N.Y. Philharmonic's Druckman -- the virtuoso communicator
New York — Musicians don't come much busier than Jacob Druckman. Since he started composing at age 12, he has won a Pulitzer Prize and two Guggenheim Fellowships, among other honors. His performing experience ranges from classical violin to jazz trumpet. As a teacher he spent 15 years at the Juilliard School, headed a couple of electronic music centers, and is now a Yale University professor. That's a partial list.
Among his current enterprises, one of the most ``meaningful and exciting'' is serving the New York Philharmonic as composer-in-residence. This post not only keeps him in dynamic contact with a major musical institution, it also puts him in the vanguard of a trend toward closer cooperation between those who write music and those who play it.
Stepping into this slot wasn't a giant step, Mr. Druckman told me during an interview in the Philharmonic's busy Lincoln Center headquarters. The orchestra had played his works before, so he ``wasn't an unknown quantity.''
What the new arrangement gives him is ``a position of some responsibility to the orchestra'' that is different from his earlier, looser association. The impetus came from a nationwide Meet the Composer/Orchestra Residencies Program that sponsors similar partnerships between five other orchestras and six other composers.
While such residencies are not a new idea, there's fresh enthusiasm for them nowadays, spurred by an expanded concept of what they can offer. Druckman feels their hour has come.
``At one time,'' he says, ``people wrote music at a different speed. It was meaningful for a Haydn to be with a Prince Esterhazy and turn out a new symphony every two weeks.
``But in this day and age, when it takes a lot longer, that constant contact with the orchestra hasn't been present. So most attempts to have a composer-in-residence have foundered, because there was no real basis for a relationship. In theory, the composer was attached. In fact, the composer was sitting alone and writing while the orchestra played in the rehearsal hall. They didn't get together until a year and a half later, when the piece was finished and copied and proofread and all that.''
The new round of residencies is working, Druckman says, because of a new awareness of what composers can offer. ``We can read scores and we have opinions on new music,'' he maintains, ``so we find ourselves acting as advisers. In several cases there have been huge festivals that need administrative and artistic guidance. And of course we're all writing pieces for the orchestras!''
Druckman has used his position to champion the ``new romanticism'' that he feels is reshaping today's music. ``I'm convinced that we've witnessed a major change in recent years,'' he says with enthusiasm. ``It's one of those dividing lines in music history, when the direction of thinking takes a big turn. My conviction is that this happened in the mid-'60s, and what we're seeing now is the beginning of a new era. It has many faces, facets, and expressions, but a common theme runs through eve rything'' -- namely, a shift from dry intellectualism to vital communication, and an easing of friction between general audiences and contemporary composition.
In organizing two Philharmonic festivals of new music, Druckman has ``strongly concentrated'' on this idea. ``There has been an editorial point of view in my approach,'' he says. ``When there was a choice between equals, we chose pieces that would illustrate the point of new romanticism. I don't think I stacked the deck to make it look like this was the only thing going on, though. If anything, most of the criticism I've gotten has gone the other way: How could I include X or Y if this is supposed to be
In any case, next year's event will have a different focus. Druckman feels his neo-romantic festivals have greatly encouraged new-music programming by orchestras. ``But we've generated enough waves for now,'' he says with a smile.
Does his Philharmonic residency lead him to write more symphonic pieces than he would do otherwise? Not at all, he says. In fact, he's now concentrating on an opera -- a treatment of the Medea myth, looking at it ``through 20th-century eyes.''
As for electronic music, Druckman doesn't know if he will ever return to it. But he states that ``the place where I really learned to orchestrate was in the electronics studio, learning to separate the sound from the symbol. You write a note on a clef and say it's an E flat. Then you go into the studio and find it's not one event but a whole series of transformations and changes. . . .''
How has the Philharmonic residency shaped Druckman's work as a composer? ``My particular prejudice,'' he says, ``is that I love to know for whom I'm writing: who'll be conducting, playing alto flute, and so forth. Knowing these people as I do, I can lean on their strengths and perhaps avoid weaknesses. . . .
``It's not so much a matter of squeezing out the last drop of virtuosity,'' he adds. ``It's just that when I know who the performer is, when it will be performed, and more or less who the audience will be, I find myself writing a much more communicative piece than if I'm writing in the abstract. I enjoy that stimulation and I think it's healthy for me.''
Not that Druckman writes exclusively with others in mind, or plays directly to his audience. ``It's a complicated relationship,'' he says of the bond between composer and concertgoer.
``The aim isn't necessarily to embrace the listener; to know the audience is not necessarily to love it. I think in general I do, but I'm not about to write a piece in order to please their taste. That's pandering. Then again, I won't go out to upset them. Except on given occasions -- the way Haydn still surprises people with his ``Surprise'' Symphony!