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Terry Plumeri: Singing Strings

Maxwell Chandler By

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One of the elements I love so greatly, is music's ability to unite humans rather than divide them.
Terry PlumeriBassist Terry Plumeri wears several hats and wears them well. He has scored films, written his own symphonic tone poems, conducted symphonic orchestras all over the world and worked with some of the top names in jazz.

Chapter Index

  1. Conducting and Tchaikovsky
  2. Tone Poems
  3. Film Scores
  4. Jazz

Conducting and Tchaikovsky

All About Jazz: You have an affiliation of over a decade as a conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic. How did this partnership initially come about?

Terry Plumeri: My first trip to Russia came about because of being hired as a film composer by an American film company who had a joint production deal with a Russian film company. Inclusive in their deal, was the use of a Russian studio orchestra to record the score to the film. After writing the music in Los Angeles, I traveled to Moscow for the recording. Things went very well. The musicians did a very good job of recording the score, I was very much enjoying the environment and the people, but most of all, I was loving being in the country which had given birth to a number of my favorite composers of the past. You must understand that having been very influenced by Russian symphonic music from an early age, this trip was a musical pilgrimage for me.

After having made my second trip to Moscow for the same American company, which took place approximately one month later, I was hooked. So...the next time I was hired to write a film score, I made the call to Moscow, set up the recording on my own, and returned for the third time feeling very glad to get back. By that time, the Moscow Philharmonic had become aware my work, which led to an invitation to do a concert. This concert brought about the premiere of "The Pride of Baltimore" as well as the recording of the CD, Plumeri Conducts Plumeri (GMMC, 1995). This CD features two of my large scale concert works, "The Pride of Baltimore" and "Windflower," which features the great oboist, Sara Watkins. This took place in '94 and I have been working with the Moscow Philharmonic ever since.

AAJ: How old were you when you started with the Moscow Philharmonic?

TP: I was in my forties. Since then, it has turned into a consistent relationship that's lasted fourteen years and has produced numerous film scores, performances and recordings of a number of my concert pieces, the latest recording being Tchaikovsky Symphonies No. 4, 5 & 6 (GMMC, 2007).

AAJ: Has the repertoire or composers whose work you perform changed over the years as your relationship with the Philharmonic deepened?

TP: The repertoire has basically been pieces that I like. I have never known the orchestra to be resistant to anything that I've presented, whether it be my own original works or traditional masterpieces.

AAJ: How has the working history you now have with the Moscow Philharmonic changed the way you perform a piece together?

Terry PlumeriTP:In essence, it's very similar to playing in a jazz band. The more comfortable a musician feels with another musician, the better the music. The outcome of that comfort is a relaxed flow and execution of the ideas. So when an orchestra feels comfortable with a conductor, or a conductor feels comfortable with an orchestra, then everything seems to move with a relaxed fluency, which generally displays a greater depth in the feeling generated by the musical outpouring. The more the orchestra trusts you and the more you trust the orchestra, the more flowing the music is in time.

My relationship with the Philharmonic has consistently improved over the fourteen years I've known them. One of the great loves of my life is the Moscow Philharmonic, because they are so instrumental in helping me realize my musical dreams.

AAJ: With the best symphonies and conductors it becomes like a collaboration that unfolds before the audiences eyes.

P>TP: It is very much so. And I, as someone who comes from a player's point of view, am very aware of that. A big part of my consideration as conductor is leaving the kind of room that every individual needs to perform at their very best. It is very important that everyone function in a comfortable fashion, able to express themselves in the best way possible.

AAJ: With the Moscow Philharmonic you have performed and recorded the symphonies of Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). What is the appeal for you of his work?

TP: From my first time of hearing Tchaikovsky, which was by a grade school orchestra when I was in the first grade, I was quite taken by his music. From that point on, I have had the greatest respect for the compositional elements, the orchestrations, the beauty of line and the sense of character journey in time of the music of Tchaikovsky. My relationship with the Moscow Philharmonic has given me an in-depth view of the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, which has deepened my love and involvement with his music. It's like playing Coltrane's music in Coltrane's band.

AAJ: There seem to be more bad CDs of Tchaikovsky's music out there than good.

TP: It's great music so it gets performed often, but that doesn't mean it gets performed correctly. Compositions, which receive repeated performances, tend to give rise to interpretations which are not always accurate in terms of the composer's original intent.

AAJ: In the United States, he is known predominantly for "The Nutcracker," have you found this has made stateside audiences come to a concert of other works by him with a sort of preconceived notion of the feel of a piece, what they are going to hear?

TP: Well, I can't say that because the only Tchaikovsky I have performed as conductor is the symphonies. Individuals, who come to hear a symphony, come to hear music. With all due respect to ballet music in the world of Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky, it is still music meant to share the light with a visual. So, it's not quite as hardcore as symphonic music, which is music meant to hold its own without the visual.

AAJ: Much like jazz, classical seems to be taken a little more seriously in Europe. What are the factors in what works you will record and perform? How much does "the bottom line" figure into it all and do you feel you can present more challenging programs in some places more so than others?

TP: Well, I'm not someone who really thinks that much about that. It is not my position to play down to an audience. It is my position to give them the best I have, and hopefully they will get it. Some of them I know will and some of them I also know will not. Some of them will not get it no matter how far down you play to them. You can be the most commercial symphonic or jazz musician possible and they still will not get it. So I essentially don't take the position of trying to get to those people. Yes, it's great when you are appreciated and understood by everyone, but I don't cry when I am not.

AAJ: Do you ever get the feeling though that you can present a more challenging program in some places rather than others?

TP: I think it is still possible in Europe to receive appreciation for a more challenging program. That was the case in this country some years ago. But, it seems as though this country has developed a very severe leaning towards a more conservative musical vocabulary over the past twenty or thirty years.

It depends on time and place but I essentially follow my heart, which is connected to my voice. My compositions stem from my vocalization of melodies, harmonies and rhythm and my conducting comes from the same place. When I am conducting, I am singing the piece constantly in my head and transferring it through my physical motions, which are directing the orchestra.

Terry PlumeriAAJ: Conductor Gunter Wand (1912-2002), who is now considered one of the people most responsible for our understanding of Anton Bruckner's (1824-1896) symphonies, felt he had to gradually ease into them over the course of decades. In your relationship with Tchaikovsky or any other composer do you feel you are waiting for time to further add to your palette?

TP: It is a known fact that the more experience you have, the deeper your understanding of anyone's music, including your own. You can always generally give a better performance at a later time than you can at an earlier time. But then you have situations where you look back and think, "that just worked." You may not have been very conscious as to what you were doing, but it was working beautifully.

Your musical expression comes from your conscious as well as your subconscious. So it's a balance that you always kind of fight with because, obviously we like to have control of our expression and what we are displaying musically, but at the same time, sometimes you have to give in to the fact that your subconscious has great things to say. Sometimes your subconscious is the greatest voice. Your lack of control can actually be in your favor.

AAJ: Too often, especially in classical music apocryphal tales are passed on so often they became the established history. On the CDs you released with the Moscow Philharmonic some of the liner notes are transcripts of Tchaikovsky's letters to friends, family and peers. This seems a unique way to gain real insight into not just the work, but artist as well. How did you come by this idea?

TP: The company gave me a choice of what I wanted in the liner notes and I chose Tchaikovsky's writings, because there is no one better to speak about Tchaikovsky's music than him. And I say that as a composer. You want to hear about my music, ask me. Don't ask someone else. So that's why I made a serious effort, and I am grateful to GMMC Records for allowing me the freedom to display his letters there.

AAJ: What is entailed in rehearsing for a performance and does it differ from preparing for a recording?

TP: When you are rehearsing for a recording or a live performance, there is basically no difference. You are doing your best to get the orchestra to sound at its best: the most cohesive, the most musical, the most beautiful and then going on from there.

AAJ: In all of your recordings of Tchaikovsky there is a great layered delicacy which never becomes overly fragile. How involved were you with the actual mechanics of the recordings?

TP: I was the mixing engineer along with the collaboration of the impeccable ears of one of the great mastering engineers in recording history, Arnie Acosta.

My facility as an engineer is something I have developed over the years. When I began recording a good bit of music, it became very evident that the mixing engineer was representing me in a very serious manner. And so little by little, I developed the facility for doing it myself. The advantage of having the conductor also be the mixing engineer is, achieving what I heard when I stood in front of the orchestra during the time we were recording, and then being able to translate that on to the CD. A CD is a serious compromise to live music. When you assess what actually gets on a CD in relation to what was recorded, you are lucky if you get fifty to sixty per cent of what was there. CDs are a serious degradation of the live experience so I, as the engineer, am always ready to do what is necessary to achieve the very best representation of the actual recording.

AAJ: You are coming from a background of playing bass. Do you find, when conducting, this background makes you approach a piece different from a conductor who plays piano or no instrument at all?

TP: I play piano also, but bass is my main instrument and is probably my greatest love as far as instrumental color goes. Although as a composer, I have developed a love and understanding for all the colors in an orchestra. But, I think that playing bass in a jazz band is one of the greatest things you can do as a preliminary to conducting.

For instance, there is a responsibility on the bassist in a jazz band that deals with a consistent and buoyant time-feel. So the result is, when you stand in front of the orchestra as conductor, you take that same kind of responsibility and it is not something new for you. But beyond the responsibility of moving 100 musicians through time in a flowing manner, your ability to accurately imagine the sonic journey a split second before the orchestra gives it to the world is another very important element. You truly need the ability to hear the orchestra playing the piece in your musical mind.

AAJ: When conducting a piece do you strictly go by the score or do you ever use what other conductors had done before with the piece?

TP: I always try to begin with what was written by the composer. I have my influences like everyone. I played under Leonard Bernstein and was influenced by his musicianship, energy and presence as a conductor as well as my conversations with him. And my teacher, Antal Dorati, who I played under in the National Symphony of Washington, D.C. was certainly an influence on my conducting. But when I stand up to conduct, I forget all of that and rely on my voice. I am singing the piece the way I hear it, whether it be my music or someone else's music.

AAJ: For instance Pierre Boulez is often accused of injecting new things into a piece, and I didn't know if you ever heard some conductor do something and thought "maybe I will add that to the symphonic palette."

Terry Plumeri TP: No I try never to do that. It is like I was saying; I do my absolute best to present the music as Tchaikovsky desired it. Conductors can be notorious for making the music their own, like changing tempos and so forth. I come from a composer's point of view, and I don't like people making my music their own so if I am conducting Tchaikovsky I do my best to present Tchaikovsky as Tchaikovsky left it. That is done out of respect to him as a composer

I treat it like "do unto others" basically. I have seen people conduct my music and have questioned "why did they do that? That's not what was written in the score." So by the same token, whenever I am conducting someone else's music, I try my best to present the music in an accurate manner.

AAJ: When reading about the past great conductors, a lot of them specialized in one specific composer or era. Is this mode of operating largely a thing of the past?

TP: It's hard to say. I'm sure that's specific to every individual conductor. Unless he's in a position where he has to conduct what he is told to conduct; a conductor is generally going to make choices according to his likes and dislikes. So that depends on the individual and what music they have been exposed to and what their likes are.


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