MORAN’S RESIDENCE AT
THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA, CHAPEL HILL
by John W. Lambert
The name of composer Robert Moran is probably not familiar to many of our readers, but he’s an American (b.1937 in Denver) and he’s still alive and kicking, and UNC-CH is celebrating his music this year with not one but two events. The first, reported above by Roy Dicks, was a performance of “Points of Departure.” The festivities continue in April, when UNC’s Opera Workshop presents two performances of his opera “From the Towers of the Moon.” We met and interviewed Moran during a UNCSO rehearsal on October 3. Tonu Kalam will conduct the opera, and the production will be directed by Terry Rhodes. Moran missed the performance reviewed above due to a prior commitment in Munich.
Moran doesn’t know Roger Hannay, distinguished composer emeritus of UNC, but
the two have much in common. Both had singularly wild periods of activity early in their careers; both later seem to have embraced the realities of contemporary performance and the needs of our increasingly aging concert audiences–in America, at least.
Moran seems to have known everybody who was anybody and to have studied with
many of ’em. An early convert to opera (thanks in part to the Met’s radio broadcasts), he credits 12-tone specialist Hans Erich Apostel (an acolyte of Schoenberg), Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud among his principal teachers but was a friend of such diverse artists as Janis Joplin, John Cage, and members of The Grateful Dead (before the group assumed that name). His first huge splash was an extraordinary San Francisco happening in August 1969 that this writer, returning from Viet Nam, missed by just two months. The event was a city-work for the entire Bay Area that, according to a blurb at his website involved “100,000 performers, 2 radio stations, 1 tv station, 30 skyscrapers, 6 airplanes, dance ensembles in the streets, etc.” He readily concedes that such a thing could not happen now, in the wake of September 11.
The full-orchestra “Points of Departure” (1993) was prepared for a CD recorded by David Zinman in Baltimore. It is based on an earlier dance work of the same name for chamber orchestra that has proven to be one of Moran’s most enduring scores.
Rehearsals are the workshops in which music comes to life, so when time permits we tend to seek them out. (Please note that aside from the NC Symphony’s “open” rehearsals, students and other interested citizens may arrange to attend many of our preparatory sessions at no charge.) The UNCSO rehearsal of October 3 was revelatory in many respects. Kalam is an outstanding conductor who each season must rebuild his mostly-student ensemble from the ground up. He doesn’t confine his programming to mainstream works although for many of his players things like the Swan Lake Suite are “new” discoveries. The Moran is tricky but gelled quickly and made a big impression. As Dicks has noted, it is both catchy and danceable, and
it ends “with a searching, uplifting theme.” It also sounds American, but American as colored by the best of the great 20th-century French school. There’s a touch of influence of the so-called minimalist composers but this is no minimalist piece. This is understandable in the context of one of Moran’s most telling remarks: he observed that the first great example of what we now call minimalism is the introduction to Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
It will be interesting to experience a live performance of one of Moran’s operas, and the April 19-20 renditions of “From the Towers of the Moon” will give local audiences that opportunity. As the composer’s website notes, the one-act work features a libretto by Michael John LaChiusa, was commissioned and premiered by Minnesota Opera in 1992, is based on an ancient Japanese legend of the Moon Goddess, who comes to Earth, and lasts approximately 80 minutes. It is scored for flute/piccolo, oboe/English horn, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn, trombone, three synthesizers, one percussionist (playing one timpani, triangle, two suspended cymbals, large tam, suspended car coil, vibraphone, chimes, two timbales, and two sets of bongos) plus two violins, viola, cello (or strings without bassi). The revised version of the opera includes roles for soprano, two mezzos, three tenors, two baritones, a bass, and a mixed chorus portraying various moon gods, the court, etc. Watch CVNC’s calendar for details.