I Was There
(c) Jan. 20, 2009 by Leonard Lehrman, Critic-at-Large, The New Music Connoisseur , v. 16 #2 pp. 19-20 [full version]

I used to have a button, lost now these many years unfortunately, that said "I Was There, [at the] March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963." (Many are wearing similar buttons today, referencing the historic inauguration of a president whose rise that march helped make possible.)

I was there, with my father - and heard Dr. King's historic speech of the century, "I Have A Dream." I was there when it was transformed into one of the great choral works of the century, Elie Siegmeister's cantata of the same name, commissioned by Cantor Solomon Mendelson at Temple Beth Sholom in Long Beach. I was there at the work's world premiere, April 16, 1967, which was to have been attended by Dr. King and numerous celebrities. Except 12 days earlier, Dr. King denounced the war in Vietnam, the American Legion threatened to picket the temple if he showed up (which he didn't), and the John Birch Society did picket the performance.

I was there when the work finally came into its own, its Manhattan premiere, at a celebration of Dr. King's 60th birthday and Siegmeister's 80th - the same day, Jan. 15, 1989, at Harlem School of the Arts, in a performance with William Warfield and the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus (which I created and conducted) that was broadcast for many years repeatedly over WQXR and WBAI. Twenty years later, we remember that event as we celebrate Dr. King's 80th birthday and Siegmeister's centennial in 3 performances of the cantata (Jan. 11 in Great Neck, Jan. 19 in Huntington, Jan. 25 in Manhattan) and over a dozen other concerts devoted to music by Siegmeister and his students. Please see Karin Lipson's article in the Jan. 4, 2009 NY Times, "A Protégé Honors His Mentor's Legacy," Steve Parks' "LI Arts: Music" in the Jan. 16, 2009 Newsday, and the webpage of the Elie Siegmeister Society.

I was there, in the fall of 1967, when Harvard junior faculty member David Del Tredici and I (a freshman) analyzed and played, four hands, the central fugue ("No man is an island; we cannot walk alone" - a wedding of John Donne and, perhaps, Oscar Hammerstein) from Siegmeister's cantata, in the class Del Tredici was teaching in 18th-century counterpoint. Among the students in that class was a gifted clarinetist and conductor named John Adams. Two and a half years later, I was there, in Leon Kirchner's composition class, also with John Adams, now a graduate student feeling his way to becoming a composer, when Leonard Bernstein visited the class and improvised a passage in the style of Cage and another in the style of Boulez, remarking, "They sound exactly the same, don't they!?" Kirchner introduced Bernstein as "one of the great. [pause] conductors of our time." The insult, and the lesson, for this was a composition class, could not have been lost on Adams, who later turned down the opportunity to work with Bernstein as a conductor, for fear that it might detract from his respect as a composer. (Another student in that class, Faye-Ellen Silverman, has just issued an Albany CD titled Manhattan Stories with 19 cuts of of her own music, the most absorbing of which, for this listener, is also the longest: the nearly-9-minute "Protected Sleep," intriguingly based on a Sephardic song, affectingly performed by hornist David Jolley and marimbist Michael Lipsey.)

Leonard Bernstein's stature has not diminished over the years, at least in part due to the faithful and creative service of devoted scholar and composer Jack Gottlieb, who gave a fascinating lecture/recital on LB's Jewish Legacy at the Jewish Museum, repeated at the Center for Jewish History - I was there, Nov. 6, 2008, when the audience gasped as he attributed Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock to Marc Chagall. The slip could be forgiven, amid the splendid elucidations of the intersections between aspects of well-known and little-known Bernsteiniana, most notably how the Chichester Psalms grew from discarded sketches cut from West Side Story and the incomplete Skin of Our Teeth. Janice Meyerson, Heather Buck, and Cantor Robert Abelson shared the solo vocal honors, along with Michael Steinberger, Richard Holmes and Johannes Somary's Amor Artis Chamber Choir in numerous excerpts in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, climaxing in Gottlieb's "Choral Quilt," drawing connections between images of houses and gardens in various works, threaded together with shofar-like trumpet calls. (The Chichester Psalms were also a highlight of the Dec. 7, 2008 Great Neck Choral Society concert, which featured in addition a G&S-type mock oratorio on David & Goliath by director Virginia Davidson & composer Roy Bennet, along with premieres by Karen Goldfeder and Elie Siegmeister - the choral version of his "Nancy Hanks." I was there, having discovered and provided the Siegmeister score, on which I spoke briefly.)

I was there, April 14, 1977, at the premiere of Leon Kirchner's sole attempt at opera, Lily, at NY City Opera, with a cast that included Ara Berberian, George Shirley, and, in the title role, Susan Belling, daughter of Cantor Norman Belink, who had taught me so much about Jewish music. The opera was a pretentious dud, with some impressive writing for orchestra, some soaring coloratura, but an insulting nonsense language given to the black Africans, invented by the composer, who during his opera's 20 years of gestation apparently couldn't be bothered to study and write in a real human language for them, despite having written some of the finest chamber music, and two of the best piano concertos, of the 20th century. I was also there for the Boston Symphony's Carnegie Hall premiere under James Levine Oct. 20, 2008 of Kirchner's "The Forbidden," an orchestral expansion of his Third Piano Sonata with lots of brass and percussion, and not much woodwind writing except for solo English horn. The title refers to a passage in Thomas Mann's novel Doktor Faustus," and would seem to allude to the works fairly frequent use of the diminished-seventh chord, eschewed by modernists as too romantic or decadent. The 14-minute piece succeeds in holding the listener's interest, and the audience responded positively, at least as much to the music as to the nearly-90-year-old composer's arduous climb up on stage for a bow.

I was there, at the Oct. 13, 2008 Metropolitan Opera premiere of Adams's latest opera, Dr. Atomic. "Shockeroo!" was his reaction when I greeted him afterwards, with our not having seen each other for so many years. I told him I really liked his setting of John Donne's sonnet that closed Act I. (Had he perhaps been inspired by that Donne setting of Siegmeister back in 1967? I didn't ask.) Truly, I wish I had more positive things to say about the rest of the work, and his other operas, but I don't. I hear impressive orchestral sound, but also the same pretentiousness and relative lack of sensitivity to the special qualities of the human voice that I hear in his & my teacher Kirchner. The New York Philharmonic's new conductor-elect, Alan Gilbert, made his Met debut leading this opera, and spoke of it at a Japan Society evening Oct, 27, 2008 (I was there) at which bass-baritone Eric Owens bravely sang several arias (though not the Donne sonnet), accompanied by pianist Bradley Moore. The initial impression was only reinforced: Oppenheimer could have been a great subject for an opera, as he was for the play, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," with Edward Teller as his rightwing nemesis. But instead Adams and Peter Sellars have deflated any real dramatic tension by having the reactionary Teller read from the letters of the progressive Leo Szilard, and have instead concentrated on the conflict between General Groves and his weather forecaster, with recitations of Baudelaire substituting for nuptial interaction or character development. Gilbert described the piece as being about Hiroshima. If he really wants to do a piece on that subject, I told him, he should look at the score (which I handed him) of my setting of the late Lee Baxandall's Requiem for Hiroshima," premiered at Riverside Church in 1990 and reviewed in these pages at its Malverne performance Sept. 3, 1995.

And yet Opera News proclaims Adams the greatest opera composer alive today. What!? What about Robert Ward? Carlisle Floyd? Ned Rorem? William Bolcom? Or Jack Beeson (whose recently-published autobiography I'll have more to say about next time)? John Corigliano's music is just as skilled and a lot more listenable than Adams'. And then there are the up-and-coming talented pianist/composers like Jake Heggie (whose works are more appreciated by singers than by critics), Tom Cipullo (a student of Siegmeister & Del Tredici) and John Musto - who just enjoyed impressive premieres in Brooklyn and Manhattan School. I was there: Cipullo's lovely new setting of "I Hear America Singing" performed Dec. 3, 2008 by the Five Boroughs Music Festival, commissioned by the Walt Whitman Project (which just commissioned my Whitman setting, "Listen," scheduled to be premiered at Queens College April 19 - thank you, Tom!). Musto's was the impressive ensemble opera inspired by Edward Hopper paintings, Later the Same Evening, spiritedly performed Dec. 10, 2008 at Manhattan School of Music. Musto's music seamlessly wove together Mark Campbell's skillful 11-character libretto, including the poem "Nude at the Piano," though Leon Major's stage direction was not too literal. Michael Barrett conducted with flair, in the spirit of his mentor Leonard Bernstein.

Another Bernstein protégé, Stephen Schwartz, with whom he wrote Mass, has had numerous Broadway successes over the years, from Godspell to Pippin to Wicked, and now, thanks to American Opera Projects, is essaying his first opera, based on the eponymous Mark MacShane noel and Bryan Forbes screenplay, Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Hearing a concert reading Nov. 22, 2008, one could not help thinking, does one really need another Medium opera? The dedication of the 16-member cast, playing 22 roles, with Lauren Flanigan leading the pack, was contagious, though, and one can easily imagine the work triumphing in its Santa Barbara premiere Sept. 26, 2009.

The long-awaited U.S. premiere of the Jacques Deval play with music by Kurt Weill, Marie Galante, was conducted by Yves Abel, starring Isabel Bayrakdarian, at the Alliance Française Nov. 13, 15 & 16, 2008. The Long Wharf Theatre had scheduled, then canceled it some years ago, and one can see why. It contains one of the great songs of the century, "J'attends un navire," in the tradition of Weill songs about ships and longing, from "Pirate Jenny" in Threepenny Opera to "My Ship" in Lady in the Dark, and became a signature tune for many artists, from Martha Schlamme (who also did well the play's "Le Roi d'Acquitaine") to Helene Williams, as well as the theme of the French Resistance. But the play it inhabits does not stand up very well, and even pumping it up with other songs Weill wrote in Paris like "Je ne t'aime pas," adding a lesbian subtext absent in the original, did not make for a great work of music theatre.

A more exciting evening, conducted by James Conlon that same week at Juilliard, Nov. 12, 14 &16, brought together "3 One-Act Portraits of Marriage," uniting two posthumously-completed Russian masterpieces and Ernst Krenek's lightweight Heavyweight, which didn't quite belong with the other two but was highly entertaining nonetheless. Rothschild's Violin by Benjamin Fleischman (1913-1941), after a story by Chekhov, as completed by the composer's teacher Dmitri Shostakovich, is a masterpiece. But the opening work of the trilogy is perhaps the most fascinating: Modeste Mussorgsky's literal setting of the first act of Nikolai Gogol's play, Zhenit'ba, usually translated as "Marriage," though it really means "Getting Married." This is a work that inspired the literal prose setting of Russian dramatic texts in many operas, from Dargomyzhky's Stone Guest (after Pushkin) to my own Birthday of the Bank (after Chekhov). I had the great pleasure of directing the first staged reading of it I had the great pleasure of directing the first staged reading of the work in my own English translation, as melodrama, in April 1973 at Cornell, starring Russian literature scholar George Gibian, musicologist William Austin, and graduate students Jerry Amaldev (from India) and Laurel Fay - now a leading expert on Russian music and Shostakovich in particular. Following Gogol's directions literally, we actually broke a mirror on stage - something not done at Juilliard, though other pratfalls were certainly not lacking. What was lacking at Juilliard, though, was the fun the playwright and composer (and we) had in the lower-class characters' mangling of the Russian language, constantly putting stresses on the wrong syllables. Alexander Tcherepnine (1899-1977) wrote the orchestration used here, and shortly before he died begged me to translate the second act he had written, combining the two acts of Gogol Moussorgsky had not set. (There are at least two other completions as well, in 3 acts, by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov and a Dutchman named Daniel Ruijneman.) Surtitles notwithstanding, comic operas really are funnier when translated into the language of the audience. I hope Maestro Conlon will consider pursuing that possibility with this work soon.

Meanwhile, the After Dinner Opera Company, originator of so many small comic operas, including two dozen by Seymour Barab alone, celebrated its 60 years of history, with the very talented soprano Kate Amatuzzo, tenor Mark Donlin, and baritone Dennis TeCulver accompanied by Louisa Jonason at Symphony Space Nov. 10, 2008, in ten snippets from as many operas, representing the 1940s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and '00s. Disappointing was complete omission of the '90s (which had seen the premieres of the one-act version of Virgil Thomson's Lord Byron and my own New World: An Opera About What Columbus Did to the "Indians"), or any mention of the company's past conductors like Mimi Stern-Wolfe, Michael Pilafian and myself. (The company also co-sponsored the 2001 concert premiere of Sacco and Vanzetti - also unmentioned.) Two years ago the company announced the revival of Marc Blitzstein's Triple Sec and the first staging of my The Wooing, but financial problems caused the cancellation of both. Now that the company seems to be back on its feet again, would it be too much to hope for at least one of those events to occur in the near future?

Back to Main Page