On Symphony Hall’s first opening night, October 15th, 1900, the brand new Hutchings organ gave stately support to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Since then the hall’s instrument has been used for many first performances, and apropos of firsts, the BSO’s Robert Kirzinger and Brian Bell told BMInt that the concept of formal commissions from the BSO began 84 years ago with the ensemble’s 50th anniversary. Nevertheless, both before that time and afterwards, BSO music Director Serge Koussevitzky willed numerous composers (sometimes without remuneration) to write works for the orchestra. One of the first such was Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra; the first performance of the work was in New York, but Nadia Boulanger famously played the subsequent performances with the BSO in 1925. Another example of a commission that included an incidental BSO premiere with organ, was Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s for Harvard’s Germanic Museum (now the Busch-Reisinger) of Walther Piston’s Prelude and Allegro for organ and strings. Its broadcast premiere took place with E. Power Biggs on the CBS radio network with strings from the BSO. The Symphony Hall live premiere took place shortly thereafter in October, 1943.
An outsider might imagine that a commission from the Boston Symphony would come set in stone and that the composer would work for months or even years to complete it far in advance of the premiere. On Thursday, however, Michael Gandolfi, will hear the BSO and organist Olivier Latry debut his Concerto for Organ and Orchestra “Ascending Light,” a work he completed only in December and which emerged from a rather vague agreement made with the orchestra in 2009.
“All that was indicated was that it would be this season, or possibly the beginning of next season,” Gandolfi said. “We didn’t have a soloist selected, and we didn’t have an actual performance date, which would set all the deadlines and so on. So basically it just sat there for a couple years.”
In that time, there was a major change at the BSO. James Levine stepped down as music director in 2011, and Gandolfi didn’t hear more about the commission for several years until Anthony Fogg, the orchestra’s artistic administrator, contacted him to discuss possible organ soloists. Fogg suggested Latry, a preeminent French organist, and Gandolfi readily agreed.
The commission, funded by the Gomidas Organ Fund, also stipulated that the piece should commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. With a soloist, performance date, and a historical reference finally set, Gandolfi began work last November and rapidly completed the piece.
I met him for an in an interview at his Cambridge home studio where he showed me the completed score and enthusiastically explained its structure page-by-page. In the big picture, the piece begins with a strident “life force” theme featuring the organ, standing trumpeters, chimes, and rapidly exchanged scales. A middle section sets a traditional Armenian lullaby into variations, which lead to an Armenian hymn. The final section brings back the opening “life force” music, but its return is set against a reprise of the hymn. The orchestration appears bold on the page, the organ writing virtuosic, and Gandolfi describes work as being somewhere between an organ concerto and an organ symphony.
In a wide-ranging conversation, we discussed his study of organ writing, the pacing of his creative process, and his path to becoming one of Boston’s most prominent composers.
BP: Once all the commission details were in place, how did you acquaint yourself with Olivier Latry’s playing and with the organ in general?
MG: I hadn’t heard Olivier in concert before, but I figured I would at some point, and sure enough the BSO sent me to Montreal to hear him in October. I got to meet him, hear him in recital, and that was extraordinary and extremely helpful for me. I had just a few sketches at that point, he played through them, and that was great. But it was still a real challenge to deal with an organ and the orchestra. I did some study, I went and pulled as many scores as I could from the library, and I have colleagues who play the organ and I consulted with them. One of my composition students, Kate Salfelder, is an organist, and she was kind enough to spend time with me at Church of the Covenant in the Back Bay, which is where Tom Handel, one of our faculty at NEC performs. So the two of them helped me, and if I had day-to-day questions I went to them.
Did you try the organ yourself?
I did. I just put my hands on the instrument, but I’m not an organist. I play piano a bit, but it’s a different animal. The release of the organ key is a principal part of the technique, while on piano you don’t think too much about the release. If you write piano music for the organ, you’re probably going to be disappointed. That was made clear just from my study pretty early on.
Was score study the most important source of input for this piece?
I studied pieces in preparation—which is typical of me—but at some point I had to forget about the study and just write the way I was thinking and see what would happen. For example, I was overly concerned initially with how I should set the organ stops. Olivier put that idea to rest pretty quickly. He said “look, that’s my job.” He showed me this piece by Kaija Saariaho—I guess she’d recently written a solo piece—and he played for me exactly what she wrote with the stops, and it wasn’t effective. Then he did it his way, and it needed his input to really shine. I realized that’s not her fault, she put it in the ballpark, she did her job, and then he took it to the next level. Olivier knew what she wanted and knew a better way of doing it. So that’s what I did with my piece—I gave very little indication about registration but I’m pretty confident we’ll be on the same page with these things.
So he can tell just from the context how best to set the stops? Or do you describe the colors you want?
Interestingly, he asked for a MIDI file. I didn’t expect it, but he’s younger, and people nowadays ask for it more often. I picked up a really great sample library of organs from all over the world—Baroque, classical, contemporary—I had a zillion colors from which to choose, so when I prepared his MIDI version I stuck in the samples that I felt were in the ballpark of what I wanted. That’s probably even a better indicator than my trying to figure it out in words.
Did you think about the sound and capabilities of the Symphony Hall organ specifically?
I did. The BSO gave me an open invitation, so I went in a couple of times to work on it. Olivier made it clear that the organ in Montreal, where I heard him in recital, is a new organ in a new hall and it’s got a huge range of color. And he warned me that the Boston organ is set up more for the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony—it’s for these big, beefy, orchestral pieces. And when I brought Tom Handel to Symphony Hall, there were certain things he thought he would be able to do that he wasn’t able to do. He loved the renovation and all that, but it wasn’t set up as a soloist’s organ with all the bells and whistles. But for my writing, my emphasis is on the notes, not the color. So I wasn’t worried about this. If I were writing for the Montreal organ, I don’t know even know if I would go at it. That would be for Olivier—if he wanted to do something crazy with it, he could. I think that’s the beauty of the organ—it’s an instrument that changes from venue to venue and player to player.
Once you’d learned what you could about the organ and the soloist, how did you start writing the piece itself?
It was made clear to me that I didn’t have to consider the Armenian Genocide. The Gomidas Found people are very kind, and they just said they wanted a piece that on the title page commemorates this event, but the piece doesn’t have to be requiem, or have anything to do with it. But I just thought I couldn’t ignore that. So one day I was just reading about the holocaust, and I saw pictures of intellectuals who were killed very early on. They looked youthful and full of life and promise, and I just steeped myself in thinking of them. Then I just started hearing the opening music. This thumping, pounding, life-force music.
When you hear music in your head, is it then easy to get it down on the page, or do you need to work out how to write it down?
It’s pretty easy to get it on the paper once that happens. I started writing this piece in earnest in November, and I finished it December 1. But when I say I wrote it in that period, it was more like a first draft. I had the whole thing in front of me, but maybe only seventy percent of the details. I spent all of December touching up the orchestration and fixing things. For me, that’s the hard part. I’ll spend as much time putting the little finishing screws on the thing than actually getting the thing out. So all told I was writing solidly for two months—but I was gathering information for a year before that.
When you’re writing solidly, what is your daily schedule?
The morning is always best for me. I’ll get up, have a little bite to eat, and then I’ll go to it and work until I feel tired. I was putting in at least twelve hour days with a couple of breaks. Some days I’d write 30 measures and some days 2 measures.
It sounds like you work hard and also generally write quickly.
I love to play, I like to improvise, and the thing about composing that’s always bugged me is that it takes so damn long. It used to take me eight months to write a seventeen minute piece for small orchestra. I was much younger, but I used to be proud of that, like, “wow I spent eight months on that thing.” Now I’m not so proud of that. It doesn’t matter how long it takes—what matters is the piece. If you write a crappy piece in three days, your friends aren’t going to give you the benefit of the doubt. If you spend forever on it, it’s not going to make it better either.
Mozart wrote his last three symphonies in four weeks. They’re at the top of the art form—but even if they weren’t—that’s just lot of work. Bach wrote the cantatas every week. And Mahler wrote these massive symphonies in a couple of months over the summer. How did these guys do it? For years I used to wonder. Most of us working these days do the eight-month thing, but I’ve been striving for a kind of fluency. It’s my own little war, my own little battle, and I don’t mean it as hubris. It’s not an issue for the piece as it comes out—but it is an issue to me.
I learned when I was younger that there’s the Stravinsky model and the Schoenberg model. Stravinsky was methodical. I learned at some point that he wrote between six and eight measures every day. When I read that, I got my calculator out, and figured that if you did what Stravinsky did through a normal lifespan of creativity, you would write as many pieces as the major works of Beethoven. Now Schoenberg was the opposite—he went long periods writing nothing, and then all of a sudden these big pieces would come out in a short amount of time. So I boiled all that down to the two iconic figures, the tortoise and the hare. Schoenberg was the hare—he jumped from a tremendous amount of activity and then sat there for awhile—while Stravinsky was the tortoise, slowly plodding along. They accomplish the same amount but it’s a different methodology.
I’m guessing you’re the hare?
Actually, I’ve always wanted to be the tortoise because then you can live a normal life. You can go to the movies at night, entertain people, and read. But unfortunately I’m the hare, which means I physically suffer. You get burned out and need to take a break for a couple of months. It’s not a good way to work, but that’s the way I do it.
Either way, how did you develop your career to the point of receiving several BSO commissions?
The most important thing is to write music. Today we get too caught up with career stuff. It’s important to learn how to present yourself, but not as important as the music. I remember my teacher saying “when the bell rings you want to be ready.” That’s what counts—have your piece ready when somebody asks for it. Forget about all the other stuff, that will take care of itself. The main thing is to get lost in the work. I’m not comfortable with all the bells and whistles career stuff. I’m not good at it and not comfortable with it.
That sounds surprising given how successful you’ve been with teaching positions and commissions. Really, how did you end up where you are now?
I’ve been fortunate to have known some very good people. My teacher Tom McKinley, who just passed away, was a huge musical influence on me—he was a real mentor. I played with his jazz band, he gave me copy work and paid me for it, I acted as his assistant, I helped him with his publishing company. He was really extraordinarily helpful to me. Mario Davidovsky, Don Martino, and Oliver Knussen have been helpful, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from John Harbison over the last ten years. Knowing these people has been the most important thing. All of their great individual talents I have been fortunate to be in the presence of.
But, I do work hard, as you can see—I’ve always been that way. This piece is also dedicated to the memory of my father who passed away just over a year ago. He wasn’t a musician— though he was musical, had a great ear, and wasn’t afraid to tell me if he didn’t like something I wrote. But he was also very supportive and he was the hardest working person I’ve ever seen. So the combination of that work ethic that he had, and these great people I was just lucky enough to fall into the presence of, has a lot to do with it.