The Friends of the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned me to write a children’s piece for their Kinder Konzerts (Children’s Concerts). I decided to use The Mitten as the basis for my piece because it had so many interesting characters to portray in music.
To get an idea for a character, I pretended to be each animal. I closed the door to my studio and acted like a mouse, frog, owl, rabbit, fox, wolf, boar and bear. I thought “How does a mouse run?” then I tried to run like a mouse. “How does a mouse sound?” I wrote some notes that sounded the way a mouse runs.
I did that for every animal in the piece. It took a long time to get everybody just right. Some days, I couldn’t think of anything. The hardest character was the wolf. I wanted him to be really scary and sneaky and make your neck hairs stand up.
Whenever I got stuck writing, I’d talk to my daughter, Greer. She was four then, and the same age as the children at the Kinder Konzerts. I’d play the music for her and ask her what she thought. She even gave me an idea for the fox. The first two notes of the fox music are the notes Greer sang when I asked her how a fox sounds.
Each animal has its own instrument. When you listen to the music, you will be able to tell which instrument plays each role.
Frog—oboe and trumpet
Wolf—viola and cello
RECORDING WITH THE MORAVIAN PHILHARMONIC
Thirty years ago, I wrote one of my most popular and most performed works, The Mitten. Friends of the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned this piece in 1986. The Minnesota Orchestra has performed it hundreds of times. The Mitten is also a favorite for the Atlanta Symphony and appears regularly on their children’s programs. The Mitten is a musical story perfect for children's or family concerts. The narrator tells the story and the orchestra provides the characters.
A boy goes into the forest to gather firewood; he drops a mitten; a mouse crawls inside the mitten to get warm. A parade of larger and larger and larger creatures follows the mouse into the mitten to get warm. A tiny cricket squeezes in right after a bear. POP!!!! The mitten explodes!
Each time an orchestra schedules school concerts, I get emails and calls from school administrators and teachers asking me for a recording. I have never had one. Never. I have a one-mike audition recording, which means I can use it to get additional performances or commissions, but not give to a teacher. Why not? If this piece had been played and recorded by a community or college orchestra, I would have handed out free copies like candy. However, professional orchestras have controlled performance, recording, and employment contracts with the musicians. Even with the best will in the world, neither group would be able to make a commercial recording for me.
Hundreds of performances and 30 years go by until I meet Bob Lord of PARMA Recordings. PARMA records classical music and, any music really, even the 'out there' stuff. “This is a great piece." he said.” Let's record with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra in the Czech Republic." It's easier to record with the MFO than an American orchestra because recording rules and employment contracts are different.
After a long time of back and forth with contracts and sales projections, Tom and I headed off to the Czech Republic in September.
The MFO offices, concert hall, and recording studio are right above the Moravian Restaurant. The food is so good; you get a bib. We didn't know the orchestra was above the restaurant when we decided to eat there. O HEAVENLY food!!! Neither of us took pictures of the food. We were too busy eating.
The next day we met with our team in the hotel lobby and walked to the hall. The recording equipment is set up in a large room above the hall. A TV and speakers dominate the room. Of course, the composer and recording people have headsets that link directly to the sound stage. The monitors are there for the orchestra manager and other people not directly involved in the recording or performance.
Most of the time, I'm extremely nervous about recording sessions. I'm not used to listening for recordings, I'm more comfortable with performances. I told Bob, “I've done tens of recordings and hundreds of performances. I worry about my ability during every recording session.” This time, I felt a little more comfortable since the piece had had so many performances, but still; the listening thing is a challenge.
This is Veet. As soon as I started working with him, I calmed down a lot. The MFO has two concertmasters, Veet is one of them. He’s also Parma's lead engineer on the MFO projects. Not only is he a marvelous violinist and recording guru, he speaks English perfectly. Do I speak Czech? No. Here he is, explaining something and playing Air Violin. I play Air Violin myself, so I understand completely.
An instrument and musical theme portray each animal in the story. The clarinet plays the mouse; a trumpet, the fox; and the tuba is a wild boar. One of the instructions to the tuba player is to "snort" into the horn. "How does he do that?" said Veet. I demonstrated by cupping my hands around an imaginary tuba mouthpiece and snorted. Veet looked skeptical, but gave the instructions. When the player executed the snort, everyone in the orchestra and the booth burst out laughing! It was so funny! Most of the time, we classical musicians are very serious and intense during sessions because we don't want to waste time and money, we must be professional and not joke around. Bunch of gloomy gusses in the studio. It must have taken 5 minutes for us to stop laughing and get back to work. Here's a little bit of that take.
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