By any reasonable definition, composer Melinda Wagner is an East Coaster. She was born in Philadelphia and earned her doctorate in music at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in New Jersey and teaches at the Juilliard School in New York City.
But Chicago has played a surprisingly outsized role in Wagner’s highly successful career. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, she is in Chicago this week for the world premiere of Proceed, Moon, an orchestral work commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is her third CSO commission: the first, Falling Angels, had its premiere in 1993; the second, a piano concerto titled Extremity of Sky, had its premiere in 2003 with the CSO and Emanuel Ax as soloist. Along with works by Bizet, Fauré, John Williams and Debussy, the CSO will perform Proceed, Moon on June 15-17 under the baton of Susanna Mälkki.
Wagner’s connection with Chicago began in 1979 when she arrived at the University of Chicago as a master’s degree student in composition. The formidable Ralph Shapey headed the composition program at the time, but one of his colleagues was Shulamit Ran. In 1990, Ran became the CSO’s second composer-in-residence, working for the next seven years with Daniel Barenboim, the CSO’s music director from 1991 to 2006. (Ran won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Music.)
Ran’s success as a young composer inspired Wagner, and she admired Ran’s “incisive, visceral, lyrical and powerful” music. “I had the opportunity to work with Shulamit, which was wonderful,” Wagner said. “We were a good match as far as the student-teacher relationship was concerned.”
Wagner left the U. of C. in 1984 for the University of Pennsylvania but maintained connections with Ran. “I stayed in touch with Shulamit after I left Chicago, because I am very fond of her still,” she said. “So when I heard she was named composer-in-residence, I wrote and asked her what the procedure would be for submitting a work [for CSO consideration]. I seem to recall that she also was trying to find me. She asked me to submit a score, and the only orchestral piece I had was [the one] I was required to write for my doctorate. So I sent it. In the summer of 1991, I think it was, I was at the MacDowell Colony, and she called me there.” The Colony is a renowned retreat in rural New Hampshire that invites artists, who have ranged from Leonard Bernstein to playwright Wendy Wasserstein, for multi-week residencies to work on new projects.
Shulamit told Wagner that the CSO had decided to commission her to write a work under the auspices of the orchestra’s Emerging Composers Fund.
Needless to say, Wagner was both thrilled and apprehensive. “When I went out to hear it [in winter 1993], that was the first time I met Maestro Barenboim,” she said. “He was lovely. Understandably, I was really nervous. That was my first experience with a major ensemble of any kind. He was really generous with his time, and he gave me an opportunity to talk with him about whatever changes I wanted. We sat in his studio and went over the score; that kind of thing doesn’t always happen, as I found out later. He was great and very supportive.”
During her U. of C. years, Wagner attended CSO concerts regularly, and the orchestra’s sound, which she calls “both powerful and elegant,” remains in her ears.
“I grew up listening to recordings of the Chicago Symphony,” she said. “Of course, very few of those people are in the orchestra anymore, and the sound has evolved over the years. But I do have a sense of the kind of culture of the orchestra and its traditions. The orchestra has a real personality.”
Wagner’s music is often mercurial, brimming with unexpected orchestral color that explodes brashly or melts gently into ever-shifting patterns. Written in a single movement, running between 15 and 18 minutes long, Proceed, Moon, has moments of whimsy and nostalgia, and its subtitle is Fantasy for Orchestra. Wagner lifted the title Proceed, Moon from a comic moment in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the character playing the moon in the comedy’s play-within-a-play is ordered to get on with the show.
“When I set out to write a piece, I don’t do any choosing about its character,” Wagner said. “I begin and that’s sometimes arduous and frustrating, but when I do get started, the piece sort of reveals itself to me. It’s not really as mystical as it sounds,” she added, “but I don’t set out knowing very much about what the piece is going to be until I’m a good ways into it. That’s why I don’t choose titles first. I like to refer to myself as a more intuitive composer; I don’t map anything out. I didn’t know this was going to be a fantasy.
“I never set out to tell a story like you might find in a book,” she said. “My music often appears kind of manic, but that’s sort of my personality.”
In the 14 years since Wagner’s last CSO commission, her musical palette has widen as her life experience has deepened. Thanks to the internet, we now have constant access to music from all over the world. The rigid dogmas about acceptable compositional styles that still roiled the academic music world when Wagner was a student are long gone. But sitting down to write a work is still a challenge.
“You have to understand, I’m also terrified when I start to write a piece,” she said. “I tell my students that. They think that might go away, but it doesn’t because you’re pulling stuff out of the air. Maybe ‘terror’ isn’t the right word. But for me, that’s always going to be a little frightening. But that’s also what makes it exciting. Composers are all wired differently. What’s important is getting friendly with the way you work.”
Wynne Delacoma, classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 to 2006, is a Chicago-based arts journalist and lecturer.