Friday, November 5, 2010

Scoring the Moon

David Hanlon, music director of HGO's world premiere mariachi opera explains what it took to get the opera down on paper.

How do you play mariachi music on a piano?

As music director of To Cross the Face of the Moon, one of the trickiest problems I had to solve was how to play the piano in rehearsals. Typically I draw on centuries-old traditions of rendering opera scores on a piano. But a mariachi score? I would have to figure out how to make it work on my own.

Opera pianists usually have a lot of help in rendering orchestra scores. Most operas are published in a piano-vocal score which features piano arrangement of the orchestra score. We might add, omit, or rearrange what’s on the page, but many of the basic decisions will have already been made by the arranger. However, To Cross the Face of the Moon would have no piano-vocal score. I would arrange it myself while reading from the full score: three violins, three trumpets, harp, guitar and bass. That’s nine staves to read from instead of the usual two. Even aside from the difficulty of reading all these lines at once and rendering them on the piano, I had to figure out the basic problem of how to turn the pages! The fast and frequent page turns would be coming at me two to three times more often than in a typical piano-vocal score. In some pieces the act of freeing a hand to turn would have to be as choreographed and rhythmic as a scale or an octave leap.

The problems of page turns and playing from full score turned out to be more fun to conquer than anything. As for making a mariachi sound at a piano, I discovered that it wasn’t so different from playing opera after all. The job of a pianist in an opera company is one of a translator. The composer writes in one language that of an eighty-person orchestra and the pianist translates that to the language of a single instrument. Along the way, you make decisions about when to translate literally note-for-note and when the spirit of the original is best captured in a pianistic idiom. This was pretty similar. Instead of an orchestra, I was translating the sound of a mariachi band. Most of my principles of arranging orchestra scores worked equally well with Mariachi.

When my opera head drew a blank, I could fall back on my experience of having played a fair amount of Afro-Cuban music. The genre feels to mariachi music as Italian does to Spanish: not the same thing at all, but similar enough to give you a feel for the overlaps in vocabulary. Most helpful of all, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitl├ín made a study CD of all of tunes from the opera. It was invaluable. When I prepare a standard opera, I’ll listen to multiple recordings to get the sound of the orchestra in my ear and get a sense of the choices that conductor might make. Here I had a document of the very band that would be premiering the opera, led by the composer. I had a ball putting on my headphones and jamming with Vargas, trying to emulate their every nuance, whether it was the precise articulations of the violins, the rhythmic freedom of a trumpet solo, or the infectious rhythm from the vihuela.

The first day of our workshop on the opera, the cast and I ran through all of the songs. We got to the middle of one song where a huge glissando interrupts the music and propels it into a high-energy dance rhythm. The cast let loose with a few whoops and gritos. “OK,” I thought “this is working...”