Monday, October 24, 2016

Contempo-Scary Music: Q&A with soprano Nancy Allen Lundy

Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy has enjoyed a varied career with an emphasis on contemporary music. Last season, she and pianist, Stephen Gosling, celebrated David Del Tredici’s birthday at Barge Music after her earlier performance of Dracula at Merkin Hall with American Modern Ensemble. A favorite of Tan Dun, she has originated and performed his leading ladies around the world, including Vancouver Opera, Netherlands Opera, NHK (Tokyo), BAM, and Royal Symphony Stockholm. This season she reprises the role of Zina in Raskatov’s A Dog’s Heart directed by Simon McBurney with Netherlands Opera, a role she earlier premiered in Amsterdam with subsequent performances at ENO (London), La Scala (Milan), and Opera de Lyon.

Nancy was kind enough to answer a few questions about her role in the upcoming performance of David Del Tredici's Dracula — a 20-minute setting of Alfred Corn's poem, “My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count,” which retells the famous gothic tale from the point of view of a woman living next door to the Count — at ACO’s 40th Season Opener, “Contempo-Scary Music,” on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. The New York Times has called the piece a “gloriously giddy melodrama.”

Soprano Lundy performed Del Tredici's Dracula
with the American Modern Ensemble in 2014

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about your character in David Del Tredici’s Dracula?

Nancy Allen Lundy: I am the neighbor lady of Dracula and have been friends with his parents. Over the years, I imagine we shared dinners, watching as the young boy grew to adulthood. I find myself strangely attracted to this young man whose physical traits are somehow altered from what I remember. He seems to be quite fond of me as well. He pays me “visits”, sending me gifts in the interims. As the narrative progresses, I question why he seems no longer interested in me. Realizing I am indeed hooked, I find my whole life’s meaning is tied to the whims of this odd creature with “an electric tic active at the corner of the mouth”.

ACO: The piece asks for an uncommonly theatrical performance from an orchestra-accompanied soprano. Can you talk about the moments in your role that might surprise (or scare?) an unsuspecting audience member?

NAL: I doubt that anything will be frightening, even for young people. I believe the effect is more comical; an indulgent, hyper-dramatic reading of a person losing her grasp and falling victim to an unusual addiction; the addiction to human blood by which the average, run-of-the-mill vampire is afflicted. And I wouldn’t want to give anything away, now, would I…. [insert scary laugh] ??!!

ACO: In his program note, David says “Nervous giggles and startled gasps would not be unwelcome here,” but he also explains the works deeper meaning: “the listener confronts the more ominous world of addiction, betrayal, and obsession. And inevitably, there comes the ultimate degradation—a Faustian bargain with a devilish price: devolution into the living dead.” Can you talk about the ways in which you try to convey these themes?

NAL: It isn’t in my best interest to try to convey themes or morals. I read the lines and play the scenes and let the audience take what it gleans from it. I feel the ache in my eye teeth as they start to lengthen, I feel the thirst, the hunger for Dracula’s visits, the crushing devastation of a jilted lover. I feel the madness of obsession, the grotesque, itching convulsing as life is leaving and the undead is being born within my flesh.

ACO: You have performed Dracula before with the American Modern Ensemble and last March you celebrated David’s birthday with a recital of his music at Barge Music with pianist Stephen Gosling. Can you talk about your relationship with Del Tredici’s music?

NAL: I have been an admirer of the work of David Del Tredici since I was a music student at college in Northern Minnesota, the same school where Phyllis Bryn-Julson went. Her recording of Alice was there in the library, and I familiarized myself with it in equal measure to Beethoven, Mozart, and all the rest which was unknown to me. It was the greatest treat to meet him finally in his NYC apartment to sing through Dracula. His music mirrors his own thoughtful humanity, flare for the dramatic, aching poignancy and youthful wonder. If I were more of a music theorist, I would say that his music is logically constructed and balanced in symmetry. But my main interest in his music is that it moves me to sing about all that he sees is human, dramatic, poignant and wondrous. And funny, too!

Watch Nancy Allen Lundy's performance of 
Dracula with the American Modern Ensemble:

Hear soprano Nancy Allen Lundy in David Del Tredici's Dracula at Contempo-Scary Music, ACO's 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Contempo-Scary Music: Composer Spotlight - Paul Moravec

Paul Moravec, recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Music, is a composer of numerous orchestral, chamber, choral, operatic, and lyric pieces. His music has earned many distinctions, including the Rome Prize Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. Paul’s The Overlook Hotel Suite is a brand new orchestral suite that takes musical material from his highly praised opera The Shining, which is based on the well-known Stephen King novel and premiered in a sold-out run by Minnesota Opera this past May. Musical America called the opera a “chilling artistic triumph,” reporting, “This operatic treatment of Stephen King’s breakthrough horror-thriller (1977) manages not only to distill the narrative intensity of the original but—its most significant achievement—transforms The Shining into valid operatic terms that transcend the thriller trappings.” 

Commissioned by ACO, Paul has created a piece that uses the instruments of the orchestra to provide a musical depiction of the Overlook—the infamous hotel at the center of the story’s gory plot. The Overlook Hotel Suite will be premiered at ACO’s 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. Paul was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece and his compositional process for SoundAdvice.

Composer Paul Moravec

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the sections or themes in your opera The Shining that The Overlook Hotel Suite draws from, and your process for choosing this musical material?

Paul Moravec: The Overlook Hotel Suite is more than a medley from the opera: it’s an independent composition re-imagining and re-arranging the opera’s musical material involving the character of the hotel and its ghosts from every part of the show, without regard to dramatic sequence. It’s a kind of time-less fantasy on leitmotifs associated with the never-ending masked ball, ghosts such as Delbert Grady and his two daughters, and Mark Torrance, Jack’s abusive father.

ACO: MPR News writes that your music in The Shining is “a rich, multi-layered soundscape that breathes life into the Overlook Hotel, which is both the setting and the villain of the piece.” In The Overlook Hotel Suite, you are using the instruments of the orchestra to provide a musical depiction of the infamous hotel. Can you give a few examples of what the instruments are depicting? Given that the Overlook might be considered the opera’s “villain,” are you depicting more than just physical setting?

PM: I definitely consider the Overlook Hotel a leading persona in the opera, and so its character and physical attributes are indissolubly one.  For instance, to convey the evil power of the hotel in its most concentrated form, one has to feel the infamous room 217 — where little Danny is attacked by the dead lady in the bathtub — as a real, malicious presence, more than just a physical setting. I use a lot of spooky special effects in the orchestration — such as tremolo ponticello strings and nasty, muted brass — but sometimes the most disquieting effects can be created by a counterintuitively normal-sounding orchestra playing totally creepy music. Sometimes less really is more.

ACO: You have talked about how Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining possesses three themes that are essential for creating a compelling opera: love, death and power. Are these themes also present in The Overlook Hotel Suite?

PM: Among other things, King’s novel is a deeply emotional story about love in the Torrance family: between husband and wife and between parents and child. So love itself is not so much a factor in this suite, since it focuses on the ghosts, not the Torrances. As for power, that is reflected principally in the evil force-field surrounding the hotel itself. And as in so many ghost stories, death especially violent death — plays a crucial role in this suite. Regarding the masked gala in the grand ballroom, this suite is more about after-death than death per se.

ACO: Can you talk about the differences in your approach to writing opera compared to orchestral music?

PM: Composing an opera is more complex than writing an orchestra piece, in part because the opera composer must also be the principal dramatist, for all the contributions of the librettist and director and everyone else involved. Opera, of course, is music drama. The challenge is that as an art-form, drama naturally follows its own logic while music follows its own peculiar logic and somehow these two willful, independent thoroughbreds have to be made at all times to move in the exact same direction, in precise synchrony. The composer must combine the music, words, character, plot, et al. into a seemingly effortless and compelling narrative much greater than the sum of its parts. And beyond all that, the composer must overcome the inherent artifice of this irrational art-form so that the audience will be so absorbed as to forget that they are watching an opera.

Hear the world premiere of Paul Moravec’s The Overlook Hotel Suite at Contempo-Scary Music, ACO's 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Contempo-Scary Music: Composer Spotlight - Judith Shatin

Judith Shatin’s Black Moon was developed through ACO’s coLABoratory program, which allows for the research and development of new works and techniques. Black Moon incorporates conductor-controlled electronics—specific conductor gestures directly trigger and move sounds in space by means of a Kinect controller. Last spring, ACO presented Judith's work-in-progress at coLABoratory, a sketch using the Kinect technology titled Red Moon. The video below shows a clip from Red Moon performed by conductor George Manahan and musicians from the ACO.

ACO premieres Shatin's finished work, Black Moon, at its 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall in a program titled Contempo-Scary Music, celebrating the Halloween weekend with music inspired by all things sinister and suspenseful. Judith was kind enough to followup on her previous Q&A about the project.

Composer Judith Shatin

American Composers Orchestra: Your piece explores cycles—such as the cycle suggested by four appearances of the moon when only three are expected, giving rise to the ‘black moon.’ How is this manifested in your composition?

Judith Shatin: The underlying structure of the piece is built around the idea of four events when only three are expected. So, for instance, there are three subtly altered repetitions of extended electronic sounds that announce three of the sections, with another that stands out in both its timbres and rhythms. This idea can be found in different aspects of the piece. 

ACO: Can you talk about the roles of the orchestra and conductor-controlled electronics to create these cycles?

JS: The orchestration relates directly to these cycles, with certain instrumental combinations featured in each. Meanwhile the electronics, controlled by the conductor, also change in palpable ways for each cycle.

ACO: All of the electronics in Black Moon, controlled during the performance by conductor George Manahan, are digitally transformed recordings of acoustic instruments. What did you record and how did you alter the recordings? 

JS: I recorded representative string, wind, brass and percussion instruments and then dramatically transformed them using a variety of digital techniques. On the one hand, I wanted to create an organic link between the instruments and electronics, but on the other I also wanted to create a new sonic world that complements that of the orchestra. 

ACO: In a conventional orchestra piece without electronics or any kind of aleatoric writing, the composer would hope the piece would sound pretty much the same from performance to performance. Is this the case in Black Moon, or does inclusion of conductor-controlled electronics mean that the world premiere could sound noticeably different than any other subsequent performance? 

JS: The orchestral part uses a few, limited aleatoric elements, inspired by the shifting, chaotic, elements in nature. However, most of the piece is set, and the electronics will be the same each time. There will be some small changes in their flow when the conductor moves the sound around. However, since I wanted the elements to blend in a certain way, I did not feature random elements. 

ACO: How have things progressed since the coLABoratory workshop last March? 

JS: The coLABoratory was very useful. An orchestra conductor literally has his/her hands full. I realized that having the left arm trigger sounds was too constraining. So, we changed that trigger to a foot switch. The left arm is still used to sweep the sound around, and that is a gesture that is quite natural for a conductor. 

ACO: In our last Q&A we asked if Black Moon would contain thematic elements from Red Moon, the musical sketch you composed to demonstrate your work-to-date. You didn’t know the answer then, but how about now? 

JS: There are very few elements that have remained from the earlier musical sketch. I composed most of Black Moon after the coLABoratory, responding both to that experience and to the evolution of my ideas about the piece.

Learn more about Judith at

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues: Bernard Herrmann

The late/beloved Hollywood composer David Raksin wrote a series of essays about his many esteemed colleagues. In this essay he remembers his friend and colleague Bernard Herrmann.

George Manahan leads the American Composers Orchestra in Bernard Herrmann's iconic Psycho Suite at Contempo-Scary, opening our 40th Anniversary season at Carnigie Hall's Zankel Hall on October 28.

David Raskin, left; Bernard Herrmann, right

David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues: Bernard Herrmann

Of all the composers who have written music for films, perhaps the most remarkable personality was my friend and colleague Bernard Herrmann. He was born in New York City on June 29, 1911 into a middle-class Jewish family. His father, Abraham, had emigrated from Russia; his mother, Ida, was born here. Benny (that's how we all knew him) studied violin when he was in grammar school; by the time he entered high school he had already won a prize-for composing a song. At DeWitt Clinton High, he met another young musician who would also make a name for himself as a composer, Jerome Moross. Herrmann and Moross used to spend time after school at the Half-Price MusicShop on 57th Street, where one day they found some music by a composer previously unknown to them, Charles Ives, who became, as a matter of fact, famous for having been unknown in those days.

The two boys found the Concord Sonata and the 114 Songs and became fascinated by the power and originality of the music. The address of the composer was appended to the printed copies, so Benny wrote him a note in appreciation of his work and, in due time, received an invitation to call upon Ives. Thus began a long friendship in the course of which Herrmann became one of the earliest exponents of Ives's music.

After high school, Herrmann went on to New York University. One of his teachers there was Philip James, a composer and conductor of some renown. Next he won a fellowship at the Juilliard Graduate School of Music, where he studied composition with Bernard Wagenaar and conducting with Albert Stoessel. To support himself during this period he played all kinds of odd jobs, including a stint at the celebrated Yiddish Theatre on Second Avenue.

He also had the good fortune to encounter the Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger. This brilliant and unconventional musician had an artist's eyes and ears: he could recognize beauty where lesser men saw and heard only everyday commonplaces. So open-minded and perceptive was this gifted man that he saw nothing unfitting about composing, for example, a piece which he called Railroad Station Platform Humlet, and which was intended to divert the weary traveler. I cite this because it seems to me that the influence of such men as Ives and Grainger upon Herrmann is very clear: all through his long career Benny would exhibit the same devotion to his art, the same catholicity of taste which he admired in these two older composers.

In 1930 he founded the New Chamber Orchestra, with which he conducted concerts featuring avant-garde music. He scrounged up the money to finance this ambitious venture from friends, among them Robert Russell Bennett, the noted American composer and orchestrator, and Hans Spialek, also an orchestrator of Broadway shows who sometimes composed for other media. A typical program given at the New School for Social Research includes music by Percy Grainger, Philip James, Henry Cowell, Vladimir Dukelsky (better known as Vernon Duke: 'April in Paris' and 'Autumn in New York' are two of his famous songs), Russell Bennett, Jerry Moross; also Charles Ives, whose Fugue from his Symphony #4 was performed, and Herrmann-his own Prelude to Anathema.

In 1934 Herrmann went to work at the Columbia Broadcasting System's New York radio station, where he composed music for various programs and conducted for the American School of the Air. Within a year he became a member of the conducting staff, and in 1940 he was appointed chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, where he acquired his reputation as a champion of rarely performed music. On programs such as Invitation to Music, he presented new works and neglected masterpieces of the past. At a time when the music of Charles Ives had achieved very few performances, Herrmann gave six weeks of radio concerts of his pieces.

While at CBS, Herrmann also composed music for an astonishing number of dramatic programs. He worked with Norman Corwin on the Columbia Workshop and for Orson Welles and John Houseman's Mercury Theatre of the Air. One of our mutual friends--Benny's and mine-the film director Richard Wilson, was a junior member of the Mercury Theatre radio group, and he told me a story which in its madness is typical of the crazy way in which we worked.

Welles was directing a radio dramatization of Agatha Christie's mystery novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The actors and orchestra were together in the studio, while Welles directed from the control room. Dress rehearsals being what they are, this one ended with only minutes to spare before air time and minutes too long, leaving no time for adjusting scripts or cutting music cues. The intrepid Orson advised everyone not to worry, that he would make the necessary cuts while they were on the air! So, while directing the live broadcast, he would from time to time remove pages from his script and drop them on the floor. Dick Wilson would grab them and race out to tell the actors which scenes had been cut-in pantomime because the mikes were live. Then he would pluck pages from Herrmann's script, which left Benny wondering which music cues had been eliminated, and how he would tell the orchestra.

At one point, Wilson picked up a newly discarded page, looked intently at it, and whispered, "Orson!" Welles waved him off, but Dick persisted-with the same result; again Welles waved him off and pointed to the studio. So, having no other choice, Wilson removed the page from all actors' scripts and that of Benny Herrmann. Which made for a most unusual mystery story, because what Dick had been trying to say was that Welles had thrown out the scene in which Ackroyd was murdered. To the radio audience the mystery must have been: what happened to poor Roger.

For all that, Herrmann occupied a position of importance in the Mercury Theatre and in the esteem of Welles and Houseman, so that when they went to Hollywood to film Citizen Kane they invited him to compose and conduct the music. The result was a classic score in which images and music are bonded together in an extraordinary way. When the picture was released, the screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles, with an assist by Houseman, was thought to be scandalously close to the career of famed publisher, William Randolph Hearst. However, Benny used to say that parts of it were closer to the story of the industrialist Harold McCormick, who financed the construction of the Chicago Opera for the sake of a soprano named Ganna Walska. He also liked to point out that there was a lot of Welles himself in the flamboyant Mr. Kane. What interested me was something else: a prominent figure in the film is Mr. Bernstein, Kane's longtime friend and advisor. To begin with, Welles bestowed upon is character the name of his own guardian, a physician who supervised his care after the untimely death of his father. And as Everett Sloane played him, Mr. Bernstein was a compendium of the mannerisms of-Bernard Herrmann: he looks like Benny, acts like him, and even talks like him-although he is somewhat less raucous than Benny could be when aroused. (When you view CITIZEN KANE, keep an eye on Mr. Bernstein, and you will be seeing the shade of Bernard Herrmann.)

The Aria from Salaambo, an operatic sequence that Herrmann composed for the unhappy debut of Kane's protégé, Susan Alexander, had to expose her as the rank amateur she was unequal to so grand a challenge. So he put the Aria in a key that would force the singer to strain for the high notes. Herrmann said he wanted to convey the impression of "a terrified girl floundering in the quicksand of a powerful orchestra." (The eloquent phrase is Benny's own.) In the film soundtrack, soprano Jean Forward sang the vocal part for Dorothy Comingore. The score that Herrmann composed for Citizen Kane, together with the prestige that the picture achieved in professional Hollywood, established him as an important new voice in film music.

His next score was All That Money Can Buy, the cinema version of Stephen Vincent Benet's book, The Devil and Daniel Webster. The director was William Dieterle. In this mordant and witty fable, the devil, who is called Mr. Scratch (and played, in an inspired bit of casting, by Walter Huston) seems to have been turned loose to terrorize a New England village. An unusual task for the composer was to devise a sound appropriate for the soul of one of Mr. Scratch's victims, who is imprisoned in a matchbox -exactly the kind of challenge that drives film composers to drink (although, in our nearly four decades of friendship I never saw Benny intoxicated.) In any event, he was more than equal to the task, and he won an Academy Award for this score.

Throughout his career Bernard Herrmann continued to voice his resolute, unyielding opinions about music-and just about everything else. I used to describe him as a virtuoso of unspecific anger, which he bestowed so impartially upon friend or enemy that I often wondered whether he knew the difference. He was, it is sad to say, a flawed man, and he paid a greater penalty for his own shortcomings than those who experienced the pain of his rages. Remarkable composer that he was, he was that despite a rudimentary sense of melody, which he sought to remedy by repeating short phrases in sequences—meaning that he would state a brief musical phrase and then repeat it, and repeat it again and again in other positions. One of my students asked me after viewing VERTIGO whether I could identify a fragment played on an organ as Kim Novak walks through a church. I answered that I could not, but that I knew the name of the church: Our Lady of Perpetual Sequences.

Is that a proper remark from a friend and colleague? More important, is it true? I believe it is, but I would not find it possible to issue such an appraisal if I were less aware of his wonderful qualities as a composer of film scores. Think of the values he gave to the movies he enriched with his music. Think what they would have been without Benny's contribution. Think of Citizen Kane, Jane Eyre, All That Money Can Buy, Hangover Square, North By Northwest, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Vertigo; try to imagine Psycho without Herrmann's music for the shower scene, or his evocation of Hell on earth in Taxi Driver, or the beauty and pathos with which he infused The Ghost And Mrs. Muir (my own favorite). Such music does not come from a man whose soul is a litany of harsh cadences. And in fact, this implausible, sometimes even impossible man could also be a loving friend, a sentimental innocent, an endearing companion. In the end it was the humanity of this extraordinary person that spoke in his music, his art, for which he is justly celebrated.