City Lights: Debut performance needs to be preserved

If I had my indulgence — if I could direct the Pacific Chorale's leaders on how to preserve "The Shore" for posterity — I would have them keep the inappropriate applause.

Not that I'm any authority on how to record a piece like Frank Ticheli and David St. John's opus that debuted June 1 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. A work so painstakingly crafted deserves a pristine recorded version, and that's what it will get — according to Ticheli, the chorale and Pacific Symphony held a studio session two days after the premiere, and the version on the upcoming CD from Delos will blend those studio takes with portions of the live one.

Still, I hope someone will hold onto the opening-night recording, if only to include as a bonus track on some future compilation. It would be a slice of history, but also, in its own way, a tribute to just how remarkable an achievement like "The Shore" really is.

To cap its latest season, the chorale performed the piece at the end of "The Moon, the Sea and the Stars," a program of nature-themed works by Ralph Vaughan Williams and others. "The Shore," clearly, was the featured attraction: Before the concert, Ticheli and St. John joined in a question-and-answer session, and St. John, a prolific poet who wrote the lyrics to Ticheli's music, gave a brief reading of his text.

When the piece finally began, it sounded great to these ears — a half-hour trek through the phases of life, all of them reflected in the speaker's perception of bodies of water. The first movement featured scales that surged up and down like waves, reflecting the innocence of a wide-eyed child on the beach; the second part, about young adulthood, turned dreamy and celestial before building to a crescendo.

After that movement crashed to a close, some members of the audience began to clap tentatively — either thinking the entire piece was over or just stirred to applause by the music. There was a cough or two, and then the room fell silent again for the third and fourth movements, the former a dream sequence about a gondola of death and the latter a reflective return to the beach.

Again, it sounded great to my ears; I'm no musicologist, so I'll hold off on any academic judgments of key or tempo. (For the record, the Orange County Register's Timothy Mangan praised the piece's "bright, moody and delicate colorations" and added, "I'm sure we'll hear it again." I'll take his word.) I do, however, know a thing or two about poetry, so I'll note that many of St. John's lyrics — "The night is pocked / By lamps lit on every boat" — are beautifully luminous.

So, "The Shore" has now had one performance and one recording session. It's officially out in the universe. How many times will we hear it again? That comes down to any number of factors, most of which are beyond the control of Ticheli, St. John, the chorale, the symphony, Delos, the Segerstrom Center and all other parties involved.

Think of it this way: In 1925, a great many novels came back as first shipments from the printer. One was "The Great Gatsby." Most, in terms of influence and continued readership, were not. The F. Scott Fitzgerald classic hit bestseller lists again this year as Baz Luhrmann's film adaptation neared release, and its title has worked its way into our collective mindset; how many people saw it mentioned in "Peanuts" years before they encountered it in high school English?

There's no formula for success, and there's definitely no way to predict longevity. Emily Dickinson's poems, scrawled in a bedroom a century and a half ago with no publisher in sight, still line the Barnes & Noble racks; any number of best-selling authors since her have faded into obscurity. For every beloved Mozart, there are countless anonymous Salieris.

But before history anointed Mozart as Mozart, he was another composer sweating over his latest score and checking that the box seats were filled. "Gatsby" started life on a publisher's schedule. "Hamlet" had an opening day.

Once an artwork gets beyond that initial test of success or failure, it becomes more like a meme — an idea that's quoted, paraphrased, satirized and passed on — than a concrete object. At some point, it's hard to think of a famous painting as an actual canvas smeared with color or a novel as one of many drafts that a tired author churned through a typewriter.

That was the realization that hit me a decade ago when I went to Florence, Italy, to see Michelangelo's David. I hadn't been reading the papers, so I learned upon entering that the statue was undergoing restoration work. Next to it was a massive scaffolding that allowed workers to scrub its surface, which meant that onlookers had to crane their necks to view parts of it.

Granted, I had seen the David in different forms for years before I saw the actual one. It's an image that will probably survive indefinitely, even if a massive earthquake in Florence reduces the original to dust. But watching the statue undergo the equivalent of what we mortals call surgery served as a poignant reminder: Even our classic artworks, which are the closest any of us have to immortality, are human and fallible at the core.

And that's why I hope that raw recording of "The Shore" gets preserved. If, centuries from now, the piece is a staple of choirs worldwide, it would be fascinating to have a reminder that it started in a venue like any other, with an opening speech, a tuning orchestra — and an audience that, however imperfectly, cheered its birth.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

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