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Exclusive Interview with Eric Whitacre: November 15, 2010

Eric Whitacre
Light and Gold: Choral Works by Eric Whitacre
Eric Whitacre Singers, Eric Whitacre

CDs:1
Tracks:16

Decca
Rel. 26 Oct 2010

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On Monday, November 8, 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with rising star choral composer / conductor Eric Whitacre – whose debut Decca release Light and Gold has topped the classical charts, and whose Virtual Choir project has become a YouTube phenomenon. In this insightful and entertaining conversation, Mr. Whitacre discusses the path to his new hit release, and offers insight into his distinct compositional language and aesthetic. The two also discuss the background behind the Virtual Choir project – including Mr. Whitacre’s plans for the forthcoming installment, based on his well-known choral work Sleep; his recent activities as a conductor; his future ambitions surrounding the musical / opera Paradise Lost, and much more. Don’t miss this fascinating interview with one of today’s “hottest” composers!

“With vocal and choral music, first and foremost it's the text: not only do I need to serve the text, but the text – when I'm doing it right – acts as the perfect ‘blueprint’, and all the architecture is there; the poet has done the heavy lifting, so my job is to find the soul of the poem, and then somehow translate that into music.”
– Eric Whitacre

Nolan Gasser: Eric Whitacre, welcome to Classical Archives. There are a number of "hot" topics going on in your career at the moment; it's a bit hard to know where to begin; but let's be disciplined, and start with your new Decca release, Light and Gold, which debuted at No.1 on Billboard's Classical chart, and still doing quite well. So, congratulations!

Eric Whitacre: Thank you.

NG: I can imagine how justifiably elated you are - on "Cloud 11", as you say - with this opportunity to have such an esteemed label behind you; and, of course, the ability to showcase your works with a such terrific hand-picked choir, the Eric Whitacre Singers - along with some special guests. So, can you first tell us how your partnership with Decca came into being?

EW: That's a good question. The relatively short answer is: I started with a new manager, Claire Long, in January. She also manages The King's Singers, and she's a dream; she went to Decca in March and proposed an album, and they came back and said, "We love the idea, and we'd like to do a five-album deal."

NG: And you said, "Absolutely not - I said one [laughs]!"

EW: I actually never had a chance to talk to Decca about it; hopefully they were taken by the music, but the large online presence that I seem to have - the Virtual Choir was just exploding during those first negotiations - didn't hurt either.

NG: Certainly, it's rare for a label like Decca to sign a long-term contract with a composer, though I assume that you're aligned with them as a conductor as well. Do you know what these next four albums are going to include - is it going to be entirely your music, or is that yet to be decided?

EW: It's yet to be decided - the contract stipulates that it has to be music that I've written, though they're open to including things by others. There's already enough to fill the albums with things that I've written - or projects that I've had in the pipeline for a while. And by the time we're finished, we'll have enough orchestral and choral music to fill another disc… and there's probably going to be a musical, Paradise Lost, that I've been working on.

NG: It must be great inspiration for your future projects, knowing that they'll be recorded and promoted by such a great label as Decca… Now, this album, Light and Gold, features a number of your best-known choral works, most especially the two showcases of your Virtual Choir project: Lux aurumque and Sleep, as well as some older works, and a few more recent ones - including The Stolen Child, performed with the King's Singers; and Nox aurumque, the companion to the aforementioned Lux aurumque. So, how did you go about making the selections for this disc?

EW: Oh, it was excruciating [laughs]! Ultimately, I knew that there would be another complete choral disc, and maybe by the time this whole thing was finished, there might even be a third full disc of choral music; so I had to choose: what do I lead with; what new things do I want to put on there, etc. Part of it, of course, came with Decca's input - and so some pieces, like Sleep and Lux - which they lovingly refer to as "hits" - had to be on it. It's a bit like a [Southern rock group] Lynyrd Skynyrd collection, you know, where you have put [their hit anthem] "Freebird" on it. In general, we tried to make it a cohesive, beautiful listening experience, and to showcase some of the newer things that I've been writing as well.

NG: I recall reading that when you made an earlier disc - Cloudburst and Other Choral Works - it perfectly fit everything that you had written till that point. Now, of course, you have a larger repertoire, so you did have to cast off some of your "little darlings".

EW: Yes, exactly.

NG: That was something a bit surprising to me - namely that you didn't include the work Cloudburst in this collection - since it too is one of your "Freebirds"; I recently saw the video of you conducting this work in your "Extravaganza" concert in Minneapolis…

EW: Ultimately, yes, it is one of my "Freebirds", which is probably one of the reasons it will go on album two.

NG: Right, keep something waiting in the wings.

EW: And it also must have come up in conversation that we wanted to distinguish this disc from the Cloudburst album.

NG: Yes, that makes perfect sense. As has been pointed out, a number of these works, in fact, do appear on previous recordings by various choirs, a few of them several times - especially Lux aurumque and Sleep. Here, of course, the big difference is that you are the conductor. So what, if anything, struck you about the process of preparing a disc of your works, where every decision was now up to you: from the pacing of the music, to the dynamics, and even to the choice of the singers? Was there something that surprised you in how the recordings actually turned out?

EW: Well, on paper, it was fantastic, like, "Finally, I control everything!"

NG: But then also, "Uh oh, I control everything!"

EW: [laughs] Yes, that's basically what it was. There's a severe learning curve in all of this: "Okay, choosing my own singers, great! I've been around singers all my life…" But then, when you actually have to put together your own chorus, and then develop that chorus from the ground up - I mean, there are people who spend lifetimes learning how to do that! So, I approached everything with sense of humility, and a sense of learning -knowing, "Alright, I'll do the very best I can with this disc, then ideally it'll get better and better each time I do it." But I was a little stunned initially that, "Oh boy, there's a lot to this conducting business." It's not just that, because I've done a lot of guest conducting - which is the greatest job ever, since somebody else does all the hard work, and then you show up and take all the credit! And then the second part of all this is the dynamics of the recording session - which is a bit artificial, and another learned skill. I can't wait to do it again - as soon as possible - so that I can continue honing that ability. I learned a lot this first time about how to make a record.

NG: Right, so you're looking forward to that sophomore experience.

EW: Exactly.

NG: There are many artists who can't help but be influenced by previous recordings of works they are preparing; this is obviously a bit different for you, since you wrote the pieces. I trust that there have been conductors who have given performances of your works that you admire greatly - who have done things with the music that you didn't quite foresee when you wrote it; but likewise some performances that didn't meet your expectations. So, in preparing this recording, were there things that you deliberately copied or avoided from earlier performances; or maybe things that surprised you as you've compared your recordings to others?

EW: Yes, a couple of things: there are certainly moments that I've "stolen" from other conductors, if you will - for instance, when the Brigham Young University Singers recorded Sleep, their conductor, Ronald Staheli, did this thing where he brought out the "f" on the text, "f-f-f-flickering light", which almost paints the flicker of the light; I thought that was gorgeous, and have since adopted it as my own - and I told Ron that I was stealing it outright [laughs]. Steven Layton [conductor of the a cappella group Polyphony] did something cool as well in his version of Sleep, where right before the big climax, he conducts an unwritten allargando [speeding up] - and God, it's just so thrilling; and so I've also adopted that as my own. But aside from these little moments here and there, the pieces sing themselves so loudly inside of me, that there's really only one way it can go. And it's an odd thing: if somebody sends me a new recording of any one of my pieces, I don't even really need to listen to it, I just need to look at the time on the disc, do you know what I mean?

NG: To know if they got the pacing right.

EW: Yes, exactly - I can tell instantly, "Oh, no, they didn't get it", or "Ah, they got it perfectly"… But all of that being said: now I'm working with my own singers, arguably the best choir that I've ever stood in front of - the Eric Whitacre Singers, and the Laudibus choir - and we're in a recording session, where the sense of space and time disappears, and you get into these zones… When they started sending me the first edits, almost everything that I had conducted was slower than I normally perform it - sometimes by quite a bit. So, for A Boy and A Girl, four minutes was always the mark - that's how long I thought the piece "should" be; but on Light and Gold, it's four minutes and twenty-four seconds - which is a substantial amount of time difference. It's one of the things I've learned about the recording session: you get in that groove, that zone, and in the best way, you lose track of time.

NG: I assume that in this case, you didn't just assume that the conductor didn't "get it" -you actually listened to the recording?

EW: Yes, I will say that. And all of this - the recording session, plus the amount of conducting of other people's music that I'm now being asked to do - is giving me infinitely more respect for conductors than I used to have. I can't believe what a tough job it is!

NG: I think it's a very natural evolution: when you start doing it yourself, you begin gaining a lot of respect.

EW: It's like parenting, right?

NG: Yes, exactly - that's a good metaphor.

So, how many singers are in the Eric Whitacre Singers?

EW: For this disc there were eighteen members of the Eric Whitacre Singers, and then twenty-two members of Laudibus, so a total of forty singers. But that number can expand or contract depending on the piece we're going to record.

NG: Good. Now, for those who are not yet versed in your output, I think this disc does a great job of representing a nice mix of your music - from more accessible, even pop-influenced works, like Seal Lullaby to several examples of your characteristic use of diatonic clusters [adjacent tones and semi-tones sounding simultaneously], interesting suspensions, and soaring melodies, as heard in Sleep, Lux aurumque, and Water Night, among others.

There's plenty to talk about here, but I'd love to start with that characteristic language of yours. I've heard you say how when you first began singing you were "blown away" by the "wall of sound", so to speak all around you - of those exquisite dissonances, and so forth - and that was what you tried to emulate when you began composing. One thinks of composers like Arvo Pärt, or perhaps Alfred Schnittke or John Taverner, as potential spiritual influences of your musical language; but can you give us a little insight into your background influences, and how you developed your unique approach to harmony in particular?

EW: Well, thank you for even mentioning my name in the same sentence as those guys. Arvo Pärt, early on, was a massive influence for me; and it wasn't his whole output, it was a single piece: his Passio or St. John Passion. I had just started singing in choirs, and my friend, the poet Charles Anthony Silvestri - whose poetry is well represented on my new disc - gave me a recording of this piece as a gift. He said, "You've got to listen to this; I think you'll like it." Again, it had to do with that sense of time and space - I never heard time slowed down like that. Actually, that's the wrong way to describe it: it seems that Arvo Pärt finds these chords that feel like they're static and not moving at all, and yet it's as if they are plummeting forward at the speed of light. It's the strangest effect, and I was instantly drawn to it; from my very first experiences singing in the chorus, I would get literally - physically - tickled by close harmonies together: the major and minor seconds. It would make me giggle or tear up, but I could feel it in my body; so when I first began composing, I knew that I wanted to do those things to other singers.

The truth is, I'm not such a great singer, and so my whole harmonic language developed - and I think still exists - in a very pragmatic way: which is that the singers start either on a major or minor triad; half of them hold it, and half of them move somewhere else - so there's an established tonality. As a singer, if you're on a G Major chord, and then move to an A Major chord, suddenly you find yourself in the middle of this quite complex, shimmering cluster; that seems to be one of my hallmarks of my sound. My overall sense of architecture comes from everywhere: my love of movie music, of pop and rock - the Beatles and Bjork; plus Debussy, early Tudor choral music, etc., etc. I guess it all just goes into the stew, and somehow comes out as my sound.

NG: I've read a bit about your background, that you didn't grow up as a typical music student - and in fact were rather self-taught. I assume that as a kid, you never imagined that you'd grow up to have such a successful career as a composer?

EW: I didn't even know it was a job description, frankly. I really thought I would be a "pop star" or, at the very least, carry the bags around for the guys in [1980s British pop group] Duran Duran.

NG: As a roadie…

EW: Yes, as a roadie - that would have been just fine with me [laughs]. But then I joined a choir - really to meet cute girls - and that was it! I was totally changed by the experience, and transformed by the very first rehearsal; it's really strange how it all turned out. I didn't even read music when I first started in choir, so there was a pretty steep learning curve there as well. I still feel like I'm learning…

NG: Well, music is a bottomless pit, no doubt. We're so lucky if we're tapped by something that instantly tells us how to move forward with our lives - and clearly that happened to you.

You talked a bit about your harmonic approach - for example, starting with a G Major chord, and having some of the singers hold it, while others move to an A Major chord. In a lot of your music, you have interesting or unpredictable triadic progressions - though not functionally tonal. There's an expression coined by the musicologist Edward Lowinsky to describe the harmonic techniques of late Renaissance composers like [Orlando] Lassus and [Carlo] Gesauldo: "triadic atonality" - and I hear traces of that approach in some of your music. So, when you're plotting a composition, do you start with a basic outline of a chord progression, and then create those "shimmering clusters" as you move from one chord to another - or is it more of an intuitive process?

EW: Boy, I wish there was a process [laughs]. A lot of times it just feels like throwing stuff up against a wall and seeing if it sticks the next morning. With vocal music, first and foremost it's the text: not only do I need to serve the text, but the text - when I'm doing it well - acts as the perfect "blueprint", and all the architecture is there; the poet has done the heavy lifting, so my job is to find the soul of the poem, and then somehow translate that into music. Sometimes it comes quickly, and sometimes it takes awhile, but there'll be a moment where I'll find a chord - or even a relationship between a couple of notes, or a little fragment of a melody; and somehow, I know it's the way into the world I'm trying to create…

NG: Right - it's like receiving manna from heaven, and then it's a matter of figuring out how to get into that moment, and how to move away from it.

EW: Exactly; it starts like that - it's like coming up with a joke, and then building an entire screenplay around it. Sometimes you may end up losing the joke - you work so hard, but the piece "takes over" and does something else while the initial inspiration fades away or morphs.

Even more, I find that something happens during the process: you're struggling with something - it could be a relationship between sections, or how to get from here to there, or what this chord is supposed to be - and you have an idea; you write and re-write, and you leave it and come back the next day, and it's a little better. Then, suddenly, somehow, it just becomes "right". Do you know what I mean? You wake up one morning and say, "Oh yeah, that's exactly the way this goes!" It's as if it had always been that way, and couldn't go any other way. That's a great feeling when you at least know, "Okay then, this section goes like this"; then the rest of it is just nose-to-the-grindstone stuff.

NG: Yes - it's that 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration thing; and, as you say, in the compositional process, the original "joke" can become so altered it's hardly recognizable from where it started - and yet becomes exactly what it's supposed to be.

EW: Yes, exactly: I have this one "joke", if you will, that must have been the impetus for three or four different pieces; but the "joke" gets killed every time. It's this one little [chord] progression that I've held on to, but I have yet to actually use it - it keeps getting kicked out of every house that it tries to build.

NG: Well that's great - it's a reliable little starting block for you.

EW: Yes, I guess so.

NG: Now, I think it can be generally said that there's a fairly "optimistic" and a rather "diatonic" spirit and sonority in a lot of your work, but not always - there are a few works on the new disc, such as The Stolen Child and Nox aurumque, that are more overtly dissonant and "atonal" in passages; clearly, this is response to the meaning, character and spirit of the text. Still, I'm wondering - is this darker, more dissonant and more atonal language something that comes to you just as easily as the "brighter" more "optimistic" musical language of works like Lux aurumque - at least when the text demands it?

EW: That's a really perceptive question. I think that my "wheel house" generally is texts that are "optimistic", as you said, and I gravitate toward them. It's not necessarily because I'm an optimistic person, but that I choose texts that require that spirit. Then only very recently, I've been drawn to these other moods; on a surface level, I would tell myself, "Well, it's because I'm trying to write something different, so I'll just choose some different texts, and see how that affects me." But I think as a composer it goes a bit deeper than that. In some of those earlier pieces, it's like I was building these little snow globes - these little perfect universes that exist inside what I wanted the world to be. And now, more and more, I'm writing these more intensely personal pieces that reflect more the way the world actually is.

NG: Right, the perfect snow globe has been shaken.

EW: Yes, in a way. So, the piece that I just premiered a couple of weeks ago with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was called Songs of Immortality, and for me, it's quite dark and pretty dissonant - and doesn't have any of those hallmarks of climax and resolution, or that sense of catharsis. Maybe I'm starting a new phase; but I'm trying to embrace it, and write as honestly as I can.

NG: I think it's natural for every creative person to feel that standing still is dangerous; we all need to feel that we're growing and evolving; and sometimes, it can take a darker turn - I mean the world can be a pretty rough place.

I was also curious about something: I saw that The Stolen Child was dedicated to your former teacher at Juilliard, John Corigliano. Of course, John is someone who is not afraid to write a triad, but he's also fairly adventurous harmonically; I wonder if that played any role in how you approached this work - that you wanted to flex your "harmonic muscles" when you were writing a piece for John.

EW: Well, it's interesting: I admire John's music greatly, and he was the only composition teacher whose teaching method actually worked for me: he never wanted me to bring in music I was working on, and then talk about it, and work through it or correct it; instead, we only talked about the creative process in a completely abstract way. So, in a way, The Stolen Child was a perfect example of that sort of thing: the music came right out of Yeats' poetry; I feel like I'm writing as this high Romantic composer - and that's very much a John thing: "Alright, why question it? If that's what seems to be there, and that's your instinct, then just run with it." It's like the old adage, "Why go with your fifth bad idea, when you can go with your first bad idea [laughs]?"

NG: Well, it sounds as if you've carried your experiences - and your aesthetic discussions - with John very much into the process of writing The Stolen Child. And I'm sure those weekly lessons must have been very valuable.

EW: I should also mention that my wife [soprano Hila Plitmann] has done many things with John [including singing on his Grammy Award-winning recording of Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan], and so over the last ten years I've had a chance to develop a real personal relationship with him - that for me has been sort of an extension of those lessons.

NG: There's one final work on the disc I'd love to single out briefly: Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine - which is another of your collaborations with your poet-friend Charles Anthony Silvestri (one of very few people, I'm sure, who's willing to write a new Latin poem!). This piece is a fascinating face-lift of sorts on the Late Renaissance madrigal, with several techniques and progressions that remind of Lassus and [Claudio] Monteverdi and Gesualdo; you even have some aspects of the "fugato" [fleeing] technique on lines like "vieni à volare" (come fly). So, did you immerse yourself in late 16th-century madrigals as you wrote this? It certainly must have been a fun challenge to try to bridge old and new in this way.

EW: It was a blast! I did immerse myself in the music of the period, but I didn't look at a single note of sheet music; I listened to a ton of Palestrina and endlessly to Monteverdi's Fourth Book of Madrigals. I had sung a bunch of Renaissance music in college choir, but I didn't want to copy anything note-for-note; but in sections - like on the line "Releasing purchased pigeons one by one", it's very Gesualdo-esque. The fun part was that it was commissioned for the American Choral Directors Association, and so I knew that the premiere would be in front of 8,000 "choir geeks" like me. So I could load it with all these period references, and they'd be smiling through them; it was really fun to write.

NG: Yes, and those descending suspensions at the beginning of the work - I'm sure you must have imagined all the knowing smiles from the choir directors.

EW: Of course, I couldn't see them because I was conducting, but I was told afterwards that people were whispering to each other, "Oh, that's such and such…!" It was fun.

NG: It's interesting for me to discuss Renaissance music with regard to your output, since I can't help but hear in works like Sleep and Lux aurumque echoes of Renaissance works like [Gregorio] Allegri's Miserere mei, Deus, and especially the music of English Renaissance composers like [William] Byrd and [Thomas] Tallis. So, did you go through a period - especially as you realized that this was your calling - of devouring the music of this last "golden age" of a cappella choral music?

EW: Yes, absolutely - and I too feel that it is the "golden age", as you call it, and some of the most perfect music written in Western history. It's funny that you mention this, because right now - here at Cambridge - the man who brought me here, David Skinner, has a vocal group called Alamire - an astonishing Early Music group; and he and I are basically having these casual lessons, if you will - where he takes me through Byrd and Tallis on a nightly basis, over good wine.

NG: Not a bad combination.

EW: And I'm reminded over and over again just how perfect the music is - so elegant and economical; I'm going to try to inject some of that into the next pieces that I write.

NG: Fabulous. Now, to a degree this whole discussion - not to mention the entire phenomenal success you're experiencing - belies an odd reality of our age: namely, that choral music is not supposed to be so wildly popular and so "hip." Am I right to imagine that you must shake your head in happy disbelief that you're able to be awakening this enthusiasm in contemporary society?

EW: Yes, and you said it perfectly, it's disbelief! I don't know what's happening, I don't know why it's happening, but I'm trying not to question it [laughs]. It's the oddest thing: in some of these concerts, the choir's standing out there, I'll come out on the stage, and the audience goes crazy - it's like a rock concert! I keep wondering, "Does everybody know that they're here to hear choral music?" I fear that we're going to start, and they're going to be like, "Oh, crap, this is not at all what I thought we were going hear!"

NG: But in fact they do know what they're going to hear - and you're able to rally them into their near-enraptured state. It also seems as if you have tapped into something: that even in the fast-paced world we live in - with social media, and rock music and hip hop, and all that - there is something about choral music that speaks to us in an archetypal way; perhaps it's something about communal singing…

One thing that clearly demonstrates this phenomenon is your Virtual Choir project. For those who haven't tuned into it: your Virtual Choir video of Lux aurumque has gotten nearly 1.5 million hits on YouTube, which is astonishing [see attached video]. Can you give us the background again on how this whole project happened?

EW: Sure. I was sent a video of a young girl singing one of my choral works - just her soprano part, which she had taped herself, and posted to YouTube. I was struck by it, and immediately thought that we could get a whole bunch of people to do this - to upload their videos, and we'd cut it together to make a "virtual choir". I don't know exactly what I was envisioning; I certainly didn't know if it would work, but I thought it would be fun to try. And so we put it together, and it actually worked - it sounded like music. For the next one [Lux aurumque], I videotaped a conductor track and posted it on YouTube, and said, "Alright, everybody, download the sheet music and follow my conductor track, and then upload your video." And that's the one where we got 185 singers from 12 countries, and it went pretty viral. So, now, for this next one, we're going to try to break the online record for people singing - which is nine hundred at one time. It's crazy - and I'm so surprised that it took off in the way that it did.

NG: Well, it is pretty astounding. I've now seen the video instructions that you've created for the new installment - Sleep - which people have until 11:59pm on December 31 to submit their videos; you have very detailed instructions with timed beeps, and access to download the sheet music. It seems that it's turned into a very professional business operation for you. I'm also curious as to what the post-production process must be like. Even with the coordinated timings, I would assume there's going to be a lot of massaging necessary to get this whole thing sounding right. What was it like to do post-production on Lux aurumque, and what are you anticipating for Sleep?

EW: Thankfully, I had nothing to do with the post-production on Lux. This young man, Scott Hains, who is just a fan, contacted me, and said, "I'd love to be the back-end person on this." So, we talked about what it could be, and where we wanted to go with it, and what he sent me was basically the finished product. I just sat there with my jaw on the floor, and tears in my eyes; it was amazing! I understand some of what he was doing, but in no way could I ever replicate it myself. Now with Sleep, we'll need a bigger team, because the technical requirements are so huge.

NG: Right - with 900 singers, I can imagine.

EW: Yes - at least 900; it could be more. I just found out the other day that we have a way of determining how many times the sheet music has been downloaded from the site - and it's been downloaded over 10,000 times now. So, if even a quarter of those people decide to submit a video, then I will be very glad that I'm not part of the post-production team.

NG: Though I assume you'll have an artistic say in the final product?

EW: Yes, I'll be Executive Producer - that's the greatest job ever, right?

NG: I read somewhere that everyone who submits a video is going to be in the final product; clearly, there's going to be some blending issues - I can only imagine what the post-production process is going to be like on that one.

EW: Yes, I know. But it's funny with choruses: there's a nice thing where the voices even each other out, so you can have voices that aren't so great, and it still sounds fine. Also, I've chosen pieces - the first one Lux, and this one, Sleep - that are pretty forgiving. I've been doing these two for years and years, with everything from professional choirs to amateur high school chorus choirs, and they both can survive a number of levels of singing.

NG: Do you have any idea what the follow-up installment of the Virtual Choir will be?

EW: Yes, I think for that one I'll write an original work - and then have its world premiere be in cyberspace.

NG: What a great idea! Certainly, this is part of your success: you've got a savvy sense of the way that technology interplays with the arts these days - which I'm sure the folks at Decca recognized.

Now, I know that you are currently in England - as a Visiting Fellow and Composer-in-Residence at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge; I guess you've got a number of conducting gigs that you're doing while you're in England. What are some of your main goals during your residency?

EW: In part, it's just to surround myself with the unbelievably smart, interesting, and charismatic people that are here, and to evolve as much as possible… and maybe to drink as much good wine as they'll offer.

NG: Yes, I saw that you posted a photo of the 1963 bottle of port you were given by David Skinner after handing him the score of Songs of Immortality.

EW: Did you see that?! It's just ludicrous - the other night we were at a party, and they presented the Master of the College with a 1934 brandy, can you imagine?

NG: Only at Cambridge! So, as mentioned, you are starting to do a lot more conducting, not only of your own work, but of other works as well. Do you see yourself with any of these future Decca projects, or others, doing an entire disc of Barber or Britten or Mozart down the line?

EW: Well, I have a lot to learn. When I did the London Symphony Orchestra concert a couple of weeks ago, I conducted Barber and Copland and [Morten] Lauridsen; I know that I have a lot to learn, and I want to learn it. The truth is: if people will keep letting me conduct, then I'm just going to stand up there and do it. I can't believe the opportunities that keep coming my way, so until somebody realizes the ruse is up and throws me out of the room, I'll keep waving my arms around.

NG: This reminds me of my conversation with [pianist / conductor] Vladimir Ashkenazy, who began a second career as a conductor long after he had established one as a pianist. He had no training in conducting, and said something similar - that so long as orchestras kept asking him back, he was happy to oblige.

EW: Yes, I can be as bad as anybody else, so it might as well be me, right? [laughs]

NG: As long as it's balanced with a few good things.

EW: Yes, occasionally there's a good thing here and there…

NG: Well, one last topic - which involves a rather different work of yours, but which seems to be a very present endeavor: namely, your musical / opera Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings. This piece started as a musical, with a 6-week run in 2007, at a very hip theater in Pasadena (The Theater @ Boston Court), that won you a lot of praise and awards [including the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award and 10 Ovation nominations]. The work was recently resurrected, in concert version, at Carnegie Hall last June; and I now see there's a performance coming up at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles next June. Now, Paradise Lost combines a number of musical influences that one might not know you had before hearing this piece: electronica, taiko drums, etc. And I just read that you're going to be writing some new choral numbers for the Disney performance… So, the question is: what is this all leading to?

EW: Well, that's a good question. My ultimate goal, always, is to have in on Broadway, or on the West End. It's a stage show, and that's how it's meant to be; it's a story with characters who want things, etc. But until that happens, I'm going to do whatever I can to keep it alive. The opportunity came up to do these concert versions, and have these big events with 400 singers on stage, and happily audiences are coming to them. In this way, I'm keeping it alive, and at the same time, really honing and polishing the story; so that every time we do it, the book gets better and better. Ultimately, we'll likely end up doing an album version before we have a stage production - sort of the [Andrew Lloyd Webber musical] Jesus Christ Superstar route.

NG: That's not a bad plan.

EW: The trick with Paradise Lost is that it's so difficult to communicate exactly what it is to many Broadway musical theater people until they actually see it; and so we'll keep putting it up in a way they can experience, and then, hopefully "land the white whale".

NG: Well, I'm sure with all the success you're having, it will make its way to Broadway. And as a bonus, it must be nice to share a project with your wife and collaborator, soprano Hila Plitmann.

EW: Yes, it's the best.

NG: One last, very important question: I saw that among your influences, you cite the Beatles, and that your favorite album is Abbey Road. Am I right to assume that your favorite song on the album is "Because" [which features close three-part harmony sung by John, Paul, and George]?

EW: So it would seem.... I have to say that I've listened to Abbey Road so many times, that I think every song has been my favorite at some time or another. But I do adore "Because" - they're so in tune; I think it's the most in tune they sang on any of their albums.

NG: And it is such a glorious thought for every Beatles fan to imagine John, Paul, and George standing around a microphone for that last triumphant effort - to sing in three-part harmony, and so gorgeously.

EW: Yes, I know - it's so heartbreaking, isn't it?

NG: Well, Eric, it's been a delight.

EW: Absolutely, thank you so much.


 
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