Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Celebrated Composer: The San Jose Chamber Orchestra's 'Mostly Mollicone' performance on April 9 is one of several area events honoring the composer's 60th birthday.
Mollicone for the Masses
While the music world celebrates him, he jokingly calls himself 'an extremely poor man's Lou Harrison.' But there's no doubt that area composer Henry Mollicone is a legend in the making. This month, he's everywhere with his new mass for the homeless and a series of birthday concerts.
By Bill Forman
COMPOSERS have a long history of drawing inspiration fromand to varying degrees, lending power tothe 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, in conjunction with his 60th birthday, has become a master at this delicate cultural balancing act.
His Coyote Tales: A Tone Poem, which was premiered last week by the Santa Cruz County Symphony, 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, Klamath 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 brought 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 had gathered as the basis for the mass's two homeless leads, Adam and Evelyn (Eve), and their interactions with a choir of angels.
Mass Appeal: Composer Mollicone credits the genesis of his homeless mass to San Jose's Father Jon Pedigo.
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 Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, although he says he wasn't trying to do anything nearly so ambitious. 'One of the Most Distinctive American Composers'
That kind of modesty is typical, even from a man who has put San Jose on the map in the music world.
"The quality about Henry that struck me most is that he has a genuinely good heart in a field of endeavor that is abundantly stuck with people who are crafty and evil," says San Jose Chamber Orchestra founder and director Barbara Day Turner, who will conduct the orchestra's "Mostly Mollicone" evening on April 9. "He is one of the most humble, open and honest people to work with that you could imagine, just such an amazing musician, and he writes really wonderful music. Our orchestra loves playing his music."
Proclaimed by the Washington Post as "one of the most distinctive American opera composers," Mollicone drew inspiration from Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Aaron Copland and other uniquely American composers. Mollicone first enraptured critics with A Face on the Barroom Floor, his one-act opera for flute, cello and piano, and 1981's Emperor Norton, about the 19th-century San Francisco immigrant who declared himself emperor of the United States and was embraced as such by a city already inclined toward eccentricity. Already beloved by critics and the classical community, Mollicone's latest work conceivably could earn him the kind of crossover success enjoyed by John Adams and Philip Glass, even though that appears to be the last thing on the composer's mind.
"I do think he's reconnecting with the tradition of social progressive music," says Turner, "and I think that a lot of people as we get a little olderI'm including myself in thatwe want to do musical work that matters. And I think that Henry really saw, particularly with the Beatitude Mass, an opportunity to use music for something that really matters. And I think that's really cool."
Mollicone balks at comparisons to new-music greats like Lou Harrisonmaybe he'll allow "an extremely poor man's Lou Harrison." But Turner says of his compositional approach that "it's certainly clear that he's been exposed to the vast panorama of particularly American contemporary composers and that these strengths have been incorporated into his own compositional voice," says Turner. "Conducting his pieces, the thing that might not be obvious to the casual listener is the very interesting rhythmic underpinnings of the work that give them energy and lifeyou know, I'm not talking about the drums, but the use of cross rhythms and various otherfor for lack of a better wordmore unusual rhythmic patterns that give the music a certain kind of energy that is, I think, very unique to him."
Turner first met the composer in the late '80s while preparing for the San Jose Opera premiere of Hotel Eden. She describes him as a good conductor, brilliant pianist and "amazing musical mind" who also has a fondness for telling some of "the worst jokes on the face of the earth."
Indeed, Mollicone is one of those rare individuals who laugh easily, especially at themselves, and he possesses a natural, down-to-earth warmth. Early on in their friendship, Turner invited the composer to a particular memorable dinner. "Henry doesn't like weird food and we had him over for dinner for Argentine asado and served him, oh, I think it must have been intestines, or something intravenous," recalls Turner. "And to this day, for like the past 15 years, he's been telling people that they should be really worried if they come to our house for dinner because they'll be served squid livers. And I'm pretty sure squids don't even have livers ..."
Of course, Mollicone's humor can also get him into trouble. His original program notes for Dansa Trimbula (which will comprise half the chamber orchestra's April 9 performance, the other part being a song cycle he wrote especially for sopranos Erie Mills and Maria Spacagna, who will perform the piece) are a case in point. "Tony Quartuccio has a special accordion that's custom-made," says Mollicone of the San Jose conductor who will perform on his piece for accordion, sax, strings and percussion. "So he plays this special accordion and it's hugethere were two accordions made specially in that limited edition. And I wrote in the program notes that the other one was confiscated by the police."
Mollicone never heard the end of it from professional accordionists who are still, no doubt, recovering from the Lawrence Welk era. "I didn't realize they were so sensitive about it," says Mollicone. "You know, most violists don't mind viola jokes. Speaking of which, I have a great conductor joke for you. ..."
Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
As a young man, Mollicone apprenticed under the man who he now cites as one of his biggest influences, Leonard 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 wonderfulit was very West Side Story-ishbut 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, let's 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."
I'll Stop Composing When I'm Dead
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 librettistwhich typically extends from two to three yearsto 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.'"
Likewise, Mollicone says he always appreciates the opportunity to get another shot at reworking his own pieces, including his new versions of Coyote Tales and Emperor Norton.
"You know, composers are always revising," Mollicone says. "I think an opera is never finished until the composer dies."
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., San Jose. Tickets are $10. (www.sanjosesymphonicchoir.org or 408.995.3318; for info on other area performances, including the San Jose Chamber Orchestra's April 9 "Mostly Mollicone" event, visit www.henrymollicone.com)
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