Monday, January 19, 2009

The VSO asks Jorge Martín five questions

Jorge Martín's "Romance for Orchestra" will be performed on the January 24 and 25 concert programs. Originally commissioned for our Made in Vermont Music Festival Statewide Tour, Mr. Martín has reorchestrated it for a larger ensemble. Read on for an interview with the composer about how he got where he is, fitting in, and getting everything done!

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?

JM: I knew from the time I was three in Cuba that classical music was going to be my life. My oldest sister, who was then almost 20, bought a classical LP for the first time and when she played it on the record player, I was totally captivated, and my family could see it. It was Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. I was also in love with my toy blue piano, so my parents took the hint and had me take piano lessons. This was unusual in Cuba, because it was considered then that piano was for girls, but my mother had had a fantasy of being a concert pianist in her youth, and I guess she was living vicariously through me, and my father was quite open minded. But I knew that what I wanted was to be a composer, not a concert pianist. In typical child's fashion, I sneakily led her on to believe I was going down that path, all the while intending otherwise. But I didn't start formally to study composition until my senior year of college at Yale. Frankly, my parents didn't really understand how a composer could make a living -- which was what they worried about -- unless he wrote a big popular hit tune. It was difficult to explain....

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

JM: Not one break, but some small breaks along the way. I realized that opera was really my thing sometime in college -- I did my junior year abroad in Munich and there I could go to the opera sometimes 3-4 times a week cheaply as a student, and that was quite an education. I wrote a comic one-act chamber opera, "Tobermory," based on the story by Saki (H. H. Munro), and that won first prize in a competition and has since been produced a number of times. I got a couple of awards along the way, one from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which permitted me to make a great recording released on Koch of an hour- long song cycle, "The Glass Hammer," (poems by Andrew Hudgins) performed brilliantly by baritone Sanford Sylvan and pianist David Breitman. My latest and possibly biggest break is that the Fort Worth Opera Festival in Texas is going to premiere my full-length full- rochestra opera "Before Night Falls," based on the memoir by Reinaldo Arenas, the Cuban poet (and which was turned into a movie in 2000 by Julian Schnabel, starring Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp). I got the rights to the book before the film rights were handed out, so I was lucky. I told the estate (which granted me the rights) it would take about 15 years to get it on stage, which they found unbelievable -- a movie gets made so much more quickly! -- and from 1995 when we signed to 2010 will be exactly 15 years! Of course, it was a struggle because I'm not a well-known composer, there was no commission, and the story might be considered "challenging" by some, as it is about a gay man who dies of AIDS and is set in the Cuban revolution.... "The Merry Widow" it is not. But then, "Tosca" isn't exactly light and cheerful either....

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

JM: Right now I'm a composer and my own secretary, publicist, agent and publisher, which is not at all unusual but can be crazy. When I'm in the middle of composing something, in the heat if it, all else tends to fall by the wayside, and my desk becomes an enormous pile. You have to be terribly organized -- which I thought I was, but now I'm realizing, I'm really not organized enough..... I go to New York City regularly, where I used to live, and keep up my friendships and contacts. The internet is an amazing tool also for keeping in touch.

VSO: The world of classical music is stereotyped as being populated with a 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?

JM: This has always been a weird issue for me, because I never thought of classical music being about one's age -- remember, I was THREE when I was turned on to it. I think the young/old division vis-a-vis classical music is a cultural construct, although I may be wrong. I was forever the youngest one in a room of classical music lovers, and now as I grow older, I can still be among the younger in the room.... But I still maintain that the cultural component is important. As a young person I was constantly being made aware that it was NOT COOL to like classical music, that I was a WEIRDO for playing classical music (although I don't deny I was in fact an outsider). Young people want to be cool and be accepted by their peers. Until it is COOL to like classical music the age gap will stay in place. Perhaps that's why some folks think that as people age -- and are less in the grip of needing to be COOL and accepted -- they open up to possibilities formerly excluded by that need, and among the new possibilities is the exploration of classical music.

Furthermore, "Classical" music is an enormous umbrella term: there are SO MANY STYLES!!!!! Perhaps the only thing to do is to make sure that young people are EXPOSED to these musics by setting aside tickets for them, and for them to see lots of other young people at concerts, so that they don't feel they're WEIRDOS, which is poison for most young folk.

VSO: For those of us not familiar with the compositional process, how did you go about reorchestrating "Romance for Orchestra?"

JM: The Vermont Symphony Orchestra commissioned "Romance" in 1999 for their "Made in Vermont" tour in the fall, and since the group was traveling around the state, going to ten different towns, not all of which can accommodate a full orchestra -- and it being economically unfeasible to feed a house such a large group, the VSO typically tours what we call a "Mozart" sized orchestra, which is about 30 bodies. When they told me they'd like to bring it back, but this time on a concert with Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" which has a huge orchestra, they said I could expand the orchestration. I thought I could do this -- without using ALL of Prokofiev's orchestra. Originally I had no clarinets and only one flute, so I added a flute and 2 clarinets enriching the wind ensemble -- and having a larger complement of strings, producing a fuller sound, I also added 2 more horns to the original 2. I also added harp -- a very "romantic" instrument -- but no percussion. The big stroke was to add some brass -- trumpets and trombones, adding oomph and edge. But to give this new dimension some expression I added about a minute of music, expanding the stormy episode in the middle. I can't wait to hear it!