Curtis Young Artist Summer Program: Composition Workshop

YASP Chamber Orchestra

YASP Chamber Orchestra

Here's a big push for the composition program for high school and early college-aged (14-19) students at the Young Artist Summer Program that we’re doing at Curtis this July. It's going to be an awesomely unique music festival going into its third year which now includes COMPOSITION as a major. I say it's unique because I’ve taught or directed comp programs at about a dozen festivals over the years, and this is a truly extraordinary opportunity for young composers not to be found anywhere else. We have a master class with the inimitable John Mackey and will have several other special guests.

Participants in the composition program will receive:

• Daily seminar class: discussions about where music has been and where it is going, as well as classes with performers to talk about how to write for their instruments, conversations about commissions, competitions, publishing, and other issues facing composers in the 21st century

• Private lessons: meeting once per week with a Curtis Artist Teacher, guest faculty, and yours truly! Students will be working on pieces steadily during the course and have the chance to hear their works in progress.  

• Opportunities to sing in chorus, play in chamber ensembles and orchestra, and private instrument lessons. See a schedule here.

• Participation in the Young Artist Summer Program, which includes daily activities and residence in Lenfest Hall, Curtis's new state-of-the-art facility (with a lounge and wide-screen TV for the *ahem* study of film and video game music...).

• A performance and recording of a work by musicians from Curtis–faculty, alumni, and current students. This is the most important part of the program and what makes it unique!

I believe that you learn more as a composer hearing your music played well than you do in any class or lesson, and–as important as it is to study–you just can’t replace hearing your music performed at a high level. I can't think of another festival a young composer can sign up for that offers this level of constant access to these musicians. Students will be able to use their recordings for years, for college and grad school applications, grants, or just to generally impress everyone. 

(And here's a video about summer programs at Curtis, too):

Lots more info at the website, and here's the Facebook page. It's a very exciting time to be a young composer!

Pictures from the Floating World

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Pictures from the Floating World

I’m on a mission now, writing a concerto for the amazing Daniel Matsukawa and the incomparable Philadelphia Orchestra with the unbelievably great Yannick Nézet-Séguin (can you tell I’m excited?). The mission is to write a bassoon concerto that captures the silvery lyrical tone of the instrument (and avoids the Mickey vs. The Brooms effect…). It is a wonderful compositional experiment for me to write this piece for this legendary orchestra to which I have ties going back to childhood…I’m calling the piece “Pictures from the Floating World.”

Danny and I have talked about this piece for a while—maybe a long while. If I think about it, he’s been asking me for a piece since we first met at Marlboro in the late 90’s. Sometimes projects like this take that kind of time; it has to be the right circumstances with everything in the right place to begin a commission. We came to that place last year.

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Most composers I know will sit down with a soloist for some time to learn about the instrument, its repertoire, what works (and what doesn’t). I get asked a lot if I think about the player when I’m writing the piece, and the answer is a resounding “yes.” That’s the challenge: write something that fits like a glove for the person for whom the piece is commissioned, but make it so that lots of people can go on to play it later so that the piece has a life of its own.

Danny wanted music that lived in melodies; that brought forward the beautiful flowing bassoon lines that so many composers of past centuries have fallen in love with and wrote into their music. And this was a great prompt for me to start thinking about the idea of floating lines, which led to thoughts of water, which led to floating, which led to thoughts of the Japanese art tradition of Ukiyo-e print making (the “floating world” of our every day life), which led me to think of Debussy, who became obsessed with prints that he saw at the World Exhibition of 1881, which brought me to thinking about the Japanese and French-speaking connections of soloist and conductor, which brought me to the idea of the piece: Pictures from the Floating World.

And this is the process by which many of my pieces get written; composers find something meaningful in an initial seed or idea, and then develop that idea into something bigger. In some cases, like this one, it is built on personal associations. I am especially interested in the intersection of cultures, and Debussy’s fascination with Japanese art is likewise fascinating to me.

The piece will be in five movements, each taking from the title of one of Debussy’s “Water Pieces…”


I. Sunken Cathedral

II. Sirens

III. Sailing

IV. Sails

V. Reflections in the Water

I want each movement to flow into the next—again the idea of fluidity and floating being key. My goal is for the bassoon to sing over the whole twenty minutes of the piece, and for the orchestra to provide a sheen to its color and support to its lyricism. The bassoon is complimented by so many orchestral timbres that I can create a kaleidoscope of sound colors changing around long and lyrical solo lines.

Going back to the idea of the “Floating World,” there is something poetic for me, as we in the modern world tend to float through our days as one passes into the next, losing definition into memory (Debussy had an especially keen sense of this). This piece will be a journal, of sorts, to describe that feeling, gliding on time in a world of fleet impressions.

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The Rite @ 100 years

I had the great privilege last week to be a guest on Radio Times on WHYY, hosted by the incredible Marty Moss-Coane. She is incredible because she knows about, well…everything. We spoke about the Rite of Spring 100 years later from a composer’s perspective and Marty was just an amazing host. How she is always so informed on everything she talks about, I really don’t know. Maybe she has a collection of clones, or a microchip implanted somewhere, or perhaps, just loves knowledge.

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I’ve had radio interviews about my own music, but being able to talk about Stravinsky for an hour on the air was a rare pleasure. My epiphany in preparing for the conversation was that Stravinsky is almost literally imitating Slavic folk singing throughout the piece; as exemplified in the opening bassoon solo. Highly ornamented vocalizing, at the top of the singer’s range (both vocally and expressively) is the bread and butter of this traditional music–I can’t believe I just hadn’t put that together with the bassoon solo before (which itself is from a Lithuanian Wedding song). I had always known about the folk music, and that Stravinsky had pushed the instruments to extreme ranges, but I thought that this was to get the player and listener out of their comfort zone and to hear alien sounds that were entirely modern. What I hadn’t come to was that it’s actually the merging of ancient sounds of folk traditions with modern techniques of instrumental virtuosity in an absolutely technical–and not just musical–way.

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I’m sure I’m not the first, but I am reminded of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” by the RoS–another piece that inhabits a world of primal shapes and figures smashed together with modern notions of visual art. A lot of folks see connections with Picasso “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Yeah, that one, too. It’s all art from the exact same time period, where artists were learning to look to the far past to inspire their revolutionary ideas, casting off what felt like shackles of representation, realism, and in Stravinsky’s case, the common practice tonal system permabonded to major and minor scales.

Near the end of the interview, Marty played one of my own pieces that was influenced by Stravinsky, which I thought well-illustrated his influence 100 years later. To still be talking about his piece after a century, for people to still be cocking their head trying to figure out what that instrument is playing the opening solo, for people to still be scandalized by the subject matter, or energized by the incredible power of the piece–that’s an accomplishment Stravinsky and maybe a dozen other composers can claim. This is one way we know it’s truly great: that even now it is as vibrant, confrontational, and surprisingly inevitable as it was when it was premiered on that hot day in Paris, in May of 1913.

Check out the original choreography while you’re at it.

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BIG NEWS! – Inauguration Day

BIG NEWS!

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Well I’m a little “overwhelmed”* by it, but on Monday my choral work “The New Colossus” is going to be performed at the Worship service for the President’s Inauguration. Yes, he will be there. Yes, his cabinet, congressmen, heads of state, et al will be there. No, I will not be there…(the guest list comes straight from the White House, and I’m not a regular there at this point. I am, however, a regular here –but between getting official word from the Inaugural committee and trying to get security clearance, there was no time, anyway, to even try.) Ben Hutto selected the piece to be sung as the Introit before the liturgy of the service at St. John’s Lafayette Square. It’ll all go down right after the President is seated at the church on Monday morning, and I am just honored beyond words.

I realize that not a lot of composers get to have their pieces performed for the POTUS and his closest few hundred friends. I think it was probably the right piece at the right time and place. I wrote it ten years ago for one of Judy Clurman’s choirs as a commemorative work for 9/11, which had just happened the year before. Judy suggested to set the words from the Statue of Liberty, written by Emma Lazarus, a Jewish immigrant living in New York in the late 19th Century. Have you ever read the words to the whole poem? They are staggeringly beautiful and inclusive, inviting in everyone to the USA, no matter how tired, poor, and wretched they are—everyone. Given the role the Statue has played in our history and the role of Ellis Island in immigration, it’s no wonder they chose the poem for that landmark.

You can listen to the piece right here on my website, but Judy recorded it so beautifully for Sono Luminus with her Essential Voices USA chorus, that it would be great if you ordered the CD! Hal Leonard/GC Schirmer will publish the piece in March.

And I got the program from Ben when I saw him a week later. That’s one I’ll be framing…

* totally freaked out

 

 

Choral Music of David Ludwig

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I am very pleased to announce the release of my new choral music CD with Choral Arts Philadelphia on their 30th Anniversary. The recording is a long time in the making, since we started talking about the project five years ago. There’s an amazing and difficult story behind this recording and the pieces on it, but I’ll save that for a later blog entry. Here’s what’s on the disc:

Four Ladino Songs (2012) was inspired by songs I arranged for solo violin for Lara St. John. I was so taken with these songs and their wide range of emotional expression that I decided to set four of them for unaccompanied choir, as well. Some are set with a traditional four-part texture, others with percussive sounds and effects that would be familiar to Eastern Europe folk traditions.

 The New Colossus (2003)  was written for conductor Judith Clurman and the Todi music singers as a setting of the poem by Emma Lazarus (the one immortalized at the site of the Statue of Liberty). I wrote the work soon after 9/11 and I was very moved by the sentiment of welcome that Lazarus—herself an immigrant—conveys in the message: “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” welcoming everyone, even the “wretched refuse.”  This to me was the true spirit of the United States embodied in poetry as our strength in diversity and tolerance.

The Hanukkah Cantata (2007) was written for CAP with funding from the Philadelphia Music Project. I wrote the cantata with the invaluable help of cantor and Rabbi Dan Sklar who assembled and translated the texts for me. Half of the piece is settings of traditional Hanukkah songs in Hebrew, and the other half—the part that tells the story in recitatives and arias—is in English.

The story of Hanukkah as a whole is of oppression, loss, and rebirth and rebuilding. After the destruction of their temple, the ancient Jews constructed a new altar brick by brick identically as before, acknowledging and never forgetting that loss. The number eight, which figures so prominently in the narrative of eight days of burning oil also is threaded throughout this piece (beginning with eight movements!)

I wrote my Kaddish (2006) for a commission from Robert DeCormier and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus. This was my first work in Hebrew, and it was a meaningful challenge. Kaddish is a prayer said at funerals, but it makes no mention of death or dying. It is a prayer of praise for a creator and paradise, and a prayer for peace. The words celebrate life and living, and I wanted to capture both the revelation and awe of the words.

So these are the pieces on the CD.

I’ve had a few releases in the past year, including most recently two choral works on Judith Clurman’s “Celebrating the American Spirit” CD on Sono Luminus, my first flute sonata on Mimi Stillman’s “Odyssey” CD on Innova, and my double concerto for Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson on Bridge. We’re working on three more recordings at the moment: Claudia Anderson and SoYoung Lee are recording my second flute sonata “Canzoniere,” PRISM is recording my “Josquin Microludes,” and “Seasons Lost,” my double violin concerto, is in the works for Cedille.

But this CD with Choral Arts is the first release of all of my music on one disc, and I must say it’s been a wonderful and humbling experience to work with these folks.

You can go ahead and order a CD from this website if you want one, go to a CAP concert where they’ll be selling them, or soon just download the music from iTunes or some other of those newfangled fancy internet services…

I hope you enjoy the music!

 

 

Marvin Hamlisch

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A couple of weeks ago, the day after I arrived in China, I saw in the New York Times that Marvin Hamlisch died at 68. I got to know him very well over the course of a few months nearly a decade ago. We first met at Saratoga about a project that my teacher at the time Richard Danielpour was doing with him to set “Zin Zin Zin, a Violin” to music for the Pittsburgh Symphony. I was to help with the copy work and a little arrangement, and he called me every day with a million revisions and questions. I owe Richard a lot of thanks for introducing me to Marvin; not so much because of the work–which was a lot of fun–but because I got to know this incredible person.

Like a lot of kids my age, I grew up seeing Marvin on TV on “The Great Space Coaster.” He was fun and warm and hilarious on the show, as he was in real life. I also grew up with his show tunes and movie soundtracks all around, which you always heard then and always hear now. He was an incredible song-writer, and had great ears, and he knew how to work with people. Marvin was a super-committed Yankees fan  (no one is perfect) but despite being Mr. New York (or maybe because of) he had the class and good sense to stay away from the Mets.

I saw him do this kind of musical game once on stage, and it knocked me out. He solicited the audience for words he could use in a song title. He’d put some title together out of these random words and make up a song on the spot: music, lyrics, and all the rest. I know that he did this every time, and always brilliantly. Someone with that kind of talent you’re lucky to meet once in your life; I feel lucky to have met Marvin.

He’s 34 in this video.

 

 

China, China.

Wow, China…this is the imagery I grew up with in good ole Doylestown in the 80′s. Seriously, what was wrong with us? 

I’ve spent the past ten days in China and am writing this on the 15-hour flight back from Shanghai. We’re landing in JFK (with any luck) in a couple of hours, and then getting immediately into the car to drive to Burlington, Vermont from there. I won’t get into tricks for dealing with jetlag, it just sucks and that’s that. For people who haven’t been to Asia coming from the US, basically the deal is that you’re upside down in your day. It’s lunchtime, but it feels like midnight, and vice versa.

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I went with a group of alumni from Curtis that performed my piano trio “Three Yiddish Dances” in Tianjin, Beijing, and Shanghai. I’ve been to China before, but I felt like I had more quality time there on this visit (for which I was extremely grateful). Traveling is terrific fun, but when you’re doing it for work there isn’t a lot of sightseeing or taking in of local culture.

One place we played was a “Classical Music Club” in Beijing. It’s a club like a dinner club or country club, just with the focus on music. You go, listen to a concert in a little chamber hall, and have supper—very nice. Our concert was emceed—I had no idea what the man was saying (apparently he was a former radio host) but he seemed passionate and excited about it, and people responded. After my piece we did a Q&A with the audience. One gentleman asked me why I had written a slow hora when the horas that he knew–like the one from the Bartok Romanian Dances–was fast. Can that be our audience, like, always? It wasn’t that he was knowledgeable, but that he was curious, and I was very appreciative of that!

So I need to discuss the food. Folks who have been there know that Chinese food in China is almost nothing like Chinese food in the US. In one meal I ate sea cucumber, barbeque pig’s knuckles, some sort of rare leafy green that tasted like kale in garlic, roast goose, spicy frog (not just the legs!), something that I was told was a vegetable (no way it was a vegetable), and jellyfish. These are special feasts we had the honor of sharing with presenters and donors, and there are flavors way off the radar of my Western palette. It was all very tasty, with the exception of the sea cucumber, which I’ll be fine with not eating again. On my last visit I had a donkey burger with Marcy Rosen, but that’s a story for another time.

Now the driving: I live in Philadelphia where the middle finger is used as an alternative to the turn signal. In Philly, we operate somewhere in between Boston drivers and the ATV drivers in Mad Max (the second one), but nothing prepared me for Shanghai and Beijing. I’ve never been quite so terrified, even driving with my mother. It’s a citywide game of chicken, but surprisingly no one ever seems to get hit.

And I can’t wait to go back.