Friday, January 25, 2019

Composer Profile: Chris Castro in conversation with Christian Baldini

In preparation for the world premiere performance of his new work "Sing High", written for violinist Er-Gene Kahng and the Camellia Symphony Orchestra, I had the opportunity of asking composer Chris Castro a few questions about his music, the relationship of "concert" music with other genres, and more.

Christian Baldini: Chris, it is such a pleasure to be bringing to life your new piece, especially written for our soloist and our orchestra. You were a member (principal bass) of this orchestra for two seasons. Did that inform the way you would write this piece for them?

Chris Castro: Yes, of course. I was able to play standard repertoire, 20th, and 21st century music with this group. After playing with a group for a few seasons you get an idea for what they like in sound and how much enthusiasm they bring to their performances. A highlight during my tenure with the CSO was Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. This orchestra, under your baton, has an affinity for dark hued, burnished sounds, which I kept in mind. I am also friends with many of the musicians, and included a brief melody written by the daughter of one of the horn and oboe players in the score. I thought about the orchestra throughout.

CB: You mention that much of your music is informed by other music. Can you develop some more on this concept?

CC: A lot of contemporary music I feel is often written with not necessarily a program, but with extra-musical ideas. A piece could be about climate change, or social justice, etc. While I do not think this is a bad thing I often feel like one of the last composers to hold a torch for 'abstract' music: music dealing with itself. I often think of Gérard Grisey's quote:

"We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupuncture."

My friends tease me by calling me a 'repertoire hound' because I love and think about the canon of classical music often and it comes out in my music. In Sing High for example, after the opening chord in the orchestra, four percussive attacks are heard in the woodblock and clave. While I use this motive differently, it is a direct allusion to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Just one detail of many veiled references to a wealth of classical and jazz repertoire that I feel I must come to terms with in my own way. My music is 'about' music.

CB: And specifically about this new piece, "Sing High", what would you say to anyone coming to the concert? What can they expect? What would you like them to take away from this performance?

CC: I can only say how I hear the piece; I do not like to tell anyone how to listen to my or any music. It has a Baroque sound to me, as the violin soloist is playing constantly, decorating the orchestral texture. The orchestra plays dark, rich, blurred sonorities mostly out of the way of the soloist. I hear it as a stoic piece, with moments of bizarre humor. It has a large narrative and arc. My music is obsessed with being transitory. A climax may be reached but the energy and momentum will be blurred to push the music forward until its final moments.

CB: Who are some musicians from the past that you wish you had worked with?

CC: What a question! For conductors, I have always admired the recordings of both Pierre Monteux and Otto Klemperer and would have loved to have played under their batons. My old bass teacher, Homer Mensch, said that of all the conductors he played under that Klemperer was the most sensitive to a soloist.

For a teacher, either the famed Nadia Boulanger or her (in my view) jazz counterpart, the great pianist Lennie Tristano. Singing and listening was everything to both of them and I would have loved the first hand experience of being taught how to listen by them.

For performers, I have always loved singers. I would have loved to play bass behind Sarah Vaughan - no one quite like her. I also fantasize about an opportunity for bass players in New York in 1978. After Eddie Gomez left Bill Evans trio Evans held auditions with the drummer Philly Joe Jones. The audition was to go to the Village Vanguard and sit in with those two. Can you imagine? The most coveted bass player seat in the history of jazz, open for all who dared. People like George Mraz and Rufus Reid tried out etc. I would have loved to have played just a single root for the greatest pianist ever.

CB: Your background as a performer is vast. You've played in orchestra for many years, including concerts with some wonderful conductors while at Juilliard or Tanglewood. Can you tell us some of the most memorable experiences you've had?

CC: I am very fortunate to have worked with some great conductors. A lot of the concerts stick out (like Das Lied von der Erde with Michael Tilson Thomas, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Gregory Kunde) but there are two rehearsals that still resonate with me. I'll never forget having Yannick Nézet-Séguin stop a rehearsal of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe and grab the meaty part of his forearm and whisper to the orchestra "This is music of the flesh...." That gesture changed the entire string sound. I couldn't believe the color change. 

All conductors have heard the Richard Strauss quote "Never look encouragingly at the brass...." The late great James DePreist was leading us in a rehearsal of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, specifically the brass heavy "Battle Scene." He stopped us, asked the brass not to play but to listen to the intense string passages underneath them. Afterwards he rhetorically asked "Did you know all of that was going on?" DePreist was all about respect for everyone, such an egoless man, and he wanted the brass to be aware that we were all sweating, trying to keep up with their tremendous sound. Every string player was thrilled. 

CB: And how about your background playing jazz or other kinds of music? When did you become interested in this, and how has it affected your compositions?

CC: The unfortunate thing about being a classically trained double bassist is the lack of chamber music repertoire one gets to take part in. Maybe you get called to play the “Trout” Quintet every few years but that is about it. I love playing with orchestras, but I really wanted to play chamber music, to have an equal say in a group, not just have conductors mold our sound. I came to jazz late, after hearing the Miles Davis and Gil Evans "Porgy and Bess" album. After that I needed to play it, and it really filled the void of chamber music for me. I was an equal member of a small group, able to voice my opinions, either through rehearsals or the way I was playing. 

Jazz has a subtle effect on my compositions in terms of the sound, but the structure can be deliberately similar. I have a series of pieces (Choruses I - IV) that are based heavily on the formal structures of specific jazz standards. They do not, however, sound jazzy or jazz influenced. I would not consider them genre-bending or hybrids, it is simply my music being "about" other music. That being said, I do believe that jazz and jazz standards have given the 20th century a new lease on harmony, which forever obsesses me. I consider myself a harmonic composer. If I am stuck in a composition of my own I do one of two things: play a Bach chorale or a song by Rodgers & Hart.

CB: Tell us about your background and growing up in New York. How did you start learning the bass, and when did you realize it would be your career?

CC: Both of my parents were born and still live in Brooklyn, New York. It seems like a dying thing now but my elementary school had a strings program. In the 2nd grade every student started the violin. In the 3rd grade you were allowed to choose among the  violin, mandolin, cello, xylophone, and double bass. Everyone gravitated towards the mandolin and xylophone, and to be honest I felt very sad that the bass was being ignored, so I decided to try it out. My parents pushed and pushed me to practice against my will for years, driving me to rehearsals and lessons. When I was 14, after playing bass for 6 years, an orchestra I was in began rehearsing Prokofiev's 5th Symphony. That's all it took. I had no idea music could sound like that. With that piece I was either fighting back tears or trying not to drop my bass from laughter. I still am. After that I was sold on music. I have to give full credit to my parents for driving me all around New York against my will. I love them deeply.

CB: Wow. That is such a powerful and beautiful way to have realized how important music was to you! Are there any tips, or any advice you'd like to give to any aspiring young musician starting off, or considering taking music seriously?

CC: You have to love to listen. Listening is hard. You have to practice how to listen. I mean that. It is not a natural trait. Listen deeply. Listen often. Listen to something new once a week. I have often heard writers say if you want to be a better writer you just have to read. Same thing applies. Learn to listen to the way you play. Practicing means nothing if you are not listening to yourself. Practice slowly. Listen slowly. Listen, listen, listen.

CB: Thank you very much for your time, and for sharing your incredible talent with us. We very much look forward to sharing your beautiful music with our audience here in Sacramento!

CC: Thank you so much for great questions, and for leading such a great group. It has been my pleasure.

Composer Chris Castro - Photo by Justin Han, Copyright UC Regents

Chris Castro is a composer and double bassist. He has a Ph.D. in Composition and Theory from UC Davis and a Bachelor's in Music from The Juilliard School in both double bass and composition. His compositions include a work for the St. Louis Symphony and David Robertson, a piano duo for the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, and a love song to drunkenness, Brooklyn Narcissus, a song cycle for soprano and chamber orchestra. He currently lectures at UC Davis and Sacramento State University. He is also head brewer at Pals Brewin'.