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.

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. 

On Marc Blitzstein

This essay was originally published in the Huffington Post under the title "Obsessed: Marc Blitzstein" on 14 May 2012. Click here to read it there.

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein’s music is not exactly an obsession of mine, but I do find the musical DNA of which it is composed indispensable. Strands of that DNA — strict adherence to economy of means, a passion for combining words and music, the belief that music can promote social justice, an abhorrence of pretension — are woven contrapuntally, inextricably, into the music that I compose, and have been, nearly from the start. Here are six dramatic beats about Marc Blitzstein.

One

Marc’s music is powered by the ironic marriage of opposites. A fierce advocate of the poor and disenfranchised, he was born in Philadelphia in 1905 to affluent parents. Determined to write music popular with Regular Joes, he studied composition and piano at the Curtis Institute. Then he went on to Berlin to study with Arnold Schoenberg and to Paris where he worked with Nadia Boulanger. He began as a modernist, but he turned populist in the 1930s, shortly before he (an openly gay communist) married novelist Eva Goldbeck. Three Portuguese sailors in Martinique beat him to death in 1964 after a sexual encounter. In 1937, he entered Broadway history when the Works Progress Administration shut down The Cradle Will Rock — an opera presented as a musical. As the story goes, director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman walked the musicians, cast and audience from the Maxine Elliott Theater to the nearby Venice Theater, where — in order to evade union restrictions — they performed the piece from the audience, with Blitzstein (not a union member) accompanying from an upright piano onstage.

To some, Marc’s signature gambit of destabilizing tonality by throwing a suspended fourth in the bass was crude. But, like a beat cop’s billy club to the ribs, it got things moving. Minus Blitzstein’s example and inspiration, Leonard Bernstein might have been a very different, possibly lesser, composer.

Two

One rainy November 1980 day Karlos Moser, then head of the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I was an undergraduate music major, and I were working through some songs that I had contributed to a revue he was concocting. My introduction to Marc’s music had come when Karlos cast my older brother Kevin as Ben Hubbard in his production of Blitzstein’s Regina during the late 70s. Karlos mentioned in passing that the State Historical Society possessed the Blitzstein papers. Thrilled, I had sprinted across the street to the archives, filled out a request to see them, and was astonished to be granted immediate access. Within thirty minutes, I held in my hands a Photostat of the manuscript of Blitzstein’s fair copy of the first page of Cradle. I was 17.

Odd it was, only a year later, to find myself a student of Ned Rorem’s at the Curtis Institute, composing and practicing on the same pianos Marc once did, passing his graduation portrait (along with everyone else’s — Leonard Bernstein, Ralph Berkowitz, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, and on and on) on my way each week to my piano lesson. Odder yet to have landed there in part because of a letter from his friend Bernstein to my mother, telling her I was “the real thing,” and encouraging her to send me to Juilliard (that’s another story) to study with another of Marc’s close friends, David Diamond.

John Houseman tells the story of opening night of The Cradle Will Rock.

Three

John Houseman’s production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock at the Fairbanks opened on 30 July 1983. I was there, seated in the first row. I still weighed about 160, sported a Blitzstein-esque moustache, and was still a student at Curtis. Before the performance, Houseman took the stage to tell the story of the night the show opened — Blitzstein at the piano, Orson Welles dashing around the theater, playing multiple characters, everyone afire with the moment. Ordinarily too abashed to importune, I threw myself at Houseman afterwards. “You captured lightning in a bottle, didn’t you?” I enthused. “Yes, my boy,” he drawled in his Professor Kingsfield voice, “I’m acutely aware of that.” I laughed. He was disarmed. “You look like Blitzstein,” he remarked. I flushed with pleasure. He frowned. “He ended badly.” I waited. Beat. “Yes, I know,” I said, “I’m a composer.” He thrust his chin upwards theatrically as though searching for answers among the klieg lights: “Dear God,” he said, exploding the G, extending the O into a melisma, and plucking the final D like a pizzicato. “What does one do with a composer?” I laughed again, shook his hand vigorously, and thanked him for his time. “Not at all,” he said. “Good luck.” He stared at me, hard, for three long beats. “You’ll need it.”

Four

Summer 1985. Saranac, Serge Koussevitzky’s home overlooking the Berkshires across the highway from the Tanglewood grounds. Late one evening, after hearing me improvise at the piano in Marc’s style and a discussion about Blitzstein’s music, Bernstein asked me to have a go at completing Sacco and Vanzetti, the unfinished opera for the Met found in the trunk of Marc’s car after he died. I told him I’d love to have a try, but couldn’t afford to do it for no fee.

A few days later, at Bernstein’s behest, Jacob Druckman approached me on the back patio and put a little money on the table for the project on behalf of the New York Philharmonic, for whom he was then serving as composer in residence.

My instinct was that, as I did when offered by Ellis Freedman and Sylvia Goldstein a job as Aaron Copland’s final amanuensis, I should refuse it. I told Druckman that I felt that if I wanted to establish myself as a composer, then I needed to be known for my own music, not for what I had done for others’. He said that I had a point, and was impressed enough by the professionalism with which I handled the situation to speak to his wife Muriel about a ballet commission.

Having my hands on Blitzstein’s sketches was just too inviting an invitation to refuse. After spending a few days with them, I concluded that the most responsible thing to do was to leave the thing alone-they were just too fragmentary, too raw. The finished score would require the creation of too much original material to make it coherent.

That May, Eric Gordon helped me to find the manuscript of Marc’s Piano Sonata, which hadn’t been performed publicly since the 20s so that I could program it on the concert series I was putting on in Philadelphia and New York.

Five

During spring 1990, I was fortunate enough to work on my first major opera Shining Brow with Bernstein. As Bernstein once did for Marc with Trouble in Tahiti,I did for Lenny: I would play and sing the scene from Brow that I was working on. He’d amble over to the bench, push me to the side, and start playing off of my manuscript, squinting, sort of wheeze-singing as he briskly double-checked parts he wanted to speak to.

“Okay, baby,” he’d begin. “Try this.” He would “put over” a few bars of what I had written and veer off in a new direction, improvising an entirely different line reading. Then he’d stop, suck on his plastic cigarette holder, quickly page to a different part of the sketch, find something, and say, “Or you could have used this from before, like this.” He’d play a few bars.

“No, that wouldn’t work,” he’d think out loud. I’d improvise a different line reading. “No, no, you can’t do that!” he would laugh, “Marc did that in No for an Answer! Do you know that one?” He’d noodle a few bars. “No, that was Tender Land. Ugh. God.” (Laughter.)

During Wright’s Act 1, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the “New York, New York” rising fourths motive that he had first used in Trouble in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, “suburbia,” “Nice lift,” he said, “very Straussian. But you follow it up with stuff that sounds like Ned’s little Frank O’Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahiti or did he steal that from me? I can’t remember. I know you’re talking about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, but you should come up with something else there.”

At some point, I pointed out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him, and the relationship between Wright and Sullivan on him and Blitzstein. He got it: “That’s 'Maria'. No, it’s the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc’s Regina,” he mused aloud. “Well, yes, I stole it from Marc.” Silence. “But he stole it from Aaron!” (Generous, warm laughter.)

It still felt, a few years later, at the family’s Dakota apartment (the day Brow received its workshop run-through after Bernstein’s death), as though he slouched in the low chair in the den, sipping a scotch, pulling on his plastic cigarette holder, growling one of the last things he said to me: “Play and sing that part again, baby—the part that sounds like Marc.”

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Six

“Before I forget, I want to tell you that Marc used to like to sit over there,” said David Diamond, squeezing my hand and pointing at a spot far down the lawn near the rose garden. We were sitting on one of the pews in the Yaddo Music Room. Life-sized full body portraits of the Trask children loomed over us like gravestones. The June 2005 air was lively. Late afternoon light streamed through the leaded windows.

Elaina Richardson had asked me to curate a recital of music by composers who had worked at Yaddo. Michael Boriskin and his Music from Copland House players performed. I wanted to honor David, with whom I had studied, so I programmed his early Flute Quartet. I also suggested that he be invited and, to everyone’s astonishment, he agreed to come. He told me that he had wanted to visit Yaddo once more. I looked at David: his impeccably tailored gray serge sit hung loosely over his diminished frame. His blue shirt’s collar was crisp. There was a large New Zealand-shaped liver spot on his scalp over his right eye. What remained of his hair was colorless. His skin was papery and luminous. His rheumy eyes brimmed with tears. A few days later, on 13 June, he died.

That day, however, David’s observation was piercingly clear: “Marc cared,” he whispered urgently. “When he composed Regina here, he could sing and play every note. He knew words. You remember I told you once that he rewrote the entire libretto for Lenny’s Tahiti without needing to change a note of the music?” (When David reminisced, the facts could sometimes be sketchy, but the point was always clear.)

In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, the one at which Marc had written Regina, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my breakthrough 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 spirit of Yaddo, yes; but it was also the spirit of Marc.

 

The Great Dream: an American Opera

This essay appeared originally in the Huffington Post on 18 July 2014. Read it there by clicking here.

“If you live long enough you can write four operas,” wrote composer and music commentator Virgil Thomson.

Philip Glass has penned at least 17; the fecund imagination of John Adams has so far brought forth two operas, a numbers musical, and an oratorio. Dominick Argento’s 14 operas are a model of elegance and emotional integrity; William Bolcom’s 10 are stylistically fearless and suave. In the near past, Gian Carlo Menotti created more than 25 “giovanni scuola” operas, two of which were awarded Pulitzer prizes.

Broadening the definition of lyric theater from opera (and operas which dip into “music theater” conventions — another article about that sometime) to “shows” that dip periodically into operatic conventions, the living American champion has to be Stephen Sondheim, with his 16 shows (including his work as a lyricist), each one shot through with streaks, and sometimes great veins, of genius. John Kander, deeply sophisticated in his musical and cultural reference points, has created over 20 shows, each of which has a musical personality that springs directly from the characters in them and their musical era.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the wildly successful creative juggernaut, has written 20 shows. It intrigues me that the young theater composers I run into never cite him as an influence. When I worked as a copyist on Broadway we used to quip that somewhere in the world, at every moment of every day, Cats were singing.

George M. Cohan, “the man who owned Broadway,” was an early pioneer in what became the “book musical,” and was wildly prolific in every genre. Richard Rogers built on Cohan’s legacy, and deepened it, with forty shows to his credit. Even my folks, when they attended a performance of the original production of “South Pacific” on Broadway during their Honeymoon, intuited that the through-composed (the ghost of Giuseppe Verdi’s “parola scenica!”) scene that blossoms into the seize the moment masterpiece, “Some Enchanted Evening” was a genre buster.

But it was, of course, George Gershwin, whose 18 shows all burst at the aesthetic seams, who fathered the Great Dream: the first truly American Opera. “Porgy and Bess” remains the benchmark, no matter how many European conventions one finds holding it together, no matter how much Ravel-esque noodling connects the set pieces, no matter how fraught our current culture’s relationship may be with the libretto, it remains the home run with bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth.

No wonder Virgil hated “Porgy and Bess” so much. It caught lightning in a bottle, and he knew it.

The sketch above will doubtless insult the intelligence of aficionados of both genres of lyric theater who know that it’s all much more complex and subtle than that. So many great composers left out. (Some of them friends — sorry.) I’ve left out Marc Blitzstein, master of agitprop, painfully sophisticated, tilting at windmills, someone whose career during the Depression every ambitious young opera composer here in the States should examine closely for examples, both positive and negative. 

I’ve left out the Disney mega-musicals that now dominate what was once the Great White Way and is now Main Street USA, crafted with the precision of spacecraft, ruthlessly manipulative, and sometimes ecstatically tuneful, of course. They’re incredibly innovative, technically amazing, and, at their heart ... corporate.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a copyist, a proofreader, an editor, an orchestrator, an arranger, and as a ghostwriter, for Disney, Menotti, Bernstein, Webber’s “Really Useful,” and others. During the early ‘80s, before versions for small pit forces were commonly available, I did “pirate arrangements” for various productions of legitimate musicals, only to find, when I worked on Broadway during the ‘90s, that the producers themselves had begun paying for the same thing for their revivals of big orchestra shows. I conducted shows, and played piano in dozens of shows, and operas during the ‘70s-‘90s.

I count myself among the group that includes Menotti and Adams. I have written (and seen through workshop, production, revision, and multiple revival) eight operas, a numbers musical, and am at work on my ninth and tenth.

I have followed inspiration where it (by way of the characters) demanded to go. This has resulted in a catalogue of operas that, listened to superficially, may seem wildly eclectic in musical style, in much the way that American operas in general seem to be all over the map. This misses the forest for the trees. The common ground between them all is a respect for the characters, and a fierce determination to enable them to sing the music that they demand to sing, not what might be determined to be “just pretty enough, and just ugly enough” to fill the time honorably, but not threateningly, between pre-theater drinks, and post theater supper.

My operatic rap sheet is pretty long. In “Vera of Las Vegas,” set in the leisure-suited ‘70s, the characters required a cheek-by-jowl mash-up of ‘70s pop culture conventions and styles with 19th century operatic tropes. In “Amelia,” they required music of greater poetic subtlety — post-Barber, infused with late 20th century American regret.

For “Shining Brow,” which took place at the beginning of the 20th century, I reached towards Barbershop Quartet, the blues, jaunty Protestant hymns, and the aching melodic leaps of Benjamin Britten. In “The Antient Concert,” James Joyce and John McCormack faced off in a singing competition: naturally they used Irish folk songs as their beginning point. Jim’s private music, however, was flinty, modernist, and clever, like the opera’s librettist; John’s music was warm, sentimental, and emotionally accessible.

In “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” a “magic opera” sung by young people, introducing them to opera, I rang changes on the domestic, yet sophisticated theatrical language of Bernstein and Sondheim. “Bandanna” was set on the Texas-Mexican border, and featured illegal immigrants, Vietnam veterans, and a nearly pagan Catholicism who required a mélange of mariachi, agitprop, music theater, and Puccini-esque lyricism to come to life.

In “A Woman in Morocco,” the characters commandeered the late Romantic melodramatic gestures of Korngold, and crossed them, unapologetically, with the over-ripe, unsettling sensuality of late Bessie Smith recordings. 

What a journey these characters have taken me on, and how grateful I am to them all for giving me the opportunity to sing with their voices! As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “I have learned by going where I have to go.” For, it is their stories that inspire my music. I believe that it is the collision of opera producer’s (in many cases) European attitude toward what constitutes the composer’s voice and the quintessentially American (certainly more provocative) commitment of many American opera composers to let the melting pot of people that make up our culture sing the sort of music they need to sing that makes the current contemporary opera scene so exciting.

We’re in an era of enormous “churn” right now, with funding and support flying into “second stage” initiatives, alternative venues, as well as main stage, non-commercial venues. For every Peter Gelb who sees the sea rushing out, there are dozens of innovative producers whose conception of what constitutes opera raises the tide. A lot of the new stuff is dross, of course; that’s inevitable, and healthy. Many of the composers handed the keys to the family car think that they’ve invented the wheels on which it rolls. Some survive by dint of professional associations and politics. No matter: it’s all good.

“A Quiet Place,” Leonard Bernstein’s opera, in which he combined “Trouble in Tahiti” with newly-composed material, aptly reflected the vast changes that swept through the American cultural and musical landscape between the ‘50s and the ‘80s. Slaughtered by the critics the first couple of times out, it flowed smoothly and didn’t seem particularly eclectic when the (sorely-missed) New York City Opera revived it during their final (2010) season. In a review of the opera that uses the word “sublime” at one point to describe Bernstein’s score, Anthony Tommasini wrote of it in the Times: “The lingering criticism of “A Quiet Place” is that the piece is an awkward hybrid both musically and dramatically. This reflects the general criticism of Bernstein as a composer: that his head was so full of all kinds of music he could not find his own voice.” Tony closes with the observation, “If only Bernstein could have been there to see the reaction to his opera.”

I was there. The audience wept, and the ovation was a lengthy one. Bernstein never lived to see the Great Dream come true. But it’s obvious now that Bernstein’s voice did not elude him. Like Whitman, he understood that America is comprised of many voices. Like Whitman, he, during his brief time on the planet, tried to encompass them all in his creative, aesthetic embrace. The fact that composers like Bolcom, Adams, and others (I include myself) juxtapose styles and idioms with equal and due respect for each is now taken for granted. 

We’re in for a wild ride the next few years. Some really great operas are going to be produced. The Great Dream is coming true.