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After winning the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Michael Cunningham’s novel "The Hours" became the basis for 2002’s acclaimed movie version, which not only starred Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Ed Harris, but also won Nicole Kidman a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf.

This weekend, the 51-year-old author and Brooklyn College professor, a Cincinnati native, will be the focus of a Brooklyn Philharmonic concert titled "Words and Music." The Philharmonic program is an unusual one, juxtaposing excerpts from Cunningham’s novels (which the author will read), with the orchestra, led by conductor William Eddins, performing music that either inspired or appears in his works’ narratives.

"It’s an attempt to blur the lines a little bit among three different art forms - movies, music and literature," Cunningham explains in an exclusive interview with GO Brooklyn from his Manhattan home. "The reason, of course, is that none of this comes out of nowhere. Not only does music come from other music and books evolve out of other books, but books can also evolve out of music."

Cunningham’s work is Exhibit A. In addition to "The Hours," his other novels are 1990’s "A Home at the End of the World" and 1995’s "Flesh and Blood" (all published by Farrar Straus & Giroux). He freely admits that music has been important to the creation of many passages in all three novels, so it was with excitement that he agreed to sign on for the Philharmonic’s program.

"[The Philharmonic] wanted to do an evening of ’The Hours’ with Philip Glass and me, to include music that Philip wrote for the movie," he says. "And they wanted to include music that was influential in the writing of my books - I always listen as I write - music that felt germane to the books, which had to do with the writing of the books. So, an evening of all that music coupled with some short readings from my novels was just too good an offer to turn down."

Glass’ score - which earned an Oscar nomination - is represented by "A Suite from ’The Hours,’" which is, in everything but name, a piano concerto in three movements. The piece is a commission from the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Milwaukee Symphony, and long-time Glass collaborator Michael Reisman will perform the demanding solo part.

Cunningham, who often listens to Glass’ music while writing, was thrilled that Glass was enlisted to compose the score, but adds, "It was slightly spooky that a musician who had helped engender my writing was going to write the score for the movie based on my novel.

"What I love about his music is a certain kind of intensity, a kind of lushness, a certain fearlessness about beauty. Writers today tend to sneer at beauty, tend to dismiss it as sentimental, and I don’t feel that way. I like these auditory reminders that beauty is alive and well."

Also on the program are excerpts from Verdi’s classic opera "La Traviata" and contemporary composer Steve Reich’s "Eight Lines," two works that rarely, if ever, have shared the same stage. But to Cunningham, both Verdi and Reich are equally important.

"Any music that involves a sustained and intense emotion is useful and is inspiring to me," he notes, "whether it’s ’La Traviata,’ which is nothing but emotion, or ’Eight Lines,’ which is much more abstract but equally penetrating to me, and full of a kind of force that I feel in Verdi’s music as well."

As for Franz Schubert, whose haunting "Death and the Maiden" quartet will be heard in an orchestration by Gustav Mahler, Cunningham relates an epiphany of sorts, associated with hearing Schubert’s music while writing.

"When I was trying to write about Virginia Woolf in ’The Hours’ - most particularly when I was writing about the day of her death - I was having a very hard time doing it, trying to imagine an intensely private moment in the life of a real person," he explains. "I didn’t want to be lurid or gratuitous. I wanted it to feel real, and while listening to Schubert, I began to feel my way into it. [Schubert’s] utterly unsentimental sadness made it possible for me to write that scene. I owe it all to Schubert."

Even after the acclaim for both the novel and the movie "The Hours," Cunningham still finds it hard to believe that a novel that explores the parallel lives of three very different women who lived many years apart was actually filmed and released.

"I told my agent, ’Whether this book sells or doesn’t sell, no one’s going to want to make this into a movie,’" he says with a laugh. "I was wrong."

Now that he’s conquered both page and screen, all that is left is the stage.

"It will be my first appearance on the BAM Opera House stage," Cunningham says with only a hint of trepidation, "but, since no one has ever asked me to do this before, it very well may be my last!"

 

The Brooklyn Philharmonic and author Michael Cunningham perform "Words and Music" at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene, Feb. 14 at 8 pm. Tickets are $20, $40 and $55. Tickets are available by logging on to www.brooklynphilharmonic.org. For more information, call (718) 622-5555.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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