MUSIC / CHRIS PASLES : Sounds of Hope From ‘Voices’ : Frank Ticheli Says L.A. Riots Inspired His Optimistic Work

One of the less predictable outcomes of the Los Angeles riots is that they would inspire a classical composer to write a new piece of music.

Pacific Symphony composer-in-residence Frank Ticheli says he “felt the need to compose a dramatic fantasy, powerful in expression, bright and optimistic in nature--a sounding of ‘radiant voices’ amid the turmoil.”

The result was his “Radiant Voices,” which conductor Carl St.Clair and the Pacific will play today and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. St.Clair and the orchestra commissioned the work.

Although it incorporates police sirens and other effects realistically suggesting urban violence, “by and large,” Ticheli stressed in a recent phone interview from his home in Pasadena, “it’s not about the riots at all.

“It’s about joy and celebrating life, rather than getting down in the gutter of the problems we’re having.”


The piece lasts about 18 minutes, and unfolds in four continuous parts. Slow and fast sections alternate. Virtually all of the it evolves from a short five-note pattern--B-flat, C, F, E and G, according to the composer.

“Those five notes are everywhere,” he said. “But they’re not always obvious to the eye or ear. Sometimes they’re transposed or inverted. You see them in half-notes constantly.”

It is not unusual for a composer to create a large work out such a brief musical fragment. Think of the four notes that open Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony--three G’s and an E-flat. Sometimes described as “fate knocking at the door,” these notes hammer out the Morse Code symbol for the letter “V,” which is one reason the work was played so frequently during the Second World War.

A native of Louisiana, Ticheli, 35, was appointed to the two-year Pacific post in 1991. His duties include giving pre-concert lectures and advising St.Clair on contemporary scores, as well as composing a new work for the current season. Ticheli also is an assistant professor at USC.

For “Radiant Voices,” Ticheli first imagined his basic material--or rather heard the notes in his inner ear--as a sequence for an English horn solo.

“I liked them well enough, I made them a constant,” he said. “They’re always there. To me, those five notes are extremely optimistic and bright.”

That made them perfect for this piece. Still, the work is “not all radiant and bright,” Ticheli added. “There are some pretty dark moments in the piece.”

Ticheli wrote the score from May to January. He took a break in June to get married, take a honeymoon up the California coast and entertain in-laws from both sides of the family for a few months after that.

The title came to him “very late,” he said, “not until December. I was messing around, thinking, ‘light,’ ‘light over shadows,’ ‘light walking a tightrope . . .’ ”

Then, watching television one night, he saw a “childlike figure who had beams of light coming out of his body. He was in an environment that was threatening, but he maintained his radiance. That was similar to the situation of the piece.

“I may end up changing the title,” he added. “It’s not quite accurate because the piece does have so many dark moments. But that makes the bright moments stand out even more.”

Ticheli wrote the music with specific orchestra members in mind, as well as the orchestra as a whole. Principal cellist Timothy Landauer, for instance, has a very prominent solo, which the composer encourages him to play freely. “I sure want him to make as much of it as he can,” Ticheli said. “It’s his chance to make a genuinely beautiful statement.”

Elsewhere, the piece “has a lot of energy. But that is a kind of personal thumbprint. I write with a fast musical metabolism . . . and always go for extremes as much as I can--slower than slow, faster than fast. I do what I can to turn the screw a little big more.”

Even so, Ticheli insists that for him, composing the work was not a calculated process. “I rarely pre-plan forms, he said, “especially here in a fantasy where the form is very free. Fantasy leaves a lot of room for unexpected left turns.”

He did little revising after writing the piece, either. “Most of the painful kind of decision-making activity happens during the creation of the piece. I’m throwing out as much as I come up with. In the writing, the piece kind of talks back to me. I have to give it input, but then it sort of tells me where it wants to go.”

In fact, “The whole process of composition is a mystery to me. It’s all intuitive for me. Most (composers) never know what were we’re doing. We’re kind of fumbling.

“You go through this huge painful process, and at the end sometimes you have something really beautiful. I don’t know about this yet. It will be as fresh to me as to anyone else.”

* Frank Ticheli’s “Radiant Voices,” commissioned by the Pacific Symphony, will receive its premiere today and Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Conductor Carl St.Clair will lead the Pacific Symphony in a program that also includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Robert McDuffie. $13-$37. (714) 474-4233.

Pacific Telesis Foundation has given the Pacific Symphony $25,000 to help start up the Pacific Symphony Orchestra Institute at Cal State Fullerton. The institute, a joint-project between the Santa Ana-based orchestra and the university, will help train young musicians, 16 to 26, through opportunities to work with Pacific players. The institute is scheduled to open on the Fullerton campus in the fall. To schedule an audition, call Elizabeth Champion at (714) 773-2434.