In past Spoleto seasons, there’s rarely a moment of downtime for Festival Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities John Kennedy. From April to June, he’s rehearsing the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra for opera, chamber, and symphonic concerts as well as preparing for and hosting the Music in Time series. This year, however, Kennedy is at home and—just like the rest of us—navigating quarantine with some good books and sourdough starters.
Still, he’s been quite busy. On May 30, members of the would-have-been 2020 Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra are performing American composer Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together. Kennedy—who is responsible for auditioning and selecting each of the Festival Orchestra’s ensemble member—organized this special concert for Spoleto at Home. Here he talks about Coming Together, the process to record, and all the great content he’s taking in himself.
Why did you select Coming Together for Spoleto at Home?
Coming Together is a classic in the world of contemporary music. It’s a masterpiece of process minimalism, in which both the the text–an 8-sentence excerpt of a 1971 letter from an Attica prisoner–and the musical materials serve as metaphor for confinement as well as conditional freedom of mind and spirit. In 2020, a moment in time when we as an orchestra and we as a Festival can’t come together, this piece powerfully symbolizes our hopes and our determination. If anything, I was actually concerned the precise musical aspects of the piece would make it too difficult to coordinate a remote performance, so I’m grateful to our orchestra personnel manager, Eddie Kass, for being its advocate.
Did you rehearse the individual musicians before recording?
We had a Zoom meeting to discuss the work and its musical details. We talked about how we needed to render specific moments and sections, and I spoke with many of the members separately, too. But in the end, they were self-directed in their recording process.
How did the actual recording process work?
The process was rather straightforward. In the score, the piano is the only instrument which plays throughout with no rest. It provides a bass line ostinato, the spine of the piece. So our pianist, Renate Rohlfing, recorded her part first. Then everyone else recorded alone, listening to her performance, to which we added a click track. It is incredibly difficult to do what she did, as masterfully and intensely as she did, in a single take.
Coming Together is almost always performed with an actor, serving as narrator. For this version, it seemed natural that we should take the approach of collective narration. And so editing together the narration portion—on top of each musician’s recording—was also a big effort in what you’ll see.
Why not play all at once? And did you conduct each recording?
Because of the time delay of internet data over distances, it would be impossible to play all together—and for that matter, conduct the work—in real time through Zoom. In practice, a conductor is really only needed in this piece to provide security to the musicians of where they are. It’s also a much more powerful statement, for this performance in particular, for the musicians to demonstrate complete security and trust without a conductor “beating time.”
Where is your “Stay at Home,” and who are your quarantine buddies?
In the East Bay of the San Francisco area, in Richmond, a short walk from the bay. My wife Rozie is working from home, and our two daughters, Jazzie and Jade, are home from college in New York and in various phases of online study. They all have birthdays in May, which I usually miss when I’m in Charleston for the Festival, so it’s been sweet to finally all be together.
What does your daily practice look like?
The days can really start to feel the same, so I aim to diversify them break routines. I try to keep work obligations by email, phone, and Zoom to one chunk of the day, and then I also exercise, walk the dog, cook, and read news and social commentary. I’m composing as well, but I think it’s important to not put too much pressure on ourselves to be super achievers in this moment.
What are you currently binge-watching?
I miss the NBA, so watching ESPN’s “The Last Dance” brought back so many great memories of how amazing Michael Jordan was.
What podcasts are you into?
Chris Hayes’s Why is This Happening? is at the top of my list. I also browse the great podcasts at Vox, with Ezra Klein, Kara Swisher, and others. Journalists are heroes now in the effort to save truthful discourse around informed ideas.
What books are on your nightstand table?
I’m reading Gish Jen’s The Resisters, which is a (not so) futuristic story about life in a dystopic America, where baseball becomes a vehicle for resistance among the underclass. Next up are Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, and the musicologist Richard Taruskin’s new volume Cursed Questions.
Are you cooking or drinking anything fun these days?
My dad always kept a sourdough starter going when I was a kid, so I thought that it was about time I finally got around to doing so as well. I enjoy baking, and made Jazzie a lemon-meringue pie for her birthday. I must say, it rocked! As a family, we have always enjoyed cooking and improvising with ingredients, and we tend to gravitate to creative variants of rice and noodle bowls. Did you say drinking? I’m going down some rabbit holes in wine varietals. You can follow me and my reviews—and monitor my intake—with the Vivino app.
What’s the main thing you’re looking forward to again when quarantine ends?
Seeing people and their smiles in person! Feeling the humanity of their presence and making music and breaking bread together.
Watch members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra in a digital concert of Coming Together May 30 at 5:00pm, available through June 7.
Want more? Visit John Kennedy’s website to learn more about his work and stay up-to-date with his projects. Read about the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra audition process, here. And be sure to keep up with the Festival on Instagram @SpoletoFestivalUSA for updates and more during Spoleto at Home.