Superstar rocker Elton John and Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer Bernard Rands are not exactly musical soul mates.
Along with being native-born Brits, however, they share another crucial similarity. As youngsters, both of them stumbled upon inspired teachers. Auditioning for the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London, the 11-year-old future pop star found a teacher who immediately recognized his phenomenal ear for music. When Rands started piano lessons in earnest at age 10, his teacher ended his first lesson by writing out a simply melody and asking the boy to compose harmony for it. Now 85, Rands has been writing music — more than 100 works, many commissioned by the world’s finest orchestras, ensembles and soloists — ever since.
On Nov. 1, 2 and 5 the Chicago Symphony gives the world premiere of its latest Rands commission, DREAM for Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Riccardo Muti. Rands’ previous CSO commissions were apokryphos for soprano, chorus and orchestra, composed in 2003, and Danza Petrificada from 2010.
“George Crawford,” said Rands in a recent interview, smiling and shaking his head at the memory of his early, unconventional piano teacher. Rands was born in Sheffield, England, and his parents were custodians for the local school district. Both loved music, and Rands started piano lessons with a local teacher. Soon it was clear he was very talented and needed more rigorous study. Crawford, a visiting school administrator who often played the piano as Rands’ father cleaned the halls after school, agreed to give him lessons. But he had one requirement. He wanted the boy to bring blank music manuscript paper to his lessons.
“At the end of every lesson,” Rands recalled, “he would write a melody for me, maybe a bit of a Bach chorale or a popular melody of the day. And my task was to harmonize it. Another week he’d give me seven or eight chords. I was to find a little poem or something and make the chords into a song.
“Can you imagine?” Rands asked. “I can’t imagine another piano teacher on the planet who teaches a 10-year-old boy that way. I was fascinated by it. Sometimes it interfered with my piano practicing because I just wanted to make this music every week that I would play at the next lesson.”
It’s a habit that stuck. Approximately 15 minutes long, DREAM grew out of a melody that Rands started fiddling with almost four decades ago.
“I was on a flight from London to Sydney [Australia],” he said. “That’s a long one, and I decided to fill in some of the time by composing a melody. I did it merely as an exercise, a time-killer. But I’ve visited it twice in the interim years, once, in London Serenade [a 1988 piece for chamber orchestra], where it has a purely melodic function. Later, in the second part of a work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I explored its potential harmonic underpinning.”
That original, long-lined melody serves a more important function in DREAM. “It’s the DNA of the piece,” Rands said. “It’s everywhere. Every dimension is derived from the melody in one way or the other. I think even the least experienced listener won’t be able to escape the fact that it’s about this melody.
“DREAM is not a musical representation of a specific dream. Rather, it’s the nature of dreams, with all their unpredictability, their grotesque fantasy sometimes, placing familiar objects in unusual environments. This gives me a chance to keep exploring — the post-Debussy years — what I’ve been doing for donkey years,” he said, using British slang for “a long time.” “For me, Debussy has always been the father of modern music. In certain ways, structurally and formally, Debussy’s music is able to be absolutely new and unpredictable, and yet completely acceptable in traditional terms.”
Once music became his focus, Rands studied with Italian composers Luciano Berio, Luigi Dallapiccola and Bruno Maderna. He also worked with Pierre Boulez, one of the fiercest proponents of serial, 12-tone music, which radically upended centuries of traditional ideas of harmony and melody. From the early 1990s until his death in 2016, Boulez was closely associated with the CSO, serving as a guest conductor, principal guest conductor and finally conductor emeritus. In 1993, Boulez led the first CSO performances of Rands’ music: Suites 1 and 2 of Le Tambourin. He and Rands remained friends for 40 years, but over the years Rands’ artistic ideas diverged from those of Boulez.
“As a young man, I was caught up in all of that,” Rands said of the post-World War II era when atonal music became the prevailing orthodoxy for composers. “It was an exciting time. In my mid-20s, no one was more excited about the new or the emerging expressive possibilities of dissonance. But frankly, by now, I’m tired of it, and I have been for a long time. Dissonance presupposes that there is consonance. Otherwise, it can’t function. It just becomes a drone of unending non-resolution.”
Rands came to the United States in 1966 on a fellowship and spent the second half of the two-year program as composer-in-residence at the University of Illinois in Urbana. He moved to the the States permanently in 1975, taught at the University of California for 10 years and became a U.S. citizen in 1983. A year later, Rands’ Canti del Sole won the Pulitzer Prize in Music. From 1989 to 2005, he taught at Harvard. Married to composer Augusta Read Thomas, a former CSO composer-in-residence, Rands is now a full-time Chicago resident.
Muti and Rands have a long association. During Muti’s tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra (1980-92), Rands became the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, holding that post from 1989 to 1996. But Muti had been on Rands’ musical radar for decades before that.
“I was living in Firenze [Italy] in the 1960s, when Muti came — first as a guest conductor and then as music director — of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino,” he said. The Maggio Musicale is one of Europe’s leading festivals, and Muti served as music director from 1969 to 1981. “This young man — fantastic. Immediately I said to myself, this man is something else.”
Rands admired two elements of Muti’s conducting that have remained constant over the years: his never-ending passion for the music at hand and a relentless attention to details in the score. In September, he attended Muti’s CSO rehearsal of Beethoven’s First Symphony, ahead of its performances Sept. 26-28. “The detail that he brought to that rehearsal! They’ve played that symphony 100 times, but it sounded so fresh. And he’s maintained that throughout his life.”
Muti brings that same attention to the contemporary music he conducts as well. “I’ve had experiences in first rehearsals where you can hear the binding crack because it’s the first time the conductor has opened the score,” he said. “Muti is prepared, oh, yes, he prepares.”
The classical music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 to 2006, Wynne Delacoma is a Chicago-based arts journalist and lecturer.
TOP: Of his new work, Bernard Rands says, “DREAM is not a musical representation of a specific dream. Rather, it’s the nature of dreams.” | Photo: Ted Gordon