Monday, January 19, 2009

The VSO asks David Ludwig five questions

David Ludwig, the VSO's composer-in-residence and New Music Advisor, lovingly crafted a double concerto for husband-and-wife team Jaime Laredo, violin, and Sharon Robinson, cello, to be premiered this weekend. Saturday's performance will take place Saturday, January 24 at the Flynn Center in Burlington, followed by another performance on Sunday, January 25 at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland. Read on for an interview with David Ludwig about his compositional process, how he got where he is, and how he balances work and play.

VSO: Here you sit with an established career in your field, but you had to start somewhere. What first inspired you to pursue a career in music? Was it an epiphany? Perhaps a certain teacher, performer, or performance?

DL: Well, I come from a musical family, but then one can find discouragement in that--especially if you come from an accomplished musical family. There was a great deal of resistance within my immediate family to me becoming a musician as a profession, which makes sense to me. If I ever have kids, I think I would encourage them to look into other paths to follow as well. To be a musician is a tough row to hoe, even if you have success. The psychological and physical demands can be great, and the schedule difficult. And this is the price one pays to do something they love deeply--it is a privilege to be able to make a living in the arts, a gift.

I had always "done" music one way or another, and wrote my first pieces when I was eight. I wouldn't say I was serious about it specifically until I was in high school. I had a little music theory and realized that I could put notes and sounds together and was just consumed by it. I gave up weekends to compose into the wee hours. I suppose I had wanted to be a writer forever, too, and I believe that being a composer is pretty much being a writer. So I don't know if there was a "moment," per se...

I started Oberlin as an Art History major, and I remember my advisor wondering aloud why I wasn't just in the conservatory as he looked at my schedule. I had one teacher--Conrad Cummings--who is a wonderful composer, and he asked me the same. This gave me a kind of "permission" I hadn't had before--I think part of growing up in such a musical family is that you think you're not allowed the keys to the kingdom. So with that, I became a composition major and never looked back. I went and lived in Vienna for the better part of a year and studied with Richard Hoffmann there, who is an absolute force as a teacher and is a composer who should be better known. He was one of Schoenberg's last students, and is one of the great artists I've ever met. He taught many important composers and musicians--Pierre Jalbert, Christopher Rouse, Bob Spano, and so many others. He was an influence in my life that I feel I can never repay, other than to say it publicly what he was for me as a student.

VSO: Did you have one big “break” early in your career that served as a springboard into a more recognized and respected career?

DL: I would say the biggest break for me was going to Curtis after getting a Masters degree from MSM. I remember some colleagues saying "why would you want to go there? Why not just get a doctorate?" But the chance to work with top top players and make those friendships in my time there--this was the best thing for me as a composer. I learned more from friends playing my music than I possibly could of from books or lessons, no matter how great the teacher. I wouldn't have gone to Curtis if Richard Danielpour hadn't encouraged me to apply. He is another person whom I can never repay. I wouldn't have met him unless I had run into the choral conductor Judith Clurman at a dinner party at my Uncle John's house. She urged me to be in touch with Richard, rather than to look at studying at other schools (I really had no idea what was what coming out of college). So when I hear about people talking about needing luck to get places, I understand that. Everything seems both like it fits together and like it's chance, all at once. My hope is to keep being lucky!

VSO: How do you balance the joy of creating with the business side of things?

DL: You just keep them separate, but acknowledge that there are always practical concerns. I don't know how much art would have been made in history if artists didn't have to pay bills or worry about getting exposure. Creating is a many-faceted thing, and sometimes there is inspiration in the deadline, or the paycheck, or in the act of wanting to write something that gets played a lot. A composer who never worries about these things might not be too motivated to write. We have this fairly destructive image of the starving artist, moved by his passions to create, a candelabra on the piano as a lightning storm rages outside--insert tousled hair and temper tantrums here. But if you really look at the history, you'll see that all the greats had two primary concerns: getting paid and getting their music performed. The act of creation, and holding oneself to the highest standard, is hopefully a given.

For me, I spend the morning composing, lost in that fantasy world where nothing on the outside matters. I try to keep the phone off, Facebook closed, and so forth. I get very ornery if that time is compromised in any regular way. The afternoon, then, I'll spend on the phone with who I need to be on the phone with, or perhaps getting materials together to send off. Then I'll spend the evenings engraving my music on the computer or doing things like answering blog questions. Teaching, which I do quite a bit, is peppered in there.

George Tsontakis, a great great composer who lives in upstate NY, taught me a trick of taking a nap around 4PM. You make a cup of coffee and start working again at 5PM, and you get what he calls (tongue-in-cheek) a "miraculous hour of invention" to keep writing until 6. This is because for many of us we start to peter out after a whole day of composing, and you try to squeeze as much concentration and focus on your music as you can. It's a good trick, and that hour can be very worthwhile!

VSO: The world of classical music is stereotyped as being populated with a more mature crowd, yet you are youthful. Do you think that having young people in the orchestra, on the podium, and composing the music will serve to draw a younger set to the concert hall?

DL: I'm less...ahem..."youthful" than I was, and if I was a violinist and still "emerging," I'd be in trouble! But the really wonderful thing about being a composer is that you can do it forever--as long as you can hold a pencil. So even though we are now collectively on the back burner of music--paid less and paid less attention to than pretty much any well-known performer--we can continue to improve and refine our work as long as we want.

As for the "aging" audience, I had a very interesting discussion with Jaime Laredo about this subject as I was campaigning at dinner for getting younger crowds in to hear our concerts. He said he had seen a photograph from the earlier part of the 20th century of the audience at a major symphony concert. They were all older people. There's a lot of debate about this--are our audiences going to die out with this generation, or is it a cyclical thing, that people tend to come to concert music later in life, and so we will keep having this renewed audience of older folks. I don't know that the age of our listener matters in terms of having an audience in number, but I think it can affect other things like programming.

I absolutely want to see younger people in these concerts, and I think they'll come if we step out of our collective shells a little bit. The VSO this year is only doing music since it's been extant--about 75 years. I know there was a lot of trepidation about doing a season like this, with no Beethoven or Brahms. But instead of those guys we have Copland, Barber, Bernstein, Bartok, and Gershwin, not to mention pieces written by folks who are actually alive! You can't commend the artists and management in this orchestra enough for taking a leap of faith to program like this--it's unbelievably exciting.

But the fact that it's so exciting speaks to a big big problem we have in concert music. I can't think of any other art form that is so rigidly attached to its own past. Can you imagine a playhouse that almost only did plays from before 1900? How about a dance company that only used the likes of Balanchine and Graham and was afraid institutionally to program choreography by living choreographers? And imagine if the New York Times bestseller list was all Dickens and Hawthorne? Doesn't that seem backwards? Yet so many of our biggest musical ensembles are like this.

I don't know what exactly has changed in the past hundred years, but something has definitely happened. I read about Strauss conducting at Wannamaker's here in Philly, or about the hordes of reporters that gathered around Stravinsky to get his opinion on a new piece by this or that young composer. I see Bernstein's brilliant television show for kids or think about all of the composers who met with presidents and heads of state. You can't help but think that this music has become very distant from the daily experience of most people, and it's been overwhelmed by an extremely powerful commercial culture. Not to be too outwardly partisan, but what Obama has said about bringing classical musicians into the White House, along with commissioning a new work for the inauguration, is terrific. Our president can be a cultural leader, as well, and that's just...well, I think it's just an incredible thing for us as a country.

But getting back to the issue of the institutional culture of concert music, I'll mention that my Uncle Peter did an interview where he talked about musicians programming Bartok as their "nod" to contemporary music. He said these artists are "decadent and perverse." I thought at first that this was a little much, but I get it now. For me, there is little exciting about going to a recital and hearing the same piece I've heard a thousand times played yet again. I don't mean to sound like a Philistine, but I may as well be honest about it. I love Mozart and Bach as much as anything, but this literature becomes so much more vital when it's programmed with contemporary work. Having a good understanding of pre-20th Century musical literature is just a part of cultural literacy, I think. But thinking that it all stops there is downright bizarre to me.

We can use contemporary music to bring in younger audiences. We can use it to bring audiences closer to the masters, as well. I've observed throngs of college-aged people who are dying to be challenged by their music, and so they've turned to all sorts of interesting popular music that is produced very artfully. They've turned to so-called "world music" as well to hear new sounds. Then there's all the electronica that has risen in the past twenty years. This is all great, but I want to approach this demographic and say "You want to hear something new? Come to this concert with music written by living composers!" I call it "concert music," because unlike pop or commercial music, it's best represented live. We all love a live listening experience when it's exciting--there's something intangible to it you can never get from listening to a recording. And this, I believe, is what will be attractive to a younger audience uninitiated in the literature--coming to our orchestra concerts and hearing contemporary music. Frankly, I think something a living composer writes is much more relevant to their lives than something written by a guy who lived in the middle of Europe and died two hundred years ago.

So in the end, I want to see absolutely everyone in that concert hall: the young people wanting to be challenged or stimulated with new music, and the older folks who want to hear pieces they already know and love. And then I also want to see older folks coming to be challenged and stimulated with new music, and young people to hear music they already know and love. We can program in this way to bring in a pluralistic crowd. Concert music has never been the music of "the people," but why can't we bring in a wide and diverse group that just wants to hear great live music performed by extraordinary musicians? We can do this, and we can do it better and more effectively by stepping outside the box. I am entirely convinced of that.

The VSO is a very special orchestra in a very open-minded part of the world, and I think the people who run it recognize this. This orchestra has gone directions that others are afraid to, and I think it shows vision and a willingness to be different that should put this organization in the national spotlight as one of the really interesting and exciting ensembles in the country right now. I can't say enough about this.

VSO: Was your creative process affected by knowing that your double concerto would be recorded?

DL: I hope not!