Tag: new orchestral music

George Walker: Concise and Precise

The shocking massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015 prompted composer George Walker to pay tribute to its nine victims in his latest orchestra work, Sinfonia No. 5.

“I decided I would write my own texts, a few lines given to five different speakers, and to show a photo of Charleston,” Walker explained when we visited him at his home in Montclair, New Jersey. “I had been to Charleston before the massacre, but I was uncertain that I had been in the church where the massacre occurred. I found out that I had not, but the horrific events that occurred there and elsewhere will always remain etched in my imagination.”

While it’s certainly not the first time a composer felt compelled to create music in response to a great tragedy, what makes Walker’s case much rarer is that when he completed the composition last year he was 94 years old. When we visited Juan Orrego-Salas in 2014, just a few weeks after his 95th birthday, he told us he stopped composing shortly after he turned 90, claiming that he had written all he had to write. Admittedly, there have been some significant works by nonagenarians—Havergal Brian’s last two symphonies, Jeronimas Kačinskas’s fourth string quartet, Leo Ornstein’s last two piano sonatas, and tons of pieces by Elliott Carter, who then went on to compose 18 works after his 100th birthday. But, to the best of my knowledge, Walker’s new symphonic work is the only such piece by a living composer that age. Certainly, it’s the only work by a prominent living nonagenarian whose music has been featured on dozens of recordings and who has received the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

But what perhaps makes Walker’s story even more unusual is that while he is now arguably the eldest statesman among still-active composers, he began his career as a child prodigy. He started studying the piano at the age of five, composing as a teenager, and had become something of a cause célèbre by his early 20s. He made his New York piano recital debut at Town Hall at the age of 23 in a program of mostly standard repertoire, which also featured three of his own compositions. In a review published the following morning in The New York Times, Walker was hailed as “an authentic talent of marked individuality and fine musical insight.” The following year, Walker’s still popular Lyric for String Orchestra (originally titled Lament), which he had arranged from a movement of his first string quartet written in memory of his grandmother, received its premiere in a radio broadcast conducted by his Curtis classmate and good friend Seymour Lipkin.

“Seymour had always wanted to be a conductor,” Walker remembered. “I said to him, ‘If I add a double bass to the second movement of my string quartet, would you play it?’ Just like that. … It was just right on the spot. And he said yes. So I rushed home and put the parts together and gave it to him and they played it.”

Following this initial success, Walker began a wide range of works, spanning repertoire for solo piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, chorus, and numerous songs. Throughout the ensuing seven decades, he has remained a staunch champion of traditional classical forms—to date, he was written ten sonatas, two string quartets, and formidable concertos for piano, violin, cello, and trombone. Yet his music has been hardly retrogressive. “When you can’t get beyond Sibelius, you’re an idiot!” he animatedly quipped at one point. And over the course of nearly three quarters of a century, his music grew considerably more complex, often veering toward atonality. He even briefly flirted with serialism in his 1960 solo piano composition Spatials. “I always felt that there are certain limitations to 12-tone music, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a short work that was strict,” he opined. “[O]ne can achieve a certain freshness within the limitations of the repetitions of the kind of sonorities that one can expect from 12-tone music, because it doesn’t go on for too long.”

If there’s any quality that distinguishes all of Walker’s music it’s its conciseness and preciseness. Maybe that’s why he has now composed five relatively brief works he has titled sinfonias and has eschewed the composition of large-scale symphonies. “Things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament,” he acknowledged. “The sinfonias are all extremely concise works.… [T]he idea of conciseness as opposed to an extended work was always in my mind when writing these pieces; I thought that they also might be easy to program, which they have not been.”

There was a somewhat uncharacteristic touch of disappointment in Walker’s voice as he said this—Walker is always extremely poised and disciplined. His aesthetics remained seemingly impervious to passing trends. But he’s now 95 and has still not been able to secure a date for the premiere performance of Sinfonia No. 5. However, never one to wait for others to make things happen, Walker hired an orchestra, the Sinfonia Varsovia, and a conductor, Ian Hobson—who together have now recorded virtually all of Walker’s orchestral compositions for Albany Records—to make a studio recording of his new work so at least he can hear it. He’s hoping to release it within the year so others can listen to it as well. He played us the first proof following our lengthy discussion through a high-end audio system that takes pride of place in his living room. It is visceral music, totally appropriate given the subject matter to which he was responding. But there are also moments of tenderness and beauty. It is music that offers hope, which is extremely cathartic, even though, for Walker, beauty might be a by-product but it is not an explicit goal.

“I don’t think in terms of creating beauty,” Walker pointed out. “If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine. But they’re missing so much. I want to create elegant structures.”

George Walker in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Walker’s home in Montclair, New Jersey
August 18, 2017—11:30 a.m.
Video presentations by Molly Sheridan

Photography by Molly Sheridan and Frank Schramm (where noted)
Plus historic photos, courtesy of George Walker, which also appear in George Walker’s autobiography
George Walker: Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist
Conversation transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  In an interview with Thomas May that was published in Strings magazine at the end of June, you mentioned that you began composing just to release energy after long hours of practicing the piano.  It’s pretty amazing to me that some of the first fruits of that part-time release of energy were your gorgeous Prelude and Caprice for piano.  But it’s more amazing to me that you almost didn’t become a composer.  We’re very lucky that you did.

George Walker:  Yes, it’s rather astonishing. One of my reasons for being in college was to have the opportunity of playing on the tennis team, which I had done and given up; I played freshman tennis.  In my autobiography I mentioned that I met another freshman in my first year at the Oberlin Conservatory; his name was Bob Crane.  I asked Bob, “What’s your major?”  And he said composition.

George Walker's photo and a quote about him that appeared in the 1937 Yearbook of Dunbar High School in Washington. D.C.

From the 1937 Yearbook of Dunbar High School in Washington. D.C.

I’d never heard of anyone majoring in composition.  My limited background had been associating with persons who were interested in learning how to play the piano. And in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, I had two close friends who studied the violin. But not composition.  So then I asked him, “What are you writing?”  And he said a fandango.  I’d never heard of a fandango before.  I had a strong background with French and Latin, so I knew it wasn’t French and I knew it wasn’t Latin.  It sounded Spanish.

“I’d never heard of anyone majoring in composition.”

Then in my junior year at Oberlin, I had been fortunate in obtaining the very first job I ever had in my life.  I had become the organist for the Oberlin Theological Seminary.  When I came to Oberlin, I had not ever played the organ. My first organ teacher was Arthur Crowley. He sensed that I could be an organist and I played in an organ recital in my very first year. Then I studied with Arthur Poister, who had played from memory all the works of Bach. So I got to know many of the great Bach works; I had a great respect for Bach. And I played a work of Leo Sowerby from memory on a month’s notice, the Passacaglia from his symphony.  As the organist for the Oberlin Theological Seminary, I had access to the organ at any time of the day, particularly at night.  I would go almost every night and improvise on the organ, like Bach.  I had a morning service five days a week in which I would play hymns.  And at the end of each service, I would improvise something.

FJO: Did you write any of those down?

GW:  I never wrote down anything.  The improvisation was my earliest attempt at exploring harmonic developments that were unusual to conclude.  In my music, I think in almost every piece, there’s a different type of cadence.  So there’s a carryover from that.

FJO:  Another thing you said in that interview with Thomas May was that you thought that studying composition would make you a better pianist.  But I think, in fact, what happened was that playing the piano and also playing the organ early on made you a better composer.  It made you write idiomatically for instruments and to be sensitive, and, because the organ literature is so filled with counterpoint, it inspired you to create music that is filled with inner voices.

GW: But then I decided that I was going to discontinue my organ studies because I had been chosen to play Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestra, and I wanted to concentrate on my senior recital.  So in making the decision to discontinue with the organ, I thought I’d try one semester of composition to see what it’s like.  So the very first semester of my senior year, I took composition with Normand Lockwood, who was the composition teacher there. In that one semester I was introduced to some songs of Charles Ives and, not to Le Sacre du Printemps by Stravinsky, but to his Symphony of Psalms.  The semester was spent essentially going from writing a single vocal line to writing a line with accompaniment, then finding a text and setting that text.  The song that I set to the text of Paul Lawrence Dunbar [“Response”] emanates from that.

FJO:  It’s that early?

GW:  That early.

FJO:  It’s a beautiful song.

George Walker at a piano pensively studying a score in 1941.

George Walker at a piano pensively studying a score in 1941.

GW:  Shortly after that, after I discontinued my lessons, I wrote the Caprice. The Prelude and Caprice are linked together, but the Prelude was written for my New York debut; the Caprice was the first work I ever wrote for piano. Then when I went to Curtis, I wanted to be able to spend five hours a day practicing the piano. At Oberlin, I was involved in so many more things, just even going from building to building and looking for a piano to practice on. But the classes at Curtis were less significant in terms of what one was expected to do for them and in them. I had a lesson a week with [Rudolf] Serkin, then I’d go back home and practice. I found myself walking almost a mile to the library to listen to recordings at night, but still I had a lot of energy.  Then one day I encountered one of the students at Curtis and in the conversation I found out that he was studying composition with Rosario Scalero.  I asked him what he was writing, and he said he was doing counterpoint.  I had had four years of counterpoint at Oberlin along with fugue and canon, so I thought, “Well, if that’s all he’s doing, I can do that!”  I spoke to [the registrar] Jane Hill, who scheduled everything, and I asked her if it would be possible for me to submit something to Scalero to be considered to be a student of his, even though he’d already selected his students for that year.  And she said she would be willing to do it.  So the two pieces that I submitted were “Response” and the Caprice.

The program for George Walker's debut piano recital at New York's Town Hall: J.S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor from WTC Bk II; Beethoven's Sonata opus 101; Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana; (intermission); three pieces by Walker (receiving their world premiere performances); Chopin's Barcarolle plus four etudes (C-sharp minor, G-flat major, G-flat minor, and B minorf); and Prokofieff's Toccata, opus 11.

The program for George Walker’s debut piano recital at New York’s Town Hall on November 13, 1945 included the world premiere performances of three short original compositions by Walker.

FJO:  To go back even earlier than when you were at Oberlin, to be so immersed in the sound world of classical music growing up in D.C. was very unusual.  Although recordings were starting to become available of some of the standard repertoire, they still weren’t very common.  So I’m curious about how you came to know and love this music. I know there was a piano in your home growing up.

GW:  Music came into my life from what my mother had. The books that she had acquired and I assume that she must have bought when she was in high school or after she was in high school.  She bought the piano that I first started to bang on. My first teacher, when I started out, had me playing things out of [John] Thompson, but there was a certain curiosity I suppose for me when I learned that I could read music.  When I found that I could do that, I started to explore and I went through everything that mother had acquired. I would ask her when she would go downtown to do shopping to look for certain things, and she would go to the music store and bring them back.

FJO:  So maybe you’d play one piece by a composer and then you would want to play the others.  When did you start making those associations?

GW:  For some reason, I think I had a sort of innate taste for what I liked, and I chose what I liked.  Schirmer Music, for example, used to have several excerpts of works printed on the back of sheet music that you would buy. I would play through those and I’d say to myself, “I like this.” I think I developed a sense of discrimination quite early about what I liked and what I didn’t think was worth anything.

FJO:  What would be an example of that?

GW:  Well, when I started with my second piano teacher, I was introduced to a lot of what was considered contemporary music like Cyril Scott, [Selim] Palmgren, [Edvard] Grieg, and [Erno] Dohnányi. Cyril Scott with those luscious chords was too luscious for me.

FJO:  Why were they too luscious?

GW:  I don’t know whether there’s something innate that relates to my father, who was very direct, almost taciturn, very precise. But things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament.

FJO:  Interesting.  It’s also interesting that your parents were always fine about you becoming a musician. They were both completely supportive.

“Things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament.”

GW:  They never said anything to the contrary.

FJO:  And your father was a doctor.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  He didn’t want you to become a doctor?

GW:  My father never broached the idea of my taking over his office, which was downstairs, or even taking courses that would lead to a medical degree.  I knew his friends.  I was very fond of his friends— physicians, dentists, West Indians.  There was something so remarkable about my father.

FJO:  You were also very close to your grandmother.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  Her death prompted you to write the work that became your first huge success as a composer, the gorgeous Lyric for Strings, which is a string orchestra arrangement of one of the movements from your first string quartet.  I’m curious how that piece came about.

GW:  I had been fortunate in being given a Town Hall recital by Efrem Zimbalist. After that recital, which was very successful, I played the Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and that was very successful.  I had graduated from Curtis, and since I was living in Philadelphia, I asked at Curtis if I could continue to study with Rosario Scalero.  I still had the use of my piano, which was loaned from Curtis, but I didn’t want to study with Serkin; I didn’t want to study the piano. I had obtained the diploma in piano and composition, so this was a rather unusual request, but they were so nice.  When they agreed to the idea, I had already decided that I would like to write a string quartet.  This came about, I think, in part because the summer after my first year at Curtis, my mother insisted that although I was at Curtis, and although it’s a very prestigious institution, I should have a master’s degree, which I would not be getting from Curtis.  So I went [back] to Oberlin in the summer to begin work on a master’s degree, and I met a person with whom I was supposed to be studying composition, Ludwig Lenel.  He was actually the godson of the great German organist and musicologist Albert Schweitzer. I had been introduced to Lenel by my teacher Arthur Poister when he first came over from Germany because Poister wanted me to show Lenel how the organ in our chapel worked.  He was a composer of sorts, so I was going to take composition along with piano towards a master’s degree. It was not a very happy choice.  But in talking with him about composition, he brought up the Ravel String Quartet. I knew the Debussy String Quartet.  I listened to the Ravel and I never heard the use of so many things in that work before.  It fascinated me.  I didn’t want to write like Ravel and I didn’t want to write like Debussy, but the medium [then] fascinated me more so than writing any other work. My graduation piece for my diploma in composition was a violin sonata.

FJO:  That’s a work you no longer acknowledge.

GW:  That’s correct. I thought there was a little taste of Brahms in there, which I didn’t want to expose.

George Walker's grand piano.

A score for a later Sonata for Violin and Piano, which George Walker still acknowledges, sits on his piano.

FJO:  Did you destroy the piece, or did you save it?

GW:  I never saved it.  It was performed, and it was reviewed very well.  Scalero liked it.  Scalero suggested I send it to the Bearns Prize at Columbia University; he liked it that much.  It was the only time anybody at Curtis had ever suggested that I submit anything for an award.  But I didn’t feel that it had enough of an individualist quality to it, so I didn’t keep it.  I didn’t know what I could do after that, so I concentrated on the string quartet.

FJO:  And as you were writing it, your grandmother with whom you were very close, died.

GW:  When she passed, it was like a realization that our family was crumbling. She and my mother were like sisters. Without my grandmother, my mother had no one to talk to.  My father was not a very talkative person, and he was in and out of the house.  He had patients.  He was downstairs in the basement, or he was out doing this or that. My grandmother lived in our house.  She was in her late ’80s or early ‘90s. When we were going off to school in the morning at eight o’clock, she was downstairs sitting down and having breakfast with us every morning. And every morning, she was in the kitchen helping my mother peel potatoes or apples. Many times she was washing dishes, and I was wiping dishes for her.  Yet she never went out of the house. For someone to have endured what she had to have endured, not to have even talked about it, and yet, when I would say Toscanini is on in ten minutes, she and my mother would come into the library and listen.

FJO:  So it’s so fitting that you memorialized her by taking a movement from your string quartet and arranging it for string orchestra and that it actually received its premiere on the radio.  She would have loved the music that you wrote.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  But how did it wind up getting premiered on the radio?

GW:  I was in the so-called Common Room at Curtis and I saw Seymour Lipkin. We were very close friends—Seymour and I began to study with Serkin at the same time.  After my audition to enter Curtis, my father had met me at Penn Station, taken a cab, and he waited for me until after the audition. I’ll never forget, it was raining just like today, and my father had his rubbers wrapped up in a newspaper, and we were about to leave. Just as we got to the door, we were called back by the registrar and asked to go upstairs.  We went upstairs and were ushered into a room, and there the secretary Mr. Mathis said, “We want to tell you that you’ve been accepted.” And in two minutes, in comes Seymour and they tell him the same thing.  He had been a student at Curtis, but it has always been a rule that when your teacher leaves for any reason at all, his students are out.  So Seymour had to audition again and Serkin had taken him.

Anyway, in the Common Room Seymour tells me, “I’m conducting these concerts on the radio with a string orchestra.”  It turned out to be some concerts sponsored by a bank.  Seymour had always wanted to be a conductor.  And I said to him, “If I add a double bass to the second movement of my string quartet, would you play it?” Just like that.  I’d never spoken to anybody about that. Of course I knew Barber had done that, but I never talked about it in front of anybody else.  It was just right on the spot.  And he said yes.  So I rushed home and put the parts together and gave it to him and they played it. It was called Lament because of my grandmother.

FJO:  What made you change the name from Lament to Lyric?

GW:  Because I knew there was a work of Howard Hanson called Lament for Beowulf  So when the conductor at the Mellon Art Gallery, Richard Bales, chose to do it on a program, I changed it to Adagio, and he played it, and it was reviewed as Adagio.  But that was too close to the Barber so I decided against retaining that title.

FJO:  But there are loads of Adagios and there are also loads of Laments. In fact, you wrote a gorgeous art song called “Lament.”

GW:  That was the title of a Countee Cullen poem I found after I moved to New Jersey. I came here in ’69.  I don’t remember how I got that volume of poems; it must have been from the ’70s, but I have it here.

Outside George Walker's house in Montclair, New Jersey.

The house in Montclair, New Jersey, where George Walker has lived since 1969 (photo by Frank Schramm).

FJO:  There’s a comment you made about writing music in your autobiography that I’d like to talk more about with you. You wrote that writing music is not so much about inspiration as it is about the force of will.

GW:  Yes, I had to make up my mind about what I wanted to do because I realized that for me, the beginning is so important. The beginning consists of finding the right notes and finding the right rhythm, then trying to determine what the character of that beginning is and how it will progress. I can’t say that I can translate anything that I see or read or hear into that without trying to script what will fit satisfactorily in a way that will give me the confidence to continue.

FJO:  You also said recently to somebody that when you compose music, that’s the time that the ideas come—the notes, the rhythms, and everything. If you’re not working on a specific piece of music, you don’t necessarily have music running through your head.

GW:  Things change.  I find right now with my obsession with the Sinfonia No. 5 that I’m constantly rethinking what I have done and trying to find alternatives that I could have chosen. It’s become almost a bit annoying that I just can’t completely put it aside.  But I think that has been an unusual type of diversion from the way I normally work. In the past, I’ve always avoided trying to keep ideas in my head.

FJO:  Just for the sheer practicality of wanting to move on to the next piece after you finish writing something?

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  But what you say about force of will rather than inspiration and being able to compartmentalize when you create a musical idea is very contrary to the myth that many people believe about composing music. You must have this tune in your head that you have to get out.  And you rush home to a piece of paper or you write it in the back of a car.  For you, it’s always been much more systematic. You compose only during certain hours in the day. Maybe this came about because you began composing after hours of practice, and you had to have specific time set aside for composing.

GW:  Well, I do have ideas that come to me. Sometimes I feel lazy if I don’t find a piece of paper and a pencil and put them down, but it doesn’t mean—and I have tried this—that they turn out to be significant.  And I don’t actually work every day by any means.  Sometimes I don’t work over a period of time.  I only jot down a few notes at a time.  But what I do find is that I can come back and pick up where I left off.  There is continuity despite the discontinuity in terms of time. I’m not at a loss when I sit down and find that after six notes, I don’t know where I am.

George Walker's hand holding a pencil and writing on a page of music notation paper.

George Walker writing music (photo by Frank Schramm).

“I can come back and pick up where I left off. There is continuity despite the discontinuity in terms of time.”

FJO:  What’s so interesting about the whole inspiration question and the myth of inspiration is that it also ties into the belief in how something beautiful is created, as well as the whole notion of what beauty is. I think of pieces like the First String Quartet and the Lyric, but also the Cello Sonata and the Trombone Concerto. To my ears, these are all extremely beautiful pieces.  But you probably didn’t start out having a specific melody in your head for any of them.  These beautiful melodies emerged from what you were putting together when you came up with the structure for these pieces.

GW:  Yes. And, as a matter fact, I don’t think in terms of creating beauty.  I can understand how people may get a little annoyed about the fact that I seem to be more concerned about things like the technical aspect of composition, but I think that is what enables me to find the things that somehow manage to become a part of the fabric that people recognize. As I look back, I think about so many things in almost every work that people do not notice that are very important. For example, in the Trombone Concerto, there’s a consistent dissonance in the first moment, but people aren’t affected by that dissonance.  And when the trombone melody comes in, the melodic aspects are so unconventional; I’m using nine or ten different notes in that melody. That’s the same with the Passacaglia of my Address for orchestra. The great C minor Passacaglia for organ by Bach is so conventional in its use of tonic relationships. When you have something that’s literally modulating and comes back, to be able to do something like that is, to me, more interesting as a composer. If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine.  I want to create elegant structures.

FJO:  So listeners being able to discern this level of detail is important to you.

GW:  It is very important.

“I don’t think in terms of creating beauty… but if the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine.”

FJO:  But a lot of people who listen to music, especially now and even among people who love this music, don’t necessarily have the training to recognize this level of detail.

GW:  That’s right.

FJO:  There are also a lot of people who don’t know about this music or don’t listen to it because they feel that they don’t have the training to appreciate it.  We’re losing a lot of potential listeners who might love your music, if only they heard it.

GW:  Yes.  I do feel that at this point it’s wonderful that people should have the opportunity to hear the music whether it’s on YouTube or the radio or whatever, just to hear it whatever way they can.  I don’t like the idea of people not paying for music, but I’m more than resigned to it at this point because it’s the only way.  I feel great satisfaction to know that it’s possible for them to hear it.

FJO:  But if they’re not noticing the details you wish they could comprehend, what can we do to have people hear it in a deeper way for you? What would be an ideal listening experience for somebody listening to your music?

GW:  I think the only ideal situation is just listening to it more than once.

FJO:  Repeated listening is very important.

GW:  Yes.

A collage of album covers featuring 20 different recordings containing George Walker's music.

Some of the CD and LP covers of recordings featuring the music of George Walker.

FJO:  You mentioned Address, which is a phenomenal orchestra piece and it was a huge success when it was finally performed, nearly a decade after it was written.  It took a long time for the whole piece to be performed.  That piece was completed around the time of your studies with Nadia Boulanger.  So many very different composers studied with Boulanger. Some of them credit her with improving their contrapuntal skills, but this was already a key feature in your music from your years of studying organ music and studying counterpoint. Others say they learned all these interesting chords, but you mentioned that you were not interested in luscious chords.  Still others claimed that she helped them to find their own voice. You already wrestled with this issue when you discarded your early violin sonata.  So what did Nadia Boulanger give to you as a teacher?

GW:  From the outset, Nadia Boulanger, in the very first lesson said, “You’re a composer.” She said, “Your music has power.”  The other composers—Carter and Piston and all of them—were green about counterpoint and doing harmony.  I didn’t have to do that.  I just brought in whatever I wanted to and showed it to her. She had nothing to say except, “Keep going.”  But it was she who arranged for me to play my First Piano Sonata in Paris. And she arranged for me to play it in Fontainebleau after she’d given me a scholarship.  She arranged to send the First Sonata to the Lili Boulanger Competition.  She paid to send it herself directly to Piston.  She wrote a letter of recommendation for a second year of study, which was turned down by the USIS.  The recommendation meant nothing to them.  She did everything she could for me.

FJO:  So, even if you already knew the direction you wanted to take as a composer, she was an important mentor for you.

GW:  Yes. She had the realization that I was capable from my first song.  I didn’t show her any big works.  She never saw my Trombone Concerto. The first things that I showed her were my songs.  I showed her “A Bereaved Maid” and she said that’s a masterpiece.  She saw the two piano sonatas.  That was enough.

A handwritten letter to George Walker from Nadia Boulanger.

A letter to George Walker from Nadia Boulanger, written on September 29, 1958.

FJO:  There was an evolution happening in your music that had already started before your studies with her; it almost seems like those studies were a detour and that your music ultimately went in a direction that had nothing to do with her.  Your music in the 1950s was getting more and more chromatic.

GW:  Well, something that was pointed out to me is the Lyric is not necessarily a simple piece.  It alternates between major and modal. In touching upon modes, it became chromatic. But the chromaticism comes about from my interest in expanding the harmonic vocabulary to include dissonance as a part of the harmonic palette, not in dissonance that is totally disconnected from something.  One of the extraordinary things about Mozart was the way that he could move from the diatonic into the chromatic and back again.  You don’t have that in Beethoven.

“Chromaticism comes about from my interest in expanding the harmonic vocabulary.”

FJO: There’s an anecdote you tell in your autobiography, from before you were studying with Boulanger and were pursuing a D.M.A. at the Eastman School, about buying a used LP recording of the Berg Violin Concerto. That was your introduction to 12-tone music.

GW: I had actually discovered this second hand recording of the Berg. It was not a very good recording. [Eastman’s director] Howard Hanson had an absolute disdain and dislike for 12-tone music. So at Eastman, no one was writing 12-tone music, except this one poor fellow who was dismissed.

FJO:  He was dismissed for writing 12-tone music?

GW:  Every year they would have this series of readings with Hanson. And this one student composer had a piece. Hanson had a stack of pieces and when he would finish a piece, he would put the score on the stack and turn around, call the composer, and so on.  But when he finished the piece of this student composer, he just put it on the stack and never bothered to call him over.

FJO:  So you were very brave to want to want to go in this direction as composer. [They both laugh.] So when did you first have the idea of using a tone row in your music?

GW:  In 1960.  I always felt that there are certain limitations to 12-tone music, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a short work that was strict, because by that time, composers had started to realize they can’t be too strict about it and started letting in things they liked over something that really doesn’t sound so good.  So I wrote Spatials. It’s a work that is in variation form and is strict—and is short, which I thought would make it something that would enable one to understand that one can achieve a certain freshness within the limitations of the repetitions of the kind of sonorities that one can expect from 12-tone music, because it doesn’t go on for too long.

“There are certain limitations to 12-tone music.”

FJO:  So that’s the only piece of yours that’s really strictly 12-tone.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  But, to my ear, 12-tone techniques seem to also inform the Second String Quartet.  Is that true?

GW:  No.  The first movement of the Second String Quartet is intended to be a kind of singular, lyrical expression of each instrument, with a certain freedom so that it may sound as if it has some relationship to something you might find in Carter, but I was not thinking in terms of 12-tone.

FJO:  I was curious because it sounds—to me at least—like it had a 12-tone underpinning, but then you somehow subverted it, especially in the last movement, which is this wonderful fugue. All of a sudden these atonal lines start moving in a completely strict fugal motion, which is a tonal idea. So I imagined that you somehow created this wonderful synthesis between the 12-tone method and tonal construction, which seemed like the ultimate homage to having listened to the Berg Violin Concerto, because in that piece Berg was also attempting a reconciliation of the 12-tone system with Baroque counterpoint, as well as a very lush late-19th century Romantic sound world.

GW:  What I have done, and this is one of the aspects of form that I was alluding to, is to use a fugue where there are modulatory aspects to the subject and the answer.  I take what is a part of a sonata form and put in some new material.  So you have something that is linear and something harmonic that is not related to the fugal material, and then it comes back to the fugal material.  So there is this alternation between different formal period types.

FJO:  Despite being so interested in chromaticism, you have remained very dedicated to using the quintessential compositional structure for exploring diatonic tonality—the sonata form.  You’ve written five piano sonatas as well as two violin sonatas, a cello sonata, and a viola sonata, plus concertos for trombone, violin, cello, and piano.  You’re clearly very committed to these classical 18th-century forms.

GW:  Well it’s because there’s a solidity there that one can come back to and find things, time after time, that are interesting.  One hates to think in terms of just Western civilization, but this accumulation of techniques has not only been discovered, but has been found to work so well. One should attempt to find a way to continue with it rather than to throw everything out and say, “Let’s start over again.” With what?  It’s going back to attempting to create a wheel that already exists.  You don’t know how to put the spokes in the wheel. Although so much has been done, it seems to me that there’s still the possibility that one can find ways of extending what has already been done. It’s not the end, like Scalero thinking, “Oh, we’ve come to Sibelius; that’s the end.”  That’s absolute nonsense. When you can’t get beyond Sibelius, you’re an idiot! I don’t care.  There are wonderful things in the [Sibelius] Fourth Symphony; it happens to be my favorite, but please don’t disregard all the other works. You can’t listen to Stravinsky? You can’t listen to Gershwin?  Oh, please.

“When you can’t get beyond Sibelius, you’re an idiot!”

FJO:  Yet, one of the things I find interesting about your catalog of compositions is that you have now written five pieces that you’ve given the title Sinfonia; you seem to rather purposefully avoid using the English translation of that Italian word, symphony.

GW:  I thought by calling these works sinfonias that I would focus on the fact that these were not works in or were an extension of the romantic tradition, large-scale works. They are quite the opposite.  The sinfonias are all extremely concise works. The first one, which unfortunately has never had a professional performance after it was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, is only two movements. I cannot understand why it has not been programmed.  But the idea of conciseness as opposed to an extended work was always in my mind when writing these pieces; I thought that they also might be easy to program, which they have not been.

FJO:  Address, which has so rarely been performed in its entirety, even though it only lasts about 20 minutes, is longer than any of your sinfonias.

GW:  Exactly.  Right.  Address is a more conventional three-movement work.  It’s actually connected to Lilacs. The second movement of the Address is a kind of elegy that is related to Gettysburg.

FJO: I didn’t know that, although of course, I knew that Lilacs was based on Walt Whitman’s famous poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” which was written to eulogize Abraham Lincoln shortly after his assassination toward the end of the Civil War. Frighteningly, the deep-seated animosities of that era seem very current once again these days, especially in the wake of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville. It struck me when I learned that your Sinfonia No. 5 was inspired by the horrible massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015 that, sadly, it’s an extremely timely piece of music.

George Walker sitting in a chair in his living room.

George Walker at home (photo by Frank Schramm).

GW:  This score is just like most of my scores. I don’t start out with an idea or even with a title until I get into the work. It was only after I had started the work that it occurred to me that here is an opportunity to introduce something [about this]. I decided I would write my own texts, a few lines given to five different speakers, and to show a photo of Charleston. This was a port where slaves were often brought.  I had been to Charleston before the massacre, but I was uncertain that I had been in the church where the massacre occurred. I found out that I had not, but the horrific events that occurred there and elsewhere will always remain etched in my imagination.  I have not witnessed them, but there is this reference in the music.

“I don’t start out with an idea or even with a title until I get into the work.”

FJO:  It seems that one of the only ways we can overcome these horrific events is to increase people’s awareness of them, and that is something that artists—poets, novelists, filmmakers, choreographers, painters, sculptors, composers—can perhaps do in ways that can make very specific tragedies somehow more universally resonant. An effective artistic statement created in response to such a horrible event can have the power to make people think and question and hopefully not repeat these events in history.

GW:  Well, the unfortunate thing is that you have these marketing people for the orchestras who don’t understand the importance.  And you have these artistic administrators who don’t understand that this is a timely thing.  They’re only interested, of course, in filling seats and the best way to do it is to get something that has some immediate popular appeal.  They don’t want this kind of thing on their programs.  They don’t want it.  I’ve been trying to get orchestras to do it.  They won’t do it.

FJO:  I read somewhere that it’s going to be performed by the National Symphony.

GW:  In two years.  They had a chance to do it next season; they won’t do it.  I don’t have even a specific date.  They won’t do it here in New Jersey.  They won’t do it in Philadelphia.  They won’t do it in Austin.

FJO:  It should be done during Spoleto, in Charleston.

GW:  Yeah, but they don’t have an orchestra that’s good enough.  I’ve been trying for two years just to get someone to put it in a slot.  One likes to think that artists can change things. Well, come on.  We can’t change things.  Look.  I’ve been trying to change things. My piece Canvas was trying to change things, but I got one performance after the premiere of Canvas.

FJO:  And Canvas is a piece for wind band.  Wind band pieces usually get picked up by groups all over the country.

GW:  Exactly.  Yes.

FJO:  But it has not been?

GW:  It has not been.

George Walker running down a narrow hallway

George Walker has long continued along his own path and he remains determined despite whatever challenges attempt to impede him. Here he is running through a corridor at Carnegie Hall to a meeting with conductor Simon Rattle in the Maestro’s Suite in November 2015 (photo by Frank Schramm).

FJO:  At least Lilacs has now been done quite a few times.  And there are now two recordings of it.

GW:  Yes, but still, initially Lilacs was not done at all except for a performance out in California by a community orchestra.  Then, when they wanted to do one movement of Address in Atlanta, I said no, so then they decided to do Lilacs. Then there was a conductor, William Houston, who was on the faculty at William Paterson College here in New Jersey who had just been obsessed with the idea of doing Lilacs, so he did Lilacs there.  And about three months ago, it was done again in California.  There haven’t been that many performances of Lilacs at all.

FJO:  The fact that the vocal part could be sung either by a soprano or a tenor actually increases the possibilities for doing it.

GW:  Absolutely.

FJO:  And, of course the text for it is one of the great American poems and it has been set by several composers who’ve used it as a eulogy for many people besides Lincoln. When FDR died at the end of World War II, Hindemith set this poem for chorus and orchestra to memorialize him as well as all the people who died in the war. And Roger Sessions’s setting of it was dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Your setting of it is much more compact than either of these and it is more intimate as well—there’s just one singer instead of a full chorus. I guess this also goes to what you were saying about wanting to be concise and precise.  You also used only four of the poem’s thirteen stanzas, so it’s much shorter than the Hindemith and Sessions settings.

“The repertoire for single voice and orchestra is extremely limited.”

GW:  It had to do with the commission and the fact that it was written to honor Roland Hayes, a singer who had achieved international recognition eventually for his incorporation of spirituals in classical musical programs. So there was never any question of using a chorus. But I was extremely happy to be able to compose a work for voice and orchestra because the repertoire for single voice and orchestra is extremely limited.  You have the Last Songs of Strauss and the Barber Knoxville [Summer of 1915].  I’d like it to be part of that repertoire.

Historic photo of soprano Faye Robinson, George Walker, and conductor Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the stage of Orchestra Hall in Boston in 1996.

George Walker takes a bow with soprano Faye Robinson (left), conductor Seiji Ozawa (right) and the members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra following the world premiere performance of Lilacs on February 1, 1996. A mere two months later, the work was awarded the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Music. [Note: According to George Walker’s autobiography, since Lilacs was commissioned to honor the celebrated black tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), it was originally supposed to be sung by tenor. But the tenor that Ozawa chose for the solo part, Vinson Cole, was unable to sing it and, with Walker’s permission, a soprano, Faye Robinson, was chosen to sing the premiere. So now the work can be performed by a soprano or tenor.]

FJO: My favorite moment in Lilacs is probably in the last movement where you have this very detailed orchestra sonority of flutes, woodblock, and pizzicato strings accompanying the line “Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird.” It’s wonderfully evocative.

GW: Yes, and that’s where the spiritual comes in.  I was very happy to be able to incorporate that.

FJO: You spoke before about people not hearing all the details in your music.  But if people would listen to your pieces many times, they’d be more able to hear some of these subtle details.  When I was listening again to your Violin Concerto earlier this week, I was suddenly riveted at the end of the second movement by one single harpsichord chord.  It’s the only time you can hear the harpsichord in the whole piece.  It’s just there as a punctuation, but it’s very effective once you know it’s there.  That’s another very precise orchestration detail.

GW:  That’s right.  And in Lilacs, there’s something that is not heard. It’s so irritating. At the very end in the score, there’s a maraca. I’ve told conductors to get them to play it louder, and the conductor will say, “Well, I hear it.”  Well, you may hear it, but I don’t hear it. And it’s not on the recording.  Somehow you have to deal with these people who don’t want to take the time to make certain things come out.  That’s very significant, the maracas at the end.

FJO:  Being so committed to this level of detail and not getting it can be very frustrating.

George Walker sitting in the audience of a concert hall with a score of one of his orchestral compositions.

George Walker, like all composers who write for the orchestra, sits in the audience during a rehearsal of his music, studying his score and patiently waiting to offer comments to the conductor (photo by Frank Schramm).

GW:  It’s frustrating because there’s no way even to irritate them.  It’s all over.  People like to think you’re collaborating with the conductor.  You’re not collaborating.  He’s standing up there.  And you go up and you say, “Please can you ask them to play it louder.”  “Yeah, O.K. Play it louder.”  But when I come back up and say, “I didn’t hear it.”  “Well, I heard it.”  Well, what can you do?  The session is over.  Then you have these compromises where they don’t want to hire someone to play the one chord in the harpsichord, because they have someone who’s playing the piano. But he can’t get over to the harpsichord in time.

FJO:  I guess that’s an argument for writing more chamber music because with chamber music, you can usually get what you want.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  We talked a bit about your string quartets, which are extremely detailed. I’d like to talk a bit more about your many songs for solo voice and piano, which you have written throughout your life. It’s an extremely intimate combination, but you can do so much with it. And you do.  Your text setting is very effective and you’ve set some really great poems—Emily Dickinson, a setting of a poem by Thomas Wyatt that I think is wonderfully eerie and powerful, your early Paul Laurence Dunbar setting we talked about, and—one of my favorites—that “Lament” by Countee Cullen that you said you set after getting a book of his poems in the 1970s.  So when you’re reading, does that move you to hear music in your head for certain poems?  How do you choose a text that you set to music?

GW:  It depends on the subject matter, but also upon the rhythm of the verse and the consistency of the meaning in the text.  I have a feeling for the vowels in the words and I can extend them, maybe use a melisma and somehow make that poem more enticing. It’s not just a literal repetition of the words; somehow it has an aura. It’s a combination that I feel is associated with the idea of lieder where you have equal parts.  The accompaniment is as important as the vocal line.

FJO:  Considering how sensitive your text setting is, both in all of your songs and in Lilacs, it’s a shame that you never wrote an opera.

GW:  I had an opera course with Menotti, and I was an opera coach at Eastman.  Even with my background, I don’t know that I could manage it. To a certain extent, I realize that my independence is a deficit; I just cannot collaborate with people. I know what composers have had to go through with collaboration.  I have a friend who told me all the problems he has had composing an opera. And I could never really decide on the subject I wanted to choose.  I’ve turned down subjects offered to me.  So it’s not likely I’m going to tackle one.

“I realize that my independence is a deficit; I just cannot collaborate with people.”

FJO:  So what are you working on now?

GW:  Nothing right now. I’m really just essentially trying to get a recording out.

FJO:  Of the Sinfonia No. 5? There’s a studio recording of it?

GW:  I have a first proof. You want to hear it?

FJO:  Yes, I’d love to listen to it when we finish talking. This is very exciting.  Even if a live performance has not been scheduled until 2018, people will still be able to hear this piece on a recording.  And it’s a piece that you just completed last year at the age of 94.  This is very rare. There have been only a handful of people who have composed music past the age of 90.  Leo Ornstein wrote two piano sonatas. The British composer Havergal Brian was writing music in his 90s. And Elliot Carter was still composing at the age of 103.  You still seem to be at the height of your powers as a composer. Your Sinfonia No. 4, which you wrote at the age of 89, is extraordinary.  I can’t say anything conclusive about the Fifth Sinfonia until after I’ve heard it, but from just peering through the score you showed me before we started this conversation, it seems like you’re still searching, you’re still wanting to grow and expand, which I think is very inspiring to all composers.

GW:  Yes, I just don’t want to repeat myself.  That has always been in the back of my mind.  Having somehow found things that I think have a certain individuality, I want to find a way to twist and turn them so that they don’t sound as if they’re something that I’ve used before.  That is an aspect of the conversation that I think all composers are faced with after a while.  People say, “If only Mozart would have lived and kept on writing.”  But his style would not have changed that much.

The high-end audio speakers in George Walker's living room.

After we finished talking, George Walker played for us a rough edit of the in-process recording of his Sinfonia No. 5. It was a visceral sonic experience.

André Previn: How Lucky I Am Now

A conversation in Previn’s Manhattan apartment
July 31, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

As most folks love to opine, throughout most of music history the majority of composers were also prodigious performers and nowadays composer-performers once again seem ubiquitous. This time around, though, it is in large part because the act of parsing music-making into different stylistic categories has largely eroded. But through most of the 20th century, we lived in a musical environment where the Socratic notion of one person/one job reigned mostly unchallenged and the boundaries that separated various genres often felt impermeable. Despite that, some musicians went against the grain and eked out careers in multiple musical roles, as well as in many different kinds of music. But few have done so as successfully as André Previn who—as a composer, conductor, and pianist—has been equally comfortably making music in and for concert halls, jazz clubs, opera houses, Broadway theaters, and the silver screen for three quarters of a century.

Still, Previn is not one to rest on his many laurels–and there are many! A trio recording featuring him on the piano was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. He won back-to-back Oscars for his Hollywood work and garnered eleven Grammys for classical recordings he conducted. In 1998, he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his lifetime achievement as a conductor and composer of orchestral music and opera. Now in his 80s, Previn is composing more prolifically than ever before in his life, yet he comes to composition with a great deal of humility.

“I can’t take myself that seriously,” Previn says at the onset of our visit with him in his Upper East Side apartment. “I love writing and I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages. I can’t visualize anybody doing my pieces 50 years from now. I’m just glad if they do them Wednesday.”

And yet, the voluminous amount of music that Previn has been writing in recent years is getting performed quite a bit, all over the world.

“I’m very aware of how lucky I am now,” he says with a grin. “When I first started composing, nobody wanted to know. Now, if I write a piece and I let certain orchestras and certain soloists know that I’ve written it, they all want to do it. Well, not all, but a great many of them. All these orchestras that suddenly are doing my pieces amaze me. They don’t care whether it’s new or old or whatever. It’s just a piece of music they haven’t played, which is really the healthiest thing in the world.”

Not caring whether something is old or new has actually been a hallmark of Previn’s current compositional language, something he has acknowledged many of his colleagues are somewhat baffled by.

“John Harbison said you write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened,” Previn admits. “I said, ‘I can’t explain that. I don’t know.’” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae.”

But surprisingly for a polymath who has been so deeply involved in jazz and motion picture soundtracks and who even wrote a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical with Alan Jay Lerner starring Katharine Hepburn, Previn has no interest in creating some grand polystylistic musical synthesis for the 21st century.

“I never thought of bringing it together; I see no particularly connective tissue between those things,” Previn confesses. “Very serious jazz, I don’t much like. … It’s a well-known fact that the worse the movie, the more music there is. If you have a really idiotic movie, the music never stops, because the poor producer says, ‘Do something.’ So, we all make a noise. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful scores, but it’s not music that interests me anymore—at all. … There are many Broadway shows I wish I had written, or wish I could get my hands on, but it’s not a lasting ambition with me. I’d rather write an opera.”

Previn, however, also doesn’t like to repeat himself, and he has already composed two highly successful operas—A Streetcar Named Desire and Brief Encounter—both based on classic 20th-century plays.

“I’d write a light opera, for instance,” he offers somewhat cagily. “Tom Stoppard and I are about to start working on a one-act opera. I can’t discuss it, because he doesn’t want me to.”

But we discussed plenty of other things. Not only did we get into extensive details about many of his compositions, we also talked about many other composers and interpreters. He charmed us with some extraordinary anecdotes–including how, when he was a teenage piano prodigy, he got thrown out of Ernst Toch’s home as well as how, many years later, he was able to mollify Olivier Messiaen during a tense rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We could have stayed for hours, but he had more music to write.

FJO & Andre Previn talk in Previn's living room

Frank J. Oteri: You’re writing so much music these days. The only composer I can think of who has been as prolific as you have been at your age is Elliott Carter. For years, he wrote extremely slowly, but he sped up after he turned 80. When I asked him about what changed, he said that he had finally figured out how to write Elliott Carter’s music.

André Previn: That’s very sweet. But also [when we get older] we are all suddenly more aware of the finite term of life and, you know, you want to get it done. I have to make up for lost time because I did not compose seriously for many years. So now in the last ten years I suddenly thought, “Get moving!” I write very quickly and that helps.

FJO: So how long would it take you to write, say, a 25-minute concerto for soloist and orchestra?

AP: That’s a kind of generality. I wrote a harp concerto. I don’t know a goddamn thing about the harp really, so that took a while—but a 25-minute piano, violin, cello, or viola concerto? I don’t know, probably about a month.

FJO: That’s a very short amount of time.

AP: Well, it’s not very good either. My problem and my flaw, if I can pinpoint just one, is that I don’t re-write. I hate re-writing. Once I’m done, I put it away, and it’s over with for me except if I make a mistake in terms of the technical use of the instrument. I once wrote an impossible double stop for viola. I just suddenly wasn’t thinking; the player would have to cripple his hand. So then I’d re-write it—or leave it out; that’s even better! I can’t take myself that seriously. I love writing and I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages.

FJO: Really?

AP: Really.

FJO: Not for the ages?

AP: No.

FJO: So the reason you’re fighting against time to write all this music isn’t to ensure a legacy.

AP: Well, that’s an interesting point. When I say not for the ages, I can’t visualize anybody doing my pieces 50 years from now. I’m just glad if they do them Wednesday, which is why I can only write for someone specific. I don’t like to write into the void. I like to know who’s going to play it and where and all that. Then it helps me; it helps me a great deal. I wrote an awful lot for Anne-Sophie Mutter. I know her sound and I know what she can do best. That makes life much easier. I wrote a piece last year—a concerto for trumpet, horn, tuba, and orchestra, which was a commission from Pittsburgh because they had three big stars. That was great fun for me because I don’t play any one of those things. I couldn’t tell you the positions of the trombone and all that, but I have them in my ear, and it helps a great deal that I’ve conducted so much because the sound of instruments and the sound of the combination of instruments are not alien to me at all. I know what I’m doing at the piano, but I don’t write piano music very much.


FJO: Since you mentioned the Triple Concerto, one of the things I find so interesting about the pieces that you’ve been writing is how many of them are pieces for multiple soloists and orchestra. It’s interesting to hear you say that you’re not interested in whether they’re performed 50 years from now, because writing for multiple soloists is somewhat impractical in terms of getting a piece into an orchestra’s season.

AP: Well, it would be impractical if the triple were like the Beethoven Triple, because that’s three [hired] soloists. But a piece for trumpet, tuba, and horn—every good orchestra has three of those good people in them, and the same with the winds. Sitting in the chair you’re sitting in last week was Andrew Marriner, and he said, “We’re all so glad you’ve written a clarinet sonata, a clarinet concerto, and a clarinet quintet. We don’t have enough music. So it’s always wonderful to get somebody to write something.” That’s really the case with those double and triple concertos, because the principals of good orchestras want that, and it’s very unlikely that management would hire three big stars to play those things.

FJO: I think my current favorite of your double concertos is the one for violin and double bass, and that one definitely feels like a star vehicle.


AP: Oh yes, of course, they’re soloists. That was a straightforward commission. The bass player, Roman Patkoló, is a genius player. Anyway, Anne-Sophie wanted a piece for him, and she’s always practical. So she said, “Write me a fiddle part in it because it’ll be easier to place.” And so I did, and he was very nice about it. He said, “Everything is terrific. I love it. But this octave is a little weird for me.” So we changed that. But that’s not because he didn’t like it. It was advice, and I was glad to get it.

FJO: In terms of being practical, these days a lot of people say that one of the most practical things you can do as a composer if you want a piece done a lot is to write for wind band.

AP: I did that.


FJO: The piece is only a year old and already nine different wind bands have done it. That’s amazing.

AP: Nobody’s more amazed than I am, especially since I’m not really a wind band expert. How do I know what trills are possible on a baritone horn? Nobody learns that. But I liked fooling with it. Then when it came out and the sonorities were nice, I was very pleased. And I must say, at Eastman at the premiere, the kids—and by kids I mean between 18 and 25—they could play like demons. They read that stuff as if were the Simple Symphony by Ben Britten. It was really impressive, and I enjoyed hearing them a lot.

FJO: But what happened with your piece is one of the realities of our music scene today. A piece that’s only a year old has already been done by nine different groups. And I imagine it’s going to be done by a lot more, although in a couple years, they’ll probably say it’s an old piece and that they’d rather play something new. But that’s the world of wind bands. It’s the exact opposite of what happens with an orchestra. I can’t imagine a new piece of orchestra music being done by nine different orchestras.

AP: Orchestras tend not to do that. They also get jealous of who else is doing it. But I have a double concerto for violin and cello, and that’s been done a lot. And the cello concerto I wrote for Daniel Müller-Schott—he called me two nights ago from Tokyo where he had done it twice. He was going from Tokyo to Rio, which is quite a jump—and he hates airplanes, too. Anyway, I said to him, “Are you playing it in South America again?” He said, “Oh yes, 20 times.” That’s really terrific, and I was seriously grateful.

But this always amazes me and amuses me in a kind of weird way. I read about the premiere of Rosenkavalier. In the first year, it was done by a 150 companies. Think about that. That doesn’t happen anymore. The whole business of the performance of music is so different now, so different even in the relatively short time that I’ve been around. But when you say it’s an old piece, I know what you mean. It’s quite true. I’m guilty of that too. I say, “Well that’s an old piece; I wrote that five years ago.”

When I was running the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I had Milstein as a soloist, and I was doing an English festival—not with him, but the weeks following. There was a double concerto for violin and viola by Tippett which was, as far as I could tell, impossibly hard. So I went to our concertmaster, Fritz Siegel, who was a wonderful player, and I said to him, “How would you do this?” He said, “You got me. I have no idea how you even attack this particular passage. Would you mind if I asked Milstein.” I said, “Not at all.” So he went and said, “How would you play this?” And Milstein looked at it and he said, “I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t go near it; it’s impossible and it’s not worth it.” And Fritz said, “But I’ve got to play it.” And he said “Why?” And he really tried to stop him from playing it because it was too difficult. And I know what he means, too, because it wasn’t worth quite the effort that would have to go into it. So soloists have a tendency not to [play much new music]. With the exception of Anne-Sophie, I must say, who’ll play anything you put in front of her. Gil Shaham is another one who can play anything.

FJO: In terms of playing anything you put in front of her, there are so many violin concertos in which the violin soars way over the orchestra, but I can’t think of any other piece that’s as full of ledger lines as your first violin concerto—it’s practically a sopranino violin part.

AP: Anne-Sophie said to me, “Write a lot for me way, way upstairs; I love playing up there.” I said, “Fine.” The piece ends with the highest practical note on the violin.


FJO: But when I listened to the recording of this and followed along with the score, I couldn’t help but wonder who else will ever be willing to play this.

AP: I don’t care.

FJO: You don’t care?

AP: No. Really. But when I teach—which is not very often, but at Tanglewood and what not—I know that the technical know-how of the students now is way bigger than it used to be. They all have technique to burn. I remember I paid some compliments to a young fiddle player, and Anne-Sophie kind of brushed her aside. I said, “She plays all the notes.” And she said, “Honey, everybody plays all the notes nowadays.” She’s got a point. Things don’t seem as daunting technically as they used to.

On the cover of the world premiere recording of Previn's Violin Concerto, soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter in a red dress stands next to Previn who is wearing a black shirt and holding the score.

For the world premiere recording of Previn’s Violin Concerto, the composer conducted soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

FJO: So maybe that Tippett Double Concerto isn’t so hard any more.

AP: That’s possible.

FJO: And nowadays there are all these dedicated new music players in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and all over Europe who can play the trickiest as well as the most impossibly notated stuff anyone could possibly imagine.

AP: I read today about a premiere of a new opera by Wolfgang Rihm. It’s evidently fearfully difficult. But I also know Wolfgang very well, and he doesn’t think about that. He just writes down what he wants to write down. It’s like Strauss’s famous remark when, at the first rehearsal of Till Eulenspiegel, his horn player said, “Excuse me Doktor Strauss, this can’t be played.” And Strauss said, “I write it; you play it.” Quite right, too. And it’s been played.

FJO: I want to return to something you said a little earlier that I didn’t jump on at the moment, but I’ll jump on it now—you haven’t written that much for piano.

AP: That’s quite right. I don’t know why. I can’t answer that. I wrote some variations which Manny Ax played for a while, but I don’t write for the piano very much.

FJO: Perhaps this ties into the piano being your instrument and you wanting to write for other people. But you have certainly written significant piano parts in some of your chamber pieces, like your sonata for clarinet and piano as well as your songs.

AP: My accompaniments to songs tend to be a little difficult. I just finished eight songs for Renée Fleming and her pianist, poor girl, she was here, and she said, “Maestro, these are really hard.” And I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, I thought of it, but I thought if I can play them, anybody can play them.

FJO: So, let’s take a piece like your latest sonata for violin and piano, which also has a formidable piano part. Did you write this music for you to play yourself?

AP: That second violin sonata, which I like very much, was for Anne-Sophie and her accompanist, Lambert Orkis, and he plays brilliantly. He said, “God, did I have to practice that!” And I felt like saying, “Well, it’s tough.” But he can play it. A lot of people can play it. They can all play everything now. But if I write for the piano, I tend to let my fingers wander and I’ll write it down. I don’t do it the other way around, which is better. But when I write for any other instrument—clarinet, trumpet, whatever—I don’t have the facility with which to test it. So I write whatever I can think of. And that helps a lot.

FJO: So in terms of your process for all of these pieces, you write to paper from your head. You’re not sitting at a piano working on stuff beforehand.

AP: No, but I have to be honest with you. After a certain amount of time, I will go to the piano to test it out, to play what I’ve written and see if it sounds the way I hope it will.

FJO: This gets into the whole dichotomy of pre-compositional structural design versus intuition. You were a prodigious improviser at the piano, an active jazz pianist for many decades. You could sit at the piano and invent stuff. But that’s a very different process than hearing something in your head, putting it down on paper, and then testing it at the piano.

AP: Oh yes. Ellington said that good jazz is instant composition, which is exactly right. But again, I don’t think about it in terms of preparation versus intuition and all that. I’m just sitting there playing. I don’t take it so textbook seriously. I read Charles Rosen’s book; it’s remarkable, but man, some of the language really throws me because I don’t know what he’s on about half the time. He attributes certain philosophical aspects to what he’s written or what he’s played that it would take you longer to figure out than it would the piano part.

FJO: So this whole idea of, say, a string quartet as a metaphor for a family, or a concerto as a metaphor for an individual versus the society—you don’t think about these kinds of things.

AP: No.

FJO: Do you think in terms of sonata form?

AP: Yes, I do. And I also love variations. But I don’t find it difficult to think in sonata form. I found a book a couple of months ago—Beethoven’s book on figured bass. Did you know there was one?

FJO: No.

AP: I didn’t either. I can say clearly and decidedly that I didn’t understand a word of it, but I thought I better. So I started working on it, and of course it made sense. But again, I’m not much of a researcher. Yehudi Wyner is very fond of saying, “This time when the theme comes, it’s an F-sharp and not an F because that day his wife had a cold.” I say, “What are you talking about? He’s a composer. What if he just liked the F-sharp?” “That’s not good enough.” I said, “Yes, it is.” And we had a terrible fight.

FJO: So there are no hidden ciphers in any of your scores.

AP: No, the best I could do is maybe say this F-sharp is here because I’ve used F already. But I don’t mean it to imply that everything is instinct. It isn’t. I work very hard. But I don’t believe in writing music to suit a theory. The other way around maybe, but this is why I will never be a 12-tone composer.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that, since so much music during the 20th century—which you’ve been active as a musician through—was dominated by various –isms, whether it was serialism, minimalism, post-minimalism, totalism, spectralism, indeterminacy, or microtonality. There were all these different camps, but you managed to stay clear of all of them.

AP: Well, maybe that’s ignorance. But, on the other hand, that lapses over into performing, too, because I know a couple of the early music champion conductors who have 7,000 theories about why you can’t have vibrato here and you can’t do this. They are very great specialists in that, but give them a chance to conduct Swan Lake, and they’re off and running. They want to. So I’m not so sure that it’s ingrained.

FJO: Well, I guess what is ingrained in you is that you’ve been immersed in music since you were a child.

AP: Yes.

FJO: And so you’ve heard and interpreted so much music in addition to your own, that all of it is very deep within you. It’s second nature. So while you might say that you didn’t initially understand Beethoven’s figured bass book, you probably have internalized all of Beethoven’s solo, chamber, and orchestral music from your experience as an interpreter. You might not be a scholar of it per se, but it seeped in in a profound way—the same with pretty much all of the standard repertoire through to Richard Strauss, whom you’ve also mentioned today.

AP: Sure. I can’t argue with that, that’s perfectly true. And the music that I love, I love no matter who’s playing it. That’s a kind of a wild statement, but people who say they can only listen to Brendel’s Schubert are missing quite a lot. So when I read in certain very intellectual reviews that “this phrase shouldn’t be that fast” or “this should be softer,” first of all, says who? Second of all, they don’t ever seem to say, “But my God, it’s beautiful music!” They get stuck on how it’s played. And how it’s played is not that important, I don’t think.

Previn dressed in a tuxedo conducting an orchestra with a baton in his right hand and gesturing with left hand,

One of the many action photos of Previn conducting an orchestra. (Photo by Chris Lee, courtesy G. Schirmer/Music Sales)

FJO: That’s an interesting opinion coming from somebody who was a conductor for decades.

AP: [laughs] Well, of course, except in the case of me! No, I just think that people who say I can’t listen to Toscanini’s Beethoven—which for instance Colin Davis said and I know why and all that, and I don’t disagree with him all the time—it’s a great piece, interpreted a certain way that does not happen to please the certain person who is reviewing it. But it doesn’t lessen Beethoven any. It doesn’t matter. Yet still, I was in a record shop in Munich with Anne-Sophie, and there was a woman—a nice lady, about in her 40s—who said, “You have a series of packages of the complete works of Bach. I’d like to see that.” And the woman at the cash register said, “With who playing?” “I don’t care.” Well, Anne-Sophie and I almost fainted, because it was an interesting way to buy a record, but on the other hand, if you wanted to be complimentary, you could say she loved the music so much she didn’t care who played it. But that’s not quite the source that warrants that.

FJO: No, unless she wanted to get familiar with the repertoire.

AP: Well yeah, that’s right. But the complete anything I find dangerous anyway.

FJO: Now to take these comments about the open-endedness of interpretation back to your own music, you said that you write for specific people so there’s a specific sound that you’re going for.

AP: Yes.

A bound score of Previn's Violin Concerto sits on top of a row of bound scores that fill up Previn's shelves.

A bound score of Previn’s Violin Concerto sits on top of a row of bound scores that fill up his shelves.

FJO: But when you write a score and let it out into the world, it becomes this thing that theoretically anybody could play in any country and at any time if they have the requisite technical facility to pull it off—and sometimes even if they don’t. There’s sort of a built-in anonymity to it in the sense that they’re playing what’s written on the page to serve the composer who created it and it’s important for that composer’s identity to come across first and foremost which is why that woman could go into a record store and say, “Hey, I want Bach.” Bach is obviously not there; he didn’t make records. But he is there in these notes he put on the page that the interpreters playing his music translate.

AP: Yeah.

FJO: After looking at a number of your scores I was curious about how much control you are willing to let go of in terms of pieces. What is sacrosanct? What isn’t?

AP: Oh, a lot of it is not. I mean, I want the notes played, but how they’re played—if you have a good soloist, whether it’s a second oboe player or a great pianist—really doesn’t matter. If it’s a good musician, let them alone. See first what he’s up to. I’ve had people like flute players who play [Prélude à] L’Après Midi [d’un faune] and I think, “Where did they get that from?” But I liked it, and it made me admire the piece even more. So when I write something and it is interpreted in a way that I had not thought of, very often I’ll like it. I won’t prescribe it, but I will like it. On the other hand, I don’t like arrangements very much. You know, when people say, “Yes, but this is easier with two hands instead of one” or “I’m going to go up a tone.” No. That I don’t like!

FJO: So if someone were to do a song of yours in another key.

AP: Well, wait a minute. If we’re going to talk about singers, that’s a whole different world.

FJO: O.K. I’m going to save vocal music for later. Let’s stay with instrumental music for now. If someone were to take your clarinet sonata and say, “I want to do this on viola.” The Brahms clarinet sonatas are also done on viola. Would you have a problem with that?

AP: Yes and no. I would not have a problem because it’s nice to have somebody play the music. But I would have a problem because it’s not what I thought of.

FJO: Now one of the things I find interesting, in getting back to this second violin sonata, is you leave a lot of dynamics up to the players, which I found fascinating given your decades as an interpreter, both as a pianist and as a conductor. I was quite surprised that you were willing to let that go.

AP: Well that’s interesting. I don’t leave it up to orchestra players because they have to play all that I’ve written down. But I must say that the really good interpreters that I’ve written for—like Anne-Sophie, Yo-Yo Ma, or Yuri Bashmet—if they suddenly say, “This would be wonderful if it were pianissimo and senza vibrato,” I’ll say, “Well, try it.” And if I like it, fine. So I don’t mind that.

FJO: But that’s the thing about the way we disseminate music that is notated. You talked about the early music conductors being really scholarly about a work. A hundred years from now, they’re not going to be able to call you up. So, how are they going to know what to play? Your urtext might be missing some important detail like a dynamic marking. Maybe they’ll have access to a recording, but recordings can only tell you so much. Then again, at the very beginning of this conversation you said that that’s not really of interest to you.

AP: Well, I think that a hundred years from now, there will be just as many good musicians as there are now. They’ll have their own opinion, and that’s O.K. with me.

FJO: You mentioned earlier that you will never be a 12-tone composer, to which I responded that you have pretty much stayed clear of all the –isms of 20th-century music. Even though your music is very much of our time, it sometimes sounds as if all this other stuff that happened didn’t happen for you, in a way.

AP: You know who said exactly the same thing about me was John Harbison. John Harbison said, “You write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened.” And I said, “I can’t explain that. I don’t know.” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae. On the other hand, I admire a pupil Schoenberg had called George Tremblay. He wrote good music, and I like some of the rows that he invented very much. One of them I stole blind. But when I hear somebody like Boulez, who has a phenomenal mind, say that he finds Puccini tawdry. Well, fine. But it moves me. The last act of Bohème or the beginning of Turandot are irreplaceable for me. And the more they go for the throat in the interpretation, the better it is for me. I love it.

FJO: And talk about a great orchestrator.

AP: Oh? You know, as an orchestrator myself, I take a look at some of the Puccini opera orchestrations, and there’s nothing on the page for Christ’s sake. There’s so little written down, but it’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect. I think that he wanted to have an emotional impact, and he certainly was successful at it. When people say, “Well yes, but at the same time, you had so-and-so and so-and-so and they were much more intellectual”—fine. I know that Elliott [Carter] said that he would call any place purgatory that played Rosenkavalier. It’s a funny line, but I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it because Rosenkavalier is irresistible for me. There are moments I don’t like—Baron Ochs and all that—but that’s neither here nor there. I think you have to surrender to music as it’s played, not on a cheap level but on the level of being emotional about it, which is why I love Rachmaninoff. I adore Richard Strauss, and this is why I like the Berg Violin Concerto more than I do, let’s say, Elektra. I wish I had a really textbook or lecture-worthy reason for this, but if music doesn’t get to me, to put it bluntly, it doesn’t exist for me.

FJO: Well to further riff on John Harbison’s comment about the last 50 years being absent in your music, one of the most important things that has been happening in music during the last 50 years, and something that you have been involved with for the last 70 years, has been jazz.

AP: Yeah. Sure.

FJO: You mentioned the piano variations you wrote for Manny Ax which were based on Haydn. To my ears that’s actually is the most modernist-sounding music you’ve written.

AP: I haven’t heard it in years.

FJO: But there’s an even earlier piano variations that you recorded back when you were a teenager that you called Variations on a Theme which you probably also haven’t heard in years. It was coming out of stride piano, but it also hinted at Debussy and Hindemith. It’s wonderful. It’s one of my favorite things of yours.

AP: Well that’s nice. Thank you.

FJO: I felt like you were continuing the path that Bix Beiderbecke took with In a Mist, the only solo piano recording he ever made shortly before he died so young. He was never able to follow up on that really organic synthesis of jazz and classical music, but it sounded like you were and that you had possibly gone even further with it.

AP: Well, but you see, if I were to pick up a pencil and say, “I’m now going to write a jazz-influenced piece,” you’d have a bigger point than you have. But I don’t do that. If it comes out, it comes out. It’s the point I’ve made all along in our conversation today. Sometimes I write a phrase and I suddenly think, “Well, this would be nice if it were phrased like a jazz phrase.” But I don’t set out to do it. It’s so interesting that even in jazz, new things are looked askance. I personally don’t understand what Ornette Coleman was about. The fact that Lenny Bernstein got up in the audience at Birdland and ran up to the stage and kissed him is beyond me. O.K., be that as it may. I know that my father was a good musician, but not professional. He was a lawyer. I played him some Charlie Parker records once, and he thought it was a looney child blowing ad libitum into a plastic saxophone. He couldn’t hear it. He just couldn’t hear it. And I find it intensely moving. So again, it depends on what you grow up with. The heroes of your youth remain the heroes. For me, my goodness, could Art Tatum play the piano, and Oscar Peterson!

Oscar Peterson and André Previn playing together during their series for BBC Four television, which was originally broadcast in December 1977, is a particularly satisfying jazz piano summit. The entire series can be streamed from Encore Music Lessons.


AP: And certainly Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were major people. On the other hand, Ellington’s music is wonderful, but I’d rather hear the Basie band, because the Basie band is really basic.

FJO: It’s really about groove.

AP: There used to be a black Baptist church near where I used to live in Bedford Hills and they had a chorus that I absolutely adored. And I took Ray Brown, the bass player, there once and I was jumping all over the place. I loved it so much. And he said, “You’re an idiot, man. If you had them play what they’re singing on instruments, you’d have the Basie band.” Of course, he was right. So there are all kinds of jazz available for admiration, just as many as there are of classical pieces, I think.

FJO: You said that you didn’t understand what Ornette Coleman was about, but I tracked down and listened to a recording you made with someone who had been doing some pretty radical things with jazz a few years before Coleman started promulgating harmolodics—a composer, arranger, and bandleader named Lyle “Spud” Murphy.

AP: Oh my God. Yeah.

FJO: You were the pianist in his big band.

AP: On one record.

FJO: It’s actually the most out jazz piano playing I’ve ever heard from you, particularly on a track called “Fourth Dimension.”

AP: Really?

FJO: And it’s wonderful.

AP: I don’t think I’ve heard it since we left the studio.

FJO: That was in 1955.

AP: Oh please.

FJO: What attracted me to it is that he claimed what he was doing was 12-tone jazz. In fact, the title of the album is Twelve-Tone Compositions and Arrangements. As soon as I saw that title, I wanted to hear the record.

AP: You got me. I didn’t hear that.

FJO: I don’t hear it either. It’s very chromatic though. They use all the intervals, so I guess that’s what he meant by 12-tone, as opposed to any kind of systemic serial ordering.

AP: If that’s what enticed him to write, then he’s right. It’s perfectly O.K. I don’t care what you call music.

FJO: I’d like to talk with you some more about what you were starting to say about there being a generation gap for likes and dislikes, when you described your father’s inability to appreciate Charlie Parker.

AP: As I told you, my father was a musician. When I was a kid, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played one of the first performances of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Well I went, and I was floored. I thought it was the most ingenious, happy, wonderful piece I knew. I went home full of excitement and I said to my father, “I heard the most wonderful piece.” He asked what it was and he didn’t know it. But he said, “If you’re that excited by it, they’re doing a repeat performance of it tonight. I’ll take you.” So, I said, “Great.” And we went and we heard it again. And at the end of it, this old gentleman with a German accent said, “Well, it’s not the Eroica.” At that point, I kind of sank in my chair, and I thought, “It’s not supposed to be the Eroica. It doesn’t try to be the Eroica. Why should it be the Eroica?” But he was serious; he didn’t think it was that good, so forget it.

The same thing happens with jazz. But the very, very serious jazz, I don’t much like. I can’t think of anybody right now who’s doing it, but I never thought that Boyd Raeburn was that impressive. It’s a lot of dissonances. On the other hand, I don’t like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; that’s too primitive for me. I don’t like folk music very much. I certainly hate Hawaiian music, or any of those things.

FJO: Really. I’m a huge fan of Sol Ho’opi’i, an incredible Hawaiian guitarist who made a bunch of dazzlingly virtuosic recordings in the 1930s. He might change your mind.

AP: Yeah? Well, I’ll have to hear it. I don’t know. On the other hand, do you know Conlon Nancarrow’s music?

FJO: Yes, of course.

AP: Isn’t that wonderful?

FJO: Very.

AP: No matter how off the wall that gets, I’m impressed and I love it. And I also get a big charge out of it. I think it’s wonderful. I couldn’t duplicate it, but it’s wonderful. It is quite amazing how different ears receive different music. You know what I mean? I do not particularly like Saint-Saëns’s music, but my goodness, he was a great musician. You know, talk about writing fast and a lot, and if I hear somebody good playing Saint-Saëns—whether it’s a violin concerto, or cello or piano, or even one of the symphonies—it impresses me. I love it and I’d love to hear that again. Whereas the more scholarly of my colleagues say, “I don’t want to hear that again.” Why not? Because it’s not the Eroica?

FJO: It’s interesting when you say Saint-Saëns, because the music of his that I really treasure is his chamber music. And I actually feel it has a connection to your output, since he too wrote a great clarinet sonata and a really formidable bassoon sonata.

AP: And that wonderful septet. Isn’t that fun?

FJO: Absolutely. But, to bring it back to how people come to determine what they like and what they don’t like, the folks who say that something is not the Eroica are a curse to anyone who wants to write a piece of music, because we’ve got that history behind us.

AP: That even floored Brahms before his First Symphony. He didn’t want to write Beethoven’s Tenth.

FJO: And, as you said, it’s true for jazz too—anybody getting on a stage or a club who is trying to do something new on the saxophone or on the piano faces the same dilemma as anybody writing a new piece of music—whether it’s a string quartet or a new orchestra piece. You’re inevitably going to get compared to the stuff that came before that people have heard and think is great. That’s not to deny that it is great, but it’s been heard so many times before that people know it and accept it as great without having to determine that for themselves, so it’s very difficult to compete with; something new doesn’t come pre-approved the same way.

AP: I know what you mean. When I did Turangalîla with the Chicago Symphony, they hated it. Oh God, did they hate that piece! And the old man was there, Messaien. After the first movement, which is considerable, I said to him, “Is there anything you want in this?” And he said, “Well, could it be a little more pink?” And I said, “A little more pink? You mean, plus rose?” “Yes.” Then I turned to the fiddle and I gave him a look that would have wilted a gorilla, you know, and I said, “The composer would like it to be more pink.” And Sam, the concertmaster, turned around to his section, and he said, “Boys, more pink.” And that was it. It was great. It was a wonderful way out because what he was saying really is, “Screw you. Are you kidding?” But, he got what he wanted.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear that story because I swear by the recording you made of Turangalîla with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s. But I heard the Chicago Symphony perform Turangalîla at Ravinia in the 1990s, which I imagine was long after you had performed it with them. They must have gotten used to the piece by that point since I thought they did a really tremendous job.

AP: Even with me, they could play it. My God, they could play anything. That last movement is so rhythmically complicated; it’s like The Rite of Spring times two.

FJO: But you raise an important issue in terms of how to most effectively negotiate with players in order to overcome their resistance to playing a new—or at least a relatively new—piece of music.

AP: Well, there are always people in the orchestra who will feel that way, but they’re usually in the minority. But I’m very aware of how lucky I am now. When I first started composing, nobody wanted to know. Now, if I write a piece and I let certain orchestras and certain soloists know that I’ve written it, they all want to do it. Well, not all, but a great many of them. All these orchestras that suddenly are doing my pieces amaze me. They don’t care whether it’s new or old or whatever. It’s just a piece of music they haven’t played, which is really the healthiest thing in the world. That’s what happens in Tanglewood. I had a piece called Owls, and the student orchestra played it, and they didn’t know if it was modern or old-fashioned or tricky or whatever. It was just a piece. There it was in front of them, and they played it. It’s wonderful.

FJO: I know you said that there are no secret messages in your music, but there’s something that’s been baffling me. I can’t figure out your title Octet for Eleven. I was rummaging through the score thinking, “O.K., it’s for eleven players but maybe only eight people ever play at once, and that’s the trick.” But there’s a tutti where all of them are playing. So what does the title mean?

AP: A corny joke. That’s all it is. The joke is that there is no octet for eleven people. I like tricky titles. I also like Honey and Rue. I like all that stuff. I just thought it’s an octet, yes, but I did put an extra bass in it and this and that, so let’s call it Octet for Eleven. I hate to disappoint you, but there’s absolutely nothing behind that.


FJO: I wanted to follow up on the comment you made earlier about early music conductors not wanting vibrato based on historical considerations. There’s also a question of intelligibility when it comes to sung text. One of the things that’s so striking to me about your two operas is that you can always hear the words that people are singing, which is not true for many operas sung in English.

AP: I’m probably very annoying to singers, because I want to be able to hear the words. There are all kinds of technical things. I’m not much for putting one syllable on 14 different notes the way it can be done. I like one note per word, you know. Then very often I’ve said to singers whom I even admire or adore, “Could you sing more oratorio and less opera?” They all know what I mean, and they usually comply. I don’t like terribly operatic singing. It disturbs me; I don’t understand the words and, unfortunately, I sometimes think it’s funny. I like operatic singing, but it depends on what opera, you know. I find some of the most admired operatic singing, which is Wagner, alien to me. I find it too aggressive and I think it’s tough on the voice; it’s certainly tough on the words. On the other hand, if you do Pelléas or Manon or Wozzeck, then it’s worth having whatever they bring to it. In A Streetcar Named Desire, I knew that Renée [Fleming] had three big arias, but none of them are really huge operatic arias. And besides, Renée is much too smart to ever put the voice to purposes that it wasn’t meant. The same thing with Elizabeth Futral in my other opera, Brief Encounter—she’s a wonderful singer. But she started out in full cry, and I said, “Don’t do that. I’m always going to fight you on that. Can you kind of calm it down?” And she did instantly, and it was ten times as good for me. Whether it really is or not, I don’t know, but that’s one of the privileges I take hold of as the composer. I want it sung the way I want it sung.

Cover of the DVD case for the San Francisco Opera production of A Streetcar Named Desire

A DVD of the San Francisco Opera production of A Streetcar Named Desire was released shortly after the 1998 premiere, but it is currently only available in a PAL format reissue from Arthaus that can only be accessed with a Region 2 player. However an audio recording of the production was also released by Deutsche Grammophon

FJO: Well, an opera is supposed to be telling a story on stage. You mention Wagner. Things happen so slowly in those operas. In a way, they have to because if they didn’t, you wouldn’t know what was going on. But both Streetcar and Brief Encounter are fast and action-packed. Words need to be flying back and forth, so a long melisma wouldn’t deliver it; it would be completely wrong. I think you did precisely the right thing.

AP: And also, Streetcar is one of the great American plays. It really is. It’s wonderful. But it is not a play where you want to linger over every syllable. I got confused by Antony and Cleopatra because Sam Barber is one of my favorite composers, but he’s very fond of putting a syllable onto four or five notes. By the time four or five notes have gone by, you don’t know what the first one was. If he were more aware of getting the words into the auditorium, that would not happen. But I can’t argue with Sam Barber, because he’s a great composer.

FJO: Well, with Vanessa it really worked. But once again, that’s a story with few characters and long, drawn-out action, whereas Antony and Cleopatra is this giant pageant and there’s a lot going on. So it’s much harder to process.

AP: Yes.

FJO: It’s important for the music to fit the story it’s going with. Still, no matter what, if you’re writing work for an opera house there are certain conventions that singers conform to, as well as conventions that audiences expect or things that the halls that are built for these things serve best. It’s a catch-22 for American composers. Tons of composers are now writing operas, but not everyone wants to write things that sound like operas. For a long time, you could never get a new American opera programmed; thankfully that has changed. But, in part because of this exile from the opera house, composers turned to other outlets and there’s a whole tradition of a vernacular American opera—the music for Broadway theater. In musicals the words always get across, but you’re not necessarily dealing with singers who can sing music off the page in the same way.

AP: You mean, like Marc Blitzstein?

FJO: Blitzstein is an excellent example. There are many others. You, in fact, also wrote a Broadway show, Coco.

AP: Yeah, but it was a straightforward Broadway show.

FJO: Admittedly, the technical demands you placed on singers in it were nowhere near the level of your operas. Katharine Hepburn would have never been able to sing the role of Blanche Dubois!

AP: She couldn’t sing Coco either. Oh God, that was brutal. When she finally quit after a year, we got Danielle Darrieux. It was the first time Alan Lerner and I knew we had written a musical, because you could hear the words and the melodies. And she was charming.

FJO: But it didn’t last because she wasn’t the box office draw that Hepburn had been.

AP: No. It didn’t last at all. Everybody wanted Hepburn. I didn’t blame them. She’s wonderful. But, in a musical, I don’t know.

During the 1970 Tony Awards, members of the original cast of Coco, including Katharine Hepburn, performed excerpts from the show. The original Broadway cast album was reissued in 1997


FJO: So that experience turned you off to writing another Broadway musical?

AP: It depends on what the subject matter is. There are many Broadway shows I wish I had written, or wish I could get my hands on, but it’s not a lasting ambition with me. I’d rather write an opera. I’d write a light opera, for instance. Tom Stoppard and I are about to start working on a one-act opera. I can’t discuss it, because he doesn’t want me to.

Broadway now is so different. When I was a young man, Broadway wasn’t owned by Walt Disney. And all these ridiculous, foppish, stupid musicals that are on now! They’re not interesting musically or visually or anything. Well, Lion King is. But the goal of a Broadway opera is completely different now, I think. I don’t think that Rodgers and Hart, or Jerry Kern would be such a smash now.

FJO: I recently went to see The Visit, which was the last show to make it to Broadway that John Kander wrote with Fred Ebb before Ebb died.

AP: Really? I didn’t know that.

FJO: It only lasted a couple of months even though the cast was headed by a Broadway legend, Chita Rivera. It was a fascinating show, but it might have been a little too serious for the current climate on Broadway.

AP: On the other hand, the musical based on The Shop Around the Corner was one of my favorite musicals. It’s absolutely charming and not at all too serious. But it was not funny. It was witty. And there again, it didn’t last that long. St. Louis Woman is also a wonderful show. I like Broadway musicals, but I tend not to go for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, the mystique that goes with it makes me nervous. And then $200 a ticket makes me nervous. I come from the day when a Broadway show was five bucks.

FJO: I remember when it was 12 bucks, but now tickets at the Metropolitan Opera can be even more expensive than Broadway tickets. So, in that sense, it’s not different.

AP: No, but you know going in what you’re going to hear. You know, if a ticket for Wozzeck is $200, well, you spend it because you want to hear Wozzeck, not because you wonder how this is going to be.

FJO: Not if you’re going to a performance of a brand new opera. That’s as risky as going to a new Broadway show.

AP: Well, I have no answer for that. New music, generally speaking, is looked askance at.

FJO: Of course in creating a new piece, it can help assure an audience that they’re going to see something of consequence when they know that it is based on something that they know is of consequence. It’s perhaps the next best thing to knowing that the Eroica is on the program, to come back to that conversation. It’s probably why there have been so many operas based on pre-existing literary classics. You certainly are always drawn to great literature. You mentioned Streetcar being one of the great plays. In Brief Encounter, you were also working with great material—the original play by Noël Coward, as well as the David Lean film. And you just mentioned a new project with Tom Stoppard, with whom you’ve worked before, who is a famous, highly respected playwright. But even your songs—you’ve set Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje. These are all top-shelf people. When I did a talk with Ned Rorem, he said the reason why his songs are good is that he only sets the best texts.

AP: He’s probably right. I also love the prose that I set by Isak Dinesen. It’s a terrific paragraph and very touching. I’m not about to set music to drivel; it doesn’t interest me. I like Theodore Roethke, and there’s quite a lot that needs to be set.

FJO: Now there was an Italian novel you were going to make into an opera. What happened to that?

AP: What happened is that the man got greedy and sold it to a higher bidder, long after we were in discussions about it. So it never happened.

FJO: So someone else did an opera?

AP: I think it was played once in Topeka or something. But it didn’t work.

FJO: Of all the texts that you’ve set, that was the only text and the only author I hadn’t heard of.

AP: It’s a very strange novel, but very good. But no, it didn’t happen. The man— you couldn’t blame him. He just suddenly got an incredible offer and the poor bum said “Sure, anything” and took it away from us.

FJO: So in terms of other things that you want to write. You mentioned Brahms waiting so long to write a symphony based on feeling paralyzed by the weight of what had proceeded him in the genre. Is that the same reason you haven’t written one?

AP: Yeah, I’m just scared of it.

FJO: But you’re not scared of operas or concertos?

AP: It’s that first page. I can’t deny that. I don’t want to face it. But I probably will; if I get old enough, I’ll write one.

FJO: Now, one area that we haven’t touched on yet at all is that you spent years writing scores for motion pictures. I think that was probably an excellent training ground for writing music that pushes a narrative forward.

AP: Oh, I don’t. It’s a well-known fact that the worse the movie, the more music there is. If you have a really idiotic movie, the music never stops, because the poor producer says, “Do something.” So, we all make a noise. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful scores, but it’s not music that interests me anymore—at all. And I mean, I did it; I wrote for some 50 movies. But I could not face as an ambition, years from then, writing music which would be played while Debbie Reynolds spoke. What would interest me as a composer is if they still made those big swashbucklers. You know, The Sea Hawk or something—that’s fun. I’d love to do that with a great big Strauss orchestra—eight horns belting away. But the normal score now? It doesn’t interest me at all. I admire Johnny Williams. He’s very good at what he does, and he writes very good themes. Now, Anne-Sophie made him an offer. She said, “Why don’t you write me a concerto?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t write that kind of music.” And she said, “Yes, you do. You write beautiful themes.”

FJO: But he wrote a trombone concerto?

AP: Did he?

FJO: It’s a pretty solid piece.

AP: He also wrote a bassoon concerto, which I like very much. Anyway, he back pedaled on that, but she kept asking and just recently he said, “Look, I’m not going to write one. I’m just not. I can’t do it. I haven’t got the background for it, and I don’t think I want to.” And she said O.K. But she said to me, “This is silly, because I’d play it everywhere.” I’ve known Johnny ever since we were both rehearsal pianists at a ballroom dancing school on La Brea Avenue. We used to take turns playing “Blueberry Hill.” Oh boy. Anyway, I don’t think he is willing to gamble with his own talent. He’s wonderfully talented and a tremendous orchestrator, but he doesn’t believe it. And a big piece—it’s a lot of pages. I don’t think that he has belief enough in his own talent, even though he has more than enough talent to do it.

FJO: Maybe it’s taking him too far out of his comfort zone in terms of the context.

AP: Comfort zone? He’s a millionaire.

FJO: I mean his comfort zone creatively.

AP: Oh, sure.

The original LP cover of My Fair Lady performed by Shelly Manne and his Friends (Previn and Leroy Vinnegar) features a woman wearing an elaborate hat drinking a cup of tea.

The cover of the 1956 Contemporary Records LP My Fair Lady by Shelly Manne and his Friends (Previn and Leroy Vinnegar) which was the first album ever made consisting entirely of jazz versions of tunes from a single Broadway musical and was the first jazz album to sell a million copies.

FJO: What I find so interesting about the trajectory that you have taken as a composer is that you seem to be always doing things you haven’t done before. You became really successful as a jazz pianist; one of your albums was the first jazz record to sell a million copies. But you started writing Hollywood scores. After you made your mark doing that, winning four Oscars, you wrote a Broadway musical. After all that, you started writing for orchestra, then opera. Last year you finally wrote a wind band piece. So you’re always purposefully escaping your own comfort zones.

AP: Absolutely. I’m a big believer in that. But I think for a composer to suddenly decide, “O.K. I’m now going to write a piece for 12 gongs,” it’s not really an interesting idea. I sat next to Wolfgang Rihm at one of the Siemens Prizes a couple of years ago. They give annual awards to young composers, and they had two of them there. One of them had written a piece for 12 unaccompanied E-flat clarinets. Can you imagine that noise? It was beyond belief. Halfway through, I turned to Wolfgang and I said, “Am I crazy, or is this just a piece of shit?” And he said, “Oh, it’s not good enough to be a piece of shit.” Just to be different isn’t good enough anymore. It just isn’t. It’s like the young instrumentalists who can play everything you put in front of them but not necessarily with understanding.

I like trying something new. I like it very much. I wrote a nonet—double string quartet and bass—just now. It hasn’t been played yet. It’s going to be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in two months. And Anne-Sophie called me and said, “The first movement isn’t long enough; can you write me a cadenza?” But I’d done that [before]. So then I thought she had that wonderful bass player in the nonet. So I said, “Why don’t I write you a cadenza where you are all over the place and he never stops playing anything but pizzicato? That might be interesting.” And she said, “Really?” And I said. “Really, I think so.” And she said, “Good.” So I’m working on it. I have no idea whether it’s any good or not, but it’s something I haven’t done.

FJO: So that’s actually an example of you going back into a piece and changing it!

AP: Well, adding to it. But only under the threat of “we won’t play it.”

FJO: That’s a big threat. To bring this full circle: in the beginning I referenced Elliott Carter’s flippant comment about writing faster in his old age because he had learned how to write Elliott Carter’s music, but he actually wasn’t writing the same music at all; he was actually writing things that were completely unlike his earlier things.

AP: I love that 20-minute opera he wrote.

FJO: What Next?

AP: Yeah, wasn’t that good? I’m not a big Elliott Carter believer, but that was wonderful.

FJO: Learning how to write the music that you write is the opposite of taking a challenge, the opposite of doing something new. So you don’t want to write a piece you’ve written before. You may not necessarily want to write for twelve E-flat clarinets or eight gongs, but you want to do something different. You’re not going to write a straight-ahead violin cadenza, because you already have written one. Of course, the most effective composers are always balancing what they know they do well with taking on new challenges.

AP: If I were still working with films, which I haven’t done now since the mid ‘60s, I would probably fall back on certain clichés that I know work since I don’t want to spend a lifetime at it. Johnny Williams wrote in Tanglewood in the bungalow next to mine, and then he’d have his orchestrator [Herbert Spencer] come up and he’d hand him whatever he was working on. Johnny handed him something that looked like Meistersinger for God’s sake, and he said, “Let me explain this to you.” Herbie looked at the music, and he said, “No, I know this one.” The orchestrator didn’t mean any insult at all, but it was funny. I could see where he could take that very badly. But on the other hand, it was probably true. It was probably done on purpose. If you write movie music, you’re never given enough time, and they don’t want to hear anything brand new anyway. So it is very likely to be things that they’ve done before. You can always tell a Korngold score. You can always tell a Rózsa score. You can always tell an Elmer Bernstein score, because it’s watered down Copland. When Elmer Bernstein got a western to do, he’d say, “Oh yeah, I did Magnificent Seven. Let’s do that again.” There’s nothing wrong with it. It worked very well. It’s interesting music. You’re not going to wrack your brain thinking of novelties in a medium that doesn’t require it anyway. A very good film composer used to be a man called Jerry Goldsmith—brilliant and interesting music.

André Previn's four Oscars sit together on a table near the window in his living room.

André Previn’s four Oscars sit together on a table near the window in his living room.

FJO: You did all these different kinds of things as a composer—jazz, film music, Broadway, opera, orchestral music. You also were very active as a classical pianist and, of course, as a conductor, leading some of the world’s top orchestras—the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Symphony. But these activities have been separate worlds. If anybody was ever in a position to come up with some kind of grand synthesis of music in our time, which would be music that somehow connected all of these things, it would be you. To that end, you did in fact make some wonderful recordings of all your original music for quintet featuring Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, and Jim Hall with you and Itzak Perlman. It seems completely incongruous that these people played together. And yet it really works.

AP: Yes, it works.

FJO: But it’s an anomaly. For the most part, it seems like you’d rather just perfect each separate strand rather than bring them together.

AP: I never thought of bringing it together. I see no particularly connective tissue between those things. I wrote a jazz album for J.J. Johnson and myself and a rhythm section, and the producer of the record, Irv Townsend, said, “Would you guys try playing ‘Mack the Knife’?” Well, that was the day when everybody did “Mack the Knife,” and both J.J. and I went, “Hmmm.” And I said, “I’ll tell you what, J.J. I’ll comp in G-flat, and you play it in C, and then we’ll turn it around.” It’s always in both keys; it’s that Petrushka thing. And we did it and everybody said, “God almighty, what a sound!” There’s nothing to it. You know what I mean? We just played it. We didn’t think about it. I think that it’s important that you don’t spend forever thinking about why you write something. Just do it.

This is out of left field, but Sinclair Lewis gave a lecture. I think it was at Harvard. After huge applause and all of that, he said to the very full auditorium, “How many of you want to be writers?” A great many raised their hands. And he said, “Why aren’t you home writing?” That’s good, isn’t it?

FJO: I heard a variation of that story, only it was Kurt Vonnegut who gave the speech.

AP: Really.

FJO: But he was a lot nastier to everybody, at least according to the version I heard. Maybe Vonnegut stole the line from Sinclair Lewis, but he embellished it. He was invited to give a talk to a group of aspiring writers at a university, so he went up to the podium and began by saying, “How many of you want to be writers?” And after almost everyone raised their hands, he shouted, “So why the fuck are you sitting here listening to me? Go home and write.” And then he walked out. That was the entire speech.

AP: But that’s too rough. Walking out is beyond the pale. It’s interesting that you used that language.

FJO: Well, I was just using the language he used.

AP: I understand. When I was at Eastman, there were two afternoons of question and answer. There were about 800 kids at each one, and the questions were very good because they weren’t all complimentary. They were all over the map. On the second day, a young man got up in the back and said, “When you worked in films, did you work in Los Angeles?” “Yes,” I said. “Did you ever a meet a German émigré composer called Ernst Toch?” I said I was taken to play for him by David Raksin, who was a friend of mine. “What happened?” he asked, and I said:

Well, the old gentleman made me improvise and then made me read something at the end of which he said in this kind of station house accent, “You haff no talent.” First of all, I don’t think it’s the right thing to say to a 16-year old. The other thing is that if he had said, “I don’t like the way you improvise,” that’s fair enough. Or “I don’t like the way you play.” Fair enough. But “You have no talent”? That’s a little heavy for me, because I didn’t agree with that.

And the kids did a collective intake of breath, huuuhhh, because they identified with that moment. And the young man said, “Did you answer him?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “What did you say?” I said, “Fuck you.” This was from the stage of this conservatory. The poor dean turned green with fear, you know. And I said, “Wait a minute. They’ve all used that word. They all know what it means.” It was the biggest round of applause I have ever received from students.

FJO: But how did Toch react to that?

AP: Oh well, he threw me out. But I’m still glad I did it.

Four Emerging Composers’ Works Premiere in Columbus Through EarShot

EarShot Logo

Four emerging composers have been chosen from a national candidate pool to participate in the 2015 Columbus Symphony EarShot program: Rosalie Burrell, Saad Haddad, Patrick O’Malley, and Iván Rodríguez. For this latest iteration of EarShot, a nationwide network of new music readings and composer-development programs organized and administered by the American Composers Orchestra (ACO), two intensive reading sessions/rehearsals (closed to the public) will take place on October 27 and 28, 2015 accompanied by feedback sessions with Columbus Symphony musicians and their music director Rossen Milanov, along with mentor composers Robert Beaser, Margaret Brouwer, and Clint Needham. Donald Harris will serve as honorary guest composer. On October 29, the orchestra will hold a final dress rehearsal, then perform the works in a one-hour program at the Ohio Theatre which is part of the Columbus Symphony’s Happy Hour Concert Series. The CSO will ask the audience to vote for their favorite piece before the program’s mentor composers and Maestro Milanov select an official “Live Composer Competition” winner. Now in its third year, Happy Hour concerts offer free, informal, after-work concerts performed by the Columbus Symphony, preceded by complimentary appetizers, a DJ in the theater lobby, and a cash bar.

ACO President Michael Geller said, “The four composers chosen for this unique new program are as talented as they are diverse in their musical styles. Rosie, Saad, Ivan, and Patrick are only in their 20s, but they are incredibly accomplished at what is a very ‘tender’ young age for composers. Each of them has a really distinctive musical outlook. We can’t wait to work with them and the talented musicians at the Columbus Symphony. And I think for listeners in Columbus, who come out for the culminating concert of the program, they will be ‘blown away’ by the brilliance, energy, and vitality of the music they hear. Years from now, I’m sure we will all look back at the EarShot Columbus Composer Competition as a watershed moment for these composers, for CSO audiences, and for the entire field of American orchestra music.”

Rossen Milanov added, “I am delighted by the partnership of Columbus Symphony Orchestra and EarShot in the first season of my tenure as music director in Columbus, Ohio. My strong commitment to music of our time and career-long support for young composers could not have been expressed better then in this original and meaningful introduction of newly composed works to our audience. I hope that the composers, the musicians, and the audience will develop a better understanding and appreciation of the creative, performing, and listening process.”

In addition to the Columbus Symphony, EarShot partnerships have included the New York Philharmonic, Berkeley Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Pioneer Valley Symphony (MA), New York Youth Symphony, and the San Diego Symphony. To date, more than fifty composers have been selected for readings with orchestras.

Read on for more details about the four composers and their new orchestral works. (The Columbus Symphony’s performances of each of them have been archived on the website Instant Encore where they are available for streaming.)

Rosalie Burrell: Paved with Gold

Rosalie Burrell

Rosalie Burrell (This and all other photos courtesy Jensen Artists)

The music of Rosalie Burrell (b. 1988) has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Lesher Center for the Arts, the All Women’s National Brass Convention, and Bush Creek Arts. For the last two concert seasons she has been the artistic coordinator, composer and orchestrator at The Little Orchestra Society, a chamber orchestra that, under the baton of James Judd, performs for young families and children. As an artistic administrator, Burrell plans, programs, and produces concerts and workshops at venues that have included maximum-security prisons, hospital wards, veteran rehabilitation facilities, and schools. She received her Master of Music degree from the Mannes School of Music, where she studied with David Tcimpidis, writing primarily chamber music. In 2013 she was a finalist in the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers competition, and she won both the Martinu Composition Award and the 2013 Mannes Orchestra Composition Competition. Other accolades include the 2012 Jean Schneider Goberman Award second prize for her piano quartet Secret Gardens.

Of Paved with Gold, Burrell said, “I was taking long walks through New York City; grime and glitter, glass and iron, duality at every turn. I drew a landscape of New York, not as it exists in any physical sense, but in a sweeping, sensory summary. Lines and rectangles colliding, each a duplicate of the last. Between angular clusters I drew the curved shapes of birds, untethered in the air, sometimes spilling out between blocks, or soaring right over the building clusters. I put a pin in that drawing, right above my desk, and began to compose the shape of that abstract skyline. An orchestral landscape, loud and unbridled, paved with gold.”

Saad Haddad: Kaman Fantasy

Saad Haddad

Saad Haddad

Saad Haddad (b. 1992) focuses on creating compositions that incorporate Arabic musical tradition in a Western context, both in acoustic and electro-acoustic mediums. In addition to the performance by the Columbus Symphony, premieres of his music will also be performed this season by the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and the New Juilliard Ensemble at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. Other performances include the Virginia premiere of Shifting Sands, for piano and electronics, at the Electroacoustic Barn Dance and the Ariose Singers’ performances of his choral works, The Little Boy and Ah Sunflower, as part of the New Music Works series in Santa Cruz, California. A recipient of the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award (2015), the Gena Raps Chamber Music Prize (2015), the BMI Student Composer Award (2014), and the Copland House Residency Award (2014), Haddad holds a Bachelor of Music Composition from the University of Southern California where his teachers included composers Donald Crockett, Stephen Hartke, Frank Ticheli, Brian Shepard, and Bruce Broughton. He is currently in his last year at the Juilliard School, pursuing a Master of Music Composition with John Corigliano.

Kaman Fantasy takes its name from ‘kamanjah,’ the Arabic word for ‘violin.’ The piece is an exploration of the Arabic ‘maqamat’ (sets of scales) and rhythms in a Western classical context. The music embraces both traditions, often swaying back and forth between Arabic and Western idioms. Haddad said, “As a first-generation Arab-American, I have often found myself shifting between both cultures in the way that I think and act, sometimes voluntarily, most times not. Kaman Fantasy is a reflection on those experiences.”


Patrick O’Malley: Even in Paradise

Patrick O'Malley

Patrick O’Malley

Patrick O’Malley (b. 1989) is a composer whose works explore the musical interplay between emotion, color, energy, and landscape. Currently living in Los Angeles, O’Malley grew up in Indiana, where he cultivated an interest in composition from hearing music at the local orchestra, studying piano and double bass, film scores at the movie theater, and even MIDI compositions for video games being written at the time. His works span many of the contemporary mediums for classical music (orchestra, chamber ensembles, vocal music, film scores, etc.), and have been performed across the United States as well as in France and Germany. Most recently, O’Malley has been recognized and/or performed by organizations including the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Next On Grand National Composers Intensive with wild Up, the Society of Composers Inc., The American Prize (3rd place in orchestral music, and finalist in wind band and chamber music, 2014), the Boston New Music Initiative, ASCAP’s Morton Gould Award (finalist in 2012 and 2014), and Fulcrum Point New Music Project. He has spent summers as a student at various music festivals, including Aspen, Bowdoin, Fresh Inc., and the FUBiScomposition course in Berlin. He is gratefully indebted to his private teachers over the years for helping guide his work, the most recent of which include Andrew Norman, Samuel Adler, and Frank Ticheli. O’Malley is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in composition at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.

Of Even in Paradise, O’Malley said, “The Latin phrase ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ is a wonderful little line that nobody seems to know the actual meaning of. The words essentially translate, ‘I am also in Arcadia,’ and are most famously known as the subject of two paintings by Nicolas Poussin from the 17th century. I first encountered the subject when reading an essay by the art historian Erwin Panofsky, in which he traces the evolution of interpretation of the phrase by artists. Panofsky’s analysis, as well as the various artistic interpretations of the phrase, immediately struck me as a source for musical elaboration. While nothing in the piece is a literal depiction, there are two ideas that stem directly from the life and death images associated with the subject. The piece opens with atmospheric sounds made by the strings playing unpitched material behind the bridge (a well-known technique for representing death in music thanks to Bernard Herrmann, though I do not use it in the same way). Against that, simple triadic gestures (the ‘life-blood’ of tonal harmony) begin to pop out of the murk. Eventually, the music breaks into a fast, playful mood completely opposite to the introduction, exploring a variety of moods and colors.”


Iván Rodríguez: Luminis

Ivan Rodriguez conducting

Iván Enrique Rodríguez

Aspiring young conductor and composer Iván Enrique Rodríguez (b.1990) learned how to play the saxophone, harp, piano, and violin, as well as vocalize at the Escuela Libre de Música (ELM) Antonio O. Paoli in his native Caguas, Puerto Rico. Rodríguez’s first piece, Ogoshness for chorus and string orchestra, was premiered in 2007 by the ELM Antonio O. Paoli choir when Rodríguez was 17. Since then, Rodríguez has composed for internationally acclaimed trumpeter Luis “Perico” Ortiz, and John Rivera Pico selected two of Iván’s Crípticos for inclusion on his album featuring contemporary classical guitar music from Puerto Rico and Cuba. Rodríguez’s music has been performed in Uruguay, Brazil, the U.S., and Italy where the San Juan Children’s Choir performed his Madre Luna and won the 2014 Rimini International Choral Competition First Place Prize with the judges noting the integral part his composition played in their decision. He holds a BA in Composition from the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico where he studied with composer Alfonso Fuentes and conductors Rafael E. Irizarry, William Rivera, Roselín Pabon, and Genesio Riboldi. Beyond the walls of the conservatory, his cultural involvement and leadership was recognized by the Puerto Rico Chapter of Junior Chamber International with the 2014 Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World award.

Luminis is a set of fantasy variations on original musical motifs,” said Rodríguez. “Throughout piece, the original motifs remain relatively unchanged. However, the surrounding musical environment changes constantly. As the variations develop, they progressively describe the encirclement of light by darkness. Even when describing musically what could be total darkness, the original motifs remain relatively untouched. This is intended to give Light a ubiquitous quality to state that regardless of the conditions surrounding it, the energy emanating from this point–whatever it may symbolize for us individually–reinforces an inextinguishable radiance and omnipresence.”

(—from the press release)

Samuel Adler: Knowing What You’re Doing

A conversation at the German Consulate to the United Nations
March 12, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who is more steeped in the tradition of Western classical music composition than Samuel Adler. The author of six symphonies, five operas, a dozen concertos, and ten string quartets (eight of which he still acknowledges), plus a ton of sonatas and choral pieces, Adler—now 87—remains steadfast in his determination to preserve and build upon this tradition.

“I would much rather have my piece played as a sandwich in between Haydn and Beethoven or Brahms and Stravinsky than between Mary Jane and John Doe … we’re writing music in a tradition, not the tradition, but a tradition,” exclaimed Adler when we spoke to him at the German Consulate to the United States before he began sifting through scores submitted by composers hoping to study with him in Berlin this summer.

Adler proudly asserted that he has now taught for 63 years, “first at North Texas, then at Eastman for 30 years, and 18 years at Juilliard.” Teacher-student relationships have been among the most important interactions of his life. His own teachers are practically a who’s who of 20th-century American music—Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, Paul Hindemith, and Serge Koussevitsky. Throughout our conversation, he brought up people he has taught as well, including Barbara Harbach—for whom he composed a formidable solo harpsichord sonata—and Kevin Puts, the premiere of whose new opera, The Manchurian Candidate, Adler travelled especially to Minneapolis to attend the day before we spoke.

I’m very inspired by my students … I feel the teacher’s task is first and foremost to inspire the student to write as much as possible without any consideration for style and things like that. … I see the problems that students have that I also have. Sometimes I solve them for myself by solving them for the students. That’s a great influence on me, as has being with young people, and always being fed new ideas.

Beyond his own students, Adler has had a significant impact on countless others as a result of his writing definitive tomes on orchestration, choral conducting, and sight singing. Imparting these basic musicianship skills has been as central to his life’s work as his composing. He firmly believes that composers who eschew craft do so at their peril. But don’t assume that Adler believes the path to writing a successful piece of music is about merely following his rules or anyone else’s. Adler insists a composer also has to take risks, which is why in the 1960s and ’70s he dabbled in serialism, indeterminacy, and even electronics, though never in an austere or overly rigid way.

“I think a composer needs to go through what’s going on and still make it his own,” he explains. “I find that a piece has to be satisfying to play and have some kind of a message to give.”

Sometimes in order to do that, you actually have to break the rules.

“That’s how you compose—you cheat!”

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve never actually filmed a talk in a consulate before.

Samuel Adler: This makes it international. We’re not on American soil.

FJO: Technically we’re not. And this is very interesting because even though you’ve spent the majority of your life in the United States and created your music here, you actually were not born on American soil.

Sam Adler as a young child walking in a park with his father holding his right hand and his mother holding his left hand.

Samuel Adler in Mannheim in 1929 with father Hugo, and mother, Selma. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

SA: That’s true. I was born in Germany in Mannheim, in a house where Mozart lived. There was a plaque on the hospital where I was born, and it said, “Here was the Weber House.” He married Constanze Weber, who was a Mannheim girl, related to Carl Maria von Weber. My mother took a picture of the plaque and said to my father that there is no chance that our boy won’t be a composer. It was predestined by birth. So that’s my claim to fame.

FJO: But it was a little more complicated than that. As far as I know, you didn’t start writing music until you came to this country.

SA: Well, I was writing music so my sister could sing the songs, and if she didn’t sing them well I’d beat her up. That’s a very bad thing. But no, seriously, my father discouraged me from writing music before I had a background in theory and counterpoint. So after we came to this country, at eleven, he sent me to Boston every week to Herbert Fromm who was a student of Hindemith’s, and we did very strict harmony and counterpoint and sight singing and ear training, until I went to college.

An historic black and white photo of a crowd of people gathered together on the deck of a boat.

Samuel Adler on board the SS Manhattan, as the ship entered New York Harbor, the passengers collected to view the Statue of Liberty, January 22, 1939. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: It’s interesting that your father discouraged you from writing music, since he was a composer himself.

SA: That’s right. But he said you shouldn’t just write anything that comes to mind. You should know what you’re doing. The more I’ve taught, the more I think he was right because there are too many people, especially today, who sit in their basements with their computers and think they’re composing. I just feel that that’s leading people astray. Some people are lucky and are very talented with the computer and can do it. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But there is too much of that.

FJO: So what are the things that a composer should be doing?

SA: In the first place, a composer should play an instrument. I think that’s very important, no matter what it is, to have some tactical input into music. It doesn’t have to be a piano. It doesn’t have to be the violin. It can be the marimba. It can be the accordion. Then I think if a person is really interested in creating something, he or she should first steep themselves in music of previous times. I’m not just talking about yesterday’s music. Not only tradition. For instance, if you’re interested in folk music, you can start with that. But you must not come to the study of composition without any preparation.

If you’re really interested, you should have a year of preliminary exercises—in harmony, counterpoint, perhaps melody writing, which most people can’t do anymore. I feel that way every time I speak to high school students. Let’s say I want to get going in physics. I’m going to go to the best school, either MIT or Harvard. No other schools. I go to the head of the physics department, I say, “Sir, I want to major in physics.” “Have you had trigonometry?” “No. But I love physics.” “Well, can you add and subtract? “No, but I love when Einstein goes to the board and puts all those figures on it. That turns me on.” That’s how too many people go to music school—not knowing the fundamentals! For instance, everybody hates sight-singing classes, especially singers, and that’s one of the most important things. I have taught now for 63 years, first at North Texas, then at Eastman for 30 years, and 18 years at Juilliard. I know that singers get jobs if they can read. But nobody seems to be able to convince people going through their first year in music school that that is the most important thing, or that you really also need to know what a cadence is.

I get around this country, and I know what’s going on. We have thousands upon thousands of music students. In many places you are admitted if you love music. That’s a problem. Sometimes I resented my father, of course, but he was right. I feel much better that I had a background in something, that I could hear something. I feel that’s an important thing.

FJO: Your father was a composer, primarily of liturgical music, and he was a cantor. I’m curious about the music you were exposed to during your childhood.

SA: I was a violinist, and my father was an excellent pianist. We played every sonata from Bach to Bartók that we could get our hands on. That’s the music I heard. I played it. I had wonderful friends in high school. We had a double string quartet. Not an octet, but a double string quartet. I never played the Mendelssohn Octet, I’m sorry to say, until in college. But we played twice a week, three hours of quartet music. So I really got the message. I can’t thank my parents enough for the encouragement to do these things and the help that they gave me to do them.

FJO: And when you say Bach to Bartók, that’s when Bartok was new music.

SA: Listen, I went to the first performance of the Concerto for Orchestra. I want to tell you a very funny story about it. Koussevitsky did it in Boston in 1944. My father took me to the Friday afternoon concert. Being a young, aspiring composer, I went back stage to get his autograph. Well, he was very sick at that time; he was sitting bent over and was hardly able to say or do anything. Koussevitsky came in all energized, sweating all over. It was difficult for him because of all the changes of meter. That wasn’t his thing. But he did it, and he did it with great confidence. He came in and said to all the reporters gathered, “Boys, there sits the greatest composer in the world.” Bartók looked up to him and said, “Serge, didn’t you say last week it was Prokofiev?” Well, last week it was Prokofiev because he did the first performance of the fifth Prokofiev [symphony]. So, that was the greatest composer in the world. That was a great period in Boston. When I went to school in Boston, every week there was a premiere, and mostly by American composers: [Walter] Piston, [Roger] Sessions, [Randall] Thompson, [Aaron] Copland. Those people.

FJO: And you studied with almost all of them.

SA: Absolutely.

Side view of Samuel Adler and Aaron Copland standing next to each other, both wearing glasses.

Samuel Adler with Aaron Copland At Eastman in April 23, 1976. Photo by Louis Ouzer (1912-2002), courtesy of the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music

FJO: And you also studied conducting with Koussevitsky.

SA: And composition with Hindemith.

FJO: But you’re more comfortable with changing meters.

SA: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, I’m always accused of doing that too much. In September, we’re going to record my Sixth Symphony, and in the last movement I don’t think there are two measures alike. I’m not so worried about it because I think it gives a focus to the accent that’s better than just putting an accent. But a lot of people disagree, especially conductors.


Samuel Adler’s manuscript for his Symphony No. 6 © 1985 by Theodore Presser Company (ASCAP). All rights reserved.


FJO: Will you be conducting?

SA: No.

FJO: So someone’s going to have to deal with it.

SA: José Serebrier’s conducting. And he is a composer himself. He knows what it’s about.

FJO: Good. Now, I had some thoughts about your studies with Hindemith. You were just mentioning that your first instrument was the violin.

SA: And viola.

FJO: Yes. I remember reading in the program notes you wrote for Randolph Kelly’s recording of your Viola Concerto on Albany that the viola was your first instrument.

SA: Well, I’ll tell you what happened. Today we’ve got a glut of violists. But in those days, there were none. The first violist in our high school orchestra, which was the size of the Boston Symphony, left. He graduated. So on Friday, the conductor said, “Sam, here’s a viola. Monday you play viola.” I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know that clef. In desperation, I called a friend of mine, and he said, “Listen, just don’t even worry about the clef. Play third position as first position and you got it.” And it’s true. I never learned the clef.

FJO: You certainly know it now.

SA: Of course. I’m joking. But in those days, I didn’t need to. I just did that.

A young Samuel Adler playing the violin.

A young Samuel Adler playing the violin. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: Well, what’s interesting about playing viola—and I think that’s what gives Hindemith’s some of its gravitas and particularly its really strong internal logic, and I would dare the same is true about your music as well—is that since you both played the viola, you were both more attuned to the middle register and had a better vantage point into the orchestra overall.

SA: Mendelssohn said it’s the soul of the string quartet. Because it is. You can hear all the other voices. A friend of mine who is a great colleague and an excellent composer, Gunther Schuller, really learned how to orchestrate because he sat in the orchestra and, when he wasn’t playing [French horn], he looked at the score. And he heard all those things. The greatest experience for a composer is to play in an orchestra or sing in a choir. As a matter of fact, you should do both. Because one will teach you that it’s not so easy to find the pitches that you think they should have. I wonder if Webern could have sung his cantatas in a choir. They’re terrific pieces, but they’re difficult because it’s not what you can see or hear.

FJO: An area we didn’t talk about yet, which seems appropriate for a conversation we’re having in the German consulate, is the difference between European and American musical culture, which is definitely something you could speak to because you travel back and forth so much and even teach a summer composition course in Germany.

SA: In Berlin. And I just had a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, which was very nice. It was in a program called “Violins of Hope.” It was a commemoration of the freeing of Auschwitz. They did a fantastic program and included my Elegy.


The score for Samuel Adler’s 1962 Elegy for string orchestra. © 1964 by Theodore Presser Company (ASCAP). All rights reserved.


Of course, the first difference is that in most countries like Germany, the state helps. You don’t need philanthropy all over the place to get enough money for the orchestra or the opera to function. Now, that’s good and bad. I think we have a culture of giving in this country which is rather wonderful. And many people are committed to classical music, to opera, to pop, to jazz, whatever.

Another thing to consider is the patronage of the composer in Europe versus America. In America I must say, speaking from personal experience and from the experience of let’s say 90 percent of my colleagues, the universities are our patron. And it’s a very good patron considering that, once you have tenure, they can’t throw you out because they don’t like your music. While Mr. Esterhazy could throw away Haydn’s music because he thought that Haydn shouldn’t play this. So, I mean, we don’t have that flip kind of thing.

There is also one other thing in particular. I think we in America have a terrible inferiority complex when it comes to our own music. Sure, our pop music pervades the world. There’s nothing like it. But we also have classical music—which is a terrible term. We also have concert music. We have hundreds of orchestras in this country. And what do they do? Most of them completely neglect our tremendous heritage. For instance, I think if you can count them up, more symphonies were written by American composers in the 19th and 20th centuries than in Europe or any other place. I’ve been to China four times. They really love our music. I’ve conducted Piston, Harris, Copland—they love that music. We don’t. At least we don’t show that we love it. And I think this is a very big shame. Can you imagine in Germany them not playing Beethoven? Or not playing Brahms? Even the 20th century composers—Hindemith is a rock star even today. Less so than he was in the 1950s, because he went back himself to conduct, but they still do the music. [Karl Amadeus] Hartmann, who’s a wonderful composer, is done by the major orchestras. I feel that’s one big difference.

We also have another inferiority complex when it comes to audiences. Look, I’m now 87. I’m old, yes, but I still can get around. I even got here this morning. And the thing about graying audiences, well, I have two daughters. They have families. They can’t afford it. Every once in a while they go, but the prices are high, babysitters, and so on. The graying audience is there to stay. It’s wonderful. I’m glad they’re coming. What’s really bad and that is what Europe also doesn’t have is a wonderful educational system in music, which we had. When I went to school, America had the very best music education in the world. We had orchestras and we played all the Brahms symphonies in high school. We played all the Beethoven symphonies except the Ninth. Now that’s really something. Plus, our conductor encouraged me to write a piece for the orchestra every semester. They don’t exist anymore, but I got that experience.

I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and at 15 I was playing in the Worcester Philharmonic, which was a town-gown kind of orchestra. I wrote a piece during the war called Epitaph for the Unknown American Soldier. We actually performed the piece. The New York Times even ran a review. A very excellent publisher in those days, Mills Music, called me the next day. I should come to New York. So I came to New York. A cigar-chewing man, Max Stark, was the head of the company here, and he had Morton Gould, Leroy Anderson, Roy Harris, and Zez Confrey—you know, the guy who wrote “Kitten on the Keys.” They were all there to convince me to go with the company. They took me out to lunch. When we came back, he said, “Sam, we’re going to publish everything that you write from now on, including the Epitaph for the Unknown American Soldier.” I don’t know how I got home! But, of course, I couldn’t sign the contract. My father had to sign. And when I got home, my father said, “I’m not going to sign this contract.” “It’s making my future; this is my future.” He said, “Look, the pieces you write now in five years, you’re going to be sorry to see again.” As my grandsons say, I was bummed. Of course, I’m always reminded of that because they did publish one piano piece called Arabesque, which is the worst piano piece ever. I’m not kidding. And I can see it, and I know how right my father was.

A young Samuel Adler sitting at a piano looking at sheet music while his father Hugo sitting next to him is speaking and has his hands raised as if conducting.

Hugo Adler and Samuel Adler. Date unknown. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: So there’s no score of Epitaph.

SA: No, and no score of my first two string quartets, nor the first violin sonata, nor the first cello sonata. Look, one has to be judicious. Now Brahms I think was too judicious because I think he was a much better composer at that time. I’m glad Mendelssohn didn’t throw away all those pieces he wrote when he was 12, 13, 14, because those are masterpieces. I was not a masterpiece writer in those days. It was, you know, music. But bad.

FJO: But you said you got a good review in The New York Times.

SA: Oh, and how. And the Third String Quartet, which is now my first, really convinced me not to have the other two because The New York Times said this is a new voice in our musical horizon. Well, that’s nice.

FJO: If that convinced you to eliminate the other two, why did you keep calling it String Quartet No. 3?

SA: Because it was published already.

FJO: But the other two weren’t.

SA: The other two were manuscripts, so I could easily throw them away.

FJO: But if you call something number three, everybody wants to know what happened to one and two.

SA: Well, that’s for the musicologists. You know it’s wonderful for them.

FJO: So there are no manuscripts hiding out somewhere.

SA: No, because I’m old enough to have experiences with fallen colleagues’ wives. You know, colleagues who have died, and their wives find a piece and say, “This is a masterpiece my husband wrote.” Always, it never fails. If he was a friend of mine, they call me and say, “Sam, this must be published.” What are you going to say? She was in love with the man. That’s great. But the piece shouldn’t be published, you know. So I make sure that it doesn’t exist.

FJO: Now hang on. You say these pieces shouldn’t be published, but you also said Brahms went too far. Isn’t it helpful to aspiring composers to see the failures as well as well as the successes?

SA: You’re absolutely right. But it’s a little embarrassing, I think. I mean, it would be for me. Look, Brahms’s early works, Opus 1 to 8, those fantastic pieces for piano, these are already mature masterpieces. Mine were not. I have to admit that, and why not admit it and get rid of it. I’m very proud of the Third Quartet. I think it’s a decent work, it works very well. People love to play it. Great.

FJO: Now the earliest piece of yours I know is the Horn Sonata.

SA: Yeah, that is the earliest. I fell in love with a horn player and wrote this for her junior recital, as a matter of fact. It was also the reason I wrote so many brass pieces in those days. I’m very sorry about them. And you see, those pieces were immediately published because my theory teacher was Robert King of Robert King Music, music for brass. So whatever I wrote, he published right away, including the Horn Sonata. Now I’m not ashamed of the Horn Sonata. It’s very Hindemithian, and I know that. I’m not ashamed of the First Symphony which is a combination of influences from Copland and Piston. I was very happy to write it and I still like it. For my 80th birthday, there were ten performances of it. And I must say, the tenth performance I actually liked.

Adler in military uniform conducting an orchestra in front of an audience

Samuel Adler in Germany in the early 1950s conducting the Seventh Army Symphony . (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: I’m curious about what the attributes are for a piece that you think is truly you and how you are able to sense it as a composer.

SA: That’s a tough question because at one point you just feel that it’s going—it’s saying something. That’s really all I can say. I have to be a little abstract about it. You just know that this is a piece. And also, it comes from the performer. The first two string quartets I played myself and I was always dissatisfied, but I didn’t know what to do about it. By the way, the performance of the Third Quartet that was hailed here in New York, it’s not the way the string quartet is now, because it was re-done five, six years later. I usually don’t re-do pieces. I’d rather throw them away. But I think that was worth doing and, as a matter of fact, the second movement is the elegy that was played in Berlin. That was written before the Third Quartet was redone.

FJO: So was the Third String Quartet the piece in which you feel you found your personal voice as a composer?

SA: No. The Second Violin Sonata is the first piece that I think is me. The Horn Sonata is not. I’m not ashamed of it. I think it works. I just heard a beautiful recording of it by the principal horn in the Houston Symphony, William VerMeulen. He plays it as if he were playing the Hindemith sonata. The Hindemith is very good and unfortunately, this gets coupled with it all the time. Some people like it better. Most people don’t like it better. But that’s alright.

I find that a piece has to be satisfying to play and have some kind of a message to give. What it is should be the composer’s secret. I’m very much against telling too much to the audience because the result that I have seen, if I’ve said too much, is, “Well, it doesn’t mean that to me.” This is a danger, you know, like the whole idea of “Do you think I’ll remember this melody when I leave the concert hall?” Look, you’re going to remember Schubert Unfinished because you’ve heard it six thousand times. Of course, when you hear it again, you’re going to know it and sing it on the way out. I’m not for writing melodies like that necessarily, but I do feel that part of it should be communicative. The music should say something, give an experience. All I ask of an audience is not that they like the piece or don’t like the piece. All I want is for an audience to have an experience with me, an adventure, something new, something different. I cannot have them expect a piece that sounds like Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms or Debussy or Stravinsky. It may have parts of all of these things, but I want it to be an adventure. Most of our audiences don’t want an adventure because they’re told they shouldn’t like the piece in the first place, instead of just letting them enjoy it.

FJO: I think one of the problems—and this is truer with orchestra concerts than with other formats—is that the new piece has to co-exist on a program with older pieces that are already familiar.

SA: Which actually I like. I don’t like new music programs, because most of them are the same. That is, it’s all music that is new to everybody. I would much rather have my piece played as a sandwich in between Haydn and Beethoven or Brahms and Stravinsky than between Mary Jane and John Doe. This started in the ‘60s, the whole business of new music groups. It said that our music has to be anaesthesized, and I don’t think so. At least I would hope not. They’re wonderful, and I love them, and I write for them, and again I love them. But we’re writing music in a tradition, not the tradition, but a tradition.

Side view of Adler with arm raised conducting an orchestra

Adler conducting the Eastman Philharmonia on October 28, 1966. Photos by Louis Ouzer, courtesy Sibley Music Library.

FJO: Well, most of the pieces you have composed clearly fall within this tradition—six symphonies, a dozen concertos, sonatas for all different kinds of instruments, ten string quartets minus the two that you’ve hidden from us.

SA: Operas.

FJO: Yeah, five operas—we’ll get to those soon. But before we do, these are all types of pieces that have hundreds of years of history behind them. When you call something your Symphony No. 4, not only does it automatically reference your previous three symphonies, but everybody else’s symphonies. It makes the piece part of a continuing dialectic, and because of that I think it gives listeners an expectation about what they are going to hear.

SA: Well, my Third Symphony is altogether different because it’s for wind ensemble and is only two movements. As for the rest of them—you mentioned the Fourth Symphony. In the Fourth and Fifth symphonies there were really experimental things, especially in the Fifth Symphony. I was going for 12 years through a period of being influenced by serial music, aleatoric music, and so on. I think a composer needs to go through what’s going on and still make it his own. I think Webern sounds very different from Schoenberg and Berg sounds very different from Schoenberg or Webern. No people’s music can sound more different than mine from my closest friend in the last years at Juilliard, Milton Babbitt. And yet, he could talk to me about my music like nobody else. He didn’t have to write like that; he actually loved that music. And I don’t have to write like him to love his music.

What is difficult today for an audience is not that name “symphony.” It is that they don’t know what’s coming and therefore I, for instance, feel that an orchestra that’s doing a new piece should send out to its subscribers a CD of that piece before they come. Again, I go back to the Schubert Unfinished. I have 20 recordings of it at home. Well, I don’t, but some people do—you know, Karajan, Ormandy, this, that, in order to get different perspectives on the piece. Well, if you know it that well, of course you’re going to love it when you hear it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have all those recordings. I feel that that’s very important for a new piece. When I go to an orchestra that does a new piece, I always ask the orchestra to record certain portions of it. And when I give my pre-concert talk, I use those. For example, in the Viola Concerto, the first theme you hear eight times, so I’d say, “Look, you’re going to hear this eight times” and I play it for them. I play it for them on the piano. Then I have the viola play it and the oboe play it. Well, they know what to expect then. The more complex parts, I play for them because I feel what music does is to give the composer’s view of his time, the energy of his time. Most people don’t want to hear the energy of our time because they’re afraid of it. But we have to be true to ourselves.

Boulez , Benson and Adler talking and holding drinks in cups.

Samuel Adler (right) with Pierre Boulez (left) and Warren Benson (center) on February 17, 1974. Photo by Louis Ouzer, courtesy Sibley Music Library.

FJO: I want to go back to what you were saying about Babbitt’s music being so different from yours. As you know, Babbitt was somebody who was very embracing of a much wider range of music. A lot of people are unaware that he actually encouraged people who studied with him not to write music like his.

SA: Look at Sondheim.

FJO: Well, before Babbitt started writing serial music, he had written a musical theater work. And for the rest of his life he maintained a love for Tin Pan Alley music.

SA: He knew more Tin Pan Alley than anybody else.

FJO: One thing I found so intriguing was the little piano piece you wrote honoring Babbitt.

SA: For his birthday. That’s on his name.

FJO: It’s part of a cycle, which also included pieces for Ned Rorem, David Diamond, and Gunther Schuller. What I found so interesting about them is that in each you created pieces that evoked their music but you did it basing the material on letters from each of their names. Babbitt starts B-A-B-B. There are all of these Bs, so whatever music you create from that should instantly sound tonal, yet you still managed to compose something that sounded serial, even though it isn’t serial.

SA: That’s right. Well, you can do B both ways: you can do it as B-natural or you can do B as B-flat. We don’t use H, like in German. In America, we use B. But in German, B would be B-flat. Then [since A is the first letter of the alphabet and C is the first letter of the musical alphabet], if you can count C as the first one [e.g. A], B [which is the second one] would be C-sharp. So you have three ways of doing it. That’s how I got its 12 tones.

FJO: Ah, so you cheated.

SA: Of course. That’s how you compose—you cheat!

FJO: It’s funny to hear you say that because one of the things that you’re known and revered for is for writing one of the most definitive books on orchestration, which is the opposite of cheating. It is a bible for many composers, the book people turn to for the answers on what works and what doesn’t work.

SA: Oh well, I was kidding. The orchestration book I did as a tool because I had to teach orchestration. I could never see an orchestration book without every note being recorded so that students could hear it. By the way, the fourth edition is coming out and it will have streaming of all the music, so you have it on your computer. All you have to do is click and you hear the piece. We’re going into the 21st century and that has to be. The fourth edition is ready, but it’s going to take a little time because it’s so big. It’s going to have almost a thousand pages.

FJO: Wow.

Covers of Three Books by Sam Adler: Sight Singing, The Study of Orchestration, and Choral Conducting

Samuel Adler’s books have been a tremendous resource for generations of musicians.

SA: We added a long chapter on the band, which is necessary, I think.

FJO: Well good, that was actually what I wanted to talk about with you next—the difference between writing for orchestra and wind band. You’ve written a lot for wind band. You already mentioned your Third Symphony. You talked about people being able to hear 20 different interpretations of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. It’s very rare for that to happen with a new piece.

SA: Except when it’s wind ensemble.

FJO: Precisely.

SA: That’s why we write for wind ensemble. I’ve written 19 pieces for wind ensemble. I just finished a new one for a consortium of wind ensembles. It’s wonderful because, number one, you get lots of rehearsals. Number two, you get young people who are very excited about doing a new piece. My first wind ensemble piece, Southwestern Sketches, was written in 1960. An orchestra piece gets, if it’s lucky, one performance every three or four years. This gets a performance every week some place, you know. So, it’s worth doing.


Ed. Note: One of Alder’s most popular band pieces is A Little Night and Day Music which incorporates aleatoric elements. © 1977 by Carl Fischer Inc. (ASCAP). All rights reserved.


FJO: But even though there have been some extremely high profile composers who have written for wind band—Persichetti, Karel Husa, Copland, Hovhaness—there’s been a huge amount of really high-quality repertoire for wind band. But there’s still a stigma about it. I remember when Corigliano’s Third Symphony had its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall.

SA: I was there.

FJO: That was a very exciting performance, but because it was part of the CBDNA conference, and was performed by a student ensemble, The New York Times wouldn’t cover it.

SA: Oh, wow. I don’t really want to say much about The New York Times except one thing. I think they have some knowledgeable people as music critics, but I cannot understand how these people can let the arts section, when it says “new music,” be all pop. I think once a week they have a whole page that says new music, but they only discuss the new albums by pop singers. New music to me means more than just pop music, at least I hope so. And that’s why I think your endeavor is so important. I think this has created and I hope creates more new audiences that listen.

It’s wonderful to have a birthday these days because either it’s honored on National Public Radio or my wife puts it on Facebook. They have birthday celebrations on NPR stations and you’d be surprised how many people write to the composer then. I got a slew of letters last week because, for instance, the Oklahoma system and the Minnesota system had celebrated my birthday. That’s a wonderful feeling. I think if we did more like that in the newspapers, focus on new music not just music that sounds so different that nobody every wants to hear it again, but music that’s written by hundreds of wonderful composers, young composers—I just came back yesterday from Minneapolis where I heard a new opera by my former student, Kevin Puts, The Manchurian Candidate. I thought it was just a terrific piece. What’s interesting was what the comments were. An opera cannot be one style. Even Wozzeck, one of the great operas of the 20th century, changes styles quite often. Kevin did the changing of styles just beautifully and, of course, he was criticized for it, which I think is wrong. When you have a band marching on the stage, you have to write music with the band marching on the stage. So they said something sounded like John Philip Sousa. Well, good. He’s a great composer of marches, you know. I think so much great music is being written, and we should not feel that we need to apologize in any way.

Samuel Adler and Kevin Puts, both wearing a jacket and tie, standing next to each other.

Samuel Adler and Kevin Puts in Minneapolis following the premiere of Puts’s opera The Manchurian Candidate in March 2015. (Photo courtesy Kevin Puts.)

FJO: We didn’t really touch on your operas yet. You wrote five operas, but I have not heard any of them yet.

SA: One you can hear streaming on Naxos—The Wrestler, the second opera, which is a 12-tone opera by the way.

FJO: Wow. Five operas is a formidable amount of work, but it’s interesting that you haven’t written one in nearly 40 years. Something must have made you stop.

SA: Well, I have an opera lying on my shelf which can’t be done. It’s based on a story, and the author objected to the libretto, so we can’t do anything with it. I’m in negotiations with him. Maybe I can move him a little bit. I sometimes see him. But you know, I can’t be sued for five million dollars. I don’t have that.

FJO: So this is something that you wrote more recently.

SA: Yes.

FJO: So you are still interested in writing operas.

SA: I am. As a matter of fact, I would like to do a children’s opera. In Germany they commissioned a piece for children on a subject that I’m sorry American children don’t know, but every child in Germany knows, and that’s Max und Moritz. It’s been very successful in Germany. It’s for narrator and large orchestra. It’s like Peter and the Wolf, except everybody knows the story Peter and the Wolf. Max und Moritz is a darker story. They get ground up at the end. They’re bad boys, and so.

FJO: You’ve also written a great amount of choral music.

SA: Too much.

FJO: Well, one thing that I find fascinating is that you’ve written a lot of sacred choral music, including what I think is an extremely effective setting of a mass. But you’re not a Christian.

SA: This was an ecumenical mass and it was commissioned for a specific purpose. As a matter of fact, I have two. One commissioned by Notre Dame in 1975 called We Believe. And the other is the mass that you’re referring to. I feel that religion has very few boundaries when you get on the basic level of it. Even though I am a practicing Jew, sometimes anyway, and I believe in my religion, I can also see other religions and they mean something to me. Especially I’ve studied a lot of Christianity. My father, being a cantor, was also a great expert on the literature of Christianity, and I have steeped myself in that, too. I had a teacher at Boston University who for two years taught us chant, starting with Gregorian chant, going all the way through Lutheran and Episcopal chant and everything else. And of course I’ve studied Jewish chant and this influences some of my writing.

FJO: But despite what you’re saying about religion having few boundaries, we’re living at a time where we’re seeing a very extreme interpretation of religion, and there’s a great rise in intolerance all over the world that is triggered by the extreme interpretation of religious beliefs. Now more than ever it seems important to stress that there can be a much broader ecumenical view.

SA: Yes, especially here in America. Europe is becoming much more secular, but religion does play a part. I had a commission by the Bach choirs of Germany, to write a cantata on Jonah. It’s in German, but it’s been translated and it’s going to be done in New York next year in English. It was first done in my home town, Mannheim. I went to the morning service, and there were hardly any people there. There were 30 people in a church that seats 1900. Well, I thought, “Oh my God, nobody’s going to come this afternoon.” So I talked to the organist who commissioned the piece and he said, “Sam, just don’t worry. The place is sold out this afternoon. We have a concert every Sunday afternoon because people don’t come in the morning, but they will come to music things in the afternoon.” It was packed.

FJO: Absolutely fantastic. All this discussion about being ecumenical and embracing things that are not of your immediate background reminds me of the last time we spoke with each other, which was after the New York premiere of your Tenth String Quartet. That performance was part of the Kyo-Shin-An Arts concert series and everything else on the program incorporated Japanese traditional instruments. We talked at that time about places your music would go, and places your music wouldn’t go. At that time, you said that you don’t really know the workings of these instruments, so you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing for them. This spirals back to the beginning of this conversation where you were talking about getting expertise in different instruments if you’re going to be a composer. So I’m curious about the level of risk you’re willing to take, things that you would set out to do in your music and things that you wouldn’t do and why.

SA: Well, I do take risks. You referred to the sonatas; I’ve also written a series of concert etudes for 22 instruments, including everyone in the orchestra. I tried to make those people take a risk to the nth degree of their ability. That’s the kind of risk I like to take. My heritage is European, from a religious point of view, Jewish, and also Western religions. That influences me and I feel comfortable writing for all these things. I’ve had many Chinese students, Korean students, Thai students, from all over. And I think they should write not only for Western instruments, but also for others. One of my students is the vice president of the Central Conservatory in Beijing, Xiaogang Ye, a wonderful composer. He has written a ballet on a subject of the 13th-century Dalai Lama, for Hong Kong, which has an orchestra and a Chinese orchestra. It’s fantastic. I couldn’t do that because I didn’t grow up in that tradition. He did. I’m too old now. Even if I were younger, I think it would be sort of fake for me to do that. Debussy once said, “A composer writes in his language.” That’s very true. And composers should take care of that. I can write in my language—a language I feel comfortable in, the language that I speak. I speak three languages, so I feel at home writing in those languages. While music doesn’t express any particular thing necessarily, there is a big difference between Debussy and Hindemith. Even though his Viola Sonata Opus 11, No. 4, starts out sounding like Debussy, very soon, after the fifth measure, it sounds like Hindemith. And Hindemith spoke perfect French, by the way. But that’s not his native language, nor mine, you know.

Adler, Rands and Schwantner standing and talking in a classroom in front of a blackboard with musical staves across it.

Samuel Adler (left) at the Eastman School of Music with Bernard Rands (center) and Joseph Schwantner (right) on April 2, 1986. Photo by Louis Ouzer , courtesy Sibley Music Library.

FJO: But you have written music for instruments that are outside your native language, so to speak. For example, you wrote a wonderful solo harpsichord piece. Part of what makes it so wonderful is that it’s very different from what one expects in terms of the sound world of a harpsichord.

SA: Right, that’s why I wrote it. There are two recordings of it, and both are excellent, but the new one on Toccata Records is fantastic. I’ve never heard anybody play it that fast. It’s amazing. But you know, that’s the risk I take, you see. Bach is my favorite composer, but I don’t want to write like Bach, because that’s not me. So I write like I think we can do something today with it. So, that’s my risk. I wrote it because I had a student who is a wonderful harpsichordist and organist, Barbara Harbach, who wanted a piece for harpsichord. She also recorded the piece. Anybody that wants a piece gets a piece.

FJO: So if somebody does want a piece for koto or pipa?

SA: Well, then I’d have to think about it. I’d have to first really study it, because it’s not easy to write for. I love these instruments, don’t get me wrong. But other people should write for it. The literature is growing by leaps and bounds. Five of my students have written pieces for pipa and also for koto, and they’re very good pieces.

FJO: What about electronics?

SA: Well, I love people, and I love what comes out of people when they play or sing. I don’t necessarily want to do electronic things unless there’s a definite reason, like in The Wrestler. I need to feel that it’s organic in the music. To add electronics, that has to have a very special reason. And I have not felt that I needed it. In The Wrestler, because I feel Jacob is wrestling with himself rather than with the angel, the angel is there but never speaks. It’s a distorted voice of Jacob that sings the angel’s part.

FJO: You’ve brought up a number of your students throughout the course of this conversation. Teaching has certainly been a very important part of your life for more than half a century.

SA: Sixty-three years of teaching.

FJO: So I wonder, aside from the incredibly generous activity of imparting your knowledge and experience to others, how this interaction fuels your own creative work.

SA: I’m very inspired by my students, especially because I’ve been able to choose my students, and they’ve been just great. I can’t think of the student that I wouldn’t have wanted to teach. I feel the teacher’s task is first and foremost to inspire the student to write as much as possible without any consideration for style and things like that. And then, slowly, to see if he or she can be moved to be something very special. And many of them can and do. I’m very happy with the result if you don’t immediately say, “I only want 12-tone music” or “I only want tonal music.” Let them bring you something, and go from there. You talked about Milton Babbitt. I feel exactly the same way. He never imposed his very strict system on anybody. If they wanted it, certainly. I had students who, after studying with me, went to Milton at Juilliard and also at Eastman, because we had Milton up in the summers to teach at Eastman. He never changed somebody’s style just because it should change. That’s the way I feel also. I think you have to be very careful with students because they’re volatile, and I am very careful because the most difficult thing in music is to create music. And after all, this is what they’re there for.

FJO: So how has teaching influenced your own music?

SA: I think I’m more careful. I see the problems that students have that I also have. Sometimes I solve them for myself by solving them for the students. That’s a great influence on me, as has being with young people, and always being fed new ideas. This has inspired me all my life.

FJO: And having taught for 63 years, that’s an incredibly long time.

SA: Yes, it is.

FJO: You don’t have to teach anymore. You can do whatever you want, but you’re still teaching.

SA: Well, I’m teaching in Berlin, that’s six weeks out of the year. And I go around the country doing masterclasses. I really quit Juilliard because of the commute. We live in Ohio. I commuted every week. That’s a tough thing. I did it for 18 years; I thought that was enough. The other thing is, I really would like to have more time for myself. I’m composing and I’m reading what I want to read a great deal. I’m actually practicing the piano, which makes me very happy. I’m the worst pianist, but it makes me very happy to have that tactile experience. And so every day I practice the piano, and I do a great deal of reading on all kinds of subjects. And I’m writing an autobiography with somebody, and so that takes up some time, too. So, I’m always busy.

FJO: Well, I’m glad that you made some time to talk to us today.

SA: It’s a great pleasure. I thank you for doing it.

Kevin Walczyk Wins 2012 Sackler Composition Prize


Kevin Walczyk

Composer Kevin Walczyk has been named the recipient of the ninth Raymond and Beverly Sackler Music Composition Prize. The competition, organized by the University of Connecticut’s School of Fine Arts, supports and promotes composers and the performance of their new musical works. An international award, the prize offers a substantial recognition including a commission of $25,000 to compose a work for a specific ensemble (which changes each year), public performances, and a recording. This year’s prize is for a concerto for brass quintet (Atlantic Brass Quintet) and wind ensemble.

Walczyk was chosen from among 65 entries from 10 countries and 12 states. Finalists included Justin Dello Joio (New York, NY), Augusta Read Thomas (Chicago, IL), and Roshanne Etezady (Evanston, IL). The 2012 adjudication panel was comprised of Edward Cumming, Tayloe Harding, and Tom Ervin.

Past Sackler Prize Composition Winners and Ensemble Categories:

(The Sackler Composition Prize was not awarded in 2010 and 2011.)

J. Mark Scearce
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra

Nathan Currier
Piano Concerto

Sheila Silver

Rufus Reid
Jazz Ensemble

Stacy Garrop
Chamber Ensemble

Orianna Webb
Chamber Orchestra

Karim Al-Zand
Chamber Orchestra

Gabriela Lena Frank
Chamber Ensemble

More details are available on a University of Connecticut webpage devoted to the Sackler Composition Prize .

A native of Portland, Oregon, Walczyk (b. 1964) is currently professor of music at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, where he teaches composition, orchestration, jazz arranging, film scoring, media production, and serves as the graduate music coordinator. Walczyk’s compositions have earned prizes or finalist status from the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s Harvey Gaul Competition (commissioning prize), Chamber Orchestra Kremlin’s International-Blitz Competition (2nd Grand Prize), the National Band Association’s William D. Revelli Memorial Composition Contest, College Band Directors National Association, ASCAP, BMI, Lionel Hampton Creative Composition Contest, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Wind Ensemble Composition Competition, three Masterworks of the New Era recording prizes from ERM Media, Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, Los Angeles Philharmonic Synergy project, the Lionel Hampton Creative Composition Competition, and Pacific Coast College Jazz Festival Merit of Achievement in Composition. Walczyk was selected as the Midwest Clinic 2010 commissioned composer and was selected for a special commission for the 2011 Midwest Clinic international conference. Recipient of a bachelor of arts in education degree from Pacific Lutheran University in 1987 and master of music and doctor of musical arts degrees from the University of North Texas, Walczyk served as arranger for the University of North Texas One O’clock Lab Band (1988-89). His principal composition instructors have been Larry Austin, Jacob Avshalomov, Thomas Clark, Martin Mailman, and Cindy McTee, plus jazz arrangers Tom Kubis and Frank Mantooth.

The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Music Composition Prize was established in 2002 through a gift from Raymond and Beverly Sackler, major philanthropists and frequent donors to the University of Connecticut. The Sacklers fund several important initiatives at the School of Fine Arts, including an artist-in-residence program, the Master Artists and Scholars Institute, and the Art and Archeology Lecture Series. The Sacklers were also instrumental in forging an academic partnership between the Metropolitan Opera and UConn, the first collaboration of its kind between the opera company and an institution of higher learning. In addition to the fine arts programs, the Sacklers fund many other initiatives at UConn.

Walczyk Score

A page from the score of Kevin Walczyk’s Second Symphony (“Epitaphs Unwritten”), one of the works the composer submitted for consideration for the 2012 Sackler Prize.
© Kevin Walczyk. Reprinted with the permission of Kevin Walczyk.

The Big Day (The 2011-2012 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog, Day 4)

Dress rehearsal! We go in concert order, with Michael Holloway’s lush Rhythm: Theta Beta Theta starting. Michael is, I believe, the youngest composer here this year, having just finished his undergraduate education (which he did in two years). His piece is impressively orchestrated, and does exactly what he described in his speech about it: it opens with slow and more luxuriously paced music, with faster music in the middle like the more active Beta brain-waves, and finally the Theta waves return to close the piece. His music has a breadth that seems beyond his years, and the orchestra really sounds fabulous playing it.

Michael R. Holloway Orchestral Score Excerpt

Excerpted from Michael R. Holloway’s Rhythm: Theta Beta Theta. © 2011 by Michael R. Holloway. Reproduced with the composer’s permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Andreia’s piece, like the geographical place, Xántara, that inspired her, is mysterious, elegant, magical. Her delicate textures and transparent orchestration are impressive. In her score, she uses such adjectives as “Floating” to impart the kind of playing she wants from the musicians. The ending particularly I found really breathtaking: quiet, with the kind of presence that demands a moment or two of silence from the listener before any applause would begin.

Andreia Pinto-Correia Orchestral Score Excerpt

Excerpted from Andreia Pino-Correia’s Xántara. © 2011 by Andreia Pino-Correia, Aljezur Music (ASCAP). Reproduced with the composer’s permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
My piece is in two movements: the GOD MUSIC movement, and the BUG MUSIC movement. In both, I was pushing canonic writing as far as I could, creating textures that feel to me colorful and exuberant, sometimes sounding statistical, sometimes highly organized. I’m very interested in the idea that my harmonies are organized by horizontal lines; and those lines are designed very carefully so that the harmonies will work out the way I want them to. I like my architecture to be clear, but I always strive for it to arise out of the materials I use: their details and internal directionality.

Hannah Lash Orchestral Score Excerpt

Excerpted from Hannah Lash’s God Music Bug Music: Two Movements for Orchestra. © 2011 by Hannah Lash administered exclusively worldwide by Schott Helicon Corporation, New York (BMI). Reproduced with the permission of the composer and publisher. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Shen Yiwen’s music has a certain meticulousness and clarity that are truly admirable. His piece does have a certain “American” sound, featuring broad, open sonorities and lush orchestration. It is brief: only about seven minutes. But one thing I noticed about all the pieces from my colleagues here is that each one is the right length. That’s not always the case—we’ve all sat through pieces that seem to last hours when in fact they’re only ten minutes. Or pieces that seem awkwardly truncated, as if the composer lost patience with his/her material.

Shen Yiwen Orchestral Score Excerpt

Excerpted from Shen Yiwen’s First Orchestral Essay. © 2010 by Shen Yiwen Reproduced with the composer’s permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Adrian’s piece Manchester is very quiet the whole way through, but incredibly detailed; it is about small things that happen within a broad framework—a framework that invites deep listening, meditation. It involves electronics that blend in and out of the live sound; their presence is never intrusive but rather they serve to expand the palette of sound. Adrian’s harmonies and timbres are inextricably linked in a way that displays real musical intelligence as well as a well-developed concept of what the music is. This is a piece that, despite its low dynamic level, has an extremely well-defined character whose presence commands the listener’s attention, pulls you in with its strong delicacy. It is anything but innocuous in its near silence.

Adrian Knight Orchestral Score Excerpt

Excerpted from Adrian Knight’s Manchester for Orchestra. © 2008 by Adrian Knight, Pink Pamphlet. Reproduced with the composer’s permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Brian’s Collective Uncommon is almost outrageous in its imaginativeness, but avoids any sensationalism (despite the food instruments and the Tickle-Me-Elmo voice boxes); instead the music is really haunting and beautiful—yes, we are given aural images that are truly bizarre, but they are sensitively used and we come away feeling we’ve experienced something far more meaningful than a freak-show: something human, something beautiful and sad.

Excerpted from Brian Ciach’s Collective Uncommon for Orchestra. © 2010 by Brian Ciach. Reproduced with the composer’s permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
After individual mentor meetings all afternoon with Maestro Vänskä, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Steven Stucky, we had a brief break before the concert. Then we all filed into the Green Room to meet with Fred Child from MPR, who would host the event, interviewing each of us briefly on stage before our pieces. Fred is a wonderful interviewer; he had listened to all our speeches online in this blog from the Donor Dinner, so he already had a sense of each of us.

When it came time to go into the hall, we found out that the house was really packed—both on the orchestra level, and at least the first tier. I’ve never had a piece played to such a large audience before. The energy of the crowd felt overwhelmingly positive; there were a lot of different ages of people, and you got the sense that everyone was excited to be there and anxious to hear what was going on in new music for orchestra.

I won’t go through all the pieces again since I’ve already done that from the dress rehearsal, but I will say that the orchestra sounded even better than they had earlier in the day. It really is a thrill to hear such a tremendous force onstage, no matter what the repertoire, but to have them playing your own music is really exhilarating!

There was a brief reception for us in the Green Room during intermission; and the other opportunity we had to interact with the audience directly was in a Q and A session after the concert. It was great to know from people’s questions how interested they were in new music, and how much they wanted to encourage us as relatively newer composers alive today.

Talking About Our Music (The 2011-2012 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Blog, Day 2)

Wednesday started off with another public speaking workshop; this time our coach Diane Odash had us practice our pre-concert speeches on the orchestra stage. This was helpful for working out any kinks that might occur, and I felt much more comfortable with my little talk after receiving Diane’s feedback.

Following this were two seminars by James Kendrick, an attorney and the head of Schott Publishing. These were in-depth explanations of copyrights, licensing, commissioning contracts, and negotiating. Mr. Kendrick is an extraordinary resource, and the amount of information he has is truly impressive. Something we can all take away from these sessions is that as composers, we can’t just know our own craft; we also have to be familiar with those legal and business matters that protect our livelihoods and make our survival as working artists possible.

Bill Holab’s session on music engraving and copying was equally packed with important points, and was geared specifically to address matters that had come up in each of our orchestra parts. After feeling pretty good that the orchestra players yesterday had found no issues with my parts, I was taken down a few notches by Mr. Holab, who very helpfully pointed out several engraving issues that I should address in order to make my parts clearer and better from a music copying standpoint.

The highpoint of the harp seminar that followed was when Principal harpist Kathy Keinzle played Salzedo’s Song in the Night for us, (I think that was the piece, if my harp knowledge serves!) demonstrating various extended techniques on her lovely Salvi harp. As a harpist myself, I had a lot of fun hearing her thoughts on orchestral harp writing, and found her approach to the instrument in the orchestral context wonderful.

Finally, we had a short break to get ourselves ready for the Donor Dinner at the home of Gloria and Fred Sewall. This was a lovely event; the house was truly a work of art, having been designed about a decade ago by the eminent architect Charles R. Stinson. As you approached the front entrance, there was a graceful and life-like statue of a leopard looking out onto the side lawn, poised as if to stalk its prey.

Inside the house, the floors were light finish hardwood, playing into the light and airy impression of the interior structure of the home. The large living room featured angular and colorful art, arranged beautifully as if in a museum. To one side of the room was a large black grand piano. (I didn’t get a look at the brand, but it was quite a lovely matte finish.)

Sewell Piano

After meeting and mingling with the donors, board members, and the commissioning club who were all in attendance, our hostess Gloria gathered us together so that Michael Hensen, Aaron Jay Kernis, Osmo Vänskä, and finally the six of us participants, could say a few words about the institute and give thanks for the support of these many people.

So when it came time for the six of us to speak, we got a chance to practice our newly sharpened public speaking skills. Michael Holloway started us off, graciously thanking the donors and expressing his appreciation for the virtuosity of the orchestra before describing his piece, Rhythm: Theta Beta Theta, which is based upon brain waves (apparently he was having some work done on his brain and had an EEG which showed him his own Theta and Beta waves, which inspired the piece).

Portuguese-born Andreia Pinto-Correia followed Michael, sharing her very personal and dynamic story about how she came to be a composer. Her piece, Xántara, is about a place in Portugal near Lisbon, whose natural beauty has made it notorious.

I went next, describing a little about my background and then saying a few words about my piece, GOD MUSIC BUG MUSIC, whose rather flamboyant and irreverent title demands an explanation.

Shen Yiwen was next; his piece First Orchestral Essay, draws some inspiration from Samual Barber. His piece, like mine, is based on a five-note motive; his motive, unlike mine, is an ascending one. He told us that some people have described his piece as an “Americana piece” despite his Chinese roots.

Adrian Knight gave a thoughtful and characteristically insightful introduction to his work, Manchester, a title for which he hopes the audience will find its own meaning.

Finally, Brian Ciach spoke about his Collective Uncommon: Seven Orchestral Studies on Medical Oddities, a piece inspired by the Mütter Museum, a museum of medical oddities in Philadelphia. Apparently as you enter the museum, you see a 30-foot colon immediately in front of you, then a woman with a nine-inch horn growing out of her forehead, and many other strange medical relics. Brian depicts these oddities sonically with the help of what he describes as “food instruments” amplified macaroni and cheese and cabbage heads. He also uses the voice boxes from Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls to represent the shrunken heads in the museum. These “food instruments” are particularly intriguing because Brian, in addition to being a composer, is a professional chef.

The evening ended with a lovely dinner and lively conversation.