Fiery Jade: Cai Yan Premiered!!

After four and a half years of on-and-off work, my second opera, “Fiery Jade: Cai Yan” premiered at Pacific Lutheran University on November 17-20 in Eastvold Auditorium in the Karen Hille Phillips Performing Arts Center.  For four performances the inside of my head was on full audiovisual display for the world; now everyone knows what I was thinking about all those times I was obviously not paying attention…

My co-conspirator, librettist Zhang Er set in motion a project that has dominated my compositional thinking for years and beautifully allowed me to take all the things I have learned from perhaps a dozen pieces based upon Chinese influences and put them all to work together in this one big piece. From pentatonic Han Court music to Mongolian overtone singing to Buddhist chant music, my unique tonal system, evolved out of my early ’90’s flirtation with Schoenberg’s original 12 tone method, served me very well, creating music that was accessible, adventurous, colorful, dramatic and cohesive.

My sense throughout the composition process was that Zhang Er’s libretto just began to sing, the opera writing itself out of the narrative structure and the individual poetic lines. I have no idea how she achieved this for me- it seems inexplicable. But I guess all those years of watching opera, particularly new ones, paid off in a remarkable instinct for dramatic structure and flow. I changed probably only 10-20 words in the entire libretto!

The staging was minimal, the result of a very tight budget, but we adopted elements from Chinese opera- a bare stage, emphasis on costumes and movement over sets. The slightly raked upstage area provided a curious sort of perspective that reminded me of Han Dynasty tomb brick images. Five long tall black flats represented calligraphed stele with Confucian classics carved into them, a Buddha in fairly Indian styling sat on a table, two spirit tablets (smaller versions of the steles) represented dead husbands, and then of course the actual Guqin, imported from Beijing for the production- an elegant touch provided by director James Brown. Over this austere simplicity hung a screen where dazzling and dramatic details of abstract paintings by artist Becky Frehse changed with each scene. Scenes situated in China were mostly in gripping reds with violent yellows, oranges and flecks of blue; the Xiong Nu scene in Mongolia was more earth-toned with browns, greens and yellows; and the final scene of reconciliation between the main character and her mother in a Buddhist nunnery was an unearthly blue-green with implications of things growing up into a hopeful sky.

The chamber orchestra was mostly professional- string quartet, woodwind quartet plus soprano sax, trumpet, harp and four percussionists; although the sax player and three of the percussionists were very talented students who got a chance to play alongside their teachers.  The singers were all undergraduates- an astonishing fact given that this was harder, less familiar and longer music than probably any of them had sung before.

In particular, the two women who sung the lead part of Cai Yan- Ally Atwood and Katie Beck (and their understudy Marissa Moultrie) all learned a very long, complex and dramatic part and delivered it beautifully and powerfully. Hats off to these rising stars for their enormous dedication and talent! Two men traded leading baritone roles every other night- Jordan Bowles and Nathan Robe, singing the parts of Prime Minister Cai Yong and General Cao Cao, both with great power and stage presence. Nick Stevens elegantly played the tenor role of the love interest Prince Zuo of the Xiong Nu tribe and found that difficult balance between conquering soldier and sympathetic man. Sarah Martin sang the mezzo role of Cai Yan’s mother and was a terrific actress as well as singer, bringing the final act together beautifully. The trio role of the “Three Stars” representing Wealth, Prosperity and Longevity as well as Confucian orthodoxy, were wonderfully sung by Brennan Brichoux, Joshua Carlisle, Tora Hedges and Alexandra Dreher, the two mezzos trading off on alternate nights. Their tight harmonies and excellent acting made them audience favorites. The two children were played by sopranos Natalie Breshears and Mollie Parce who created laughs in a serious show and then stole hearts. Members of the University Chorale, directed by Brian Galante, played characters onstage as well as out along the edges of the house surrounding the audience.  Kudos to Elissa Brown, Andrew Corse, Sabrina Husseini, Blayne Fujita, Alyssa Lyngaas, Luke Hartley, Stephanie Pfundt and Brian Loughridge for their excellent onstage singing and acting as soldiers, captives, tribes people and courtiers. Many, many thanks to the other members of the University Chorale for their inspired and glorious singing in the larger choral scenes. Endless thanks to director Brian Galante for agreeing to take on this difficult dramatic opportunity for his choir of mostly freshmen and sophomores!

Between the scenes, the audience was treated to traditional and contemporary music for Chinese bamboo and ceramic flutes, played by Wang Yingying, teacher of flute at Ocean University in Qingdao, China. I think it is safe to say that the entire audience looked forward to her scene change interludes as much as the scenes! Her music and playing were utterly bewitching, full of changing colors, microtonal inflections of pitch and huge ranges of mood from soothing to terrifying.

The orchestra, elegantly led by PLU Opera Program Director James Brown, sounded exquisite. It was so satisfying to listen to them over three nights of rehearsal and then four performances get more and more deeply into the phrasing and expression of the music- supporting the singers and each other in seamless colorful beauty. The percussionists were liberated to their full expressive potential when I told them that the model was not western orchestra music, but rather Chinese opera, with its bold incisive playing. When they took that to heart, the entire sound gelled and became that unique blend of East and West I had striven for.  The harpist, Catherine Case, is an extraordinary player, and even more so for her quiet enthusiasm for everything harp including my lengthy and challenging part in this opera! She played with power and commitment that made unnecessary the amplification I had assumed would be required to make the harp stand out as it had to in this music. She and cellist Richard Treat had an essential duet that recurred frequently throughout the opera- she plucking as usual and he pizzing glissandos- together emulating the sound of the Chinese Guqin zither which played an important role in the story. The result was magical.

Finally, I can’t say enough about the talent and enthusiasm of Director and Conductor James Brown. He ably leads undergraduates each year in full-length productions ranging from Monteverdi to Britten, ignoring the usual cautions about operas that undergraduates can do, knowing that he has some of the finest vocal talents in the Pacific Northwest in his program. These are not typical undergraduate voices, and so he is remarkably ambitious. Still, they are young people with limited experience, and so require unique leadership to achieve the level of performance required to sing these difficult works. He was unfailingly positive in the two and a half months of rehearsal, managed all the details of working with the costumer, set and lighting designer, and choral director, and- perhaps most generously- allowed me to insert myself uncommonly strongly  into rehearsals, becoming in essence a co-director with him. This seemed necessary as the ancient Chinese culture portrayed in the opera needed to be portrayed accurately and much about that feudal, patriarchal culture is not intuitive for modern western performers. Jim listed me as “dramaturge” as well as composer in the program, an indication that he appreciated the co-direction from his enthusiastic composer colleague.

All in all, I am amazed and awed by what Pacific Lutheran University can pull off in our remarkable music department. It takes student talent, faculty cooperation, departmental support and a strong town-gown-alumni connection to successfully produce an event such as this. From my first opera “Songs from the Cedar House” 25 years ago, to “Drum Taps: Nine Poems on Themes of War” in 2012 to this latest opera, my students, colleagues and I have pushed the boundaries of the possible in pursuing ambitious musical dreams. This one is truly a dream come true for librettist Zhang Er and me- the culmination of four plus years of imagining… Now what on earth shall I do next?!


Nocturne: a dialog with Kurt Cobain

I was selected as the “Commissioned Composer of the Year” for 2016 by the Washington State Music Teachers Association (WSMTA)- a branch of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). This meant writing a piece for a premiere at their state conference at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, for which I would provide the performers, and their costs. This meant writing for a small ensemble not a large one! Furthermore the association is largely piano teachers, with many voice teachers as well. When I had done this commission project back in 2001 I chose to write a set of songs- Bringing in the Tides: Seven Songs on Poems by 20th Century American Women Poets.  This time I decided to fulfill two requests with one piece and write something for my colleague at Pacific Lutheran University, piano professor Oksana Ejokina, who had asked for a piece a year earlier. It was a plus that she was a member of WSMTA and would probably be going to the conference anyway.

I asked Oksana what sort of piece she thought I should write. She suggested a piece for advanced but still young players (high school and college) which would introduce them to “extended techniques”- those ways of sound-making that are beyond the usual technique. In the case of piano this often means reaching inside the piano to pluck, strum, tap or otherwise alter the sound of the piano strings vibrating. John Cage first became famous for his “prepared piano” pieces in the 1940’s for which the player must follow a detailed chart of where to place screws, bolts, erasers and other objects amongst the strings, turning the piano into a kind of “gamelan” percussion ensemble. Composers love this of course! Pianists worry about it, and piano owners- individuals, concert halls and colleges, hate it! It can of course damage the strings of your $100,000 Steinway or leave the owner with a paperclip stuck down under the strings that vibrates like a snare drum snare every time you play a G#… I thus decided not to “prepare” the piano in any way, but simply to use the hands and maybe a guitar pick to engage the strings in interesting ways.

Since these extended techniques are unfamiliar (“weird”) to many younger players, as is most 20th century music after all, Oksana suggested I make the piece “programmatic” with a story or descriptive subject that would help players and their audiences understand why these techniques and sounds were useful for the piece.

Armed with these ideas, I then thought about my daughter Clara, a student at a popular music conservatory in Liverpool, England and her aspirations to become a popular music artist. She and I share a love of the history of pop music and its creator-performers, and frequently share books, articles and videos. Together we watched the recent  documentaries on Amy Winehouse and on Kurt Cobain, and talked about “The 27 Club”- that group of pop artists who all died at age 27: Jimi, Jim, Janice, and now Kurt and Amy. She sees these as tragic losses of important artists, as do I, but I also now see them through the eyes of a parent: as grown children still struggling through the difficulties of becoming oneself in a complex, often contradictory world. To do so with the eyes and judgments of the world upon you seems too often to be more than a person can bear.

I decided thus to make a piece called Nocturne, a kind of dark, after-midnight meditation that would honor Kurt Cobain, using fragments of his iconic (and breakout) song Smells Like Teen Spirit. The song is full of very interesting musical ideas and the title seemed perfect for my purposes: an “In Memoriam” for an individual and for too many other young people.

I recommend listening to the official music video of the song, available on Youtube, before listening to my piece: Nocturne. The original song is built largely on a rhythm: short-short-long, and a repeating four chord progression: F-Bb-Ab-Db. The modality (major or minor) is not clear as the power chords are mostly played without third- just the raw root and fifth. But the progression itself suggests fm minor of course. It also features a frequently stated perfect fourth played as harmonics up high- C-F, like little bells. This curiously delicate touch always struck me as special- like a fragile cry for help from the guitar of an otherwise screaming singer. Several fragments of the melody become my primary motivic material, out of which I construct the first slow section of a classic Field or Chopin Nocturne. This is where most of the “extended techniques” are used- plucking strings, patting them, playing them on the keys while damping them inside, etc. This creates a surreal quality that matches both the gloom of the song and my sense of sorrow and fear for the lives of young people in an intense world. The “normal” notes sound even more beautiful, perhaps even nostalgic amidst these more dark and dangerous sounds.

The middle “faster” section of the nocturne form utilizes the deepest range of the piano, to create a carefully composed “muddy” texture. This is “grunge” we’re talking about here after all! The motivic material is extended now with an idea from the “bridge” or “break” of the song in which Cobain uses another progression: F-F#-B/Bb-Ab, and a vocal “hey!” There is a lot of pitch-bending in the guitar which is why I decided to mix B and Bb chords for some serious dissonance. And that F# chord is cool! You have to admire a self-taught rock writer who invented for himself what could be described as a “Neapolitan chord” or a “Implied Phrygian mode!”  Throughout this middle section, the “rock ‘n roll” quality comes out much more clearly. Gone is the surreal gloom and nostalgia and foregrounded is the rage and the rhythmic power of the song. (I hope younger players enjoy the opportunity to rock out at contest or during their recital! Older players too!) It builds in successive waves to a big climax like a screech. The low extended techniques return with a vengeance to call the darkness back in, and the piece collapses back to its opening gestures, but this time like the voice of doom. The closing recapitulates the opening, ending with a low patted boom that rings to silence.

In the end, my colleague Oksana could not play the premiere as her duties as Music Director of the Icicle Creek Music Festival in Leavenworth, Washington conflicted with the conference dates. But my heroic and talented colleague- fellow composer Clement Reid, graciously stepped in and learned the piece and played it beautifully on June 23. Many thanks to him for his performance and his many suggestions on fingering, etc.

Here is the recording of the premiere at Whitman College.


December: a Meditation on Advent

For the 2015 installment of the annual Christmas concerts produced by Pacific Lutheran University I was asked to write a short piece for orchestra that would fit in with the premiere of a choral-orchestral work by JAC Redford about Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” along with the usual mix of seasonal pieces both choral and audience participation.

When I looked at the existing mix of repertoire, I decided that what was missing was an homage to the really early traditional Advent- Christmas songs of the Lutheran church, and thus decided to create a piece that arranged a number of those 16th-17th century chorales and hymns into a narrative, moving us from Advent into Christmas. Since it was to be positioned as the opening of the second half of the concert right after intermission, this seemed also like a good way to review the ritual progress of the evening before continuing on to the end.

Fortunately the Lutheran Book of Worship very clearly organizes music according to season and so I was able to go through and pick those early pieces that I thought were best suited to my purpose and sequence them into a dramatic narrative moving from darkness and waiting into brilliance and light.

This kind of “gebrauchsmusik” (music for use) has always pleased me, as a way for a composer to provide really useful music for important ritual or community events. I tend to use these opportunities to indulge in pure craft- the craft of designing a musical/theatrical experience, of soaking myself in tradition, and indulging in the pure joy of old-fashioned counterpoint. So many composers have enjoyed constructing clever games for themselves and their performers and listeners, and I am no exception. Thus this piece contains not just traditional tunes but also age-old composer games such as counterpoint and quodlibet. More on that in a moment.

The piece opens with fragments of O Come O Come Emmanuel in my signature key of e minor. Why e minor? I don’t know except that maybe because I discovered the dark open ringing sound of the guitar’s e minor chord when I was young and impressionable, I’ve always thought of it as primal. (I’ve used it in numerous pieces including the opening of my meditation on Kepler’s solar system in the orchestra piece Harmonices Mundi as the sound of the background microwave radiation…) The fragments of Emmanuel coalesce and we hear the whole tune before it gives way to another minor tune greatly loved by Bach: Savior of the Nations Come, introduced by the organ and answered by the brass section- another call for divine intervention in a period of dark waiting.

Like a hopeful sign, Comfort Comfort Now My People enters in the woodwinds and harp, with its dance-like rhythms alternating 6/8 and 3/4 time influenced by the 16th century French tradition of musique mesuree a l’antique (measured music in ancient style). But Advent is not yet over and a brass fanfare returns us to darkness and a final statement of O Come Emmanuel.

Then- like a miracle, the harp plays a surprising upward C Major arpeggio and we are into the Christmas season with a quiet, intimate rendition of Lo How a Rose is Growing performed by a solo string quartet under the haze of a high harmonic. Another miracle chord on the harp and the tune is joined by the full string section, but with another chorale tune, heard as though from another dimension on the solo trumpet: the first statement of THE Lutheran Christmas chorale From Heaven Above to Earth I Come. (Which I used as the basis for my entire cantata for these Christmas Concerts 30 years ago: Officium Pastorum: The Office of the Shepherds.(1985)

Another miracle chord from the harp brings a full statement of From Heaven Above, now triumphantly in the full brass, with the upper woodwinds and strings counterpointing it in good “quodlibet” style (several well-known tunes performed simultaneously as counterpoint) with Rejoice Rejoice Believers. Finally the low brass and organ add a third simultaneous tune with the augmented (and now E major!) version of O Come Emmanuel. The meditation ends in a blaze of glory with bells ringing. 

The Blooming Season: finally tracks with vocals!

Last spring I posted some MIDI tracks of songs from the musical theater production I wrote music for at The Evergreen State College in Olympis, Washington- “The Blooming Season,” a Chinese-inspired new work with book and lyrics by the prodigiously talented Nick McChord. Refer to that previous post for details on the plot and how the production came to be.

Here I offer four tracks for your listening consideration, all based on Kunqu opera tunes from “The Peony Pavilion” – the most famous Chinese opera ever and the plot source for part of our new show. Our show opened with the first track here: “I Believe.” I took the Kunqu opera tune and altered it for modern, American ears and the musical theater style. Nonetheless, our Chinese director Rose Jang, herself an accomplished amateur performer of Chinese opera, immediately recognized the tune in my adaptation of it! This short song opened the whole show and is sung here by Erin Calata.

Next is a suite “I was a Pretty Girl” that evolves from a solo song, sung by a woman who thinks she is dying of unfound love and falling into a dream, to the ensemble number she conjures up in her erotic fantasy. The script called for a ’60’s flower-power number so I channeled “Hair” and the final section of this is the result. Notice that the opening solo song uses the same tune as the one above that opened the show. Thematic transformation!  The singers are Kathryn Claus Burke, Leean Conley-Holcom, Erin Calata and playwright Nick McChord.

Next is the song sung by this same girl upon waking and discovering that the wonderful fantasy was not real. This is another “transformed” Kunqu opera tune from “The Peony Pavilion.” The rising opening motif, outlining a second-inversion minor triad, struck me as very memorable and usable 400 years later far, far from China… The singer is Kathryn Claus Burke.

Finally, another transformation for you- here is the same tune but now done up like a Eurobeat club dance tune. The script suddenly calls us into the present in modern Beijing for a scene about struggling artists, pollution and media censorship, in which the woman character again faces losing love… Listen for the same second-inversion minor triad opening motif.  The singer is Leean Conley-Holcom.

For Those Who Wait: a dialog with Bach

My most excellent PLU music colleague, wind ensemble conductor Ed Powell, asked me last spring to write a slow movement piece for his upcoming tour to Tennessee in January 2015. He also suggested we try to crowd-source the commission fee so as to allow smaller schools with smaller budgets to participate in the fun of commissioning a new piece. By keeping the buy-in fee low and advertising it to 6500 members of a national conductor’s listserve we received 62 requests to join and the piece was on!

Ed suggested using PLU’s Lutheran connection and heritage as a starting point, reminding me of several other very beloved pieces based on chorale tunes- in particular two by Eastman Conservatory composer Warren Benson from the 1970’s. Ed’s particular favorite chorale tune is “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” as used by Bach in his Saint Matthew Passion. In that monumental composition Bach uses this tune as a continually recurring and therefore unifying device, changing the degree of harmonic intensity in the four-part choral settings as needed depending on the changing emotions of the Passion story.

With all this in mind, I began, as I usually do, by thinking about everything I knew about this project. The chorale tune of course, but also the fact that of the 62 schools that had signed on as commissioners, some were very high-end conservatories with ensembles full of both graduate and under-graduate music majors while others were high schools in small towns with limited resources and probably limited pools of players. The technical demands on the players could not be too high but the musical meaning had to be deep enough to attract the energy and passion of players at all levels.  A slow movement of perhaps 10 minutes duration has to be very careful in its unfolding- that’s a long time for an audience to sit and listen with no fast energy to keep them engaged. Band audiences range from the music majors at big universities to mom and dad in the gym at the high school spring concert. All needed to be served in a way that was meaningful.

What sort of creative space was enclosed by these various precompositional givens? That is usually one of the most creative and interesting parts of the compositional process for me- defining the piece by the borders created by that which is known and then finding within that space the conceptual heart of the piece. Working this way allows me to dialog and bounce off of ideas outside myself for a much richer set of possibilities to consider. It also keeps me mindful of the extent to which composing is an act of service to one’s community, particularly to those who requested the piece.

I thought about the title of that chorale- at least the title often associated with it now in the US- “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” This caused me to return to a theme that had haunted me for a number of years as former PLU students of mine had joined the military and had done multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan while their spouses waited anxiously at home. For those at home, their “sacred heads” are constantly in danger and far, far away. For them, there is nothing to do but hope and pray and wait. This then became the conceptual heart I was searching for and I titled the piece “For Those Who Wait.” It is a dialog with two of Bach’s harmonic choral settings of the tune, one more calm and the other intensely chromatic.

The piece is structured in four sections that all run together: chorale fragments, chorale variations, chorale statements, and again chorale fragments. Compositionally, it takes the tune and its harmonizations and puts them through a series of intervallic processes. The intervals are increasingly “crushed” down so that the original rising fourth of the tune becomes a third and even a second with the following intervals in the tune similarly squashed. This creates different affects ranging from background concern, to gritted teeth, to an all-out nightmare version of the chromatic harmonization in which I added a rising contrapuntal line in the upper winds and had the percussion bell instruments play increasingly hysterical aleatoric lines. Between all the emotion, the sax quartet plays like the angelic organ we desire to calm us down and sing to us of beauty and peace and comfort. In the end of the piece, the inchoate fragments of the opening return, but do not quite vanquish the anxieties and we are left with the sound of a gong ringing into silence as our waiting goes on…

This recording is from the PLU Wind Ensemble’s recent January, 2015 tour to Tennessee and is the first recording ever made of this piece. I hope more recordings are shared with me from the 62 scheduled premieres coming up this year! This has been an immensely satisfying project for me, working with Ed Powell and his great students, working with band directors all over the country, and being able to celebrate and honor my PLU students and all those who wait for those in harm’s way.

Wolfgang at the Gates: a dialog with Mozart

In November 2014 the Northwest Sinfonietta premiered a piece I wrote for them called “Wolfgang at the Gates.” I knew that the performance would include Mozart’s “Paris” symphony- the one he wrote while shopping for a job in that city in 1778. He was there with his mother, who spoke no French and was desperately lonely and isolated and increasingly infirm. At age 22 Mozart was no longer the child prodigy and was finding it hard to recapture the interest of the Paris audience which had so fawned on him when he was 6! The public was still smitten with the music of Gluck, even thought that master had returned to Vienna to write for the Austrian court. His primary patron in Paris had obtained for him a commission for a symphony to be premiered at a concert series in June and Mozart worked hard to try to meet the exact taste of the audience.

The premiere was a success, with Mozart almost teasing his audience with a particular device which seemed to be in fashion that season- the “three strikes of the bow”- a declarative rhythm that opens a piece decisively. Mozart opens both the first and third (final) movement with this device, though in the third movement he delays its entrance for a few bars and then delivers it, probably with tongue firmly in cheek. His overly anal-retentive patron suggested to Mozart after the premiere that perhaps the audience hadn’t liked the middle movement quite as much as the other two and that perhaps he should write another middle movement for the second scheduled performance. (Imagine telling Mozart to try again!) But ever the entrepreneur, he dutifully did write an alternative middle movement which he claimed in a letter to his father to like even better than the original one.

Alas, in the midst of this writing and re-writing, Mozart’s ailing mother finally succumbed and died in early August, to the absolute despair of her son. Mozart was not only miserable at the death of his beloved mother but terrified of the response from his father. The mother had been sent to watch over the son, but clearly the son was also supposed to take care of his mother! We can see Mozart’s nervousness about telling his father the news in the fact that he sent a letter to his father after the death in which he mentioned nothing about it. Only a few days later did he screw up his courage to share the dreadful news.

My piece “Wolfgang at the Gates” is a tour inside the mind of Mozart as he composes this symphony. All the themes of the resulting symphony are present, but in fragments, as though yet unformed. Also present are fragments of music by Gluck, whose music was ever-present and popular in the Paris salons and concert halls Mozart desired to penetrate. As he works, and his mother declines towards death, Mozart battles in his mind between the cheerful tunes his symphony must present and the thoughts of doom pressing on him both by career failure and his mother’s health. The second act of Gluck’s famous opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” is called “At the Gates of Hell” and depicts Orpheus reaching the underworld seeking to return his beloved Euridice to the land of the living. I imagine Mozart identifying with this scene, and thus his mind keeps returning to Gluck’s “Dance of the Infernal Spirits” and, of course, the famous aria “che faro senza Euridice”- what will I do without my Euridice?

In my piece, we begin with the “three strokes of the bow,” as does Mozart’s symphony, but then hear the timpani thunder out a darkness, as though Mozart is unable to continue in this cheerful vein. A three-note “doom” motif sounds in the strings, and then fragments of Mozart’s musical material try again and again to get the symphony started. Gluck and Mozart swirl and intersperse through two climaxes and intervening slower, softer sections dominated by “che faro…” All the tunes of Mozart’s two outer movements are touched upon before the theme of the slow lyrical second movement is finally discovered and allows Mozart to see his way to a conclusion. We reach the ritual cadential material, as required by the taste of the day, but the timpani has the last word- rolling ominously, or sadly, before concluding with that same “three strokes of the bow” with which this whole process had begun.

In the premiere concert, the Northwest Sinfonietta opened with two sets of dances from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”, followed by Samuel Jones’ fabulous and romantic “Cello Concerto” with soloist Julian Schwartz. After intermission “Wolfgang at the Gates” was followed immediately by Mozart’s “Paris Symphony.” The effect was as I had hoped. After hearing my piece, one had the eerie sensation of knowing quite a lot about the symphony as it unfolded- almost as if we had been there looking over Mozart’s shoulder and sharing sad beers with him as he worriedly composed. Of course, “Wolfgang at the Gates” stands on its own as a 13 minute piece for chamber orchestra, but I really hope other conductors will consider pairing it with its famous companion piece for a truly striking concert experience.

The Blooming Season: a new musical theater production

During the spring of 2014 I was involved in the creation of an original musical theater production at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington called “The Blooming Season.” Directed by faculty members Rose Jang and Zhang Er, the book and lyrics were written by a remarkable graduating senior, Nick McCord. He had been involved with Rose and Er two years earlier, studying Chinese theater and culture, and so offered to write an original book and lyrics as the basis for an Evergreen theater production. I was so impressed with the results that I volunteered to write the music.

The plot centers on “The Woman” an archetypal Chinese female character found in all Chinese operas, novels and short stories, who is young, beautiful, brilliant and deeply longing for the true passionate love she cannot have as a female in traditional Confucian culture. Nick put together a delightfully madcap yet respectful and authentic mash-up of three famous Chinese opera plots: “The Romance of the Western Wing,” “The Peony Pavilion” and “Qiannu’s Soul Leaves Her Body.” The Woman is on trial in the court of (Buddhist/Confucian) Hell for the repeated cardinal sin of love, carried out against the laws of Confucian order and propriety. We visit three of her previous incarnations, drawn from the three opera plots and characters, and finally see the power of love to shake the very foundations of patriarchal cosmology. It is fun, funny, very moving and ultimately profound.

My music culled sections of compositions by students from the cast, as well as snippets of two famous themes from “The Peony Pavilion” and weaves them together with styles drawn from Broadway, doowop and popular song. Our workshop production used several Chinese stringed instruments as well as a lot of Chinese opera percussion in the pit band, along with two guitars, bass, piano, clarinet and cello. We were able to determine what the show is, and to recognize it as a serious musical theater piece worthy of a next, professional production.

The two clips above are MIDI only- no dubbed-over vocals yet. That will happen later this summer. But you can hear in the first example “I Believe” the Chinese style as I compose my tune “upon and around” snippets of a passage from The Peony Pavilion. In the second example, this same tune is turned into a ballad with backup singers, then joined by another tune from the show “Buzz Buzz Busy Busy” and ultimately into a dance number sounding like a flower-power anthem from “Hair.” (which is what the script called for!)

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do. This project was a wonderful return for me to the days when I wrote a LOT of theater music for the University of Washington theater department back in the late ’70’s!