Day Five: Am I Hooked?

Is my song too sweet? Have I lost focus, here in orchestra-orgasmafantasyland? Have I begun to think that now I would actually like to inhabit this world and set up a little patisserie? That’s easy. But I live in Ithaca. I haven’t even HEARD a professional symphony orchestra in months—has being this close to all of it clouded my judgment?

Nope. Wait, let me think…Nope. Not at all.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m still riding high from yesterday—what a thrill. And the whole week, it’s been extreme. Today, it was a twelve-hour day of seminars and meetings with nothing but bathroom breaks and a quick sushi jaunt. But a slam-dunk-style immersion into a world this complex isn’t necessarily about having fun. And reading what orchestra players who just tried to slam-dunk your piece had to say about their experience on convenient, color-coded by composer (they really like color-coding here at the MO) evaluation forms (Shepherd, surface tension: PINK) can be withering. There was an especially tangy—think mint julep with orange juice—kind of psychosis rampant among those of us who had pieces read as Aaron delivered our forms back to us. He gave them back just before a seminar with composer Mary Ellen Childs, who led us down the long, windy road of grant applications, and it was all any of us could do not to sit there and rudely read the potentially blistering commentary on our work: Hurts so good! Mine were thoughtfully written and often vehement. I got one “bravo” and someone else declared my parts awfully written, the music ugly and with no clear architecture, but then wished me well. Most everyone else in the orchestra fell in between.

My colleagues who also had pieces read yesterday were complete professionals. They interacted beautifully with Osmo and David Alan Miller (the young new-music demigod of conductors, coaxed in from Albany this week, and a great, positive presence at the Institute) and they were all well-spoken and engaging as they described their pieces. And they wrote great pieces. Just a few words about every one’s experience as I saw it:

Norbert Palej, my friend for several years and several schools now, wrote Estampie specifically for this opportunity and took full advantage of the whole orchestra—quadruple winds and all. Norbert is a finicky, fuzzy composer, and he slaved away at crafting the bold and richly orchestrated open sonorities that the piece is largely made of. His grunt-work paid off, and the piece sounded as though it had been delivered in a fancy box upon first hearing, and the rest of the time was spent on details. J. Anthony Allen’s Sunder flowed effectively through several well-crafted landscapes, and his keen focus on forward linearity lent the piece a logical shape. Osmo, Jorja, and J. worked through a tricky passage for the entire violin section involving complicated accents, which took a sizable chunk of time. The composers’ need for textural variation met a challenge when the musicians couldn’t logistically achieve the clarity they needed to bring the passage out with confidence. Splitting duties between section members was a viable option in this case, and in the final run-through, the shape of the piece, as well as the details, came through.

Zhou Tian’s piece, Through the Palace of Nine Perfections, was the orchestra hit (no, not the midi patch). Texturally vibrant, sparklingly scored, and with distinct sections and a broad range of characters, the piece made good sense. Tian is originally from China and at Julliard now, and I heard a peculiarly French sensibility when it comes to color—delicate and well-wrought. It’s no wonder the players liked it. For the last piece of the day, Matt Fields gave us a wild view through space with Hubble Space Telescope Views. This piece was the wild card for me as I looked at the score beforehand—difficult music, thickly scored. That usually goes one of two ways in a hurry. But Matt, who finished his doctorate a ways back, but had adventures like learning sign language and using it in the Czech Republic, delivered a piece full of delicious sonorities, colors and moments. He, like Norbert, was hearing the piece for the first time, and said he’s got some work to do in thinning things out. I agree that the intricate filigrees that got covered yesterday would benefit from a little breathing room.

My meeting (the post-reading mentoring session) with Aaron went well. Where we had talked in such detail during our earlier conversations, we talked big picture tonight—structure, gesture, what next. Aaron has been a champion and great host for us all week, and we all feel loved by the place thanks to him. Those of us who are vertically challenged seem to often have similar eating habits, and while I can’t comment on the stature of the man, I have noticed he falls right in line on certain points:

  1. Loves sweets. Check.
  2. Eats slowly. Check.
  3. Will eat as long as there is food available. Check.
  4. Last one eating. Check.

I don’t know what it is with us. Maybe there is something to the hollow-leg theory. Being a member of the short-man-funny-eating club (I don’t try to hide it), I feel a keen kinship with my brethren. My friend Nico says that Aaron, Milton Babbitt (Happy Birthday, my boy!) and I should form a collective. I know Milton likes dumplings—I think we’ve got enough to start with right there.

I love that Aaron has such a great working relationship with the orchestra and the organization. I love that he is considered a vital member of said organization, by the players and the administration alike. Bob Neu and Tony Woodcock, the orchestra’s general manager and president respectively, have been curious like any good leaders, closely watching the Institute from a distance. Sneaking into the back of the hall during the sessions for a few minutes when they can, they loom silently and distantly (while busy running an orchestra) and let us get to work. It’s clear they’ve put their trust in Aaron on programs like this, and the Institute is just one of many projects that the he deals with. And Aaron is celebrating us the whole time. That is one of my favorite things about a life in music. The system of apprenticeship is alive and well, and Aaron gives his time and energy, to the Institute and to us, partially out of a gratitude for those that were there to help him at an earlier time.

Tomorrow—last day! And the last session of readings. And then martinis.

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