Yearly Archives: 2024

The Key of David

While I was in Chicago last month (to give a slew of pre-concert lectures for the symphony), I took one evening to record a piece that’s been in need of a recording for quite a while now, “O Clavis David,” for choir and organ:

As to the recording session itself, all I can say is, if you hire the right people, you’ll get a good product, and thankfully I had a friend who knew all the right people to hire.

Of course, where organs are concerned you don’t just need the right person playing (which I had) but you also need the right person to record (ditto) and you darn well better make sure you’ve got a quality instrument in an excellent acoustic.

This recording was made at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, which boasts a blazing hot E. M. Skinner organ. When I walked into the church and heard the organist practicing his part, I practically thought he was going to knock my ears off my head.

Luckily he pulled it back (just a little) for the session, but saints alive is that a phenomenal instrument. The piece was written for the Flentrop organ at St. Mark’s in Seattle, which couldn’t be more different, but that’s the thing with writing for the organ — you do your best to make a piece that will work in many different settings, because you never know what you’re going to get.

Costume Party

This first appeared as an essay on Tone Prose, a weekly Substack newsletter about the world of classical music.

The other day I was perusing the r/Seattle subreddit and I came across a question to the effect of: “My boyfriend and I want to get dressed up and go out for a fancy evening. Where in Seattle would we feel comfortable?”

The answers were predictable: “oh Seattle is so casual, you can wear whatever you want, nobody cares.” Indeed, that is true: in Seattle you can wear whatever you want and nobody cares. But I have a sneaking suspicion that’s not what the questioner was really asking.

What the questioner wanted to know is: where can we get dressed up and go out for a night on the town *and be surrounded by other fancy people*?” 

Now, one of the answers on the thread actually did suggest the Symphony and the Opera, and it’s not a bad answer, because those spaces are, at the broadest level, fancier than most spaces you come across in Seattle. But truth be told, most symphony goers dress “smart casual” at best, and certainly not in anything that could be said to resemble formalwear.

If we’re being honest, that’s the case in most concert halls and opera houses throughout the country, and indeed the world, though overall fashion standards are perhaps a tad more elevated in Europe and Asia than they are in North America.

People in the Classical Music Industrial Complex are always talking about how we need to make the experience of going to a performance more relatable, more easy-going, more casual, because that will connect with real people. And indeed, many orchestras, including the Seattle Symphony, have given up their white ties and their tails and adopted the All-Black Visual Succubus attire.

Now a slight tangent: I have a friend, a real dweeb of a fellow, who’s very into swords and sandals and fantasy. He decided to level up his involvement in his hobby and participate in a LARPing weekend. That stands for “Live Action Role Playing,” and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger thing. The idea is, you and 250 other losers dress up as characters from medieval fantasy, go camping out in the woods, and essentially bring a D&D campaign to life, complete with props, magic powers, multiple “lives”, strength/healing levels, baddies, bosses — the whole thing. The way I understand it, it’s historical reenactment meets video games meets kink play.

These LARP people take the whole thing rather seriously (as you might imagine) and so you have to send a photo of your costume even to get approved to participate. I thought it all sounded absurd (it still does) but what my friend said is that on Saturday at 10:00 am, when everyone showed up on the field of battle to start the game, he was overwhelmed by the power of seeing so many other dorks all dressed like warriors and elves and wizards.

Just once, I’d like to have that experience in the concert hall. I think a major symphony orchestra could at the very least try a single concert where a fancy dress code is enforced. We’d get to experience music the way our grandparents and great-grandparents did. You could even program period-appropriate music. It wouldn’t even be that hard! Start with a 1950s night where the audience just wore regular suits, ties, and dresses, and play a mix of Arnold Schoenberg and Leroy Anderson.

But there’s a real chance to level up, and wouldn’t it be fun to go to a concert where not only the orchestra, but also hundreds or thousands of audience members were wearing white tie and tails, ball gowns and jewels? We could have Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Offenbach for a treat. 

Yes indeed, concerts should be LARPing – Listening Attired (as) Reactionary Posh (human beings). Now that’s my idea of a good time!!

Clara Schumann “Three Romances for Violin”

2.2.2.2 – 2.0.0.0 – solo vln – str

This version of Clara Schumann’s “3 Romances” for violin follows the composer’s score exactly; it is only an orchestration of the piano accompaniment, rendering the piece suitable as a concert work for solo violin and orchestra.

I haven’t included the solo violin part, which can readily be downloaded from imslp here. An editorial suggestion, however, would be to ignore most of the dynamics that Schumann writes in the solo part; even with the piano accompaniment, they are frequently underwritten, and in a performance with orchestra (even an orchestra of the modest dimensions called for in this version), the violinist will need to play dynamics well above the level of what appears in the score.

A further suggestion is to eliminate the eight bars of solo violin pizzicato in the third romance, which seem to add little in performance with orchestra.

Word of Mouth

Last month, I (along with like, 120 other people) gave the world premiere of my latest work, also my biggest work, also my first stab at something akin to an opera, a piece called Cassandra:

And now I’ve got a problem, because I want to do it again.

Well, I don’t necessarily have to do it again; I’d be more than happy for someone else to take the baton, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes planning and production work that would be required to mount it.

The piece is an opera-oratorio, which means that it could be presented in a concert setting or in a fully-staged production. But naturally, I want the whole enchilada: costumes, sets, dancing, acting — all of it.

Cassandra was very well received, probably the greatest triumph of my career thus yet. And the number one comment I got was: “when are we going to see it again?” (sometimes rendered as “when are we going to see it on stage?”)

And the truth of the matter is: probably not until I decide to program it again! Big pieces are a tricky business for a composer, and this piece is big in two dimensions: it’s too long to convince someone to put on a symphonic program and the orchestra is too large to convince someone to mount operatically.

Like most composers, my most successful pieces are the little guys: my duet for clarinet and violin, my concert opener orchestra piece, my little string orchestra piece, and my far-and-away bestseller, my duet for tuba and marimba. My symphony, my choir concerto, and my horn trio languish.

Those are the very few of my pieces that have achieved liftoff and gotten past the orbit of my immediate circle of performer-friends. And hey, that’s not to besmirch the colleagues of my acquaintance who have done what they could to champion my music — I am eternally grateful to them all!

But the thing is, I just don’t know many people who would be in a position to mount a piece like Cassandra. I’ve had many folks suggest conductors I could get in touch with, and that’s very kind of them, but here’s the thing: if you know a conductor who would be open to examining this work, YOU need to get in touch with them.

Composers are considered the least reliable sources on their own music, and nobody is ever looked upon with greater suspicion than a composer trying to promote a large work. Asking someone to spend an hour listening to a piece of new music is a hard sell on its own.

So you, you out there, if you were at the concert, or you watched the recording, and you heard something special, and you know someone in a position of programming authority who would even be willing to give it a listen, please give me a little help. So far, this piece has achieved a 100% success rate in engaging an audience and leaving them wanting more. In the past month, I’ve encountered many people who were at the concert, and they have shared with me their genuine enthusiasm for this piece, and I can tell the difference between real emotion and mere politesse.

And while you’re at it, see if you can get them to program a big festival of my stuff that includes all those other pieces too. 😉

Cassandra, op. 58

Cassandra is an opera-oratorio in two acts which was premiered on April 6, 2024. Here are the program notes from that performance:

Composed
September 2023 – January 2024

Program Listing
Act I, Scene 1: The Temple of Apollo
Prologue: Chorus — Cassandra’s Incantation — The Entrance of Apollo — Duet — Cassandra’s Trance

Act I, Scene 2: The Palace of Troy
Chorus — Duet — Scena — The Entrance of Priam — The Herald — The Trojan Horse — The Destruction of Troy — Insane Cyclones

Interlude: The Voyage Across the Sea

Act II: The Court of Mycenae

Chorus — Clytemnestra’s Lamentation — The Return of Agamemnon — Scena — Clytemnestra’s Rage Aria — Scena — Cassandra’s Final Prophecy — The Trojan Women — Cassandra’s Renunciation — Scena e Finale

Plot Summary

Act I: Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, is a priestess of the god Apollo (also known as Phoebus.) When the act opens, we find her praying in the temple. As a child, Cassandra had been given the power of foresight by Apollo. Now that Cassandra has matured to womanhood, Apollo descends from heaven seeking her physical favors. Cassandra rebukes him, and Apollo curses her: all her prophecies will be true, but will not be believed. Apollo departs and Cassandra sees a premonition of the horrors that are about to visit Troy via the Trojan horse.

Act II: In the court of Troy, Cassandra’s mother Hecuba and Cassandra’s sister-in-law Andromache sing a song of praise to Apollo, as the Greeks have left Troy, ending the siege. Cassandra runs into the palace to tell her family about the vision she has seen. Cassandra’s father Priam enters and barely has time to hear her prophecy before a herald arrives from the city gates to announce the arrival of the Trojan horse. Cassandra pleads furiously for her father to listen to her, but to no avail. The horse is brought in and Cassandra, in a last ditch effort, grabs a spear to charge at the beast single-handedly. She is removed to her temple annex. The chorus narrates the destruction of the city of Troy.

Act III: Cassandra has been taken captive by Agamemnon, and is brought as a prisoner across the sea to Mycenae. In Mycenae, Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra lies in wait, having nursed a deadly grudge against her husband for a decade. Agamemnon celebrates his festive return, though Cassandra foretells his doom. Clytemnestra works up her nerve to murder Agamemnon, and when Cassandra tries to cool her rage, she rejects the notion that she won’t go forward with the murder. Cassandra tells Clytemnestra that she will soon die at the hand of a family member, her son, Orestes. This is the final straw for Clytemnestra, who tells Cassandra to proceed into the palace to receive the same fate as Agamemnon. Cassandra rips off her priestly headdress, rejecting the powers of Apollo, and walks calmly into the palace in acceptance of her fate.

Inspiration

It’s often hard to say how a piece comes to existence in its composer’s mind, but in this case, I can point to a moment when the swirl of ideas coalesced. It was in my home studio, and I was coaching Ellaina Lewis in her solo bits of a new oratorio by one of Harmonia’s great collaborative composers, Huntley Beyer. Huntley had written a pair of soprano arias with (as far as I know) no particular performer in mind. When I heard Ellaina sing them, they seemed to fit like a glove. I had worked with Ellaina before (in Handel’s Messiah) but hearing her sing this wholly different sort of music, I got to thinking that it would be a great idea to write something for her specifically.

Ellaina is a high soprano, and her voice is at its peak purity and resonance in the upper part of her range. With that fact in mind, I started thinking about what sort of music would best take advantage of this high  register, in which she can be both ethereal and dramatic. It occurred to me that something “incantatory” would work well. Then I started thinking “who does incantations?” and I started thinking about prophetesses and priestesses. I did a little googling and came across Cassandra.

Like anyone else, I knew that “a Cassandra” was a female prophet, but I didn’t know the whole story, namely that her curse was to prophesy the truth and never to be believed. When I read that, everything clicked into place.

Libretto

Once I had the concept in place, I ran into a problem: there’s no Cassandra text, no Ancient Greek or Roman play that treats her subject as its main theme. Cassandra appears as a character in several plays, stretching back as far as Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in the 5th century BC, but her throughline was never given its own treatment, in spite of the fact that she’s one of the main characters to experience the Trojan war and its aftermath.

This was a wonderful challenge, because it meant the opportunity to create a dramatic piece that would be at once ancient and original. And the fact that there was so much Cassandra-based material — scenes, lines, poems — meant that it would be possible to assemble it into one story and create a Frankenstein’s monster of a libretto.

The task was daunting, because it would require one to know vast amounts about the ancient literature. I don’t happen to have that kind of knowledge, but luckily I knew someone who did. My cousin Jillian is a Classics scholar specializing in Latin, currently a PhD student at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. I reached out to her asking for help, and she signed up immediately.

The first step in creating the libretto was to outline Cassandra’s character arc using what we knew of the plots of the various pre-existing plays that included her as a character. We settled on a three-act structure and a dramatis personae, and I started thinking about where there were opportunities for arias, duets, ensembles, and choruses.

The next step was to sift through the sources and find the pertinent scenes and lines. With Jillian’s knowledge, this wasn’t too difficult, but when we took stock of what we had, it was clear that we had copious amounts of material for the second and third acts of our outline, but very little for the first act.

All along, the plan had been that we would write our own original lines of dialogue and narration for bits where we couldn’t find old sources. This meant that I ended up writing quite a bit of the text for the first act (basically everything except for Apollo’s aria.) Jillian then translated my original English text into Latin.

Genre

I have called this piece an “opera-oratorio” and here I have taken inspiration from Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. I should say that Oedipus Rex was an inspiration for this piece in many respects — in the use of Latin (as opposed to Greek), in the style of the music, and in the overall scope of the piece.

Where I depart from Stravinsky is in the use of the chorus. Stravinsky uses the chorus as the crowd, leaving the role of narration to a spoken narrator. I have chosen to give the narration, sung, to the chorus.

So what is an “opera-oratorio”? I know of no work other than the Stravinsky that has been given that genre assignment by its composer. I can think of only a few works that might find a home in that category: several of Carl Orff’s later works are settings of Greek tragic texts in a declarative style (usually barely-pitched screaming accompanied by a couple of xylophones; basically unlistenable.) Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Delila might also profitably be grouped with these pieces, as it started life as an oratorio and was changed into an opera while SS was writing it.

For me, an opera-oratorio is a musical work that has the structure and flow of an opera, but the trappings of an oratorio. Put another way, it’s operatic in that it has an unbroken musical flow, with the music shouldering the weight of the storytelling. It’s oratorio-like in that it has a chorus that narrates and comments on the action, and in that I imagined it being presented in concert, with musicians in tuxedos and dresses staring at the audience.

Opera Theory

I’ve been thinking for twenty years (or more) about what kind of opera I’d want to write if I ever got the chance to write an opera.

I saw my first opera when I was in third grade on a field trip to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. — Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. I have no idea how that was cleared with the principal or the PTA, but it was a life-changing moment for me, and I was besotted with Puccini throughout my teens. Around the same time, I became obsessed with Mozart’s operas. (My “way in” was the character of Mozart describing the Act II finale of The Marriage of Figaro in the film of Amadeus.)

Those works (plus Verdi’s Aïda and a few others) gave me, via osmosis, a sense of what an opera could and should be. But my heart, in many ways, was drawn much more compellingly to the Broadway stage, because that’s where I got to participate in the making of theater, like so many high school students. From the musicals (and the movie musicals) I got the idea that musical theater was a genre for songs and dances.

What really set my mind on the question of “what should an opera be” was when I was confronted by an opera that didn’t seem to live up to any of the standards that I had imbibed thus far. This happened when I was about 18 or 19 years old. I was wandering through the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, deep in the book stacks devoted to scores, where I found an opera by a composer who had become a favorite. The composer was Bernard Herrmann and the opera was Wuthering Heights.

This was a source of tremendous excitement, and I checked out the score and took it back to my dorm so I could play through it. I loved Herrmann’s scores for the Hitchcock films, so it seemed to me natural that his opera would be like those scores but elevated to a new dramatic level with incredible scenes and unforgettable melodies.

Well, I was tremendously disappointed. The music seemed to just sit there, with none of the frisson of Psycho, Vertigo, or Marnie. So in some ways, I’ve been wanting to write a “proper” Bernard Herrmann opera for twenty years. I’m not laying claim to having done so (and of course, it was not the entirety of my goal in this project), but it was definitely in the back of my mind.

Philosophy

Cassandra is a story about the difference between Truth and Reality. It’s often said that “the truth will set you free.” Well, maybe it will, and maybe it won’t. Certainly we have seen plenty of instances where people are armed with the truth, but this does nothing to save them. Truth is a human construct, and there are many truths, some of which can even be deceptive (even to the holder of that very truth!) In a fight where truth is “spoken to power,” it’s often power that wins.

Reality is the sum total of activity in the universe, and “power” has no power over it. In the end, Cassandra’s truths were not listened to, but because they were reflections of reality, the events she predicted came to pass. As much as we might like to think that reality offers a “karmic justice,” that is once again a human construct. Reality is simply reality. The interaction between reality and an individual human life is known as “fate.”

Many of the philosophical ideas contained in Cassandra are indeed imported straight from Ancient Greek thought (truth, reality, fate) and they translate perfectly well into the 21st century. Other themes contained in this libretto are thoroughly 21st century, however. Certainly, the story can be read in a feminist “believe women” light that would likely have been largely incomprehensible to the bards of Athens and Sparta.

The structure of the libretto would also be totally foreign to Greek tragedians, as it breaks the unities of time, action, and place, choosing to use a single character arc as the throughline. Cassandra is the only character who appears in all three acts of the libretto. (In that regard, the libretto is structured unlike not only Greek drama, but unlike many modern plays and operas as well.)

Musical Style & Influences

The chorus is given music that emphasizes its narrative role: it mostly sings in unison, evoking the declamatory sound of an Ancient Greek chorus. There are several moments where the chorus takes the role of “the people” (in “Agamemnon’s Return,” for example.) They are also folded into the orchestration as “vocal instruments” (much in the way they are in Holst’s Planets or Ravel’s Daphnis.

Cassandra’s prophecies utterances are given a mystical halo of sound in the orchestra and chorus with the use of string harmonics, tinkly percussion instruments (finger cymbals, triangle, crotales), uncanny warbling by the choral sopranos and altos, and a low piccolo that doubles all of her mystical incantations. The horrors that Cassandra describes are accompanied by thick chords in extremely dissonant clusters.

The score makes extensive use of Danny Elfman style “Batman chords” — brass-dominated figures that make huge crescendos before being violently cut off. 

The orchestra is given two extended passages: “The Trojan Horse” and the interlude between acts II and III, “The Journey Across the Sea,” which offers the one extended instrumental solo, a plaintive song for the English horn.

The climax of Act II, “The Destruction of Troy,” is the most extensive number in the piece, a dissonant, mixed meter orgy of sonic destruction.

Aside from Stravinsky and Herrmann, many of my usual musical influences make themselves known: Alfred Schnittke, Stephen Sondheim (as in Sweeney Todd), Gustav Holst, Mozart-Handel-Vivaldi (Clytemnestra’s Rage Aria), Carl Orff, and Béla Bartók.

Reflection

Cassandra’s cursed existence is used as the framework for a truly dramatic story: the truth she knows that nobody will believe is that her city, Troy, is about to be invaded by the Greeks, who are going to enter the city gates hidden inside the belly of a wooden horse, and who will then proceed to rain death and destruction in an orgy of violence upon the city.

It might surprise you to know, but I find this intensely compelling, and personally so, and that’s why this clicked with me. I’ve got all sorts of unpopular opinions that nobody wants to hear or believe in spite of the fact that they are so clearly true, and that are so clearly pertinent to the very health and existence of every being on this planet.

I know that I’m not alone in having felt Cassandra’s pangs; in fact, I think being ignored, distrusted, or disbelieved is a fairly universal experience. And universal experiences like that make for excellent, excellent drama.