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Long Title, Long Tail

If you take a gander at the upcoming performance calendar, you’ll see that one particular piece is the unqualified star this year. That would be the one with the long title, and there’s no use pretending that its spike in performance life is due to anything other than Maestro Clary‘s gorgeous (and high-profile) performance with The Florida State University’s extraordinary Wind Orchestra at the CBDNA Conference in Ann Arbor last Spring. I could count the scheduled performances for you (several planned-but-not-yet-confirmed performances are not in the online calendar yet) but I think it’s more fun to let you peruse yourself. Let’s just say it’s more performances in one season of any single piece I’ve ever had, ever. In fact, several are on the same day, creating stereo As the scent spring rain…‘s across the land, more than once. That’s a lot of bi-tonality…

I thought it might be interesting to give a bit of composer-insight into how the piece came about – stuff you wouldn’t necessarily find in the program notes. It started life as a simple song, for voice and piano, written for the incomparable Hila Plitmann, for a recital at Juilliard. Hila had given me the Hebrew text (a language I can read, but don’t understand … don’t ask, it has to do with modern American Reform Judaism education) along with a transliteration, and her own poetic translation. I set it as best I could, and we were all (thankfully) pleased with how it turned out. The performance of the song itself was perfect and absolutely lovely of course, and Hila even performed it a few more times over the years, and that was that.

But I kept thinking of the little piece on and off–something about it bothered me. I suppose I thought it wanted to be something larger. Either a song-cycle with many more songs, or something else. And then, one summer while visiting my wife for a week in Cooperstown NY while she was working at Glimmerglass, I pulled the song out of my portfolio while sitting outside in the glorious Cooperstown surroundings, and thought now was as good a time as any to do something with the piece. While the birds tweeted and the picturesque Lake Otsego burbled, I sat at a picnic table and started re-working the piece, sans commission or any idea of when it might be premiered or performed, into its current form. It was, if I remember correctly, quick work, moving along at what is for me a furious pace. I’m almost positive I had the bulk of the thing finished before we headed back downstate.

When I had it copied, I wasn’t sure what I had, or how well it would go over. The language of it makes it a tricky piece, with many exposed, close & crunchy harmonies, and intonation problems waiting to happen. It’s also kind of a delicate, intimate piece – two adjectives I would hesitate to put alongside “band”. But I made some calls, I sent some e-mails, and I sent the score to a few conductors — at this point, all friends of friends in the Wind Ensemble World…no one I really knew. Eventually the intrepid Scott Stewart at Emory University was intrigued enough by the score to give the official premiere, and we were off. It was slow at first, and the ensembles who took it on generally didn’t like it. For a few years, I believed I had a Clunker, and seriously considered just putting it in a drawer. But after a short-list of performances, I came to the realization that it was actually my most difficult piece, requiring a subtlety of musicality to which no other work of mine comes close. But as more ensembles played it, I feel like we all kind of slowly figured out how to perform the work, and the performances got better, and more informed. Yet I remained hesitant to promote the piece too much because I still didn’t quite know what it was. Every once in a while, though, an ensemble would perform it, and I would be pleased, but always a little surprised that they wanted to take it on.

But it was never anything like this. This is an explosion. And all of these programmed performances are by ensembles and conductors that we can safely call the Best of the Best–they are sure to all be fantastic. I can’t wait to hear every single one of these (and several of them I’ll be there to hear in person).

Oh yeah, you know I’ll be buying Maestro Clary’s martinis the next time I see him.

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