Ned Rorem's "Aftermath" for Voice and Piano Trio seems destined to become a classic, and was well-programmed April 4 & 5, 2006 at the 92nd St. Y between Ravel's Violin-Piano Sonata and Brahms' First Piano Quartet. The Laredo-Robinson-Kalichstein Trio (abetted by violist Cynthia Phelps in the Brahms) provided ideal accompaniment for Nathaniel Webster, one of two baritones who had premiered the piece, written in the wake of 9/11. It is Rorem's most effective anti-war writing since the five War Scenes on texts by Walt Whitman, which always pack a punch. (I know, having accompanied them in Berlin in 1985.) He has here connected 10 movements on selected texts by 13 poets, beginning with the 18th-century John Scott of Amwell's "I hate the drum's discordant sound," and ending with Muriel Rukeyser's "building music." The work deserves more performances and recordings.
Enjoyed Bennett Lerner & Friends Sept. 26, 2005 at Greenwich House with soprano Judith Bettina and flutist Stefani Starin in Bernard Sumner arrangements of popular and traditional music of Thailand (Lerner's adoptive home), a Copland duo, Bernstein's "Piccola Serenata" and "Silhouette," and of course Claude Debussy - Lerner's specialty, immersed as he is in recording the complete solo piano music of that composer. This program included the first U.S. performance of the early "Intermède" (1980), a real treat, along with better and lesser known works, the latter including the "eccentric 'General Lavine'" and "Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C." All presented with great love and affection.
"Love & Sensuality" was the title of the American Modern Ensemble concert Feb. 18, 2006 at the Tenri Cultural Institute of NYC. Opening with "Coming Together" by Derek Bermel performed in quasi-candlelight by clarinetist Meighan Stoops and cellist Dave Eggar, matters progressed to the New York premiere of "Shiny Kiss" for solo flute (Erin Lesser) by Alex Shapiro, with its surprise V-I ending. Jacob Druckman's "Valentine" opened the second half, performed by double-bassist Sean McClowry, singing, strumming, and striking his instrument with bow and timpani stick. Vocal honors were shared by (mezzo-)soprano Anna Tonna and tenor Paul Sperry, each accompanied sensitively and valiantly by pianist Ieva Jakubaviciute. Tonna sang affectingly the NYC premiere of AME's first Composition Competition winner, Karin Al-Zand's Tagore cycle, The Secret of Your Heart, along with Rilke settings by Bernstein and a Millay setting by David Del Tredici which (notwithstanding the strictures placed on composers by Millay's estate) repeats the last line over and over. Sperry winningly drew from his vast repertoire of 19th & 20th century Americana, opening with Cecil Dougherty's charming "Love in the Dictionary," moving on to assorted tidbits by Daron Hagen, Ethelbert Nevin, George Chadwick, Christopher Berg (O'Hara's "Lana Turner has collapsed"), William Bolcom, Stephen Foster (arr. Warren Swenson), climaxing with his specialty closer: Theodore Chanler's double-entendred "I Rise When You Enter," a bitch to play which I had the honor of accompanying him in at the May 27, 2004 Composers Concordance concert. One unintentional bit of horror graced "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" by Tom Lehrer, whom Sperry listed on the program as having died in 2005. A quick phone call to his Santa Cruz home confirmed that, like Mark Twain, reports of Lehrer's demise were somewhat exaggerated: he's still very much alive, though not at all displeased at death notices which have appeared on him since the 1980s: "It cuts down on the junk mail."
AME's second concert of 2006 was a loving tribute to composer Steven Stucky, at the same venue May 27 & 28. All the music dated from 1985 to 2005, the year Steve's Second Concerto for Orchestra won the Pulitzer, and was a joy to hear, being very much by the same vivid composer whose Rilke setting, "Schneemusik" I had the pleasure of premiering at Cornell in the 1970s with soprano Linda Patterson--no relation to AME co-founders Victoria & Rob Patterson, the latter of whom studied with Stucky at Cornell. In the discussion following intermission it was good to hear Steve praise the work of our mutual teacher Robert Palmer (1915- ), whose Piano Quartet is one of the 20th century's finest chamber pieces, and is listed by Stucky among those that influenced his 2004-5 work for that medium (along with those of Mozart, Brahms, Fauré, Copland, Hartke, and Weir). Blair McMillen and Molly Morkoski shared pianistic duties, with a dedicated ensemble that included flute, clarinet, string quartet, and percussion, not all of whom were listed on the program, in a total of 5 Stucky works for 1, 4, 6 and 7 instruments.
The third AME concert of 2006 (Oct. 14, also at Tenri), which I understand included a work by Joseph Pehrson I had the privilege of premiering at Mannes College with violist Lyova Zhurbin, was not reviewed, as press tickets were not available.
Another series of three concerts we were glad to cover represented the Merkin Hall debut of Yale's Mirror Visions Ensemble, "Arts and Secrets; As Words Become Music." This worthy group, comprising core performers soprano Tobé Malawista, tenor Scott Murphree and baritone/pianist/ composer Richard Lalli, has, since 1993, commissioned and premiered no fewer than 60 works by 14 living American composers, and some of them are gems.
Of the 18 compositions presented Sept. 18 (settings of letters), Oct. 16 ("Walt [Whitman] & Emily [Dickinson]"), and Nov. 20 ("The Almanac of Lost Things"), only Russell Platt's 10-movement Whitman Cantata, three works of Christopher Berg (including his penetrating cycle, The Months), two miniatures by Lalli and one by Richard Pearson Thomas, were premieres.
The quality of the performances improved with each concert, as Malawista generously turned over more and more of the pieces written for her to young-er sopranos Jody Sheinbaum, Vira Slywotzky, and Melissa Raz. No one exhibited more devotion, understanding, and care than she, however--everything she performed was by memory, and most effective in pieces calling for melodrama. She was also the writer of the letter set by Thomas that opened the first concert. Murphree's and Lalli's singing ranged from good to excellent, in this often very taxing repertoire. Lalli's amusing histrionics included rising from the piano in the middle of Berg's Madame de Sévigné cantata and surrendering the instrument to the capable Margaret Kampmeier, who performed, as did flutist Jane Shelly, in concerts #1 & 3. Alan Darling was the pianist in #2. Violinist Lisa Rautenberg and cellist Tom Hudson joined the ensemble in concert #3 for Daron Hagen's occasionally inspired setting of the love scene from Romeo and Juliet and 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner Yehudi Wyner's mad Mad Tea-Party after Lewis Carroll. David Del Tredici, whose (Pulitzer Prize-winning) Carroll settings Wyner called "classic--monumental" was present, and commented that Wyner's were "the way the text should be set."
The series closed with Tom Cipullo's masterful setting of 15 Linda Pastan songs, Secrets. By turns understated and virtuosic, the cycle commits only one prosodic error, unkindly setting the first syllable of the word "Asia" on a high note. Cipullo is one of the best art song composers working today. No coincidence that he studied with Elie Siegmeister, Albert Tepper, and David Del Tredici.
Leon Fleisher was the featured big-name soloist in the Dec. 11, 2005 Zankel Hall program of Dina Koston's chamber works, and in the NY premiere of the recently found Hindemith "Piano Music with Orchestra (Piano: Left Hand)," op. 29, of 1922, heard Dec. 1, 2006 at Tilles Center with the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel.
In the Koston concert, he performed only the short "Messages I" (2002) for solo piano. The program included 6 other works for 3-4 instruments performed by the core sextet of the Cygnus Ensemble and 9 guests, including 3 pianists. "In Memory of Jeannette Walters" (1995) for trumpet, oboe and clarinet was the most moving; the "Quartet for Plucked Strings" (2004) for two mandolins, banjo and guitar the most exciting. Mezzo-soprano Patricia Green opened the program with "A Short Tale" (2005), accompanied by pianist Joan Forsyth, performing a wryly suggestive text that prompted my wife to whisper: "I'll have what she's having." Ms. Green closed the program with the equally provocative "Wordplay" (1998) which explores the nuances of 7 words that change meaning when stressed differently: content - conduct - entrance - present - intimate - appropriate - console. Performance directions are spelled out explicitly in the score, a copy of which the composer was kind enough to send us. The whole degenerates rather hilariously into the Gershwins' "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," which is also about pronunciation, though not in quite the same way. Gentle suggestion to Ms. Koston: Make a version that's all your own. It'll still be delightful.
The Hindemith concerto seems a worthy addition to the repertoire, particularly attractive in the third movement (of four) with its interwoven piano figurations gracing cantilenas by English horn and flute. (Fleisher asked them to rise for solo bows.) In the outer movements, particularly the opening with its repeated "rataplan" figure, piano, woodwinds and strings seemed dominated by the brass (2-2-3-0) and (5!) percussionists. But perhaps it was just the hall.
Tan Dun at the Metropolitan Opera
In my last column, I expressed "hopes for better operas to be written for" the wonderful singers who work so hard learning new works today. Many of those hopes seemed to rest on Tan Dun, whose The First Emperor received a $2M production at the Met and was the first commissioned by that company for its star tenor Placido Domingo. Though the production was all that could be hoped for (400 splendidly colored costumes, and the best that Chinese opera had to offer by way of instruments, pantomime, acrobatic and vocal techniques) and all 9 performances were sold out, the work itself came up short in expectations. This was certainly not due to Tan Dun's shortcomings as a composer. The creativity of his percussion writing in particular is unsurpassed; indeed I was much more impressed with the expressivity of his 1990 work for cello & percussion (Elegy: Snow in June) conducted by Madeleine Shapiro at a Mannes College student concert than with a dour Kaija Saariaho premiere at the New York Philharmonic (the Adriana Songs suite from her opera, Adriana Mater) the same day, Dec. 13, 2006.
The musical language of Tan Dun's new opera, the composer explained at a Metropolitan Opera Guild interview, was coordinated with the three colors of the set design--white, black, and red, emphasizing parallel fourths, tritones, and falling glissandi, respectively. I asked him whether that meant avoiding thirds, the basic building block of traditional Western tonality, and he said No, he intended to "include" everything. But, I asked, would he emphasize the seconds and tritones? "Yes, 'emphasize' is a good word," he replied.
The matter of emphasis in word pronunciation, however, proved to be the biggest problem of the libretto, written jointly by the composer and Ha Jin, mostly in English. Not since The Rake's Progress, which Robert Craft told me he tried in vain to get Igor Stravinsky to revise, have I heard such awful English prosody in the opera house. Impressive as the choral anthem is that pervades and concludes the work, "heavier" is a word of three syllables, not two. The word "rays" does not rhyme with "grace" or "embrace," though it seems intended to do so, in one of the few rhymed passages. And worst of all, no matter how powerful the musical underpinning, the word "shadow" is simply not sung properly with an accent on the second syllable! Some beautiful, heroic singing notwithstanding, Domingo did not help matters by singing wrong stresses in words like "system" and "currencies."
Only Elizabeth Futral, as the emperor's daughter, who regains her ability to walk after losing her virginity (while keeping most of her layers of clothing on), triumphed over the weakness of the words, making everything sound almost natural; but I think she could sing the phone book and make it sound not only interesting but gorgeous. Others in the cast who tried to follow her example, with more or less success, included tenor Paul Groves, mezzos Suzanne Mentzer and Michelle DeYoung, and bass Hao Jiang Tian, along with Peking opera star Wu Hsing-Kuo. The composer conducted with vigor. But for his next opera he should really have a dramaturge whose native tongue is English, and perhaps an assistant conductor he will listen to when told (as I once, as Met Assistant Conductor, had to tell James Levine concerning the Evgeni Onegin letter scene) that the orchestra was occasionally covering the singers. And he should seriously consider doing what Gian Carlo Menotti told me he has been doing with the great but (also prosodically) flawed opera he wrote for Domingo and the Washington Opera, Goya: Revise!
Addendum on Tom Lehrer
Tom Lehrer has been referred to a number of times in these pages. Though he stopped concertizing in 1975, his work continues to resonate, as pundits everywhere see fit to quote him on a regular basis, whether it has to do with nuclear proliferation, civic hypocrisy, or Nazi-mentality lack of social responsibility - as in "Who's Next?", "National Brotherhood Week," or "Wernher von Braun," to name just a few of his most-cited songs.
The important thing for us to recognize as writers on music is that Lehrer is both a classic and an original. No mere parodist like some of his recent imitators, he composed every tune himself, with quotations from "Dixie," "Home on the Range," and (just the lyrics from) "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" invoked only casually, in an Ivesian way - not lock, stock and barrel, as in the highly successful Forbidden Broadway and BushWars, for example.
His art, though, is at least partly improvisational. I once asked him about a chord progression that had appeared in one of his songbooks--with arrangements by someone else. He replied, "Let's look at the urtext," and put on the LP recording of his own performance. (The difference was perceptible.)
I had the privilege of being allowed by him to "complete" two of his works - usually completions are done posthumously (as in the 20 Blitzstein works I've completed, and Elie Siegmeister's song "Abraham Lincoln"). They include 1) the missing verse in "Clementine," which was originally a parody of Menotti that Lehrer considered too esoteric and withdrew (I replaced it with my "Clementine Kaddish"); and 2) a continuation of "Hanukkah in Santa Monica" so as to include all the Jewish holidays - under the title "Goot Yuntif."
I also had the pleasure of producing and directing A Tom Lehrer Song Festival at the Eastern Naturist Gathering of 2000, independent of the widely-performed revue Tomfoolery Cameron Macintosh based on his songs. In a relaxed, clothing-optional environment, we took our cue from the nudity in some of the wild illustrations in the Lehrer Songbook, esp. "The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz," "My Home Town," and of course "The Vatican Rag" - the latter being the bounciest version anyone had ever seen. "Just when one thinks one has seen everything..." Lehrer wrote in response to receiving the videotape of the performance, which he said he "enjoyed... I think that's the term..."