Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Road Warriors

In Des Moines, a lady came up to me and told the following story:

Leonard Bernstein had always been her hero. When at last she and her son got to meet him after a concert, the son couldn't resist telling Bernstein, "My mom says you're the only guy she'd ever run away with." The maestro spread his cape like gigantic wings and said to her, "Let's go!"

The reason I was in Des Moines was for the premiere of a choral piece I was commissioned to write for a choral festival run out of a sort of New Age church hard by Drake University. The Thresholds festival, invented by the church's choral director Ben Allaway, is based on Unesco's "Six Points Toward a Culture of Peace." The points are all good stuff -- like "respect the environment" and "eschew violence" and "listen to understand." Nothing you could argue with. But taken all together like that, these points have a sort of deadly quality to them. A sort of bludgeoning, dogmatic quality. But maybe it's just me; I have no stomach for dogma of any stripe -- even right-thinking dogma. Even left-thinking dogma.

All the music in the Thresholds festival had to address one or more of these Six Points -- and that went for my piece too. So I wrote an a capella thing called "This World Beats Like a Heart." My inspiration for this piece was ... hip-hop and techno dance loops! So it was with a certain dismay that I beheld my chorus for the first time at the rehearsal, an hour or so before the concert; they were most decidedly midwestern and, um, white. I figured the kids' chorus, at least, would know what I was driving at. As they struggled to grasp a particular rhythm, I told them, "It's hip-hop, guys!" They blinked politely at me.

Considering the underpreparedness and contextual vacuum, the performance went better than I expected. Judith Clurman, director of the Juilliard chorus, flew in that morning and wrestled the piece into shape. The thrill of hearing my own music reverberating in a big room was an incalculable thrill. My songs rarely if ever see the light of day.

The biggest problem became getting out of Des Moines. As my friend James (who came along for fun) and I were en route to Des Moines that Saturday, a fellow passenger told us a big blizzard was expected to plow into the northeast on Monday -- the day we were returning. I could not afford to be delayed; I had to get back to my kids by early Monday evening latest. So pretty much the moment we got to our Holiday Inn Express, we began plotting our escape. It was tough. The early connections to Chicago were already sold out. If we went through St. Louis it would cost 700 bucks. (There are, incidentally, no direct flights between New York City and the capital of Iowa.)

In the end, we realized that we just had to get ourselves to Chicago somehow. And there was no other way to do it than to rent a car and DRIVE after the concert, six hours, through snow and rain, to Chicago. Me and James and Judy Clurman. It could have been awful. In a way it was awful. But we got giddy. Road trip!! We laughed and drove and told stories and drove and laughed. We stopped at the Kum & Go (I kid you not) where Judy bought each of us a Kum & Go teeshirt and an Iowa regfrigerator magnet with a grinning pink pig on it. We pulled into O'Hare at 1:30 in the morning, ditched the car and rented a double room in the airport Hilton. Tired does not begin to describe it. But the beds were delicious, featuring exceptionally fine cotton sheets, of all things.

Four hours later we were in the terminal, haggling our way onto the 8:30 United flight. We all got on it, and we landed in La Guardia a safe hour or two before the snow came in. Mission accomplished.

That evening, while I was washing the dishes, Beethoven 9 was on the radio -- a kick-ass performance by the NY Phil, Maazel conducting. By the final movement I was standing over the boom box, lost in the music. How did Beethoven do it?? How did he (and Schiller) manage to convey everything those Six Points try to say, and more -- without once sounding strident or dogmatic? It's a magic trick! By the end of the Ode to Joy I was still standing over the boom box in my kitchen, dissolved in tears.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

OK, I'm already expanding the definition of my blog. The next concert was neither "Bernstein Beat," nor was it on the road; it was "Extreme Orchestra," right here in NYC, in beautiful, sonorous Carnegie Hall.

In 2001, Mikey Barrett and I came up with "X-treme Ork" for the San Antonio Symphony, which had liked "Beat" so much that they wanted us to come back a year later with another one. Mike and I LOVE "X-treme Ork!" It began as an attempt to collect all the loudest, fastest music in the classical repertoire -- the stuff that made us jump up and down in our seats as kids -- so theoretically it would make a new batch of kids jump up and down too. But talking about loud and fast leads inevitably to talk of soft and slow, and gradually our script morphed into an exploration of tempo and dynamics -- all in the service of showing off the orchestra as a kind of collective super-athlete -- performing the athletics of beauty.

It worked GREAT in San Antonio. Larry Fried, who was running the orchestra down there at the time, was the one who stuck his neck out and commissioned the concert. I hope he was happy with the results. Mikey and I sure were; with Larry's and the San Antonio Symphony's help, we now had a second family concert to offer around. Last summer Mike and I did it at Caramoor with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, who are a crackerjack band and really showed themselves off beautifully in the fortissimi and prestissimi of Tchaik 4; the pianissimi and larghissimi of the Mahler 5 Adagietto; the prestissimi and pianissimi of Bernstein's scherzo from "Serenade;" and the fortissimi but larghissimi of the finale from Stravinsky's "Firebird." Did you get all that?

And on Feb. 19th, we did it with the St. Luke's again, in big, beautiful Carnegie Hall.

But we had an extra layer of complication.

To reel back for a moment... Way back in 2000, Mike and I went to Beijing, China, to do "Bernstein Beat' at the Beijing Music Festival. What an adventure! My sister Nina came along and filmed the whole experience. Then, six months later, we did "Bernstein Beat" in the most exciting place of all: Havana, Cuba. (Gee, we would have taken it to Albania, but they're not Communist any more. Maybe North Korea's interested...? ) Nina came along on that trip, too -- and between Beijing and Havana, she had some truly amazing footage. Ever since then, she's been trying to get the rest of her film made. Finally, four years later, she got the money from a German broadcaster to make the rest of her movie. But the one big thing missing from her film was any footage of "Bernstein Beat" in English, or in the U.S. She'd missed her chance to film us doing "Beat" in Carnegie Hall two years ago; she didn't have the money together yet, and filming in Carnegie Hall is a soberingly expensive undertaking. (Those STAGEHANDS!)

But hey: now she does have the money, and there we were going to Carnegie! True, we were doing a whole other concert, but she could shoot backstage footage at the rehearsal, and we could PRETEND we were rehearsing "Bernstein Beat" like we'd actually done in 2003...

And so that is what we did.

Time was short, and Mike was rehearsing as fast as he could on Saturday morning for our concert a couple of hours later. Meanwhile, every minute that I wasn't needed onstage, I'd run out to a corridor or a box or wherever Nina was setting up the shot -- and she'd hand me my "MAMBO!" sign and I'd follow instructions. It was all very exhausting, but I think she got what she needed.

As we were waiting in the wings to go onstage for the concert, the stage manager came up to me, touched my earrings and murmured, "Ted Muehling?"

A long, and I mean LONG way from my "Hah hah" Hah hah stage manager in Little Rock.