John Plant, composer

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Beginnings, 2

Posted by John Plant on March 15, 2012 at 4:45 PM Comments comments ()

This blog seems to be turning into something like a musical autobiography...

My attitude toward popular music underwent a dramatic change during my high school years. My friend Pete and I used to spit ritually when walking past the doors of WIBG, Philadelphia's legendary rock station. But radio was ubiquitous, and some of the songs of the early 60s were surreptitiously working their way into my psyche, particularly Little Eva's 'Locomotion' (on which I recall writing a set of piano variations, now fortunately lost), the Isley Brothers' 'Twist and Shout' - and the Damascene revelation: Heat Wave, by Martha and the Vandellas, which carved a permanent rhythmical niche in my psyche. So when I went to Middlebury College in Vermont, I would frequently hitchhike to New York for a weekend, going to the Met on Friday night and the Apollo Theatre on Saturday - I saw the joint Met debut of Monserrat Caballé and Sherill Milnes at the Met on one night in December 1965, in Gounod's Faust  (after waiting in line eight hours for standing room), and James Brown at the Apollo the next.  But it wasn't just opera and soul - I can remember seeing Martha Graham dance Phaedra, discovering Magritte at the Museum of Modern Art, hearing the Mothers of Invention in the East Village - and gasping as their raucous polyphony/cacaphony morphed seamlessly into a flawlessly executed bit of Petrushka. 

On the academic front, I decided to major in Classics after hearing Professor Ursula Heibges read Catullus - I wish I could recreate the liquid rhythmic suppleness with which she invested those poems. I took no music for two years, but at the end of my second year a new composition teacher arrived, George Todd, and transformed the department. There was a Mozart seminar, focused on  Don Giovanni - and there was the welcome prospect of independent study in composition.  I had fulfilled most of my core degree requirements and was able to focus largely on music for the last two years. My friends Lawrence Raab and Peter O'Neill created a film, called 'The Distances', and invited me to compose the score. The conflict of priorities became acute. I rationalized it by deciding to go into comparative literature, and making the sources of opera libretti the subject of my dissertation. I was accepted at Harvard, and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson fellowship - but my advisor, the noted critic Harry Levin, saw through me right away, and tried to redirect me into music. Thoroughly confused and utterly lacking in confidence - and causing great distress to my parents, who thought they saw a clear career path into academia for me -  I dropped out, thereby exposing myself to the draft at the height of the Vietnam War; and on February 2, 1968, I emigrated to Montreal. (My acceptance to the U. of California at Berkeley as a graduate student in musicology came through a month after I arrived!)

Several days after arriving in Canada, I found myself in the coffeeshop run by Montreal's underground newspaper, Logos - (which I recall as visually gorgeous, psychedelic to the point of illegibility). Instead of hearing the strains of Jefferson Airplane or Jimi Hendrix or Country Joe and the Fish, the music on the speakers when I entered the warm dark candlelit cellar was from Verdi's Aida - it was the aria 'O patria mia, mai più ti rivedrò'.  The startling strangeness of hearing this music (O my country, I will never see you again) which I have loved with all my soul since i first heard it, was unbearingly poignant  - devastating and consoling at once, as I truly did not know then if I would ever see the USA again.

For me, however, Montreal was a blessing in disguise - I needed to discover who I was, and I needed some distance from my beloved and loving parents - and their hopes, fears, and expectations -  in order to do so. I worked for five months in a factory, and then landed my first music gig: pianist at the Bonnie Scot Club, boul. de Maisonneuve - accompanying a fine old-school tenor and leading singalongs between sets. Seven nights a week, 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. 

... to be continued -  with intermittent interjections on other subjects! -


Posted by John Plant on March 9, 2012 at 7:15 AM Comments comments ()

It all began with 'The Marriage of Figaro'. At the age of ten I caught sight of a dual-language booklet, the libretto of the Metropolitan Opera Record Club recording of the opera; and two lifelong obsessions were born - opera and language.  My parents played the LP for me, and I was hooked - Giorgio Tozzi singing 'Cinque, dieci' changed the course of my life. Piano lessons soon followed, and shortly therefter I made a stab at my first opera, 'Il Mago di Oz'. The 'opera' was not in Italian, but it had to have an Italian title. I still have the score, with the opening 'Apertura' - for some reason I thought that was how you said 'overture' in Italian. The first three-chord opera - anticipating the minimalists by several decades? - Definitely NOT the work of a prodigy.

We lived in rural Pennsylvania. I remember my intense disappointment at not being taken to a production of Aida in Altoona, 75 miles away. When we moved to South Jersey a year or so later, my parents richly compensated for this by taking me to Rigoletto at the Academy of Music, with Cornell MacNeill, Eva Likova and Eugene Conley - second row center.  Beautiful painted sets, and I still think it must have been an amazing performance. My father spoke years afterwards about the awe aroused by the first notes, one trumpet and one trombone articulating the theme of the curse.

I was blessed with music-loving parents - not musicians, but passionate music-lovers. Dad came home late for work on Friday nights, and they celebrated with steak, wine and music. I would creep out of bed and listen on the staircase while they played Liszt's Les Préludes, Bizet's 'L'Arlesienne' suites, Franck's D minor symphony, the Brahms horn trio, or Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel.  One day Dad came home with the London (Decca) recording of Don Giovanni, complete with score. And then I began ordering records myself, from The Record Hunter in New York; I think my first purchase was the Gigli/Dal Monte/de Fabritiis Madama Butterfly. 

As a teenager in South Jersey, I soon discovered Philadelphia and spent many Saturdays there, dividing my time with the Free Library (still an image of Paradise for me), with its astonishing collection of scores and its listening booths, where I heard Stravinsky's 'Rossignol' for the first time, bookstores, and Elkan-Vogel's gorgeous little hole-in-the-wall music store.   I encountered like-minded friends in high school, and discovered the thrill of buying my own tickets to the opera - $2.50 for a balcony seat - with Bob Gordon or Pete Waldo or John Davis, and later with girls - Lohengrin, Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Die Walküre, The Ballad of Baby Doe.   And in the bookstores I was finding the wonderful Penguin bilingual anthologies of Italian, Spanish and German verse. 

My friends were extending my musical horizons on both ends of the spectrum: Berg and Stravinsky on one end, and Bach and Vivaldi on the other.

I should mention that Woodbury High School offered four years of Latin, three of German and Spanish, all of which I took.  And that free tickets to Philadelphia Orchestra concerts were often available - so I was able to hear the first American performance of Shostakovich's 4th; the immense washes of orchestral sound in that work were a revelation to me.  Our high school also had a choir, conducted by James Freund; we performed at least one Bach cantata (BWV 142 - I sang the bass solo), and lots of Brahms, including 'How lovely is thy dwelling place' from the Requiem. I was not in the orchestra, but I remember that they performed the overture to Die Meistersinger at our graduation.

I learned enough Italian from following libretti that I was admitted to a third-year course at Middlebury; and the French I picked up from Gounod and Bizet served me in good stead when I moved to Montreal in 1968.

I should also pay homage to our church choir, conducted by my piano teacher, Dr. Starke: we sang a very mixed bag - I should say a deliciously mixed bag - ranging from Handel and Mozart to some pretty fusty Victoriana (Olivet to Calvary, by J. H. Maunder, whose name, I fear, was sadly self-descriptive). A major thrill was hearing the organist's wife, Iris Starke, our soprano soloist, boldly flinging out her laserlike high C in the Inflammatus from Rossini's Stabat Mater, recast as 'None else shall deliver us!' 

To be continued!