Saturday, August 23, 2008

The semi-retirement of a comb binder

Yesterday marked a small but significant occasion as I put my comb binder into semi-retirement. I say semi retirement as it will be my back up system from now on. Roughly ten years ago I stumbled upon an industrial comb binder at a tag sale in New Cannan, CT (town next to where my parents lived). In addition to all the regular junk, they guy was selling a couple of pieces of old office equipment including this fancy industrial binder from GBC. He said it was a $5000 piece of equipment and should run forever. This was back before Staples sold $150 manual binders (that definitely didn’t last forever). At the time, every composer I knew ran off to Kinkos and paid $2 per score for comb binding ($4 for larger scores). Kinkos screwed it up more than half the time and 80% of the time if the score was bigger than 8.5x11.

So this guy offered to sell me this electric powered binder for $500. I jumped on the opportunity and moved the 80 lb. monster into my mother’s car and never paid Kinkos to bind my scores again. From that day forward binding cost me $.20 for the plastic comb and I could bind any time I wanted. Probably it paid for itself within the first three years and now that 10 years have passed, I would guess it has saved me a few thousand and certainly many hours getting to Kinkos and watching them screw up my scores.

Sadly, the comb binding system is becoming obsolete. Coil binding is in. Its slicker, doesn’t get crushed so easily, and makes a lot less noise when turning pages. All the new kids are using coil binding these days. So it was time to upgrade but where would I find a tag sale that would sell me a $5000 unit for $500. This minor miracle would not happen again, but I did buy a great unit at a discount from my old teacher Jennifer Higdon. She upgraded to coil binding 8 months ago (Jennifer is always on the cutting edge when it comes to self publishing). Her business is so booming that in retrospect she wishes she sprang for the super fancy model. We made a deal, they shipped me their slightly used binder, and yesterday I was binding scores with my new coil binder for the first time. It definitely is sexy compared to the old fashioned comb binder.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Back in Aspen

So the blogging seems off to a rocky start. I take a trip for a premiere and write a flourish of blogs. Then a few weeks off and I write nothing. Everyone tells me the success of a blog depends on regular posts. I’ll give it another shot…

Well I am back on the road for a premiere and am ready to restart the blogging. Hopefully this time I will find a more regular blogging pattern and will not have giant gaps between posts.

We’re in Aspen where my piano quintet will be premiered in a couple of days. This was a two part commission where part of the piece was premiered last summer and now the complete piece will be premiered on Monday.

Its been a very unusual and delightful experience to write the piece in two parts. This 20 minute, 4 movement work moves from a very dark first half towards a very light second half. The darker half was written a year ago and is actually the most difficult music in the piece. A very thoughtful and dedicated group premiered that part at Aspen last summer. They were all veterans of new music and never shied away from a challenge. Yet the collective years of experience illuminated nuances that would simplify very difficult spots and strengthen the effect of the piece. I had also never worked with a group so dedicated towards discovering the best tempos, phrasing, articulation, etc of a brand new piece.

Following that wonderful experience I made a handful of changes to those two movements and had the Boulder Piano Quartet present this portion on my faculty recital last December. They had less rehearsal time but the piece came together very well following the changes and insight of the first group. This past spring I wrote the two additional movements. I specifically wanted movements that not only contrasted and complemented the music of Part I, but I also wanted to compliment the very demanding playing in Part I. The result is a slow and gorgeous third movement, and a fast lyrical fourth movement. Both of these movements really allow the players to breathe a bit and resolve the difficult first two movements.

So I am back in Aspen with a portion of the original group and two new players. The change in players was unexpected and disappointing, but all has worked out well. My wife, Hsing-ay Hsu, was hired as the pianist for this year’s performance. Of course she has played nearly every chamber piano part I have written and is the living (and only) expert on my music. She was delighted to join the stellar group and loves the high level music making and constant thoughtful discussion about the music. The other new player is a wonderful Juilliard violinist, Kathryn Eberle.

I can’t wait for this wonderful premiere.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

More time in the mountains - July 9

Today we got to do a bit of backcountry driving. This past spring we joined the evil forces of the world and bought an SUV. We picked up a 2000 Toyota 4Runner Limited. The 4Runner’s have the best record in terms of durability and low maintenance. Hey, it’s a Toyota…

We got the 4Runner to pull our pop-up camper as well as for the 4 wheel drive option in winter time. I was also hoping it would give me access to more trailheads that are several miles down dirt roads. Well, after a short morning walk at Snow Mountain Ranch, we decided to follow a dirt road we had seen the day before. It is called Blue Ridge Rd and heads out the back of Snow Mountain Ranch and up a mountain I can only guess is called Blue Ridge. It started off easy enough, but soon enough we were navigating rocks I would never attempt in our Honda Accord. All told, we drove ten miles to the top and felt like we put the car through at least a moderate workout. The view was good but the journey was better. Oddly enough, our daughter slept the whole way. The bumps which kept the adults on edge lulled her to sleep.

During the 20+ mile round trip, we didn’t see another car or person. Definitely off the beaten path.

More time in the mountains - July 7

I’m off in the mountains for a few more days. This past spring we purchased a pop-up camper. If you have not seen one, they are quite clever. They close up as something long and flat that is rather modest to tow. Then the roof cranks up, the ends pop out, and a kitchen, table and chairs get set up inside. It is a camper that is covered mostly in canvas and plastic windows but also has heat, a sink, indoor and outdoor stovetop burners, a refrigerator, electricity, lights, 3 beds, and lots of storage. It has many of the amenities of RVs but feels more like camping as you can open all of the windows and have 360 degree views. For my wife, myself, and our two year old, it fits the bill and makes camping just the right mix of comfort and enjoying the mountains.

We’ve headed off to Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA camp near Winter Park on July 6. My inlaws have joined us although they are staying in a lodge room. We awoke to 2 hours of rain this morning and the constant patter of drops on canvas. My daughter and I had a long talk about what was making the sound of rain. I tried to tell her how it is like a shower (like the one in our bathroom) but that the whole sky is taking a shower. I’m not sure she understood. Tomorrow we’ll work on the expression “its raining cats and dogs”.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

RMNP - Residency - a piercing finish

My residency came to a pointed end. Last Friday night I thought I better get a jump on cleaning the kitchen as I would depart by noon on Saturday. So I filled up a sink with soapy water and put in a load of dirty dishes. While cleaning them, I suddenly realized a glass had a big chip in the side, then I noticed my right hand pinkie was covered in blood. The glass chipped and I had cut myself without noticing.

I rinsed off the wound and tried to cover it with some paper towel. Boy did it bleed and bleed. The cut was an inch and a half long and went right over the knuckle.

OK, no more bloody details. I finally got it wrapped with some stuff from first aid and it stopped bleeding. Right then I should have thought to get it checked out. Instead I thought it was my last night and I really wanted to watch the last of the light disappear from the valley while sitting on the porch. It should clot up pretty well over night and all would be fine.

In the morning I noticed it was hurting quite a bit. I still decided to not bother the doctors (or to not let the doctors bother me) and proceeded to pack up my stuff and set the cabin right for the next artist. The finger slowed me down but by around 12:30PM I had my stuff packed up. At that time I changed the dressing and realized it hadn’t clotted up at all.

Now I finally made the decision to have the finger checked out. However, my original plans were to take an afternoon hike before meeting someone at the Rocky Ridge Music Center at 4PM. It seemed silly to miss the hike and surely my little cut could be treated quickly on my way to Rocky Ridge. So I took a hike to Lake Haiwaia that was absolutely stunning. This wonderful lake is less popular than Emerald yet it is bigger and surrounded by giant craggy rocks. It was a big destination for folks who love bouldering. I got back to the car by 2:45PM and thought I could still make my 4PM.

Being a Saturday afternoon, I ended up in the ER. Everyone was nice but I had to tell at least 4 different people how I had stupidly cut my finger doing dishes. David Ludwig would later suggest I tell everyone it had been a bear attack (he said I could add while doing dishes if I insisted on honesty).

Apparently I should have gone to the doctor right away as you can not use stitches on a wound older than 12 hours. The chance of infection jumps at that time. So they cleaned me up and put on some strips that act like stitches. They put the whole thing in a splint which I need to wear for several days.

The worst part was that I couldn’t tell them when I last had a tetanus shot, so they fixed me right up with a nice tetanus shot. That sill hurts a few days later.

I missed the 4PM but asked David Ludwig to cover my meeting. I definitely got sympathy from my wife who brought me Mexican for dinner (not her favorite food).

Friday, June 27, 2008

RMNP - Artist Residency - Day 12

Well my 2 week residency is almost over. One more night and I check out by noon tomorrow. Final thoughts or grand statements about art and nature will come later.

For the time being, I am very pleased to be nearly finished with my 2 minute horn fanfare. After searching through many of bad ideas, I found something I like and am pleased with the piece. It will be pretty wild to hear 8 horns play my music. Since they don’t have to balance with any strings or other winds, it will be loud.

This piece is a specific response to my time in RMNP. It is the official piece that I will offer the park as a document of my residency. The piece does not have a title yet but it was inspired by a particularly wonderful drive to the Alpine Visitor Center on Trail Ridge Road. We went up around 7PM last weekend and experienced the sun setting on the higher parts of the road. In all my life, I have never watched the sun set from such an elevation. It was the most incredible and warm/orange/intense light. So my piece is a reflection of that late alpine light. Hopefully next week I can get CU horn faculty Michael Thornton to play through portions of the piece to see how it lays on the horn.

I hiked to Mills Lake yesterday. This was one absolutely great hike. Great views the entire way and a huge variety of terrain and landscape. Mills lake is probably the most beautiful RMNP lake I have yet hiked to. I am thinking of hiking to the Loch tomorrow to check out another lake.

I will be sad to leave but happy to be back with my wife and daughter.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

RMNP - Artist Residency - Day 9

Another productive day in the mountains. Good progress was made on my piece for string quartet with 18 winds. Unfortunately I threw out everything I did on the horn fanfare yesterday. I’m going to start from scratch tomorrow.

Took a short hike to the top of the hill behind the cabin. Must have been at least 1000 vertical, maybe 1500. The view was extraordinary. Passed an elk skeleton on the way down.

Last night after I was done working I watched a couple of episodes of Top Chef Season 2. Boy do I love that show. It certainly is a cruel competition when they deliberately set up the contestants for failure with an impossible task and then judge them harshly when they don’t perform miracles.

Monday, June 23, 2008

RMNP - Artist Residency - Day 8

This morning I turned my energies towards a 2 minute fanfare for eight horns. CU prof Michael Thornton will conduct the premiere with the CU horn ensemble at a national horn conference in late July. As part of my residency at RMNP I am supposed to deliver a piece of art to the park within a year that they can use to promote the Artist-in-Residency program. With visual artists this is a much simpler task. For my own part, I thought a horn fanfare inspired directly by my stay would work well. I will likely be able to offer a recording the park can use on their website and it is also quite likely I can arrange for the CU Horn Ensemble to perform a concert in the park next summer that will include the fanfare.

After my wife and daughter departed this morning, I committed to two solid hours of brainstorming ideas for this horn fanfare. I went through idea after idea and discarded almost all of them. I wanted some idea that captured both the grandeur of these mountains but also a bit of the terror or frightening strength. In the last ten minutes I came up with an idea I was excited about. Now on my lunch break, I am less convinced it is “the” idea to carry this two minute piece. To be continued this afternoon…

After my two hour work session, I took a walk above the Allen White Cabin. I wanted to climb the hill the cabin sits on and see where it goes. First thing I passed was Mr. White’s actual writing studio. It sits some 100 feet up the hill from the main cabin with even more spectacular views. Boy this guy had it all. He had a main cabin, two cabins for his kids, and a private writing studio. All within the heart of what became one of the most magnificent National Parks. This set up has now been firmly planted in my susperstar composer fantasy world.

The rest of the hike was great but cut short by one fierce looking storm traveling across the valley towards my hill. The hill rose rather sharply so before long I was up high and exposed. The first drops of rain sent me scrambling and now my knees are a bit sore.

Back to the horn fanfare…

Sunday, June 22, 2008

RMNP - Artist Residency - Day 7

Yesterday evening my wife and daughter drove up for the weekend. My daughter loves it up here and goes nuts with all that is new. She is so happy running around the porch. This afternoon my sister drove up from Denver to spend one night. After a finally successful dinner of rice and beans, we all drove up Trail Ridge Road for the sunset. We had an amazing trip. Many of the crowds had left for the day and the sun between 7:30-8:30PM was just above the horizon of mountain peaks. It was an incredible orange light that touched only the highest elevations. We saw lots of elk and were able to take our closest photos. We passed a group of serious photographers on a random rock outcropping. They had tripods and long lenses and were all huddled together. We figured they must be watching something incredible like tap dancing rams. We pulled over and discovered it was a photo class that was shooting rocks…

I can’t believe half of my residency has ended. The time spent in nature and away from the rest of the world has been great. I am sure I will think back to this often through the most stressful times of next year. Creatively, it has also been very good. As I am starting new pieces, there is the constant burst of activity only to decide the idea is no good. After several days, the two movements I am working on are starting to take shape and the rhythm of writing these pieces has emerged. I’m praying for a very creative final week.

RMNP - Artist Residency - Day 6

My daily morning hikes have been wonderful. I’ve hit the trail between 8-9AM which beats much of the rush. I’ve been focusing on 5 mile round trip hikes so I can finish quickly and not get too tired for the rest of the day. The morning air is spectacular with routinely cloudless skies, cooler temperatures, and great smells.

So far I’ve done Bierstadt Lake, Cub Lake, the Pool below Fern Lake, Emerald Lake, and Sprague Lake (warm up on the first day). Emerald Lake is by far my favorite with two smaller lakes on the way up and spectacular views throughout the route.

I am absolutely inspired to make the effort to come up to RMNP to hike more regularly this fall.

Interesting occurrences while hiking…

-numerous tourists hiking without any water

-one hiker with sandals amidst the snow fields near Emerald Lake

-three scientists doing research at Emerald Lake that had to arrive by 6AM every morning

-one hiker talking on his Bluetooth ear piece making dinner plans while his companion walked silently behind him

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Rocky Mountain National Park – Artist-in-Residence: Day 4

Well, it was a moderately productive day…

I took my morning hike and made it to Cub Lake. It was a nice trip but the lake is definitely nothing special by RMNP standards.

Back at the cabin, I proceeded to start over on everything I worked on yesterday. Now its almost 7PM and I am not really pleased with anything I wrote today. Somehow these less productive days seem imperative for the very productive days. I just wish I could have hiked the whole day while still having the effect of a less productive day.

Yesterday afternoon brought through a couple of thunderstorms. Fantastic visual as I watched the whole sky while bolts of lighting struck distant mountains. The sort of thing you see in movies…

A coyote waltzed in front of my porch last night.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Rocky Mountain National Park – Artist-in-Residence: Day 2

Careful when you cook beans at altitude…

When I first got to Rocky Mountain National Park I knew I wanted to make a big pot of rice and beans. It seemed sort of romantic to make rice and beans while cooped up in a mountain cabin. Sort of traditional sustenance…

So I bought a bag of black beans and soaked them almost 18 hours. Then I boiled them for nearly three hours. I also cooked up some bacon, brown rice, onions, garlic, tomatoes, Mexican spices, and chilies. It smelled absolutely great and I had a nice big bowl before sleeping at 10PM.

It turns out that the beans were very undercooked and I woke up today with the worst stomach ache and yes, some gas. It seems that high altitude (low boiling point) and hard water (mountain well) make for a tremendously long cooking time for beans. Do you think canned beans and rice still qualifies for back country rice and beans…

After a very late start with the creative activity I bounced around between four projects I am starting this week. I quickly remembered that such unfocused creative time is hardly productive for me. I need to start to structuring my creative time in distinct blocks aimed at specific projects.

I did get a very nice start for my piece for string quartet with 18 winds. This piece will premiere next March with the Tackas String Quartet and the CU Wind Symphony. The movement I started writing is titled “A Tent for the Sun”.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Rocky Mountain National Park – Artist-in-Residence: Day 1

Yesterday I arrived in Rocky Mountain National Park to begin a two week Artist-in-Residence position. Many of the National Parks have artist cabins which are available to a variety of creative artists for two week creative stays.

In RMNP, the cabin is the Allen White Cabin located in Moraine Park with an exquisite view of the whole valley at Moraine Park.

I plan to blog my experience over the next couple of weeks so stay tuned.

For the moment my plans include beginning sketches for three pieces, writing a fanfare for 8 horns, daily morning hikes, and a bit of quality reading.

So far the wildlife count has been very high. After arriving yesterday afternoon with my wife and daughter, my daughter and I took a walk across the giant meadow. Halfway across we realized we were walking towards over 100 grazing elk. We got a bit closer and enjoyed their company for some time. It was hard to convince Kaela that they were elk and not “doggies”. This morning we took a short walk around Sprague Lake and upon driving out of the parking lot we were stuck for a few minutes as more elk sauntered just a few feet in front of the car.

If any local people stumble upon my blog, my first public talk will be tomorrow (Tuesday June 16) at 7:30PM in the main visitor center along Rt. 36.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Blog Hits the Big Time

I have been blogging for a bit more than a month…

Yet, my blog has reached the gossip column for a major newspaper. It turns out the San Diego Union Tribune has picked up my account of being spotted at the Zoo by a Zoo tour guide who sings in the San Diego Master Chorale. You simply can’t pay for this kind of publicity.

Thanks to Ellen from the sopranos who will soon join the service and give up zoo touring, as well as singing in the San Diego Master Chorale.

I truly enjoyed my day at the San Diego Zoo. Beyond the brief moment when I was recognized, I spent hours of anonymous animal gazing while listening to my precious mp3 player. Beyond the music of local composer Joseph Waters, I listened to some late Beethoven. There is no place like lengthy solitary listening to absorb late Beethoven. The sum of all the parts come together and I am usually moved to tears at one point or another. Probably the last three piano sonatas catch me the most. I used to say that Op 111 hit me the most. These days I would definitely say that op 109 & 110 hit me most.

Do you think Beethoven ever imagined I would hear near perfect recordings of his piano works in remarkable fidelity while watching the San Diego gorillas interact with children for near 25 minutes? If the children are unaware of the profound impact of late Beethoven, have they missed something as they watch the gorillas?

What a difference a century makes…

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Can you super size my circus?

Tonight my wife and I joined over a thousand at Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver to hear John Corigliano’s latest symphony: Circus Maximus. In recent memory, very few new pieces have ever received the kind of attention as this one (John Adams new opera is another). Apparently this piece was commissioned by the University of Texas at Austin for a scandalously large sum of money. It was supposed to be a large work for band – it is that.

The defining element of this piece is the incredible use of spatial writing. Perhaps half the performers in this giant work were spread around the hall. Boettcher was particularly fantastic as it is a completely round hall with unlimited possibilities for staging true surround sound.

This was truly an amazing spectacle. Allan McMurray (celebrated wind conductor) described this as a theatrical piece of music. Quite true… The complexity of textures that were delivered to the ears from so many vantage points offered a truly unique experience. This could not be duplicated with any surround sound system I have ever heard.

I really loved the piece. It had a raw power that I rarely hear outside of Corigliano’s output. Although I am sort of a meats and potatoes, harmony and counterpoint sort of composer, I do enjoy the simple power and beauty of raw sound or even noise. Our auditory environment has become so complex in our mechanized and electric world. This work tapped into that energy and harnessed it beautifully.

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me to think about during the concert was how were others in the audience processing the piece. Much of the piece is ear splitting loud (it ends with a shotgun). Our audience was made up of a mix of ages and I was quite sure that many of them had never heard concerts that were so loud. A few people walked out at various points. At those moments I thought this piece was indeed pushing the boundaries of how outside the bounds of “normal” most audiences can stomach. I thought perhaps everyone was shell shocked and were just politely waiting till the 3rd act when Dave Grusin would perform some Bernstein. I was dead wrong. The standing ovation at the end of the piece was quite immediate and truly earnest. I have never witnessed such a positive response to a new piece of music (and I was present at the premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s percussion concerto). The mastery of this piece is that John Corigliano’s auditory vision is so unique and compelling that a hall filled with average concert goers overcame any inhibition to the “new” and came to instantly love something shockingly different than anything they had ever heard in an orchestral concert hall.

On the right days, new music has an amazing power…

The Fiery Furnace Premiere - Part 9 - Sunday


The Sunday performance was the best of all. The pacing got even better, the soloists further refined their parts, and everything had a great energy. The audience response was very strong (complete with whoops and hollers) and the whole concert was very satisfying.

The soloists and Maestro Ling were all very pleased and their feelings for the piece had strengthened further. It felt really great. Lots of work went into the piece and I felt like it had all been worth it. Certainly there are things I want to tweak and I will continue to think through issues of pacing, but the piece really came together and made a big impact. I think I am hooked enough on dramatic vocal works that I definitely should go ahead with plans to write a chamber opera.

It was a bit sad to leave town. In the end, I had made 4 trips to San Diego for a total of 9 rehearsals (including voice only rehearsals), 3 concerts, 6 events of talking about the piece to different groups of people, and 5 solid sightseeing outings. It was a great experience that is quite removed from the daily slog of writing in my basement studio, or weekly teaching. Hearing one’s music come to life is possibly the best part of composition. All the work pays off and hopefully a deeply satisfying performance is the result. This “high” should carry me through the next several months worth of writer’s block, and days I wish I was doing anything but writing.

I have plans to arrange a two piano version of the score so that smaller choirs can present the piece in chamber settings. This will probably happen over the next year and will first be performed at the University of Colorado where I teach. I am hopeful I can interest a few orchestras to take up the piece as well. Certainly an excellent choir is needed as well as an interest in the “new”.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Fiery Furnace Premiere - Part 8 - Saturday night

Saturday night…

By Saturday morning I had come to believe that Friday night had gone really, really well. After the concert there was a champagne toast in Maestro Ling’s dressing room. I talked to a number of audience members who offered great responses to the oratorio. The drama of the story had come across and the totality of the piece had made a strong impression.

Later on I had a drink with the soloists and a few others from the orchestra. We did some recapping of the performance and noticed how the drama of the story had really come forward since the early rehearsals. Performers often say they never really understand a piece until they perform it to an audience, and my soloists felt even better about the piece after this first performance.

So, I woke up Saturday feeling that months and months of writing this oratorio had paid off. This was great because now I could really enjoy the Saturday and Sunday performances. I didn’t have to torture myself with rethinking each section. I could just listen and enjoy the music making.

After my on stage comments (much more confident this time), I decided to listen from the balcony. A run around the stage and up some stairs and I could sit by myself in a part of the concert hall that had a great balance. The Saturday performance was stronger from everyone and it was an absolute pleasure to hear so many musicians bring this piece to life.

The Fiery Furnace Premiere - Part 7 - Friday Night

The Friday night concert was great…

At least that’s how I think it went and at least what people told me. The premiere of The Fiery Furnace was truly nerve wracking. It wasn’t that I did not have total confidence in the performers, but rather I just didn’t know how the audience would enjoy the piece. I thought the piece worked, but would anyone else? Was the pacing right? Would the balances work with a room full of people? Did the libretto communicate the drama of the story?

I was nervous for the pre-concert talk and even more nervous for the 2 minute comment I would make on stage just before the piece was played. Then I ran to get my seat on the ground floor aware of the hundreds of people covering the whole floor. For the first time I heard the piece without my nose in the score. I thought the players did wonderfully well, but I kept thinking about each decision I had made when writing the piece and whether they were good decisions. After 35 minutes, the piece came to an end and it turned out the response was great. By the time I made it on stage, most of the first floor was standing and I truly felt that the audience heard the story I wanted to tell.

The soloists, Nicholas Phan and Stephen Richardson, were very complimentary and were also very pleased that an actual world premiere had been successfully accomplished. This piece demanded a lot from them both and they came through with power and grace. Maestro Ling was equally pleased and complimentary. His pacing was the best yet.

In spite of the celebratory tone, I was in shell shock. It was just too much to process. At any rate, the piece had been born…

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Fiery Furnace Premiere - Part 6

The Friday night performance was wonderful. The performers did a beautiful job and the response was great. It looked like a very sizable standing ovation.

My head is still spinning. A premiere is so much to take in. Now that I have been through a performance once, I am really looking forward to tonight’s concert. I can finally relax and enjoy the piece.

I spent the day sailing with friends and now need a nap. More to come soon…

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Fiery Furnace Premiere - Part 5

Well, its finally come altogether. Tonight I heard the soloists, chorus, and orchestra all in the same room. They all sounded fantastic. I am absolutely pleased and really looking forward to the public unveiling tomorrow.

This morning was the first rehearsal with soloists and orchestra. The biggest challenge (and one of the biggest question marks) was the balance with soloists and orchestra. The first run revealed many difficult passages (and a few that worked beautifully). After rehearsal the soloists, Maestro Ling, the assistant conductor, and myself went to Maestro Ling’s dressing room and dug into the details of the piece. During the rehearsal I put post-its at the top of a page where there is something that needs to be addressed. After rehearsal I must have had 35 post-its sticking up from my score. So we went through each post-it and figured out what changes would improve those spots. Many times we simply needed to reduce the strings to one player on a part. Other spots we took out a few instruments. After our 45 minute rehearsal the orchestra librarians left with 3 pages of notes. Later in the afternoon they penciled in the changes to the parts.

By the evening rehearsal, many of the problem spots were fixed and the balance was great. After one run through there were a few more spots to tweak. I also took out one measure (removing only one measure isn’t bad for a 750 measure piece), made some transition spots louder, and tweaked a few tempos. We ratcheted up the final tempo and now the ending really cooks. By the end of my portion of the rehearsal, the piece was in great shape.

I am really excited about the premiere. Many thanks to the orchestra, administration, chorus, soloists, Gary McKercher (director of the chorus), and Maestro Ling. A special thanks to Philip Mann (assistant conductor) who provided a second set of super expert ears. He had his own running list of post-its and was invaluable during each rehearsal. If his conducting is as good as his insight into the finer workings of orchestral sound, he has a bright future.

Much of tomorrow is a down day (until the premiere). I am looking forward to eating lunch at the hotel filmed in Some Like it Hot. The afternoon will include a backstage tour of the train museum in Balboa Park. My dad (my folks came to San Diego for the premiere) is a train nut and has planned this trip since he first heard my piece would be premiered in San Diego.

The Fiery Furnace Premiere - Part 4

I’m back in San Diego. Yesterday was a long day with teaching in Boulder AM, flight to CA, tempo rehearsal, and evening party to celebrate the premiere of The Fiery Furnace.

The good news is that I’ve finally met the soloists and they sound fantastic. They know the piece very well and have a very good understanding of the phrasing and drama of the piece. I got to hear them in what is called a tempo rehearsal. It involves the soloists, the conductor, and a rehearsal pianist. It helps establish tempos that everyone is comfortable with and gives a chance to run through tricky transitions. By the time the soloists stand in front of the orchestra, these things should be comfortably worked out.

In a moment I am off to the first rehearsal with the soloists and orchestra...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Fiery Furnace - the libretto

When Soli Deo Gloria approached me to write an oratorio, the burden of text and librettist were left up to me. They wanted to make sure I worked with someone I was comfortable with and the end results enabled me to write the best music I could. After much deliberation, I decided that person was me.

Early in the process I decided to write the libretto. A distant voice of wisdom told me this was a mistake and would yield in second rate results. However, the story is told quite clearly in the Bible and much of the text is already complete. I took much of the text directly from passages of Daniel and used the English Standard Version translation. This translation is thought to improve upon errors in the RSV translation while continuing to strive towards a poetic presentation. I have loved this translation since it was published just a few years ago.

Beyond Daniel, I used many snippets from the psalms to fill in several prayers that serve as arias in between the action. In the end, it was wonderful to write my own libretto. I began with sketches that outlined the story. As I wrote the piece, it was very easy to interject an extra line or word when needed. The length of the text was easily adjusted to fit the drama of the music. I also felt at ease to keep the text very simple and direct. In the end I think the libretto became just what I needed for this piece. Rather than “writing” the libretto, I “assembled” the libretto. I don’t know that I’ll ever do it again, but it worked this time.

The Fiery Furnace - the background

The Fiery Furnace was commissioned by Soli Deo Gloria, Inc. This organization seeks to continue the tradition of large scale sacred works written for the concert hall. A few years ago, their artistic director John Nelson asked if I would consider an oratorio on a subject from the Old Testament Book of Daniel. He was inviting me to come up with an idea which absolutely would be the largest thing I had ever written (in length and performing forces). After some thought, I proposed the story of the burning fiery furnace. This story had been tackled in a short opera by Benjamin Britten, but I was unaware of an oratorio based on the story. It had all the dramatic elements I wanted for a long piece and yet it seemed quite manageable. After all, the story takes up a page and a half in the Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria liked the idea and we were off and running. They are a sponsoring organization and do not actually premiere most of the works they commission. Instead, they offer the pieces to established orchestras to premiere. It’s a good deal for the orchestra because they get the prestige of the premiere without having to pay for a piece. A couple of years ago, Maestro Jahja Ling signed on to do the premiere with the San Diego Symphony and the San Diego Master Chorale. The performance got postponed once for programming issues and will receive its premiere this weekend (April 25, 26, 27, 2008).

The Fiery Furnace - the story

The Fiery Furnace is a story from the Old Testament book of Daniel. The book of Daniel takes place in Babylon where the Jewish people have been taken captive by the King Nebuchadnezzar. He puts the best and brightest of the Israelites to work in his court. He also makes regular demands that the Jewish people follow his customs and worship his gods. In this story, the king has a dream of building a great statue for his own glory (the image of gold). He builds the statue and declares that all the people in the lands must worship the statue when they hear the sound of music (how appropriate for an oratorio). The music sounds and three Jewish priests refuse to worship the statue. The king has declared that anyone refusing to worship the statue will be thrown into the burning fiery furnace. After talking with the three priests, he follows through and throws them into the statue. It is described that the fire is so hot that the guards who throw the priests into the furnace are burned to death. Yet, the three priests are preserved and are seen walking around inside the furnace. There is a fourth seen walking in the fire that is described as a son of the gods. Some say this is an angel. At any rate, King Nebuchadnezzar is a bit thwarted and calls the priests out of the fire. He is stunned that the God of the Jews has preserved their lives and commands all to worship this God.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Fiery Furnace Premiere - Part 3

I’m at the airport waiting to board a plane to Denver. There is a grandfather looking gentleman playing old American tunes on a harmonica. For the first 20 seconds it was charming. 10 minutes later it has become excruciating. Can’t a harmonica fall into the category of items way too dangerous to allow in carryon luggage? God help us if he is on the plane.

I am really enjoying the free wireless that some airports are now offering. A 30 second add and you can surf the web for free. Maybe someday the bigger hotels in major cities will think free wireless is a good idea. Taking my laptop down to the lobby to check email is almost as bad as listening to this harmonica player.

We had another great rehearsal today. Maestro Ling worked the hard bits for the orchestra and things are sounding really good. They also had risers for the chorus today. That made a huge difference for their projection and balance. Sadly it has made real estate on stage even more precious. Everyone is crammed in. Good thing the piece doesn’t have the extra 8 Wagner tuba’s I was originally contemplating.

As I am heading out of town, things are in great shape for next week. I’ll be home in Colorado for a couple of days to catch up on teaching and see my family. Wednesday afternoon I’ll come back to San Diego for a tempo rehearsal with just the vocal soloists and Maestro Ling. Finally on Thursday every element will come together for the first time. I can’t wait.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Fiery Furnace Premiere - Part 2

Last night was the first rehearsal for The Fiery Furnace with the orchestra. It went really well. I was very nervous to hear the orchestral part for the first time. Principal concerns were balance between the orchestra and vocalists, how quickly could the orchestra pick up the difficult bits, and how would the pacing work. After a few comments on beat patterns for mixed meter passages, Maestro Ling took the chorus and orchestra through the piece. I was stunned that they read the 34 minute piece all the way through only stopping once. Wow!

The orchestra sounded great. Hardly anything tripped them up and no one got lost (there are lots of quiet passages for the soloists when many instrumentalists don’t play). I was very pleased with almost all of my orchestrational decisions. The balance with the chorus worked very well (only a couple of spots to tweak the orchestral part). Although the vocal soloists were not at the rehearsal, it seemed like the balance for their passages will come together very easily. The chorus also sounded great. The a cappella prayer early in the piece keeps getting better. It’s a very powerful moment. It was also great that the chorus seemed to have no problems getting their pitches from the orchestra.

I am absolutely delighted. Months of work and it is all coming together. The chorus continues to love the piece and I am getting great comments from them.

Random notes from the rehearsal…

The brake drum was definitely too high pitched and when played loud and exposed it sounded like a loud cowbell. I chatted with the percussionists after rehearsal and they are going to see what big bits of metal they can scrounge that will give a deeper more violent sound.

A few mistakes in the parts surfaced after the first read through. I hate mistakes in the parts. I always work very hard at editing the parts so we won’t lose a minute here or there answering a question that I should have clarified in the notation. Oh well… No matter how hard I try, there are always a couple of mistakes.

I had a hard time deciding where I wanted to be during rehearsal. Everyone says the best sound is in the balcony, but I can’t be there during rehearsal. I tried to sit half way back but then it was impossible to hear any discussion on stage. I ended up sitting in the second row and found I could hear things fairly clearly and could be in on any conversation that took place.

Maestro Ling generously gave my piece the entire rehearsal. The San Diego Symphony has done a wonderful job about allowing enough time to prepare the piece.

Maestro Ling wants to take one of the fast sections at a blistering pace. It sounds great and has terrific energy. Its nice that he wants it to go faster. Usually I am the one asking for players to blister their fingers for a faster tempo.

Outed at the Zoo

I spent 5 hours at the San Diego Zoo today. The zoo is perhaps the most famous San Diego attraction and my whole life I had heard how great it is. It was a beautiful day and I managed to pretty much see everything.
At one point I was walking through “Cat Canyon” listening on my mp3 player to a disc by local composer Joseph Waters. I suddenly thought I heard someone shout my name. It was sort of like being in a dream and being vaguely aware that my mother is calling me. This happened several times and I kept ignoring it as I was visiting the park alone in a state where I hardly know anyone. It turned out that the tour guide on the passing bus was calling me over her speaker system. When I finally turned around, removed my headphones, and looked, she was telling everyone in the vicinity about how great my oratorio is and how they all must attend a performance. Her name is Ellen and she sings in the San Diego Master Chorale. It was a bit of a surreal moment. Suddenly I was no longer an anonymous zoo patron, but a famous composer.

Random zoo thoughts…
My favorite animals were the flamingos, the gorillas, and the zebra that was prominently displaying his malehood (while being photographed by many onlookers).
The koalas were so stagnant that they could have been stuffed animals instead of live animals. Come to think of it, many animals were equally stagnant.
Zoo humor… Why do flamingos stand on one leg? Because if they tried to lift up that leg, they would fall over.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

the In-N-Out experience

Yesterday I got to dine at the famous In-N-Out Burger. I first learned of what many argue is the finest fast food burger by watching The Big Lebowski (warning - link contains strong language). There is great scene where the decision to drive across town is clinched by the ability to get a burger afterwards.

As this is one of my favorite movies, I have wanted to eat this famous burger for many years. In-N-Out Burgers exist almost exclusively in California and even then they are not on every corner. So, finally on this, my 5th ever trip to California, I made the journey and tasted a burger.

Tommy, from the orchestra, was giving me a lift back to the hotel following a visit to San Diego State University. I casually asked if there was an In and Out Burger near the hotel. He informed me we were about to pass one and we could stop. He then schooled me on the whole ordering experience and offered a little history about the establishment. In his opinion, it is the best fast food burger. There was quite a line and the place was hopping. He said there is always a line. I ordered a double burger “animal style” and got the famous fries as well. It indeed was delicious and I can not name a fast food burger that tasted more like a real burger.

Too bad there are no In-N-Out Burgers in Colorado

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Fiery Furnace Premere - part 1

I am in San Diego in preparation for the premiere of The Fiery Furnace with Maestro Jahja Ling, the San Diego Symphony, and the San Diego Master Chorale. In a future post I’ll give the details of the piece. For the moment, I’ll tell you it is 34 minutes in length and is absolutely the biggest piece I have ever written. It is also my first attempt at true dramatic music. This project has been 4 years in the making and has taken me roughly 9 months to write.

Last night I attended a rehearsal where Maestro Jahja Ling worked with the chorale for the first time on this music. It was a wonderful rehearsal. He devoted all three hours to my piece and took so much care with each moment that he didn’t have time for the last 5 minutes of the piece. He had a great rapport with the choir who clearly loves singing for him. Perhaps the most meaningful part of the rehearsal was how much attention he gave to text expression. He had a clear idea of how each musical phrase should communicate the text. It was truly wonderful to have the conductor so in tune with my intentions.

I have been quite nervous about this piece since early January. It has taken months and months to create and I have never done anything remotely similar before. I’ve done everything I know to make it a great piece, yet I have no past experience to know if this piece will ultimately work. Last night was such a relief because I am starting to get a glimpse of the whole piece and I am feeling very good about it. Although the vocal soloists won’t arrive till next week, the dramatic arch of the choral parts are working really well. The chorus sounds great and I now know that the maestro knows the piece and will do a marvelous job in preparing this performance.

The next big piece of the puzzle will come Wednesday night when the orchestra rehearses the piece for the first time.

Thoughts about San Diego

I have never before visited a city where the airport is in the middle of the city. The first time I flew in I felt like I could see in people’s living rooms as the plane dropped to the level of apartments. On the ground, it is wild to see planes flying so low. As I type, a plane flies by my hotel room every 10 minutes or so. Its sort of creepy.

The weather is really great. I took a long walk earlier through Balboa Park and there was just the right mix of warmth with an occasional cool breeze.

Green Bay Premiere part 3

One last post from the plane back to Colorado

The premiere performance of La Luz was absolutely wonderful. The dress rehearsal had been fantastic and the performance even better. Maestro Reischl had made the decision to perform the work twice. The whole second half was taken up with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony which left a rather light first half with just my work. Clocking in around 7 minutes, it is not a lengthy piece to perform twice. That is a first for me and something I wish happened more often. In between the two performances I offered a few comments about how the audience could listen a second time. Then they heard the music again.

Every comment I received was overwhelmingly positive both about the piece and the opportunity to hear it a second time. In each case they heard things they hadn’t the first time and walked away with a much richer experience of a new piece. Thank you to all the performers for such a beautiful job!!!

The rest of the evening was also wonderful. I had a great roast beef dinner before the concert. Then I ran off to partake of the pre-concert talk (Green Bay has one of the best attended pre-concert series I have ever experienced). I sat up close for the first half for an easy entrance to the stage and then moved up to my favorite balcony seats for the Beethoven. After the concert a large crowd headed over to Patrick’s on the Bay Restaurant for a great reception. I got to hang out with some of the players who assumed I was a brass player because I wasted no time in finding the food. I also continued to talk to many audience members who really enjoyed the concert. I capped off the evening by enjoying a local brew, Spotted Cow. It was a great evening and I wish all my orchestral premieres would go so well.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Green Bay Premiere Part 2

Tonight I heard my piece La Luz in rehearsal for the first time with both chorus and orchestra. In total, there were around 220 performers on stage which is by far the largest performance force ever to perform my music. It was an incredible experience to say the least. For the last few years I have grown to love writing for orchestra. There are infinite combinations of sounds and the range from intimate soft textures to powerful full orchestral passages is stunning. For many years I have loved writing for choruses. Chamber choruses have a beautiful sound, but large choruses bring new levels of warmth and strength. Writing for these combined forces has got to be one of the coolest composing assignments.

I already knew the orchestra was offering a beautiful rendition of my music from the last two evenings of rehearsal. Now I know that the chorus is also doing a wonderful job and the piece has come to life with a whole new dimension. Many thanks to Maestro Dudley Birder and the whole chorale.

The main issues we needed to deal with during rehearsal were integrating the chorus with the orchestra. It is easy for an orchestra of 70 players to dominate a chorus of 150. Heck, two loud trumpets could obliterate 150 singers. During the first run through, I placed my handy post-it notes in 8 spots where the orchestra was too loud. Then Maestro Reischl and I had a mini conference on stage before she communicated the nuances to the performers. For the most part, this involved changing things by shades of dynamics. The first run through was good but the second run through was great. Things were gelling very well.

At break I heard many comments from both the chorus and orchestra that the piece is really great now that it is all together. Up till this evening, each group had no idea what the other would sound like.

A really fun part of the rehearsal was a party thrown by the Green Bay Commissioning Club. We gathered early for dinner and drinks and I offered some comments about the music. Then they were invited to bring their drinks into the balcony and hear the rehearsal. From what I heard, they loved it. As special guests, they got to hear the rehearsal in a nearly empty hall and could even stand and move around if they wished. I have always loved hearing music at rehearsals because there is an intimacy that can be lost with a packed house. They also seemed to enjoy watching me confer with Maestro Reischl after the first run and then hear those changes come to life during the second run. This is going to be a great concert.


I didn’t get to post this last night and I have just come from the afternoon dress rehearsal. Things are getting even better. Maestro Reischl’s tempos and phrasing really came to life today. The piece has a great flow and I love all she is offering. All of the performers have stepped things up a notch. I can’t wait till tonight…

A note about the weather…

I thought the last few days have had awful weather with cold temperatures, gusty winds, and near constant rain. Well, it got worse today with colder temperatures, gustier winds, and snow. For my entire 5 day trip, the sun will not be seen. Sort of ironic as my piece is a meditation on light and its warmth. Tomorrow its back to sunny Colorado, and off to sunnier California the next day. Smile!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Premiere in Green Bay part I

It is Wednesday night, 9:15PM, and I have just returned to the James St. Inn after hearing the first half of the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra rehearsal for this Saturday’s concert. In fact I have just returned from hearing my new piece, La Luz, for the first time. It is an interesting truth for the concert music composer that our music is all theoretical until it is played live for the first time. I worked on this piece over a period of months and spent many hours contemplating every detail of color and dynamic. Yet, my imagination is not equal to the real experience of hearing 80 musicians play my piece.

The experience of a “first hearing” can often be terrifying. Many orchestration choices might fail, or passages that I originally thought quite playable might prove near impossible. There is even the fear that the conductor does not know the piece as well as needed to pull it all together in the precious rehearsal time. Some of my first writings for orchestra encountered these problems during a first rehearsal and the immediate reaction is one of horror. The creative artist (not the most emotionally stable creature) may leave a first rehearsal and see their labored creation teetering on edge of the abyss of failure.

But not tonight….

I was absolutely delighted with the rehearsal tonight and am even a bit pleased with my own music (false modesty here). It was a total pleasure or a near drug induced high to hear this music come to life so effortlessly in the hands of Maestro Reischl and the GBSO. It really worked from the first note to the last and there were many moments that gave me shivers. The colors blended beautifully and the breadth of the piece is just what I wanted. I am not sure that I have ever felt quite so positively after a first rehearsal. So many thanks to the musicians who did a great job. Special thanks to Maestro Reischl for really knowing the piece and having very sensitive ideas so early in the process.

Before I congratulate everyone too much, I should mention that the rehearsal tonight was without the choir. They join the ensemble Friday night. So, as pleased as I am, there is still the question of how well did I write the choral part and how will it blend with the orchestra. We shall see…

Random Thoughts About My Trips to Green Bay

-My last visit was filled with snow (on the ground and in the air) and average temperatures around 8F. I believe that the sky was also consistently grey. I arrived last night around 8PM and drove up from Milwaukee in an ongoing downpour and gusty winds. It was a tense and long drive. Edgy from the trip, I was up late and saw it snow around 1AM. Had I not visited in August where it didn’t snow during my 48 hour trip, I might believe it snows all year in Green Bay. When I am back home in Colorado and people ask me what I like about WI, I do not talk about the weather.

-At home in Colorado we do not have cable TV. It is sort of a self preservation decision so my family and I won’t get sucked into the numbing vortex of so much of the fine programming. That said, I love watching TV. In particular I love the Food Network and HGTV. So, coming to Green Bay (among other work related trips) affords me the opportunity to watch these 2 channels at the hotel. I often get a little excited and flip back and forth between the channels at a manic rate in order to keep up with the programs on both channels at the same time. I watched for a couple of hours last night following my rainy drive and by the time I turned off the TV, I had seen around 6 families buy homes, 6 families sell homes, and picked up a couple of dozen new recipes.