Composers Connect, the last event in the Cleveland Orchestra’s current season on Saturday, June 6, features the music of four of the orchestra’s former Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellows, Marc-Andre Dalbavie (1998-2000), Matthias Pintscher, who will also be on the podium for the concert (2000-2002), Susan Botti, a Cleveland native who will also assume singing duties (2003-2005), and Johannes Maria Staud (2007-2009).
We reached Susan Botti last week by phone to ask how she became a Daniel R. Lewis fellow and how that experience has helped to advance her career.
Mike Telin: You are a Clevelander?
Susan Botti: Yes, I was not born here but transplanted at about six weeks.
MT: What part of the city did you live in?
SB: Cleveland Heights. I was schooled through the Catholic School system and I went to Beaumont High School. My father was the head of cardiology at University Hospital.
MT: You have such an interesting background, singing, composing and you have also embraced so many musical styles; does this or at least part of it come from the fact that you were raised in a city like Cleveland?
SB: Yes in many ways it was, because music is something that is kind of hard to escape here. We have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to our credit and the R&B scene was good. It was like it just sort of came to me, it wasn’t even going out and getting it. I am also the 6th of 7 children, so I had 5 personalities older then me that went through all kinds of musical events. So I absorbed all of them, whatever they were going through. I have vivid memories of the Beatles from my oldest sister, and I remember when Miles Davis, “Man with the Horn”, came into the house with one of my older brothers. There were a lot of musical styles. My oldest sister was also trained as a ballerina, so that music was probably my very earliest classical music memory. Then, of course there was the Cleveland Orchestra, so yes, there were a lot of different styles.
MT: I found a great piece that was done on you in the Berklee Alumni magazine.
SB: Yes that was a great article. He did a great job, because when you have had kind of a circuitous path, it hard to encapsulate it and to say it succinctly, and I thought he did a really great job of taking a long interview and bringing it all together very nicely.
MT: At next week’s concert, not only will you have your own piece performed, you will also be singing on Matthias’ piece.
SB: It is such a pleasure to work with him, he is the consummate musician, and it was a pleasure to be part of the premiere of the piece — of course he wasn’t conducting, Dohnanyi was conducting, so it will be a different experience. I have long had associations with different composer colleagues through singing their works, so I am very happy to have both halves of myself being part of this celebration, because they definitely inform each other. I grow as a composer when I am singing and I grow as a singer when I am composing and doing new music. I always feel so wonderful when I can have both be part of an experience. Of course, anytime you get to stand and be a part of the music making that comes from an orchestra like Cleveland, it is such a thrill. I could just stand up there and not open my mouth and I would be happy. I also am able to get so much more inside of the music by performing it.
MT: You were the third Daniel R. Lewis fellow. What did you learn from that experience, or how did it affect your growth as a composer?
SB: It was tremendous. Previous to that, I had a couple of wonderful opportunities; the first was a commission with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which was probably my first major commission, and then I had one with the New York Philharmonic. With the New York Philharmonic I was also performing. It was a piece for two soloists, soprano and percussion, and many of my commissions have asked for me to perform. So when the Cleveland Orchestra commission came about, other then the entire residency being a tremendous opportunity, the fact that they specifically asked for a piece with no soloist, me included — just a piece for the orchestra — was so important. Many times people get pigeon holed, and particularly being a singer, people say, Oh you’re a singer, and I cannot tell you how many times people ask me if I write songs. If you are a singer and composer, then you must write songs. Even after having written a piece for the New York Philharmonic that was with orchestra, it still had a soloist. So for Cleveland to say, we want you to do your piece just as a composer, and just for the orchestra, was something that was so important. I didn’t even realize at the time exactly how important it was for my career. It helped to balance the two parts as I say — this part that is tied to performing and this part that was a composer in and of myself. It was a very great opportunity.
Also the way the fellowship is constructed is that it is two years, and there are two works that are composed. You have the great orchestra, a great conductor, and a great hall, so you are tempted to do everything in one piece. So for me what was great was that it allowed me to compose two very different pieces. Particularly with the second piece I was able to try new things, away from what I did in the first piece. It was wonderful to have the sense of things being spread over time. It was very nurturing.
MT: Your work that is being performed is Translucence?
SB: Yes. And it was the second piece I composed, the first piece was Impetuosity.
MT: Who conducted these pieces?
SB: Welser-Möst conducted Translucence, and Roberto Abbado conducted Impetuosity.
MT: How were you tapped for the fellowship?
SB: I think it was Peter Cherny who was instrumental in connecting me to the orchestra. He had heard of my work, and when they needed someone to sing the Pintscher, that was my first real contact. At the time I was teaching at the University of Michigan, so I would often come down for concerts. I actually met Welser-Möst when the orchestra came to Detroit, and we talked and then they asked to see some of my music.
MT: If you were at Michigan you must have known Michael Daugherty?
SB: Yes of course, and I shared an office with Bill Bolcom. He is a dear friend, and he was the person who brought me to Michigan. I was there for six years.
MT: How is it juggling your life? Having a family, composing, performing, living away from New York City but going there to teach; how do you stay sane?
SB: (Laughing) Well, I am close enough to New York and I do teach at the Manhattan School of Music, and it is actually a beautiful train ride, and part of the sanity is being able to live in the beautiful place that I do, so I am able to find a center, that for me is very important creatively. It is about balance. I remember being part of a composer’s panel when Betsy Jolas was in residence at Michigan, and someone asked a question very similar to yours. After some passing around of the microphone, it landed in front of me, and I said “time management”, and Betsy says “spoken like a true woman”. I think it really is a question of balances. I think back to when [my husband and I] lived in New York. We had been married for ten years before we started our family. Our careers were busy and we were doing a lot of traveling, and now we think back to that time and say, “oh, all the time we had”. Although sometimes I do think that the busier you are the more productive you are because you organize yourself. I also think that everything kind of gives you a different perspective. My daughter was born three weeks before I had my Carnegie Hall debut.
MT: Oh wow.
SB: Yes, but it was the greatest thing because of the perspective. I got to Carnegie Hall and I thought, this is a great hall and it is beautiful, but I have a baby back home. Life is so full of many things and I feel like I am very fortunate to have all of these things.
MT: Congratulations on your family and all that you are and have accomplished. One last thing I want to ask is, you have talked about the fact that you think the songs of Stevie Wonder are on a par with the lieder of Schubert and Wolf.
SB: Oh no, am I going to get in trouble?
MT: No, not at all. I am a huge fan of Stevie Wonder.
SB: Oh good.
MT: But, I am wondering — how you did acquire such an open mind? Was there an Aha! moment or was simply part of your growing up? I also think it is fabulous for young students to have the opportunity to study with someone such as yourself, who is so open to so many things musically.
SB: I am not sure if there was an Aha! moment. I grew up with classical music. I studied piano with Rosemary Kristopherson, who used to teach at CIM. I also studied voice with Ruben Kaplan at CIM. Opera reigned from my father, and yes, classical music was a huge part of my upbringing. But, like I said, there was the love of all styles of music, and my own love of classical music came later. When you are young, you are passionate about the music you are involved with. Going to Berklee for instance developed my passion fro jazz, which was reflected in the first piece I wrote for the Cleveland Orchestra. For me, I always thought that good music is good music, and something that moves people is important. Wait, I guess I did have a few Aha! moments and here is one. Whether you use it or not is up to you.
MT: OK, I can’t wait.
SB: I remember two teachers when it comes to art and my feelings about art, and they are both visual arts teachers. In high school I had a phenomenal art teacher. First I think that we are bombarded with competitive view of everything, whether it is visual art, music, we always speak in terms of this is better then that. I was doing a lot of visual art study when I was a kid. So back to this great teacher that I had, because you would go into her class and she would put our art on the wall, and we would be waiting for her to talk about the ones that were “better” then the others. Inevitably she would pick a piece, and I would think, why is she picking this piece? But when she would start to talk about it, she would see things in it that just changed your way of looking at it. Another moment was in an art history class where of course you are looking at things through a chronological order, you know, this innovation and that innovation, and then they did this and that, all with an underlying sense that things did get better. The teacher in this class refuted that point of view. He pointed out that this is not to say that the Renaissance is not an improvement over the Medieval period. The Renaissance is its own reflection of its time, so then it allows the Medieval period to be what it is. So, this approach of looking at styles is something that I got through the art world, and so when it came to music, I applied the same mentality. They are just different. I don’t think of them as one being more sophisticated then the other. Why, there is some folk music and world music that rhythmically can leave some classical music in the dust. There are just so many layers and aspects to music, that to me the important elements are honesty, and an emotional connection. And emotion can be reflected in so many different ways; it could be an Irish folk song that has just one repeated phrase, and it is the depth of interpretation that gives it the emotion. Or, it could be this song by Stevie Wonder that has these harmonic moments that put a chill down your backbone. It delivers at a time that the emotional impact of the lyric needs it to deliver. That was the connection for me between Stevie Wonder and the great art song. The emotion of the text is so connected to the music. I am sorry that was such a long answer.
MT: No thank you. I am happy I asked the question. You also have given wonderful reasons to support arts education. I think that younger people have access to so many musical styles, and I think they are very open about music.
SB: Yes, what an incredible world they live in. They have so much accessible to them through a click of the mouse. I remember hunting down those old Smithsonian Folkways records, and now my daughter is a world music expert at the age of 12. Although it is a little bit disconcerting to realize that your daughter is in the back seat of the car singing in aborigine.