Paul Moravec, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

As a six-year-old, I was astounded by The Beatles when they appeared for the first time in American TV — the Ed Sullivan Show in February, 1964. I wanted to be a Beatle! My first serious training as a musician was as a boy chorister in the RSCM tradition of the Episcopal Church. So you could say that I owe a lot to British influences in my musical life.   Becoming a composer is more a calling than a conscious decision. Something sang in me and I wanted to give it formal expression.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My pantheon includes: Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bartok, Brahms, Wagner, Monteverdi, Josquin, the Tudor composers — and really so many more. I compose in just about every genre, and I have particular exemplars for each. In describing Stephen Sondheim’s influence on my operas, I once said to him: “You know, you’re in my pantheon.” Being a Vaudevillian smart aleck, Sondheim replied,”Well, I better get out of your pantheon!”

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Making a living! As composers, we say, “We all have to do something to support our habits.” I am happily University Professor at Adelphi University — I like teaching and I’m good at it. Teachers and artists share a common mission in that we are all in the business of articulating and communicating values of one sort or another. I don’t believe that art can necessarily make a person morally better, but art has a very powerful and compelling moral dimension in some mysterious way. It’s a complex issue.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Nocturne is the second piece I’ve written for OOTS. The first was my Shakuhachi Concerto, with James Schlefer as the soloist. I came to Stratford for the rehearsals in 2013 and very enjoyed working with David and the players. I love knowing who I’m writing for in a commission. It’s kind of like casting a play before you even write the play itself. So I liked thinking of OOTS as I was writing Nocturne this summer. Composing for your friends adds a special dimension and even improved quality for a new composition. By the way, I should mention that visiting the Shakespeare birthplace in 2013 inspired the latest in my series of Shakespeare-related works. It’s called Amorisms, now available on Delos.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

The challenges of working with sub-par musicians are too obvious to mention, so I’ll pass on that! The pleasures of working with imaginative, engaged, and skillful musicians are immense and in some ways unexpected. Working with great musicians is a truly healthy collaboration in that they can make my work more musical than I can imagine and suggest ideas and revisions that take the work to a higher level. I have had the privilege of working with the violinist Maria Bachmann on over a dozen works, including Tempest Fantasy, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2004. Our decades-long collaboration has made me a better composer, absolutely.

Of which works are you most proud?

I think my best work so far is The Shining, my opera based on the Stephen King novel, which premiered at Minnesota Opera in May. Beyond that, The Blizzard Voices, a yuge oratorio coming on the BMOP Sound label soon. I have high hopes for my current oratorio, which is about the Underground Railroad, to be premiered by the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall in 2018.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My default setting is basically tonal, though my musical language uses all kinds of techniques and tools depending on the specific task at hand. There may have been a time when a composer would identify with a particular school or approach, but those days are long over. All bets are off now. The upside of that change is that composers enjoy remarkable freedom and flexibility in realizing their dreams and visions. As a rule, I try always to make beautiful things. However crucially important technical mastery is to a composer, it’s really secondary to the overarching artistic vision, which both embraces and transcends matters of craft and technique.

How do you work?

I compose at the piano and write by hand on manuscript paper before inputting notation into Sibelius software. In an oddly real way, my music is hand-made: I make music by hand. Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Thinking Hand articulates the importance of the hand in artistic craftsmanship. As someone wrote, Pallasmaa “shows how the pencil in the hand of the artist or architect becomes the bridge between the imagining mind and the emerging image.” I would adapt this statement to describe how my hands help “think” for me as I try out musical ideas on the piano and as I write them down in an endless process of revision and re-imagining.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

The Beatles!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

In 2008, Oratorio Society of New York performed my cantata Songs of Love and War at Carnegie Hall. The texts some from letters to and from the fronts of four American wars: Vietnam, WWII, WWI, and the Civil War. At this performance, the author of the Vietnam letter, George Robinson, and the author of the WWII letter, Marjorie Gaunt, were both in attendance. It was a tremendous performance and very moving experience for me and my wife, Wendy. I live for performances in which I feel like a useful member of society, that I am really contributing something viable. Above all, I want for my music to be useful to people. I want my music to be used !

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I could talk about this for hours (!) but in short, I guess the advice is pretty obvious: it is paramount to achieve genuine mastery of one’s art and to know thoroughly everything possible about one’s tradition, the whole literature.

Paul Moravec’s ‘Nocturne’ is premiered by Orchestra of the Swan at Mozart & Moravec on Tuesday 6th December 2016 at Stratford ArtsHouse. Further details and tickets here


Paul Moravec, recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Music, is the composer of numerous orchestral, chamber, choral, operatic, and lyric pieces. His music has earned many distinctions, including the Rome Prize Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. A graduate of Harvard College and Columbia University, he has taught at Columbia, Dartmouth, and Hunter College and currently holds the special position of University Professor at Adelphi University. He was the 2013 Paul Fromm Composer-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome, recently served as Artist-in-Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and was also recently elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society.

Frequently commissioned by notable ensembles and major music institutions, Mr. Moravec’s current project is an oratorio about The Underground Railroad for premiere by the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall in May, 2018. His most recent premiere is The Shining, based on the Stephen King novel, at Minnesota Opera in May, 2016. Other recent premieres include The Overlook Hotel Suite, with American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Winter Songs, with the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society, Light Shall Lift Us, with Opera Orlando, The King’s Man, with Kentucky Opera, and Amorisms, with Alias and the Nashville Ballet. Recent seasons have included the New York premiere of The Blizzard Voices, with the Oratorio Society of NY at Carnegie Hall, as well as the premieres of Violin Concerto, with Maria Bachmann and Symphony in C, and Shakuhachi Concerto, with James Schlefer and the Orchestra of the Swan (U.K.). Other recent premieres include Danse Russe, an opera for the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts; Brandenburg Gate, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall; Piano Quintet, with Jeremy Denk and the Lark Quartet; and Wind Symphony, with a consortium of American concert bands.

Mr. Moravec’s discography includes Northern Lights Electric, an album of his orchestral music with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project released in 2012 on the BMOP Sound label. He has five albums of chamber music on Naxos American Classics: Tempest Fantasy, performed by Trio Solisti with clarinetist David Krakauer; The Time Gallery, performed by eighth blackbird; Cool Fire, with the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival; Useful Knowledge, with soprano Amy Burton, baritone Randall Scarlata, Trio Solisti, and la Fenice Quintet; and Violin Concerto, with Maria Bachmann and Rossen Milanov’s Symphony in C. Among his many other recorded works are: Double Action, Evermore, and Ariel Fantasy, performed by the Bachmann/Klibonoff Duo (Endeavour Classics); Sonata for Violin and Piano performed by the Bachmann/Klibonoff Duo (BMG/RCA Red Seal); Atmosfera a Villa Aurelia and Vince & Jan, performed by the Lark Quartet (Endeavour Classics); Morph, performed by the String Orchestra of New York (Albany); Anniversary Dances, with the Ying Quartet (Dorian Records); Cornopean Airs, with American Brass Quintet and organist Colin Fowler; and Andy Warhol Sez, with bassoonist Peter Kolkay and pianist Alexandra Nguyen. Other releases include Blue Fiddle, with Hilary Hahn on Deutsche Grammophon, and Piano Quintet, with Jeremy Denk and the Lark Quartet, on Bridge Records.


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