine writers (Mr. Harnick a great lyricist and bookwriter, and Mr. Luce an excellent playwright) but play musical instruments and have a knowledge of opera and theater. They understand why flexibility in collaboration is of the utmost importance in producing a successful work.

A composer and librettist should understand that writing a libretto is different from writing a play. Here are a few points to keep in mind:

*Plays go DEEP; operas go FORWARD
*Operas have less detail and broader strokes than plays- give the music a chance to flesh out the emotional content
*Keep exposition between the big moments MINIMAL
*Get to the KEY EMOTIONS of a scene as quickly as possible
*Avoid too much meandering dialogue (which often results in meandering music!)
*As the work progresses, be guided in the libretto by the direction the music is taking
*Include a substantial amount of verse and poetic writing (this is a personal preference).
I compiled this list in conversation with Sheldon Harnick, and am grateful to him for his assistance and wisdom in clarifying these ideas.

Many modern operas suffer from unsatisfying vocal lines. A continuous arioso style where the vocal lines seem set in a quasi-parlando fashion (without much melodic interest) I find leads to an unsatisfactory result. The music must be compelling and engaging, not just a vehicle for pushing the drama forward. Why bother going to hear a boring musical version of a great story or play if it doesn’t give the work an added dimension of musicality, emotional engagement, etc?

Lastly, let me say emphasize how difficult it is in our time to get a new opera performed. Be aware of this if you want to embark upon this journey, as it is a very difficult thing for a composer to spend a few years on a work and then find no performance venue. This is why I suggest involving a director or producer in the process from the start.

Good luck!

Henry Mollicone


Welcome to my new blog. I look forward to sharing with you my thoughts and experience in the endlessly fascinating, challenging, and fulfilling world of music.