L.A. Phil gives budding Mozarts ‘shock therapy’
When he was a toddler, Andy Alden would come home from a movie and play its theme on his toy piano. By the time he was 6, he was performing his own songs.
At the same age, Tim Callobre was also making up piano tunes. Soon, he was branching out to other instruments and entering composition contests.
In second grade, Saad Haddad did a report on Mozart. “I thought it was cool that this guy was producing good stuff when he was 3,” he says. “I begged to play the piano so I could get the notes down and start to write.”
And Jack McFadden-Talbot played the violin and trumpet as a kid plus studied arranging and orchestration with his piano teacher, composer Frank Becker. At 12, he completed his first major work -- for string orchestra and flute.
Precocious as these boys were, their chances of growing up to write music for a living were slim, given the complexities of the craft and the dearth of resources available to aspiring young composers.
But lucky for them, the Los Angeles Philharmonic decided to shorten the odds. They are the first class of a one-of-a-kind training program for high school students that offers access to artists and performance opportunities that the finest conservatories would find hard to match.
The two-year Composer Fellowship Program started in fall 2007 under the leadership of Steven Stucky, the philharmonic’s Pulitzer-winning consulting composer for new music. Its two main components are what Stucky calls “shock therapy” -- producing chamber, choral and orchestral pieces on deadline -- and immersion in music theory and history.
The students attend Saturday classes with Stucky and teaching fellow A.J. McCaffrey as well as workshops with philharmonic artists, librarians and technology staffers. They meet with visiting conductors and composers and local film composers and arrangers. Their pieces are given “readings” by professional musicians, who provide feedback about playability and artistic technique.
“A lot of this education is practical,” says Stucky. “What works. What doesn’t. Looking people in the eye and saying, ‘What do you need from me as a composer?’ ”
This week, the four fellows will enjoy the program’s ultimate perk: Compositions by them will be performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. These Symphonies for Schools concerts, which are reserved for student audiences, will also feature works by Stucky and the philharmonic’s music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” says Stucky. “We had no idea when we started they would get the chance to write for the full Los Angeles Philharmonic.”
But the program, as it turns out, has been a series of surprises.
“We didn’t expect the amount of fulfillment and progress these young composers have enjoyed,” Stucky says. “Or that philharmonic musicians would embrace us like they have. Or that we would attract the caliber of guest artists and composers and conductors.”
One recent Saturday, the fellows spent three hours with film composer James Newton Howard at his Santa Monica mega-studio. Then they went downtown to tape video interviews for the schools concerts before meeting with Leonard Slatkin, who was conducting the philharmonic that evening.
“We talked about what he looks for in scores and how composers interact with conductors,” says Stucky. “Then we went to the lecture and the concert. It was a long day. But everyone was smiling at the end.”
The Composer Fellowship Program is one of several philharmonic creations designed to fill a gap in the orchestra’s outreach efforts. “We realized we were great at introducing children to music, but we were not doing enough for accomplished musicians,” says Gretchen Nielsen, the orchestra’s director of educational initiatives.
Developing composers was a natural, given the Phil’s commitment to new music and the passion for music education shared by Salonen and his designated successor, Gustavo Dudamel, who will take over in the fall.
The program is tuition-free; its costs are covered by the philharmonic. The initial call for candidates drew 20 students. The selections were based on interviews, applications and a review of old and new compositions.
This year, their second in the program, Alden and McFadden-Talbot are seniors at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood. Alden is a gifted pianist with an interest in science (he’s been an intern at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center). McFadden-Talbot is an accomplished violinist and aspiring conductor.
The other two fellows are film music buffs. Haddad, who plays clarinet and piano, is a junior at North Hollywood High. Callobre, a sophomore at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, is a nationally recognized classical guitarist.
Since the program began, the students have expanded their musical vocabularies -- learning, for example, the proper way to mark a score -- and become more confident about their artistic ambitions and futures as working composers.
They credit Stucky for much of their growth, citing his knowledge about the business and his ability to home in on problems and prod them into finding their own solutions. “Steven has been incredible,” says Alden. “I have come in with just the tiniest sketches, and he has the insight to say a few words that send the piece in a whole new direction for the better.”
When Stucky, who commutes from upstate New York, is not in town, the students rely on McCaffrey, a USC doctoral candidate, and one another.
“It’s great to have three other comrades whom you can go to for help,” says Haddad.
“Before the program,” he adds, “I had no intention of becoming a full-fledged composer. I had no idea of whether I could sustain a living. Now, I feel I have a shot.”
It’s Valentine’s Day, and the fellows are spending a morning with Robert Vijay Gupta, one of the philharmonic’s first violins. At 21, he’s only a few years older than they are, yet he is a fount of knowledge.
“Achieving different tone colors is so variable,” Gupta explains as he holds up his 2003 Anton Krutz fiddle. “Even my stand partner and I are not going to play something the same way.”
As the students ask questions about bowing and false harmonics, Gupta jovially rattles off examples involving composers from Bach to Rachmaninoff.
Several times, he brings up Kaija Saariaho, whose oratorio about philosopher-activist Simone Weil was performed by the philharmonic in January.
“She wrote something like this,” Gupta says, scribbling on a page of music. “Have you seen this?”
The students shake their heads.
“It’s a solid block of sound. It creates so much pressure, the sound almost cracks.”
Later, he demonstrates a “half-pressure” fluttering tone, another effect Saariaho requested.
“There are new music composers who do this kind of thing for the sake of doing it,” he says, “and those like Saariaho who want something specific and craft it very carefully.”
Everyone asks about how difficult it is to play this way or that.
Gupta obligingly answers, but he finally stops to offer a reminder: “None of what I’m saying should dissuade you from doing what you want. It’s our job to play what you write.”
Heavy on metal
For their final assignment, the fellows toured Disney Hall and then created four-minute pieces inspired by the soaring structure’s architecture. They sought advice from Salonen during a lively session in which he discussed, among other things, his own contribution to the schools concert, the lyrical yet demanding “Wing on Wing,” which he wrote for the hall’s opening in 2003.
Callobre says his piece, “Constructure,” begins with “the metal part and goes inside and then goes to the metal part. To do that, I use colder music, including metal percussion and more brass, and for the wooden part I use mostly string and wind instruments.”
Alden’s “Life Forms” embodies what he describes as “a biological analogy” in which the hall is “a giant metallic rose, opened up, and the inside is a rosebud with all of the wooden panels and curves being the petals folded up.”
In “Urban Sea,” McFadden-Talbot says, “I envisioned the hall as a turbulent metallic ocean swallowing up a warm wooden ship.”
Haddad’s “Heart of the Hall” re-creates a visit to the building, beginning at its glass doors and ending with a concert in full glory. There’s even a “disorienting section” that represents getting lost in those pesky curving corridors.
This first class of composers will graduate in May. Alden plans to pursue music and medicine or biology in college. McFadden-Talbot is auditioning to study violin at a top-tier conservatory. Callobre and Haddad will return to high school with dreams of making it in Hollywood.
Applications for the next cycle will go out this month. Plans call for the curriculum to remain largely the same, although history and theory may get front-loaded because, says Nielsen, “we realized after the first year the current fellows lacked the repertoire of knowledge they need.”
Otherwise, says Stucky, “we’ll just keep going. We’ve seen how powerful this program can be. The effect on our young guys has been incredible. So has the effect on the philharmonic. As for me, these guys will always be my protégés as I follow them through life.”
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