Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Pocketful of Time: Music over the Years

This weekend, the Dorian Wind Quintet – joined by the Harrisburg Symphony’s ever-busy conductor, pianist Stuart Malina – will perform a work I’m eager to hear, the Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano by Lee Hoiby. The Dorian Quintet premiered it with the composer at the piano almost 30 years ago and recorded it in 1995 on the Summit label, but I’ve never heard it, even though I first ‘met’ the composer back in the 1960s when I was a high school student.

You can read my post at the Market Square Concerts Blog about this Saturday’s 8pm concert at Whitaker Center – with a biographical sketch of the composer – but here, I want to tell a more personal story, especially since (unlike some people) I don’t meet too many composers.

When I was in my teens, my dad came home from work one day saying he met a composer that afternoon on his lunch break - a rather unexpected person to meet on your lunch break in Harrisburg even then - a young man who studied with a composer I’d heard of but had not heard his music before. He was friends with two of my favorites, then - Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti. Hoiby had studied with Menotti and had written operas of his own.

Of course, my dad, being the proud father he was, told this guy all about me wanting to become a composer (still do) and having had a piece or two played by the Harrisburg Symphony by then. The man suggested I bring some scores in so he could pass them on to his teacher who lived near Mt. Kisco NY, not far from Capricorn, the home of Barber and Menotti.

So the next day, I went in and met this young man – I don’t recall his name, now, but something very New England-sounding, someone probably in his 20s – and gave him an envelope with some copies of a few of my pieces to show to Mr. Hoiby. I didn’t expect much of a response and can’t imagine what kind of impression it must have made on him. I don’t even recall what I sent since at that time I didn’t have a lot of music (still don’t) under my belt.

I got a very nice letter back with compliments and encouragement, including the very strong suggestion that I should study counterpoint, something my music clearly lacked. This old skill, the art of manipulating independent voices (or polyphony) into a harmonic and melodic fabric, was crucial to giving music a good solid foundation. For the most part I was writing what would be called “homophony” – melody accompanied by chords – which I thought was just fine. Anything remotely contrapuntal in my music would have been accidental and the product of simply imitating someone else.

Anyway, a series of letters continued back and forth for the next few years. I had heard Samuel Barber’s Antony & Cleopatra when it was broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera at its world premiere in 1966. I loved the music (I even bought the vocal score when I had the chance) and was very upset at all the negative commentary that followed the premiere, overshadowed by Zeferelli’s outlandish production and all the overblown pomp and ceremony of the opening of the Met’s new home at Lincoln Center.

I’m not sure how often I wrote once I started college in 1967, but I thought of him often, his support for me very important to my continuing to compose and study, especially when I was including a unit on counterpoint in the theory classes I was teaching at the University of Connecticut in the mid-1970s. He was right about how important it was, though I still hadn’t had any actual training in it myself, even with three years of study and two compositional degrees from the Eastman School of Music. In Europe, it’s a rigorous element of a composer’s basic training even if doing all the exercizes is no more exciting than doing a cross-word puzzle. But just as a cross-word puzzle sharpens your brain, counterpoint exercizes sharpen your musical skills. (Is this the place to say I have no patience for cross-word puzzles?)

Then I moved into New York City in 1978, following a wild goose-chase of a dream that evaporated when the money started to run out. There were no jobs available that I could fill and I wasn’t in the mood to become a waiter – New York City was the kind of town where most of the waiters were either struggling musicians or actors – and I ended up playing piano for some ballet classes at the New York School of Ballet run by the dancer and teacher Richard Thomas, a gig I got only because I knew his son, the actor Richard Thomas. I made $90/week and paid $425/month in rent. I was never very good at math, but that, too, is another story...

Anyway, one weekend I was looking through the New York Times and noticed that Lee Hoiby was making his concert debut as a solo pianist that Sunday afternoon. I thought this was unusual since he’d always been playing a lot but mostly accompanying singers, not giving solo recitals. Here he was, in his early 50s, now, and he decided he was going to do this, and picking a program with enough challenging repertoire on it to fill two programs!

I had a friend from UConn who’d come in to visit that weekend and I recall we were up until, like, 5am and then I had to get him to Grand Central to catch a train early in the afternoon. There was some doubt about my getting to the recital in time and then staying awake, but I just made it. It was at a large church somewhere (I got lost trying to find it) and well attended. As I recall, Schumann’s Carnaval was just one of the works on the 2nd half... and I thoroughly enjoyed it, the personal association aside.

So I decided to go up to him in the receiving line, congratulate him and introduce myself. Keep in mind, we had never done anything but correspond in letters – no meeting, not even a phone call.

“You probably don’t remember me, but I took a correspondence course in composition with you starting about 14 years ago.”

When I mentioned my name, he looked at me with a big smile and asked “So did you ever take counterpoint?”

“I was teaching it, last year...”

He invited me to join the party that would be gathering at his apartment afterward, some friends dropping by for a reception at his Greenwich Village apartment - actually a beautiful penthouse. I remember sitting in the living room and looking south toward the Statue of Liberty then looking west at the sunset which, if you were sitting down, you didn’t have to see New Jersey beneath it. We chatted a great deal, catching up on old times. And kept in touch.

Lee had always complimented me on my calligraphy: whatever my music sounded like, at least it looked neat. However, making a living as a copyist can be pretty boring. I mean, even copying my own music is torture, the musical equivalent of doing the dishes after cooking and eating the meal. It doesn’t pay well, but it would’ve paid better than I was making (or not making) elsewhere.

Not long after I’d made arrangements to move back to Harrisburg – things at home also made more sense that I help my mom take care of my dad whose health was getting worse – Lee called me and wanted to know if I’d be interested in working as a copyist. Uhm... It turns out a friend of his was looking for someone new for a big new project coming up and he suggested me. His friend was John Corigliano and the new project was something about a new opera for the Met (which turned out to be The Ghosts of Versailles)... sigh... (what if...)

Meanwhile, settled back in Central Pennsylvania, I saw the PBS broadcast of Lee’s opera, Summer and Smoke (back in the days when PBS broadcast such things), not long after I’d seen a touring production of Tennessee Williams’ original play.

The next round of correspondence occurred in the ‘90s after Lee and his partner left Manhattan for the wilds of “upstate” New York (which means anything further north or more west than Yonkers). He described it as a village on the Delaware River not far beyond the place where New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet. He converted the barn (I think it was the barn) into a composing studio which had a view of his own private waterfall.

The next wave caught up through more modern technology – e-mails following up on best wishes for his 80th birthday in 2006, even a subsequent phone call. He was still writing, the waterfall was still falling. Both of those observations seemed very natural.

Recently, he set to music the last letter Pfc Jesse Givens wrote from Iraq, first as a piece for the men's choir Cantus, then as a solo song. I posted the YouTube video (in which, I suspect, the composer is the off-screen pianist) over at the Market Square Concerts Blog. Even listening to just the last moment of this song - setting the lines Go outside look at the stars and count them. Don't forget to smile - is enough to bring a lump to my throat. He knows how to connect.

Earlier this month, I e-mailed him to invite him down to hear this weekend’s performance with the Dorian Quintet but unfortunately he’s very busy and would be unable to. But he asked me to send his love to the Dorians and his “thanks to Mr. Malina for all his hard work.” (Lee, being a fine pianist, did not write a slouch piano part.)

He also informed me he has two new CDs – one, a collection of songs on the Naxos label, “A Pocket of Time” which came out in late January and a complete recording of his opera The Tempest on the Albany label released just the day before he e-mailed me! So of course I immediately tracked them down and ordered both of them. (You can hear one of those ridiculously brief sound-clips of The Tempest here.) They should arrive by Friday, maybe earlier if I’m lucky.

And so this weekend’s performance will bring this post ‘round to some 44 years or so. Needless to say, I am looking forward to it!

- Dr. Dick

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