For all the weather ills that befall us at this time of year, March is in many ways my favorite month. Baseball is back. Four and a half months of withdrawal are at an end. All is right with the world. More on this later.
I was very fortunate that the first two weeks of this period had me on vacation in two favorable climates, Los Angeles and Florida. The first was not planned in my original thoughts. But I found myself intrigued with various aspects of the motion picture industry, based on the week when I conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic earlier in the year. A few days out in La-La land would give me the chance to connect with several people who are involved in the music scoring aspect of the movie industry.
On my first day, there was a party celebrating the marriage of James Newton Howard. He had also just written a piece for the Pacific Symphony and that was part of the occasion as well. There were several people in attendance whom I had not seen in a very long time. Among them was Lenny Waronker. At one time he headed up the music division of Warner Records. His dad and mine were very close and put Liberty Records on the map. Lenny and I used to spend a great deal of time together but I had not seen him in almost 45 years!
Another person who came out of the past was Sandy Decresant, who still is a contractor for movie scoring sessions. She engaged my parents all the time and regaled me with some wonderful memories of times past. There were others there as well, who reminded me of that glorious period when movies really mattered.
The next night I had dinner with John Williams. By now you all know that I have the highest regard for him, putting him at the top of almost every list I can think of. As we spoke, I began to wonder if I should take a shot at writing music for films. He still does it the old fashioned way, with pen to paper. No computer programs for John. There is still no one who does it better.
After that, it was an evening with Tommy Newman. He is part of the Newman dynasty, which includes his dad Alfred, who was the music director at Fox when my father was concertmaster. Randy and David are cousins and, well, the list goes on. Tom is writing a piece for the LA Phil with the Kronos Quartet, which I will premiere in December. Strangely, of all the Newmans, he was the one that I had not met until now.
One curious thing all these composers had in common over the past couple of weeks is that each was nominated and won a Grammy, and each was nominated and lost at the Oscars. But they are hardly Slumdog Millionaires.
And speaking of films, while I was out in Hollywood, I learned that John Corigliano was engaged to write a score for the upcoming Mel Gibson thriller, Edge of Darkness. John and I have done pretty much everything in the music world except a film together. So we were able to put it together and will record the soundtrack this month in London.
LA is certainly not the same place where I grew up. Yes, you always needed a car to get around, but now the traffic gets so bad, you might have to consider walking. Which brings me to:
Complaint Department 1
Leaving aside the snail’s pace, there is now a distraction that makes it even worse. Digital billboards! Now, I certainly have no problem with advertising a product, although I was very happy living in Maryland, where I could drive down to the Kennedy Center billboard-free. But this latest trend is quite dangerous.
Basically, if you see one while you are driving, particularly if you are not able to read the whole message, you have to wait until all the other ads come up and scroll through. Your attention is distracted and most likely you will pass the sign before you can see the information you want. Maybe this is a good thing. After all, if there are enough traffic accidents due to misdirection and lack of attention to the road, the auto industry will sell more cars simply because people will have totaled their vehicles while craning their necks looking for the all important start date of a favorite television show.
Meanwhile, the second week of vacation was in Florida, where my son and I took in 4 spring training games. I love the feel of the smaller ball parks. It seems like a reminder of simpler times, although many of the newer places are more like their larger, big city counterparts. Daniel and I will do the second part of our baseball adventure this summer, taking in the West Coast and the All-Star game in St. Louis.
Until now, there had only been one major orchestra in the United States which I had never conducted: the Seattle Symphony. Gerry Schwarz had certainly asked me enough times, but somehow it never worked out. This time, as with the earlier weeks with Baltimore and Atlanta, I was amazed at the level of orchestral proficiency. Benaroya Hall is wonderful, with a nice warm sound. The orchestra has certainly benefitted from Gerry’s leadership. He and I were schoolmates, and, fortunately, he was in town during my visit. We had a great time reminiscing and sharing experiences over the years.
I truly enjoyed the city, although the constant rain got a tad depressing. But the market and downtown area are really pleasant. The lifestyle seems relaxed and whatever the fallout of the current economic crisis, you would not know it from all the people I saw in shops and at the concerts. Certainly this is an orchestra I would like to visit again.
I took an overnight plane to get to Detroit. This time it was not for rehearsals or even a meeting, but rather to look at an apartment. Nine months have gone by and I am tired of being homeless. So I have become a resident of Troy, Michigan, about 25 minutes from Orchestra Hall. Moving everything in will be a chore, but at least I will be reunited with my belongings.
During the week, I had the chance to watch and hear the orchestra under guest conductor Suzanna Malkki. But it also gave me the opportunity to experiment with the stage set up for the orchestra. We switched the placement of the lower strings, moving the celli to the inside and the violas to the outside of the stage. I lowered the canopy about a foot and played with the angles. The result seems to be a much better sound for the mid-range of the orchestra. And the woodwinds have even better clarity in an already fine acoustic environment. I still have to find a way to adjust the percussion balance and perhaps move the first panel of the canopy to favor the violins more. But it was a giant first step in making a great hall even better.
It was also a time for some community involvement. One morning I went out to a middle school and rehearsed with some 7th- and 8th-graders. This is something I really love to do. The young musicians did a fine job and clearly enjoy working with their director. For the end of the week, I had invited composition students from the University of Michigan to come downtown. We would read through some of their work with the DSO. Seven composers were involved and I think everyone enjoyed the experience. The orchestra would comment on what worked and what did not, so that the creators would hear first hand from professionals what would be expected when they got out of school.
Also over that weekend, I travelled to Cleveland to participate in a Memorial Concert for Donald Erb. He was one of my composers-in-residence in St. Louis. I miss him: his warmth, energy, sarcasm, and ability to tell a dirty joke better than anyone else I know. We played his Ritual Observances, which was the last piece he wrote for me. The students at CIM did a fine job with a very difficult piece. It is time for me to dust off some of Don’s other works and bring them back to my own repertoire. His ability to conjure up images in music brings me to:
Complaint Department 2
I caught up with some older movies as well as a few new releases during the month. Is classical music making a comeback via the motion pictures? And if so, do the composers really have a clue as to what seems relevant to the film? Knowing, the latest Nicholas Cage adventure, uses Beethoven 7 as the world is ending. Tosca has popped up a couple times now. If you know the pieces, you wind up distracted from the film’s story line. If you don’t know them, then the references are immaterial. Unless the particular work you quote from has a direct meaning and advances the plot, stop doing this. Write your own memorable tune instead.
Now I wonder what Corigliano will do? Could be in big trouble here. It doesn’t really matter. The opening game of the baseball season is only a couple of days away.
See you next month,