No Rest for the Weary

Two water symphonies, a club show, and a fanfare.  That was last month.

It began with an inevitability I’d hoped to avoid: going straight from a DJ gig to the airport to attend a symphonic rehearsal the next morning.

Mercury Soul had just exploded with the Chicago Symphony to a packed house at Metro.  As always, it was a thrilling, trippy, and immersive classical / club experience — on the scale of a 1000-person wedding.  This seemingly free-flowing event is actually run on a minute-by-minute, gulag-style production timeline.  I am on-call starting at the 6pm tech/dress rehearsal, spinning records by 9pm, and wrapping up around 2am.  Our director/designer Anne Patterson is mapping both DJ sets and classical performances to imaginative lighting and projections, and Maestro Benjamin Shwartz is cueing me across a bouncing club with Frank Zappa-style hand signals.  It was our third thrilling show in Chicago, and we had an explosive crowd that jam-packed the finest club in town — but I was ready for bed.

Sleep was never a part of the plan, however.  Awaiting me for the dress rehearsal of Liquid Interface was the Winston-Salem Symphony and its wonderful music director, Robert Moody.  Given the tight schedule, I most certainly would have declined to attend this particular performance were it not for Robert, who is a dear friend and long-time collaborator.  Almost twenty years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school and he a young-gun maestro, he commissioned my first symphonic work.  So I absolutely couldn’t miss an opportunity to perform with him and his wonderful orchestra.  But it meant no sleep.

And no sleep after a wedding-level expenditure of energy is a challenge.  Fortunately, my flight went off without a hitch; I touched down in the nostalgia-laced humidity of Carolina with a solid hour to spare before rehearsal; and they sounded superb.

Liquid Interface, which I wrote extensively about last month, is my first large-scale work, a kind of Symphony No. 1 (though you will never wring a numbered piece out of me).  It has plenty of challenges on the micro and the macro level.  The piece needs a killer drum set player for the Dixieland movement (writing a movement about the destructive power of water, I simply couldn’t resist paying homage to New Orleans).  Being a water symphony, the work has a great deal of rapid, quicksilver figuration in the woodwinds that conjures water in various forms.  And the electronic component, while straightforward as always in my music, requires some sharp ears from the conductor.

That Robert pulled off Liquid with such panache was hardly a surprise, as he has performed the piece beautifully with several other orchestras.  Nonetheless, I was still overwhelmed by the especially moving performance, augmented by real-time video projections that were an imaginative addition to the concerts.

A few weeks later, however, I was considerably more nervous in advance of the Chicago Symphony rehearsals.  True, the CSO musicians know my music intimately; also true, Maestro Jaap van Sweden has a stellar reputation that precedes him.  But I am always a bit nervous when a conductor from the Old World first encounters my electro-acoustic music.  Though Jaap currently conducts in Dallas, his Dutch roots are far from my own — and it takes a special combination of flexibility and inflexibility to lock to techno rhythms and morphing environmental sounds.

He had me at the first run-through.

Too few conductors have the kind of real-world musical experience of Jaap.  For twenty years he served as concertmaster of one of the finest orchestras in the world, the Concertgebouw, so he’s become the ultimate “musician’s conductor.”  Rarely does he speak during rehearsals; most of the action is with the baton.  For Liquid, he took the surprising approach of running it straight through not once, but twice.  No comments, no notes. At first that struck me as strange, since there are always comments one can give the players.  But he was focused on the big picture first; the details came once that was in place.

As I took my bow after the fourth performance, I knew Jaap van Sweden to be one of the finest conductors in the field.  Just to add some more nerves to the evening, Maestro Muti had just flown in and was sitting, Pope-like, in Box F.  But there was not a smidgeon of pomposity.  After all, he just wanted to hear his band from the audience.  Rarely does one spot conductors in the audience of any concert, and I can only imagine the wealth of information he came away with about his players and his hall.

After a brief stop in New York to record Mass Transmission with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, I headed back to sunny California to write music.  On the docket for this summer is a cello concerto for the amazing Joshua Roman.

But first, I had to take a quick bow for a brief fanfare for the San Francisco Symphony’s outgoing board president.  At less than four minutes, the title of Attack Sustain Decay Release is almost as long as the piece itself.  I wanted to infuse equal parts celebration and humor into this little ditty, much in the spirit of the honoree John Goldman.  Short pieces are not my specialty — not enough time to get trippy — but I still had fun putting it together.

Hearing that wonderful orchestra got my mind racing to next season, when the SFS will perform not only Liquid Interface, but Alternative Energy and The B-Sides on their Beethoven & Bates Festival.  Time to get the tux to the cleaners!