Interviews / Los Angeles Master Chorale / Music News & Info: Classical

Visiting Morten Lauridsen: the renowned composer talks about the importance of silence, and his relationships with USC, Los Angeles, and the LA Master Chorale

Morten Lauridsen (photo by CK Dexter Haven for All is Yar)

As part of their 50th Anniversary festivities, The Los Angeles Master Chorale is celebrating their long-running relationship with composer Morten Lauridsen this weekend.  The partnership is, without a doubt, one of the most important  between a composer and a chorus in the entire world.  It began with a performance of Mid-Winter Songs during Roger Wagner’s last season as Music Director — a concert which, according to the composer, almost never happened.  It solidified during the tenure of Paul Salamunovich when Mr. Lauridsen served as Composer-in-Residence with the LAMC from 1994-2001, a period which led to the creation of the composer’s most memorable and often-performed works.  Now, with Grant Gershon as Music Director, it continues to be nurtured and enhanced.

This past Friday, the Master Chorale hosted a screening Shining Night:  A Portrait of Morten Lauridsen, Michael Stillwater’s documentary film about the composer. This evening, they devote an entire concert to his works, including Mid-Winter Songs, Ave Dulcissima Maria, O Vos Omnes, Nocturnes, Madrigali, Les Chansons des Roses, and O Magnum Mysterium.  “I’m so glad Grant chose these pieces because they’re very, very different,” the composer told me when I met him a week-and-a-half ago.

I had the chance to visit Dr. Lauridsen at his Southern California home.  Shining Night spends a great deal of time focusing on the influence of his annual respites to the house he has on remote Waldron Island in Washington state (aka “Crum’s Castle”).  In contrast, I wanted to hear about the impact his 40+ years in Los Angeles has had on him.

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His modest L.A. residence is not nearly as isolated as his island retreat but the storybook cottage, nestled beyond the markers of the original “Hollywoodland” development and in the shadow of its famous sign, looks like it came out of a children’s fairytale.  Inside, art by Richard Diebenkorn and Andrew Wyeth share pride of place with a sketch by George Gershwin and an autographed manuscript of Aaron Copland, among other notable pieces.  Though the cottage is not far from the touristy bustle of the Walk of Fame and its stars on the sidewalk, it feels a world apart:   relaxed, secluded, and most importantly, quiet.

“It’s perfect for me, it’s quiet up here in the hills,” the composer tells me. “For me to be in a place like this – beauty, natural beauty — is very important. It’s something we should all strive for.”

The peacefulness that comes with a bit of quiet is so important for him that he spearheaded a campaign to get rid of gasoline-powered leaf-blowers on the campus of the University of Southern California, the school at which he has spent 40+ years as both student and teacher.

“I had multiple meetings with everybody over there. And I was talking to the President and I said, ‘Look, look around here. This is a place of contemplation. Look out there on the lawn. You’ve got students that are studying, they’re reading poems, they’re trying to get a grip on their life. They making out, they’re doing everything,’ ” he says with a laugh.

“You have students that live in dorms, they’re sleeping around here. And in the midst of all of this you have guys with gas masks on and ear protectors on so they can’t hear the sound blowing leaves around, polluting the air, polluting everything. It has no business being on this campus.  I told [former] President Steve Sample — we’re good friends — I’m trying to get to the bottom of a Scarlatti cadenza extension when I’m surrounded at 8 o’clock in the morning by guys blowing leaves around.   It’s disturbing.”

He continues the story, recounting discussions with maintenance staff higher-ups.  ” ‘Just tell us your schedule and we won’t do it anymore.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. That’s not the point at all. Don’t do it at all.’ ”  After a three-year long campaign, he was finally successful.   “And guess what? In all of these meetings the strongest supporters of your proposals were the leaf blower operators themselves, who were being gassed to death.”

“So these are the kinds of things that we can do on an individual level, on a local level, to preserve quietness, which I think is important for people because if I have a sense of contemplation – the monks have it right, in a certain way, and Thoreau had it right — that if you can achieve this, then you might find out a few things; you might be able to go explore things without these unnecessary distractions. Well, it’s just something that has been important to me, because I have found that I do my best work in these serene places.”

I point out the irony that for all of his hard work in giving his students some semblance of quiet, many of them are used to spending the vast majority of their day listening to something on purpose, constantly wearing earbuds connected to iPods to ensure that they never have to endure silence.

“I know. And they have the attention span of a gnat!”  He laughs a bit, and continues:  “It’s very interesting, because I took a bunch of young kids up to visit that place up there. And when driving through the pastures and by the sea, the eagles and all of this stuff, everyone is in the car texting and booking – this kind of stuff. We have to educate on this stuff, to get away from that. [Laughs] But it’s a tough thing for young kids these days because they’re being hammered in every which way.”

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A few generations ago, Morten Lauridsen was a USC undergraduate student himself — albeit an unlikely one.  “I came here as a clean slate.  I don’t know if I say this in the movie or not, but I didn’t write a note of music until I was a junior in college.”

He had been studying poetry and history at Whitman College, but after spending time alone on a remote Northwestern tower as part of an extended stint in the firefighting service, he decided to change the direction of his life. “I realized that I needed to be in music in some way . . . but what am I going to do musically? I wasn’t quite sure.”  He had been playing trumpet and piano,  but rather than continue to study those instruments, he set up a meeting with composer Halsey Stevens, chair of the composition department at USC at the time.

“I was thinking about transferring down here, and I actually flew down here,” he recalls.  “I went to Halsey Stevens and said, ‘I’d like to take a composition class.’ And he asked to see my portfolio and I didn’t have one at all.  Rather than say, ‘Well, see you around, come back when you (have one),’ he said, ‘Well, you’ve come a long way. Let me hear you play the piano.’  I had the Brahms E Flat Rhapsody in my fingers at that time; I played that and he was impressed, and he fired a bunch of questions [at me]. And then he looked at me for the longest time and said, “I’ll tell you what, young man:  I’ll give you one semester in a beginning composition class to see how you do.’  I succeeded him eventually as Chair of the Composition Department.”

“But I was able to repay him in a different way, which people don’t usually know. He came down with a horrible case of Parkinson’s. The last ten years of his life was just awful. He was on L-Dopa, but his body would flail around all of the time; it was just horrendous. Anyway, he asked me if I would go out to his composing studio. And to go in and find sketches of pieces that he had begun and finish them for him in his style. So I did:  the Viola Concerto, the Seventh Piano Sonatina, Venite Exultemus for Chorus and Brass, Four Songs on Love and Death. And they all got performed when he was alive. You could never tell where he ended and I continued. They’re in print and they have his name on them, and it only says ‘Edited by Morten Lauridsen.’ And that was one way of paying him back for that.”

“Heifetz and Piatigorsky were on the faculty at the time.  My first teaching job was teaching theory to the master class students of Heifetz. . . .”

“But imagine the people I was studying with at that time. I did a Master’s with Ingolf Dahl, and the same time that Michael Tilson Thomas was:  I’m doing keyboard harmony,  he’s on one side and Ralph Grierson is on the other side of me, and [we’re on] these old out-of-tune pianos we used to play on. And [Dahl] said, “OK.” And gives us something. “Here’s a modal sequence. You start in that key and then you modulate to the next key. And then the guy next to you has to take that key and go…” That kind of (thing) — it makes your hair crawl! Studying with Ingolf Dahl — oh, my God! . . . “

“I came here with a clean slate, beautifully taught by a whole group of people, not only in music but in poetry and all of that stuff over there. It’s a great school, and I told them after I got the National Medal [of Arts in 2007] that it’s a great reflection on the school. I was taught here. I’m not only teacher, I was taught at this place. A young man coming all of this way from scratch living on 25th and Vermont for all of those years and not having any money. [Laughter] But then, they kept me on.”

“I love this place. ‘SC is such an exciting place.  The School of Music continues on its roll. It is just a happening place. And it’s been my family for all of these years and I love teaching. They have allowed me and my schedule to continue with my work. I have my summers to go up to this shack on the island. So they’ve nurtured me, and I’ve been very grateful for having all of these years.”

He gives back to the university in a number of ways, but perhaps the one he’s most proud of is his love of nurturing young composers.  “One thing I’ve always done, and I have insisted on this and the president of the university loves, is how I teach one section of Freshman [Music] Theory every year.  All the rest are graduate students. I think it has to do with that whole thing with Halsey Stevens all of those years ago — some senior person had an interest in me. I think every senior faculty member should do it:  take one of your sections with the freshmen; get them when they’re young; get them on the right track right away.  So I’ve been doing that all of these years.”

He is very proud that Andrew Norman, the former USC student who is now one of the hottest composers in the country, has now returned to USC as a faculty member.  “He’s just so talented, insanely good! And he was as a student too. We used to go hear his pieces. He wasn’t my student, but I was Chair of the Composition Department at that time. And I recognized his talent early on and was able to fully fund him going through. A gifted guy.  We’re very honored to have Andrew as part of faculty.”

andrew_normanIn a phone conversation I had with Andrew Norman a few days later, the younger composer returned many compliments:  “Even though I didn’t take any classes with Dr. Lauridsen, his presence was very widely and deeply felt throughout the department.  He was very present, and he knew all of us by name.  He was very encouraging of all of us young composers, and he took an interest in our development.  As an 18 year old coming to school, it’s quite something to have this world-renowned composer interested in what you’re up to, and that alone was quite a special thing.”

Mr. Norman continues:  “He’s done a lot for setting the tone of composition study at USC, and making sure that it’s a place that’s very open, that balances craft and technique with a wide scope of music and style.  That’s really special, and that’s part of his legacy at USC:  excellence and openness.  That continues to this day.”

Despite differences in their composition style, Mr. Norman has a deep admiration for his older mentor and colleague:  “[Dr. Lauridsen’s music] has an emotional depth and directness without being sentimental.  He is somehow magically able to find that place that is very personal, very pure, but somehow not pandering and not dishonest.  He’s able to do very sophisticated things with very simple musical ideas, which is actually one of the hardest things for a composer to do.”

“Dr. Lauridsen’s writing is so powerful because it is so honest, and that kind of honesty transcends style and it is something that audiences and performers can sense in an instant.  It is often hard to be that honest, I don’t know exactly why.  But there are a lot of trends in our field — lot of styles that come into fashion and go out of fashion, and people jumping on and off bandwagons and this sort of thing.  Dr. Lauridsen has stuck to his course for many, many years.”

“I think that there’s a certain amount of courage in Dr. Lauridsen’s voice, he decided that he knew what he wanted to do, and he went out and did it.  At the same time, he and the entire faculty at USC are very aware of the possibility of multiple paths for a composer.  It is special that everyone respects music of multiple styles here.  As a model for how to construct a career, I think he’s really amazing.”

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It’s an understatement to say that Dr. Lauridsen is a proud Trojan, in every way.  I ask him about the opportunity that he had — along with USC’s  other National Medal recipients — to be honored on the field during last year’s USC v. Stanford football game, and he lights up excitedly:  “Wasn’t that great?!!  I said to [Solomon Golomb, 2011 National Medal of Science recipient], who’s as big as you can be and twice as smart, I say:  ‘Sol, you block for me, man. I’m going to grab that pigskin, and all of us just run down there, we’re going to score a touchdown.’ It was so great.” 

“But you know why that happened? [President] Max Nikias said, ‘We’re going to remind them that we’re the only university in the five of the last seven years to achieved National Medals,’ ” he says without his usual self-deprecating style.  “I thought it was really great walking back and getting all of these high-5s from students who’d say, ‘Way to go!’ “

“I love my relationship with USC.”

National_Medal_Winners_Homecoming

(L to R) USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett, USC Professor Kevin Starr, USC Trustee and alumnus Andrew Viterbi, USC Professor Morten Lauridsen, USC Professor Solomon Golomb, and USC President C. L. Max Nikias.

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Besides his devotion to the University of Southern California, there are other reasons for the native Northwesterner to have stayed in Los Angeles for as long as he has.  “[The city] has affected [my music] not so much stylistically in any way. But what it has done is I have been gifted by performances by remarkable musicians of all types.”

He lists many of the great performing arts organizations and music schools in Southern California.  “One of the reasons I came down here was to take advantage of the opportunity of great performers to do my music. And so I would say that I work with specific Los Angeles performers in mind when I’m composing this, so it speaks very highly of the level of performance that you find in this town. I wouldn’t have found that elsewhere to that extent.  So I’ve been certainly nurtured by that. But I think then the other thing too, simply the exposure to great artists from all over the world coming through LA.”

He has many stories to tell of the unique musical experiences he’s had and people he’s met since coming to Los Angeles.  Here’s a sampling of just a few of them:

  • “[The Trumpet Sonata] was my first extended piece that I got published.  I thought I was going to play it, and then after the first measure got away from me on my trumpet capabilities. But there was some kid – this is a long time ago, in 1964 — I heard some trumpet player just kind of warming up doing lip drills and everything like that. And I said, “I don’t even know who you are.” He had a crew cut and he looked like he’d be smoking something. I said, “I don’t know who you are, but man, can you play that horn! How about I write a piece for you, a Sonata, and you premier it.” And he said, “Great, I’ll do it.” So he did. I played the piano at his premier. [It was] Ronald Romm, who just retired recently from the Canadian Brass. Ronny. And he played it all his life.”
  • “I have actually a folk rock piece I just sent out – if you can believe this. I get letters from a lot of people and it was very interesting getting one from Mary Chapin Carpenter.  She’s a huge fan of my music and so she writes these letters to me. And then she came out, she did a wonderful program down at [Walt Disney Concert Hall] arranged by a former student at USC, Vince Mendoza. And so I said, “Hey, I have another song that’s been laying around for 40 years. It’s my take when I was reading the Nathanial Hawthorne story, “Young Goodman Brown,” and I set it as a song.  So I just sent it off to her. It’s not genre specific, I don’t know what genre it is, but it’s my take on that particular Hawthorne tale. I said, ‘I think you will be really good for that.’ So sent it off to her and we’ll see what happens. “
  • “So I get a call from Sting’s agent, his representative saying, ‘Sting is in town. He’s going to introduce A Brand New Day at the  Universal Amphitheater. He wants to meet you; he loves your music. Two tickets are waiting for you, come to his dressing room before the concert.’ So I go back there and there he was in a loin cloth doing his yoga. And so he knew my music and I knew his music; I’m a great fan of him as well. I had the Blue Turtles album and everything else, because he can do jazz, he can do “Roxanne,” whatever. And he plays a double bass and everything. So we had a wonderful repartee between two musicians in very disparate fields with mutual admiration.  Then after a while he says, “Please excuse me, I must go give a concert.”  His representative called me the next day and said, “I just talked to Sting. He said he was so excited to meet you. He said when I called him he was staying in a place in Malibu and I could hear The Mid-Winter Songs in the background.’ Isn’t that great?
  • The closest he ever got to Igor Stravinsky:  “I get a call from Michael Tilson Thomas in the ‘60s.  So Mike says, ‘I need a page turner. We’re going to a Monday evening concern. Can you turn pages for us?’ ‘Sure, I’ll do that. Oh, by the way, what’s the piece?’ ‘Oh, it’s the Rite of Spring. Ralph Grierson and I are doing the one piano four hand version of that. And Stravinsky will be in the audience.’ So I did. But I remember just before I went on stage, Lawrence Morton who was running that whole show for all of those years, he comes up to me and says, ‘Young man, you’re as white as a sheet. You’re just the page turner.’ And I said, “Well, that’s true, I am just the page turner. But see that old guy sitting out there?” (Laughs) “The composer of the piece. This isn’t exactly Fur Elise that we’re going to be doing here.’  I had to be the turner on two guys, you know? . . . Anyway I made it through. Yeah, but he was very much a presence.”

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Besides his tenure at USC, the most enduring musical relationship that Dr. Lauridsen has had since coming to Southern California has been with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.  It all started with Roger Wagner leading a 1985 performance Mid-Winter Songs, a work that was given its world premiere (in the original version with solo piano accompaniment) in 1981 by the USC Chamber Singers — when Grant Gershon was a member of the ensemble.

It was the only time the composer would work with the legendary choral conductor, and it only happened because of some moxie and perseverance.  It all started with the 1983 premiere of the orchestral version by Robert Duerr and the Pasadena Chamber Orchestra.

“People from The Master Chorale were in the audience. They heard the piece and brought it to Roger Wagner’s attention. And then, it’s 1984 and I’m reading the Los Angeles Times. I’m looking at [the Master Chorale’s] repertoire coming up and I see my name and the piece. This is huge! I’m just beginning my mid-career. It’s a great thing to have this.”

“Well, I wait to hear from them, and I wait to hear from them. And I don’t hear from them. So after a while, I called up and I got Robert Willoughby Jones, who was the Executive Director at that time. And I said, ‘Hi. My name is Morten Lauridsen and I couldn’t help but notice you’re doing a piece of mine.’ And there’s this long silence and he said, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not going to be able to do that.’ He said, ‘It’s nothing about the piece at all, it has nothing to do with that. We love the piece.’ “

“But [Roger] has been apprised of the fact that this is his last season. He’s not a happy camper about this. So he told the board that [with regards to] their planned season, you might want to put that where the moon don’t shine!’ (Laughs)  You catch my drift? And he’s not going to do anything new, he’s going to do his old favorites – Danny Boy and etc. . . .”

“And I said, ‘This is terrible news. Is there anything I can do?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘Well, give me his phone number.’ (Laughter) And I remember him saying, ‘You don’t want to do that!’ I said, ‘What do I have to lose? Why don’t I call him up and play it for him? Maybe I can get him to do it.’ “

“So I finally got his phone number and I called Roger Wagner at home:  ‘Hi, my name is Morten Lauridsen. I couldn’t help but notice you’re going to be doing my Mid-Winter Songs.’ And the same thing, ‘No, I’m sorry, things have changed. . . . ‘  And I said, ‘Well, that’s awful news of course. But why don’t I come up and play them for you? You might do them sometime.’ ‘No,’ he says again. ‘I think I should come up and play them for you.’ I finally got him to say yes. I said, ‘It doesn’t take long.’ “

“So I went up and played it for him. And I simply sat down at the piano. Played it all of the way through. And after that he said, “Do that part again. I like that. What did you do right there?” So at the end I announced, “Maestro, those are my Mid-Winter Songs. I hope you’ll reconsider.” And two days later I got a call from Robert Willoughby Jones saying, “I don’t know what happened, but it’s back on the program.”

“Yeah! . . . and I often think what if I hadn’t made that phone call? Because he did it.  John Currie did it beautifully [in 1980], just beautifully — paired it with Pergolesi and Haydn, it was a great concert.  And then Marshall Rutter called and asked, ‘Do you want to be our Composer-in-Residence?’ “

“At this time also I had The Rose Songs and the Madrigali, and that was getting a lot of attention. A group called Choral Cross-Ties has done an album of my stuff with the Mid-Winter Songs, Madrigali and The Rose Songs, lot of air play, a lot of best year lists. The timing was perfect. Yeah, I would like to do this.  I told The Master Chorale, ‘I’m a very deliberate writer, I write slowly, why don’t we do this:  I’ll write you a piece every other year, and in-between you can do The Mid-Winter Songs and The Rose Songs and Madrigali.”

“So this all led to the album [Lux Aeterna]. So as Grant has said it again and again, he feels that this model of composer, conductor, and ensemble, it just works so beautifully. He said that is his model – ideal model. And it’s worked for these years. And I left The Master Chorale with some pieces that are now part of the repertoire.”

Indeed.

Lux Aeterna, a work that he completed after his mother’s death, is a tour de force of his unapologetically clean style of vocal writing.  Ave Maria was written as a 70th birthday present to Paul Salamunovich, the Master Chorale’s Music Director Emeritus.  But if there was one work that cemented his place among the most important and well-known living composers, it was O Magnum Mysterium.

The compact work has become the best selling choral octavo in Theodore Presser’s 200 year history.  It was his first composition as Composer-in-Residence, and it was commissioned by Marshall Rutter, former LAMC President, as a Christmas present for his wife, Terry Knowles, the current LAMC President. “I was at dinner at Marshall’s house, and Terry is in the other room and he said, ‘Terry and I are celebrating our second wedding anniversary right around Christmastime. Could you write a piece for the Christmas concert to celebrate that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ “

It became an instant classic.  At the world premiere performance, Mr. Salamunovich famously compared it to Vittoria’s setting of the same text, one of his favorite works in the choral repertoire.  Remarkably, Dr. Lauridsen did not know of the conductor’s affinity for the work.  “That was news to me. And when he announced it and said if someone had asked him his favorite piece it was that. No, I didn’t know that.”

O Magnum MysteriumHe recounts how the Zurbarán painting hanging in the Norton Simon inspired him to write a direct work of music, and he sits down at the piano to explain some of it, highlighting the famous dissonant appoggiatura — “the only note out of the key” — he writes for the word “Virgo,” foreshadowing the suffering that the Virgin Mary will endure once her son is born.  He remembers completing the work in Washington, sending it to Mr. Salamunovich in the mail, and the experience of hearing the Master Chorale rehearse it for the very first time.

“It was very interesting because when I came back down here and it was time for rehearsals of the piece, there had been a lot of buzz with the singers. I went in and I heard this thing – and we can imagine all of the sounds – but to hear it with The Master Chorale and you hear the altos against the tenors and all of the blends at one camp. I remember going out from that first rehearsal and just simply sitting in my car for a half an hour, just like: “What was that? What’s going on here? What was that?’ “

“Because it had a direct connection with me, you know? And they did it – there are more than 100 recordings of that thing out there now. I get mail on this all of the time; I get mail on that note, usually from composers, just that one note.  But it was just, again, paring it down, getting rid of stuff. I can write complicated music with anybody else, but there’s – who was it that talked about? —  ‘the hard won elegant simplicity.’ “

“And I think I was trying for that:  the hard won elegant simplicity, to try to do something meaningful that will last with materials that are not complicated.”

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Photo credit:

  • Morten Lauridsen at the piano:  photo by CK Dexter Haven
  • Andrew Norman:  courtesy of ASCAP
  • USC National Medal winners:  courtesy of the University of Southern California
  • O Magnum Mysterium sheet music cover:  courtesy of peermusic
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