Conductor / Composer / Pianist  Rudolph  Palmer

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Equally distinguished as conductor, composer, and pianist, Rudolph Alexis Palmer (born August 5, 1952), obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in Russian, French at Bucknell University (1973); his Bachelor of Science degree in Composition from Mannes College of Music (1975); his Master of Music degree from Juilliard School of Music (1977); and his DMA in Composition from Juilliard (1982).

Palmer was Director of the Great Neck Choral Society (1983-1984); Orchestra Director at Horace Mann School (1986-1993); Associate Conductor of Amor Artis Chamber Choir, Fairfield County Chorale; Conductor of North Jersey Music Educators Orchestra. He is also regular conductor of the Bronx Choral Society, Brewer Chamber Orchestra, Palmer Chamber Orchestra, Palmer Singers. He has conducted rarely performed operas such as Christoph Willibald Gluck's Il Parnaso confuso, La Corona; George Frideric Handel's Deidamia HWV 42, Faramondo HWV 39, Hymen HWV 41, Mucius Scaevola HWV 13; Alessandro Scarlatti's Ishmail.

Since 1982, Palmer has served on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music, teaching Conducting, Composition, Arranging and Orchestration (currently at the New School's Mannes School of Music).

Compositions: Contrasts for 4 bassoons; O Magnum Mysterium; Commissions: Songs of Reflection; The Vision of Herod; The Immortal Shield; Orchestration of Leonard Bernstein's Touches; Numerous other works for chamber groups, chorus and orchestra, including 2 string quartets, 1 symphony, Dance-Music (a ballet), orchestral overtures and several dramatic cantatas.

==  Biography (text only, slightly edited) from the Bach Cantatas website  
==  Photo from another source  

Rudolph Palmer was in Chicago in August of 1991, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him about various musical topics . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   When you’re conducting a piece, are you conscious of the audience that is behind you?

Rudolph Palmer:   Yes, I am.  I’d be a liar if I said that I didn’t have a certain amount of showmanship, but I am always concerned for the composer, first and foremost, and if I don’t give of myself, or put out 110%, then I feel like I’m not really doing my job.  I’ve walked off the stage once or twice, and wanted to kick myself because I hadn’t felt like I really nailed it in a first act, and worked myself up in a lather and came back to the second act, and really put it on, so to speak.
BD:   Is it really possible to nail it every time you go out there?

Palmer:   One has to shoot for that effect.  I enjoy going out on stage and really giving it my all.  It’s a little isolated island for myself to go out on stage and perform.  It’s a chance for me really to open myself up in spite of all my favorite artists that I work with and see and listen to who do the same thing.  For instance, Janet Baker comes to mind.  While there are so many singers with better voices who don’t nail the performance as well as she does, I would go to Carnegie Hall and feel like I was in the presence of a great artist.  There are other singers, who I’ll leave nameless, where I’ve gone to their performances in New York and feel like I’ve been robbed.  I feel like I’ve been given nothing.

BD:   So, it’s more than just disappointment?  You feel angry?

Palmer:   I feel very angry, and upon a rare occasion I have actually booed, because I’ve just felt this burning need to complain.  I watch people around me reacting in the same way.  They can’t understand why this isn’t an exhilarating experience.  I’ve become their voice, and give a little complaint.

BD:   Should it be an overwhelmingly exhilarating experience every time we go to a concert hall or an opera house?

Palmer:   Absolutely!  There should be at least one feature of the evening that makes your brain work, that makes your heart work.  There should be a total intellectual experience that’s hyper, which people talk about.  Instead they say the music is not understood at its time, and therefore audiences sit on their hands.  Well, wait until the next generation!  Maybe they will understand it better!  No!  There should be something immediate the first time.  As a composer, I feel that.  I am conscious of drama when I write, and the audience should have something to hold onto the first time in a new work.  I have difficulty with talking about a cerebral intellectual exercise, where composers are very much involved with themselves and feel chacun à son goût [Each to their own taste].  There are people in the audience who sit intently absorbed by some of this, and perhaps there is a question of taste.  But there should be something exciting that happens when you walk into a performance, whether it be a concert or certainly an opera.  That is theater, and theater is supposed to communicate, and communication is supposed to be exciting on some level.

BD:   You mentioned that you are also a composer.  Are you a better conductor because you also compose?

Palmer:   I would hope so.  Another of my hats is being a teacher.  I am on several music faculties in New York, and I’m always telling my students that they should be involved in as many areas as possible, for a wide range of experience in being able to pass this on to audiences.  If you look at catalogues of conservatories, it’s no accident that the curriculums are pretty much the same for composers and conductors.  They have to know the same material, and they have to understand the same background of music.  They have to be able to analyze.  I don’t allow conducting students of mine to wave the stick until they can get into the score.  Very much the composer has to be there, but this not new territory.  This has been argued and described and discussed by many before me.  At heart, a conductor must be a composer as well.  Analysis of the music is crucial.

BD:   Do you find this is lacking in the next generation, or even the older generation?

Palmer:   No, I don’t think it’s lacking.  There are many conductors, or would-be conductors among the students that I work with, who enjoy the excitement and the concept of conducting.  Conducting has to be all-absorbing.  You have to almost be like a lover of mystery novels.  You’ve got to be able to dive into a score and find out why the composer did what he or she did.  You really have to dig deep and love doing it, and I try to pass that on to students, and to colleagues as well.

BD:   Is this what dragged you into it in the first place?

Palmer:   I felt that I had something to communicate.  I felt that there was something in the music that I could add or perhaps bring out.  I don’t know if it’s important for a conductor to necessarily always put his or her stamp on every piece they do.  It must be that unique performance, but something expressive must be communicated, and that comes from the knowledge of the score and something that it does to you.  We talked about the excitement of an opera performance, but the excitement of looking into a score has got to grab you.  You’ve got to go for it, and as soon as you have found that has been communicated, that’s pretty much what we’re all in this business for.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You’ve made a specialty of earlier music, Baroque and early Classical pieces.  What particularly attracted you to that era, rather than the splashy romantic material?
Palmer:   I’ve always enjoyed the music of Handel.  While I have a special feeling for Handel, I’m not going to denigrate another great love of mine, Bach.  The list, of course, is much greater than that, but I mention the two main obvious names.  For those who feel offended by leaving out Vivaldi, Telemann, etc., my apologies, but there’s a body of work with the other two, and a very interesting comparison to be made.  Handel and Bach are always mentioned in the same breath.  Two more different composers could not have existed.  You have Handel, the Sondheim of his day, and you have Bach whose diligence and work ethic and background in terms of his professional activities would have made you think that he was a dry dull boy, sequestered in his organ loft.  But we all know his music is far more dramatic and exciting than that.  So here are two different routes to the same end.  I’ve always enjoyed Baroque music, but I also love all types of music.  I like anything that speaks, whether it be contemporary, romantic, any other period.

BD:   Right now we’re in the midst of a revival of the use of period instruments.

Palmer:   Right.

BD:   On which side of the fence are you?

Palmer:   More and more I am on the side of the period instruments, or original instruments.  That involves a little texture in some cases, and a lower pitch.  There are certain vocal demands made on singers.  This is not to take away from what singers can do, but certain things sit in the voice differently at Baroque pitch, which is approximately a half-step lower than our contemporary pitch of an A-440.  
A becomes 415 in Baroque pitch, and even changes from day-to-day depending on what is hot in terms of musicology.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  So, we’re getting the Bach B-flat Minor Mass [rather than the B Minor Mass]?

Palmer:   [Laughs]  Yes, very much so.  There is also something about the texture of the instruments which works beautifully.  I was just at Mostly Mozart, and listened to the Fireworks that Gerard Schwarz did.  It was another revelation, and they may be also a proving the point, by the way he had modern trumpets on stage, with twenty-four oboes, modern French horns, and modern trumpets, and modern bassoons.  Those oboes didn’t stand a chance against the modern trumpets.  I know that the Baroque trumpet very often blends beautifully with a Baroque oboe, but that cannot be said of the modern versions of these instruments.

BD:   Did he try to re-balance it a little bit?

Palmer:   He had them in different positions on stage.  He had the trumpets sitting in what is now accepted as the cello section, and on the other side of the podium were the horns, with the bassoons directly in front, and then the woodwinds and brass.  Even with the trumpets on the side that way, the sound was quite overwhelming, and the oboes were lost for most of the evening much the way that violins in bad halls today tend to evaporate.  You see people’s arms going wildly over the instruments, but you can’t hear much when the brass is playing.

BD:   How much can you as a conductor aid a hall, or do you just give in to its acoustics?

Palmer:   It’s very possible for a conductor to make something happen, just as instrumentalists have to want to do it as well.  Asking brass players to hold back is next to impossible.  They look at you and think you’re crazy.  They smile, and then still blow out rather full.  But a conductor can deal with balances, and make a hall seem better.  People have complained about the Carnegie Hall acoustics since the renovations, and then you hear a wonderful orchestra, such as the Cleveland Orchestra with Christoph von Dohnányi in that hall, and everything is balanced beautifully.  Suddenly you realize that maybe it’s not just the hall.  So yes, conductors certainly have the obligation and ability to be able to change the sound to make it fit the hall.

BD:   Do you change the sound of a hall for the specific period of the piece that you’re playing?

Palmer:   I know that there are different ways of setting up the instruments on stage to create certain balances.  I do not do that, but certain conductors, such as Christopher Hogwood enjoy having the arrangement of instruments surrounding him like the ever-glowing sun.  That has some players actually sitting with their backs to the audience, so you have a very interesting acoustical balance there.  I will actually let the players play a little bit by themselves while I go out into the hall.  Some people wonder how the conductor can leave the podium, but a good conductor knows when not to conduct too much.  He will also know what can be done without him or her.  So I will go out into hall and listen.  I will walk around and see where the good and the bad are happening.  Then I can come back and maybe move an instrument one way, or re-arrange things to make them happen.


BD:   [Gently protesting]  If you try five different seats and you adjust for them, then aren
t five seats elsewhere that were good going to be poor?

Palmer:   Well, one hopes that all seats are good.  That’s what Carnegie Hall used to be like.  Now there’s not much that can be done with that hall, because there is different seating and different sounds throughout the hall.  That’s a great tragedy for we New Yorkers, but one does what one can.

BD:   When you’re going to different halls, do you ever program for that hall?  If you know that the hall will accept a certain style but not of other styles, do you program for that?

Palmer:   The performances of these Baroque works that I have done in New York are the ones that I’ve recorded.  I will not take an intimate chamber work or chamber opera, and place it in a larger hall where the voice might get swallowed up.  I do many of my performances in Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, which is a small hall.

BD:   How many does that seat?

Palmer:   It seats less than 500, and so it’s really a chamber feeling.  One can go perhaps one level up in terms of size, and take a work like that into the 92nd Street Y [917 seats], or maybe Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center [1086 seats].  However, there is the almighty dollar, and rampant commercialism, which was present in Handel’s time.  It dictated his life, and it still dictates our lives now.  Early Music players are forced to go into vast caverns, like Avery Fischer Hall [2798 seats], and singers such as Emma Kirkby, or Julianne Baird, who is on many of my recordings, go into these larger halls and there’s no benefit to them of having to be heard forty rows away.  Their sound is designed for small intimate play, a good balance with original instruments, and yet it is swallowed up in that larger venue.  We all know the stories about how opera singers have gone into Met with beautiful instruments, and have tried to fill every inch of that hall.  Then the vibrato sets in, and thus endeth their career.  One has to know where one sounds best, and I would rather do these smaller Handel works, or Telemann works, or Pergolesi works in a smaller hall where there’s much more immediacy with the audience, and acoustically there’s no force on voice or player.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve recorded several of these works.  Are you pleased with the recordings as they’ve been issued?
Palmer:   Yes!  [Laughs]  We’re all perfectionists.  Every conductor I’ve ever spoken with talks about how he can’t wait to do the work again.  A year or two goes by, and the conductor says,
My God, that was awful!  At that moment, one hears what one would like to do or change.  We have a very interesting problem in this country, and that is financing.  Unlike European groups, which have much more subsidy behind them, and are able to spend countless more hours rehearsing, preparing, and getting their act together, we find ourselves with these projects, and are raising our own funds without too much government help.  We have to be able to put on these operas in rather fast form.  For instance, for the recording I just did of Handel’s Joshua, we were even in a friendly competition with The King’s Consort in England.  They had an all-male choir, and we used a mixed choir of female treble voices and male singers.  This is just a guess, but I would imagine that the amount of time they had to assemble their choral forces and rehearse was substantially more than the hour-and-a-half I had in New York City, where I sat at a harpsichord with this chorus, and these cracker-jack musicians.  We have wonderful musicians in every city, but these superb musicians and singers were able to come in and put something down one, two, three.  Though there is usually some verbal contact on the telephone and by letter with the concertmaster or a contractor as to certain things that are going to happen, it is the conductor’s job to make sure those scores are really tight and ready to go so there’s not one second wasted.  That’s the way it should be in any situation.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with John Aler.]

BD:   Rather than letting the music and the emotion breathe?

Palmer:   Well, breathe, or allow the conductor to make a few more shapings that he might have wanted to do.  One really becomes a functional conductor.  One does not sit there and prepare a chorus, and prepare an orchestra.  One really must produce the leadership, or the effort at the moment.  There’s a certain amount of by-the-seat-of-your-pants music-making, which is exciting and actually adds a certain excitement to these recording sessions or to the performances.  In a recent review we received in Gramophone Magazine, I was very gratified that Stanley Sadie described us as being a very alert and exciting group, and everybody seemed to be having a lot of fun.  That alertness may very well be the benefit of lack of rehearsal time.  Everybody was really on the edge of their seat.

BD:   Because you don’t know if you’ll pull it off?

Palmer:   Right, and yet you feel the flow coming.  We are coming back to that expression ‘nailing it’.  Everybody’s juices start flowing, and the adrenaline starts pumping, and you end up with a successful performance or recording.  So that is a major issue with these recordings we do.  I wouldn’t say we don’t spend time on them, but we don’t spend nearly as much time as we could.  I enjoy working with the same singers and the same instrumentalists.  The more we work together, the easier it is to arrive at a sympathetic vein.  We’ll get into a run-through before recording, and their eyes will be on me.  We won’t have seen each other for weeks when I will give the initial beat, and the players come right in.  There’s a smile, and you can just sense everybody is together.  It would be more difficult if we didn’t have this wonderful core of players.

BD:   So you’re not assembling the group from scratch each time?

Palmer:   No, it’s not the old famous New York Pick-up Orchestra.  [Both laugh]

BD:   You build on previous successes, and previous recording sessions?

Palmer:   Absolutely!  There are three singers that I’ve worked with on these projects.  First is baritone John Ostendorf.  He and I literally do these projects from the get-go.  There’s a great deal of part-preparation and contracting, and John is also a producer of a number of these recordings.  It all involves organizing recording sessions, setting a time and getting people there, and doing those wonderful grids where one person comes for twelve minutes, and one comes for six, and so forth.  Julianne Baird and D’Anna Fortunata are wonderful artists.  They’re just about as good as anybody at this moment in this field.  I’m not telling any tales out of school, but D’Anna, as wonderful as she is, is always sweetly worried just before we get together for a session.  She feels she hasn’t quite had enough time to work with me, and I find myself just patting her on the back and saying that everything will be just fine! 

BD:   So, if you had sixty hours of rehearsal, it wouldn’t be appreciably better?

Palmer:   I think there would be some things that I would enjoy doing that way... but getting back to your original question of perfection, or if it is just what I want, yes.  I listen to a recording, and I feel that it works.  Perhaps I won’t tell anybody about that one note which doesn’t quite work.  Most people don’t hear that one note, though we are more concerned about the details than most people.  But if I had a little more time, I would have maybe done that crescendo a bit bigger, or perhaps I would have changed that nuance, but I don’t know if it would have been a great change for the better.  It would just be something that I might have played with, and had a little more fun with.  But we do what we can under that short time-frame, and accept it.
BD:   On balance, is conducting fun?

Palmer:   Absolutely!  It’s fun because it’s the profession I want to be in.  When somebody asks me what I do for a living, I don’t say I’m conductor, and I don’t say I’m composer.  I’m a musician!  I want to communicate something expressive through music and through notes, and when the work to prepare for a performance is going on, that can be very much fun.  It’s like working on puzzles or on a problem.  I remember composing a quartet for four bassoons, and Elliott Carter came up to me after a performance and said,
I’m so impressed.  You had a problem, and you dealt with those four bassoons, and their ranges, and all the intricacies of the instrument, and how to give them all an equal role in this work.  That’s fun.  I enjoy the problems, and then building up to the moment when I can actually make the music happen.  It’s not just swinging the stick.  Some people still think that the orchestra can pretty much do it by themselves.  There’s a lot of preparation.  Conducting and composing are very important professions because they involve training, not just in terms of stick technique, but score analysis and theory.

BD:   You’ve combined performing, and composing, and producing, and teaching, and getting it all together.  Are you a modern-day Kapellmeister?

Palmer:   Oh, dear!  I don’t know!  New York suits me to a T, because I don’t know a New York musician who isn’t doing a lot of different things.  Shortly before I came out to Chicago, I found myself playing the organ in a church for a couple of days.  Often, a singer will call me and want to coach with me, or a student who I haven’t seen for a while will call me and want to bring some scores to talk about, and get my advice on.  I’ll be composing, and conducting a chorus in another state, as well as teaching.  I’m doing this, and I’m doing that.  It’s the New York musician’s life.  I would assume that it’s also the Chicago musician’s life, but we sort of think we have a monopoly...

BD:   Sounds like Figaro qua, Figaro là, Figaro su, Figaro giù!  [Autobiographical entrance aria in The Barber of Seville.]

Palmer:   Exactly.  We’re always busy!  I tell people that it’s never boring.  That’s the musician’s life, and it’s so exciting.  I don’t allow myself to get into a rut.  That works to my benefit, and it also works against me.  People sometimes have difficulty putting me in that specialization niche.  They see me so much involved in Baroque music, but they also think of me as a composer.  They don
t know that I also do other things.  That’s the way we have to make music.  Bach played the organ, and he wrote music, and he had to arrange a cantata every week, so maybe I am a Kapellmeister to a certain extent.  I’d like to think that we are all renaissance people, and doing as much as we can.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk about your compositions.  Do you get enough time to compose?

Palmer:   Never!  [Laughs]  I can say that without batting an eyelash!  I have written a great deal of music for all different combinations, and I enjoy writing enormously.

BD:   Do you write what you have to, or is it all on commission?

Palmer:   If truth be told, I find that I work very well when somebody tells me the instruments which are needed, and that it must be done by a certain date.  Suddenly the creative juices start to flow.  When I am just sketching, and am not on a commission, something comes to mind and I come up with pages and pages of material.  But I rarely write a work with all that material until somebody says they want this or that.

BD:   You need a deadline?

Palmer:   I like deadlines, and I like instructions.  I like sometimes to be told what to do.  It’s strange for a conductor to say that, but perhaps it shows the two sides of my character.

BD:   Probably what you like is the challenge of whether or not you can do it.

Palmer:   I feel pretty confident.  If I agree to something, I’ll get it done.  I enjoy the creative process, whether it is conducting or composition.  For instance, I had no intention of writing a quartet for four bassoons.  I had written a work which bassoonist Bernadette Zirkuli had played, and after the performance she asked me to write a quartet!  I was intrigued.  About a week later, I was coming back home to my apartment on the west side of Manhattan, and another bassoonist, Lauren Goldstein got in the elevator with me, and said that she had been talking with Bernadette, and she also asked me to write a piece for them.  I thought it was a great idea, and I was flattered, and suddenly intrigued.  The piece itself was a lot of fun to work on, and a challenge to put together.  That was an unusual commission.  I’ve written a lot of choral music.  I enjoy the choral medium, and find that I’m actually pretty good at it.  My work as an opera conductor very much goes hand-in-hand with my enjoyment of the choral medium.


See my interviews with John Corigliano, William Schuman, John Harbison, Peter Schickele, Katherine Hoover, and Vaclav Nelhybel

BD:   When you’re writing or conducting a chorus or an orchestra, do you view it as individuals, or do you view the whole thing as a single entity, an orchestra or a chorus?

Palmer:   I would say a whole entity.  Let me come back to a teaching point.  A student will say to me they really would like how to choral-conduct because they’ve only had orchestral conducting, and really know nothing about choral conducting.  I have to laugh, and I pat him or her on the back, and say that they already know plenty about choral conducting by knowing about instrumental conducting.  You also have to understand something about breathing, and something about the way the voice works.  Perhaps you need to modify your gestures sufficiently to make those entrances easier.  I taught very often about breathing.  An oboist has to breathe, and a violinist has to pick up the bow in preparation.  That preparation beat is universal for both choruses and for instrumental performance.  I wrote an oratorio that was performed by the Fairfield County Chorale in Norwalk, Connecticut.  It was a very nice commission... it’s very nice for somebody to tell you they’re going to pay you to write a work with an Elgar-size orchestra, and come up with funding in this day and age.  We are having financial problems in this country, and it’s very nice to have that sort of thing offered to you.  I got up to conduct the work and found myself just as concerned about both halves of the spectrum.  There are many choral conductors who only look at their chorus, and view a few instrumentalists as accompaniment.  Then there are conductors who only look at their orchestra.  Someone else has prepared the chorus, and when he looks up he doesn’t know what the work is about.  But he does make things happen, and the chorus does its work.  This is a team.

BD:   [With mock horror]  So you look at no one???

Palmer:   Exactly!  [Laughter]  You know me too well!  [Getting serious again]  No, it’s important that the entire effort be there.  Everybody is involved.  There are times when one has to know how much to conduct the chorus, and how much to conduct the orchestra.  You cannot be a windmill with both arms going furiously, giving cues in very intricate works.  With Joshua you’re dealing with a lot of orchestral doubling, or another work that comes to mind is Haydn’s Creation, where there’s a lot of intricate counterpoint going on, and cues in the orchestra that are different.  You have to know exactly when to give what.  What can the instrumentalists play without you putting the stick in their faces?  What can the chorus do without giving an extra added cue, and yet balancing all of this.  I’m very concerned about both elements.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’ve been dancing around this, so let me ask the great big question.  What is the purpose of music?

Palmer:   The purpose of music is to communicate in a way that words alone cannot do.  [Laughs]  That’s a little piece of the definition I’ve heard a lot of people use, and as far as it goes, that’s true.  There’s a certain emotional communication that is crucial through music, and you can’t get that through any other form.  At the same time, you go to a great piece of theater, and it’s easy to describe the musicality of the evening, even if it’s a play.  You listen to the timbre of the voice.  You listen to pitch in the voice.  You listen to the shaping of phrases, and the timings.  What better timing than to know how silence works in a moment.  I suppose that the actor would say that the spoken word is more important for communication.  As a musician, I think all communication is important, but there is something very sweeping that goes right to the core with music.  It
s a very tricky question.


BD:   Is the music that you compose, and the music that you conduct, for everyone?

Palmer:   Do you mean is it music that the average Joe will understand?  Do I create it for them?  Do I create it for myself?  I would say both!  One can lie on a shrink’s couch to talk about how one tries to please other people, and yes, I’m interested in pleasing people.  I don’t want to feel as if nothing is happening between myself as an artist and the listener.  That is just foreign to me.  I will occasionally try to give it a little more, to make sure that it’s happening, and I have to be very careful to check myself not to over-conduct, or over-compose, or over-simplify.  This oratorio is based on A Dialogue, Between the Resolved Soul and Creative Pleasure by Andrew Marvell [1621-1678].  A nice long title, and I cut it down to The Immortal Shield.  It’s a battle between Soul and Pleasure, and the temptations of pleasure on the soul and, at the very end, Soul is triumphant.

BD:   [With a wink]  It was waiting for Pleasure!  [Much laughter]
Palmer:   Most of us are, and in many ways, the music is extremely appealing for Pleasure, where the music of Soul is very simple and straightforward, and almost ethereal in its concept.  Two or three times in the work, Soul takes over her human quality, and gets very angry at being tempted in that way.  But at the very endand this is why that text appealed to methe idea of humility becomes the most important feature of life, and it’s something that we could all take a lesson from in this day and age!  For the choice of ending this work with a triumphant Soul, which is Marvell’s text, I went into an old-English choral tradition and used a hymn tune [the Easter Hymn The strife is oer; the battle done!].  With the choral society that I was writing this for, I thought it would be very appealing for them, and for the audience.  It was something they could really sink their teeth into.  Its an obvious commentary, and I used very rich twentieth-century harmonizations of the tune, and slightly altered the rhythm.  But just in case it somehow eluded people in the audience, the very last statement of the hymn comes in unison, exactly in the version we’re used to hearing on Sunday mornings.  So I didn’t feel like I had betrayed myself by making it simple.  It was a very forceful moment.  Maybe it just worked out conveniently that this way the audience could all smile and feel they knew it and recognized it.

BD:   Is this to give a feeling of gathering everyone in?

Palmer:   Absolutely!  It had a real feeling of musical community.  It is important to communicate.  Sloniminsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective is a book filled with the disastrous critiques of works that have since become great.  They have had a chance to incubate, and incubation periods are very important in creativity.  The whole idea of why we’re coming back to romanticism now is a result of shorter and shorter incubation periods that have led us to want nostalgia.  

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Palmer:   I think so.  As we do politically and socially, we need to come back to certain human connections, and in music now this is neo-romanticism... as long as it does not become neo-trash, and plays down to the lowest common denominator.  Even in our pop culture, there are certain easy ways out that are being used these days, and unfortunately, Broadway has succumbed to the use of effect over substance.  I don
t want to be cruel to the composers who are making millions of dollars, but when one listens to recordings of these scores, you hear the same melody over and over again, and realize that there isn’t a great wealth of material there.  There’s a lot of smoke on stage, and a lot of red lighting effects, but that is the danger of over-simplifying.  There are probably enough good musicians, and I have enough faith in humanity that we will indeed come back to a romantic and evocative musical communication.  As long as we are well-behaved in the way we run our world, musicians and artists will continue to go back to that.  You can’t rush away from sensitivity.  The question of lyricism in music is a big issue for me these days.  We’re so beat-conscious.  I’m someone who will probably say that Varèse had all this wonderful rhythmic thrust, and of course there are Stravinsky and Bartók.  But with these we’re talking about music that did have a purpose, and then a lyricism as well.  We’re a little scared of our emotions these days.  Not everybody, but very much the multitudes like their fast-paced activity.  It’s the Walkman!  You cannot avoid hearing that sound of the psh, psh going on behind you.  You don’t even hear melody coming through those headsets.  You just hear rhythm.  You hear volume.  Young people need much more excitement today, and music that is lyrical and beautiful is perceived perhaps as sad and funereal, and I find that tragic.  It is important to bring back feelings of communication with oneself before one can get out again.  You asked about the purpose of music.  Music can moderate our emotions a little bit right now.  We need more lyricism.  We need music to calm us down.  We don’t need music necessarily to rev us up, but we need a nice balance in between.

BD:   But I trust you’re not trying to write musical aspirin.

Palmer:   No, no!  No, no, no, no, no!  I actually have one composition student from California who is very taken by the way music affects the blood pressure and the psyche.  He wants to write music that is not too unnerving.  Variety is the spice of life, and I try to tell him that the artist has to find that balance.  When I’m composing, I’m very conscious about pacing a work.  Pacing is very important.  Pacing is important in a Handel opera.  Putting on an opera like Imeneo, which is one which required a great deal of reconstruction from the bits and pieces that Handel left us, was very much a question of which of the many aria and recitative choices he gives to create good theater.

BD:   Do you think he’s happy with what you came up with?

Palmer:   I would think so.  I would hope so!  Handel was an exciting showman.  When one reads about him, one knows about him.  When one looks at the music, you can sense that this was a very exciting human being who did not want dreariness and drudge.  Like many composers, he had his failures and he had his successes.  Not every note that Handel wrote was perfect.  Not every aria was a hit, but he had his share of good hits, and we try to get that excitement in the music, and aim for balance in the pacing to create something theatrical.

BD:   Are there more recordings coming along?

Palmer:   When I go back to New York, I immediately go into a production for the next Handel first-recording, Muzio Scevola.

BD:   I wish you success with that, and with all your other endeavors.  Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Palmer:   Thank you.


© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago, on August 7, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1997.  This transcription was made in 2024, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.