Letter to the Editor: I was a Magnum Opus Composer

To the Editor:

Having been one of the fortunate (and deserving!) recipients of Kathryn Gould’s Magnum Opus commissioning project, I’d like to make a few personal comments on how the program played out in my case. Kathryn is more than a wealthy business woman with an “interest” in contemporary music; she is a trained musician who has a wide and diverse musical background. Her likes and dislikes are strong. When you get a commission from her you know she really likes your music. But you also know (and you didn’t point this out in the article) that she selects her composers in consultation with the various conductors of the participating orchestras. So I knew that my music was not just attractive to her but passed muster with the likes of Michael Morgan, Jeffrey Kahane, and Alasdair Neal.

But Kathryn is not reluctant to discuss her reaction to the music, critically, with the composer, as I found out. It was after the second performance of my piece, Bright Kingdoms, by the Santa Rosa symphony under Jeff Kahane, that she made a specific criticism of a passage in the music that she thought didn’t work. It was a question of the blending of a trombone line with some processed voices parts on the tape part. Somehow, the two elements rubbed her the wrong way, so to speak, and she let me know it! (I should say that in general she liked the piece a lot.)

I have to say that at first I was a bit offended—commissioners are not supposed to interfere in the creative process (the “too many notes, Mozart” syndrome)! I considered her comments to be beyond the protocol of the composer-commissioner relationship. But as time passed and I prepared the revised version for the third performance with the Marin Symphony, that particular passage kept standing out like a sore thumb and I came to realize that it was a weak moment, that there was a problem there. She was right. I got rid of the trombone lines and put them in the horns with new harmonic movement. It was a definite improvement! I’m not sure if she approved of the revised passage—she wasn’t able to make that performance—but I did, and it was thanks to her critical ear that I became aware of the problem. Sometimes a composer needs a nudge from another set of ears.

In an abstract way I’d say that a commissioner shouldn’t interfere at all in the composer’s creative process, and I think Kathryn was somewhat uneasy about voicing her criticism to me, but I have to admit she was right, and her musical tastes and instincts helped to contribute to a better composition.

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