When the aliens figure out that Earth is worth invading — the advance UFO team eerily appearing in the sky, a battalion of spacecraft quietly descending to scout our defenses — let’s hope they drop in over an outdoor symphonic concert. What they would see is a species working together with such joy, precision, and ingenuity that they would surely beat a fast retreat out of our atmosphere. More frightening than nukes would be the finale of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony: almost a hundred humans synthesizing a variety of resonating instruments — each one a masterpiece of engineering — into a stunning, beautiful whole. That’s an Earth on a good day.
Just last week I heard Leonard Slatkin and the Pittsburgh Symphony tear through that piece, and I experienced the same kid-like joy at watching this strange and wonderful creature — the orchestra — that never leaves me. I had just finished performing my piece The B-Sides, played as well as I’d ever heard it, and yes I did have a bit of dark rum in the dressing room after I walked offstage. So I was pulsing with the energy of a nice performance, plus some sugar-cane warmth, when I slipped into the audience for the second half. And I thought about the medium.
Why work in such a sprawling, complex, and, yes, unwieldy artform?
Why, indeed, when it takes so many years to get a piece released on CD? The San Francisco Symphony, for example, will be recording this piece next year, along with Alternative Energy and Liquid Interface. This is a moment I’ve awaited for many years, and it’s happening on a grand scale with an orchestra I am in love with. Next season’s Beethoven and Bates festival at the SFS certainly gives the works a bright platform (though such a pairing makes my knees tremble). But wouldn’t it have been easier to write poetry or paint?
After all, there are so many people involved in the symphonic medium. These are not the easiest people to deal with either. They are musicians, they have more training than a heart surgeon, and they will often remind you of that fact. (For example, my harp parts make harpists dance like the King of Pop in order to work the pedaling fast enough, much to their chagrin.) And as the symphonic world has seen again recently, orchestras might not play if they are not happy. An orchestra on strike, as San Francisco was for a few weeks, does not exactly project the happy-species-working-together that we’d like those aliens to see.
But what a thing it is when it all works together.
In Pittsburgh, for example, the musicians play from the back of the orchestra, without the usual problem of the acoustic delay between strings and brass/percussion. The fifty feet between, say, the timpani and the first violins often produces out-of-sync playing in even the best orchestras. Not in Pittsburgh; they’ve evolved that straight out of their genes. The chimney-sweep rhythm on sandpaper blocks that opens The B-Sides, for example, was perfectly in line with the quiet, mercurial orchestral riffs around it. The clicking typewriter of “Temescal Noir” (played by a percussionist) locked right in with the swing rhythms of the bass clarinets. It’s a crackerjack group, and Leonard draws wonderful sounds out of them.
I now head back to Steel City for Mercury Soul, my club/classical project. It will be interesting to work with the same players outside of Heinz Hall. We’ll be at Static, a club in the Strip district. The openness of the space, its combination of dance floor and generous lounge seating, and its crystal clear sound system reminds me of San Francisco’s Mezzanine. That’s where Mercury Soul was born five years ago with members of the San Francisco Symphony, and the show has grown and changed considerably.
With my co-conspirators Benjamin Shwartz (conductor) and Anne Patterson (director/designer), I have realized the necessity of highly dramatic production elements to guide the audience’s focus from DJing to classical sets. You need lots of big lighting changes to cue everyone that a string quartet is about to play. The electro-acoustic interludes that transition between these worlds have become longer and more textural, and the programming has started to look both backwards and forwards. In Pittsburgh, for example, we have a very old work (Biber’s Battalia) and a very new one (a sinfonietta I composed for the event call The Rise of Exotic Computing). So while the show appeals to musical adventurers in a Burning Man kind of way, the production draws on some of the crowd-control tropes of rock opera.
This many moving parts is both exhilarating and exhausting, but it’s what I love about the medium. We are not just synthesizing sound, of course, but a lot of human emotion and passion. It is beautiful, intoxicating, and humbling to be swept into that larger body.
If you are reading this an haven’t been to an orchestra concert lately, go. It is, well, the greatest show on Earth (just ask the aliens).
New music is like children: there are the newborns — which always require much nurturing — and there are the rest. Attending a flashy premiere to witness the birth of a new composition always brings a thrill. But the real test of a piece is how it fares years later when it is out on its own in the world.
Just a week ago, for example, the Toronto Symphony performed Alternative Energy on their New Creations Festival. While the piece is, indeed, a new creation, its heady first days under Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony are behind it. After its premiere a year ago, and its subsequent two tours with the CSO, did I change the piece?
Of course — in small ways. Any piece benefits from post-premiere orchestrational touch-ups. But these are only the equivalent of tweaked brush stokes, not major compositional changes. The solo violin part, for instance, is almost a mini-concerto in this ‘energy symphony,’ conjuring the farm-and-junkyard days of Henry Ford on a fiddle. There were myriad small changes in dynamics and doubling that helped the concertmaster be better heard. The Toronto Symphony’s excellent Johnathan Crow channeled his inner Appalachian and brought off the part terrifically.
Equally tricky was the percussion battery, which calls for a ‘car part drumset’ assembled from a scrapyard. In the highly regulated world of orchestral music, where music meets so much well-meaning but annoying regulation, the percussion section stands as a monument to composer freedom. In various works over the years, I’ve called for oil drum; broom; Indian rattles; and pump shotgun (not a problem in gun-loving Phoenix; kind of a problem with the LA Phil). Finding novel instruments is part of the job description of the percussionist, and I have never met a single one who didn’t approach this with the most positive attitude.
And thus we have John Rudolph, principle percussion of Toronto, traipsing through a snowy junkyard on the outskirts of Toronto, searching for the most musical pickup truck gate, fender, and muffler ever built buy the Ford Motor Company (pics). This bit of ‘musical paleontology’ will happen when the piece moves to a variety of smaller orchestras next year — which is, to me, the most important test of a new work’s durability. Lots of pieces can shine when blessed by the top musicians and budgets, but the most honest test of a new work is how it fares on a regional orchestra concert. (And if, perchance, there are no junkyards in Tuscon or Hartford, the percussionists always find good substitutions. When asking for wild cards, a composer mustn’t require the work to live or die on the a particular muffler.)
What about the electronics? In the words of one all-knowing publisher, what happens when you can’t be there to play?
Apparently this person remains unaware that the solution is on display on many concerts every year. I’ve worked unbelievably hard to make electronics a non-issue, both when I am present and when I’m not. Be it The B-Sides, Rusty Air in Carolina, or Mothership, the electronic part is simple: along with the sheet music rental comes a download link for a laptop. A percussionist triggers samples at rehearsal numbers; the audio has been pre-mixed to sound decent once a basic balance is achieved. The actual sounds of the electronica part are not simple, and in fact a man-on-the-moon level of work has gone into creating them and programming this ‘dynamic sampler.’ But out of the box on the orchestra’s end, the electronics are plug-&-play. (This same publisher continued to express skepticism — even after I reminded her that she represents a wonderful composer whose entire catalogue requires the rental of synthesizers and extensive amplification. We are all the more fortunate that his music hasn’t been held back by logistics.)
Another of this month’s ‘children out in the world’ is The B-Sides, an orchestral suite that drops into five surreal landscapes. This piece has happened in dozens of places without me, from the Houston Ballet to Interlochen, and I can say that this kid is growing up fine. Sure, there are some exotic percussion instruments and some electronics. But if a piece can work on an educational concert on two rehearsals, I’m here to tell you that it can be done anywhere. This month, it’s Pittsburgh Symphony and Leonard Slatkin, a dream team I have been fortunate to work with several times.
So, what brush strokes have changed with The B-Sides? Lighter figuration in the first movement, primarily, and the recalibration of the balance in the middle spacewalk movement. In “Gemini in the Solar Wind,” the NASA archival recording that I set to music was pretty crunchy: lots of static and clipped speaking. I’ve cleaned up the audio a lot. Another touched-up brush stroke: the entrance into the last movement. The premiere required Michael Tilson Thomas to perform an accelerando out of an acoustic movement directly into a beat-matched electro-acoustic finale. Even though Michael aced it, that effect proved too risky elsewhere.
Also this month, the Nashville Symphony performed my Violin Concerto with Anne Akiko Meyers. Premiered last year in Pittsburgh, the work now makes its rounds through a variety of orchestras, and I have added a slew of edits to the original. A concerto, with its focus on a soloist, comes with extra challenges of balance. Most of the changes involved lightening the symphonic texture even more than the original. Percussive hand-slaps on the bodies of the string instruments, for example, became fingers-taps.
Slap versus tap? Are these the things that makes a young piece thrive or die in the real world? I’m afraid the answer is yes. Nothing can correct a structural problem, so you better get that right the first time. Yet the seemingly small details of orchestration accumulate, wave-like, into an ocean that is the piece.
Composers are, like parents, loathe to let go. But with enough nurturing in early life, and a few interventions in adolescence, the little ones can hold their own.
Greetings from a sponge. Two big recent premieres — Violin Concerto and Afterlife — required constant swimming from me through a torrent of notes over the past year. Now I’m halting forward motion, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, and soaking up whatever comes close. Bottom feeders beware.
Artists of all stripes face the constant challenge of producing. Classical music is different from, say, the art world, where it is common to turn out a series of similar pieces. That’s frowned upon in our world, and plus it’s no fun. But the ‘overload impulse’ is hard to ignore as a commission-based life-form: we want to lock in sustenance when it comes, never sure if it will continue.
I’ve resisted this. While I try to avoid the ‘masterpiece syndrome’ — the urge to make every little piece a magnum opus — I do want every piece to be something I can be proud of years later. More important to me than a flashy premiere is the tenth performance in a small town; that shows a piece really has a life. So I need to book enough composing time in the first pass, and part of that is allowing enough time to absorb new music and get a fresh perspective.
Luckily for me, I have to do this take in a lot music in my role as curator in various places. The Chicago Symphony and its MusicNOW series require many new programs a year, as does my classical/club project Mercruy Soul. Additional partnerships, such as my year-long residency with the Pittsburgh Symphony, involve many hours of selecting the best new music I can find. Some wonderful new discoveries for me:
• Anders Hillborg, a Finnish mindfreak who wields texture like a light saber. His Violin Concerto is one of the best of the genre, of any period. He is perhaps most mind-blowing at the orchestral level, but Hillborg migrates easily to choral and chamber forces.
• German electronica duo Mouse on Mars are the Kraftwerk of our time and have substantive things to bring to classical ears. We hosted them in our first season at MusicNOW, and they came up with something sounding like early Ligeti. Plus they design sound like aliens from the future.
• Donnacha Dennehey and Oscar Bettison are two excellent UK composers getting a lot attention. While quite different, they do share an interest in what I’d call “strange minimalism:” enlivening the layering and repetition techniques of minimalism with exotic sounds. If you tire of the minor-third doodles so fashionable in Brooklyn these days, check out these guys.
• Guillermo Scott Herren, the man behind the electronica alias Prefuse73, infuses his music with superb sound design and indigenous soul. New album in April.
• Anthony Cheung freshens up the modernist soundworld with bold sounds and quick changes. His new piece Vis à Vis retuned my ears for a few days.
There are many more, but those are in heavy rotation this month. Then I’ll evolve from sponge to fish and try to relearn how to swim. That’s always painful; but that’s growing. Meanwhile, new and old works continue to float about the musical ecosystem, living their lives happily without me. Next month brings several of those performances — tune in then!
In the past week, we’ve successfully dodged the Mayan apocalypse, the fiscal cliff, and potentially planet-killing arrangements of holiday music. So now that we’ve made it into the New Year, let me offer a glimpse of what I’ll be doing with my new lease on life:
This month, Michael Christie conducts the Phoenix Symphony premiere of my latest work, Afterlife. This half-hour song cycle approaches the topic of death from the perspective of women across the centuries, from Christina Rossetti to Emily Dickinson to the contemporary Judith Wolf.
The first movement looks through the eyes of those left behind, and it is therefore quite dark and even angry. Dickinson describes a shade crossing the sky of the mind, while Wolfe scolds her departed lover for leaving her. The last movement looks through the eyes of the dead, so we end on a more uplifting note with some dying epiphanies. And the middle movement is a bittersweet waltz. This piece, my first integrating a solo voice and electronics, requires a lot of the mezzo (the wonderful Jennifer Johnson Cano) and the orchestra as well.
In March, the Toronto Symphony gives the Canadian premiere of Alternative Energy, my time-traveling ‘energy symphony’ that Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony recently performed at Carnegie Hall. In its scope, this work feels something like my second symphony; the first would be Liquid Interface, which will be performed by the Chicago Symphony under Jaap van Sweden and the Winston-Salem Symphony under Robert Moody. The latter is a conductor I have worked with from the very beginning : Moody commissioned my first orchestral piece, so it will be a delight to work with him again.
March also takes me back to the Pittsburgh Symphony, which will perform The B-Sides under Leonard Slatkin as part of my Composer of the Year residency. This electro-acoustic orchestral suite explores five surreal landscapes, with a nod to the psychedelic tracks on the flip sides of old Pink Floyd albums. It will be a real thrill to hear this orchestra — one of the country’s finest — perform this sprawling work under Leonard, an old friend who knows my music intimately. Just last month, this dream team premiered my Violin Concerto for the stunning Anne Akiko Meyers, and it was one of the memorable musical experiences I’ve had. Meyers will be traveling with the piece quite a lot, beginning with the Nashville Symphony in March.
The late spring brings two blooms of Mercury Soul, a hybrid musical event that intersperses sets of classical music throughout an evening of DJing and electronica. Last season’s event with the Chicago Symphony at Metro went so well that we are doing it again (on May 10), with a completely new program and redesigned experience. And the Pittsburgh Symphony will take a very different version of the project to a stunning club called Static on April 6. This show is reimagined for each space and ensemble, and it is always fun watching new crowds experience the show in different cities. The DJing for Mercury Soul has become one of the most interesting electronica endeavors for me, where I can travel from Midwest techno to post-minamalism to the late Baroque — and back.
Mercury Soul takes you out of the concert hall to experience classical music, but I’ve also found new ways to present new music in the concert hall. My efforts as a curator are perhaps most fully realized in Chicago, where the MusicNOW series now brings about 800 people for each new-music concert. Because Anna Clyne and I have the full use of the stagecraft of Harris Theater, we have moved the concert format into a very immersive and fun direction. Video program notes seamlessly guide the listener throughout the evening, which begins and ends with DJing and drinks in the lobby. My kind of hang for sure!
So whether you want to check out a new piece, an old piece, or a club show, I’m probably none too far away from you (check the calendar on my classical and electronica pages for details). Now that we’ve dodged the apocalypse, let’s hear some music!
Last month, as the Bay Area moved from the last glows of its Indian Summer into the dark of the rainy season, with daylight whittling to the bone, my music also turned to the dark side : death.
Or rather, to Afterlife, a new song cycle for the Phoenix Symphony. The piece is a setting of poetry about dying, and being left behind, for mezzo-soprano, orchestra, and electronica. Dark days indeed — and quite a departure for me.
Afterlife was born from a suggestion from conductor Michael Christie to consider the poetry of Judith Wolf, whom he had encountered in Phoenix. At first, the former English major in me didn’t know how to approach her poetry. Its mix of bitterness, humor, and mourning is voiced in an emotionally upfront and honest way, and it isn’t afraid to bare it all. The poetry I’d set before had more of a scrim in front of its emotions. Perhaps I did too.
But a poem about the loss of her husband hung in my mind. A simple meditation about encountering her departed husband’s old clothes, it took me back the a similar moment a friend experienced, years ago, when cleaning out her passed husband’s closet. My earlier aversion to emotionally open poetry had also, perhaps, dissipated as I grew older and started a family. I soon found the beauty in her haunting poetry.
Judy’s poetry inspired me to look for other women’s perspective on the subject, taking me first to Emily Dickinson. It is hard to believe her word weren’t written yesterday. Its fundamental strangeness — its lack of titles, its slant rhymes, its odd punctuation and psychedelic imagery — is brought to life in simple, short lines that are perfectly suited for the human voice (as countless composers have found).
Dickinson wrote poems not only about losing someone, but about the experience of dying. What do we make of “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” ? At the moment of death, the poet fixates upon the “Blue—uncertain Stumbling buzz” of a fly. I’m not sure we’ll ever know exactly what that fly represents, but to me it suggests the moment when, in the throes of a life-changing moment, you focus on the smallest of detail. (I still vividly remember considering the shoelaces of my blue shoes when, at five years old, I had an uncomfortable run-in with a pellet gun.)
Complementing Dickinson is the work of 19th Century English poet Christina Rossetti. Like her American counterpart, Rossetti looks through the eyes of the dead. But there is a twist. In “After Death,” the poet describes the peacefulness of her passing, with beautiful garlands scattered around her deathbed. The tone is gracious and warm, especially as she describes her sobbing husband. But at the very end of the poem, she gives us the surprise: “He did not love me living, but when dead, he pitied me, and how sweet it is that he is still warm while I am cold.”
Suddenly a new subtext emerges, an undertone of resentment undetectable in the beginning. My approach to to this complex dramatic situation was to set the singer’s lines in the same warmth and lovingness that we read them, but have the orchestra seeth underneath her. This gives the work a tone of voice — resentment — that we might not always associate with death. It would be easy for a piece on this topic to stay in just one realm, that of mourning; but my goal from the beginning was to offer multiple perspectives.
Next month, Afterlife moves from the page to the stage, with the wonderful Jennifer Johnson Cano bringing it to life. Just in time for the dead of winter.
October kept me as busy as a presidential candidate, dropping me into time zones scattered across the map like Fall foliage. There was even lunch with Teresa Heinz Kerry, our almost-First Lady. All I needed was a fake smile, a spray tan, and a few million followers, and you could’ve convinced me I was on the ballot.
Luckily for all of us, I am not. But with my feet in California (writing a new song cycle for Phoenix Symphony) to New York (Carnegie Hall) to Pittsburgh (Heinz Foundation awards) to Chicago (MusicNOW at the CSO), my head was spinning by month’s end. How can a composer stay focused on writing music amidst the bustle of travel?
My studies with John Corigliano revealed to me that writing music requires planning. This always seemed counterintuitive to a kid who (like many) equated composition with improvisation, holding a firm belief in the powers of intuition (and my ten fingers) to whip up something organic. That works fine early on, but you can create much more interesting forms if you think before your fingers get to work on the piano. This creative planning also works on the macro scale; let’s call it planning.
If I have a piece due in mid-November, I know that I’ll need to be orchestrating no later than one month before — and composing at least six months before that. Larger works require more even more time, sometimes more than a year.
And so it was that, as I boarded my flight for New York at the beginning of last month, with the NY premiere of Alternative Energy ahead of me, my mind was wallpapered with the notes of the new song cycle. A collection of poetry about death by women poets, from the 19th Century’s Christina Rossetti to the 21st Century’s Judith Wolfe, the piece is dark and poignant. The pulsing figuration of my ‘energy symphony’ was simmering on the back burner, with the Carnegie Hall show looming, but my food for thought on the plane was the poetry I was setting (on that day, Dickinson’s line “The Perished Patterns murmur”).
The plane touched down, and my mind began to switch gears. We had a big concert in two nights. Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony had decided to tour Alternative Energy — no light opener, with surround-sound electronics and a sprawling form — and I needed to get in the zone.
An early-morning soundcheck the next day put a spring in my step. Carnegie may be known for good acoustics, but it’s not known for good sound design. With substantial prodding by the CSO, we were able to get our six speakers and two subwoofers to shake the floorboards. But back in my hotel room before the rehearsal that afternoon, I retreated into the field of imagination and took a look at another poem, Judith Woolfe’s “You left when we couldn’t follow.”
Rehearsing in Carnegie is like putting noise-cancelling headphones over your ears and pushing Play on your iPod. The bass hits you in your gut, counterpoint jumps out of the orchestral texture more clearly. The maestro noted to me afterward that, even after eight performances of the piece in Chicago and California, he was hearing new things in Alternative Energy at Carnegie. The musicians responded too: concertmaster Robert Chen opened up more in his extensive solos, stretching out in the acoustic space.
By the time the performance came, it felt a bit like the house band playing their theme song. We’d done the piece many times back in Chicago, on a West Coast tour, even in Michigan. I have never had any orchestra play a piece so much, with each new performance adding luster to the finish. We had a hell of a time, and the rousing audience response was particularly touching because I knew that I didn’t have many ‘plants’ in the hall!
The next day, blinking through my hangover, I flew back to California for composing and family time. Having kept the poetry at arm’s reach on the trip allowed me to jump back into the song cycle with only minimal ‘crank-up time’ (that creative inertia that grounds me on day one after a trip).
A week later, I was having lunch with Teresa Heinz outside Pittsburgh. This brief touchdown into western Pennsylvania had surprisingly nothing to do with my post as this year’s Composer of the Year with the Pittsburgh Symphony (who will premiere my violin concerto next month — stay tuned). Rather, it related to jaw-dropping phone call I received a month earlier from the Heinz Foundation, which told me I was the recipient of one of their Heinz Medals.
In addition to a formal ceremony, the Foundation offered a beautiful lunch at Teresa’s country home. I’m not sure whether my assigned seat next to her had to do with her interest in my music or, more likely, my young children (she is a matriarch of a high order of magnitude). But in any case, there I was getting the inside scoop on what was going on inside the President’s debate prep, which her husband John Kerry was leading. But aside from politics and children, Teresa does indeed have a powerful interest in the arts. She sees it as an essential force in educating children and enlightening everyone else.
As I sat there, a nice plate of duck in front of me (surprisingly, there was no ketchup to be found), I thought about how lucky the arts are to have her. In the Bay Area, there is no shortage of tech moguls ready to build science and medical buildings on college campuses. Wouldn’t it be nice if they earmarked a tiny percentage to the arts, a world that knows how to get some bang from a buck. We are so fortunate for the generosity of the families of Guggenheim, Bass, Fischer, and Heinz. Now if we could just get the Gates and Jobs on board.
My visit to Pittsburgh was short — less than 24 hours — so it did not disrupt the song cycle too much. When I returned to California, I used the morning to sketch the middle movement, a kind of bittersweet waltz (“Don’t let them throw away the clothes,” a sad dance with a dead husband’s wardrobe). In the afternoons, I began the mammoth task of orchestrating the first movement.
Then to Chicago, where we were opening our MusicNOW series — an imaginatively presented concert of new music performed by Chicago Symphony musicians, with a teeming post-party with DJs, food, and drink. My co-conspirator Anna Clyne has a sharp eye for multimedia, and I have an interest in smooth flow (cf: spinning records for three hours), so the resulting concert experience is immersive and dramatic. The fancy lighting rig of Harris Theater is put to full use; program notes are cinematic, with video interviews of composers during set changes; and the concert flows naturally into the post-party, which features local artists. The stage management of the event is way more complex than your standard new-music event at, say, Merkin Hall. We fill the formerly empty gaps of a concert with projected information, experimenting with new ways to educate the audience in a fun way.
This concert featured Anna’s Roulette, Edmund Finnis’ Unfolds, and Magnus Lindberg’s sprawling Souvenir. It was a nice study in contrasts. Anna’s electro-acoustic quartet provided a forceful opening, Edmund’s piece taking us into a hushed world of quiet textures, and Magnus’ almost symphonic explorations bringing us to a stunning end.
These MusicNOW concerts take me to Chicago for a full week of production meetings, so I had to keep my song cycle from getting painted-over in my mind. At close reach was Christina Rossetti’s “After Death,” a poem from the perspective of the departed. The poem ends with a sudden twist, and I spent a good portion of the week thinking about how to set it to music.
Now back in California, I return to my woodshed, chipping away at the silence around this piece. Right now, after posting this, I turn to those perplexing lines at the end of the poem: “He did not love me living, but once dead he pitied me; and very sweet it is to know he still is warm while I am cold.”
In such a fragmented world, with politicians, cell phones, and toddlers grabbing your train of thought at any given moment, it can be hard to stay focused. For me, the best defense is time, starting a piece early enough so the wheels in my mind start spinning early. A composing plan helps. So does caffeine.
I’m Mason Bates, and I approve this message.
My suitcase was packed. My two laptops, drumpad, and other electronic gear were zipped up and ready for air travel. I’d been practicing the electronic part of Alternative Energy for the past week, looking forward to touring the piece with the Chicago Symphony to Michigan and New York.
All I needed was an orchestra.
The call came in late on Saturday night : despite frantic negotiations running right up to that night’s concert, the orchestra and management were deadlocked. After playing several concerts without an agreement, the musicians looked at the last-minute contract asking for higher healthcare expenses and couldn’t sign on the dotted line. With an hour until the concert.
So a few thousand people showed up at Symphony Center to encounter a locked hall and picket lines. Not a happy situation all around, and certainly not for me back in California. I didn’t want to see this astonishing band, which was making some of the world’s best music under Riccardo Muti, fall into the abyss of a protracted strike. And I definitely didn’t want to miss the opportunity to tour Alternative Energy, which both the orchestra and the maestro knew so well from all the performances last season. Time to light candles, cross fingers, and pray.
When I boarded the plane on Monday, I had no idea if our rehearsal the next day would happen. Four hours later, as we touched down in Chicago, I booted up my iPhone and hoped the music gods were smiling. Either we would stumble into the abyss, or we would keep the band together and start a wonderful tour.
Ecstatic messages buzzed in: We have an agreement!!!
A very close call. Everyone knew it: when I walked into Symphony Center the next morning, a palpable sense of relief hung in the building. Everyone was smiling, giving hugs in the hallways and such. Rehearsal started on my time-traveling ‘energy symphony,’ and immediately I felt the glow. Concertmaster Robert Chen fiddled with extra ebullience during his bluegrass solos; principle percussionist Cynthia Yeh pounded her homemade junkyard scraps a little harder; the brass section added some fireworks to their jazzy hits; and everyone seemed to bob their heads in the dark techno climax. The breakup took everyone to the edge, but the makeup was swift and heartfelt.
So the music played on, beginning with a visit to University of Michigan’s beautiful Hill Auditorium. The Michigan setting was quite fitting to Alternative Energy, which conjures Henry Ford’s farm outside of Detroit in its opening movement. More than one audience member pulled me aside afterwards to say how much they appreciated that.
More than anything, this experience reminded me how special and, yes, complicated an orchestra is. A symphonic tour involves Mack trucks filled with instruments, a charter plane to carry everyone from stagehands to staff, and eighty musicians adjusting to the acoustics of each new space. No other artistic enterprise requires the same real-time collaboration of so many people. Organized labor has been the guardian of musicians’ needs for decades, moving orchestras far from the old-school tyrannies of the 1950′s, and now it’s adjusting to the realities of the New Austerity. Classical musicians were hardly surprised by the recent Chicago teachers union strike, for example, because within our own field we’ve watched many great institutions brought to the brink: Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia, etc. Even with the Chicago Symphony’s strong financial health, it too has to navigate these troubled waters. Keeping the music playing is no simple task, and I’m so thankful that musicians and management could come together at a happy compromise. In this new age, everyone has to meet in the middle.
So in a few days, one perennial question will be answered: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Keep playing!
New excerpt! A 'water symphony' that moves from glaciers to evaporation, featuring actual recordings of glaciers calving in the Antarctic.
• 2014: SF Symphony gives Beethoven & Bates festival
• 800 people attend Mercury Soul w/ Pittsburgh Symph
• Named 18th recipient of Heinz Medal in Humanities
September 21st, 2011