By Steve Siegel
“Mist is something intangible,” says Diane Wittry, music director and conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra. “You can put your hands through it. It blocks your way so you don’t know where you’re going. You don’t feel it as much as you absorb it.”
Wittry had picked the title “Mist” before the Elba sabbatical. Confidence in her choice strengthened as she watched the morning sung mingle with clouds, fog, haze and yes, mist over the Tyrolean Sea. Unconsciously or not, she strained the seductive scene into her score.
The melody in “Mist” floats in fragments until near the end, when it becomes almost whole, nearly graspable. A sighing crying trumpet appears every now and then to add nervousness. Some measures are free form, without a fixed meter.
A misty motif is played by violinists, each with a slightly different voice. Wittry modeled the approach after a rising line from John Corigliano’s Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra, which he wrote for the film “The Red Violin” and which she conducted in 2005 with the Allentown Symphony and soloist Elizabeth Pitcairn, owner of the 1720 “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivarius that inspired the film. He added polyphonic strings to enliven the scene in the movie, to make the violins on a shop ceiling seem to speak.
Even the diminished chords that cycle through “Mist” have a harmonic history. Wittry has long liked diminished chords for their flexibility, sight dissonance, and watercolor wistfulness. To make “Mist” more tangible, Wittry wrote many directions in English rather than traditional Italian, even though the work was written in Italy. Her commands tend to be every specific; her extra pauses, or fermatas, last from seven to 10 seconds. Being on the same page, she points out, allows musicians and conductors to be more precise and passionate.
“I want everyone to take risks, to not be tied up, to let the music come to life,” says Wittry, who has judged works for the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. “I think the biggest fault of some conductors is that they’re very mechanical, they interpret the page literally. Young conductors are particularly guilty. They think that everyone has to be right. In my piece the idea is to go for the overall shape of phrases. Singers know that; conductors forget that.”
Unlike many novice composers, Wittry wrote “Mist” by hand and paid someone to copy it by software. Composing by computer, she insists, is sterile and stifling. “I like the look, the feel, of the hand-written score,” she says. “It breathes differently. Look at the original manuscript of Bach’s unaccompanied [violin] sonatas: they give you the shape of the line; they help you give them life.”