Ups and downs

Georgia native Robert Pound debuts 'Irrational Exuberance'

"I've been a fan of the Atlanta Symphony forever," says composer Robert Pound, whose nine-minute long "Irrational Exuberance" has its world premiere next week, performed by the ASO under the baton of guest conductor Michael Morgan.

The tow-headed, 35-year-old Columbus, Ga., native makes his Symphony Hall debut as a composer rather than as a conductor, which, given the close encounters he's had with ASO conductors, is surprising.

The most recent exchange was in February 2004, when he participated in a conducting workshop at the ASO sponsored by the American Symphony Orchestra League — a really big deal in the symphonic world, but one of those kind of behind-the-scenes events that doesn't get much public press. That got him invited to be a finalist vying for the ASO's new conducting fellow position, which was ultimately won by his good friend Laura Jackson. He had previously met music director Robert Spano two years ago at the Tanglewood Festival. Pound also was on call as backup for former ASO assistant conductor Alexander Mickelthwate for conducting Howard Shore's "Lord of the Rings" music on tour after Shore quit touring with the music himself.

But the man with the most professional influence on Pound's career, as both conductor and composer, has been Michael Morgan, music director of Oakland East Bay Symphony, who is noticeably an increasingly frequent guest conductor with the Atlanta Symphony as of late. Pound first met Morgan while pursuing graduate studies in New York City.

"I've known Michael Morgan since 1993 when he came to Juilliard to guest conduct, and I sat in on some of his rehearsals when he conducted the [New York] Philharmonic," says Pound by phone from Dickenson College in Pennsylvania, where he is currently an associate professor. "I really got to know him later that summer at a conducting workshop in Columbia, S.C., and have been a conducting student of his since then, and have been his assistant on various occasions. I assisted him in Atlanta in '98 when he guest conducted there. So he's known me as a composer and conductor for that long."

It was Morgan who asked Pound for a new work to premiere with the Atlanta Symphony. The program called for a curtain raiser just under 10 minutes, a plan highly suited to Pound's recent musical ruminations.

"It gave me enough time to do all the things I wanted to," says Pound, "and haven't had the chance to really work out on a large scale, and for such a virtuosic ensemble."

The title "Irrational Exuberance" comes directly from the famous phrase spoken by that Yogi Berra of finance, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, at a black-tie dinner in 1996. Afterward, stock markets around the world immediately dropped 2 percent to 4 percent.

When Pound first heard the phrase, he says, "I was at home working on my dissertation, and heard it and thought, 'That's a great name for a piece. Something that is just wild and with lots of changes.' And of course, part of my fascination with that is there should always be some kind of connection, some kind of underlying logic to it. A favorite Oscar Wilde quote of mine is 'Truth and art is the unity of a thing with itself.'"

Given that Pound studied at Juilliard with arch-modernist Milton Babbitt, that's perfectly rational. It was Babbitt who stoked Pound's interest in music as a language that maintains its own internal logic, however simple or complex it may be. But unlike the more radical modernists of the mid-20th century, Pound has been exploring possibilities with a more direct harmonic palette that inclines toward tonality.

"The joke is that rock 'n' roll is the language of four chords and no more, which of course is not really true. But those chord changes function in a self-contained way. The simplicity gives it its own natural unity. The smallest difference in that small world really matters.

"I love when a melody may be only a few notes, two or three notes, and then you get one more," says Pound. "A song that comes to mind is Green Day's 'When I Come Around.' Through the verse it's fairly static, then you finally get this note above the others — it just goes up for a little twist. That miniature climatic moment makes all the difference. It's part of the thrill of the three minutes."

But Pound's "Irrational Exuberance" is hardly simple. It's a wild ride for the orchestra through musical changes, surprises, and virtuosic, multilayered streams and flurries of sound.

"It's an ironic title to the extent that it should feel irrational, which is what I'm going for," says Pound. "But I guess I'm a classicist at heart, and so while it should feel irrational on the surface, it has logic to it and a structure that keeps it in place. It's like a roller coaster: You know there's a solid structure there holding it and you're going to be OK, unless there's some big accident, [but] it's thrills and chills for the rider, so you can enjoy it all the more."