Some words from Ben Makino

Ben and orchThe conductor of the recording last summer of my opera “Home Is a Harbor” recalls his experience shepherding this piece to completion. It’s a fun read!

How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Part 1

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

By Opera Memphis Music Director Ben Makino

The time from June 1 and August 1 this year, the interval I am officially away from Opera Memphis, was a period filled with various activities, some mundane and many musical. It came immediately on the heels of a trip to Japan that Sarah and I took, meeting my father on our arrival in Tokyo. My brother has lived there for (I think) ten years now and was recently married, and my uncle turned out to be visiting at the same time, so in many ways it ended up being an ideal time to be there, to catch up with family and see the city where my father spent the first few years of his life.

Of course there were future performances to prepare for, which are now approaching at a seemingly ever increasing velocity: with some very good luck that will always be the case. There was some more serious work on the languages I study, which is an ongoing and eternal project of mine. There was the three day meeting of the Opera America Leadership Intensive in New York the last weekend of July–those sessions are something I always look forward to, but will have to be explored more fully at some other time, if at all. For now, please allow me to describe two projects which largely defined this summer, the first of which being recording Home is a Harbor.

I was approached in late winter by soprano Jamie Chamberlin about a project in which she was involved with composer Mark Abel. Jamie and I had attended UCLA together, and she was about to appear in Long Beach Opera’s production of Marilyn Forever, but we hadn’t spoken much since our last project together in 2010. She and soprano Ariel Pisturino had recorded an art-song album with Mark the previous summer and were going to be recording a new opera over the summer that he was just finishing. I had met Mark previously at a performance I gave of Hindemith’s Das Marienleben in Orange County but had never worked with him before. Jamie asked if she could put us in contact, as there was no conductor yet involved in the project. Looking forward to the opportunity to work with them both again, of course I replied “yes.”

Mark and I spoke briefly over the phone about the project–a short three-act opera titled Home Is a Harbor. He wrote the libretto himself, which follows the lives of two sisters from Morro Bay coming of age in the mid to late 2000s. The project sounded interesting in itself, although it was Mark’s personal story and the chance to work with some longtime colleagues and friends that fully convinced me that I wanted to take on the project. I received the scores around March, and Mark flew out to go over the score in the first week in June to review the piece.

Mark is a unique personality in the already highly diverse group of composers I have been fortunate enough to meet. Early in his musical career he was a rock guitarist and producer in New York. Frustration with the popular music scene at the time resulted in a hiatus of about twenty years (I don’t know the specific amount) during which he worked as a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Mark finally left journalism completely in the 2000s, dedicating himself to composition, writing through the medium of MIDI technology, which allows him to work out complex musical ideas in real time. A musical autodidact, Mark’s knowledge of the repertoire is vast, encompassing nearly every corner. On his visit in June we spent some very enjoyable breaks from his piece talking about favorite works of his, among them the violin concerti of Karol Szymanowski, which I am listening to as I write this entry.

The orchestra convened for the first time on July 5 for six hours of rehearsal at The Bridge studio in Glendale. I was happy to be working again with some of my colleagues from Long Beach Opera, including cellist Tim Loo; bassist Steve Dress; and percussionist M.B. Gordy, although the ninety-two mile daily commute from my mother’s home in Fullerton was something to which I had to re-adjust. I don’t think there has been a single day in Memphis when I’ve had to drive a similar distance.

The rest of the small ensemble was a group of some of the finest musicians in Los Angeles, including pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay, who also perform together as the Ray-Kallay Duo. (Aron is also one of the co-founders of Microfest Records, which specializes in microtonal music and whose 2013 album The Ten Thousand Things on which Vicki Ray also played was nominated for a Grammy.)

I had never met Vicki before this project, although we share many common friends from the contemporary music scene in LA. She is one of the most respected new-music pianists in Southern California, and part of me dreaded some hypothetical moment in recording when a mistake on my part or a failure to hear something clearly would result in an embarrassing situation with her in the studio. Fortunately, Vicki is a warm and generous artist, and we got along very well. Recording began on July 6 and continued for six hours a day through July 9. As you can see in the photos, everyone in the orchestra was on a headset, for several reasons: First, the headset gives everybody an idea of how the performance sounds through the microphones. Second, Vicki and Aron were playing on Mark’s MIDI keyboards, which were connected to the booth with a direct line, and had no playback in the studio. Finally, the singers were actually singing scratch tracks and were not scheduled to record their vocal parts until after we had finished recording the whole piece.

Naturally, using this particular recording method for the piece meant that we had to exercise a high level of precision regarding phrasing and tempo, as there would be no opportunity to adjust once we finished recording the orchestral tracks. Luckily for us, Mark has a great deal of experience in studio recording and had carefully planned enough time for us to record (at the pace of about 6 min/hour) the whole piece by the end of the final session, which was followed by a celebratory evening at Golden Road Brewing near the studio!

Home is a Harbor will be released in 2016 by Delos Music along with Mark’s song cycle The Palm Trees Are Restless, recorded by Hila Plitmann.

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