Monthly Archives: August 2009

Romeo Cascarino, Maurice Wright

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now eight years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, September 5th, 2009, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Romeo Cascarino (1922-2002). Blades of Grass (1945). Geoffrey Deemer, English horn, Philadelphia Philharmonia, JoAnn Falletta. Naxos 8.559266

Maurice Wright (b.1949). Concerto in Two Movements, for Flute and Orchestra (2008). Prema Kesselman, flute, The Metropolitan Sinfonia, Tommy Harrington

Romeo Cascarino. Prospice (1948). Philadelphia Philharmonia, JoAnn Falletta. Naxos 8.559266

On this Discoveries, we listen to three works by two composers with Philadelphia connections. Romeo Cascarino was born in South Philadelphia and taught himself orchestral music through frequent visits to the Fleisher Collection and the Music Department in the Free Library of Philadelphia. He constantly studied orchestral scores here and loved reading literature, too, especially poetry—which would be a catalyst for many of his later works. Not the bookish recluse, though, he once said, “With a name like Romeo, I had better be good with my fists.”

Prospice, based on the Robert Browning poem, is about ghting of a different kind. It’s the ght against the fear of death and the ght of the soul to express itself. Cascarino had gone to Tanglewood at Copland’s invitation, and this is the young composer’s rst full orchestral work. The influence of Copland is apparent in it, but his own voice comes through in this powerfully wrought tone poem (originally a ballet commission). It is a manifesto of courage and a call to arms for the creative artist. Blades of Grass, an even earlier piece for English horn, strings, and harp, is inspired by the Carl Sandburg poem “Grass,” a memorial to those who have fallen in battle. This was composed just at the end of World War II, and it resonates not only with sadness, but with renewal. Cascarino went on to become a sought-after orchestrator: listen, in this utterly beautiful work, to the gift he had from the start.

Maurice Wright

Maurice Wright

Maurice Wright, originally from Virginia, studied at Duke and Columbia and has been Professor of Composition at Temple University for more than 20 years. He has many commissions, recordings, and national awards to his name. His compositional activity is wide-ranging, from opera and art song to electronic, electro-acoustic, and lm music, and he co-founded the Interactive Arts and Technology Laboratory at Temple.

His music is always smart and luscious. Like Cascarino, Wright has an innate sense for how to get the most out of live instruments. This means not only that his music always sounds, but that it always sounds big. This brand-new concerto—for a small orchestra of strings, a few winds, harp, and flute soloist—plays big and plays romantic. It’s engaging and a gorgeous addition to the literature, wonderfully performed by Prema Kesselman in this live concert recording.

All three works come out of Philadelphia, by one who was born and lived here, and by one who makes this his home.

It’s our fault

Is orchestral music a style? My answer would have been a quick No, as neither is trumpet music a style, or vocal music. But I had to stop and wonder, since the issue came up on Kyle Gann’s illuminating blog PostClassic. He recounts the tale of a composer who had a new orchestral piece—a commission—performed, and who was fairly horrified that it received only one run-through at one rehearsal. That was all, followed by a very sub-par performance.

Not a fun experience for any composer. I would have thought no more of it, except that the blog comments coalesced around lack of rehearsal time as the primary culprit for why new music is not more successful with orchestras. That struck me as odd, since new music is more successful with orchestras now than in decades, and since throughout history composers have complained about lack of rehearsal time.

It seemed to me, then, that composers who write successful pieces for orchestras learn to work within that reality, no matter what style they write in. Since I’ve written well over 20 orchestral pieces (some of which I’ve kept), I’ve had a bit of experience with the huge amount of work that goes into getting a piece to “sound.” While I hope that I’m continuing to learn, I commented that we ought not blame rehearsal time for our troubles.

The jist of some of the responses was that of course it’s no problem to write for orchestra, so long as you accommodate your style to orchestral limitations. But I can’t agree with that—it’s not easy to write for orchestra, and I wondered what those styles might be that orchestras just can’t play.

One person heard a Glass piece with the L.A. Phil, said it didn’t sound good, and so blamed the orchestra for not spending enough time on it. His logic eluded me.

In the back of my mind I was thinking: Rosenkavalier (is there anything more complex than one page of that?), Messiaen, Bartòk, Hiroshima, Mozart: if orchestras can play those, they can play anything, can’t they? And that music just doesn’t “play,” it leaps off the stage. Gann said that I must not know too many styles or I would never say that style doesn’t matter.

I sensed a confusion of “style” with “technique,” as when he mentioned rhythms the fabulous Ijsbreker Ensemble can play that an orchestra couldn’t (without a lot of rehearsal). I wondered what these non-orchestral rhythms might be, and if they were limited to a particular style? He also mentioned that the piece in the original story consisted only of the pitch A. Come now, there is no live ensemble in the world that can make unisons and octaves sound good without a huge expenditure of blood, sweat, and probably some tears. Perhaps it wasn’t about the orchestra after all, but about live performance.

My main point, though, was that the responsibility of making an orchestra “sound” rests, above all, on the composer. Whether the orchestra is professional or amateur, has lots of rehearsal or hardly any, the one person who has to make it work is the composer. For too long we’ve let ourselves off the hook. We are, many times, unprepared, sloppy, and even arrogant. Orchestral music is nothing but truckloads of little tiny things to get right or to mess up. If we can’t be bothered to sweat that small stuff, and orchestras have trouble with our music, it’s our fault.

And don’t even get me started on page turns.

Now I don’t know the piece in question and so have no opinion on it. Perhaps it was entirely the orchestra’s cavalier handling of it that was its downfall. There probably is less rehearsal time for some orchestras now. And there are some (few) players who bring ungenerous attitudes to anything new. But I wrote this:

I’ve heard way too many stories by orchestral players—professional, vital, fully engaged artists who can play and sight-read anything—who are incredulous at the poorly written stuff they have to slog through, by big names, huge names, no names, this style and that style. Music that they try to bring to life but that will never, ever sound good no matter how much it’s rehearsed. Music that buries them. Music where mistakes don’t matter. Music where the composer never hears what’s right, what’s wrong. Music that forces the player to wonder, “Why am I even here?”

A list of 14 composers by Gann—again, I suppose, to display the range of styles he must be assuming I didn’t know—stymied me. Not that I didn’t know them; I had heard the music of 12 of them, including one orchestral piece, which I thought was brilliant. No, what puzzled me was why he mentioned them. Was he saying that if only I had known them, then I’d have known that these were composers who obviously can’t write for orchestra? I thought that was odd, especially if he knew any of them personally. But I could imagine any of their music with orchestra.

Maybe some have chosen not to write for orchestra. Fine. And electronic music is, okay, electronic. But so what? Music for viols is different from music for violins. There are people (few, but there are people) who can’t stand the Ravel orchestration of Pictures, since it ruins (they think) a perfectly good piano piece. That’s fine, too. Orchestras don’t play electronics… well, pianos don’t play portamentos, big deal.

But this is not style. What (I continued to wonder) are the stylistic barriers?

I never have gotten an answer to that. Gann quipped that since it was all so easy, why doesn’t he tell all those composers to send me scores and I can distribute them to conductors. I wrote back to say that’s a great idea, please go ahead, since that’s one of the things I do at the Fleisher Collection. But his heart must not have been in it since he didn’t print that response, and then closed the comments.

You can read it here.

[Update: that “here” used to have a link, but a correspondent informed me that all my comments have now been removed. Looky there… sure enough. How delightful to be deemed so dangerous to an orthodoxy as to warrant obliteration in an Orwellian memory hole. Well, it feels good to be liberated. Such agita, figuring out whom to blame. Thanks for setting me free!]

Fun!

Yes, I was correctly quoted in the Inquirer; that’s what I said about the Asphalt Orchestra at 30th Street Station, brought to Philadelphia by Bang on a Can and others. You can read about it here. Hearing Mingus, Zappa, and Björk played by a marching band of piccolo, 2 trumpets, 3 saxes, 2 trombones, sousaphone, and 3 percussionists? How could it not be fun? I would like to have heard them outside, as all that polished granite and marble pretty much created a competing band. But no matter, for this slam. Also enjoyable was watching the responses from the accidental audience. All those lines waiting for the trains performed their own marching band routine, as before the festivities, they faced away, but when the music started, everyone stayed in line and performed an about-face. Wonderful fun!

What, me struggle?

In the Broad Street Review, Beeri Moalem wrote about “one struggling young composer’s attempt to make some sense of” where the sweep of music history has brought us, and how a composer can offer anything meaningful in view of the plethora of styles. Dan Coren, one of BSR’s regular reviewers, took issue with, well, just about everything, Moalem wrote back, then Coren did, and there was a good bit of energy such as is often the case in this online publication, edited by Dan Rottenberg.

Knowing what it’s like to be a composer, or at least one composer, and holding onto the belief that I remember what it’s like to be young, I thought I’d jump in. Here’s some of what I wrote:

[Beeri Moalem writes:] “The struggle of the composer today is to create something original when so many things have been tried and documented—to find a voice without falling into one of the clichéd categories that I outlined. It’s the struggle to create something pleasing for audiences, university professors and musicians simultaneously. Something beautiful, interesting and meaningful yet also unique.”

[I write]: Yes, all creative artists have had a taste of this struggle, but I think that to grow, the composer has to treat every word in that paragraph as utterly false. … If I were to ask how to drive to the Shore from Philadelphia, and was directed to the Walt Whitman Bridge, and I responded that the Delaware River is deep, I would be stating a fact, but not a helpful one.

The struggle of the creative artist is not to be original …  The struggle is not to be unique … The struggle is not to avoid cliché (cliché is simply laziness: either the composer’s, which is easily fixed, or the listener’s, which cannot be).

The struggle is to tell the truth.

Even beauty is secondary. Beauty grows from truth. Seek originality and you will never find it. But tell the truth, and you’ll get originality and beauty and everything else thrown in.

There are many bridges (it may be quicker, or more interesting, and there are more gas stations if you take the Tacony), but the depth of the Delaware is of no consequence. There are as many ways of telling the truth as there are composers. If one is fortunate to grow as an artist, new struggles will replace the ones left behind. But far from discouraging, they reveal new ways of telling the truth.

Rottenberg edited most of my verbosity, but cut out the Delaware River metaphor, which was my favorite part. Gas stations, I thought, made me sound less pontifical. Well, he was probably right, as the loss of it didn’t weaken my argument. Moalem responded and then so did I, and Coren added more, and you can read it all here. We also had a few emailed exchanges sub rosa, which didn’t add substantially to the arguments, but which, I think, helped in our appreciation of each other. Moalem’s quite an inventive composer; check him out here.

I did say in my last email to him that if anything I wrote took his mind off of university professors, then my job was done. Don’t get me wrong, my professors were nothing but supportive. But you can only tell what you know. Nobody may want to hear it, true, but there’s nothing else to say.