Need a piece of music to be heard while drinking poison? Dean Kluesner is your man. He’s a go-to guy for tunes to enjoy while staggering around a high-rise construction site, trying to shoot yourself or getting a concussion while plunging face-first into a sidewalk. If pressed, he’ll write you a love theme, too.
Kluesner didn’t know the extent of his skills until the Charlotte Civic Orchestra asked him to compose a 30-minute piece for Sunday’s concert. His film score will be played during a screening of the silent comedy “Never Weaken.” Music director Geoff Whitehead will also conduct a tone poem from “Exodus” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2.
“Never Weaken” stars Harold Lloyd as a chap whose girlfriend is about to lose her job, because her osteopath boss lacks customers. Her beau vows to drum up business by hiring an acrobat to take falls in public, then get “cured” by Lloyd in front of bystanders.
The title refers to Lloyd’s refusal to give up when facing resistance. It may be corny to apply it to Kluesner’s composing career – but let’s do it anyway.
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Though he has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music performance from Indiana University, he makes a living as a senior business analyst for Bank of America. At 65, he had accepted the idea that most living composers are limited to pieces of 10 minutes or less.
Whitehead has used Kluesner’s music on multiple occasions, starting with an “America the Beautiful” arrangement seven years ago. The film score idea had been simmering in his brain for a while, so he commissioned the half-hour piece.
“I wanted to turn him loose to be as crazy as he wanted to be,” says Whitehead. “What I love about this score is that sometimes the music is in the background, and sometimes it’s a full partner to the visuals. Even if it stood alone, I think the audience would like it.”
Kluesner didn’t take the easy path: no 1920s jazz or ragtime, no cribbing from the classics. His score is jaunty, gently ironic, weightily sentimental (as a joke) when Lloyd contemplates suicide, because we know it won’t happen. When Lloyd hears a distant harp, and the camera cuts to a woman playing from sheet music, Klues-ner incorporates the music on her page into the score.
A rare opportunity
“I wanted to give players who don’t get a lot of action something to do, like the second trumpet or third trombone,” says the composer. “There’s a lot for clarinet and other woodwinds. And there’s a full-blown fugue, too. How often does a modern composer get to write one of those?”
In the 1970s, music was his life. He played the saxophone, from jazz bands to Chinese funerals in San Francisco. (“They’re kind of like a New Orleans version, big processions through the streets.”)
He played in Las Vegas hotels, where he met and married a singer. He took a steadier job and divided his brainpower: Computers by day, music by night. He ended up at a bank that was absorbed by BofA, then came to Charlotte with wife Christy 20 years ago.
“I never thought of myself as a composer at first, because I was no good at the piano,” he recalls. But computer software liberated musicians from the need to master a keyboard, and he wrote short works for the Nevada Chamber Symphony.
After the move to Charlotte, he back-burnered composition again and worked as a sound designer for Carolina Actors Studio Theatre and Actors Scene Unseen. Then came the partnership with Charlotte Civic Orchestra.
“I feel blessed Geoff gave me carte blanche, and the orchestra is willing to play this long piece with just five rehearsals,” says Kluesner, who worked on “Weaken” over three months.
“You know what they say: If you see a movie and forget the music, the score’s a success. This film made me laugh out loud – which rarely happens – and I’m lucky to be a part of it.”