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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Martino's Triple Concerto

This past weekend, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University presented “The Fromm Players” two diverse programs bound together under a central theme: “The New Soloist – Individual and Ensemble Virtuosity En Masse.”

This year the “Fromm Players” took the form of The Manhattan Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra from New York City, comprised of more than 30 musicians and soloists who eat complex contemporary works for breakfast, and several its musicians appeared as soloists in featured works. The chamber orchestra is based at Columbia University where they hold a residency. Jeffrey Milarsky, conductor and music director of the Manhattan Sinfonietta, is a contemporary music specialist, percussionist, and was recently appointed as a conducting instructor at Juilliard. The concerts were free to the public (sponsored by the Fromm Music Foundation) and it gave us an opportunity to hear a total of ten works - including several world premieres.

Each of the two concerts (on 2/20 and 2/21) ended with a significant 20th century work by a major composer. Friday’s concert was topped of with “points on the curve to find” (1974) by Luciano Berio. Saturday’s concert concluded the series (which was curated by Harvard Professor Hans Tutschku) with the virtuosic Triple Concerto (1977) by Donald Martino (1931 - 2005).

Before the concerts got underway, Professor Tutschku spoke briefly to the audience. He advised us that Harvard, like most institutions of higher learning in these difficult economic times, is looking for ways to save money. (Harvard's huge endowment is down by about 30%). As a cost cutting measure, Harvard will no longer mail concert announcements by US postal service. Audience members were advised to fill out email address forms included in their program booklets if they wanted to be informed about future Harvard concerts electronically. Given the cost of contracting three dozen musicians from NY for two days worth of two concerts, I suspect that reducing spending on postage will not have a major impact on the deficit.

My interest in these concerts was primarily in one work: Martino’s Triple Concerto for clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet with a chamber ensemble of 16 players. It’s a work that I have many personal and professional associations with, but I also believe it to be among the most important pieces written in the last half of the 20th century. Before discussing the performance by the Manhattan Sinfonietta, let me provide some background history about Martino and his great Triple Concerto.

When I had arrived back in Boston in 1978 to study composition at the New England Conservatory, I knew that I wanted to study with Donald Martino. I had heard his Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Notturno five years earlier when it was premiered by Speculum Musicae at Alice Tully Hall in NY. Over those years I continued to follow performances of Martino’s music, and kept up with his work in general. When I enrolled at NEC for a Master’s program, composition students were required to specifically make a request for a teacher during a group meeting at the beginning of the academic year. Martino, looking very sun tanned, had just returned from a year-long sabbatical off. I would later find out that the work he composed during his sabbatical was the Triple Concerto. Somehow he found time for his other great obsession – tennis - and was able to soak up some of Florida’s rays too.

The new crop of composition students at NEC met with their department chair, Martino, in the Keller Room. Martino asked us to jot down our preferences for a composition teacher explaining that not everyone would be able to get their first choice since faculty only had a limited number of open slots. It was recommended that we list three names. Although there were in fact many good composers on the faculty to study with, many wanted to work with Martino because of his reputation. Given my determination to study with Martino, I wrote my three names on the request form:

1) Donald Martino
2) Donald Martino
3) Donald Martino

Fortunately, my request was granted.

A friend and current Martino student at NEC had advised me to take advantage of the option of traveling out to Martino’s house for lessons, since Martino often used the resources of his studio to exemplify things that came up in the lessons. I took that advice.

The first few weeks of our hour-long lessons were a little uneasy. Both teacher and student were learning about each other, and there were actually some tense moments that in retrospect I blame myself for. I was trying to prove myself, but Martino skillfully made me realize the I still had much to learn. He demanded that his students take writing music very seriously, and bring a substantial amount of work each week to their lesson. Meeting that quota was often a challenge for myself and some of my colleagues.

My lesson was at the end of his teaching day, and the student who was scheduled for lessons directly before me was an upperclassmen named Matthew. Matthew was (and is) an exceptional composer. He was accepted into the PhD program at Princeton, and had won awards for his music. As Matt packed up his stuff after his lesson with Martino, I could see that he had been “beaten up” so to speak. I got the impression that Matt had not written enough notes over the past weeks, and Martino was not cutting him any slack whatsoever. As a result, I made sure that I brought a constant flow of work to my lessons, even if it wasn’t any good, so that we’d have something to talk about.

Martino would look at our music at the piano, and occasionally tap out a chord, and ask questions about it. If you wrote for clarinet, he’d mentally do the fingering in his head to see how playable it was. If it involved strings, he reach over for his “string-o-graph” to verify the reach, etc.

I once brought some old pieces to my lesson, and he looked at my rather complex String Trio and asked if I had experience playing chamber music myself. My reply was to hem and haw. He said I would benefit from working with musicians to get a work such as this performed, and I later realized that my early String Trio is a virtual mine-field of technical impossibilities (the work has never been performed).

At one point during our lessons that first year we had a discussion concerning the role of self-analysis that some composers opt undertake while writing their own compositions. This included the use of statistical note-counting (Iannis Xenakis had just given a lecture at MIT that we both attended). To demonstrate his point, Martino stepped over to a file cabinet in the adjoining room of his basement, and within seconds located a large, fat folder with penciled figures and notes he had recorded regarding an extended section of his recently completed Triple Concerto. He had gone through the score, and note-counted every pitch class within every register for bulk of an entire movement of the lengthy work. He knew not only the number of times every pitch occurred, but in which octave it occurred, and had a summary of the results. His findings were mapped out into a statistical readout, and he could demonstrate to me the statistical bell-curve of pitch-class attacks from high to low in his music and clearly point out the pitch-register symmetry. In the end, it many have been simply a way to avoid an unbalanced or awkward distribution of notes across registers. After conducting his post-compositional analysis, Martino could confidently show me that the central register of the movement took the brunt of attacks (unlike say Milton Babbitt who more typically uses an equal distribution of notes across the entire register of instruments).

After explaining to me his analytical chart of the Triple Concerto, Martino added that his analysis was merely something he choose to do as background work and should be considered optional – implying that it has only limited value as a compositional-analytical exercise. His chart or technique was not intended for public consumption – even for future publication in an academic journal – but it was something he did just to learn more about the piece he was working on and as a way to maintain his personal focus on the work-in-progress. In lessons Martino preferred to emphasize the fundamental and critical elements of the act of writing music over the tangential and superficial hub-bub prevalent in the late 1970s, including (but not limited to) the excesses of the Princetonian-brand of serialism.

I was impressed by this and other painstaking and laborious efforts Martino undertook as sideline excursions in the overall execution of his Triple Concerto project. This was just one example, but it was typical of the intense thought he gave to writing music and the ways in which he thought a piece should be assembled from the ground up. He worked from a master-plan, a one-page chart indicating the work’s over-arching form, with indications about how various sections of the work would progress and contrast. This was all linked and associated with to his personalized (buy highly refined) system of pitch organization.

I soon learned that Martino hardly slept, worked harder than anyone else in the business, but despite his genius, was an approachable average guy. With all of his years of experience, he had found for himself an innovative solution to any technical, practical, philosophical, or musical challenge that a composer could face. He had little patience for indecision, ambivalence, or hesitation. All problems could be solved, and I’d bring in a new crop of them every week for us to discuss. You name it, Martino had “been there, and done that” and he was willing to share all of his knowledge with you. It was an amazing time for me, and I learned legions about music and what I had to work on to improve my craft.

To any question I would raise, Martino would have a well thought out and convincing solution on hand, and he was very persuasive in making his case with concrete examples that were usually drawn from his own music but which also included pieces from his teachers and the standard repertory. He was detailed-oriented beyond belief, highly logical, and organized pretty much everything in his life to the hilt.

During this time he was also launching his new publishing company named Dantalian after a devil. One Saturday afternoon he invited his students over for what was billed as a “Stuffathon.” I got to meet an array of Martino disciples at that event, including Peter Homans, Conrad Pope, and others. It was also typical of Martino to think about things on multiple levels. Little did I realize that there were multi-meanings of “Suffathon.” After we stuffed envelopes with publishing brochures, we were invited to eat until we were stuffed. It was like that in lessons too. A comment that may have appeared to be a simple observation about my music during the lesson, would come back at me as an echo days or weeks later as having a larger dimension and broader meaning. His words would resonate with me long after they were spoken, and I still hear his good advise in my head today.

Soon after the Dantalian Stuffathon, his Triple Concerto was premiered in NY by The Group for Contemporary Music (Harvey Solberger, conductor, Anand Devendra, Dennis Smylie, Leslie Thimmig, clarinet). I did not attend that performance, but after a lesson at his house he offered to play me the tape of the concert. I put on headphones, and followed along from the full-size ozalid conductor’s score. The music was beautifully copied, and the score complex. This piece was once described by composer (and fellow Martino student) Peter Lieberson as music written by a composer who just drank 400 cups of coffee. It has slow music, but is often very fast, very dense, and virtuosic for the soloists and ensemble. It calls for a trio of soloists that form a “super clarinet” comprised of Bb clarinet, Bass clarinet, and the rarely heard Contra-bass clarinet. It’s quite an unusual combination.

As I experienced the Triple Concerto for the first time (a lot to take in), I could see Martino out of the corner of my eye listening to his music on the speakers. He did a little composers’ dance along with the music, and I think he played “air-clarinet” as well. After the final gestures of the piece sounded, I took off the headphones and felt as if I had just returned from a trip to another planet. My first word was “wow.” I felt like my world had changed forever.

The summer after my first year at New England Conservatory, Martino called me and asked if I would be interested in making a piano reduction of the Triple Concerto for publication. He would do the copy work, but I’d reduce the orchestra to a “playable” version for piano, so that soloists could have something to rehearse with. I hesitated. It would be difficult. Martino had confidence in me, but I just didn’t feel like I could comfortably deliver at the level he would expect. He was after all, a perfectionist. Martino found someone else to do the work, and later confided in me that he had to “redo” much of it. That’s pretty much what I would have expected to happen in my case.

It’s hard to describe the magnitude of the impact that the Triple Concerto had on my generation of composers. Not only do my colleagues consider this to be a major piece, but it put Martino on the map with his peers, his colleagues, and generally in the world of clarinetists. The piece is dedicated to Milton Babbitt for the occasion of his 60th birthday (who like Martino, is a former clarinetist), and has a Bebop jazz sensibility to it.

The following year, the buzz created by the NY premiere of the Triple Concerto and the recording on Nonesuch created additional interest. A conductor at the New England Conservatory, took the piece under his wing, and decided to conduct a performance of it using the original soloists, but with NEC students in the orchestra. The soloists came to the college, gave a colloquium along with Martino. It gave me the opportunity to hear the piece in rehearsal and up close. One of the things Martino discussed in the colloquium was the different personalities of the soloists. He described the characteristics of each clarinet part, and I recall that the music written for the solo Bb Clarinet music was intended to convey a conservative rigidity. That characterization did not go over well with Anand Devendra, who saw the part as more fluid.

As part of the Triple Concerto colloquium at NEC, Martino handed out a one-page chart showing the formal sections of the piece, the set types he used, how they are partitioned by solo instrument, and a Schenker-like graph indicating the pitch flow in register. Here is a scan of that page:

The Bb Clarinet does not exploit the upper-most register, but the Contra-bass and Bass Clarinets get up there, sometimes requiring special fingerings. The Bass Clarinet has extended passages going up to Bb3.

I remember sitting in Brown Hall, watching Martino view the score as the musicians rehearsed. He would occasionally have emotional outbursts when something went wrong, and say things that are not suitable to repeat on a family-oriented blog such as this one. After one such verbal expression of displeasure, Conrad Pope and I looked at each other and laughed nervously. During the break, I asked the soloists if they wanted anything from McDonald’s across the street, and Les Thimmig (a composer as well as an amazing performer on the Contrabass clarinet), took me up on the offer. I came back with a large Styrofoam cup of McCoffee, and more than enough packets of artificial cream and sugar. He was very appreciative, and the caffeine pepped him up for the remainder of the rehearsal.

The performance of the Triple Concerto by the New England Conservatory students was excellent, and it proved that the piece could be performed outside the realm of just a few NY new music specialists. Martino, accepted a position at Brandeis University that was formerly held by his friend and colleague Seymour Schifrin, who had just passed away. It would begin immediately - the academic year beginning in 1980 - and I was encouraged to apply and continue my studies with him there. Martino, myself, and another student composer from Venezuela named Alvero Cordero made the trek over to Brandeis from NEC, and found it to be of an entirely different culture.

Occasionally I would house sit for Don and Lora Martino as they took a break from the harsh New England winters with a trip to warmer climates. I loved living in the Martino's house, and would secretly pretend to be Don. I’d play on his beautiful ebony Steinway grand piano, and look at all the fascinating photos and memorabilia in his studio. It was also the head office of Dantalian, his now flourishing publishing company, and the phone would ring with questions and requests. Many of the calls were from composer colleagues, such as Gunther Schuller or Robert DiDomenica with administrative business to discuss, but occasionally a member of the Juilliard String Quartet (Sam Rhodes), or pianist Russell Sherman would ring up with news of a performance or premiere.

I recall fielding an international telephone call from an administrator at the Holland festival who wanted to arrange for rental parts of the Triple Concerto. It was a performance being organized by Harry Sparnaay, a Dutch bass clarinetist and conductor from the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam who Martino knew well. Sparnaay had been to New England Conservatory in 1979 and presented a concert of new works (which included Time and Motion Study No. 1 by Brian Ferneyhough). However, Martino did not travel to Europe to hear his Triple Concerto at the Holland Festival. He always took a practical view of his professional life, and if he wasn’t going to receive payment for his travel expenses, it did not make sound economic sense for him to travel to Europe.

In another Triple Concerto-related story, I remember having dinner at the home of Bob and Jonatha Ceely with another composer friend, Maria Neiderberger. Boston composer John Huggler (1928-1993), a professor from UMass Boston, was an invited guest, but he arrived very late. When he finally appeared, he apologized explaining that he had been listening to the “superclarinet” cadenza from Martino’s Triple Concerto over and over again. That’s why he was late. The piece held (and continues to hold) a spell over all of us.

In the spring of 1983, Jacob Druckman, composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic, curated a 15-day festival at Lincoln Center. It was a broad-based exploration of diverse styles of contemporary music somewhat arbitrarily marketed to the public as examples of the “New Romanticism.” Martino’s Triple Concerto was programed, and I travelled to NY to attend the concert (and pre-concert discussion) with some friends. During the panel discussion, Martino said that he did not regard his music as a “new” Romanticism, since he had always been writing a form of music that he believed expressed those ideals. The performance by was well executed, but it was hard to hear all of the detail in the large space and poor acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall. Not everyone liked it. One critic who summarized the entire 15-day event, placed Martino’s Triple Concerto at the head of a list of “intolerable” works. He went on to add that the brainy composer “knew too much” and that his concerto was “the epitome of bad academic modernist composing.” His rant continued with, “Some pieces die; this one was never alive.” The reviewer then admonished the audience for enthusiastically applauding the work. Such began a wave of bad press directed at Martino from a small number of influential NY-based critics.

I would not hear the Triple Concerto live again until it was performed at Harvard’s Paine Hall as a major work in a two-concert birthday celebration of Martino’s 70th birthday (ca 2001). That performance featured a new generation of soloists, but included some of the original student performers from the 1979 performance at the New England Conservatory. Pianist Leslie Amper, currently a well-known musician and teacher in the Boston area, led a discussion with the composer prior to the performance. She began by speaking of her experience as a student learning this difficult work, and how it has grown easier to play over the years. She raised the question of Martino’s exacting notation, and expressed her opinion that it is actually liberating rather than restrictive. Martino replied that his experience with musicians was that they look for more guidance and direction rather than less.

Martino’s original liner notes for the Triple Concerto Nonesuch phonograph record cover are as follows:

After some months of unproductive effort and frustration, I realized that I was being hindered by a conception of the work which prescribed, if not a full orchestra, at least a substantial string section. Since it was impractical to enlarge the ensemble (The Group for Contemporary Music), I decided to enlarge the soloist. Only then did the drama of the work reveal itself to me and its execution became clear. My plan was to transform the three separate clarinets into "Superclarinet," a six octave gargantuan who would use the concerto as a world in which to romp and play with the superfriends.

One of my most prized possessions is an original manuscript copy of the first page of the second movement of the Triple Concerto (from bar 279 to 291). It’s the beginning of a theme and variations. Martino worked in pencil and would constantly revise the music as he composed. Unlike Beethoven's sketches, there is no remaining record of a sequence of progressive intermediate steps. Martino’s first draft was largely erased and then written-over, only to be erased and written-over again many times over. The paper is worn, dense, and full of terse indications and markings. In it he indicates set forms along with many detalis about orchestration and performance. Here is photograph of the page, but it is very difficult to make out the details...

The performance of the Triple Concerto by the Manhattan Sinfonietta at Harvard on Saturday night was excellent. It was the forth live-performance of that work that I've heard so far. They made the music sound natural and easy to play. The soloists - Michael Norsworthy, Gilad Harel, and Bohdan Hilash - performed Martino's complex music with expression and confidence.

After all, the piece is 32 years old, and we have all had time to grow with it.

Many former Martino students were in Paine Hall (ie. Peter Homans and Michael Weinstein), and this created a supportive community spirit. It brought back many fond memories of my studies with Don.

We learned from Lora Martino that there had just been a flood in the Dantalian basement - Martino's old studio where I had my lessons. A frozen pipe had burst, and water was discharged a foot deep. Many of Martino's manuscripts, inventory, scores, and personal records were damaged. Fortunately, the music will survive.