It wasn't B.J. Thomas, exactly, but musical raindrops seemed to be falling in a white-walled rehearsal room next to Walt Disney Concert Hall, courtesy of Milo Talwani, one of the L.A. composers least likely to write melody, let alone ear candy, into a piece of music.
At 16, he's one of four area high school students taking the royal road to composing careers, at least at the outset, via the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Talwani, a lanky epitome of precocious Bohemian-intellectual cool who's a junior at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, had placed pizzicato plinking sounds that evoked the first spatterings of a cloudburst into a musical fragment from a work in progress. It was being given its first test run by the Calder Quartet, a string ensemble that over the past 15 years has gone from USC undergraduate beginnings to international acclaim.
Hearing the Calders play their music is something most contemporary classical composers can dream about. For the current crop of L.A. Phil Composer Fellows, it's part of the curriculum. Their two-year apprenticeships will peak the coming two Saturdays when the full Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Christopher Lees, will play their short orchestral pieces in Disney Hall alongside Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," as part of the Toyota Symphonies for Youth series.
A.J. McCaffrey, a composer who's been instructing the Phil's teen fellows since the program's inception in 2007, liked Talwani's raindrop effects.
"Milo, it's really cool — different for you," he said. McCaffrey, who's receiving his doctorate in composition from USC this spring, would later explain that "Milo loves working in almost static fields, big shapes that kind of move glacially. I've been encouraging them to try things they normally wouldn't do."
Orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and quartets such as the Calders are among the most forceful and finely tuned creative tools humanity has devised that do not require electricity. Handing the keys to four teenagers could be construed as potentially a bit reckless. "An orchestra is a dangerous weapon, and in the wrong hands all kinds of chaos can ensue," admits James Matheson, who directs the Composer Fellowship Program and at 42 is himself a young classical composer, in the more common sense of the term — and a highly decorated one at that.
Along with McCaffrey, it's his job to make sure these particular hands have the skill, sensibility and discipline to be the right ones.
The fellowships were launched out of the conviction that turning over a great orchestra to high school kids is a risk that classical music can ill afford to duck if it wants to improve the odds for vital new music in the decades to come.
Early in odd-numbered years, the Phil puts out a call for teenage applicants in the L.A. area who can demonstrate an aptitude for putting music on paper. The chosen four, picked for sparks of originality, embark the following fall on a cost-free two-year regimen of writing for wind instruments, percussion, strings, brass — the whole panoply. They meet every two weeks, and in between the Phil comps them concert tickets to provoke their ears and expand their musical thinking.
Small pickup groups of Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians perform the composers' scores in private workshop sessions, and the fellows also write for local youth orchestras that perform in an annual festival at Disney Hall.
Steven Stucky, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who served from 1988 to 2009 as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's consultant for new music programming, launched the fellowships near the end of his tenure.
The initial culminating concert in 2009, he said, was "something the first four fellows are never going to forget, and neither am I. You go into Walt Disney Concert Hall, the street's lined with school buses and it's full of school kids. After the concert, the composers come on stage to take a bow, and the auditorium erupts with something that sounded to me like hero worship for these nerds who otherwise would never have gotten attention for what they were doing. It was sort of a 'Rocky' moment."
The Los Angeles Philharmonic didn't pioneer this concept — the Tucson Symphony has had a Young Composers Project for 20 years, according to its website — but it's by far the most prestigious professional orchestra working consistently with teen composers. The New Haven Symphony and Kansas City Symphony also have programs.
Stucky said the idea was literally thrust upon him by Mary Ann Cummins, a longtime music instructor at Crossroads School in Santa Monica.
"She's a force of nature, and she had been urging me, to put it politely, for many years to do something about young composers," he recalled. "I went to Crossroads one day in about 2006 to give a talk or master class, and she takes a boy and shoves him in front of me: `Here's Anderson Alden, a very talented composer, and what are we going to do about this?'"
The Phil mustered money for the program; orchestra officials said they don't break down the annual costs separately from other education offerings.
After overseeing the first group of fellows, Alden among them, Stucky tapped Matheson, his former Cornell University grad student, to shepherd subsequent flocks. At the end of 2011, Matheson won a $200,000 Charles Ives Living award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, designed to buy composers the freedom to do nothing but write music for two years. But he's continued overseeing his charges in L.A., flying in from New York because he gets a kick out of working with teenagers and because, as Stucky puts it, "if you send 20 kids over a decade into American music, with experience at the highest level, you're really doing something to the culture."