Sunday, December 20, 2009
Duo, in the Sun
Today I had a new experience ... I conducted excerpts from Bruce Gaston's opera A Boy and a Tiger for the first time. I want to tell you about this because, at my age, one rarely turns new corners. One's life gets set on autopilot, and many doors flung open with abandon in one's youth have creakily shut themselves.
It took a long time to reach this point because Bruce and I are polar opposites in every way, creatively in particular. There are essentially two ways to compose: the Mozart way, where you finish it all in your head and it bursts out, fully formed, onto the page, and the Beethoven way, where every agonizing step of the process is external: the endless drafts, the starts and stops, the slow chiselling away of the intractable marble. All my life I've tended to the former, and for the last thirty-five years have marvelled at Bruce Gaston coping with the latter.
The advantage of the first way is that when you produce what appears to be a first draft, it can go straight into prodution, but the disadvantage is that people think you are facile, because they don't see the agony. You become known for "whipping things off" because no one sees what you go through. The second way has the advantage that people immediately know the hell you have to go through, but initial versions of your score may be very far from the final thing.
One consequence of Bruce's inimitable method of composing is that I didn't actually see the score I was to conduct until the night before — technically, an hour before, because he emailed me a revision as I was getting into the car to go to the park.
But from the first minute of rehearsing the opera in the open, behind a nineteenth-century Siamese fort by the river, in the blazing sun, I could feel the magic of this production. I didn't think the fifty or so kids — not professional musicians — Bruce has commandeered from all over the country would be able to watch a conductor, but that was the first miracle of the day. They had never been conducted, yet they instinctively watched for their entries and followed the beat. And I realized that I was in fact the missing piece of Bruce's puzzle. I've experienced many performances of excerpts — practically the entire opera by now — by these kids with Bruce trying to direct and play the piano at the same time (the piano will be replaced by a large symphony orchestra in the final version) — and there was still something a bit fuzzy about this opera. something out of focus. It was amazing and humbling to discover that that catalyst was me.
To find out that you're the missing variable in Einstein's equation … that was truly stunning. Because there's no doubt that Tiger is a work of profound genius, even though not many can yet imagine the final product. Knowing Bruce as I have for so long, I have always been able to extrapolate the final product from the hints that have been dropped so far, but yesterday afternoon I felt that I had a real hand in making the outside world able to really perceive that finished opera which is still four months away.
The other miracle of the day was the rapport between me and Nong Mai, the kid who plays the lead in the opera. The way we were able to communicate in performance was so total, I have only had the same experience before with a few other artists ... all of whom I would consider world-class. But it was not a rapport that came from years of training. It came from this kid innocently and passionately putting his whole life in my hands for the duration of the performance. He's had an awful life, growing up with HIV and probably trusting few outsiders, but for the duration of the performance he totally let me do the "Vulcan mind meld" with him. That was awe-inspiring.
Well now the fact that the prime minister, the governor of Bangkok, and all the various top brass of the democratic party were sitting two feet away was also pretty astonishing.
I don't know how Abhisit managed to look so cool. The rest of us were sweating like pigs....