Over the last few weeks, I’ve been involved in several world premieres of new works, one with the LA Philharmonic New Music Group and one with the LA Opera. Cantatrix Sopranica by composer Unsuk Chin was premiered May 9 at Disney Hall. A very strange piece involving three singers (one of them was Paul Flight, a countertenor who sang John Adams’ El Nino with the orchestra back in December of last year) and a small chamber group with classical guitar, harmonica and a huge dual-player percussion setup. The Berio-ish writing and references couldn’t avoid comparison, and many people I spoke to afterwards enjoyed the piece. From the players’ point of view, however, the piece was stillborn. Overly and unnecessarily complicated writing, often written above or below (or sometimes both) the range of the various instruments shows a disregard if not a downright ignorance of the basics of orchestration. It’s hard for schooled and experienced musicians to respect any composer who exhibits such an obvious incompetence. However, that being said, the assembled musicians pulled off an incomparable miracle and the piece almost achieved a transcendence that I would have found hard to believe a few days earlier. I attribute much of that success to Alexander Mickelthwate’s conducting and his concentration in preparing the piece and guiding the players during rehearsals. Showing an uncanny calmness and cool, he answered every question and solicited suggestions from the players whenever something was unclear or unplayable in their parts. He truly has the perfect personality for tackling an unforgiving job like this. The composer, on the other hand, sat in the front row during rehearsals, without a smile on her face or an acknowledgement to the orchestra that was jumping through hoops to play her music.
New music players are used to unusual notation and performance practices, and usually relish the chance to dig into a difficult meaty part. Most of what players are called on to perform in other situations falls within the realm of a more traditional sense of music, so “new music” gives them the chance to stretch and live outside the box while sharpening other musical abilities not usually called upon in performance. I like to think that the challenge keeps us “honest”, on our toes and prevents the “same old, same old” mentality from setting in, which could be and has been the creative and mental death of so many musicians who find themselves in a comfortable situation in their careers. Walk through the ring of fire once in awhile. It’s good for you. Really.
The LA Opera’s commission of Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel (directed by his life partner, Julie Taymor, of Frida and The Lion King fame) was scheduled to open tonight but has been postponed due to mechanical problems with a giant set piece. Tonight is now a dress rehearsal and several previews are taking the place of scheduled performances. As the old adage goes, the only thing more expensive than opera is war. Elliot won an Oscar for his score to Frida and is well known for many of his other film scores. Written for a 100-piece orchestra, two electric guitars, electric bass and another huge percussion setup (which also includes electronics), Grendel aims to make a big musical statement. The electric guitar parts range from twinkly music box sounds utilizing artificial harmonics to wildly distorted raw chords. I’m also doubling on electric bass for several scenes, which is an unusual double for a guitarist, but there’s not enough written to warrant the hiring of an extra player, and besides, it’s a lot of fun! I’ll try to write an update soon and let you know how everything turns out…
May 27, 2006 | Link to this entry
I usually don't write personal entries here, but today I must make an exception. My mother passed away on Saturday May 6, 2006 after a short illness. I wrote the following words for her funeral, and they were read by my cousin, Tom Unger.
How does one say goodbye to one’s mother? It must count as one of life’s most difficult tasks, for a mother is there at the beginning, our host into this world, a tether to connect our lives and ground our feelings. And when that tether is lost we feel disconnected, adrift in that same world we felt so safe in.
The bond of trust and friendship that grows between a mother and her children is a special one. An unbreakable pact that holds firm through times of happiness and times of sorrow. It is the glue that holds a family together, sustaining long after the children have left home for college and for work, to make their mark upon the world.
My nearly three-year-old daughter is fond of a book which tells the story of five little ducklings leaving the nest for the first time to take a swim with their mother. Each time the mother duck calls on one of her youngsters to jump in the water and follow her, she says, “You can do it. I know you can!” And each duckling, after much hesitation, follows their mother into the lake; all fears subside and they end up loving the experience. Mother as teacher, guide, cheerleader, protector and friend.
And even as I write this, overwhelmed with sadness and grief, I can hear my mother saying, “You can do it. I know you can!” Even when they have left this Earth, mothers continue to teach, to guide and to console. We may feel so alone in their absence, but the life’s worth of lessons they’ve given us continues to live within.
My mother was a woman of many talents and one of the skills she took much pride in was her wonderful baking. When she was still working, she would take her vacation just before Christmas in order to set aside enough time to bake many batches of at least 2 dozen different types of cookies. It was hard work but she loved to do it. The pleasure it gave her was beyond words.
Last week, on my last night in Buffalo, we were gathered around my mother’s dining room table for dinner. My brother Mitch and his girlfriend Sue were there, my wife Laurie and daughter Elise, and my longtime friends, Rick and Barbara. I discovered that one of the many cookie tins that sat atop the refrigerator wasn’t empty and upon opening it, found that there were enough leftover Christmas cookies, perfectly fresh, for each of us to share one last taste of cookie goodness.
As night fell and the day drew to a close, we all said our goodbyes to one another and my daughter, who is too young to comprehend the seriousness of our visit sighed, “What a nice day.” My friend Barb called her a Little Buddha, such an enlightening remark, in view of the circumstances, coming from a child.
My daughter’s innocent observation reminds us that although we may be grieving today, life on this Earth marches on and will continue to fill our minds. But as for lives remembered, they will continue to fill our hearts.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom…
May God keep you in his holy and mighty care.
May 11, 2006 | Link to this entry
I apologize for the unannounced hiatus in new entries here, but my mother is gravely ill and I have been attending to family matters. I will be back online as soon as I am able. Thanks for your understanding...
May 4, 2006 | Link to this entry