Setting `Einstein's Dreams' to music

October 26, 2006|By Taya Flores | Taya Flores,sun reporter

Music runs through her veins. At 59, composer Lorraine L. Whittlesey never dreamed of pursuing any other career because music was always her thing.

"My father took me to a performance of conductor Arturo Toscanini when I was 3," she says. "He told me that if I made a sound, I had to leave. I didn't make a noise because I was so entertained."

For her latest composition, Einstein's Dreams (It's about time...), which debuts today at Theater Project in conjunction with Westminster's Chamber Music on the Hill, she took a novel that inspired her and made it hers -- by making it musical. The performance is a multimedia musical production inspired by 10 chapters of Alan Lightman's best-selling novel Einstein's Dreams. The chapters explore Einstein's hypothetical daydreams about time.

The performance's choral director, Dr. Margaret Boudreaux, describes the production as "cascading creativity," because Einstein inspired Lightman to write a book, which then inspired Whittlesey to compose a musical.

"It's fascinating how one idea can inspire so many creative expressions," Boudreaux says.

Critics cannot pigeonhole Whittlesey because her styles range from hip-hop to jazz to classical. This one has large and small vocal ensembles, solos, synthesizers, a tuba, flute, string bass and images projected onto a screen. The only connecting thread is what Whittlesey calls her trademark, "lyrical melody."

She's not sure where this influence came from, but she says she grew up listening to and admiring such melodic musicians as the Beatles and Joni Mitchell.

"We all stand on each other's shoulders," she said. "If you're lucky, you'll find a voice and make it your own."

Her voice was always musical. She grew up in New York City with parents who appreciated music and often went to Broadway shows. She has musical grandparents and aunts and uncles who ran a live radio show in the 1930s and 1940s. Her mother told her she was singing before she could talk.

Whittlesey studied classical piano with Ethel Gould, whose teaching lineage traces back to Beethoven. But the rigorous training was a "turn-off," she said. When she was 13, her parents sent her to Sacred Heart, a convent/boarding school in Pennsylvania that all of her female relatives attended. To escape boredom, she retreated into writing music.

Her writing led to a career of musical escapades. After studying TV and film scoring at the University of California Los Angeles, she did composer-residencies, writing original material for choral performance at the University of Baltimore's Yale Gordon College in 2001 and works inspired by exhibitions at the American Visionary Art Museum. (She had visited Baltimore frequently since 1979 and moved here in 1991.) In the mid-1990s, she worked as a music producer in the computer music department at the Peabody Conservatory. She also performs Ebony & Ivory, a music and comedy series with Joyce J. Scott for which she won a "Best of Baltimore" award in 2001.

Artists from different genres use her songs, including hip-hop group Naughty by Nature, the U.S. Navy Choir, Concert Artists of Baltimore and the Peabody Children's Chorus.

Her next endeavors are eclectic as well. She plans on writing a musical treatment of the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith for a live performance using the strip's characters.

She likes the variety and doesn't like musical snobbery, "I love all music as long as it's done well," she says.

"Einstein's Dreams (It's about time...)" runs today-Sunday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Show times are 8 p.m. through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15-$25 (tonight's Free Fall Baltimore performance is full). For more information, call 410-752-8558 or go to theatreproject.orgtaya.flores@baltsun.com

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