Well, we’re back, my wife and I, after an idyllic month in England — in a 17th century cottage, next to hillsides full of sheep, with dramatic hilltops, wide skies, and striking light on the fields and hills. We worked hard on projects dear to our hearts, with nothing to distract us. It was like having our own arts colony. I wrote chunks of a big, strange string quartet, a set of variations on the theme of the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony.


Among many other things, the piece looks back on the history of classical music, touching on things I love, often other works written in variation form, like the Goldberg variations, or the last movement of Beethoven’s Op. 111 piano sonata. Quotes from these pieces rise like unexpected ghosts (though Beethoven’s sounds pretty happy), and they’re joined by tributes to all sorts of things I love — Elvis, the sheep on the Yorkshire hills, an English bird whose song was a falling minor third (does anyone know its name?), the films of Antonioni and Eric Rohmer, Samuel Beckett, and John Cage, who’s invoked in the next-to-last variation, very long and completely silent, that comes just before the conclusion of the piece.


The Elvis variation, maybe oddly, is the one that stays closest to the theme, keeping Mahler’s harmony pretty much intact, while my melody tries in every bar to do things Elvis could actually have sung. (I say “in every bar,” because the whole variation pretty clearly can’t be an Elvis song; the harmony isn’t pop-song harmony. So each bar taken by itself might be truly Elvis, but the whole thing can’t be.)


And on top of all that, I had a lot of fun writing 12-tone music, reconstructing, for instance, the start of Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet from memory, and then taking off on my own in Schoenberg’s style. I wrote a variation that seems to work quite well, in Webern’s most austere style, passionate, but still chaste, and, as the expression goes, “mathematical.” And the “mathematics” — meaning, among other things, my choice to follow strict 12-tone procedures, in which the forms of the 12-tone rows dictate which notes I can use — makes the piece far harder to write than it otherwise would be.


That’s an important lesson about 12-tone music, one I’ve known for a long time from closely studying Webern’s work. First, you have to buckle down, and work monstrously hard to find 12-tone constructions that produce the kind of sounds you like. And then, most wonderfully, you have to open yourself  to sounds you’d never think of on your own, but which the row-forms offer to you. The discipline can give your work a powerful internal strength (which is not, by the way, to say that every 12-tone piece is strong internally; it’s not the discipline itself that makes the piece strong, but the discipline reinforcing whatever artistic strength you bring to your work in the first place). And the discovery can make your work fresh; you surprise even yourself.


Now that Anne and I are back, we have a surprising new place to live, at least part of the time — a trailer, of all things, or more properly a 45-foot mobile home, set up on the property in Warwick, NY where we used to have a country house, before it burned down last winter. Not the happiest of events, but we’re rebuilding, and (thanks, State Farm!) our insurance provides us with temporary housing, hence the trailer, which we slept in for the first time last night, after finding it thoughtfully equipped with everything we might reasonably need, from soup spoons to a washer and a dryer. (Thanks, Tom Bailey, of ALE Mobile Housing, who State Farm hired to actually deliver and furnish the trailer, and to our contractor, Dave Bartnowski, for setting it up for us, no small job.) The trailer is so clean and complete that it reminded us of a motel, which I mean in the best possible sense; we half expected to find a Gideon bible by the bed. But what motel suite would be, in effect, a none too small two-bedroom house? It’s roomy and comfortable, and of course allows us to spend time in the country again. We have 18 acres of land, a haven from encroaching development, and from where I sit right now, looking out the kitchen window, I see meadows and our woods. And hawks, in endless number. Our meadows — a little overgrown, since we haven’t been out there much — are plainly, if we believe the hawks, just teeming now with mice and rabbits.


In England, we tried to keep away from anything resembling our normal run of work, including music. (Or, anyway, in my case, music I’m not writing myself). But one night, turning on TV to watch the news, we ran into one of London’s summer Proms concerts, which are faithfully telecast by the BBC. Gil Shaham, whose playing is often pure joy, was doing the Mendelssohn concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony, which under Mariss Janssons can be just about the hottest orchestra anywhere in the world. We thought we’d listen a bit, and lasted through intermission, into the start of the Mahler First (which ended the program).


It’s no criticism of them that we didn’t watch it all; both Gil and the orchestra were fabulous, but we were on vacation. (I should add, for full disclosure, that I’ve worked for the Pittsburgh Symphony in two capacities; I’ve written marketing copy for them this year and last, an activity I’ll say more about here in the future, since it’s the writing—which I’ve also done for the St. Louis Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the American Symphony Orchestra League — isn’t the normal kind of prose you find in a symphony brochure. This year I’ll also host three Pittsburgh Symphony concerts, which I also helped to program, for a new audience of young professionals. But my admiration for this orchestra long precedes my professional connection; I raved about them in The Wall Street Journal as far back as 1998. You can find my blurbs here on the Pittsburgh Symphony’s website, though to read them, you’ll have to follow the “Click here for a full description of this performance” link for each concert to find them. Or you can download the Symphony’s season brochure and read my blurbs there.)


One thing that struck us, though — quite apart from the irresistible concerto performance — was the intermission commentary on the BBC. They don’t go in for celebrity hosts, or sonorous, invisible announcers. Instead, they brought on working musicians to talk about the concert. First came two conductors, Jane Glover and Mark Wigglesworth, who talked about the performance. Maybe these people had a vested interest in sounding positive, since either might be hired to conduct in Pittsburgh (and Wigglesworth is in fact going to appear there in some future season).


But on the other hand, these are people who really know music, don’t seem pompous or self-promoting, and in fact came off as quite genuinely excited about what they’d just heard, as well they might have been. There was, though, a problem. Neither was especially articulate. [A pause, here, to adjust the bowing in one passage from my string quartet, which I’m playing in the background — from Sibelius, my computer music notation program — as I write.] They’d say the performance was wonderful, but couldn’t quite find the words to say why.


And here they weren’t helped at all by the BBC television host, who asked them only the most general questions. If only she’d asked her guests to be more specific! Why was the performance good? If the orchestra and soloist had been unusually responsive to each other (which both conductors noted; that was as specific as they ever got), where, exactly, in the piece, was that especially true? What should listeners look for in other concerto performances, to tell how close the collaboration between orchestra and soloist might be?


I loved hearing real musicians talk, but the downside is that they aren’t trained talkers. They needed direction, and didn’t get it, a lost opportunity, I thought, for people who love music — and especially people new to classical concerts — to learn more about what’s going on. (Gil Shaham, on the other hand, was his usual informative and excited self when he came on to talk. He’d make a point about the concerto, then pick up his instrument to illustrate, as fluidly as if the violin were part of his mind and body.)

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