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 checkin’ 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 Keith 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 1935-36 the season 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 1947 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 Mark 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.

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. 

The Milwaukee Symphony and Me

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 22 December 2013. Click here to read it there.

The Milwaukee Symphony's logo.

The Milwaukee Symphony's logo.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, according to its recent [December 2013] press release, is “in danger of running out of money and faces possible extinction if additional pledges cannot be secured to fund the MSO’s much more modest, prudent budget and business plan for the future.” In fact, nearing the end of 2013, the institution now has only weeks to raise nearly four million dollars if it is to stave off bankruptcy.

In November 1968, I was seven years old. The Youth Concert program our music class had been bussed downtown to attend included the Largo of Antonin Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony. Nixon had just won the 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 the plush red velvet seat, I was mesmerized by Kenneth Schermerhorn — a protégé of Leonard Bernstein’s, and a strikingly handsome, athletic, charismatic figure on the podium — the newly appointed music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. 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 floating in midair. That was the moment, at the age of seven, that I knew that, no matter what, music would be at the center of my existence.

At that moment, the MSO inspired me to become a composer. Forty-five years later, I’m still at it.

My brother Kevin Hagen, who passed away recently after a 40-year career in orchestra management, won his first orchestra job as operations manager of the MSO back in the 70s. He met his wife Judith Koch, a violinist in the orchestra, across a management / labor negotiating table one afternoon. A few months later, they were married. Judy played in the Milwaukee Symphony for over forty years before retiring.

On 13 July 1979, the summer after graduating from Brookfield Central High School, I proudly accepted my first professional fee as an orchestrator — a Burt Bacharach tune for the MSO—courtesy of John-David Anello, the founding conductor of the Milwaukee Pops, and my first conducting teacher. I still have the pay stub.

The same summer Anello also gave me my first music-copying gig — extracting the solo piano part for the Yellow River Concerto for a “Music Under the Stars” program. Because of that job, when, as a composition student at Curtis, I won a job as a staff music copyist (back when it was still done by hand) at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

In January 1984, I wanted dearly to meet Lukas Foss, then Music Director of the MSO. I had asked my brother Kevin to arrange for me to drive Lukas from his hotel to rehearsal.

“The melting major to minor chord at the very end,” he enthused, hands massaging the air between his chest and the dashboard, “is original here. Some say that this is where Mahler got the idea for the same effect in his sixth.” We were riffing on Beethoven’s third, the great Eroica, the score of which sat on his lap.

“At the end of the second movement, I’m going to try something interesting: as the theme disintegrates — the part marked sotto voce — I’m going to remove players one by one from the tune.”

“Like Beethoven’s hearing leaving him. Cool. How do the players feel about the idea?”

“Oh, they are not too happy. They are a little upset about the scherzo, too.”

“How come?”

“I’m making a little Rossini-style accelerando through the theme so that it sounds like nervous laughter.”

“Beethoven’s nervous breakdown?”

“Night fears following the loss of his hearing....”

“Chattering teeth in a death skull...?”

“Worse. The effects of lead poisoning.”

“Wow,” I said, turning the wrong direction on to a one-way street. Horns honked, cars swerved.
“What’s that?” asked Lukas, abruptly conscious of his surroundings.

“We’re driving the wrong way down a one way street,” I answered, as mildly as I could.

“Oh,” he replied, completely disinterested. “Then, when the finale begins, the variations are a triumph of the...”

I pulled over. We were now five minutes late to the rehearsal and I was hopelessly lost, even though I had grown up in Milwaukee.

“... A triumph,” I attempted to complete his thought, “of the rational, conscious mind, expressed through the exercise of craft that composing variations requires, over the irrational fears of the subconscious?”

“That’s interesting you should say that,” he smiled. “I’ve always thought that fugue, so rational, was, in the end — take the Grosse Fuge — his avenue for exploring madness.”

We made it eventually to the rehearsal, and we remained good friends for the rest of Lukas’ life.
My first conducting teacher, Catherine Comet, served briefly as the MSO’s associate conductor, but I have the MSO to thank for the finest champion of my music I have ever known. Although we had met briefly as students together at Juilliard, I first worked with JoAnn Falletta when the MSO commissioned Lyric Variations, the second movement of my second symphony. She led the orchestra in its premiere in August 1988. She has been a steadfast advocate of my music ever since the MSO brought us together. Recently she recorded my opera Shining Brow with the Buffalo Philharmonic for Naxos; Michael Ludwig and JoAnn will record my violin concerto with that orchestra in a few months. I have the MSO to thank for one of the richest musical associations with which I’ve been blessed.

The MSO taught me an unforgettable lesson about how to treat conductors. One thing a conductor can rely on, to paraphrase Oscar Levant, is that the players will inevitably grow to despise him. I learned this for myself in Milwaukee on 15 April 1990. With the MSO, I alienated Czech conductor Zdenek Macal forever when, in response to his request for a few words, I mounted the podium and, in five minutes, rattled off all of my notes to the orchestra. The players shuffled their feet, applauding me, but really, they were just enjoying the discomfiture of their sovereign.

Still fresh from conservatory, my ability to thrive at the professional level as an orchestral composer was not yet a given. Therefore, for better and for worse, Common Ground (the piece the MSO was rehearsing) became something of a calling card for me because it was chosen as a finalist for the Kennedy Center’s Friedheim Prize in 1990. Commissioned by the Barlow Endowment, it was conceived as the finale of my Symphony No. 2. It combined themes from the previous movements (Fresh Ayre and Lyric Variations) in a sort of Post Cold War Mahlerian stew.

After I left for the east coast, MSO performances became the only place I ever saw my father. “You’re fat,” observed Father to me in front of his friends in the lobby of Uiehlein Hall after one premiere. My head, as the old Irish story goes, was sticking up higher than those around mine were; Father gave it a whack. “Please Dad,” I said, low. “This is my place of business.” “You call this business?” he scoffed. “Enjoy the concert,” was the only thing I could think of to say in return.

On 10 September 2003, Kenneth Schermerhorn and I lunched together before a concert on which he conducted my Much Ado overture with his Nashville Symphony. (He had long since moved on from Milwaukee.) Did he remember the fan letter from the dazzled child unable 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.

“How like coming home it feels to finally work together,” he mused.

“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.”

Alas, although we chatted on the phone now and then, I never saw Kenneth again. But together we had closed our circle, and that was enough.

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that — sitting in Uiehlein Hall at the age of seven 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. These issues are central to a composer’s life. 

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.”

Really, my brother Kevin’s relationship with the orchestra was more intimate than mine. As one of his first tasks as a new operations manager, he was told to arrange for the sound of canon fire during the finale of Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture, as is the tradition with the piece. Kevin rang up the National Guard and requested artillery. After a few beats, the astonished corporal on the other end of the line replied, “Um, yes, sir. Will that be with, or without, nuclear warheads?”

Near the end of Kevin’s tenure with the MSO, the orchestra was on tour somewhere in Europe and, the orchestra having tuned up, everyone, including the audience, was waiting for Lukas Foss to take the stage and ascend the podium. No Lukas. Kevin was used to packing extra socks, batons, and even pants for his forgetful friend. Backstage, there were three doors: one led to Lukas’ dressing room; one led out to an alley behind the theater; the third led below-stage. Looking for his socks, Lukas had chosen the wrong door. Kevin was unfazed. In short order, he found Lukas in the basement, happily looking up at the numbered traps of the stage above. “Isn’t this fascinating?” Lukas mused. “Yes,” Kevin calmly replied, handing Lukas his socks and guiding him upstairs. “You know it is time to conduct now, don’t you?” “I wasn’t worried, Kevin. I knew you would take care of me.”

Now.

Who will take care of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra?

Afterward

During winter 2014 Milwaukee's art lovers came together to save their orchestra in an extraordinary outpouring of generosity. The orchestra's musicians also pitched in with significant labor concessions. The orchestra was saved.

In the changing of the guard over the years, though, what the orchestra seems to have lost is a sense of instititional memory, that thing loosely defined as a collective set of traditions, shared experiences, and sense of community that transcends the individual.

Why do I write that? Any performing organization's activities shift to match the interests of its current music director, but, when a wealthy donor in 2014 offered to underwrite a commission for me to compose a major new work for the orchestra with which I had such intimate lifelong associations, the new young artistic administrator (despite having read the Huffington Post article above, which was used as a fundraising tool) turned the money down, explaining to me that "the orchestra has moved on to new interests when it comes to contemporary music."

While I took this with cordial annoyance and moved promptly on to another project, it did raise a flag for me. On its surface, I was being told that there was a new chef in the kitchen, and that he simply didn't dig my spice. But, on a deeper level, I found his response troubling. Collective memory requires the ongoing transmission of an organization's memories between members (and generations) of the group. There is, whether each new generation as it takes the reins of power finds it convenient or not, both an artistic and a human component to the long continuum that constitutes music history. When that chain is broken, reinventing the wheel becomes acceptable, and Edmund Burke's admonition that "people will not look look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors" comes into full force.

John-David Anello, Kenneth Schermerhorn, Lukas Foss, my brother, are all dead. Stephen Colburn and my sister in law have retired. Even the artistic administrator in question has moved on to another, larger orchestra. But I am still composing. One's hometown orchestra has traditionally supported its native composerds. I still remember the orchestra of my youth; but I admit with affectionate rue that it has forgotten me.

 

 

Onegin: the Perfect Libretto

This essay appeared originally in the Huffington Post on 30 July 2014. To read it there click here.

Lecturing on Onegin's libretto to Ghenady Meierson's Russian Opera Workshop at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia in summer 2014.

Lecturing on Onegin's libretto to Ghenady Meierson's Russian Opera Workshop at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia in summer 2014.

“Dear Maestro,” dazzled, seven-year-old-Daron wrote to conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, then music director of the Milwaukee Symphony. I bit the end of my pencil, wracked my brain for the perfect word: “Your performance last week was simply superfluous!” Decades later, over lunch, I asked Kenneth if he remembered the boy who couldn’t find a word big enough to described how impressed he was. As he shook his head, laughing, I marveled at how indispensible Kenneth had made himself to the Nashville Symphony, what a noble example of service his career represented. We laughed until we wept. Afterwards, we wiped our eyes, and sighed. I called him “an indispensible man.”

We raised our glasses. “To Art,” I began. “To Life,” he replied. “To the collision of the two,” I said. “Ah,” he sighed, smiling, “now there is where the trouble begins.” And, to that, we drank.

And then, as one does, I fished for his opposite. I immediately thought of Eugene Onegin, perhaps the most famous “superfluous man.” The eponymous, Byronic hero of Alexander Pushkin’s magisterial novel — a man who had it all, squandered it, and lived to regret it. No arriviste he, Onegin was a man of substance, well-educated, with access to culture, power, and the easy cynical ennui of one who understands firsthand that power corrupts. Poor Onegin, and his generation of noble young 1840s Russian men — so like the young Ivy-educated Masters of the Universe with whom I rubbed elbows as a young composer in 1980s Manhattan!

1879. Thomas Edison patented the light bulb. AT&T and Bell Telephone divided up telecommunications, creating the framework for todays’ information-driven world. One hundred years after the “shot heard round the world” in Concord, “A Doll’s House” opened in Copenhagen, and Henrik Ibsen’s Nora perpetrated the door slam heard round the world. Her proto-feminism was also embodied in the character of Tatyana, as brought to life by Tchaikovsky in his great opera based on Pushkin’s verse novel. Another woman struggling to be herself in a male-dominated society, Tatyana, once her heart has been broken, evolves from her youth as a romantic, empathetic introvert into a coolly glittering, wise, ruthless, mistress of society.

Tchaikovsky subtitled his work “an opera in lyrical scenes.” This was to highlight the fact that, in fashioning the libretto from Pushkin’s 389 stanzas in iambic tetrameter with Konstantin Shilovsky, Pushkin’s dialectic was so ironclad that it made it possible for them to excise all the narrative linking material in order to focus on the dramaturgical “hot spots,” the nuclear reactors powering the drama. This distillation to the story’s essential human drama is (or should be) the aim of every poet-librettist, since brevity is only his visa at the opera world’s border, and getting directly to the point (without drawing attention to oneself) is his passport to greatness.

Pushing the idea of art mirroring life, the “Pushkin Sonnet,” or “Onegin Stanza” form is itself a tightly restrictive scheme that strikingly manifests the binding structures of society, of “social convention.” Form—in this case the characters—mirrors function—their symbolic and dramatic transits. Only sixty years later, in “Wozzeck,” the wretched disconnect between society and its denizens are made achingly manifest in the music often going in one direction as the drama moves in another.) Pushkin’s rhyme scheme, comprised of alternating “female” and “male” rhymes, is a suave poetic correlative to the characters’ gender dance.

Here’s one reading of the structure of Pushkin’s story, and of Tchaikovsky’s opera, a rough sketch of the interrelationships between characters and themes. It’s why I think the structure’s so—for lack of a better word—perfect.

A diagram used for the lecture to the Russian Opera Workshop on which this essay is based.

A diagram used for the lecture to the Russian Opera Workshop on which this essay is based.

At “true north” in the diagram is Tatyana, a deeply caring person who learns not to care. At the opposite, southern pole is Onegin, a selfish extrovert who learns to care. In the east is Olga, Tatyana’s biological sister, a party-girl, young, extroverted, fully alive in the moment. She is affianced to Lensky, Onegin’s metaphorical brother, at the western pole. Lensky is a smart, introverted poet, living a life of the mind. Between Lensky and Onegin, at the southwestern pole, is the subsidiary, Judas character of Zaretsky. Repeatedly, he betrays Onegin by depriving him of an opportunity to apologize to Lensky, thereby forestalling the duel in which Onegin kills him.

Now, draw a line from the southwest up to the northeast and call it the border between Art and Life, with Lensky and Tatyana on the Art side, Onegin and Olga on the Life side, and Zaretsky, the explosive catalyst, straddling the two.

Now, draw a line from the northwest down to the southeast and call it the demarcation between Female and Male, with Tatyana and Olga on one side, and Onegin and Lensky on the other.

Draw a line due south from Tatyana to Onegin; draw another west to east from Lensky to Olga. The east-west line between Olga and Lensky intersects the north-south line of Tatyana and Onegin. The slantwise lines delimiting Male and Female, and Art and Life, also intersect at the axis of the compass.

That axis, the core of the drama, the point where all the lines meet, is the existential cauldron for which there are countless names. To attach one, like Society, or another, like Sanity, is to miss the point.

I imagine that Tchaikovsky, when introduced to the idea, at first reacted negatively to its rather banal superficial story of a dandy’s rejection of a young country girl. My hunch, as a working opera composer, though, is that the famous sleepless night Tchaikovsky is said to have had prior to sketching out, again in a single night, the entire structure of the opera, was the sort that a working opera composer has when they realize that a perfect dramatic structure is in the offing.

I’d like to think that Tchaikovsky, a dramatist extraordinaire, recognized in Pushkin’s formal engineering a “perfect libretto.” He grasped that he had in his hands a structure, or a cauldron, or a nuclear reactor, so durable and perfect that Life and Art could be brought into collision. A vessel in which could take place the fusion of the two into a wise and useful new opera that confronted issues that he and his audience could only intuit. A living work of art that could help us to make sense of our lives, which so often seem to be a messy, seemingly futile fission of the two.