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The (Classical) Wee Small Hours Composer-in-residence Frank Ticheli delivers a night-to-daybreak song cycle as his final -- and bleakest--piece for the Pacific Symphony.

April 12, 1998|Chris Pasles | Chris Pasles is a Times staff writer

Composer Frank Ticheli has written a serious piece about the Los Angeles riots. But he considers his new work, "An American Dream," his first really dark composition. Subtitled "A Symphony of Songs for Soprano and Orchestra," it will receive its first performances on Wednesday and Thursday by the Pacific Symphony led by Carl St.Clair at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

The symphony closes Ticheli's seven-year tenure as composer in residence with the Santa Ana-based orchestra. Most residencies last three or fewer years, though they may be renewed, as Ticheli's contracts were twice.

During that time, he has written four other works for it--"Radiant Voices" (the L.A. riots piece), "Fanfare," "On Time's Stream" and "Postcard"--as well as pieces for other ensembles. Meanwhile, he has also been teaching as a tenured music professor at USC and guest-conducting around the country.

But "An American Dream," his first work for voice and orchestra, is his longest and most ambitious work to date. The texts are original poems by author and playwright Philip Littell, who provided librettos for Conrad Susa's "The Dangerous Liaisons" (for San Francisco Opera in 1994) and Andre Previn's "Streetcar Named Desire" (to be premiered at SFO in September).

"I wanted to do something different," Ticheli, 40, said over a recent dinner, a light Southern inflection revealing his Louisiana origin. "Somewhere along the line, I decided I'd do a vocal piece, and string together a series of poems. Also, Carl had said, just in passing, 'You know, you've never done anything dark. All your works have been pretty upbeat.'

"A conductor's words are really powerful. He planted that seed. So that influenced the kind of text that I began to see."

Ticheli read through various poets (including Elizabeth Bishop and Rabindranath Tagore), without finding what he wanted. So he teamed up with Littell, introduced to him by L.A. composer and USC colleague Stephen Hartke.

"Philip listened very carefully," Ticheli said. "I was never too concrete. I just told him I wanted [a group of poems] that touched on the world of dreams, that perhaps takes place in a single night, and at the end, I would like some kind of light to emerge. I left it open-ended. I wanted to let him go to work and see what he came up with."

What he came up with first didn't work.

"He was dealing with his own childhood in a place called Tyringham Valley in Massachusetts," Ticheli said. "It's in the Berkshires. To him, it's a dark, evil place. I don't know. I've never been there. I couldn't relate to it, though. It was too much about him and his experience, and I wanted something broader."

Said Littell: "We had made an agreement. Basically, I would just keep writing until he was happy. I gave him a bunch of stuff, anchored in my own landscape. They were huge dead ends for him. They turned him off immensely. By these refusals, I got a sense of what he wanted."

The seven final poems juxtapose dreamlike scenes and real events, more or less following a night-to-day chronology. One of the real scenes involves urban violence.

"It's still a single night representing perhaps a lifetime," Ticheli said. "There is a process here.

"The poems that are most dreamlike involve [musical] symmetry in some way," he added.

The first uses an eight-note symmetrical scale, the second uses chords that are symmetrical from top to bottom, the fourth is a palindrome--it sounds the same way played forward or backward.

"All the poems that have to do with reality--with the sleeper's conscious thoughts--are set in more traditional tonal structures," he said. "The third movement ["Outside in the night, a woman cried out"] is basically a G-minor rock tune, which is absolutely dictated by the text because we're into reality. A woman is being beaten, and the sleeper is awakened abruptly by the sound of the woman's cry in the streets below."

Before writing a single note, however, Ticheli felt he had to talk with soprano soloist Camellia Johnson, who will sing the work with the Pacific.

"I asked her what she likes to sing, what she hates to sing, with the understanding that I wouldn't necessarily conform to that, because I think it's my job sort of to stretch her a bit," the composer said. "She's got a beautiful voice. But she loves lyrical music, just lyricism, period.

"So I talked to her at length. It helps me to have that guideline. It's the same thing Stravinsky said: 'I'm freed up through restrictions.' You can't create when you're constantly faced with a thousand choices."

So given the restrictions, did the music come easily?

"Oh, no, I struggle when I write," Ticheli said. "I get up very early, 6 a.m. or even 5 a.m. I work best in the morning. And I usually shut down at sundown.

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