And now, some notes from the Aspen Music Fest president
July 9, 2009
ASPEN – For two winters in the mid-’80s, Alan Fletcher holed up in his parents’ vacation home, in Ocean City, N.J., writing music. Ocean City is a classic shore town, as it’s known in Jersey lingo – bursting with activity in the warmer months, and comatose in the winter. For some aspiring composers, it would have been the very picture of heaven: nothing but time, isolation, and the chance to commune with one’s musical ideas.
For Fletcher, who was in his late 20s, and had just completed his doctorate in composition at Juilliard, it was closer to hell.
“I was living like a hermit,” he said. “Living in a beach town in the winter, just composing. Two years went by, and I’d lie awake at night, thinking, ‘What’s happening to me?’ I was a freak.”
When he got word that the New England Conservatory was looking for an instructor to teach theory – “good yet cheap” is what the school was specifically looking for, Fletcher says – he jumped at the chance. He didn’t mind the cheap part, but he did insist that he be permitted to teach composition as well. The two sides reached terms, and Fletcher happily traded the desolate shore town for Boston.
“Boston is one of the best new-music cities in the world,” he said. “All of a sudden, I went from being this hermit to being in the middle of this great music scene.”
The move altered several aspects of his life. A composer since the age of 4, when he would dictate his musical ideas for his mother to put on paper, Fletcher put his writing on the back burner to focus on teaching, and then administration. He spent 16 years at the Conservatory, eventually becoming the school’s provost. He then moved on to Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, to head the music department. In 2006, Fletcher landed in Aspen as president of the Aspen Music Festival and School, which has seemed to be a good fit. The 52-year-old seems to be especially adept at the social aspects of the job: He speaks from the stage often and well, and has forged close, productive relationships with several of the area’s other arts nonprofits.
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As for his composing aspirations, Fletcher has not abandoned them. He has compartmentalized them, doing virtually all of his writing in a house he owns on Lake Winnipesaukee, in central New Hampshire. After the Aspen Music Festival winds down from the height of its summer activity, Fletcher heads for New England, and trades his administrator’s suits for a composer’s quill.
“All the year, I’m thinking about it,” Fletcher said of his composing projects. “The good ideas stay with me, then I get up there and put them on paper.”
As an example of the composer who can integrate his music into other areas of his life, Fletcher brings up Gunther Schuller, who wakes at 4 a.m. to get in a few hours of composing before engaging in his other activities (conducting, writing, teaching, etc.).
“Not only could I not get up at 4, I couldn’t compose and then do other stuff,” said Fletcher. “I’ve got to wake up and think, ‘All I’ve got to do today is compose. So whatever the problems of the composition are have to be always on my mind, always thinking about what’s next.”
Fletcher’s one lament about being a part-time composer is that his volume of output is diminished. If he had even two months a year to write, the bassoon concerto he is currently working on could have been finished last fall; instead, he plans on completing it after summer’s end.
The shortage of hours, however, have only slowed Fletcher’s ascent, not curtailed it. Last year, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Manfred Honeck and the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Michael Rusinek, debuted his Clarinet Concerto. The performance earned positive reviews, and the program on which it appeared – along with Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” and Verdi’s “La forza del destino” overture – was released as a CD by Octavia Records.
Fletcher has had past successes; his “An American Song,” for wind ensemble, was selected to be played for the 200th anniversary of West Point and has continued to receive performances. But he calls the Clarinet Concerto a breakthrough piece. Having it premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony, he said, was his biggest debut. It is scheduled to be performed by the Czech Philharmonic and at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming. The Pittsburgh Symphony, which commissioned the piece, has also asked for another piece, the bassoon concerto, from Fletcher.
And Friday, the Clarinet Concerto is part of the Aspen Chamber Symphony’s program. The concert – which also includes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony – will feature Rusinek on clarinet, and conductor Andrey Boreyko. (Vladimir Feltsman is soloist for the Mozart piece.) The American release of the CD coincides with the concert, and following the performance, Fletcher will sign copies of the disc.
(Fletcher has also written a short brass sextet, to be performed at an Aspen Institute event on Aug. 8.)
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Fletcher set aside his early composing desire to focus on piano (while his five siblings spread themselves out to cover flute, clarinet, trumpet, horn, violin and cello, all organized by their mother, a voice teacher, choir conductor and church organist). At 12, he broke his arm while dancing to “Hava Nagila” at a bar mitzvah, and during his recovery, his piano teacher instructed him to compose, and enter a piece in a competition in Philadelphia. He won, and received an encouraging letter from the competition head, Robert Page.
It wasn’t too long after that he was having his work performed. Cherry Hill East High School, in Cherry Hill, N.J., had an ambitious music program when Fletcher attended, with two orchestras, 10 choirs, and a four-year music theory program. Fletcher took full advantage, seeing one piece after another being performed at the school.
As soon as he could drive, Fletcher began crossing the Delaware River into Philadelphia to attend Friday afternoon concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra. He also drove north, to Princeton University, to sit in on classes, taking in everything from Shakespeare to every class taught by the famed composer Milton Babbitt. By the time he enrolled as an undergrad at Princeton, Fletcher was already well known to his professors.
The reigning compositional style at Princeton was serialism, which Babbitt championed. Fletcher never embraced that school, not even when he was sent for graduate work to Juilliard, to study with another serialist, Roger Sessions, a former Princeton professor.
Putting a finger on Fletcher’s style can be difficult – even for the composer himself. He loved the music of Sessions, as well as the work of Britten, who used serial techniques only occasionally, and Prokofiev, who was part of the 20th century’s neo-classical wave.
“Ned Rorem has this notion that everything is either French or German,” Fletcher said. “Years ago, he told me, ‘You’re as French as can be.’ I said, ‘No, I want to be German.’ It took me years to go, ‘He’s right, absolutely right. I’ve got to go with my French thing.'”
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The Clarinet Concerto may be a breakthrough in more than the recognition it has garnered its composer; it may also mark a turning point in how Fletcher composes. Much of his music, he said, requires an intense rehearsal period, and only organizations with sufficient time – conservatories, and groups that focus on new works – could play it. The Clarinet Concerto, however, was intended for the Pittsburgh Symphony, with its standard routine of two rehearsals before performing it.
“But I found I could write all the detail and complexity I wanted. As long as I kept thinking, ‘How fast can they put this together?'” said Fletcher, who has had several smaller-scale works performed in Aspen during his tenure.
The piece might also be something of an artistic revelation for Fletcher. A rehearsal of the Clarinet Concerto on Wednesday morning, Fletcher noted, was “an extremely French interpretation” – which seems to have pleased him. “It’s very transparent, a lot of freedom in the rhythm. If you take the approach that the rhythm should be locked in, that won’t work in my music. There’s a lot of give and take.”
The concerto didn’t start on such an upbeat note. With the commission came some stylistic guidelines from Rusinek: “He asked for the clarinet concerto Samuel Barber never wrote,” said Fletcher. “I was sort of appalled. How can I write something that stands up to that? And I wanted to write my own piece.”
Nevertheless, when Fletcher went to Lake Winnipesaukee, he brought with him a bunch of Barber concertos. “And it hit me that what I wanted to write would have long melodic lines, a very traditional form, a yearning lyrical quality” – in other words, very Barberesque.
At rehearsal this past week, the conductor Boreyko asked Fletcher if the piece had a program – that is, if there was a literal narrative behind the music. Fletcher said it didn’t necessarily have one; that he didn’t think listeners needed to know the story he had in mind.
“It’s meant to be a love story,” said Fletcher. “The clarinetist is looking for someone, and only finds them at the end of the slow movement. And it’s the bassoonist he’s looking for.
“The first time the Pittsburgh Symphony read the piece, they got it immediately. There were many tears onstage, just at the rehearsal.”