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Composer's life is a dance of notes

Thomas Pasatieri likes to change things up by writing for film, for instruments -- and now, for opera again.

June 01, 2007|David Ng | Special to The Times

For composer Thomas Pasatieri, "allegro" -- an indication for a fast, lively tempo -- isn't just a musical term. It's a way of life.

In a two-decade career in Hollywood, Pasatieri has racked up more than 100 movie credits orchestrating other composers' scores -- including, most recently, those of "The Good German" and "Little Children." At his busiest, he says, he was working on as many as 10 films a year.

But that's hardly the whole story. Pasatieri also has written 300 songs, about 25 instrumental pieces -- and 19 operas. The newest, "Frau Margot," marks his first operatic venture since he began working in Hollywood and is to receive its premiere Saturday at the Fort Worth Opera.

Speed seems to come naturally to Pasatieri. "I don't ever remember a time not working," the composer, 61, said recently from his home in Bethel, Conn. He composed "Frau Margot" in about eight months, a remarkably short time in an art form where new works can take several years or more to complete.

"Thomas is fast, but fast in a good way," says Darren Woods, general director of the Fort Worth Opera.

All the same, this is shaping up as one of Pasatieri's most hectic periods in recent memory. Not only is "Frau Margot" absorbing his attention, but another new opera, "The Hotel Casablanca" -- based on the Georges Feydeau farce "A Flea in Her Ear" -- is scheduled to premiere in August at the San Francisco Opera.

Born in Brooklyn to a working-class family, Pasatieri hit the musical ground running at an early age. He began giving piano concerts at 10 and a year later started writing music, mostly piano and violin pieces. At 14, he started studying under Nadia Boulanger. At 20, he composed his first opera, "The Women," a 12-minute piece that premiered at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. Today, his most performed operas include "The Seagull" (from the Chekhov play) and "The Trial of Mary Lincoln."

Critics like to compare Pasatieri to Gian Carlo Menotti, the Italian-born neo-Romantic composer who wrote 25 operas.

"I think that the comparison comes from the fact our operas are in English," he said. "I actually discussed this with Menotti when he was alive. He dismissed it and said people always told him he sounded like Puccini."

"Frau Margot" tells the story of a famous composer's widow who holds a seance to decide who should finish her husband's last opera. The story is based loosely on an incident in the life of Alban Berg's wife, Helene, but Pasatieri and his librettist, veteran opera director Frank Corsaro, have added elements from the life of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the classical composer who, like Pasatieri, moved to Hollywood at midcareer to work in the movies.

In the film business, Pasatieri's job is to mute his own voice and channel other people's music. As an orchestrator, he takes a composer's or songwriter's composition and creates a working orchestral score. It's a job that demands a certain degree of self-effacement as well as speed.

"I've worked on movies where the composer's sketch would be delivered to me at midnight, and I would orchestrate it from 12 to 3 a.m.," he said. "At 6 a messenger would come to pick it up, and at 10 a.m. we'd start recording."

Pasatieri's first Hollywood assignment was the CBS miniseries "Space." In one scene, he dubbed a Chopin sonata for actor Ralph Bellamy. His first big studio picture was "National Lampoon's European Vacation," for which he orchestrated the music for a strip tease.

He doesn't apologize for his career choices. "I wanted to have a secure financial life. The only place to achieve that was Los Angeles," he said. "I needed to have things like a pension and health benefits. I was also very tired of traveling so much. I had been on the road for 28 years, and I wanted to be in one place."

Still, Pasatieri said the movies have taught him many things, such as how to make changes on the spot. In 1990, he was working on director Robert Benton's "Billy Bathgate." For one scene, Benton told him that he didn't like a certain cue composer Mark Isham had written. So Pasatieri instructed the strings to play the cue pizzicato (plucked) instead of bowed. He also took out the brass and told the woodwinds to play an octave lower.

When the director returned in five minutes, he said the new cue was "fantastic," recalled Pasatieri. "That was very funny because none of the notes were different."

In the last 10 years, Pasatieri has worked mostly with composer Thomas Newman, an eight-time Academy Award nominee whose best-known scores include "American Beauty" and "The Shawshank Redemption." For "The Good German," the duo worked with a full orchestra to re-create the sound of a 1940s studio picture.

"I think Thomas feels most comfortable working with big orchestras with a lot of different sections," says Pasatieri. " Just watching him work with all the musicians is fascinating, and I try to be a student of his as much as possible."

Pasatieri said spending so much time working in the movies has also changed the way he writes his own music. "It's hard to put your finger on it, but it has made my music simpler in a sense, more direct and more tonal," he explained. For "Frau Margot," he chose to use less percussion than in his previous operas as well as fewer orchestrally accompanied recitatives.

In one crucial respect, though, Pasatieri hasn't changed at all: He still composes by hand.

"Most people do it with computers today," he said, "but I don't. I physically write it all out. I have always done it that way, so I'm able to write faster than I would typing notes on a screen. I can actually feel it flow as I write it down. There's a tremendous energy there. It almost feels kinetic."

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