What Would Marx Do?: With his newest work, Mollicone set out to use art as a platform for social justice.
Mollicone for the Masses
Area composer Henry Mollicone is suddenly everywhere with his new mass for the homeless, a reworked 'Coyote Tales' and a series of birthday concerts
By Bill Forman
Composers have a long history of drawing inspiration from—and, to varying degrees, lending power to—the voices of the less fortunate. From Frederick Delius' orchestral tone poem, Appalachia: Variations on an Old Slave Song to Moby's samplings of Smithsonian field recordings a century later, the appropriation of forgotten voices remains a risky business, testing the composer's ability to effectively recontextualize without dishonoring the original source.
San Jose-based composer Henry Mollicone, whose works will be featured in several area concerts over the next month (a phenomenon the composer attributes to his forthcoming 60th birthday), has become a master at this delicate cultural balancing act.
His Coyote Tales: A Tone Poem, which will be premiered by the Santa Cruz County Symphony on March 18 and 19, draws upon an earlier opera in which Mollicone and librettist Sheldon Harnick worked with Native American advisers to adapt tales from the Crow, Hopi, Karok, Klamoth and Okanago tribes.
Meanwhile, his new Beatitude Mass, a cantata that will have its full orchestral debut March 31 and April 1 at San Jose's St. Joseph Cathedral Basilica, will literally give voice to the homeless.
"It actually came out of a conversation with Father Jon Pedigo, who used to be a priest out at the Cathedral at St. Joseph," says Mollicone of the latter work. "We were talking one day about possible ways to use the arts to do fundraising activities for the homeless, and he came up with the idea of writing a piece of music based upon interviews with homeless people."
Mollicone considered the idea and, in what became an opportunity to relive some good old-fashioned Catholic guilt, decided a mass would be the perfect setting for such a work. Mollicone's clergy friend agreed and was quick to take him up on the offer.
"Father Jon's a very social activist, rather left-wing priest," explains Mollicone. "It's an interesting combination: The man was bought up a Buddhist and became a Catholic priest, so you can imagine how that turned out. He has a really wonderful way of looking at things that's great for me as an old lapsed Catholic who still likes to hang on to some of that stuff."
Pedigo hooked Mollicone up with a mission for homeless women, where the composer set about interviewing the residents about their lives. "Like so many of us in life, they had regular middle-class existences and then something went wrong, whether it was financial or drugs or a bad marriage or whatever,' says Mollicone. "One lady had worked for a company for years and years, and then she lost her job and was out on the street, and one thing led to another. But the interesting thing is that I found that each one of them had hope. They all said, 'Well, this is where I am now, but I have plans.' And they were excited about where they were going."
Librettist William Luce, who conducted additional homeless interviews of his own up in Oregon, combined the stories they'd gathered as the basis for the mass's two homeless leads, Adam and Evelyn (Eve), and their interactions with a choir of angels.
While Mollicone aimed to reflect not just the suffering but also the hopes of the women he interviewed into the choral work, he remains disturbed by what he's witnessed in recent years. "I think we're really in trouble," muses the composer. "There were always poor people, but not like we have right now. I really think that the government's just not taking care of anything, whether it's hurricane victims or people in need. It's really sad what's going on. The people are doing more than the government is."
When asked if Leonard Bernstein's Mass found its way into the back of his mind while composing this latest work, Mollicone readily acknowledges the influence of both that and Britten's War Requiem, although he says he wasn't trying to do anything nearly so ambitious.
Of course, the first influence is all but inevitable, given that, as a young man, Mollicone ended up apprenticing under Bernstein. "He was looking for someone who was both a composer and a pianist, and I lucked out," recalls Mollicone, who was in his 20s and working for the New York City Opera at the time. Mollicone was able to take a leave from the opera and go to work for Bernstein as a rehearsal pianist who could be called upon to put together dance arrangements when necessary.
"I didn't really end up doing too much of that," he explains, "except toward the end of the tryouts when the choreographer asked me to do a new arrangement because the one that Mr. Bernstein had written was complicated. It was wonderful—it was very West Side Story-ish—but the dancers weren't comfortable, the choreographer wasn't really comfortable and, with the meter changes, everything looked kind of stiff. So I wrote a big dance arrangement based on Mr. Bernstein's materials, and I brought them in to him and he made some changes and he said, 'OK, lets go with it.'"
For Mollicone, it was a dream come true. "I got this two- or three-hour composition lesson with Mr. Bernstein, who was someone that I looked up to for years, as did so many musicians who grew up watching the Young People's Concerts and saw him as a musical inspiration and a legend."
Mollicone also got a good story out of the experience. "On the way out, I remember putting my coat on, ready to go out into a cold Philadelphia winter, and I looked at him and I said, 'Wow, Mr. Bernstein, we really worked hard on this, I sure hope that the choreographer likes it. And he looked at me and he said, 'If he doesn't like it, fuck him.' I'll never forget that. You know, I had always grown up with this voice of his, the voice of God on the Young People's Concerts, and then hearing him just talk like a regular human being."
Bernstein isn't the only New York music legend Mollicone has worked with. Sheldon Harnick, the librettist for Coyote Tales, has a number of Broadway hits under his belt, including She Loves Me and, most famously, Fiddler on the Roof.
"Sheldon and Bill [Luce] were the two most satisfying librettist relationships that I've had, because they'd both worked in the theater and they were both interested in collaboration," explains Mollicone, who likens the relationship between composer and librettist—which typically extends from two to three years—to a marriage. "I think it's horrible if you work with someone and they're like, 'Here are the words and don't change them.'"
In Coyote Tales, the duo draw upon four tales from Native American folklore that deal with the figure of the coyote. While best known in his role as trickster, Mollicone says that's just one aspect of his character who, at the opening of the work, is responsible for creating the world and all the animals in it.
"He shows all aspects of good and evil in the story," says Mollicone, "and he represents all the ranges that we have as people. But the thing that he has that we don't is this: Every time he does something wrong and he gets killed for it, a fox jumps over him four times and then he comes back to life. So to me, the way I read that is the human race continues. You know, people do stuff, they die and then other generations come and take another shot at it."
Likewise, Mollicone says he always appreciates the opportunity to get another shot at reworking his own pieces, whether it be the new version of Coyote Tales or the revision of his opera about San Francisco eccentric Emperor Norton. "You know, composers are always revising," says Mollicone. "I think an opera is never finished until the composer dies."
The Santa Cruz County Symphony presents the premiere of Mollicone's 'Coyote Tales: A Tone Poem' on Saturday, March 18, 8pm, at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz, and on Sunday, March 19, 2pm, at the Henry J. Mello Center, 250 E. Beach St., Watsonville; 831.462.0553. The San Jose Symphonic Choir presents the world premiere (full orchestral version) of Mollicone's 'Beatitude Mass,' to benefit the homeless of Santa Clara County on March 31 and April 1, 8pm, at St. Joseph Cathedral Basilica, 80 S. Market St., downtown San Jose. Tickets are $10, and available at www.sanjosesymphonicchoir.org or 408.995.3318. For information on other area performances, including the San Jose Chamber Orchestra's April 9 all-Mollicone event, visit www.henrymollicone.com.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.