A Brief Fling – Musical Mystery Solved!
By Emil de Cou, Music Director/Principal Conductor, PNB Orchestra
On February 28, 1990 Twyla Tharp’s Scottish-themed ballet Brief Fling made its debut on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. I was in the orchestra pit that night, conducting a performance of La Bayadere – Kingdom of the Shades. A colleague led the orchestra in a lively performance of Agnes DeMille’s Rodeo. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra played beautifully as always, but Twyla’s ballet was performed to a then-state-of-the-art recording made in Los Angeles. She had just joined the artistic staff of American Ballet Theatre, and it was her wish to have something that could be performed anywhere, at any time as opposed to relying on whatever “house orchestra”might be available while on tour. And that is the way Brief Fling has been performed over the past 26 years.
On November 4, 2016 at McCaw Hall, all that will change. I spoke with Twyla when she was with PNB for our AIR TWYLA performances in 2013 and she mentioned that she had become increasingly unhappy with that 1989 recording of Percy Grainger and Michel Colombier’s compositions for Brief Fling. The recording, which had sounded fresh in 1989, had begun to degrade over time. She very much wanted the PNB Orchestra to perform it during those 2013 performances, but the timing was too tight to find the music materials.
When I looked into the possibility of performing the score live, I encountered a series of musical roadblocks. Twyla’s office in New York emailed me a very difficult-to-read photocopy of the composer Michel Colombier’s original manuscript and it seemed that was all that we had to recreate the 1989 soundtrack. I decided to take up the search in my old hometown, Los Angeles, where Mr. Colombier had an impressive career as a film and concert composer. The first thing I discovered was a terribly sad thing indeed – Michel Colombier died in 2004 at the all too early age of 65. After several Google White Pages and other such online searches, I came across the name of Dana Colombier in Santa Monica. I emailed her in hopes that she was the late composer’s widow and it was indeed the right place to go.
Dana is devoted to her husband’s musical legacy and was thrilled to be able to help. Michel and Dana had moved into their idyllic and quiet Santa Monica home just a year before his illness and that was where his music was stored in a series of boxes and envelopes, some marked but most not. Dana came across what she believed to be the original manuscript parts that Michel used to record the score for Twyla in Los Angeles. Dana was generous enough to invite me and my partner Leif (Bjaland, also a conductor) to come to her home and look through the materials to see if everything was there. Colombier wrote his score for a very large orchestra with a battery of percussion and a concerto-like solo piano part playing an elaborate rendition of Percy Grainger’s famous “Country Gardens” and “Handel in the Strand.” It was important (albeit somewhat unlikely) to find each of the original parts for strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and piano solo, since it was written only to be recorded once and not performed live.
Flying into LAX and managing the mire of freeways was the easy part, but it was onto Santa Monica and Dana and Michel’s beautiful home. Dana greeted us like old friends and ushered Leif and me into her kitchen dining room where there were two large manila envelopes on the table inscribed in large black letters by the composer “A Brief Fling.” When I opened the first one my heart sank when I saw it filled only with sketches and early drafts of the ballet (he worked very closely with Twyla throughout the process). But with the second envelope we struck musical gold! In it we found a set of the most beautifully hand engraved music on extremely fragile and transparent onion skinned paper – musical calligraphy is now a long lost art thanks to computer engraving.
We quickly did an inventory of the contents and saw that the music was in the order in which it had been recorded so the first thing we did was start stacking the thin papers in the correct order. Amazingly everything was there and ready to be recopied for our late October rehearsals.
Dana was understandably uncomfortable with letting this key part of her husband’s legacy out of her possession and originally was going to have the music copied in Santa Monica by a friend. We left Santa Monica with a couple of photocopied pages but then I received a call from her on my way back to LAX the next day: she was asking to meet me near the airport to entrust me with her husband’s original materials. As timing (and Siri) would have it, the location for this musical mystery hand-over turned out to be probably the least-attractive Denny’s restaurant in all of Los Angeles. Fortunately Dana was pressed for time so Leif and I took the envelopes from the passenger side of her car and off she went. Saving us the embarrassment of treating our benefactor to a lunch with an unsightly view (to say the least)! The music went into my carry-on luggage all the way back to our music library in PNB’s Phelps Center where it will stay until I return it in person to Dana Colombier.
It will be an honor to be the second conductor to direct this music and the first to perform it before the public. I know Twyla will be thrilled as well to know that this music that she lovingly choreographed in 1989 will get the hearing that it deserves. I am also so fortunate to have met and befriended Dana Colombier who lost her beloved husband at much too early an age. She told me how well she remembers being with him at that San Francisco premiere in 1990 and how happy he was with the performance. Dana and her daughters (both huge classic film buffs) will be with us in Seattle for these performances and I look forward to introducing them to our PNB family of musicians, dancers, and staff. Without her tireless efforts and generosity we would be looking at trying to clean up a degrading reel-to-reel tape. Now we can all look forward to Colombier’s music and Twyla’s dance being performed the way it was meant to be, with great impact, energy, color, and life. And best of all with Michel Colombier’s stunning score performed with the full forces of the PNB Orchestra for the first time.