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Wish You Were Here (but at least we have email)

This week the KW Symphony and I are performing Wish You Were Here by Nico Muhly. Unfortuately, Nico couldn’t make it to the show so I asked him some questions about the score via email. I’ve never done this before, and it’s working pretty well. For those of you interested in what a conversation between a conductor and a composer sounds like, here are some of the more interesting excerpts:

[Before the first reherasal]
EMO: Electric bass — Mainly for articulation or do you want a lot of the sound?
NM: Just for articulation. You don’t really even need to use it; I just wanted to give the guy who plays it for the Boston Pops (who has amazing hair) something to do.
EMO: We’ll use electric bass. I’ll ask our guy to wear a cool wig and it’ll be fine.
(post rehearsal note – we tried with and without electric bass and it definitely sounds better with)

EMO: mm. 85. ob/trumpet. (where the 5/8 begins, if you don’t have a score handy) Those are the correct notes, right (different than the following bars)? I assume they’re different ’cause you wanted to soften the harmonic landing or it has something to do with the second oboe.
NM: Yeah, this is a little prelude information.

EMO: Any other things I missed, or advice for rehearsals/performance?
NM: In terms of general advice, I don’t have much! It sort of plays itself, this piece. There are a few moments that I always like to have MILKED OUT, namely, those glissandi in the cellos around figure N, which gets joined with the trombones – very sad, those moments!
(a few minutes later)
NM: Actually there are two things I always want to hear more of. You know the bass drum rimshot stuff in that section with the piano drones? I always want that to be like nine times as loud, like, dumb high school kids trying to do Peking Opera. The second thing is if your piccolo player can do a lot of vibrato in that whole fake gamelan bit (which I think I ask for but never explain that I mean almost out of tune!) we will be in good shape.

[After the first rehearsal]

EMO: Worked on the bass drum rim thing at letter S. We came up with a rim shot that also hits the membrane of the drum that makes it sound a lot louder and boomier, but still woody and percussive. It is a lot louder than it was when we started, maybe not 9 times louder, but hey.
NM: I like the idea for the bassdrum, it’s like a more proper rimshot.

EMO: At W I had the picc player use a really wide, slow vibrato. Not sure if it totally works, but we’ll see when we get in the hall for a dress rehearsal. The picc player asked if I we could send out a press release stating that this is not his normal vibrato, so I think we’re on the right track.

EMO: The violins and violas would love to know what you mean when you mark a passage “athletic.” They love poetic markings from composers, but this one is a bit mysterious.
NM: Now, as for athletic, all I mean by that is energetic but controlled; steady, studied. Think about the way ostinati need to feel in Shostakovich (like somebody who has never run in his life outrunning the KGB or whatever – frenzied) versus how they want to feel in Reich, which is almost like rowers or a team of dogs. That’s athletic. And come on, that’s not TOO poetic!
EMO: hmm — athletic. It came off to me as meaning virtuosic or something. The music doesn’t imply that anyone is running from the KGB! It seems like much of the passagework in the piece is “athletic” in the sense you mention, so it’s a bit confusing when a few particular passages are marked that way. I guess you mean it as a “safety” marking in those particular passages with the violins and violas.
NM: Yeah, that’s totally it. I mean it can get out of control. I use Britten as the model usually.