2008 March at John Mackey's Blog



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  • March 31, 2008


    The LA Times has posted their review of Circus Maximus. My favorite line: “The concert band… has had a spotty history. But thanks to Corigliano, it sure seems to have a future.”


    Circus Maximus in Disney Hall

    My friend and former teacher John Corigliano was in LA last week for a performance of his masterpiece “Circus Maximus” with the USC Thornton Wind Ensemble, conducted by H. Robert Reynolds, performing at Disney Concert Hall. I decided, for old time’s sake, to stalk Corigliano while he was in town.

    See, I did this before — back in 1993 when I was a junior at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I was a huge Corigliano fan, and Corigliano came to Cleveland for a performance of his Clarinet Concerto (my favorite work of his). I attended the rehearsals of the concerto, sitting a few rows behind Corigliano. When he spoke at the composer forum at CIM that afternoon, I sat in the front row. When he offered scores of the concerto to follow along with his music, my hand went up first. When I saw him walking down the hall of CIM with my teacher Donald Erb, I circled the other way (CIM’s halls were a loop) just so they would walk past me so I could say hello. I went to the pre-concert lecture each night, and two of the three performances of the concerto. I still have one of the ticket stubs. All of this somewhat-creepy stalking was sincere, though, so I don’t think John minded. I mean, I never received a restraining order.

    John and I eventually became actual friends after I got over the hero-worship, but that took a long time, and sometimes — like when I hear Circus Maximus — I regress back to being a 19 year old stooge again.

    First stop on the Corigliano Stalking Tour of ’08: The composer seminar at USC. John was speaking about Circus Maximus to comp majors at USC on Friday, and of course AEJ and I snuck in. It’s always exciting to hear John talk about his writing process, and he described in great detail — for nearly an hour — the way he planned the structure of Circus Maximus.

    Here, John recognizes me — and the camera — and wonders why I’m still following him around.

    This is a diagram of Carnegie Hall — and where John would put all of the players around the space for the premiere performance.

    We sat next to Bob Reynolds, the USC conductor, and we followed his score while we listened to a recording of the piece. (It was cool to see how H. Bob marked his score.)

    After the seminar, Corigliano speaks in the lobby with Reynolds (left) and Frank Ticheli (center).

    And then we all went to lunch. I had mini-burgers — that weren’t quite mini-enough to fit into my mouth as I wasn’t able to unhinge my jaw.

    From lunch, it was off to rehearsal in Disney Hall.

    The band was sounding great. And note to musicians out there: if you’re asked to play with “bells up,” don’t do some lame thing where you raise the bell of your instrument 6 inches higher than usual. Here, the USC clarinets show you how it’s done.

    Corigliano listens and takes notes during rehearsal. (Next to him is composer Mark Adamo.)

    Bob Reynolds conducted the snot out of the piece. Holding together an ensemble of this size — with a dozen trumpets, several horns, clarinets, the sax section, the double bass, and a marching band all playing from around the hall and not even on the stage! — is no small feat.

    Here’s that sax section and double bass player — positioned up in the Disney organ loft.

    Corigliano gives notes to the ensemble, which requires a microphone, since so many people weren’t actually on the stage.

    Here, Bob conducts, apparently under the light of god.

    After rehearsal: dinner! Here, atop a menu, is Bob Reynolds’s baton collection.

    We ate at Nick and Stef’s Steakhouse. AEJ had a nice fruity salad.

    My salad had roasted beets.

    Tom Lee of UCLA (whom I’ve written about before) had a big ol’ steak.

    Having eaten those mini-burgers only a few hours before, I opted for crab legs.

    Mmm… dessert.

    The concert was phenomenal. It was a total who’s-who scene, and felt like a New York new music concert. Or maybe it felt like a national band conference, with conductors and composers everywhere — including everybody from Steven Stucky (winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize) to Jack Delaney (Director of Bands at SMU). In fact, the packed Disney Hall crowd felt a lot like a music conference — except for the odd celebrity who would be unlikely to be at a band conference. I’m looking at you, Kristin Chenoweth.

    The LA Times ran a great preview piece for the concert in Saturday’s paper. If you wonder what the deal is with “band,” this article is a great read — complete with quotes from Bob Reynolds, Jerry Junkin, and Corigliano. It’s definitely worth clicking that link.

    It was a fun weekend of music, food, and stalking. And one hell of a great performance of a true masterpiece.

    If you want to see more pictures from the rehearsals and such, check out the gallery.


    March 23, 2008

    Reno, baby! RENO!

    On Thursday, I flew to Reno, Nevada, for the Western/Northwestern Division 2008 College Band Directors National Association conference. (It’s quite a catchy title. Maybe that’s what I’ll call my middle school piece.)

    I had three performances during the convention, but I only knew about two of them. My flight landed at 2:30 on Thursday, and I found out when I arrived at the conference that the Cal State Los Angeles band had performed 4 of the 5 movements of my Concerto for Soprano Sax and Wind Ensemble — at 1pm! I wish I’d known; I would have loved to have heard it.

    That evening, the University of Hawaii Wind Ensemble, conducted by Grant Okamura, performed my piece, “Redline Tango” as the closer of their concert. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, as “Redline Tango” is pretty tough stuff, and this band is almost entirely non-music majors. (The band includes students majoring in everything from meteorology to — and I’m serious — welding. A euphonium player majoring in welding! At least we know there’ll be one euphonium player out there who will be able to make a living.) The band did a great job, and the performance of “Redline Tango” was both fun and exciting.

    The absolute coolest thing? When Maestro Okamura brought me on stage to bow after the piece, a woman came onto the stage from the wing and put a lei around my neck! I took this picture, back in my room at the lovely Holiday Inn.

    The lei was completely beautiful. I’d never seen a real one in person before. (The closest I’ve seen was at the beginning of every episode of Fantasy Island, and those always looked plastic.) This one was made of fresh flowers, and it smelled incredible. And it was heavy! I can’t begin to imagine how long it took to stitch together the thousands of flowers in this thing.

    So, what’s Reno like? Is it like Vegas? Basically. I mean, here’s a hotel lobby in Vegas:

    And here’s a hotel lobby in Reno:

    A flower arrangement at the hotel in Reno:

    And a flower arrangement at a hotel in Vegas:

    A single flower in the Reno hotel:

    And a single flower in the hotel in Vegas:

    Food in Vegas:

    And food in Reno:

    Okay, on this one, I’m not going to tell. Guess which one is Vegas, and which one is Reno. Here’s one:

    And here’s the other:

    And here’s some artwork. Go ahead — guess!

    But back to the convention. On Saturday morning, I had the pleasure of working with the University of Arizona Wind Ensemble — conducted by Gregg Hanson — and Dr. Timothy McAllister, saxophonist-extraordinaire — who were performing my Soprano Sax Concerto. Here, McAllister fingers his way, Zen-like, through some passages prior to the dress rehearsal.

    Composer David Maslanka was also there, as the UA Wind Ensemble was performing his work, “Give Us This Day: Short Symphony for Wind Ensemble.” Here, Maslanka listens from the hall.

    Maslanka gives a few notes to the ensemble, as conductor Gregg Hanson listens.

    And we’re about to go…

    Rehearsal was fun. Here, the double bass player prepares to take the big scat solo. (I’m kidding; the microphone was for something else.)

    And here is McAllister’s sax section, among the best sax studios I’ve ever heard. (He somehow taught every one of them to effectively slap-tongue for my piece — something that can take years to learn. He got them to do it in a week.)

    The concert was incredible. I heard Tim and the band perform the piece in February, and it was good then (I recently posted “Felt,” the second movement of the concerto, from that performance), but this was spectacular — the best I’ve ever heard the piece, start to finish. I heard comments afterwards like, “I have never heard a sax player with that kind of dynamic control throughout the range,” “that is the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard from a soprano sax,” and simply, “Tim McAllister is the best classical saxophonist working today.” I don’t doubt it.

    It was a fun two days in Reno. My thanks to Tim McAllister, Gregg Hanson, and Grant Okamura for some fantastic performances, and thanks to Mack McGrannahan, the conference host at U. Nevada – Reno.


    March 17, 2008

    Hill Country preview

    Thank in no small part to a blurb on The Texas Band Director Yellow Board, today has seen a record number of hits to the blog. (Nearly 1,000 unique visitors? In one day? Really? How the… ?) If every one of those visitors bought the piece, I could afford to move to Austin and buy this house. (Warning: if you click that link, you’ll be subjected to not just the virtual tour of the house, but of a synth recording of the Pachelbel Canon in D. ‘Cause what says classy like the Pachelbel Canon?)

    A whole mess of people have clicked the preview file that shows “the tune” of the Grade 3 piece I just finished. Rather than have people think that silly piano sketch never got any more interesting, here’s a PDF of the orchestrated version of the tune.

    In case you need a percussion key, the percussion scoring is:
    Player 1: Timpani, tuned to F, C, Eb, Gb
    Player 2: Xylophone and vibraphone
    Player 3: Marimba and four tom-toms
    Player 4: 3 cymbals (large suspended cymbal, China, and splash cymbal)
    Player 5: Tambourine and crotales
    Player 6: Tam-tam (struck only with metal triangle beaters, and muted) and 2 maracas
    Player 7: Bass drum

    If a band doesn’t have enough players, things could be re-shuffled to omit the tam-tam part, and another player would have to cover the maraca part that happens mid-way through the piece. (That maraca part is easy enough that a wind player could cover it, and many of the wind players don’t play in that maraca section anyway. Can you do that? Say, Clarinet 3 doubling on maracas?) Originally, there wasn’t going to be a timpani part, but Chuck Fischer, one of the directors at Hill Country Middle School, specifically requested that I add one. I’m glad I did, as it’s pretty crucial once the piece gets to the big percussion section break.

    The other optional instruments are the Eb contrabass clarinet and the double bass. I haven’t done it yet, but I’ll probably cue the oboe parts elsewhere throughout, just to be safe. Keep in mind, before you email me with “middle school kids can’t do this” complaints, that although it’s commissioned by a middle school band, this group has the ability of a high school group.

    I’m done for today. I really just want to go take pictures of stuff, but my camera gear is all in the shop being calibrated. When I dropped off the gear — and I took the body and three of my lenses — the woman at Canon asked me what kind of shooting I did. “Are you a wedding photographer?” “Uh, no, I’m a composer. I take pictures of concerts and… food.” “This is some insane gear for a non-pro,” she said.

    Again, your band booster dollars at work.


    March 15, 2008

    And… scene.

    I just finished the piece for Hill Country Middle School Band. Well, at least in first draft form. There are still dynamics to fix, and percussion mapping to finalize, but the writing itself, I think, is done. (I also wrote about this process a few days ago in another entry.) A few stats…

    Date of the first save file (that is, the date I started the piece): January 9. That’s when I wrote the tune (see the PDF of that first day’s work by clicking here), although I revised it. (Measures 15-16 were the right idea, but the notes were all wrong.)

    I left the next day to go to Oklahoma for the premiere of Clocking. The next week, I got married, then I went on my honeymoon. I was home for a week, then I went to Austin, Dallas, Tucson, San Antonio, and Tucson again. I was finally home for a solid week (well, six days) starting on February 18. I’d been planning the structure of this new piece the whole time, but I didn’t start working on it with full attention until February 20.

    On Wednesday of this week, AEJ went out of town to visit her family, and since she’s been gone, all I’ve done is work on the piece. I slept some, but when I’m working this intensely on writing, I don’t sleep well, and the music loops in my head so obsessively while I’m in bed that it nearly makes me insane.

    Just to give you an idea of how absorbed I’ve been by the piece: until tonight — and it’s Saturday night — I hadn’t showered since Wednesday morning. If you’ve ever seen me in public, you hopefully wouldn’t think, “that looks like a dude who doesn’t shower very often.” Why wouldn’t you think that? Because I don’t typically leave the house without showering. I haven’t left the house since Wednesday, so why shower? I mean, other than the fact that by this morning, I smelled vaguely homeless. Don’t worry; I’m clean and good to go.

    I always save the hardest work for last when I’m writing. There are always parts of a piece that have been making me crazy the whole time, things that never worked, and I know it’s going to be pain to figure out how to fix them. Every time I hear those parts, I cringe, dreading the amount of time it’s going to take to make it right. As of this morning, all I really had left to do was to fix all of those things. I took a few breaks (thank you, Guitar Hero III on the new PS3), but other than 15 minutes here and 10 minutes there, the day was spent putting the last puzzle pieces in place.

    In the time since AEJ has been gone, the file version number of the piece has gone from version 10 on Wednesday morning to version 37 — the final draft version. I up the number every time I make a major revision or addition, so 27 “things” happened in the past 4 days. The finished piece is a total of five minutes long (209 measures at quarter note=160), and I wrote about two minutes of that since Wednesday. (I’m not fast, so that’s a huge amount of output for me for four days.)

    I’m excited about the piece. I’m also a little worried that I botched the percussion writing. I can air-drum the parts, but just barely. (That’s how I write all of my non-pitched percussion parts — by air-drumming them. If you hid in my studio and watched me write, which would be creepy, you’d think I was quite the dork.) There’s a tom-tom and timpani duet in the middle of the piece — the “drum break,” where the drummers get to go crazy, all by themselves — and it’s pretty tricky. Still, that was my initial germ for the piece: to write something for this level of band that gives the percussion section fun stuff to do, other than doubling the flute melody on a friggin’ glockenspiel. (I hate that.)

    I suppose I should go to bed, but I’m completely wired. I want to listen through the MIDI some more, but every time I do, I get all worked up again, and I also find tiny tweaks I still need to make. If I’m going to stop working for the night, I guess I’ll stop now.

    Here’s a little sneak-peek of the first page. What do you think of the title?

    “As Eagles Fly!” It’s so moving! So evocative! It’s also a joke. If I ever a) write a piece with a title like this, or b) write a title with an exclamation point in it, please stab me in the eye — preferably with the talon of a beautiful, majestic eagle.