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Interview with Jay Weigel

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you? 
I am doing well, and you? Presently I am in New Orleans working away and enjoying the Saints victory over the Atlanta falcons in the re-opened New Orleans Superdome. 

What’s on your schedule right now?  
A commission from the University of Southern Mississippi Orchestra and choir, 2 film projects, and raising Hendrix my 4-year-old son and TJ my 13 year old stepson. 

Right after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, next to the immediate human tragedies there was always the fear that it would also wipe away the vivid and unique music scene of the city. How do you see the situation now, after some time has passed? 
Well, this is a complicated question. There is not a definitive estimate as to how many people are currently back, living in the city, and due in large part to the extreme shortage of housing. But, anecdotally, there are some where between 30%-50% as many people now compared to before the storm. So, if we presume around the same percentage of musicians are back, we have a very different music scene than what was here before the storm. However, clubs are open, musicians are working. Some that evacuated and moved away have already said that they are not coming back. So, the popular music scene of New Orleans is a bit different right now. Every day it seems more musicians return, though many are keeping two residencies, one here and the other in another town. However, back in January we recorded the orchestral score to Tyler Perry’s “Madea” here in town. This past Saturday the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, augmented by musicians from the area, performed “Le Sacre”. This would not have been possible 2 months ago. So some musical scenes are returning more quickly to pre-Katrina status. Mystically, I will always think of New Orleans as a place that gives music to people, not a place that takes it away. I tend to believe that here, in the ground itself, music emanates touching and inspiring musicians and composers.  

You were actually contacted by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to help them in their actions to help preserve New Orleans’ special artistic status. How would you describe the interaction between politics and the arts in this endeavour? 
Let me clarify the situation. I was contacted by Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu to participate in his committee designed to construct a strategy for rebuilding the cultural community of Louisiana. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita decimated much of Southern Louisiana, and he wanted to develop a comprehensive strategy. The situation with Mayor Ray Nagin was similar. He formed a committee to outline a vision and implementation strategy for rebuilding the cultural assets of New Orleans. We all worked hard to get these two planning processes on the same page, so that we would have coordination between the city and state. Now, with that said, how is the interaction between politics and the arts – complicated, rewarding and frustrating all at the same time. The individual artists and cultural institutions have been able to move forward at a quicker pace than the Government. I think it is fair to say that the non-public sector is now hitting the wall resulting from the inability if the Government to move forward at a quicker pace. The private sector is doing its part; the public sector is lagging behind.  

Apart from the diverse fundraising projects which are going on – how would you rate the importance of music for giving hope and relief to the people of New Orleans right now? 
I would say it appears to be second only to the New Orleans Saints football team. This city’s daily sustenance comes from the music, however its emotional state seems linked to the football team.

Your latest release (which we will talk about in a second), sets out to collect funds for the rebuilding of Cathedral of St. Louis King of France. Can you describe the proportions of the damage to the building and why this cause is so important to you? 
The building, like all old buildings, is in constant need of maintenance. You need to remember that New Orleans, as we know it today, started right around this Cathedral. It is an incredible important historical site, visited by millions of people annually. Yet, it has a very small local constituency, therefore the need for revenue to support its existence is never ending. Katrina caused a lot of damage, including extensive damage to the newly renovated organ. Which is now, once again being repaired. Besides recognizing the historical importance of the Cathedral, my interest in helping this Cathedral is a result off my admiration for Father Kern, the priest who runs the Cathedral. 

How is the fundraising process progressing? 

If you are asking about the Cathedral’s efforts, they are going very well. The Cathedral is one of the few Catholic churches functioning somewhat healthily. So, the Catholic community is utilizing the facility for weddings and other functions that would normally happen elsewhere. The Cathedral has also started being a more regular venue for concerts and other cultural events.  

The piece is actually a commission by the Cathedral before the disaster. How was the connection established in the first place? 
For the past 11 years, I have been contracted by the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation to produce free, nighttime concerts at the Cathedral during the month of December. I met Father Kern three years ago when he was appointed as the head of the Cathedral, at one of the concerts I was producing he asked me if I was interested in writing a piece. After a couple of meetings and discussions, the Mass was commissioned. 

The mass is furthermore a piece written in honour of Pope John Paul II, who passed away a mere week before the premiere. Had he in any way listened to parts of the piece? If so, what was his reaction? 
Unfortunately, he never heard any of the Mass. I never heard any of it until the choir was well into rehearsing it. The Orchestra and choir never played together until two days before the premiere.  

What were the reactions of the audience upon listening to the work just a week of John Paul II passing away? 

Well, happily the audience was ecstatic. The church was filled with lay people as well as two Bishops and many, many clergy. After the concert, Archbishop Schulte took the stage and made some very kind remarks regarding the work and me. Finally, I literally left with unsolicited donations from people who wanted me to record the work. These donations are how the cd was made possible. 

If I understood correctly, other works for John Paul II were to follow the mass. If so, will this project be continued in any way? 
While I have not been asked to write any other work honoring the late Pope, I have hope that if he is deemed a Saint, that many works will follow. 

The CD recording is now being released on a jazz label. Do these terms like “Jazz” or “New Music” mean anything to you at all? 
Well of course they do. Not only am I a composer, but also I am the Director of the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. In that capacity, I have been programming music for the past 25 years. Also, raising money to present these same concerts. Many granting sources are very specific about what they will fund. Regarding this project, I am thrilled that a Jazz label is expanding their catalogue with this cd. 

Religion has been notably absent from the focus of contemporary music for quite a while. Do you resent that? And: What does your faith mean to you in relation to your creative work? 
I in no way resent the absence, or for that matter presence, of religion in contemporary music. When composers have a non-musical statement to make through their compositions, the work needs to be respected for what it attempts to do, not what it didn’t do. Now for me, composing is a spiritual experience. I feel much more complete as a person when I make regular time to compose. I have learned more about myself, and the world through the act of composing than anything else other than raising a child. 

Are any more live events planned in connection with the fundraising? 
The Cathedral has continuous activities, it is a church that is really been infused with life as well as a sense of history. 

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Any idea what yours could sound like? 
How about, Ellington meets Hendrix meets Gospel meets Beethoven.

Jay Weigel (1993) Albany Records
Dancing on Glass (1995) Turnipseed Music
Lera Auerbach, Live Performances (1997) Lyric Records
The River may cry (2004) FCM
Mass of Pope John Paul II, the Great (2006) MCG Jazz

Jay Weigel

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