—a conversation with Mike Telin

On Saturday, March 20, Randall Craig Fleischer conducted the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra and Time for Three in Chris Brubeck’s new concerto for two violins, double bass and orchestra. We talked with the composer by telephone about the new piece.

Mike Telin: You are in Ft. Meyers Florida, with the Gulf Coast Orchestra?

Chris Brubeck: Yes, they are doing the piece I wrote called Quiet Heroes. So I am around for advice, and my buddy on this project Wilfred Brimley will be narrating, and it’s a triple bonus because I get to visit my dad. It’s much better for him here than taking the chance of slipping on the ice back in Connecticut where he used to live.

MT: Yes I just read about this piece on your website, in fact you have a number of interesting orchestral projects happening.

CB: Yes, I think they are interesting. I try to do a couple every year, although almost all of my energy during the past year has been focused on the new Time for Three piece. We are at the countdown to its birth, since I started it nine months ago.

MT: Yes, this sounds like a very interesting piece. I know it was an eight-orchestra commission, but who was it that approached you about being the composer?

CB: Well, to me anyway, it is an interesting and funny story. First, I am not sure if you know that I wrote a violin concerto for Nick Kendall, who is one of the three of Time for Three. But, so much credit needs to be giving to Randall Fleischer, the music Director of the Youngstown Symphony, the Anchorage Symphony and the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. I’ll tell you the whole story.
MT: Fine

CB: Back when the Boston Pops, had the television show Evening at Pops, they commissioned me to write a triple violin concerto, Interplay for Three Violins and Orchestra.  Sorry, but this will all make sense in the end. I’m not sure if the readers will be interested but maybe you will.

That piece was originally for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as the classical person, Regina Carter as the Jazz person and Eileen Ivers as the fiddle player, and it was a concerto for three styles at once. It worked very well, got great reviews and went on the road. After 911 and then the economic crisis, many people stopped hiring those three because they were so expensive, they command high fees. When the good times were rolling orchestras were willing to roll it out, now they have had to cut back. Just have one of them instead of three.

So what happened is that orchestras started doing the piece, just not with the big three stars. Then it happened that Randy Fleisher was conducting the piece someplace out west, and he knew of Nick Randall somehow, and he said, “that guy is so cool and so versatile, he can play two of the solo parts. While he could have played all three, I think he had the concertmaster play the classical part, and then Nick played the jazz and the Irish part. The Irish fiddle is closely related to American fiddle. Anyway, that’s how Randy Fleisher knew about Nick. Then because I had written that piece, Randy started thinking that Nick is such a great violinist, and I really like Chris’ piece, he is so eclectic in his writing, wouldn’t it be cool if Chris wrote a violin concerto for Nick. It took about three years before he found a good commissioning source, so it was not premiered until 2007, and it was called Spontaneous Combustion. That went over great and Nick played the hell out of it.

Around the same time that Jennifer Higdon had written a piece for Time for Three and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Nick started saying that they should get me to write a piece. Then Randy Fleisher started telling them that they should get Chris to write you a piece. Then the final nail in this happy coffin is that they appeared with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City that Keith Lockhart was conducting, and after the performance he said “You know you should get someone to write you a piece and I know just the guy. Have you ever heard of this guy by the name of Chris Brubeck?” Now you have Keith Lockhart and Randy Fleisher both really into the idea of this piece coming to life and mainly through Randy’s work of calling all of his conducting colleagues, you had this consortium of eight orchestras that all pooled together and hence, they came up with the funds to have me write the piece.

MT: Actually I think this is a very interesting story.

CB: Great I’m glad I didn’t totally waste your time.

MT: Readers seem to be interested in the history behind these projects.

CB: It really is the part where art meets business behind the scenes. There is also the creative part of how it all came about. Again, it relates back to the piece Spontaneous Combustion. Because, when I write a piece for someone, I really like to know how that person plays, what makes them roll up and down. So one of the strange ways I went about writing the violin concerto was that Nick came up to my house in Connecticut and we jammed for three days and taped the whole thing. That’s one of the reasons it’s called Spontaneous Combustion because a lot of what the piece became was based on these jam sessions. Sometimes we’d have the tape rolling for five minutes, and we’d find just one minute that was like WOW, that was really cool, it’s worth developing.

Even though I am a bass and trombone player I was playing keyboard with orchestral synth patches, so we were able to get a good sketch of what was stimulating to us. Actually the second movement to that piece came from a session that was about eight minutes long, but the entire shape of the movement was there. We found ourselves in tears. We said; “where id that fall out of the sky.” So how this relates to Time for Three is that I took a train down to the bass player Ranaan Meyer’s house and we jammed for three days. I taped it all, and then I started working with what I thought were the hot kernels of inspiration and started developing this piece. I feel like I am a tailor. If I am going to make a concerto suite it’s got to fit. I have to know what they like, what excites them. Especially when they have fine composers like Jennifer Higdon already writing for them, I want to write a piece that isn’t like hers.  I want it to cover different musical territory.

MT: How did you arrive at the title of the piece Travels in Time for Three?

CB: Its funny, I was on a train ride down to Philadelphia and this little theme came into my head. So when we started jamming I said lets jam in that theme and to my surprise, that little theme that I wrote on the train turned out to be the theme that binds together the four movements of the piece. What was funny is that after we got tired of jamming it in a jazz style we decided to approach it from a classical music style, and all of a sudden it was like the guys had stepped through a musical portal and they were now playing in powdered wigs and waist coats. But the piece is filled with that sort of thing where they are in one style and then suddenly they are yanked into another time zone. Three hundred years ahead and then three hundred years back and up into the mountains. So that’s how the title Travel in Time for Three came about. Wow, I think I may have actually answered your question.

MT: Yes you have and this all sounds wonderful — all of these genres coming together, but, I have recently been swamped with press information about a number of groups that all say things like, genre bending, redefining classical music, smashing barriers, blurring lines, genre inclusive, destroying whatever, some pretty strong adjectives for music, so how do you describe a piece such as this one?

CB: First, all of the directions that we go in this piece are found in Time for Three’s musical sensibilities, even without me. That’s just who they are. Now the thing that I am more then they are is because of my own musical background not only professionally but also growing up in Dave Brubeck’s family, because I am more jazz oriented then they are. But just because I am doesn’t mean that this piece should be. In terms of all of these groups who are trying to beak down walls, that’s great but in the bloodline of my family musically speaking, when you go back to my father, after World War II on the GI bill, he studied with Darius Milhaud. You’re from Cleveland right?

MT: Yes

CB: Well there is this sort of big Milhaud awareness through the Cleveland Institute of Music I think?

MT: That’s right.

CB: This is sort of a side bar history, but I think it is kind of interesting. Dave wanted to learn how to write with a European orchestral composer sensibility, and he thought if he could study with this obvious master it would be a real thrill. To his surprise Milhaud was saying to Dave in private, why do you want to learn how to imitate Europeans? You guys need your own thing. In Europe we are all envious of this thing you have called jazz. We wish we could get that into our music, but we don’t know how to do it. It is kind of like Dave went to the mountaintop to see the guru and the guru said I want to be like you. He said to Dave, if you really want to do something that will move musical history forward, learn how to get your jazz language into the orchestral world.

Then you fast-forward the clock about 10 years and there is Dave collaborating with Leonard Bernstein, performing some of the first jazz trio and quartet plus orchestra stuff. So I just grew up with it, so it seems perfectly normal to me.  I had many years of playing bass in my fathers groups and we many times played as guest soloists with orchestras. Through the decades I have seen the evolution of us sort of being treated like lepers, because we weren’t classical, and some of the classical people were being very snobby about it. Here we are thirty or forty years later and you show up and most of the people [in the orchestra] went to a school where they had a roommate or a friend who was a jazz musician who had studied jazz in a conservatory. Now classical musicians don’t think of jazz as an unrefined music played by cavemen. Now they say, hey those guys are really great musicians, and they can improvise, which is something that we can’t do.

I am now seeing a mutual respect between classical and jazz players. This has set the table for people like Wynton Marsalis, who really did defy the laws. You also have Yo-Yo Ma who is so great as a classical cellist, but he is also doing amazing things with world music through the Silk Road Project. I really don’t think there is an orchestra left who hasn’t had to have their noses brought down over the last ten years. As far as Time for Three goes, these kids are, well, Zach De Pue is from a family where he would play fiddle in a group with his brothers. He has gone on to become the concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony. I think he was also in the Philadelphia Orchestra. I think he is the quintessential new generation of player. He does the fiddle thing, the jazz thing and the classical thing. For me, it is a breath of fresh air, and it is happening more and more around the world.

MT: I just heard them do their trio performance two weeks ago in Oberlin.

CB: Oh great, I’m so glad you saw that.

MT: I have been aware of them for some time, though interviews and recordings, but the live show was amazing.

CB: I am so happy you got to see and hear them live. I have told them that if people are only hearing your music through the recordings they are never going to believe that you have not overdubbed about eight times. I told them, you have got to do a live record. Also when you see them you can just tell how much they love music. I think that even if you don’t have the background to understand completely what they are doing, you still will be saying, wow what a joy to see these three musicians having a blast on stage while making beautiful music. And in these horrible times, who doesn’t want to go and have their spirits uplifted by music?

A review of the premiere by Gwyneth Rollin is posted on the ClevelandClassical.com website.