A Mockingbird Returns to the Curtis Institute

As a student at Curtis in 1982. (Photo credit: Norman Stumpf)

As a student at Curtis in 1982. (Photo credit: Norman Stumpf)

There is a moral imperative to protect the vulnerable, I thought, taking my seat that March 2011 evening where once Samuel Barber had sat—between Ralph Berkowitz and Gian Carlo Menotti—in the picture displayed on my friend Ralph’s piano in Albuquerque. I was back at the scene of a hundred character-building experiences from my youth as a composition student “singing my heart out,” as Harper Lee once described a mockingbird, at Philadelphia’s famed Curtis Institute of Music. Thirty years later, the school had commissioned me to compose a little trio called Book of Days for clarinet, viola, and piano to be toured as part of the 2011 iteration of its "Music from Curtis" program. Arriving in Philadelphia that afternoon, I’d had a note from eminent organist and theorist Ford Lallerstedt in which he had written, “I’m thinking today of Curtis, of unmerited favor, of a sense of grace.”

I inhaled the familiar smells of wood polish and upholstery, winter coats, bay rum, and Chanel No. 5 as Curtis faculty-member Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of the great writer, dove into the piano part, joined by a student clarinetist and violist. The first movement, called Monday, began with a little chorale I had composed in 1982 for Ford during the first week of classes at the Institute. The tune was a gloss on the melody of Ring a Ring o' Roses, a nursery rhyme which has come to be associated with the Plague. It immediately morphed into an instrumental piece crafted as a tribute to Karen Hale, for whom I had composed Days Without You, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra that we’d premiered together as students. Somewhere in the Curtis library is a recording of the 1983 premiere.

Taken back in time by the music, I remembered the moment that I’d first been in the presence of talent as freely-flowing and endless as a pure, montain stream: the second movement, Tuesday, unfolded, painting with sounds the burgundies, blood-reds, and dirty vermilions a memory of the 1982 night I fell in love with my then girlfriend, sprawled out on the wine-dark, plushness of the carpet in the Horszowski Room, listening to her practice, from memory, illuminated only by light creeping in from a streetlamp outside in Rittenhouse Square, the Bartok Solo Sonata. A cadenza for solo clarinet that I called Wednesday pulled me back into the present, and then hurled me back into the past; in it I shared my musical recollection of how it felt as a student when, tears coursing down my cheeks, I had first heard Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps performed at Curtis on a student recital—purely, before learning its title, history, or program.

A movement I called Thursday followed. It was about a night during students days that I had visited Norman Stumpf, my best friend (a good, innocent, talented, emotionally vulnerable composition student at Curtis who took his life) in his hospital room. I imitated the sound of a heart monitor, "slap-tongue," in the clarinet, doubled with pizzicato in the viola. I followed it with a quotation of the tune to which Norman had set our favorite poem, Roethke's The Waking with which I memorialized him back then in a symphony. The next movement, Friday, was surely the song of the mockingbird, a tender elegy for a fellow singer of songs. Saturday began, revisiting music I had penned to give a taste of the insomnia that set in like a piton during my Curtis years. The final movement, Sunday, revisited the Plague chorale. It was meant to soothe, to draw closed the curtain on those years. If, on the one hand, one risks by looking backwards turning into a pillar of salt, one must also recall that nostalgia is often "the bread of creativity."

My song ended, I bowed, emptied, and felt nothing.

The next morning in the Common Room I seated myself next to the walk-in fireplace on the chair in which the school’s receptionist Shirley Schachtel had taken my hand 30 years earlier. I thought again of Ford’s note, which had continued, “A little boy gives all he has, everything he depends upon. No motive.” I looked around, remembering myself standing there for the first time, nervous excitement and exhaustion mingling, my stomach a-flutter, intuiting that the rest of my life was, all at once, opening before me. I could almost smell Shirley’s delicate perfume. “So, you’re brand new,” I remembered her observing gently, and smiled inwardly. Brand new. Yes.

Perhaps I looked in need of help, because a pretty child placed her hand on my shoulder. She reminded me of Filly as a teenager. Like her, she smelled of rain. “Are you okay? Do you need something, sir?” she asked. Her innocent kindness. To her, I am an old man, I mused. I looked down at my arthritic knuckles. “No. Oh, no,” I answered gently, looking up. She smiled sweetly, and sort of danced across the room toward a knot of friends. I rose, strolled to the painting of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, smiled affectionately at it, and took a final look around before leaving. I pushed the heavy door open. After the stuffy Owl Light of the Common Room, the sunshine outside dazzled. Across the street, a new café called Parc had opened. The sidewalk in front of it bristled with little Parisian-style café tables. I crossed Locust, took a seat, and turned to take one last look at the old mansion. Is this how this song ends? I asked myself. Yes. The last fragment of Ford’s letter came to mind: “No motive. Just unqualified love. The results are surprising, unpredicted. Tell others.”

Presently, the eager to please bearded boy that I once was—the one who met Ned Rorem for the first time in Room 235K, the tiny attic-classroom on the top floor across the street and intuited that he would have to be extraordinary to earn Ned’s—and by extension, what he thought was the music world’s—attention simply so that he could sing for them, joined me. I regarded the Other Daron—the brother who died after only a few days—tenderly. You know, my little Mockingbird, I said to myself, you’re the last of my dead. He smiled back at me, secure in his essential goodness. He smiled the way that I once did, the way that my sons do. At length, he rose, reached for my hand, held it fiercely in his small, strong one for a moment, smiled, nodded affirmatively, released it, turned, and walked slowly into Rittenhouse Square, never to return. He had never realized how beautiful he was.

You can listen to, and learn more about, Book of Days here. This piece originally ran in the Huffington Post on 16 August 2017. You can read it there by clicking here.

Yaddo: Transforming Sorrow into Joy

Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, is more than America’s most prestigious artist retreat: it is a testament to one couple’s determination to transubstantiate loss into works of art. Like mine, Yaddo’s story is about what poet Kim Addonizio calls "the presence that absence makes." After the tragic deaths of their children, financier Spencer Trask and his gifted wife Katrina dedicated themselves to the creation of Yaddo for the same reason that my parents created me. There envelops Yaddo (rhymes with “shadow”) a profound Victorian melancholy that serves as an unspoken reminder to even the fastest of trackers in any given pack of ambitious young artists passing through the place of serious art’s immense stakes. To me, Yaddo is not just a hallowed place, but also my home.

I ended my mother's doomed gavotte with cancer at her request during the 1982 Christmas holidays, returned to school at the Curtis Institute, and unspooled my final year there as a pupil of Ned Rorem's. Upon graduation the following spring, without an address, my books in storage, my life a completely chance-ful thing as I prepared to move to Manhattan where, in a succession of sublets and rentals for the next 30 years, I'd live, I first came to Yaddo in summer 1984. I landed there at the very, very end of Yaddo's first great era, a time not long after the days that one could not even apply; Elizabeth Ames invited people directly. So it happened that Ned telephoned the President of Yaddo, Curtis Harnack (that wonderfully humane man), and his brilliant, wise wife, Hortense Calisher to arrange for my first visit. 

“Yaddo,” wrote Ned, “is necessary for you now. Don’t try so hard to be Rastignac. Perhaps a little less need to get ahead, to be a “professional”; a little more introspection and, indeed, egotism, will do you good. But who knows? One man’s meat, etc.….” Ned instructed me to ask David Diamond (with whom I would begin studying at Juilliard the following September) what books I should read before entering his studio. Along with decreeing that I spend the summer studying “Beethoven Quartets op. 59, No. 1, Opus 131, Haydn’s Opus 33, No. 1, Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, and Berg,” David had commanded me to read Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe. I arrived at Yaddo with the need not to be Rastignac, but Orpheus; I desired nothing more than to sing my departed mother’s spirit out of the Underworld, bring her back to life.

Daron Hagen at Yaddo. Summer, 1984. (Photo Credit: Hortense Calisher)

Daron Hagen at Yaddo. Summer, 1984. (Photo Credit: Hortense Calisher)

After a train ride up the Hudson, I disembarked at the Saratoga Springs train station. I had with me the clothes on my back, Mann and Rolland in my backpack, four shirts, three pair of underwear, two pair of jeans, four pair of socks, mechanical pencils and erasers, thirty dollars, and lots and lots of King Brand manuscript paper.

Now retired, James Mahon, a courtly, red-bearded Charon with a mild voice and probing, intense eyes who gravely addressed me as “sir” long before I had any claim to it, placed my backpack gently in the beat up old company station wagon. We drove slowly through town, past Town Hall and the Post Office, and the Adirondack Trust bank. We passed the Parting Glass, where mingled during August the jockeys from the Saratoga Race Track and their tall, glossy girlfriends, the Yaddo artists, the City Ballet dancers, the Philadelphia Orchestra players, the townies, and the bettors.

James turned on to broad, tree-lined Union Avenue—one of the Hudson Valley’s grandest boulevards. Flanked by over a dozen Queen Anne-style mansions built during the late 1800s, it begins at Congress Park and culminates a mile and a half later at the Northway. In 1978, the entire area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Union Avenue Historical District. As the car rolled by the racetrack, with its bevy of Victorian structures, I felt as though we were going back in time. We passed the National Museum of Racing. I thought aloud: “Seabiscuit.” “Ah, yes sir,” James drawled, glancing at me curiously in the rearview mirror, “that was a brave little pony now, wasn’t it?”

“Whitney,” I said, “Jerome, Vanderbilt….” “Ah, yes sir,” James drawled, “those would be some other names associated with the race track, that’s for certain.” On our right, at the far end of Union Avenue, adjacent to the track, began a dense, shadowy forest. “This would be Yaddo, sir,” James said, turning on to the grounds.

The life-sized portraits of Katrina and Spencer Trask that hang in the mansion's main hall. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

The life-sized portraits of Katrina and Spencer Trask that hang in the mansion's main hall. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

Spencer Trask, founder of the well-known Wall Street firm, and his wife Katrina had the mansion built in 1892 by architect William Halsey Wood, who did little but execute the designs provided by his clients. 55 rooms, a medieval dining hall and tower, barns, outbuildings, four man-made ponds bearing the children’s names, a rock garden, and a large formal rose garden, all laid out to Spencer’s specifications.

James slowed the car as we passed between the lakes. We veered left, and then right, then climbed the drive, and to our left the mansion blossomed into view atop the hill. I gasped. Embarrassed, I looked toward the rearview mirror and saw that James’ eyes were warm. “Yes sir,” he smiled, “that’s the Main House. We’ll be driving past West House, Pine Garde, and East House so that I can drop you at the Office.” We shook hands and he handed me my backpack after I got out.

Tears spontaneously flowed as beloved, infinitely capable program director Rosemary Misurelli (who I had never met) bundled me up in her Rabelaisian Earth Mother arms at the front door of the office. “I feel as though I have come home,” I burbled. Weeping, she covered my face with kisses, and then took me in to meet Curt, who asked me why I was crying. “I have no idea,” I said. “Are you okay?” he asked. “I think so,” I said. “I don’t understand why I’m crying.” “Oh, I do,” he said, with a kind, open mid-western smile.

Upon arrival, a Special Assistant to the President escorts every artist to his or her studio and bedroom. That summer, Doug Martin and Nancy Brett served. I was given a tour of the grounds, and then shown into the mansion’s grand hall. Hanging there were two life-sized full portraits. Before being told her identity, I was as irresistibly drawn to Eastman Johnson’s painting as I had been to the Norman Rockwell portrait of Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist. We hadn’t met, but my heart instinctively moved out to her. I felt safe here. “Yes, that’s her,” Nancy said, gently pulling me away and leading me up the sweeping stairs. “Katrina Trask?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, pointing up at the two-story tall Tiffany window atop the stairs. “That’s her, too.”

My younger son draws from the lead-lined treasure chest in the library the note that has resided there for a long time and left, as far as he was concerned, just for him. And, at Yaddo, why not? (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

My younger son draws from the lead-lined treasure chest in the library the note that has resided there for a long time and left, as far as he was concerned, just for him. And, at Yaddo, why not? (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

We turned left at the foot of the window, passed a large brass spittoon, and reached the sliding door leading to Oratory (a place of prayer), the room next to what had been Spencer’s den that would serve as my bedroom.

Everyone who has lived and worked at Yaddo over the past century has heard stories about the ghosts. There’s the Puritanical one that keeps watch in the bedroom on the second floor of the mansion opposite the stairs that opens the windows when something naughty is happening in the room. There’s the Testy one that slams the closet door in Katrina’s bedroom when the current occupant spends a little too much time on the fainting couch.

In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my opera about flight and rebirth. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will be fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest. It was the plainest sort of blessing, and a perfect example of the sort of thing that happens at Yaddo.

There are always beautiful seasonal arrangements at Yaddo built of flowers from the estate's gardens. (Photo: Hagen Collection)

Yaddo is about the work, first. My work book lists the following pieces composed all, or in part, there between 1984 and the present: four major operas: Amelia, Bandanna, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Shining Brow; two cantatas: A Walt Whitman Requiem and Light Fantastic; my Symphony No. 3; and nearly a hundred art songs and chamber works, large and small.

Much of Yaddo’s magic derives from the effect that it has on one’s fellow artists. For example, I had learned about the extravagance, the power, and the beauty of raw talent at Curtis, that talent is like a natural resource—amoral and unearned. It can be cultivated and strengthened by its possessor, and it can be misused, of course. But I had never (and have never, since) met anyone quite as joyously talented as David Del Tredici, who I befriended during my first residency. He was—and remains—a nova.

At Yaddo with fellow composers David Del Tredici and George Tsontakis, Autumn, 2006. (Photo credit: Gilda Lyons)

At Yaddo with fellow composers David Del Tredici and George Tsontakis, Autumn, 2006. (Photo credit: Gilda Lyons)

I first met Joel Conarroe that summer. Joel, the author of books and articles about American literature and anthologies of poetry, president of the Guggenheim Foundation from 1985-2002 (and a trustee until his retirement in 2016); former chair of the English Department, Ombudsman, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, and former president of the PEN American center, was deeply gentle, erudite, decent, and agreeable company over dinner during the weeks that our visits overlapped.

In 1994, Joel and David Del Tredici  reached out to Donald S. Rice, then Chairman of Yaddo’s Board of Directors, and together nominated me for membership in the Corporation. Subsequently elected by the Directors and Members that year, I was further elected by our brothers and sisters fifteen years later to continue beyond the restriction of a term limit as a “Lifetime Member”–an honor bestowed on only one other Member: Susan Brynteson, Yaddo’s beloved Librarian, and (now retired) Vice provost and head of the University of Delaware Library. In his letter commending me to Don, Joel described me as “represent[ing] the best of what Yaddo is all about.” I treasure Joel’s approbation and this honor above any other I’ve received in my life.

Performing with Gilda Lyons in the Music Room during the Annual Meeting. Aaron Copland premiered his Piano Variations on this exquisite instrument. (Photo credit: Angellos Ioannis Malefakis)

Performing with Gilda Lyons in the Music Room during the Annual Meeting. Aaron Copland premiered his Piano Variations on this exquisite instrument. (Photo credit: Angellos Ioannis Malefakis)

I was taught a briskly affectionate character lesson of immense value one evening at West House during the early 80s by novelist Lynn Freed. She’d been in residence long enough to observe our small society in action, but it was our first real conversation. “What do you make of so-and-so?” she asked. “And him? And her?” We compared notes. Presently, she asked, “Darling boy, why are you such a Rabbit with people in public, and so Dead-Spot-On-Brutal in your assessment of them in private? Surely there’s a balance, no?”

When at 16 I told my English teacher Diane Doerfler that I intended to move to the east coast, she presented me with the volume of John Cheever's short stories I possess to this day: “Read these,” she said, throwing me a rope. “He and Updike seem to get it right.” Only a few years later Susan Cheever and I became friends at Yaddo. I imagine Doerf would be pleased to know that I told Susan about her gift. Years later, playwright / actor Ayad Akhtar was made a member of the Corporation. He charmed me, when we met for the first time during the annual fall meeting, by regaling me during dinner with fulsome reminiscences of Doerf, whom he credited as “an essential guiding force in his early development.”

Yaddo's Collected Balzac, shelved in West House.

Yaddo's Collected Balzac, shelved in West House.

It was at Yaddo—reading the Trask family’s exquisite 1901 Little, Brown and Company Works of Honoré de Balzac shelved in West House—that, over the course of fifteen years, I savored every word of Balzac’s monumental La Comedie Humaine, in English, and then in French. He remains to me as precious as Georges Simenon is to Ned. Rastignac—he, whose name is an insult in France, has served all my life both as a warning and as a negative example, as surely as Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe has constituted a blessing and an imprecation. In other words, on the one hand, “la vie humaine se compose de deux parties: on tue le temps, le temps vous tue,” and, on the other, “there are some dead who are more alive than the living.”

Katrina Trask’s was one of what Rick Moody calls the “momentous and astonishing and beautiful deaths” that have taken place at Yaddo. During my first visit—summer 1984—I had spent several weeks composing a requiem, what poet and memoirist Richard McCann might call a “ghost letter” to Katrina. Richard wrote, in one of his poems, “Quiet! Don’t you know that the dead go on hearing for hours?” I believe that they continue hearing forever if they are of a mind to. I believe that Katrina Trask continues to hear what goes on at Yaddo to this day.

A photo of a Daguerreotype of Katrina Trask that hangs in West House.

Here’s how I met Mrs. Trask. Near the end of my first visit, novelist Doug Unger was sitting on the second-floor landing, around eleven-thirty in the evening, reading The New Yorker. Across from him sat a third person, whose name escapes me. That reassuring, late-night quietude (the plashing of water in the little fountain next to the front door, the soughing and whispering of the pines, underpinned by the steady thrum of automobile wheels on the Northway) unique to this house surrounded us. I didn’t know at the time that Doug was up there. I was reading in the Great Hall, next to the fireplace with the phoenix on it.

The Grand staircase. Katrina Trask is portrayed in the Tiffany window. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

At that instant, I less “saw” her than “felt” Katrina Trask’s presence. In the same way that one might glimpse a child streaking out of a suburban front yard and into the street, and with the same terrible wave of heart-in-the-mouth dread, perceived peripherally, intuited while focusing elsewhere, a woman descending the main staircase in what John Cheever mischievously described as “poor Katrina’s shower curtain” came before my mind’s eye. It was unquestionably Katrina’s ghost. Her right hand was slightly raised, as it is in the portrait, and in it was a telegram, a poem, or a letter. Allan Gurganus suavely describes what I saw as “some essence quorum of our souls’ intensities.” At the instant that I noticed the apparition, I heard a cry from the second floor. I leapt to the foot of the stairs to see what the matter was. Looking up, I saw ashen-faced Doug.

“What did you see?” I asked. “A woman in a white dress, so help me God,” he said.

From behind him in the darkness the third person—who couldn’t possibly have seen the staircase—said, softly, “It was Katrina.” We coughed, laughed, looked at our feet. I have seen an angel, I thought. I used to describe the feeling I took away from the moment as being exactly like the way I used to feel when I heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway that meant Mother was home. Now, as a father, I recognize that the feeling was more like the way I feel when my children are sleeping in the next room, yet I am in every way but physically with them.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

How, I wondered as a boy, would it feel to experience happiness without dread, and, if I did, how long would it last before the inevitable happened and I ended up, at two in the morning, my ass is in the air, scrubbing again and again the same square foot of asphalt tile until I had forgotten what the question was? Now I wonder, when I’m telling my sons a bedtime story about the animals at Yaddo (who have names, and speak, and have adventures, and inhabit a world that is entirely real to my boys, as real as Yaddo is to me, and as precious), I wonder how it is possible that there is no dread in our home; how is it possible that this happy story won’t end for my sons the way that it ended for my brothers?

After much discussion, and many Yaddo bedtime stories, and Elaina Richardson’s permission, I agreed to take my son with me to attend the 24 July 2015 ceremony at Yaddo at which the mansion and grounds would be proclaimed a National Historic Landmark.

The water in the “Sleepy Naiads” fountain was cold and clear. “Brr,” said my son, now aged 6, pulling his small, perfect feet out. It was his first visit to Yaddo. To look our best, we had dressed in matching starched white shirts and shorts. But a child’s a child, and we’d decided that, before touring the mansion together, we ought to dip our feet in the fountain. I passed him his stockings. We sat in the grass. I handed him his shoes. “You make the ears,” he explained. “Then you jump through the hole, right?” I asked. “Uh huh. And then you pull the ears tight,” he said, pulling on his shoelaces with a look of satisfaction.

The Yaddo Mansion seen from the Sleepy Naiad Fountain. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

The Yaddo Mansion seen from the Sleepy Naiad Fountain. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

I looked up. At the top of the hill, framed by cloudless blue sky, sat the Yaddo mansion. My son's attention shifted from his shoelaces to follow my gaze. “Papa?” “Yes, honey.” “How did the children die?” he asked. I looked back down at the grass, deciding how much to say. “There were four of them. They all died before they were teenagers,” I said. His eyes widened. “Do you really want to hear this?” He nodded gravely. “One lived only 12 days.”

My son shook his head in wonder: “Like the ‘Other Daron,’ Papa?” “Yeah,” I answered. “No wonder you love this place so much,” he said. “More than you know, baby,” I said. “So, tell me,” he said, placing his hand on my beard the way that I sometimes stroke his cheek. “The oldest child had Uncle Kevin’s middle name, Alansson,” I began. My boy looked up at the house as I spoke. “He died of some childhood disease. The middle children were Christina and Spencer Jr. At some point when they were children, they caught Diphtheria kissing their Mama goodbye.” He turned suddenly, and asked, “Did their Mama die, too?” “No,” I answered, “their mama Katrina was okay.” He threw his arms around me, and began to cry. “It’s okay, baby,” I said, stroking his hair. He looked up at me, and asked, “What happened to the last one?” I pulled him close. He buried his head in my chest. “The last child was named Katrina,” I told him, stroking his hair. “She lived only nine days.”

Presently, we gathered up our things and walked to the car. "Can we come back, Papa?" "Not only can we return, we must," I told him firmly, digging my chin into the top of his head as I held him, tears falling into his hair's golden ringlets. "Why, Papa?" I looked at him—his tender, small frame just beginning to flesh out with the wiry strength of the man into whom he'd grow, and I thought to myself that Life is fragile, that Art is fragile, too; I thought that the Loud drown out the Rest most of the time, but that Art, so simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, like Love, can do more than prompt a tyrant's tears; it can give strength and hope to those fighting for a better world for our kids, a safer place to bring them up, a more tolerant mindset, more open hearts. I had to look away from him. and up the hill towards the mansion as I formulated a simpler answer, an answer that, hopefully, even a child might understand. "Because Yaddo," I whispered, "is a place where sorrow is transformed into joy."

My older son at Yaddo, Summer, 2014.

My older son at Yaddo, Summer, 2014.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post in an earlier form on 5 June 2012. You can read it there by clicking here. Below is a little fundraising video shot in the Yaddo Mansion's Music Room several years ago.

Opera Saratoga Rocks Blitzstein's Cradle

Ginger Costa-Jackson is Moll in Opera Saratoga's production. Photo Credit: Gary David Gold.

Ginger Costa-Jackson is Moll in Opera Saratoga's production. Photo Credit: Gary David Gold.

Opera Saratoga opened a brilliant staging by Lawrence Edelson of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock on 9 July 2017 in Saratoga Springs. The production alone is reason enough to go. But the chance to be a part of the show’s inspiring, fascinating, distillation of American Music Theater History is something that anyone who loves either music theater or opera (or, like me both—and especially the intersection between the two) should witness. For the first time since 1960, the show made famous by being shut down temporarily by the Feds and performed from the house with the composer onstage at the piano is being performed with the composer’s own orchestrations. If the media can be the message, sometimes the venue is the vision.

At the age of seven, small and awestruck in a plush red velvet seat in Uiehlein Concert Hall in Milwaukee, I was mesmerized by the conductor, Kenneth Schermerhorn. He was strikingly handsome, and athletic. He was charismatic, and when he raised his arms it was easy to imagine that he was celebrating the Eucharist. In fact, he radiated the authority of a minister, but his back was to us, and there was sensuality in his movements when he cued the glittering array of brass instruments, sumptuous strings, and bird-like woodwinds that stirred me. But he was more than a shepherd guiding a flock; he was the orchestra’s sovereign—he was the only one who literally knew the score, and the congregation read only their assigned lines. I didn’t possess then the language to put words to what I was thinking and feeling, but I understand now that what I was experiencing was the intersection of aesthetic, political, psychological, and spiritual forces that constitute performance at the highest level. It blew my mind. The concert hall was like a cathedral, the audience like a congregation, and the communion—for me, at least—entirely spiritual.

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that—sitting there trying to decide which of the many instruments on stage I would most like to play—I decided to become a composer first and a performer second. It was because my father had unintentionally taught me that although Power can compel, it does not last; my mother had by example taught me that Authority can inspire, and therefore last forever. Like Love, Authority must be earned. Every time a new piece of music is read for the first time the composer starts with all the Power and no Authority. If the music inspires and moves the performers, then the composer’s Authority grows. If it does not, well, as Virgil Thomson, whose game-changing Four Saints in Three Acts premiered in 1927, once told me, “Don’t worry about withdrawing pieces, baby; they have a way of withdrawing themselves.”

Never has there been a composer who so comprehensively manifested both in life and work the ironic union of opposites than Marc Blitzstein. Son of a wealthy banker, he received a full scholarship to study piano at no less than the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music; but he wanted to compose. Believing in “art for art’s sake,” this tonal composer traveled to Europe and studied with Arnold Schoenberg, dean of modernist atonal composers. Homosexual, he married a woman whose translations of Brecht introduced him to not just his theories on theater, but his politics, and the socially conscious Weimar Composers—Hans Eisler, Kurt Weill, and Paul Hindemith. By 1938, his first “commercial” music-theater work, which was really a numbers opera, The Cradle Will Rock’s "second act" opener was a self-lacerating duet called “Art for Art’s Sake” in which a painter and musician do, well, what Blitzstein was taught to do during Tea Time at Curtis. The apotheosis of this transit? Composing, for the Metropolitan Opera Sacco and Vanzetti, a grand opera about two humble immigrant anarchists convicted and executed for a crime for a crime they may not have committed. Had there been no Blitzstein, there would have been no “radical chic” at the Dakota for Bernstein, no link from Eisler to Bernstein, by way of Boulanger. And we’d all be deprived of the most vital branch of the American lyric theater’s stream.

When Olive Stanton (who was not the neophyte that myth and Tim Robbins in his lovely film paint her as having been) stood up on cue in the audience in 1937 there was Method (though Welles famously hated the Method) in the madness, magic in the moment. “I’m goin’ home now,” she sang, and our hearts are meant to rush to her, knowing full well that she’s all artifice, Blitzstein’s throaty Lenya. The sarcastic earnestness of Blitzstein’s lyrics embodies his own inner-conflicts. For example, instead of allowing us to really care for Moll when she asks Andy behind the lunch counter for “Coffee and” Blitzstein crafted a joke: “Coffee and … Andy.” His come-hither dramaturgy is smacked down by a Brechtian, distance-making pun. (Similarly, when Paul Muldoon and I wrote the opera Bandanna together, I encouraged him to indulge his penchant for Oxonian wordplay, even though the characters would, by and large, not have expressed themselves thus, and his hand, as an author, would constantly push the audience away as the music pulled them in.) Blitzstein penned broad caricatures not meant to engage us emotionally, yet, in Moll—on whom I modelled the character of Doll in my own Vera of Las Vegas for this reason, and who is portrayed movingly by Ginger Costa-Jackson in this production—he created for the audience a compassionate avatar.

In the Druggist—evocatively sung with vocal slice and clear diction by Kieth Jameson in this production—Blitzstein has clearly crafted a Lear figure, but gives his character no satisfactory payoff. We’re meant to be stirred by Larry Forman’s moral authority, yet we meet him two-thirds of the way through the show and, deprived of the personal magnetism of a Jerry Orbach, the role falls flat—Christopher Burchett is a forceful, slightly bemused, ultimately charismatic Larry in this production. Who do we hear about all night long? Mister Mister. He’s more fun to spend time with, after all. We’re not meant to care about Larry. As Everyman, he’s the manifestation of our righteous indignation. Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1933 Inaugural, had put it plainly: “The only thing we have to fear … is fear itself.” We don’t need to know Larry until he, by showing that he is not afraid of Mister Mister, deprives the Trump-ian Monster of his Power by revealing that he has no Authority.

Bernstein told me that Marc had intended to respect “the third wall” up until the offstage trumpets at the end. Only a year after that fateful night in 1937 when Welles and Blitzstein were compelled by circumstance to eliminate the third wall, Thornton Wilder would run with it, eliminating it without fuss entirely in the shape of Our Town’s Stage Manager. That in 1935, the year Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway, Blitzstein would compose an opera (that is a musical that is an opera—it all begins to feel a bit like the reveal in Chinatown: “My sister, my daughter”) that bites the hands of the people who most underwrite opera is unsurprising—I write operas to speak Truth to Power, too. But that he would score it for an orchestra in the pit and embrace the idea of the extravagant, Welles-designed crystal palace set for the 1937 staging is deeply ironic. The orchestra is, after all, an artistic manifestation of 18th century European society, everyone playing their part, only the benign tyrant on the podium knowing the score. Welles’ masterstroke of an insight (he was, above all, a genius of an editor, dramaturge, and adaptor of found material) was to understand that the Authority, the Authenticity, of the piece would be damn-near apotheotic if the composer was alone onstage at the piano, calling the scenes out as though at a backer’s audition—simultaneously the audience’s and backers’ supplicant and god.

In the theater, there are strict protocols for who may speak to whom during production. I’m well-versed in them and have, in the past, relied on them during moments of high-stress, when one is taking artistic risks and feeling particularly exposed. As a Curtis grad (and composer / conductor / librettist / director of nine operas) who, like fellow-alums Blitzstein and Bernstein, was presumeably schooled during weekly Tea Time on “how to behave” in a Green Room, and who “plays the clarinet in the room, not the one in his head,” I sat in the house during the orchestra dress rehearsal and took the piece’s temperature as a seasoned peer. The forces at play during the performance were absolutely incredible: I could feel the grinding of gears as the (decadent?) European Power Structure Paradigm of the Orchestra (with a capital “O” onstage, not nine feet below in a pit, because of the practicalities of this particular theater) and the Maestro both served and upstaged the document. I thought of the great actor / writer / director Howard Da Silva, veteran of the Blacklist and the original production of Cradle, director of several revivals, including the 1948 one conducted by Bernstein. Suspension of Disbelief was never in the cards, of course; but this was different.

When Bernstein conducted that 1948 revival—the first to use Blitzstein’s original orchestrations—he was given a few lines of dialogue, thereby creating what John Mauceri referred to as “provenance” for his own uttering of the same lines last night while conducting the orchestra dress rehearsal of Opera Saratoga’s production—the first to use Blitzstein’s orchestrations since the 1960 New York City Opera radio broadcast featuring Tammy Grimes conducted by Lehman Engel. When we discussed it, Opera Saratoga’s artistic and general director Larry Edelson elaborated,

“I wanted to give Cradle a fully staged presentation, as so often it is done semi-staged or in concert. My one nod to the original circumstances of the premiere is to have Maestro serve as the Clerk. This has become a part of the tradition of the piece, and with our theater and having the orchestra on stage behind the set, I felt we could honor that part of the piece’s history while still maintaining the through line of a fully staged production. (If our theater had a pit, I would likely have made a different choice.) In the libretto, it actually says that Blitzstein played the roles of Clerk, Reporter and Professor Mamie on Dec. 5, 1937 when it opened at the Mercury Theatre!”

Blitzstein, a man of the theater, would have known himself well-served by a maestro who respected and protected the integrity of his notated document as expertly as did Mauceri. (His Decca recording of Blitzstein’s Regina, with Angelina Reaux, Samuel Ramey, and Katherine Ciesinsky is one of my treasured touchstones as a composer.) But would Blitzstein have assigned Maestro lines of dialogue? Did he want to have that conversation? It’s a daring idea, and one I’ve seen put into play in a dozen black box operas and shows over the years. In the context of the Opera Saratoga production, the orchestra and Mauceri onstage, albeit behind the crafty single-piece set painted Rust-Oleum burnt red to match the interior of the theater, it strongly underscored the fascinating Power versus Authority dynamics at play between Maestro and Composer, Maestro and Director, Orchestra and Cast, Document and Production.

In fact, to my ears, the presence of the orchestra in Opera Saratoga’s production serves as the “dramaturgical nuclear reactor” that powered the document—not the least because Edelson’s staging expertly counterpoints with specific choreography and stage a dozen orchestrational flourishes. That Blitzstein’s orchestrations—suave European Weill-isms and an instrumentation similar to Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel—married to sure-fire American commercial-scoring tricks from the 30s by way of vaudeville (read: those wonderful Paramount circuit orchestras all playing Charlie Chaplin’s scores) and tartly Stravinsky-esque doublings by way of Boulanger and Copland. Indeed, biographer Howard Pollack (whose recent Blitzstein biography eclipses even Eric Gordon’s superb Marc the Music) underlined for me just why the orchestrational similarities between Blitzstein and the Brecht-collaborator Weill are so important: “the novel use of accordion, guitar, and Hawaiian guitar ... all enhance the Brechtian distancing effects found in the work proper.” The Eisler-iana is there, too, of course; but the effect is not as chiaroscuro as the European; Blitzstein’s scoring is more fun, and a bit sexier.

Maurice Abravanel told me at Tanglewood that, when he conducted the first Broadway production of Weill’s Street Scene in 1946, he agitated for a “scrappier” orchestral sound, but that Weill insisted that American Broadway audiences wanted “sumptuous strings, plush tuttis.” There are few of those in Blitzstein’s Cradle orchestration—it is quirky, original, edgy, and far more like Little Threepenny Music than a commercial score. Throughout, as one might expect, the effects that Hershey Kay and Sid Ramin would in a few years craft with Bernstein for On the Town, and West Side Story are nascent. In Blitzstein, however, they all are dropped within a few measures, the point having been made. During one sequence for Missus Mister, Blitzstein uses a single maraca to limn what Bernstein would have fleshed out into a fully-scored rhumba; during another, a tender duet for the doomed Polish couple, Blitzstein adroitly adds a dash of menace in a bass drum, stalking away below like a heavy; in another passage, scored for low brass, as Bugs threatens Druggist, Nino Rota’s “Corleone Theme” from his 70s score for The Godfather is thrillingly presaged.

“As the director,” pointed out Edelson, “I didn’t feel the impulse to update the piece or to view it through a particularly 2017 lens, because the piece, written as allegory, speaks to me as if it were written yesterday. I certainly added a few things in the staging to highlight themes that resonated strongly with me, but I also trust the audience. I wanted to set up Blitzstein’s ‘Steeltown, USA’ so that the audience could have their own response to the material—not to force a response on them.”

This is evident throughout the production. One of Edelson’s crucial, droll grace notes is the surprise appearance on the feet of the members of the Liberty Committee of stylish red pumps that perfectly draw a line from them to the prostitute Moll, who, of course, has had the fashion sense—not to mention the integrity—to sport them from the start.

The opera house is a secular cathedral, the audience a congregation, and the communion celebrated by the actors and audience, presided over by a trinity comprised of Author-Director-Conductor. There is no greater transposable story than that. There’s an old saying: “The ink’s not dry until you die.” At the beginning of the rehearsal, Mauceri, dressed in blazer and tie, about to give the opera’s downbeat, rose from his stool and, over his shoulder, drily announced to the production staff, “I’d like to point out that the paint on my stool is wet.” I cannot think of a better metaphor for “free, adult, uncensored” theater. Thanks to this production, I am ready, as a devotee of Blitzstein’s work, to let go of Marc on the piano stool and allow his authorial Authority to grow, to allow the ongoing struggle to reconcile Power, Authority, and Truth to be carried forward through the lens of a conductor’s vision. I encourage everyone else to witness as Blitzstein’s powerful orchestral Cradle at last begins to earn its rightful Authority by catching this production while the paint’s still wet.

This essay has appeared in the Huffington Post. You can read it there by clicking here.

I've also written about Marc Blitzstein here.

Learning How to Breathe Again: Leaving New York After 9/11

"The air is gray," he said.

"The air is gray," he said.

The hot, lively air, after the smoke cleared, smelled of molten metal and something indescribable—perhaps, if anything, it was the smell of blood iron one smells when one has a bloody nose—pungent, crisp, sickly-sweet, and bitter. Every place has its signature smells—there’s the tropical fragrance of eucalyptus and burnt leña that greets you when deplaning in Managua; the dry, desert aroma of grilled chilies that hangs in the air of Albuquerque throughout the fall.  I still recall exactly how the air in Washington Square smelled the night of 9/11.

9/11/2001, as everyone recalls, was an exquisite day—crisp, cool, and clear. Gilda had only just left for school: the subway took her from 96th Street Station down to the World Trade Center where she transferred to a train out to Stony Brook. My nephew Ryan had just moved to New York to begin college, moved into his NYU dorm room. I finished my first cup of coffee at around nine, sat down at the piano to work. The phone rang.

“Baby, turn on the television. A man just got on the train and said that a plane has flown into the World Trade Center. They’ve stopped the train. The conductor said there are no trains behind us. I can see the smoke.” “Are you okay?” I asked. “Yes.” “Okay. Sweetheart: stay off the phone. Call me when you get out to Stony Brook.” I squatted in front of the television and turned on CNN in time to see the second plane hit at 9:03. I called Ryan. “Where are you?” I asked. “I’m on the street, Uncle Daron,” he said. “The air is gray.” “Get up here as soon as you can,” I commanded. “Start walking north now, fast.” I sprinted out to the deli at 98th and Broadway and bought staples and three gallons of spring water. The sidewalk vibrated with the thunder of military aircraft streaking fast and low southwards over the west side.

Later: “I’m in Stony Brook. Everything’s locked down: nobody’s getting out or going in to Manhattan,” Gilda said. “You’re okay?” “Yes. I’m staying with Matt and Sally.” I walked out to Broadway. Tractor-trailer trucks hurtled south in convoy through the dark at top speed, ignoring all the lights. I followed them on foot. Smell of steel. There was a super-fine white film of grit on everything. Cabs with the back seats ripped out so that they could serve as makeshift hearses headed southwards like a fleet of ferryboats.

Like a lot of people, I was drawn south. Police barricades had been erected, a cordon drawn north of Little Italy. I approached a cop wearing a Kevlar vest and brandishing an automatic weapon as emergency workers struggled to move southwards between the blue sawhorses with NYPD spray-painted on them. “Where do I go to help?” I asked him. “Go home,” he said, remote. Then, for a moment, he gave me his full attention. “Oh. For God’s sake just go home to your family,” he said, anguished. I stared at him, wringing my hands. He softened. “They’re making sandwiches to send south in the park,” he said, pointing. “Maybe they need a hand.” I spent the rest of the evening standing stupidly at a broken folding Red Cross table, spreading bright yellow mustard with a broken plastic knife on one piece of white bread after another.

Any City. No longer mine.

Any City. No longer mine.

In spring 2012 I boarded the Staten Island Ferry for the first time since 9/11. Standing at the rail with Gilda, the harbor the color of an opal, I could have been looking over the water at Seattle, San Francisco, or Venice. Any City. No longer mine. We strolled around Battery Park City before turning east towards Ground Zero. The Freedom Tower, still unfinished, thrust into the mist on one side; dead ahead, the roar of falling water rose from the negative space of the World Trade Center’s footprint. I looked up into the sky and remembered looking out the window of Jim Kendrick’s Trade Center office, far, far down at the Staten Island Ferry and the Statue of Liberty, both rendered toy like; I remembered drinks at the Greatest Bar on Earth; I remembered a hundred trips to Erewhon and back on the Staten Island ferry, looking up at a skyline I felt mine.

Bone-chilling air swept up from the chasm. It smelled of seawater, traffic, subway, chlorine, and a dash of the hot, lively air bouquet of human sweat ginned up by a crowd on a sweltering day.  There came the familiar objectivity, the feeling of no longer being there. “My thirtieth year in New York,” I observed to nobody. Even after disenchantment with the art world had set in, I had continued to believe in the Jeffersonian notion that there is a “natural aristocracy” derived of talent and virtue. No more. “Wow,” said a bearded Millennial in front of me. He clutched a copy of The Fountainhead and his ear buds throbbed with Björk’s current single. Startled that he had overheard me, I made believe that I hadn’t heard him. “You must be old,” he said, meaning nothing by it. “Oh, I don’t know,” I replied. “Move along,” a cop told me, misinterpreting my chuckle. I looked up from the memorial. Reflexively, I dug in, and gave him a hard look. The cop frowned back. “Listen, pal, a lot of people are waiting to take your place,” he said. I chuckled ruefully, and said, “Yes sir! I really know that!” He shook his head, cocked his finger next to his temple as he shot Gilda a look, and turned away. I smiled at the hipster, who rolled his eyes, stuffed my hands in my pockets, and turned toward the Winter Garden.

In 2016, Congress acknowledged that “over 33,000 first responders and survivors are living with illnesses or injuries related to the attack.” Some of the illnesses (cancers, asthmas, respiratory diseases, etc.) were caused by airborne particulates.

Over the years after 9/11 I gradually lost the ability to breathe through my nose, let alone to smell. I ended up in my doctor's office. “Breathe in,” he commanded. I did. “Your lungs are congested. You’re remarkably healthy for a fat man. Stop drinking so much. Lose some weight, okay?” He looked up to gauge my reaction. “I know,” I said, wearily. “But the sinuses,” he continued. “You’ve got to have them fixed. A man has to be able to breathe.” Beat. “Uh huh,” I agreed. “It’s hard not to interpret this as a metaphor,” I quipped. “Maybe this is a sign. Maybe there’s no air left for me in New York.” He stared at me, unsmiling. “This isn’t Art. It’s Life,” he said, coldly. I looked up at him, startled. “I know—,” I began. “Listen. Let me remind you of something that you seem to have forgotten: art is important, but breathing is imperative. There’s a membrane thinner than a sheet of paper separating your sinuses from your brain. I suspect that most of your sinus cavity is badly infected, necrotic even, and has been for a long time. All that has to happen is for that infection to cross through that membrane and—.” I raised my hands up, and said, “I get it.” He looked at me incredulously. “You’ve got to fix this,” he concluded. I promised him that I would. “I’ll refer you to a friend of mine. I trust him.” He tore the prescription he had just scrawled off the pad and handed it to me. “In the meantime, maybe this will give you some relief.” He looked up, half smiling. “Now, go away and write more music.”

Days later, a surgeon extracted from my sinuses “the most polyps [he had] ever seen.” He pointed out, to my surprise, that he had also removed several turbinates, straightened my deviated septum, and excised an enormous amount of dead and diseased tissue—nearly the entire surface area of the interior of my sinuses. “So, was it like mowing my front lawn in there?” I asked. He wasn’t amused. “This has been chronic for a decade or more,” he said. “You were suffocating. You had use of less than five percent of your sinuses.” I whistled. “So, it was like mowing the lawn of everyone on my street?” He looked at me queerly. “No,” the specialist said, flatly. “It was more like napalming your entire neighborhood.” My nose was stuffed with gauze; I breathed through tubes for weeks. Followed months of steroidal weight gain, antibiotics, bleeding, and more pain, as the tissue regenerated. 

I thought then of the Big Cedar House back in Wisconsin in which I had grown up. Of course, it had been rather small and only special because I made it so in memory. It had just been like a lot of houses, on a street like a lot of other streets, in a suburb like a lot of other suburbs. We had played out our dramas just like countless other families just like us. I’d raced away from it as soon as I could, as hard as I could, and as fast as I could, to the coast. 33 years later, as we crossed the West Side Highway, a cabbie leaned out of his window and swore at us in Punjabi. I was delighted. As I refused to relinquish my soul to the city, it had become time for me to relinquish my place in it.

Relinquish it I have. And, in doing so, I have begun learning how to breathe again.

This morning, in June 2017, I rise from the table to pour some more coffee from the pot and look out into the large backyard surrounded by a white picket fence. I revel in the smells of Upstate New York, of the small village to which we moved a few months after visiting the 9/11 Memorial—freshly-mown grass, coffee, peonies, and the tang of an early summer shower just passed mingle comfortingly as a light breeze passes through,

Spring in Rhinebeck.

Spring in Rhinebeck.

Everyone is still asleep. I can imagine at these moments without regret what things will be like here after I am gone. My boys’ tears, and laughter of operatic intensity, will issue forth like feathers from burst pillows. Bath times and bed times will meld into one bright, thrumming, activated chord. Hair will be tousled, favorite books read, lullabies and secret songs sung. Screen doors will get slammed and mended, weeds pulled only to return, hair will be cut, pebbles pulled out of nostrils, ticks removed, leaves raked, gutters cleared, shutters painted, memories forged, wounds cleansed and Band-Aids applied, nascent personalities shaped and encouraged. My sons will know the childish comfort of having observed that their parents love them and one another. Despite the wickedness, the unfairness, and the madness of the world at large, they will feel for a few wonderful years that their world is safe, and that nothing will ever change it.

My sons will enjoy the safety of living in a village where they may walk home after dusk illuminated by the soft, peaceful, flickering golden light streaming from the windows of the homes of neighbors that know, love, and will help to protect them. They will feel good, clean dirt between their toes. They will run in the grass barefoot without the risk of stepping on a used syringe, or slipping on used condoms. They will feel over-ripe tomatoes burst in their hands when on a soft summer afternoon, they pick them from our garden. They will experience languid summers, grow loopy with sunshine; enjoy the healthy silkiness of their own skins. They will spend entire days building dams across the brook behind their Grandparents’ house, drawing treasure maps, catching and releasing bugs, making believe that they are La Longue Carabine in the woods, crying “My death is a great honor to the Huron, take me!” to no one. Dog day cicadas will sing their burring songs by day, crickets their chirrups by night. My sons will run into the middle of the lawn, close their eyes, lean their heads as far back as they will go, feel the sun on their faces, spin around, and imagine they've awakened after a seventeen-year-long slumber to swim in the hot, lively air.

Pocket Scores and Patrimony

You could be a stranger alone in a foreign city and still find a friendly face to sit next to by locating the little flash of yellow in the audience and heading for it as, onstage, musicians rehearsed. After a quick whispered greeting (no introductions necessary) you could take a seat next to the partitura's holder, who would, without being asked, share it with you -- possibly even place a finger momentarily on the spot being rehearsed to help you get your bearings. By the end of the rehearsal you would have made a new friend -- possibly for life. Rome, New York, Vienna, or Paris -- the city's name and geographic location were irrelevant: you were a musician, an artist, a citizen of the world, and that flash of yellow, that pocket score, was your passport, universally accepted and valued. 

John Updike called the (now Knopf) Everyman Classics volumes "the edition of record." Hard to dispute. They were designed to fit in the vent pocket of a man's blazer, there to be found while seated alone in a cafe drinking espresso or absinthe or both one assumes; or drawn out whilst seated on a park bench enjoying a good pipe; or to be drawn like a sword by a physical laborer during his break intent on intellectual self-betterment. One can't rekindle, as it were, a conversation with a book or score begun decades before when reading it on an iPad. And, if one's blessed to have had parents who wrote in the margins of their books, then their conversations can continue with you as you come upon them as you read them; at those times it is as though they had never died. 

These thoughts occurred to me yesterday when I drew from the shelf in my studio the yellow Eulenburg edition of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 to study, as a musician does, prior to rehearsing it last night with the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia. As a composer of concert and theater music in his fifties, one of my passions is the symphonic works of Beethoven and Haydn. As devotedly as I study Verdi as an opera composer, I am deadly serious -- particularly after having composed five symphonies myself -- about improving as a symphonic writer: climbing into Beethoven's skull and physicalizing his musical thinking by conducting it is just the thing. 

I turned to the first page and was surprised to find, jotted in the upper left hand corner, "Max Rudolf, 20 September '83, Curtis." I'd completely forgotten even attending the rehearsal. Yet, in a sudden rush (like that episode of "Star Trek" where Spock puts on the Smart Guy Helmet) all of the maestro's comments suddenly downloaded from some sort of musical cloud. I paged forward and found notes I'd taken on the use of "piqué," a bowing technique ideal for setting up the entrance of the first movement's second theme. Later, in the Menuetto, "October 10, '83 -- Rudolf takes repeats in the da capo." And so forth.

Returning to the first page, I read, in the upper right hand corner, "LB, 1986 -- 'longest continuous fortissimo in classical music'," from a masterclass Bernstein had given at Tanglewood.  "Rare forte-fortissimo at 190," and, later, comments about the "empty" measures in the first movement (bars when nobody plays) pointing out Beethoven's defining of musical structure through negative space (read: silence). Suddenly I recalled the humid Berkshire morning in it's entirety -- me, 25 and hung over, watching the young conductors sweat bullets, my yellow score on my lap, learning. 

Returning again to the first page, written above the title, the words "NOT VACATION" in capital letters. Above them, in parentheses, the name Masur. That rehearsal I recalled. Maestro had mentioned to the Philharmonic sometime during his tenure there that Beethoven is said to have finished the 8th while still composing the 7th, the magnificent choral 9th still nascent in his imagination. There was nothing "light" about a piece many call one of the lighter symphonies. My notes above the trio in the Menuetto, for example, note Masur pointing out that the writing clearly foreshadowed Brahms. "It's like he was seeing into the future," I said to the orchestra last night as we rehearsed the section again. "This time, play it like Brahms," I said, "and you'll see!" They did. We did. 

I have written often over the years of matrimony -- the many things ("all of the good things," as my father once admitted, without a trace of sentimentality) that my artist mother taught me. I'm acutely sensitive to the concept of "hegemonic masculinity" in music history. It's wrong, from our historic perspective, that women composers' works have been sidelined by the men programming concerts and writing the history books. I've worked to change that during my life in music. I do understand, also, that young composers of all gender identifications are understandably eager to wriggle out from beneath not just their professors' thumbs but from the demands placed upon them by the perceived excellence of prior generations' artistic achievements.  The repertoire forces us to come to terms with the troublesome, ultimately inescapable demands of Acquiring Craft, and of Continuous Study. These facts of musical life are, to me, gender non-specific. 

I went to sleep last night with Beethoven's music in my muscles, and his way of thinking in my brain, confident, excited by the fact that the study beforehand and the movement during rehearsal, the activity of transforming with my brothers and sisters in the orchestra the master's notes into sound would somehow rewire my own thought processes during the night. I awoke this morning changed -- better, humbler, intensely grateful for the opportunities that a life in music has given me to reconnect with a past that is smarter and wiser than my own. I'm launching at last into a multi-year project to rehearse every Haydn symphony with the orchestra. I am ready to draw his scores from the shelves of my studio and learn. 

This piece has also appeared in the Huffington Post. Click here to see it there. Learn more about the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia by clicking here.

Suspending Disbelief

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The dog day 1981 Philly air had that sexy, crapulous swamp-tang to it that anyone who has sweated through a summer there either loves or hates. I’d arrived from the Midwest but a few weeks earlier, and I loved it. As it happened, I was wadded into a ball in the back seat of a cab like a sweaty mash note, jib to the wind, headed toward the Curtis Institute, immersed in a winsome bagatelle about composing music with the driver.

“I hear music in my head,” he said.

“Me, too,” I replied.

His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror.

“But I feel it, first,” I said.

He twisted the knob on the radio in the dashboard and the Vivaldi that had been purling from the speakers like the sound of fat bumblebees mixed with an old Singer sewing machine melded into the sound of traffic.

“On MTV I heard Eric Clapton say, ‘I feel it, I put my hands on the guitar, and I play how I feel'," he said, skeptically. "Is it like that for you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But for me it’s like there’s static between my heart and my brain and I need to get better at notating what I’m feeling to eliminate the static,” I said.

“You gotta practice,” he said.

“Pretty much,” I agreed.

“I get home. I plug my guitar into my amp in the basement. I turn the knob to nine. I hit a chord. I feel it,” he laughed. “And for that I don’t need to practice.” He twisted his mouth into an upside-down smile and nodded for emphasis.

“That sounds fun,” I laughed.

He slammed his palms on the wheel and unleashed a stream of Punjabi at the big dude in an SUV ahead of us. I understood not a syllable. But I was swept along by the magnificent roiling emotional intensity of the sounds. They shot from his lips like illumination rounds; they stuttered and flashed, hit their mark, and ended with him hitting the horn a few times for good measure. Traffic was gridlocked. We weren’t going anywhere.

“You felt it. You said it,” I ventured.

“You bet your ass,” he agreed.

“I have no idea what you said,” I observed, "but I loved the colors, the richness, the warp and woof of it, the rhythm….”

“You loved the music of it,” he corrected me. “You don’t speak Punjabi,” he laughed. “If you did, and you knew what I just said about his mother, it would be different.”

I laughed. “You’re right. I don’t want to know what you really said.”

“Exactly. You are a poet. You want to hear what you want me to have said.”

“No. I want to hear what you felt, not what you meant,” I answered. “I got that, loud and clear.”

The knot of traffic loosened for an instant and we shot forward. He glanced at me again in the mirror. “I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said.

“I’m not offended,” I said.

“You said ‘take me to Curtis Institute’,” he observed. “I assumed.”

“What? That I was a poet?” I asked. “I know lots of musicians who aren’t particularly poetic, humane, or even intelligent.”

“But you said you feel music,” he said. “That makes you a poet. I hear other people’s music in my head. I feel things when I hear music, or when I play my guitar, but I do not hear my own music,” he said. “You hear instruments. And voices—.”

“Not exactly. I think that would make me psychotic,” I teased him.

“No. Not crazy,” he said, seriously. “Poet,” he insisted.

Rittenhouse Square stood before us, Rindelaub’s bakery to the right. Traffic was awful. He reached for the meter and shut it off. Twisting around in the seat, he said, “This ride is on me. You stay in the cab, and we’ll talk until I get you to Curtis. That’s how you’ll pay the fare.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”

“I’ll bet I make more money than you,” he observed.

“I’ll bet that you do,” I agreed.

“I sit in my cab all day and I think, you know?” he said. “I think about what the people in the buildings that I drive past do all day. Do you think that they think about me?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I doubt it.”

“Me, too,” he sighed. “Can I tell you something?”

“Of course,” I said. "It’s your time, now.”

He laughed. “I will tell you why I came to the U.S. from Pakistan.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I saw on television a movie called West Side Story. I thought to myself look at those hoodlums, they are so beautiful flying across the screen like that. Then I realized that of course they are actors and it is a movie, but I thought how amazing that a movie should for a moment make me forget that.”

We turned right and began circumnavigating the square. Then, traffic snarled again, and we were stopped in front of Henry McIllhenny’s townhouse. “You know how the fellow who lives in there made his fortune?” I asked. “By mixing jalapeno peppers with water and selling it.” The driver leaned over and looked out the passenger side window.

“Amazing,” he said.

“America is amazing.” I warmed to him. “The amazing thing is that he has spent much of that money supporting the work of playwrights like Tennessee Williams, painters like Renoir, composers like Rorem, who teaches at Curtis.” We crawled forward towards the Barclay Hotel.

“What makes you a poet, my friend,” I ventured to the cabdriver, “is that you are self-aware enough to have marveled at, to continue to treasure, maybe, your own ‘suspension of disbelief’ and to want more. For a moment, you didn’t see the hoodlums, you saw their souls in flight. An appealing ‘American Dream',” I observed. "Suspending disbelief is more than just the sacrificing of realism and logic for the sake of aesthetic enjoyment; it is an extension of faith on a person's behalf in an artist's ability to illuminate human truths and to help us regain (and maybe even improve upon) our humanity." He didn’t answer.

"Honestly," I concluded, "I think that in today's world it takes courage to knowingly enter into a work of art." We turned left in front of the Barclay and stopped at the corner of 18th and Locust.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”

I un-scrunched myself, grabbed my tattered boy scout knapsack, yanked the door handle, and slid out of the cab. I rapped twice on the roof of the car to signal that I was clear, and he stuck his head out of the window.

“Don’t stop feeling the music,” he said.

“Don’t stop suspending your disbelief,” I replied.

This essay appeared in the Huffington Post on 3 May 2017. Click here to read it there.

The Ink's Still Wet: How Composers Keep Score

Observing as Gerard Schwarz rehearses "Amelia" for Seattle Opera. (Photo by Rozarii Lynch)

Lukas Foss told me once (by way of justifying his reorchestrating of parts of Beethoven’s Eroica prior to a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra rehearsal he was conducting) that, as far as he was concerned, “we should always treat music as though the ink’s still wet.” Fascinating as the resulting performance was (it certainly had an electric spontaneity to it), Lukas was asking for an awful lot; his days as music director there were numbered.

As a composer, I was apalled when, twenty years ago, I showed up at the first “orchestral read” of a revival of one of my operas at a regional opera company, looked at the parts on the stands, and realized that the conductor had gone through them and—with great care—changed all my dynamics. I caused a fuss with the chap, who explained that he had limited rehearsal time, and that he was simply doing what he had to to make sure that my orchestrations worked with him on the podium—a variation on the old musician trope "play the clarinet you have in your hands, not the one you see in the store window." In other words, I learned over the years, it was I who was shocked to find gambling going on at Rick's. Twenty years later, settled in my seat in the theater to observe a wandelprobe of a revival of another of my operas, I wondered, throughout the first act, why I couldn’t hear the low piccolo doublings of the violins (a useful commercial pit orchestrator trick that subtly firms up the pitch and plumps the tone of a small section of strings) and the very high, Britten-esque passages for two piccolos (they make orchestral climaxes for a small orchestra sound a lot bigger). When the musicians took a break, I walked down to the rail and leaned over and asked the venerable maestro engaged for the revival quietly, “Where are my flutes?” He shot a look at the flutes, both of whom were swabbing out their instruments and all at once attentive. “There was a lot of low piccolo that can’t be heard, and a lot of very high piccolo that sounded shrill, so I had them play everything on the flute in the correct octave,” he replied. “Ah,” I said, “I understand. Thank you.” I made quick eye contact with the flutes as I turned away. One nodded almost imperceptibly. Subsequently, they played their parts exactly as written. I’m proud of that moment, because it is the way I believe a mature professional composer should behave.

Nevertheless, the older I get, the more I agree—when it comes to my own music, at least—with Lukas. I now look to Verdi and Puccini, who laboriously crafted new iterations of their operas for each major production, adding and subtracting arias, changing tessituræ, crafting—in the Italian fashion—roles specifically to the artists who would sing them. When I worked as a proofreader and copyist on Broadway I witnessed firsthand as songs were added and excised from scores by the shows’ creative teams at lightning speed. After all, the American music theater would be a lot poorer today if Stephen Sondheim hadn’t retreated to a hotel room in Boston during out of town tryouts for A Little Night Music and come up with Send in the Clowns.

Astonishing it was, back in the early 80s, to sit next to David Del Tredici in the shed at Tanglewood as the orchestra rehearsed one of his magnificent, sprawling Alice-inspired orchestral works, and to see (in green pen for Solti and Chicago; blue pen for Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, red pen for Slatkin and St. Louis, and so forth) his small, though trenchant revisions as each score was run through its paces by a different set of players. Even more astonishing it was as a student in Philadelphia to examine Leopold Stokowski’s copy of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and to see, in one color, his own orchestrational changes for performance in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, and Stravinsky’s own, in another color, for another performance.

Nevertheless, when it comes to concert music—symphonies, string quartets, and so forth—there’s still a strong feeling amongst most composers that “the document”—that thing labored over in private for months and years by the solitary composer in her studio—is sacred, and that changes are made only with the greatest trepidation. Even I, as hard as I’ve worked to cure myself of this attitude, find it hard to revise my symphonic works. Orchestral rehearsal time is incredibly expensive—especially nowadays, when a twenty-minute long composition can receive thirty minutes’ worth of rehearsal before the first performance. When a player stops the rehearsal to ask a question, it costs money. Moreover, although the composer has (in principle, at least) all the authority AND the power when her music hits the music stands, every question diminishes her authority. The players cease trusting the dots and dashes on the page. They begin second-guessing things. The result is as inevitable as it is chaotic.

Consequently, the full scores of serious concert and operatic works attain an almost tombstone-like stolidity, crafted as they have been to withstand bad performances and facilitate great ones. I’ve conducted Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony with a community orchestra that struggled with it, and a regional orchestra for whom it represented no serious technical challenge. The transcendent glory (and I mean glory!) of its execution is that it came off with both.

What does a composer do, after the inspiration and composing is over, to protect her vision and to furnish to the players the most durable road map she can—one that, like Copland’s Third, will make a bad orchestra sing and a great orchestra burst into flames? I was asked this the other day by one of my adult pupils whose opera was being premiered at long last by a major company and wanted to know if I had a “work routine” I could share with him so that he wasn’t at the mercy of the generosity of the company’s orchestra librarians and musicians once his music hit the stands. I was surprised to admit that I didn’t have one. Sure, I had in my files “work routines” for use back when I was a proofreader during the 90s, but nothing more current that considered engraving software and contemporary practices. So, I jotted these thoughts about “ten passes” through the score for him, and share them now with you. They are by no means comprehensive, but they represent a starting point, and making yourself go through the score ten times to check for these things will make life better for everyone, including the audience.

Full scores of some of my operas.

ONE

First I go through the vocal parts and recheck the hyphenation of every word with a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Then, I go through again and check the punctuation. Singers and vocal coaches look to punctuation for an indication not just of what the words are trying to express, but where they can breathe. Finally, I check the prosody. In short, I set text for sense first, then, for sensibility. I avoid putting unaccented syllables on downbeats, since that isn’t the way people speak in real life. Well, William Shatner does, but he’s the magnificent exception.

TWO

I go through and check all the key changes if it is a tonal work. Engraving software tends to leave vestigial bits of code around double bars that confuse not just the midi triggers hidden in your score file, but they mess up the spacing. This leads to a pass through to double check the layout of the score pages. Most software defaults to putting too many bars on each system of music so that, when you must squeeze extra music in to facilitate a page turn you can. I deduct a measure each page to give more space to the music.

THREE

Then I pass through the clarinet part to see if I can’t make the keys easier by having the player switch to an instrument with a different transposition, like D or E-flat. I then do this for the trumpets. Finally, I’ll change heavily sharp keys to flat ones for the brass. Happy players perform better.

FOUR

Then I go through and recheck all the slurs in the winds and brass. Slurs in the winds refer only to where the player should breathe, not to the shape of the phrase. Then I check all the bowings (yes, I do my own bowings) in the string parts. Again, bowings are NOT phrase marks. If there’s something tricky, I’ll pick up a violin and try it slowly; I’ll physicalize it so that my authority is actual, not hypothetical.

You're perfect, now change: the score to one of my operas.

FIVE

I pass through the entire orchestra to recheck articulations. Each composer develops her own personal glossary of what each accent means. I lean on Benjamin Britten (whose articulations are the best of anyone’s—they always sound without special explanation, even out in the audience) and Richard Strauss, both of whom spent a lot of time on the podium and were taught a lot by players about what they needed to see in order to give the composer what she wanted.

SIX

I then conduct through the score one more time, checking to make sure that the time signatures I’ve chosen match the beat patterns that the conductor will likely choose to keep things together most efficiently. Sure, they’ll choose their own patterns, but, as with bowings, one wants to establish a basis for a mutually-respectful dialogue.

SEVEN

I then check the “dove tails” in the score. These are the points when players “hand off” tunes to one another—whether from solo to solo or from one choir to another. These are frequently a little tattered. A seamless orchestral sound is something attained only through attention to this detail. One never gets any credit for having done it, but one can tell when a composer hasn’t. (Remember, craft is only really satisfying when it is good enough to conceal itself.)

EIGHT

I then go through and check the dynamics. I remind myself that the players have been trained since childhood to balance with one another. Second-guessing their training leads to the same chaos that a conductor “following” rather than “leading” the orchestra does. It’s like a sonic hall of mirrors, and it leads to disaster. If you want the winds to balance as a choir, just give them all the same dynamic and score it accordingly. Nothing else is needed. If you want the different sections of the orchestra to balance, look at the repertoire and you’ll see that they are marked the same dynamic; the composer’s choice of suitable ranges is what ensures the balance, along with the players’ training. Fine-tuning with all sorts of dynamics within the chord leads to stressed-out players and weird sounding tuttis.

NINE

After running through the percussion parts to make sure that I’ve given the players enough time to run from one instrument to another, I check the rising chromatic lines to make sure they are spelled in sharps, and the falling chromatic ones in flats. This is particularly important when the music is based on an octatonic (or any artificial) scale. The players see only one part in front of them. All those augmented seconds make sense intellectually when you see them in the full score, but they make a single line player's life harder. That said, a famous composer once asked me “Why do your chords ring and mine don’t?” I was compelled to answer that it was because I spelled mine correctly. After all, an A sharp is higher in pitch than a B-flat, and so forth. The other composer was not amused.

Kelly Kuo rehearses "A Woman in Morocco" at the Butler Opera Center as I observe, flanked by the production's vocal coach Kathy Kelly.

TEN

Finally, I go through and make certain that all the rests are “collapsed” into sensible groups. Double bars exist only as a reminder to the player to “look up” for information from the podium. Composers who’ve mainly played chamber music always divide up the beats too much in their orchestra pieces. Players need to see only where the stick is probably going to be in their peripheral vision—nothing else. Then, if I’m using Sibelius software, I’ll go through and “reset note spacing” to get rid of more digital kudzu, and then “lock score” and “freeze position” so that all my work isn’t lost.

AND THEN...

I’d say that, if you do all that, then you’ve found about ten percent of what is likely to go wrong in rehearsal. Throw your hands up in the air and begin again, friend Sisyphus. The ink's still wet.

This essay has appeared in the Huffington Post. Click here to read it there.

Farewell to Little Pete's

Little Pete's Restaurant. Cash only. A Philadelphia treasure, in October 2014. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Little Pete's Restaurant. Cash only. A Philadelphia treasure, in October 2014. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Closure #1: OCTOBER 2014

This is a piece about Closure and the closure of Little Pete's, a belovéd greasy spoon across the street from the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia. A wrecking ball is set to fly through Little Pete’s. Progress commands that a 300-room hotel must take the place of the parking ramp at 219 South 17th Street in whose corner nestles one of Center City Philadelphia’s treasures. We’re not talking Bookbinder’s (which is now, ignominiously, an Applebee's), chock full of tourists and overpriced, or the smattering of trendy boutique restaurants that surround Rittenhouse Square like hipsters lounging on the margins of a poetry reading. We’re talking about a Genuine 24-Hour Greasy Spoon, Home to Collars Both White and Blue, an Insomniac’s Oasis in the Night, a Caffeine Addict’s Last Resort, a Trusted Purveyor of that mysterious mélange of grill top odds-and-ends, Scrapple. We’re talking about Little Pete’s, for Pete’s sake. I'm afraid that the news is grim.

I’ll forever associate Little Pete’s with my youth, not just as a composer coming into his own, but also as a person whose world was opening up in one Big Bang. My life as it was then, almost impossibly full, was discussed, vivisected, celebrated, dreaded, and mourned at Little Pete’s.

Autumn 1981. This Wisconsin Boy, a tender nineteen years old, had only just moved to Philadelphia. The Grace of Whomever had handed me a lottery ticket in the form of an invitation to study at the legendary, preposterously intimidating Curtis Institute of Music. I was a Brooks Brothers shirt and blue jeans sort of guy. I grooved to Stockhausen more than Rorem, Berio more than Barber, and Bernstein even more than the Beatles. 

Little Pete’s was the setting for countless post-lesson symposia. During my lessons, my mentor Ned Rorem casually dropped priceless aperçu and dry, acerbic criticisms while slashing through my compositions, his pencil waving this way and that like a rapier. Afterwards, a bit shell-shocked by the enormity of Ned’s self-assurance, my best friend, and fellow Rorem pupil Norman Stumpf, and I would head for Little Pete’s, where we would debrief. “Did he tell you that you succeeded in being boring?” I asked Norman, over Pete’s wretched, perennially burnt Joe, one afternoon. “Not this time,” Norman replied. “But he told me that William Flanagan wrote my song better in the late 50s.” “Who was he?” I asked. “That’s what I said,” replied Norman. I already knew what Ned’s answer had been: find out.

I didn’t yet have a telephone in my apartment. I’d use the payphone in Little Pete’s to call home for reports of my mother’s gradual submission to cancer back in Wisconsin, and then drink with a cellist friend until four or five in the morning, attempting to slake the thirst for silence in my head. I cannot recall how many dawns I greeted, my body still young enough to absorb the alcoholic gut punches dealt it during the previous hours, doing my counterpoint exercises at Pete’s lime green counter, “scrambled eggs and“ a few inches away, untouched, the dread of disappointing Ford Lallerstedt in class a few hours later by presenting mediocre work pulling me back from the edge.

I celebrated my first critical triumph as a composer at Little Pete’s; I also received my most gratuitous wing clipping by a music critic there. In 1983, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s august music critic, Daniel Webster gave my string orchestra work, Prayer for Peace, which William Smith had just premièred with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a glowing review in the paper. I’ll never forget my brother Kevin, who had come to town for the performance, spreading the newspaper on the table between us, skimming it before reading it to me, so that, if necessary, he could spare me the worst bits. Seventeen years later—a lifetime, really—my alma matercommissioned a piece to celebrate its 75th anniversary called Much Ado. Made careless by the standing ovation the piece had received the night before, I spread the Inquirer out on a table at Pete’s expecting at least a casual nod from the critic. Instead, my frothy showpiece was dealt a pasting. Composers do read reviews. Well, I used to—until that day, anyway.

I courted my girlfriend for months by walking her each day from Curtis to her train at Suburban Station. She rented a room out on the Main Line in the home of Bernard Jacobson and his wife. The day that she allowed me to carry her violin for her was the equivalent of moving from “vous” to “tu.” Afterwards, a little giddy, downcast, yet hopeful — the way you can be when you are in your early ‘20s and in love and have time and health and just enough money to get by, I bought the Daily News and the New York Times and worked my way through them at Pete’s until I felt the urge to compose percolate up within me like a welcome fever. Then, a man with a mission, I’d head for a practice room at Curtis and spread notes on music paper like jam on bread. God, that felt good. In time, the love affair sputtered. Music did not.

This morning, an old school chum posted the news on Facebook that Pete’s shall soon be no more. The comments following her post were lovely, and they’re still coming in. I shouldn’t be amazed by how much the place meant to all of us. 

No more sentimental reveries over crab cake sandwiches when I return to Philadelphia for the occasional master class, performance, or lecture. One less skein of memory holding me to one of the few places on the planet, and one of the few times, when I was able to summon both the elegia of James Agee and the earnest and callow drive of Thomas Wolfe. “Aw,” a Philadelphia-based friend told me on the phone just now when I called him to confirm the news, “just drive on, old friend. It was inevitable. It had to happen. And it all began the day that they let people throw up buildings taller than William Penn’s hat.”

At "Little Pete's" on 27 February 2017. The restaurant got a reprieve, and is now scheduled to close in May 2017. (Photo by Neil Erickson)

Closure #2: February 2017

Fully three years after I first contributed the article above to the Huffington Post, still accepting "cash only," the diner holds on. The final closing date has been officially announced and accepted by management, and a steady stream of customers has been coming in to say goodbye for months, said the owner when I stopped in this morning.

Enough time has passed that the Warwick Hotel across the street has passed back into private hands and out of the clutches of the chain that had demolished its once elegant lobby and replaced it with a hideous, Euro-trashy, neon-blue fishtank affair.

My wife and I had checked into the Warwick the day before, our two sons in tow. I'd returned to Philly to hear a performance by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia—Michael Ludwig had given a lovely account of the violin concerto I'd written for him a few years earlier. After Michael's vivid, glowing performance of my concerto with Dirk Brossé and the orchestra, I'd dined with my belovéd writing mentor (whom I'd first met as a student at Curtis in 1982) Emily Wallace and her husband Gregory and discussed my memoirs; I'd enjoyed a quick brunch with my good buddy, rising composer and Curtis faculty member David Ludwig, at Pete's the next morning.  I'd even taken a moment to stretch my legs out before me in a favorite chair in the Common Room at Curtis for a few moments before walking to Little Pete's, spreading the Inquirer out on the green formica countertop, and reading a respectful review of my concerto by the same critic who had panned me all those years back. 

June 2017. The original Little Pete's is literally no more. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

June 2017. The original Little Pete's is literally no more. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

A few nights before, I'd sung my "Elegy for Ray Charles" at World Cafe Live in University City, a few blocks away, putting over my good friend Stephen Dunn's lovely words breathily into a hot mic and accompanying myself publicly in this town for the first time since the last time I touched the keys as the lounge pianist in the Barclay Hotel lobby in fall 1982. Then, I was about to make my Curtis debut, conducting my music with the Curtis Orchestra next door, Mother dying of cancer, my life just beginning. The other night, my wife and young sons sat at a nearby table. First, she took the stage and rocked the joint with a spiritual, and then rocked it again by singing the trumpet part(!) of Charles Ives' Unanswered Question in an arrangement by local composer Andrew Lipke. When Gilda and I laid down my new arrangement together of John Henry, I knew that I'd finally licked my ghosts in this town. 

I was awakened this morning by the sound of my son's voice: he was singing the trumpet solo of the Ives as he relieved himself in the bathroom. I knew at once that it would be a good day. After checking out of the Warwick, we celebrated by visiting Little Pete's a final time. The four of us squeezed into the booth in which I first sat tha September 1981—the night I first hit the east coast— and ordered breakfast. The waitress who had presented me with a free piece of blueberry pie and said, "Welcome to Philly, honey," has long since passed away, and the boy I once was has become a man who can no longer eat most of what is on the menu. I couldn't resist introducing my eldest to the mysteries of Scrapple.

I love him anyway.

This essay originally appeared in its original form the Huffington Post on 31 October 2014. Click here to read it there.

Other, More Important, Things

I recalled, very early this morning, Father's last words to me, exactly fifteen years ago: "I probably should have gotten psychological help when you were boys, but there always seemed to be other, more important, things.” 

I wasn’t surprised the day in 2001 that a New Berlin police officer called to tell me that “we found your dad several days ago. He had been … um … deceased for a couple of days and … there was no indication of next of kin. So, um … we had to track you down … over the Internet. Nice website, by the way.” Father’s decomposing body had lain for several days before being discovered by a cop face down in his own dried vomit on the floor of the den in our Big Cedar House. The immediate cause was “arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease,” but, when I called the coroner for an explanation, he explained, without emotion, “Well, he was clearly an untreated diabetic, and the liver was cirrhotic, so there’s that.”

He had been failing for some time. I imagine that, since he was only slowing down, Father didn't see the point in paying a doctor to tell him to change his life. Father’s emotions were volcanic. His thirst for expressions of love was impossible to slake. No gesture was enough, so his feelings were always hurt. During our conversation, immediately after Mother’s death, he tried to explain himself to me by quoting the toast from Citizen Kane: “A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows—his own.”

My brothers had promised their mother to keep trying to communicate with him, but it was naïve of her to expect them to just let go of the damage that a father can do to his son. Shortly after her death, each had an encounter with him that forced them to decide whether to carry on, or to make a new start, with him by telling him that he was forgiven—not that he particularly desired forgiveness, or felt that he deserved it, or understood the suffering and shame he’d inflicted on them with his actions, judgments, and words. The “unveiled secrets of their father,” neither ever spoke to him again.

Partly because I rarely fought him, he never attacked me the way that he did them, so I remained—to a consciously calibrated degree—sensitive to the wounded love that motivated his anger. I never felt the need for an apology from him, or to offer him forgiveness. I accepted that he loved me, had done the best that he could, and that he was sick. To the end, being right remained more important to him than being happy. He taught me how to work; but is wife taught me how to love working.  In the end, I kept in touch with him because I promised her that I would, and because not doing so would have made me feel guilty, and I didn’t have what it took to accept that burden. We spoke on the phone. To avoid emotional manipulation, I’d hang up when he turned ugly. Conversations could be short.

It was with a weird sort of relief that my brother and I flew to Milwaukee to perform together the mundane tasks sons do for their dead fathersburying him, gathering up whatever was worth saving in the house and readying it for sale. In the garage sat the last in a long line of used cars and a lot of familiar, rusting gardening equipment. When we managed to get into the house, it was like a visit with Dickens’ Miss Havisham. Enormous, ropy, decade-old webs hung from the soaring ceiling of the front room, in which buckets sat everywhere on sheets of plastic to catch the rain which had been working its way through the roof for years and in which cheap, remaindered furniture added after Mother's death cluttered the once elegant space. The kitchen whose floor we had scrubbed in our pajamas in the small hours as boys hadn't been used for anything except boiling noodles for what seemed a very long time. The pantry was empty. He had obviously been bathing in the sink. Between the kitchen and the library was an enormous, half-filled garbage can, which looked as though it had been placed there for our use in cleaning up after his demise. The third floor was deserted, the master bedroom with the huge bed at the foot of which Mother died was half-made, the sheet half-pulled off. It looked (and felt) like a crime scene. Once she had banished him, sometime in my early teens, he had never again slept there; he slept on a couch in the den, where he had clearly been living for years….

Father had converted what had been my bedroom into a sort of creepy storage room for teddy bears of various shapes and sizes, which he at some point had taken to giving out to strangers and acquaintances alike. There were dozens of them. The den, where he collapsed and died, was like the lair of some wounded animal. Stinking slightly of sweat, it was filled with broken electronic equipment, an empty Cutty Sark bottle on its side, and a single box filled with insurance papers. On a table sat a box containing what little he had elected to save of his and our family's history—letters, newspaper clippings, birth certificates, and a handful of faded photographs. He returned all my letters to me, tucked carefully back into the envelopes in which they had been sent. Like my other brother a few years before, who emptied his Springfield hotel room before taking a taxi to the hospital one last time, Father was determined to leave no Rosebuds sitting around for others to pick over. Nevertheless, it took us several days to cart away the garbage and the alarming number of broken vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens he had somehow accumulated, to knock the place into the barest shape before handing it over to a realtor who would then sell it after our departure “as is.”

Except for the books that he and Mother had acquired together in college, Father had thrown out or given away all his books and papers. How sad those books that remained looked, propped at crazy angles, cigarette-smoke-stained, moldy, some lolling open over the lip of the shelf like tongues. I fished a copy of Leaves of Grass from the shelf and paged through it. Their marginalia, the handwriting so personal, so recognizable, was a testament to the seriousness with which they pursued their dialogue with favorite poets. It was possible to read their hearts and minds flowering for the first time. He wrote in the margin on one side of a page of Keats’ On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, “Man cannot possess perpetual happiness; only momentary glimpses in intimation of beauty.” On the other side of the page, she answered, “Note how he makes nouns of adjectives & vice versa.” Further down the page, he wrote, “Every poet is contributing to a great poem; each poet is holding ground in his way—,” to which she replied, with two brisk down-strokes of her pen beside Keats’ lines, “Of course, this is the function of a poet’s role.” Really, it’s a love duet they’re singing, with Keats’ observations about Homer as the subtext. Beautiful. Keats had always been Father’s solace, and John Milton; Mother loved Browning, and Baudelaire. A volume of Baudelaire, with Mother’s corrections to the French translation interlaced with the published text, had a bookplate that read, “This book is the property of Gwen Johnson.” They continued to sing together after marrying: Father picked up an anthology of British and American poetry during the 60s the bookplate of which read, “Ex Libris Gwen and Earl Hagen—darling I knew you had to have this—Earl.” A copy of Dylan Thomas’ collected poems was inscribed by me, aged 13 in blue ballpoint pen, “For Mama—a gift from your children, Christmas, 1974.” I took all the volumes that remained. They now rest safely between their siblings on the shelves in the Big Victorian House, where they will snuggle safely for the rest of my life, thereafter to be handed on to my sons for safekeeping, my parents’ marginalia and those added by me read by them as though they were eavesdropping on our ghostly songs.

Mother's recipe box I rescued from the top shelf in the kitchen pantry and gave to my brother, who handed it down to his son. Finally, I caught the kitten; my brother's wife adopted it. We dealt with the realtor, the funeral home, and the local newspaper. Writing the obituary, I couldn’t remember the names of his siblings, or any facts about his life…. We had the remains cremated. There was the melancholy triage of Executorship. I arranged a memorial, to which neither of us went. Sometime later, a well-meaning relative sent a videotape of the service on which numerous familiar-looking people I have never met shared sad, kindly reminiscences of a man I never knew. When I told Father that “all we ever wanted was for you to be happy with us,” his last words to me, in January 2001, a few weeks before he died, were, “I probably should have gotten psychological help when you were boys, but there always seemed to be other, more important, things.” 

This essay appeared in its original form in the Huffington Post. Click here to read it there.

Moonstruck

In the dream I dreamed that I was the cavalier with the enormous nose.

“What hour? What country’s this? What day? What season?” I mused. It was in the early hours of 14 November, 2016. A warm winter in Upstate New York.

My five-year-old son’s heel dug into my ribs, pushing me toward the edge of the bed.

In the dream, my dead brother Kevin was De Guiche: “It’s not just a moon, sir. It’s a Supermoon!”

“I’m completely dazed!” I replied, opening my eyes a crack. Though the digital clock read “3:45,” moonlight so bright streamed through the window that I gasped. My wife muttered questioningly. “It’s okay,” I said, swinging my legs out of the bed. She turned over and went back to sleep. I glanced at my youngest son. An hour or two earlier, the moonlight had awakened him, and he had launched himself (preceded by the pounding of his small feet on the floor as he ran from his room to ours) into our bed, there to create the crossbar in the letter H between his parents. Tenderly, I folded the covers over his chest, fumbled for my glasses, found them, placed them on my nose, and reached for my phone. I ran my other hand through my hair and remembered my next line: “Like a bomb, I fell from the moon!”

I’d gone to bed knowing that there would be a lunar event; my subconscious had obliged by casting me in a summer stock staging of the moon madness scene of Rostand’s play. It had ended badly, of course. I was awake, now, and with consciousness’ return the dread I’d been feeling for days flowed back out of my subconscious like a stain. Quietly, I crept down the stairs, fished by memory with my feet for my slippers under the piano, turned on the coffee maker, and looked out the kitchen window at the largest moon to be seen since 1948. Nimbus clung around the bare branches of the trees. The streetlamp across the way flickered pinkly before dying. After a few minutes, the coffee maker sputtered and wheezed; I poured myself a cup and carried it out into the backyard. 

It was the birthdate of Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, a Jew from Brooklyn who—in adroitly tossing together during the 40s some cowboy songs, good Gallic Boulanger sauce and some spicy Stravinsky harmonies—invented an Americana salad so durable that it is as patriotic as a portrait of Lincoln and apple pie. By all firsthand accounts, whether they be those of his protégé David Del Tredici, his younger friend and colleague Leonard Bernstein, an even younger Ned Rorem, or even the acerbic recollections of David Diamond, he was a decent and humane man. I met him at Tanglewood in summer 1986, and sat with him in the shed as he listened to Lenny conduct his Symphony No. 3, turning his head slightly to me every few minutes, smiling sweetly, and asking me gently, quietly, “What is the year? What summer is this?” His tears.

The harder truth was that it was also the birthdate of the evil, alcoholic demagogue Joseph McCarthy, a man reared like myself in Wisconsin, of all places the birthplace also of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette Senior, born a Republican, founder of the Progressive Party, civil rights and anti-war activist, about whom I also learned in grade school. The current governor, Scott Walker, for whom I have no admiration, couldn’t manage to graduate from Marquette University; McCarthy, at least, graduated before serving (poorly) as a judge, falsifying war injuries to garner medals as a marine, and slithering, asp-like, into the cathedral of politics, from whose pulpit he preached fear and hate, managing nearly to ruin the lives of many of the artists whose work has inspired me most for the past forty years.

It was also the anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s dramatic last moment debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943. Would I even have become a composer myself had I not thrilled to the sight of the Jets flying across the screen of the Oriental Landmark Theater as a teenager, Jerome Robbins’ moves electrifying Bernstein’s lightning-in-a-bottle score? Had he not written to my Mother when I was fifteen and decreed, Zeus-like, that I was indeed “the Real Thing, a composer,” would I have come to the coast at all I wonder?

The harder truth is that it was also the day that one Steven Bannon, an openly anti-Semitic man, was named chief counselor to an American President-elect of little subtlety, poorly-read, poorly-educated, with not a sliver of experience as a politician, lawyer, or as a military service man. A golden-spoon rich kid opportunist who told poor people that the fact they were badly educated was the fault of the educated people that they resented had found a neat scapegoat.

Shivering, I poured what was left of the now cold coffee on the grass and headed back in. Seated at the computer in the kitchen, I surfed quickly through the digital front pages of Le Monde, Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. The cyclic, orbital nature of these harsh dichotomies illustrate Santayana's dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but we're into fouler stuff now. Now our Facebook timelines deliver to our “smart” phones “truths” calculated by special algorithms to entertain us, to reinforce our Weltanschauungs. The "big lie" is now comprised of countless little self-exculpatory, self-justifications for why the “other” guy is “better off.”

I checked into Facebook. Dear friend Lara Downes saw that I was online and sent me the text of an article she was working on about the election. In it, she described that, on election night, her mother "kissed [her] goodbye, and said, “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I’m so sorry for all of you.”

I rose from the computer, poured another cup of coffee, and stood in the door of the kitchen to watch the sun rise. To my amazement, a young deer strolled without fear right up to the door and looked in at me. "He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights," I recalled from Bible Study class. The deer is a sacred animal. It is a shaman, and often the bringer of tidings. It embodies the spirit of softness combined with strength, grace crossed with power. Why had he come on this, of all days?

I reached behind me for an apple. I expected the animal to bolt, but it remained, solid, self-assured and brave, a beautiful thing in itself. I opened the door and rolled the apple across the patio; it came to a stop between the deer’s hooves. It blinked, twice. It cocked its head over its shoulder as though listening for die ferne klang, dipped smoothly to scoop the apple up in its mouth, and walked slowly, with the stately grace of a queen, to the picket fence at the end of our yard. I looked away for a moment. When I looked back, it was gone.

“What hour? What country’s this? What day? What season?” I mused. History teaches us that this has all happened before and that it will happen again. The good and the evil share the same day. How can we possibly explain this to our children? Why must the moon be so very close to us in our time? I understand that it is our turn, but why must it drive us mad?

You can also read this essay at the Huffington Post by clicking here.

Thanksgiving Song

This is no gauzy, sentimental reminiscence of an old familiar haunt from my salad days penned for the holidays in an effort to inspire warm and fuzzy feelings. No. This is a song of praise, relief, love, and lament for my brothers and sisters who’ll clink glasses across a table in a diner somewhere whose thoughts and memories may have to suffice tonight as their family.

Tonight I’ll be humbled, dazzled, and more grateful than I can say, to sit at the head of a table with my beloved wife and fifteen other adults, dear ones all, and eight of their (and our) children in a beautiful home in a safe Upstate New York village, together celebrating Thanksgiving.

I never expected to survive my forties, and nearly didn’t. My story’s not unique, and its details are not worthy of the staccato delivery of war reportage. Time has made more legato my memories of the many, many hours I spent in the Metro Diner at 100th and Broadway, arguing politics, wooing dates, composing, devouring the New York Times, and nursing hangovers. Hell, I ate there before it was called the Metro, back when the Metro Theater still showed second-run films and before, during its death throes, it showed porn. After my divorce, I ate there daily for nearly two years.

The Metro Diner at 100th and Broadway, in Manhattan.

The Metro Diner at 100th and Broadway, in Manhattan.

Up until the spring morning in 1997 when my soon-to-be-ex-wife sandwiched herself heavily into the booth across from me and I saw her for the last time, the Metro Diner had been one of my favorite Upper West Side haunts. 

I spread the settlement agreement on the table in front of her like the plans to a house. “Let’s get on with it,” I said.

“No. I want to order something first,” she said, a cool Pan Am smile flickering across her lips. She glanced up to gauge its effect. I looked away. She gathered up the papers with elaborate care, piled them neatly to one side, picked up a menu, and deliberated. 

I stared at the ice in my plastic water glass. The waiter brought her a cup of coffee. She ordered, leaned back in her seat, and stretched. “How ‘ya been?” she drawled.

I looked out the window. A pale, slender woman in a red dress only partly concealed beneath a royal blue pea coat sped northwards up Broadway with her head down, shielding her eyes from the intense morning sun. She reminded me of my violist girlfriend from Marseilles, dashing once through a drizzle to meet me near the Campanile in Venice.

I looked back at her and thought about the violent North African with whom she said she had taken up in Venice. After I had paid to fly her home from Italy, he had continued to call her: “Vaffanculo strozzo!” I’d snarl into the telephone when he called.

I stopped loving her the day I learned of her first affair. One day I returned from teaching at Bard and picked up a letter waiting for her on the landing in front of our apartment that candidly discussed her infidelity.

“How have I been?” I repeated the question vaguely, scratching at my arm. I examined the half dozen scabs on each of my hands. As a child, I had compulsively picked scabs when under stress. My arms and legs were covered with wounds. Sighing, the dermatologist had informed me, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for you. It appears to be psychosomatic: you are simply uncomfortable in your own skin.”

My eggs came. Sunny side up. They were runny, viscous, like snot. Next to the eggs was a pile of hash. I smothered it in catsup. A slice of blood orange serving as garnish was twisted like a set of filthy dentures. I fought back a wave of nausea. We both ate mechanically. What a mess. “I don’t know,” I said, looking at her squarely.

“So,” she smiled thinly, “are you still a drunk?” “I drink a lot,” I answered. “But I am not a drunk.” “Oh, that doesn’t matter,” she said. I looked at her. “Because I’ll tell the judge that you are.” “Ah,” I said, without inflection. I looked at the back of my hand. The largest scab there looked exactly like a fleck of the hash on my plate. I pulled it away from the skin and tucked it between the folds of my napkin. She got down to business: “I want you to know that I know that you got to be a better and better husband and I got to be a worse and worse wife.”

Surprised, I looked up at her. She smiled brightly, and crammed a slab of pancake in her mouth. I looked away again. Why had I made her end it? Why did I need to prove to myself that I had tried everything, everything possible to make it work? Why had it been more important to me to be right than it had been to be happy? She pushed her plate to the side, smacked her lips, and reached for the settlement papers. I—reflexively still paying for things—signaled for the check. 

“You know,” I said, “that you haven’t any moral or ethical right to a dime.”

There was a sudden clatter of dishes in the kitchen and a sharp hiss as something hit the hot griddle. She slowly picked up the pen, lit up a malevolent, self-satisfied smile, and said, “I am legally entitled to it. I can get it. And I want it.” As she signed the paper and I countersigned it, I felt nothing. 

Twenty years later, I will put my hands together at dinner, say a prayer, and offer this song of praise to the bright-faced young Juilliard student sliding into a booth at the Metro, his violin case in the seat across from him, his expressive hand signaling the waiter for a cup of coffee, far from home, Beethoven and the Russian girl back there on his mind. 

I’ll offer this song of relief to the out of work actor whose family back in Iowa sent him a check for the holidays that he’s just cashed at an exorbitant fee a few doors away because he hasn’t eaten in three days sitting at the bar, a dogged paperback copy of Ibsen’s plays in his lap, his lips silently mouthing lines from a scene he's learning for an audition tomorrow. 

I’ll offer this song of love for the elderly couple in the back booth holding hands I’ve known for forty years who don’t even need to make eye contact with the staff anymore: they’re simply taken care of, and rarely pay for their meal. 

I’ll offer this song of lament for the homeless people who stop at the front door and are wordlessly given a free cup of hot coffee to warm them as they continue their long walk up and down Broadway. 

I'll offer it because these people were for years my family, and because the song was always about the people, not the place, and it still is.

 

Read a wonderful piece by George Blechner in the New York Times about Manhattan's waning diner culture here.

Read an article about "Little Pete's," a diner in Philadelphia similarly beloved, by clicking here.

Taking Wing: Composing "Amelia"

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 12 August 2016. To read it there, click here.

Librettist Gardner McFall and Daron Hagen in New York City, 2007. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Librettist Gardner McFall and Daron Hagen in New York City, 2007. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

This is the story of how Amelia, an opera commissioned by Seattle Opera about a first time mother-to-be named Amelia, whose psyche has been scarred by the loss of her pilot-father in Vietnam, got written.

The opera tells the story of how she breaks free from anxiety to embrace healing and renewal for the sake of her husband and child. The original narrative unfolds over a 30-year period beginning in 1966. Amelia interweaves one woman’s emotional journey, the American experience in Vietnam, the mystery that is Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, and elements of the Daedalus and Icarus myth to explore man’s fascination with flight and the dilemmas that arise when vehicles of flight are used for exploration, adventure, and war. With an intensely personal libretto by American poet Gardner McFall, whose father was a Navy pilot lost during Vietnam, the opera moves from loss to recuperation, paralysis to flight, as the protagonist, Amelia, ultimately embraces her life and the creative force of love and family.

Daron presents the completed partitura to Speight Jenkins. (Photo: Kelly Tweeddale)

Daron presents the completed partitura to Speight Jenkins. (Photo: Kelly Tweeddale)

As the old saying goes, “Life is short. Opera is long.” And grand operas are beautiful beasts that sometimes take a very long time to gestate. In another life and time, say, 1860-something, I might’ve met Speight Jenkins while squinting over a hand of poker in the saloon of a tumbleweed-infested ghost town—he, the editor of the local gazette and local magistrate; me an itinerant alcoholic Lutheran preacher making a forlorn show of shepherding a flock.

Instead, a hundred years later, Speight graduated UT, Columbia Law School, served in the U.S. Army, and later became a music critic and journalist, helming Opera News for seven years, and then writing about music for the New York Postfor another seven before a guest lectureship about Wagner’s Ring brought him to the attention of Seattle Opera’s board of trustees such that they offered him the post of general director of the company in 1983. As it happens, we met for real by Email.

“I’m writing to you,” Speight’s 5 November 2003 message began, “to find out if A) you are interested in writing an opera for Seattle, and B) what your ideas for such an opera might be. My first interest is in the music; the crucial factor in any opera is the music.”

We began an 18-month epistolary working relationship, during which I pitched him no fewer than two-dozen potential scenarios. He chose the last, a sprawling, innigpiece in which I explored my preoccupation with flight as metaphor for life, birth for letting go and linking with the past, and the fact that the dead are not lost to us. Characters included the Wright Brothers (two male sopranos), Icarus and Dædalus, Neil Armstrong, Amelia Earhart, Leonardo da Vinci, and a little boy (me) laying on the floor on his tummy watching the moon landing on television. Once sold on my idea, Speight green-lit the project, my attorney began billing, contracts were drawn up, and collaboration agreements sketched out.

The evening of 25 June 2004, pacing back and forth in the Pink Room (the room in which Katrina Trask spent her last years) in West House at Yaddo, the artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, I drained the battery in my cell phone talking for six hours with famed director Stephen Wadsworth about the treatment on which I’d sold Speight. His role, Stephen explained, was to “strengthen the through-story and transform my oratorio into a dramatic vehicle.” I proposed (before even asking her) that we use Gardner McFall’s life experiences to hold together the narrative and ask her to write it.

I’d met Gardner at Yaddo during summer 1984 and set one of her poems, “Sonnet After Oscar Wilde,” which closes the song cycle Love Songs. Most importantly, I loved her poetry. Secondly, Gardner’s flier father was lost at sea during the Vietnam conflict, triggering a lifelong poetic fascination with his unknown fate. Because I wasn’t interested in doing a “take down” of the military, but rather in exploring the human toll that military service extracts, Gardner’s self-contained dignity and complete identification not just with my heroine’s emotional state as an expectant mother (Gardner has a daughter) but also with her psychological makeup as a Navy junior guaranteed that the characters that she drew in the opera would personify the honorable rectitude that they do in real life.

The next day, Stephen sent me his first scenario draft of the first act, in which he had begun incorporating Gardner’s experiences (as I had related them), thereby anchoring the opera I had initially conceived in the events of Gardner’s personal narrative.

When I called her, later that day, explained what I had in mind, and invited her to write the libretto of Amelia, I took for granted that she would be willing to mine her past as I do mine, and to lay bare her most painful memories for the sake of telling our story. If I hadn’t intended to strip myself every bit as bare in the process, I would never have asked.

The following summer at Yaddo, a few weeks after David Diamond’s death, Gardner began tentatively committing to some words for the libretto of Amelia. Each afternoon we met—again, I was in the Pink Room, and Gardner was down the hall—and talked about Amelia and the sort of opera we wanted to make together.

“I wish,” I wrote to Speight on 8 July 2005, “I could express how excited Gardner and I both are by what we have come up with. When, at about two this morning, I slipped under her door (she has been lodged in the same house, down the hall) the tenth generation of revisions to the work we’ve done together here on Ameliabefore pouring myself a glass of wine and doing a little reading, I didn’t expect to hear from her before her departure. But this morning I discovered that Gardner had slipped a note under my door, which read, in part: ‘Daron—I feel the Amelia project is such a Blessing—truly—and about our work together in the coming months I can only say: CAVU: Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited!’”

“We did not begin in earnest until May 2006, again at Yaddo. By that time, we had contracts with Seattle Opera and a final, mutually agreeable scenario. … Each morning, I sat down at my computer in Yaddo’s High Studio to write, using the scenario as an outline but feeling free to invent key imagery to associate with the characters and to supply emotional motivation for their actions. When I completed a scene, I would share it with Daron, who processed the text by retyping it, sometimes making a deletion, or asking for an additional line or two. … By the time I left Yaddo in mid-June, I had finished the first two scenes of Act I.” - Gardner McFall, in the Afterward of Amelia, the Libretto

I began working out the opera’s musical ideas by setting a sheaf of Amelia Earhart’s public statements to music for treble chorus and string quartet. The Milwaukee Choral Artists and a string quartet made up of members of Present Music conducted by Sharon Hansen premiered the song cycle, called Flight Music, in November 2005 at the Cathedral of Saint John in Milwaukee. Most of the music of this cycle ultimately turned up somewhere in Amelia.

Over the course of the next year, Gardner, Stephen, and I met periodically at Gardner’s home on the Upper West Side to thrash through the libretto together. We were not cooks sharing a kitchen but, rather, dreamers sharing a vision, each asking tough questions of the others. For me, it was like a return to the summer months of 1992, when I played and sang through Shining Brow for Stephen at his apartment in the Village and I was compelled by a trustworthy collaborator to justify every dramatic beat.

The Acosta Nichols Tower Studio at Yaddo, where much of Amelia was composed. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

The Acosta Nichols Tower Studio at Yaddo, where much of Amelia was composed. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

It wasn’t until May 2007, fully two years later, that I sat at last at the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio at Yaddo, and began, with trepidation, writing the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will bTe fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest. It was the plainest sort of blessing, and a perfect example of the sort of thing that happens at Yaddo.

During April and May 2010, Seattle Opera rented a cozy house for me atop Queen Anne Hill. New commissions came, including one for a new opera based on Winsor McCay’s seminal surrealist Little Nemo comic strip for Sarasota Opera, based on a libretto by J.D. (Sandy) McClatchy. On my own for the first time since marrying Gilda, desperate for an escape from the pressures of production, I drank every night. I was sober for rehearsals, but I felt desperately over-exposed as a person. When Kate Lindsey, as Amelia, “saw” Icarus, Dædalus, and her dead relatives in the room, she was playing my reality. When Nathan Gunn cradled the newborn at the end of the opera, he was playing me.

Daron looks on as Gerard Schwarz leads the wandelprobe of Amelia. (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

Daron looks on as Gerard Schwarz leads the wandelprobe of Amelia. (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

After five weeks of staging rehearsals, production moved from the rehearsal hall to the opera house. My heart began to lift during the ritual introduction of the production team on the empty stage. The orchestra had rehearsed the score. The focus of production shifted to the realization of my larger compositional vision (including sets, lights, a mighty orchestra, and an audience) as the huge mechanism of the company came into play.

Technicians walked purposefully about, whispering. The lighting designer conferred with his assistant at the portable board set up in the orchestra. The enormous sets were assembled and struck, one after another, on the stage. I walked the darkened house for hours, memorized the sightlines, and gauged what would “speak” to what part of the audience.

Opening night of any opera is exhilarating as hell, but this was Amelia, in which I had invested so very much. The McCaw Hall curtain slid silently up to reveal the first scene. Gerard Schwarz brought his baton down, and the Seattle Symphony began the first bars, intentionally redolent of Vere’s music from Billy Budd—a blessing, homage, and a curse on this opera’s characters. In the front yard of a suburban tract house lay a young girl on her back holding her father’s cap, on which could be clearly seen a commander’s insignia. Her mother folded laundry in her room. Her father sat in the kitchen, cutting himself a slice of pie.

An S.O.S. rhythmic tattoo began. It was this particular household’s—and the opera’s—stuttering heartbeat. (I chose it because Father was a radioman and because its underlying message was that, as in my childhood, anxiety underpinned the bourgeois family scene.) I knew that the audience wouldn’t entirely understand until the moment that the mother received the news from the Chaplain that her husband was lost in action what they had been intuiting: what they had thought was the present was the past; the happiness unfolding between father and daughter was a memory. Dodge was not there—he was singing in the past. Amelia’s mother Amanda sang a duet with that past.

I wondered that hay fever had struck this audience as hard as it did. “Those sniffles are not because of allergies, darling: they’re weeping,” Gilda whispered.

The first scene ended and the orchestra segued into the first interlude. A set of variations on the lullaby that Amelia’s father had sung her as a child, the interlude traced her evolution as a person from the age of nine (the point at which she learned of her father’s disappearance) to age 31 (the point at which we meet her in her third trimester of pregnancy).

The curtain rose. Amelia’s dream life counterpointed her waking life. On one side of the stage sat Icarus and Dædalus constructing their wings; on the other side, Amelia and her husband slept. At the end of the scene, her dream shifts to a memory of her mother giving her the news of her father’s disappearance. Amelia leaves, and in her absence, her dreams and memories intermingle. Icarus and Dædalus, prepare to take to the air. “Who invented flying? And why?” asked Amelia’s memory of her mother.

The orchestra joined her on this pitch, because it was in this dark, subconscious place that the second interlude would move and unfold. Then, the curtain, accompanied by a smear of polytonal string chords, rose to reveal Tom Lynch’s set. The Vietnamese couple recounted Dodge’s (final?) moments, which were enacted around them. The loss. As the characters spun out the long moment of discovery with which the scene ends and the orchestra quietly explored the moment, the house was absolutely still. It felt as though the opera house was collapsing in on itself.

“Did you hear that silence?” Speight asked, aglow with satisfaction, during the intermission. “I mean, did you read it? It was incredible.” He sped off to confer with his peers—the general directors of other companies considering productions of their own. Shell-shocked, Gilda and I did a walkabout arm-in-arm through the lobby. Several tearful Vietnam veterans approached, expressed thanks to me for addressing their experiences in the opera. “I’m honored by your reaction,” I responded, hoarsely. The air was earnest. People had been touched.

The second act began. The curtain slid up to reveal a painted sunset nearly identical to the one I had just seen during intermission. Amelia arrived. The action moved through Amelia’s breakdown—the most straightforward story telling in the opera, intended to reassure those theatergoers who had felt set a bit adrift during the first act.

The orchestral interlude exploring her relationship with her father and flight ended. The death of the boy unspooled, the reunion of Amelia and her dead father took place, along with her subsequent reawakening. Cue the interlude tracking Amelia’s labor towards its climax. The orchestra dropped out, the baby emerged, and the final unaccompanied nonette pealed forth. The wave of emotion that swept through the house was like an unexpected spring shower.

I thought of sitting at my mother’s feet as a child, watching her sculpt. I thought of the six things that she had taught me that every worthwhile piece of art required: hard work, love, dedication, discipline, craft, and the revealed secret. I had committed my life to the pursuit of the secret. I had learned that the secret was my Truth. The frog behind Amelia’s back? The final tableau was an exact portrait of the inside of my mind and heart the moment that my son Atticus was born. I had been given the opportunity to share my truth, and to know that for one instant I had gotten “it” exactly right.

The final scene of Amelia as staged at Seattle Opera (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

The final scene of Amelia as staged at Seattle Opera (Photo: Rozarii Lynch)

Amelia held her baby. Paul held her. Helen wept for joy. Dodge and Amanda (having returned as a couple of middle-aged doctors) cuddled, and then kissed gently on the other side of the stage. The Flier squatted down center, gazed brightly into the night sky. Young Amelia (as a young resident) slept on a bench outside the delivery room. The Young Boy’s Father, holding the little cellophane bag containing the last of his dead son’s possessions, walked slowly toward the exit. Characters slowly exited; like mist rising from the sea, the set flew up and out. As each character parted, I felt as though another of my ghosts, one of my presences, departed. I felt lighter and lighter. By the time the Flier sang Mother’s final words, “I was never bored,” I felt suspended in midair like Icarus before the fall, weightless, a completely “chanceful” thing—.

Amelia (or was it my wife Gilda?) sang to her newborn, “Anything is possible.” That moment was for my elder son. I thought of his wonderful dignity—my son, who had allowed no assaults upon his integrity—had made no concessions of personality except those made through love to his parents. Those concessions remain the ones, solely, which in no way reduce or cheapen the giver. A child can concede through fear (through physical fear of punishment or emotional fear of rejection) and become at last a vicious rebel or a spiritless thing. That perhaps is truly dignity—inviolate integrity of personality that has made concessions only to beloved people, institutions, or principles.

I had not expected that, in summoning all of my spirits to form the finale of the opera as I had, I would also be waking them. I had come to understand that, in the future, they would no longer be available for me to sing for and about, to remember as and when I pleased. I had transformed my sorrow into joy, my Life into Art. I had also learned that telling one’s “truth” is not enough. Living it is what counts.

Amelia has received a number of revivals since its Seattle Opera premiere, notably by the University of Houston and the Chicago College of the Performing Arts. Learn more about the opera here.

Loving and Losing: Composing "Bandanna"

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 14 August 2016. Read it there by clicking here.

In the final tableaux of “Bandanna,” Morales (Othello) strangles his wife Mona (Desdemona) and then takes his own life.

In the final tableaux of “Bandanna,” Morales (Othello) strangles his wife Mona (Desdemona) and then takes his own life.

Writing a prescription for Prozac in autumn 1997, my therapist at the time described my condition as “clinically depressed.” Years before, just after my mother’s death, I’d also been prescribed pills—even electro-shock therapy (which I had violently opposed) had been discussed. My family’s appetite for mood-altering substances, and my fear that medication would “blunt my compulsion to create” had kept me from filling the prescription.

I was all too aware that, as Julia Kristeva pointed out in Black Sun, “depression is the hidden face of Narcissus” and that Christian theology, in which I had been immersed since childhood, considered sadness a sin. Dante even consigned the melancholic to “the city of grief” in Inferno. “The loss of the mother,” wrote Kristeva, “is a biological and psychic necessity, the first step on the way to becoming autonomous. Matricide is our vital necessity, the sine-qua-non condition of our individuation, provided that it takes place under optimal circumstances and can be eroticized.”

Came at this time a commission from the College Band Directors National Association (over a hundred colleges ultimately joined the consortium) for a full-length opera on a subject of my choosing (using a librettist of my choice) by way of a phone call from conductor Michael Haithcock.

I chose Othello as my subject matter in order to explore not just the feelings of betrayal and anger that I still felt towards my ex-wife (we had recently terminated a turbulent and nearly entirely disagreeable ten-year marriage) but also the guilt I still felt, and the incomplete mourning in which I felt caught like a fly in a web, as a result of having been called upon by my terminally-ill mother to euthanize her. In other words, I chose to fight my “battle with symbolic collapse” by creating an opera about it.

I decided to recast the Venetian tale of the Moor in a 1968 Texas-Mexico border town. The result was Bandanna, a two act grand opera. The commission required only that I could not use strings (except for basses) in the pit. I asked Paul Muldoon to write the libretto based, as usual, on a detailed co-written treatment in which I determined the exact length of every section of every scene, and mapped out the structural underpinnings of every scene, aria, and ensemble.

I composed the prologue and most of the first scene of the first act at the MacDowell Colony during January 1998 in Chapman Studio, the most remote of the many cabins dotting the property—fully a mile away from Colony Hall. I would have completed the entire first act there but for the fact that there were 26 inches of snow on the ground. For nearly four hours each day, I slogged through the snow in a decidedly non-meditative frame of mind—the walk to and from the payphone, where I was jacking in to check E-mail and to send Muldoon requests for changes, took over an hour each way.

I wrote the balance of the vocal score at home in New York City. Composer Eli Marshall, a former student and friend, stayed with me for much of the time. My work routine consisted of rising at 7 AM, composing until 5 PM, dining at a nearby burrito joint where I spoke Spanish with the waitress, and copying out the fair score in the evening while drinking a bottle of Antinori Chianti. The vocal score was completed in just over four months.

When I co-wrote with Paul the treatment for the last scene of Bandanna I was entirely aware of the agonizing sequence of matricidal, fratricidal, uxoricidal, and suicidal acts that would be ritualistically enacted. Accordingly, in her concluding Willow Aria, the music that Mona sings is written from the point of view that she already knows that she is dead; the strings that accompany her are, throughout the opera, associated with death, inasmuch as they, unlike the wind instruments featured everywhere else in the score, do not breathe.

The transition from Mona’s aria to her murder features three violins, and it tracks Morales as he crosses the stage with excruciating slowness, to her hotel room door. He is Charon, and he is in no hurry. Morales is Orpheus to Mona’s Eurydice. In fact, both Mona and Morales already intuit what must happen and are now just going through the motions: once Morales opens the door, his deputy Cassidy appears. Morales executes his friend. He then turns, as though in a dream, to Mona. He strangles his wife, who does not struggle, with the opera’s eponymous bandanna. Then, without really pausing, except to muse, “Holy Mother of God,” he kills himself by placing his service revolver in his mouth and blowing himself away.

One critic complained later that “the final scene—the climactic murder-suicide—is anguished to a grotesque degree.” If I could have made it even more grotesque, more like a slow-motion nightmare, I would have, so focused was I on capturing my inner state. While composing it, I felt such an intense sense of closure that, at one point, I actually felt as though my mother was standing behind me at the piano, her hand resting on my shoulder. When the chorus crashes in, they sing “Dona nobis pacem” (pun intended: my ex’s name was Donna) to anything but comforting music. The trombones, in fact, are marked, “blaring like the horns of an approaching semi.”

In those days, I used to send a copy of the vocal score of whichever opera I had just finished to Jack Beeson, who would go through it and make marginal comments very lightly in pencil like “You buried a plot point here. This is an intrinsically slow word: why did you set it fast? Courageous! This is the Nieces from Britten’s Grimes! Watch the passaggio!”

Jack, exclusively published by Boosey and Hawkes and ensconced with tenure at Columbia University, was a major behind-the-scenes power broker during the years that I was coming up. I respected his opera Lizzie Borden and particularly liked Hello, Out There, a trenchant one act. Jack’s knack for setting American English in a way that was understandable across the footlights I admired. His operas rarely blossomed into full-fledged song—something I found as a colleague regrettable. Jack, like the many other powerful old guard colleagues I knew then, never did anything for me, and it never occurred to me to ask him to.

During spring 1998, Jack and I played and sang (and argued) our way through Bandanna one afternoon at his spacious Columbia University faculty apartment while his wife Nora kept the tea coming. “You’re going to take a pasting from amateurs for the male ranges,” he predicted. “The men are slung high. I get it: they are all being macho. I know you want them to sound that way. Moreover, I see you are saving up the sound of the female voice for the final scene. However, you are pushing the limits of verismo writing. Maybe too much.”

A page from the Hagen-Muldoon treatment for "Bandanna" with Daron's hand-written notations.

When Jack asked me a few years later to join him as a trustee of the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera I asked him why. His answer was cheerfully truculent: “Because you’re not one of my former students, threatening to kill yourself if I do not throw a Pulitzer your way. Also, you are sane, you happen to write good operas that get produced and your expertise is required.”

I orchestrated the first act of Bandanna by hand at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts during June 1998. The second act I orchestrated mainly at Yaddo the following month, completing it in New York that July. It is the last of my operas whose full score is still in manuscript form. I switched to engraving all of my own music shortly after the farrago that correcting vocal score proofs of the vocal score for Carl Fischer became—an incompetent engraver whose work was so slipshod and inaccurate that I was forced to work through five sets of proofs had been engaged.

Bandanna’s first staging, which served as the centerpiece of the College Band Directors National Association’s national convention that February was a calamity. Upon arrival I learned that the University of Texas graduate students serving as lighting and set designers were unequal to their tasks. The student singers struggled with the roles. A few days into production, the poor fellow singing Kane simply stopped showing up. I watched, like impotent Madam Racquin, as tempos shifted wildly from rehearsal to rehearsal, student singers made up music as they went along.

I contacted Paul Kreider, with whom I had recently performed, along with Carolann Page, selections from Shining Brow at the Guggenheim Museum at the invitation of House Beautiful magazine. Paul had initiated the Vera of Las Vegas opera commission, written his doctoral dissertation on my songs. He was a fearless performer, and a trusted friend. If he couldn’t save this situation, it couldn’t be saved. Paul flew in, and learned the role of Kane in three days. With relief and gratitude, I paid his fee myself.

The premiere production did not represent the work I created. Its first performance (half a dozen players were for some reason absent from the pit for much of the first act) was greeted with what seemed to me to be defensive, uninformed distaste by most of the conventioneers.

Since the band and opera worlds are mutually contemptuous, the constituencies most inclined to produce Bandanna cancel one another out. As Tim Page wrote, “neither fish nor fowl—as fierce as verismo but wrought with infinite care, [Bandanna is] a melding of church and cantina and Oxonian declamation.” Catherine Parsonage expands upon this assessment: “[it] is wholly convincing as a modern opera, ranging stylistically from the music theatre of Gershwin, Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim to traditional mariachi music and contemporary opera of Benjamin Britten. Hagen, who served his apprenticeship on Broadway, acknowledges that holistically the piece falls between opera and music theater. Hagen’s style encourages audiences to be actively involved in constructing their own meanings from the richness of the textual and musical cross-references in his work.”

From the start there were also other colleagues who really got it, like Ukrainian-American composer, pianist, and conductor Virko Baley, who had for years conducted the Nevada Symphony Orchestra and was professor of composition at UNLV. A dynamic, thrilling pianist, tough-minded thinker, and musical swashbuckler, Virko and I had had some great adventures together. I admired him: he knew life, and he wasn’t afraid in his music to offend. He had entirely grasped the fact that Bandanna’s score meant to push people’s limits. “These characters are at the end of their shit,” he told me. “They’re in extremis. That’ll make people who like their opera tame uncomfortable. The whole damned score is unsettling. You got what you wanted, baby.”

The partitura from "Bandanna's" Act I, scene 1 "fistfight" sequence.

A few months before the premiere, presenting the great conductor and promoter of the wind ensemble as a performing group Frederick Fennell with a copy of Bandanna, I asked him how he thought the piece would go over in the band world. Eyes twinkling, he told me that he felt that there were three kinds of band conductors: “First, you have what I call the Educators: they teach high school band and play simplified arrangements of pop songs and movie themes. Then there are the Spit and Polish Men: they play marches, and for them music history stalled around the time of Holst. Finally, there are the Maestros: they could have been orchestra conductors but chose to conduct bands because they love them. These men and women are hungry for new repertoire, and can have a better grasp of the symphonic repertoire than their colleagues can in the orchestra world. Almost none of them know anything about opera, my boy, so your opera is doomed.”

The music of Bandanna, to my mind, not only successfully evoked the morally bankrupt world in which it’s Touch of Evil-infused characters lived, but also gave voice to my own inner world at the time: I was an unhappy fellow at the end of his rope, in a dark place, and looking for a way out. Bandanna addressed and expressed what was then my “truth”—that Life was a shadowy, Conradian “horror” glimpsed during flashes of lurid Malcolm Lowry lightning over Cormack McCarthy landscapes. The music was aggressively at odds with the words that it carried much of the time, like a horse that will not be ridden. Even if I removed the band world from the equation by re-arranging it for orchestra in the pit, Bandanna will never find its niche, perhaps because people like categories and the music draws equally from jazz, musical, and operatic idioms.

Thanks to the efforts of Michael Hitchcock, Paul Kreider, Thomas Leslie, and (owner of my former exclusive publisher, E.C. Schirmer) Robert Schuneman, among others, I was able in 2006 to conduct a complete recording of Bandanna (available on the Albany label) that I felt invalidated the criticisms the score had received.

The reception accorded the staged premiere was counterbalanced by the recording’s accolades from major magazines like Opera News and industry experts like Henry Fogel, who understood what Muldoon and I were trying to achieve. “Bandanna,” Fogel wrote in Fanfare Magazine, “is a poignant, dramatic, and moving new opera, one that belongs in the repertoire not because it deals with the politically hot topic of illegal immigration, but because it is powerful music theater.”

Among my operas, Bandanna shall always have been for me that problem child—the one that was too much like me to get perspective on; the one I listen to even now, 20 years later, through rueful tears as it gallops off into its own, self-immolating sunset of love and loss.

Learn more about Bandanna here.

Beauty, Despite All: On the Generosity of Teachers

This essay appeared first in the Huffington Post on 11 August 2016. Click to read it there here.

Wallace Tomchek at the Chicago Hilton, summer 1997. (Photo: Earl Hagen)

Wallace Tomchek at the Chicago Hilton, summer 1997. (Photo: Earl Hagen)

THEME

I was drawn to the piano at the age of seven because my older brother Kevin, whom I idolized, was a gifted pianist. At the beginning of my first lesson, our piano teacher Adam Klescewski sat me down on the piano bench backwards and commanded me to sing an A, which I did. I possessed absolute pitch. I grasped immediately the concept of sharps and flats, and demanded to know what was between the notes. I now retain excellent relative pitch—where did the “perfection” go? I wonder. He taught me the names of the lines and spaces in the treble and bass clefs: “Every Good Boy Does Fine; FACE; Good Boys Do Fine Always; All Cows Eat Grass.”

I didn’t like practicing. (I still don’t.) I began paying my other brother Britt—who ratted me out anyway—a dollar to tell our mother that I had practiced. He’d tell her anyway. Then, he’d say, “No-no-no, this time I promise I won’t tell her you didn’t practice!” So, what began as a bribe turned quickly into extortion. Even early on, Britt had skills. After a few months, the little spinet with the feather-light action lost its appeal. During my final lesson, I noticed digits tattooed on my teacher’s forearm. The same afternoon, I discovered on a very high shelf, along with a lot of other books about the Holocaust, an oversized book of tenebrous, horrifying concentration camp photographs called Despotism. I returned to the book obsessively. That a man who had experience such horror could make such beautiful music, create such beauty, despite all, seemed unimaginable—just impossible to me.

VARIATIONS

Shortly after that, I quit the piano for trumpet. Well, I longed not so much to play the trumpet as to be Herb Alpert. I thought there was no cooler man. Anyway, I at least wanted to be the sort of boy that played the trumpet.

Between gigs, dashing, floridly over-qualified Harry Shoplas taught band at Linfield Elementary School. He played a shiny Selmer trumpet, which he often carried tucked under his arm as he walked the school’s halls, leaving behind him the smell of Aqua Velva and valve oil. The female teachers must have regarded him ravenously. Between classes, he smoked cigarettes in a basement lair that he shared with Norman Cummings, the second-coolest teacher at the school.

Harry sized me up and handed me a euphonium I think because I was overweight and looked like I could lug it back and forth to school. He quickly switched me to alto saxophone—Britt played the baritone saxophone in Harry’s dance band and I aspired to playing with him. I loved the smell of wet reeds, and the taste of the cane, but I could never get the thing to play softly. Our fifth grade band concert closed with a Bert Kämpfert tune called Spanish Eyes, which I recall vividly because it was the last thing I played on the saxophone.

One afternoon, Shoplas took our band to a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert that included the Largo of Antonin Dvořák's Ninth Symphony. Nixon had just won the ’68 election and my favorite toy was a plastic Apollo 7 model. But it wasn’t snowing; it was warm, and raining pitchforks. Small and awestruck in a plush red velvet seat in Uiehlein Concert Hall, I was mesmerized by the conductor, Kenneth Schermerhorn. He cut a strikingly handsome, athletic, charismatic figure, and when he raised his arms it was easy to imagine that he was celebrating the Eucharist. In fact, he radiated the authority of a minister, but his back was to us, and there was a sensuality to his movements when he initiated the glittering array of brass instruments, sumptuous strings, and bird-like woodwinds that stirred me. The concert hall was like a cathedral, the audience like a congregation, and the communion—despite the profane context—spiritual. As Stephen Colburn played the ravishing English horn solo in the Largo of the Dvořák, I felt a lump in my throat, a profound sense of longing, the feeling of being tugged out of myself and suspended in midair. That was the moment, at age seven, that I knew that, no matter what, I would be a composer.

On a September afternoon 35 years later, Kenneth and I lunched before a concert on which he conducted my Much Ado overture with his Nashville Symphony. Did he remember the fan letter from the dazzled child who couldn’t find a word grand enough to describe how moved he had been by the experience? He laughed and said no. I told him what I had written: “Dear Maestro, your performance last week was just superfluous!” He exploded in grainy, rueful laughter, and mused, “How like coming home it feels to finally work together.” “And how ironic, under the circumstances,” I replied, “that the Largo was adapted into a song by Harry Burleigh called Going Home.” “Indeed,” he agreed, smiling. We swapped stories for another hour, laughing until we cried. “I am neither a young nor a healthy man,” he sighed, wiping his eyes, “but I am glad that we are finally sitting together now at this table.”

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that—sitting in Uiehlein Hall trying to decide which of the many instruments on stage I would most like to play—I decided to become a composer first and a performer second. It was because Father had unintentionally taught me that although Power can compel, it does not last; Mother had by example taught me that Authority could inspire, and therefore last forever. Like Love, Authority must be earned. Every time a new piece of music is read for the first time the composer starts with all of the Power and no Authority. If the music inspires and moves the performers, then the composer’s Authority grows. If it does not, well, as Virgil Thomson once told me, “Don’t worry about withdrawing pieces, baby; they have a way of withdrawing themselves.”

I received a lot of encouragement from my grade school teachers. When Jesus Christ Superstar dropped in the States, Kevin bought the LP’s. Mr. Germanson allowed me to play it for the class. When I followed that up by playing the “God Said” trope from Bernstein’s MASS, though, letters from angry parents prompted a telephone call from the principal, Mr. Buege (pronounced “biggy”) to Mother, whom family lore holds told him that it was 1968 and that he had better get hip.

At ten, when the other adolescent Lutheran boys were getting their first frisson from contact with the King James Bible, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Principals of Orchestration called out to me at the Brookfield Square Mall Walden Books. I carried it around everywhere the way a gunslinger packs his pistols.

Music was my religion, but I had still to find a proper celebrant. Wallace Tomchek was the first person I met with the requisite charisma. Wally taught chorus and drama at Pilgrim Park Junior High School. A short Jewish homosexual who closely resembled Norman Mailer with curly auburn hair and a slight potbelly, the ferocity of Wally’s passion for—and absolute commitment to—musical excellence was terrifying and irresistible. I loved him for it. When I was 15, He taught me, and accompanied me in performing, the first art song I learned and sang—Norman Dello Joio’s 1948 There is a Lady Sweet and Kind. Wally introduced me to the world in which poetry and music inextricably intertwine.

One afternoon, he called me into his office and commanded me to recite my (then) favorite poem. I launched into James Weldon Johnson’s great narrative poem The Creation. After I had declaimed about ten lines, he cut me off. “Really?” he asked, incredulous. “That’s your favorite poem?” I shrugged. “Well. Okay,” he said. “Now set it to music.” Over the next few months, I made of it an ambitious piece of juvenilia—a 25-minute-long cantata for four soloists, mixed choir, five violins, piano, and large symphonic band.

I began setting poetry to music, grafting my tunes with the poetry I have most loved. My first settings were of poetry by Poe, Whitman, Rossetti, Frost, and Joyce from a Harcourt anthology of British and American poets edited by Louis Untermeyer that I turn to for poems to this day. I have since set over 250 poems short and long, written dozens of works for chorus and multiple voices, and set libretti by Edward Albee, Barbara Grecki, Rob Handel, J.D. McClatchy, Gardner McFall, Paul Muldoon, and myself.

The challenging, college-level choral repertoire Wally taught us was both sophisticated and eclectic—Gesualdo madrigals, slick “swing choir” arrangements of tunes like Johnny Mercer’s Dream in nine part close harmony, and a yearly fully staged musical with orchestra which he designed, directed, rehearsed, and conducted. He also encouraged me to direct: I recall with particular fondness directing, among other things, a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden for him.

I was fifteen when Wally took our class on a field trip to a screening of the movie version of the musical 1776. William Daniels’ portrayal of John Adams—part Orson Welles, part William Shatner—enthralled me. I adopted as my credo an actual Adams quotation: “There are only two creatures of value on the face of the earth: those with the commitment, and those who require the commitment of others.” I solemnly swore to myself that for the rest of my life whatever I lacked in musical talent I would make up for in hard work and commitment.

It being the bicentennial year, Wally mounted a patriotic pageant called Spirit of ’76, “a rock celebration for young Americans,” with music by gospel songwriter Paul Johnson. Our troupe toured around the southern half of Wisconsin, performing it in American Legion halls, high schools, and nursing homes—even the Milwaukee County Mental Health complex. I recall a performance there, gazing out over the audience of six hundred psychiatric patients, gripping my microphone in as close an approximation of Mick Jagger as I was able, and squealing “let freedom ring” in my white polyester pants and bicentennial logo tee shirt. Halfway through my number, careening up the center aisle, arms flapping like the wings of a pelican, a lone patient joined me—delirious, rapturous—in song. He was exquisite, florid, a soaring thing in his own universe. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. As I launched into the chorus, I glanced at Wally, whose arms flapped also like a pelican’s wings in front of the little pit orchestra. At that instant, two orderlies converged on the patient. Every eye onstage and in the audience followed him as he was frog-marched out of the auditorium, ecstatic.

Afterward, Wally drew me aside . “Did you see that?” he exulted, eyes glittering. “Did you?” “How could I miss it?” I answered. Wally continued, ignoring me, “Remember that moment! Look at what he achieved! Think about what you just witnessed, what you—what we all—just went through … together we made that moment! Sure, the stakes change, but the hands don’t! Now that’s live performance!” Whether seated in a Greenwich Village piano bar covering show tunes while coping with “handsy” patrons, putting my own operas over from the piano for wealthy commissioners, being admonished to keep better time by ballet teachers, playing at villas in France and Italy for diplomats and scholars, performing onstage at Curtis or countless other concert halls, accepting the condescension of famous singers with big egos while coaching them, accompanying Gilda in Nicaraguan folk songs on a frail German spinet for a tombola in Nicaragua, or guiding my sons’ small fingers through “Twinkle, Twinkle” at the family piano, Wally’s exhortation has never been far from my mind.

That year Wally raised the money to bring the Florentine Opera’s young artists out to Pilgrim Park Junior High School to perform Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium. It was the first opera I saw live. The performance, the entire student body, was riveting. To this day I remember the haunting refrain, and the music to which it is pinned: “Toby, Toby, are you there?”

The next year, I began putting together a music curriculum myself to run in tandem with my high school classes, enrolling in advanced music theory instruction at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. I was the youngest “adult student” division pupil of Judy Kramer, a no-nonsense, practical musician of great gifts and determination. She assigned Roman Numerals to chords in order to chart harmonic progressions. I bought Arnold Schoenberg ’s Fundamentals of Musical Composition at Schwartz’s second-hand bookshop on Wisconsin Avenue. “Why,” I asked her, “are the numerals Schoenberg assigned sometimes different from Vincent Persichetti’s, or Bruce Benward’s, even though the music is the same?” “Good question,” she replied. “It cuts to the problem with musical analysis.” I sprang the answer I’d formulated the night before: “So you’re saying that music theory is sort of a confidence game. If you can intimidate people into thinking your analysis is correct, then you are correct.” Judy looked out the window and thought a moment before answering. “No theoretical analysis can be empirically proven to be correct except by the terms of the system in which it is defined,” she said slowly. “And, even then, argument is possible.” “So,” I pronounced, gimlet-eyed, with all the grim cynicism I could muster at fifteen, “music theory is people talking about music instead of making it.”

I began composing during classes. (I still dream that I haven’t graduated high school for lack of attendance.) How peculiar I must have seemed, corralling friends after school and asking them to show me how their instruments worked, telling my best-intentioned math teacher (a fascinating man, really, who had taught in Nigeria, Indonesia, and Brazil) Max Hilmer, that “a composer doesn’t need to be able to do trigonometry” when he wondered how someone who could teach himself FORTRAN and COBOL over the weekend in order to ace a computer science exam could exhibit no interest in (or talent for) higher mathematics.

My good friend (Kay's successor) Phil Olsen sent me this scan of a 1979 arrangement of Carole King's 1971 song "You've Got a Friend" that I did for Kay and the chorus. I had just turned 16. I think I based it on a tremendous arrangement that Kay had a recording of -- was it the Air Force Men's Chorus? Anyway, there are a couple of things about having the music that make me smile now. One is my scrawled admonition at the bottom of the page (I was the pianist) "Watch Hartz!" (see, I WAS watching!) and another is my notation "Piano does anything to D-flat over E-flat" four bars before the end.

I’d become so immersed in composing that even the superb musical standard set by my high school chorus teacher Kay Hartzell seemed too low: I was an obnoxious sixteen-year-old, tending bar at night (I was underage, yes), composing during my classes, still fiercely attached to Wally, watching Kay for the slightest musical infraction. I pushed Kay hard to let me write for the chorus, and was furious when she seemed unmoved by the penciled scores that I tossed at her like a young Berlioz before the academy.

When Judy found out that I was having no success in interesting Kay in trying out my music, she wrote a letter to my high school guidance counselor. It read, in part, “I feel that Daron is receiving negative input, as far as his talents go, at school which is a shame. … It is to the advantage of most musicians to read through different styles of music, in addition to material being prepared for performance, and what could be better than the music of one of their peers?” A few months later, Kay relented, and graciously permitted me to conduct in concert the chorus in one of my early compositions.

The instruction I had been receiving from Judy, coupled with the obsessiveness with which I was composing—typically five or six hours a day—vaulted my composing skills way beyond my keyboard skills. To mend that, I began piano lessons with Duane Dishaw, a sweet-natured young man at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Father ferried me to them, forty minutes in each direction. During my lesson, Father waited for me in a tavern and drank. Duane, like my piano teachers, was impressed by how comfortable I was at the keyboard. What he didn’t know was that this was because, the previous winter, Mother had caused Father to agree that, if I were seated at the little spinet in the front room, I could not be disturbed. I began not just composing and practicing at the piano, but eating and doing my homework there.

Because of my love of voices, words, and drama I was drawn to opera. Then, as now, I sang my vocal music, accompanying myself at the piano. Then, I did it because I sensed that the singer and the song must be one. Now, I do it because I know that melody (and by extension all music, arising as it does from the act of singing) must be created acknowledging the physical effort required to produce it. How a singer feels physically when performing a phrase is a crucial manifestation of how he feels. I considered and failed to adapt Cheever’s short story O City of Broken Dreams as a one-act opera, then began sketching a dramatization of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. I abandoned that in favor of Through the Glass, into which I poured everything I was absorbing by listening obsessively to Kevin’s LP’s of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, and Peter Grimes, Giacamo Puccini’s Turandot, and Kurt Weill’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny.

I was also composing for orchestra, but I’d never played in one. It was time to change that. Harry Sturm, assistant principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner, was hired by the City of Milwaukee to run something called the Park Promenade Youth Orchestra. I played piano in it that year. He must have liked the rake of my sails, for he took me under his bow, devised for me an introduction to the ways of the orchestra. First, I was to play piano in the ensemble for a concert. Second, I was to station myself in various parts of the ensemble and listen to how they interacted as he conducted rehearsals for another concert. Third, I was to take lessons in the rudiments of conducting from his assistant, Michael Kamenski. Fourth, I was to compose, rehearse, and conduct the premiere of a new composition. The result was Suite for a Lonely City—the piece that Mother sent to Leonard Bernstein that inspired a letter from him that changed my life. In his review of the concert, Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Journal critic then, wrote that I must have felt like Moses atop Mount Pisgah, looking down from the podium into an orchestral Promised Land as I led my fellow teenagers in the premiere. I really did.

A few months after graduating from high school, I proudly accepted my first professional fee as an orchestrator from John-David Anello, the founding conductor of the Milwaukee Pops and the Florentine Opera Company. Anello was one of Father’s clients. I recall vividly his conspicuously large, majestically chiseled head. He had deeply-set eye sockets, thrusting cheek bones, a noble nose, and a very high, broad forehead atop which flowed backwards a leonine mane of hair. His hands were enormous—bony, gnarled joints bulged like rings from his very long fingers. He was so ugly that he was beautiful. Father took me to his gracious home on Milwaukee’s lakefront one evening after one of our rare joint-appearances at a Mensa meeting. He was a true basso profundo, whose velvety voice rolled out like thunder. Really, he was quite grand. He led Father and me into his study and then turned and asked Father to wait in the next room, which I liked. “My boy, I conduct the Milwaukee Symphony in some outdoor concerts each summer for the county—something I call ‘Music Under the Stars’—and I need somebody to arrange a Burt Bacharach tune for one of them. Your dad says that you can do it.” His heavily-lidded eyes met mine: “Can you?” I was thrilled. I still have the municipal pay stub. The same summer Anello also gave me my first professional conducting lessons, and my firstmusic-copying gig—extracting the solo piano part for the Yellow River Concerto. Several decades later, his daughter contacted me, explained that she now conducted the orchestra at my old high school, and commissioned a piece!

CODA

In 1997, the Chicago Opera Theater revived my opera Shining Brow at the 1400 seat Merle Reskin Theater. The Reskin had risen, by way of the Blackstone, from the ashes of the Iroquois Theater, in which 571 lives were lost in a tragic fire in 1903. It was a perfect venue for director Ken Cazan’s revival.

As the opera’s composer, it was indisputably my Green Room, I thought, happy, secure, with my librettist Paul Muldoon at my side. I wore my first tuxedo, picked up from the tailor at Brooks Brothers only hours earlier, and purchased with some of the cash left over from my retirement annuity. I was about to excuse myself in order to attend an alumni event organized by Curtis across the street at the Hilton when my father and Tomchek entered.

My father had driven Wally, the charismatic chorus teacher who first introduced me to music as a religion when I was fifteen years old in 1976, and who I had not seen in two decades, from Milwaukee to Chicago to attend a performance.

“You look like a young Napoleon in that tuxedo,” observed Wally as he hugged me. His snowy white hair and beard, closely cropped, smelled of lavender soap. He wore a baggy blue sweater with coffee cups of various colors embroidered on it. I laughed, asked, “Did Napoleon wear tuxedos?” “It does look good,” admitted Father. “Where did you rent it?”

“Dad,” I said, placing my fingertips to my temples. Wally motioned for me to sit down. I declined, motioning for him to sit down in my place. “Your father Earl dragged me down here,” said Wally, half-serious. “He told me I couldn’t miss a revival of Shining Brow.”

“You know,” I told him, tearing up, “I think of you, Wally, every time the curtain goes up on one of my shows. I think of how you told me that my responsibility was to ‘make beauty, despite all.’ I’ve tried. I’m trying. Thank you for everything that you taught me.” He removed his round, wire-rimmed glasses in order to wipe tears from them. “Well,” he looked away, “you have no idea how proud your Father is of you. You have no idea.”

Wally died a few months later.

Adam, Wally, Kay, Harry Shoplas, Harry Sturm, Judy, Michael, Duane, Maestro Anello, all firmly and with great compassion, laid the foundations for my life as a musician. Looking back now at the age of fifty-four at what they gave me, it takes my breath away: every one of them taught me to create beauty, despite all.