by James Hogan
Mendelssohn turned 200 years old, and while I’m glad he’s still hanging around Classical Music Camp (“Camp Johann” is the name I keep kicking around for fun), I wanted to focus my attention this week on a more recent composer, an American named Eric Whitacre.
He’s young (just turned 39). He’s hip. He didn’t learn to read music until he was in college, where he joined the college choir because the choir girls were good looking. But he worked his way through Julliard, collaborated with Barbara Streisand, and debuted a techno-opera in Los Angeles loosely based on Milton’s Paradise Lost. His work is popular across the globe–the cities of Sydney and Venice have each hosted Eric Whitacre festivals. He once wrote a piece entitled Godzilla Eats Las Vegas.
Even with all of this success, Whitacre is hardly a distant, aloof composer. I know this, because he once granted my students an interview five years ago when I was teaching high school English. Whitacre is anything but pretentious. His sensibility as an artist is fueled by his raw love for creating honest music, and his enthusiasm for hearing it performed is contagious.
I always grew up thinking that classical music–or any “important” music, for that matter–was created by composers who were monoliths, institutions of their own, and mostly inaccessible by those on the more humble side of brilliance. And yes, plenty of our classical geniuses were cranky and irritable.
It’s different, then, to imagine the artist sitting across from you in a coffee shop. Or chatting with you via instant messenger, as was the case when my students in North Carolina talked with Eric Whitacre at his home in California. I still recall the surprise I felt when I opened my email one morning to see he’d written me back to grant the interview. It felt like talking to a rock star.
So here’s to composers who’ve lived and died and written things we still play today. And here’s to our composers who are alive and well, who are writing their brilliance down onto pieces of paper and sending them to big-city orchestras and high school wind bands.
Thoughts about your own encounters with composers counted among the living are welcome below.
Eric Whitacre’s blog, SoaringLeap.com