September 2, 2008
How can one hour sum up 642,000 hours of a lifetime in music? Conrad Susa, 73, is being honored for his service to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with the second hour of a concert on Saturday, Sept. 6. The two items of his on the program, the recent instrumental work The Blue Hour, and excerpts from his opera The Dangerous Liaisons, will display the refined, sensual aspects of his style — but will they tell of the most decisive change in his life? Or of the choice he made in the face of the modernist camp at Juilliard? Or of his life-based, practical admonitions to countless students? Or even of the advice that George Frideric Handel personally gave him?
No, it might take a week of concerts and lectures to begin to do that, but when audiences hear the music, they may nevertheless have reason to be grateful that Elinor Armer, the long-time Conservatory faculty member to be honored on the first half of the program (her Piano Concerto and Call of the West will be performed), sought Susa out and brought him up to San Francisco from San Diego 20 years ago.
In an interview at his Castro-district Victorian atop a series of steps better placed on a Mesoamerican pyramid, Susa told me he had always been interested in music, recalling the pleasure he had figuring out the sounds of notes from staves and clefs printed on Noel cards. From that early interest in sight reading, Susa eventually became such an expert that he landed a job as pianist for the Pittsburgh Symphony by playing more notes at once from the final pages of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier than the late music director William Steinberg thought possible.
Yet the most decisive change in his life, according to Susa, was his becoming an altar boy and singing in the boys' choir at the Catholic church where he grew up near Pittsburgh, Pa. It was the "unworldly" nature of singing chant in the medieval Mass practiced there that got him hooked to the musical life. By the 10th grade, he was the church organist.
While Susa was a music major at what is now Carnegie Mellon University, geography played a role in a second turning point. His dorm was next door to the theater building, where several of his friends were strutting their stuff as actors. Drawn to the dramatic, Susa began writing incidental music to plays and eventually became a sought-after specialist in the field, providing music for films and television, as well. These activities, along with Susa's expertise in vocal writing, would inevitably lead to opera composition.
A final milestone in Susa's early career was his master's studies at Juilliard. While William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti honed his technique there, he also faced the challenges of the then-doctrines of modernism, that music must be cerebral and revolutionary to have any worth. Rather than succumb to what he now calls the "aggressive crap" of that thankfully superseded fashion, Susa instead took a Ford Foundation grant after graduation to "go out into the hinterland," as he put it, and write music for high school ensembles all over the country. "I decided I'd do it all over — start from folk song," he recalled. Susa then illustrated the point by playing for me a new recording of his first published piece, an ethereal, Perotin-inspired arrangement, for a cappella choir, of Shenandoah.
Words of Wisdom for Students
Susa's commitment to the educational mission of music since his Ford Foundation days is evident in his remarks about today's students. "Students don't know what they need to know," he said. "They need to perfect their hearing and have great technique," he lamented, but instead "they expect to immediately become famous and have a [lucrative] career." To students who complained that they don't know what to do with their ideas, Susa commands, "Get on your knees and thank God you had an idea at all!" The two pleasures Susa gets from teaching are "To see a student go on and fulfill himself, or to see another stop," that is, realize in time that a career in music is not for him or her.
Looking back, Susa is most proud of being an opera composer. The Dangerous Liaisons received national attention when it was commissioned for the San Francisco Opera and presented in 1994. Susa's mastery of the vocal line was universally praised by critics. At the concert on Saturday, Conservatory students will sing some of the best music from the work: a trio, a sextet, and a chorus. Despite his confidence and individuality of style, Susa still reveres old masters:
I'm particularly haunted by Handel. The first breakthrough with Handel was in a dream. My host [in the dream] was Aaron Copland. Handel was a fat little man playing a harpsichord under a pile of coats. At first I couldn't understand his German accent. Then Copland told me, "He's telling you a chord can be a character."
Susa has used the idea profitably in subsequent operas.
The first Susa work on the upcoming program was premiered in Denver in 2004. As Susa wrote in a draft of the program notes:
The Blue Hour is an attempt to produce in sound the complexity of experience which floods the soul in that magical moment before sunset. At that time, the light blurs familiar outlines, suffuses shapes with unexpected colors, and seems to stop time itself. Reality is suspended. Loved ones are suddenly near. The past is present, and we are saturated with sweet pain.
For the future, Susa wants to write more instrumental music. Judging from several hearings of a recording of The Blue Hour, I say, "Go for it." It is a masterpiece of subtle orchestration and understatement, and it fulfills all the elements of its composer's description. The Blue Hour's 10 minutes generated for me more than an hour's worth of thoughts on the transcendent power of music.
Recalling his many years of devotion to incidental music for the theater, I'd say Susa's Blue Hour, as an intermezzo, makes me look forward with keen anticipation to his next great Act.