An angel has come down heaven and uploaded Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 appearance on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” to YouTube, and since I’ve given up the pretense that this space is anything other than a Sondheim fan blog, here it is:
This might actually be my favorite Sondheim interview, though it’s hard to pick because Sondheim always says the exact same things any time he is questioned. He would make a remarkably good political candidate; he is relentlessly on message.
By the way children, this is the sort of programming that used to air regularly on Bravo. It was basically ITAS, Mindwalk, and England, My England on a loop. Go ahead, click that link to Mindwalk and just imagine that playing on Bravo today. It is literally three people walking around Mont Saint-Michel for two hours talking about Systems Theory to the accompaniment of Philip Glass music. My recollection is that it ran almost every day.
As much as I despise James Lipton, I always dreamed of being interviewed on ITAS so that I could answer the famous Proust/Apostrophe/Bouillon de Culture questionnaire that he asked at the end of each episode. But that’s not going to happen, so here are my answers:
What is your favorite word? Euphony
What is your least favorite word? Wart
What is your favorite drug? Green tea
The sound or noise you love the most? Gentle birdsong
The sound or noise you hate? Open-mouthed chewing; leaf blowers, lawnmowers, motorcycles
What is your favorite curse word? Heaven forfend!
If you couldn’t do what you’re doing now, what job would you like most? Diction coach… although this is part of my current job, so maybe curtsey reviewer?
What job would you like least? Football player
What would you like to come back as if you could be reincarnated? One of those bacteria that live in liquid asphalt. I would finally be warm enough.
If Heaven exists what would you like to hear god say when you arrive? I’m your Auntie Mame!
Here, for your auditory delectation, is my appearance on Kyle Marshall’s excellent “Putting it Together” podcast, a nerdy Sondheim gabfest that is for me what a politics or sports podcast is for “normal” people.
I was so excited that I probably got a little out of control. The episode is seventy minutes long and we are talking about the Overture and “Let me entertain you” from Gypsy. But it’s your holiday gift, so you’d better enjoy it!
This coming February 9, I’m going to premiere a new orchestration of my setting of the 46th psalm (titled, aptly, Psalm 46), realizing an intention that I’ve harbored since I composed the piece in 2011. The piece was originally scored for organ, handbells, brass and timpani (and choir).
As I’ve come back to the piece to give it its new orchestral garb, the memories of its creation have come flooding back. It’s my own little Proustian madeleine.
I composed Psalm 46 in one of my off-years from full-time conducting, ironically enough, right after having completed my masters degree (…in conducting.) It wasn’t for a lack of trying that I didn’t have a job; I had applied for every position I could find. I was roundly rejected from every one.
So I decided to move back to Chicago from Bloomington, IN, which was a bit of a let down, but it seemed like the best choice. My professional network was in Chicago, and I assumed I could always pick up a bit of extra work giving lectures for the Chicago Symphony (it turned out they only offered me 3 concerts that season.)
I rented a little apartment in Ukrainian Village on Chicago’s west side. My landlady was a somber Polish woman whom I hardly ever saw since she spent most of her time in Poland “visiting her son”. When I asked where he lived, she told me he was dead. That has always stuck with me.
My landlady owned only half three of my building’s six units. The others were owned by a truly loathsome man who lived on the top floor with his wife. He was immature and aggressive, a bully and a tormenter. He was so abhorrent that – and I’m not making this up – the previous tenant in my apartment had defecated in the communal washing machine as a final act of retribution.
This landlord and his equally detestable wife often had violent shouting matches. During one such outburst, when they were arguing about something to do with the building, I heard them refer to me as “the composer”, which I’ll admit I did appreciate.
This year when I didn’t have a real job was a challenge but it also proved that I had very many loyal friends who were willing to help me. Most of that help came in the guise of commissions for new pieces. Psalm 46 was one of those works.
The piece was commissioned by the church where I had been working right before I left for Bloomington, and it’s really a testament to the kindness of that congregation, since I had left after only a year when they were fully expecting me to stick around for at least four or five.
The commission was quite specific with regards to instrumentation: it would be written to celebrate the retirement of their longtime organist (a dear friend) who was also the director of the handbell program. As the church also had a resident brass ensemble, they were to be included as well.
As happy as I was to have the commission, that ensemble was a field of land mines. Writing for organ is always fraught, though Mike, the organist was and is a good friend and a dream to work with, and he greatly improved my writing for the instrument.
Nobody could improve my writing for the handbells though; they simply shouldn’t be written for.
Inexplicably, some people enjoy the so-called English handbell choir. To me, they sound like the unholy union of a tin can and a cowbell, and what’s more, I can not fathom why anyone would want to play in an ensemble where you only get to play one note (“But if you play the little ones, you can play up to four at a time!” I am told. Gee willikers.)
Compositionally, this piece was a big step in my development. Parts of it were probably a bit too outré for those lovely singers in suburban Illinois, but they tackled their task with gusto, led by my successor, who turned out to be a petty bitch. He actually kicked me out of the dress rehearsal of my own piece when I tried to adjust the balance from where I was sitting in the back of the sanctuary.
But now I get a second go on this piece. In addition to re-scoring it for large orchestra, I’ve also added some extra amens for the chorus at the end, since one of the original chorus members complained to me that she was miffed that the chorus didn’t get to sing the end the piece. (They still don’t, but they get much closer.)
The thing I’m most looking forward to hearing is the work’s major climax, a huge modulation that takes place near the end of the piece, landing on a monumental C major chord. I remember being so delighted by that passage when I wrote it that I called my friend Tim and begged him to come over and listen to it.
But there was something that robbed that moment of its fullest glory, something I desperately wanted but couldn’t have: a cymbal crash. I’ve been awaiting that cymbal crash for 8 years, and now, god willing, I’ll finally get to hear it.
I was recently a guest on Seattle’s classical music station, 98.1 KingFM, on a program called “Musical Chairs” in which local musicians choose a handful of their favorite recordings and explain why they’re important to them.
Royalties and copyrights prevent the station can’t post these episodes on its web site, so I thought I’d assemble my little list here:
1) William White, Acadia Fanfare
This piece has turned into a real calling card for me – this season alone it will receive 5 or 6 separate performances, and I used it as the kickoff of my very first concert as music director of OSSCS. I wrote it for the Monteux School, so in addition to trying to capture the effect of Acadia National Park, it’s also got allusions to French music (Ravel and Debussy). And of course to Sondheim – always Sondheim.
2) Lili Boulanger, Psalm 24
Lili Boulanger is the focus of my season with OSSCS – we’re doing one of her works on every concert. I chose this piece for the first concert because a) it’s the first piece of hers I ever learned and b) it’s just so damned trilling. Her musical language owes debts to many sources, but I’m at a loss to figure out exactly where this piece sprung from. Her voice is vital and original, and I’m really hoping that our audiences will have a deep appreciation for her art after this season is over.
3) Maurice Ravel, La Valse
Speaking of French music and L’École Monteux, this is a piece that I learned in Maine and have come back to many times over. Monteux recorded the work several times – you’ll find versions from 1930, 1941, and 1965 on YouTube. The ’65 version with the LSO is the most famous and most widely available, but I much prefer this version with the San Francisco Symphony from ’41.
This is a piece that tells a real story in music, in this case, the story of the desolation of the European “Old World” in World War I.
4) Heinrich Schütz, “Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn”
I wanted to be sure to get a bit of early music on the list, and this is such a splendid work. I took a semester-long course on the music of Schütz when I was in grad school at IU, and his work has spoken to me ever since. It’s not all just “Saul, Saul”! (Though, that piece is deservedly celebrated.)
5) Arturo Marquez, Danzon No. 2
This piece makes me think fondly on all of my time spent working with youth orchestras. Whenever I’ve done this piece, I’ve added choreography and staging, and the kids always bring a ton of ideas to bring the piece to life. It’s endless fun and brings a real feel of collaboration to the life of an orchestra.
6) Quinn Mason, Concerto for Violin and Chamber Ensemble
I wanted to include something from the next generation of composers, and as far as I’m concerned, Quinn Mason is a leading voice of the under 25 crowd. He and I have been correspondents for at least a year now, and I’ve been thrilled to observe his development as a composer and the advancement of his career. I’ve never come across a composer who produces music so voluminously before – it seems like every other week, Quinn is sending me another movement of a symphony or suite or chamber piece. He’s starting to be recognized for the incredible talent he has, which is a welcome development in American musical life.
An email interview with a former student of mine from Cincinnati who is now an undergraduate student at DePaul University. The interview was part of a project for an arts management class about musicians who manage their own careers. A condensed version of my responses:
What traits do you find most valuable about yourself when you are in a leadership position?
The two characteristics that I try to bring to every project or position are positivity and communication.
Positivity means believing that everyone participating in the team has an important contribution to give, no matter how large or small, and treating everyone with respect and holding them to high expectations. It means setting a positive example in terms of preparation and behavior, and not engaging with negativity or gossip. Having a good attitude isn’t good enough – you also have to avoid succumbing to a bad one.
In the world of orchestral music, where everyone wants to have an opinion and backstage gossip is rampant, this is especially important. A friend of mine who has had a ton of success in his orchestral career told me it’s better that people think you’re dumb than that they think you’re negative, and I believe he’s right.
All of that positivity isn’t worth anything unless it’s communicated effectively. It’s important that everyone on your team understand the goal of the final product. The better each individual understands the common goal, the more chance there is that he or she can suggest a strategy that you might not have thought of, and that’s always a good thing. You’d be surprised how much, say, a stagehand knows about programming, or a violinist knows about concert venues.
The other thing that’s good about getting everyone on the same page is that you can then trust the members of your team to advance the project among themselves. I’m not a fan of chain-of-command (in which everyone has to report up to their superiors, who then confer to solve a problem.) If people have a problem, they should communicate directly with the person who can help them solve it.
Two leadership qualities that are particularly necessary for conductors are vulnerability and thick-skinedness. To make music with your fellow artists, you have to reveal your inner nature, and that kind of vulnerability takes a lot of courage. And as I mentioned before, orchestral musicians love nothing more than to criticize the person waving the baton, and that criticism will inevitably find its way it back to you. It takes a lot of bravery to keep exposing your emotional core when you know that some musicians might think you’re being silly or ridiculous or shallow.
Do you have a particular philosophy or style when marketing yourself or your ideas/works?
Marketing my works
When it comes to marketing my works, I have a very specific strategy, and it’s tied to how and why I create them in the first place (at least, the ones I’m writing for market, as opposed to on commission or out of sheer inspiration.)
What I’m trying to do is help performers solve a problem. It could be that a conductor is trying to fill a slot on a thematic program (“Nature” or “Italian voyages”) and they need a seven-minute concert opener that starts soft and ends loud. Or maybe there’s an instrument that doesn’t have much solo recital repertoire and there’s a chance to write a big sonata. Or perhaps there’s an unusual combination of instruments that’s only rarely been assembled into a piece (for example, I’ve recently written works for tuba + marimba, and viola + horn + piano.)
The best investment I ever made into marketing myself was to spend good money on an excellent web site design. My web site was designed by a friend of mine who is also a musician/composer, so she understood what my needs were, and we collaborated closely on the design (as we have on subsequent updates.) I’ve always gotten positive feedback on the website, and it’s been a great calling card.
I’ve tried to develop rigorous posting habits on social media, but I never really stick with them. But I don’t think many classical musicians gain followings via the internet. Rather, I’ve concluded that it works the other way around – it takes a LOT of real world success to become an internet celebrity as a composer or musician (for example, John Mackey wouldn’t have nearly as many twitter followers if his work wasn’t regularly programmed by schools all over the place.)
Have you had any significant obstacles in your career? If so, how did you overcome them?
There are probably a thousand little slights and missteps that, if you’d asked me about them at the time, I would have said were major setbacks or obstacles or mistakes. But looking back on things from a distance, I can say that my career has mostly been pretty smooth. For example, when I was finishing up my master’s degree and applying for jobs, I got rejected by every orchestra I applied to.
That was a huge blow at the time. It meant that I had to take a year off from conducting. But during that year I worked a lot of my connections and got commissions for compositions, and on my next round of applications, I wound up with my gig in Cincinnati. So it was one year later than I had desired – in the big scheme of things, it hardly matters, and it was probably better for me to face a little adversity, because I had to strengthen the other areas of my career.
Another reason it’s hard for me to answer that question exactly is because I feel like my career has taken me where I was supposed to go, even if it wasn’t necessarily where I had set out for. I think it’s tremendously important to be able to identify one’s strengths and accept one’s weaknesses. Because of our culture of celebrity worship, we all think we ought to be big stars, but it’s not necessarily what’s best for us, or what we should be doing.
Is there a particular direction you would like to see music go in the next 5 years?
I suppose the thing I’d like to see more of is groups like the Danish String Quartet, who play the standard repertoire as well as their own arrangements of Scandinavian folk music. What I like about them (and what I think could be paradigmatic) is that they bring a real musical intelligence to their arrangements, taking from some of the best trends in folk music, New Music, classical music, and pop music.
They have a collaborative approach to creating these arrangements, more akin to a rock band. I like the idea of performers making music their own and creating a personal repertoire that’s different enough to be interesting, but that uses the best materials available to build upon.
What tips do you have for keeping classical music accessible and topical?
What I think will make ‘classical music’ relevant is having more new ‘classical’ music. And by that, I mean music that follows in the tradition of Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, and Sibelius.
Most of the new music performed by orchestras and professional chamber ensembles today is termed “New Music”, and I would define that, for the most part, as consisting of a genre separate from ‘Classical Music’. ’New Music’ largely follows a line from Schoenberg to Stockhausen and the high modernists to the academic composers of today.
I don’t begrudge anyone their enjoyment of whatever kind of music they like, and I do not begrudge any creators their right to create whatever kind of music they want. But there are many people who genuinely love western classical music (the sort of music that stretches, say from 1600-1910 in Europe) and most of those people would be more than happy to hear new music written in that vein.
Yes, the standard repertoire has become stale through overexposure. But very little of the ‘New Music’ produced today satisfies listeners who are interested in the classical repertoire, and it’s not because they don’t want to hear something new. Most of them are dying to hear something new. But they want to hear something new in the genre that they enjoy.
If you have anything else you wanted to add, please feel free.
Some important personal qualities that fall outside the scope of what’s needed for a leadership role, but that are very important to any working musician:
• Discipline. When there’s nobody around to hold you to a schedule, you have to create a schedule and hold yourself to it. Especially when you’re doing well as a musician, you can’t allow yourself to get so busy that you skimp out on time for practice or composition. I find that a very regular routine – going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, taking my meals at the same time, eating the same things – is essential when you work for home. It’s also important to be sure you make time for health and physical activity, because nothing could be more detrimental than sitting in one place all day.
• Timeliness. This doesn’t just mean being on time to rehearsals (though that is very important.) It means not putting off until this afternoon what you can do this very minute. I try to respond to every email in my inbox immediately, even if it’s just to let the recipient know that I’ll need some extra time to respond. Anything that I can do immediately I get done immediately, and I create time in my daily routine to attend to these smaller issues. This gives me a feeling of accomplishment and allows me room to spend the better part of my day deeper in thought: composing new pieces, conceiving of new projects, creating new programs, etc.
• Being nice. It is REALLY important to be nice to everyone you meet, even if they turn out to be jerks themselves. Better to avoid people that you have friction with rather than engage negatively with them. It’s also really important to be supportive of your colleagues, even if you’re competing for the same things (jobs, competitions, festivals) because these people will keep cropping up in your life, and it’s hard enough as a musician without backstabbing and infighting. Sometimes they’ll win, and sometimes you’ll win. It’s not always zero sum, and your life will be better if you maintain good relationships in the business.
• Joy. The other HUGE tip I have for musicians and composers is not always to think of your art in terms of your career. Take gigs that don’t pay anything sometime. Volunteer your time in a community group. Write pieces for your friends (or for yourself.) If you only think of your time and talents in commercial terms, you’ll wind up disappointed and out of practice and bitter. Yes, you should be compensated for your work just like anyone else, but a life in art is full of its own rewards, and it’s crucial never to forget that.