Seminal Text-Driven Music in Context
(c) 2014 by Leonard J. Lehrman New Music Connoisseur, 2014, v. 21 #1, pp. 10-13

Seminal Text-Driven Music in Context
Roads Taken, and Then Not Taken

Schönberg, Bartók and Stravinsky, arguably the leading composers of the 20th century, were all uprooted from their homes in Europe, came to the U.S. and died here. Each became known primarily for instrumental music, but what they could have done if they had set their native language to music, for an audience able to understand and appreciate that language, has always been an enigma.

(c) 2014 by Leonard J. Lehrman
[Words in brackets were cut by the editor.]

Stravinsky's Mavra at Bard

Igor Stravinsky's one-act opera Mavra, a featured work at the Bard Stravinsky Festival Aug. 11, 2013, is a particularly interesting case in point, for it represented a road taken once, and then not taken again, at least by Stravinsky. His final sizeable setting of a text in Russian, the work was dedicated to Pushkin, Glinka, and Tchaikovsky; and musicologist Boris Asafyev (1884-1949) noted fairly specific phrase borrowings, that are, however, also common to many Russian folksongs as well. Like Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and even more like Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka and Stone Guest, the libretto adheres very closely to the Pushkin source. Rimsky-Korsakov and Musorgsky were clearly also influences, especially Mozart and Salieri by the former (who had been Stravinsky's teacher), also based directly on Pushkin, and especially Zhenit'ba (Getting Married) by the latter, after Gogol. Like Mavra, the Mussorgsky work has four characters, all with their own distinctive tempi and time signatures, which collide and conflict with each other as the characters do onstage. Also like Mavra, the Mussorgsky represents a road taken and then abandoned by its composer, for Musorgsky set only the first act of Gogol's 3-act drama. [A number of composers have set the other acts to music, in an act of completion, the most successful of which was by Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977), who asked me to translate his work into English, which I do plan to do, some day. Meanwhile, though, both those works served as models for two of my 4-character one-act operas, The Birthday of the Bank (1988) after Chekhov and Suppose A Wedding (1996) after Malamud. Both were reviewed by this magazine and are posted on YouTube.]

An excellent production of Mavra, with a Russian cast, performing in Paris, is posted on YouTube - with subtitles in Greek! Bard's were, fortunately, in English, and the audience was able to follow what was being sung - very well, actually - by the non-Russian cast of Anne-Carolyn Bird as Parasha, Ann McMahon Quintero as her mother, Melis Jaatinen as the busybody neighbor, and Nicholas Phan as Parasha's hussar lover, who disguises himself as a female cook in order to get close to her. When discovered, like Cherubino in Marriage of Figaro, he jumps out of a window. Since there was a window in the set, and the stage was not very high, I was wondering whether he would jump through the former or off the latter, and was only slightly disappointed when he simply ran across the stage. (Even more disappointing is that Mr. Phan, who was scheduled to star in NYCO's production of Johann Christian Bach's Endimione, will not be heard here, the season having been cancelled.) Leon Botstein led members of the American Symphony Orchestra.

The work's initial reception at its 1922 premiere in Paris was not encouraging. Perhaps the subtleties of the relatively conservative music, playing with language, were lost on the audience. They were certainly lost on the first recording of the opera (Columbia, 1968), conducted by Robert Craft, with a cast headed by Susan Belling (née Belink) that had no idea of agogic accents in Russian, thereby losing an entire dimension of the rhythmic life of the piece. Stravinsky then went on to settings in other languages, including the beautiful almost Bizet-like setting of André Gide's Perséphone (also featured in the Bard Festival), which Craft characterized, privately, as "performable anywhere except where French is the native language," and his epic Rake's Progress, on a libretto by Auden & Kallman that contains some of the worst missettings of English in musical literature (notwithstanding Craft's professed attempts to help the composer correct them).

The Bard program preceded Mavra with works by composers writing in Paris at the time of its premiere, beginning with Francis Poulenc's 1956 song cycle after Paul Eluard, Le travail du peintre, featuring a formidable performance by baritone John Hancock with Anna Polonsky at the piano, and five screens showing works by each of the 7 painters depicted. Polonsky shared the piano bench with Orion Weiss in the 4-hand arrangement of Satie's Parade (1916-17). Geoffrey McDonald conducted the Bard Festival Chamber Players in Les mariés de la tour Eiffe, a delightful 1921 collaboration of 5 of the French Six, later orchestrated by Marius Constant, and Stravinsky's (slightly weird idea of) Ragtime (1918) with 15 players on 11 instruments plus 3 dancers.

This was only the fifth of 8 such ambitious programs at the Bard Stravinsky Festival. I wish we had been able to attend more. We did manage to catch a July 18 performance there of the János Szász dramatization of Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, the program for which warned: "contains nudity" - though not nearly as much as can be seen in movies of the work posted online. (What I'd really like to see, though, is Sergei Slonimsky's opera based on the novel, not yet produced in this country.) [And on Aug. 17, we attended what promised to be a fascinating panel discussion on music, ethics and politics, with Tamara Levitz, Simon Morrison (railing against the "fraud" of Simon Volkov's purported Shostakovich Testimony), and the dean of Russian music studies, Richard Taruskin, who had unfortunately suffered a heart attack a week before and was unable to be present. Michael Beckerman, who took his place, surprised me by requesting I tell the audience the opinion of our mutual teacher Elie Siegmeister on Stravinsky. "The Rite of Spring he called the greatest work of the 20th century," I replied, "but he did not follow Stravinsky after that...." As a follow-up to Leon Botstein's in an earlier panel faulting Stravinsky for his praising Mussolini, I pointed out that initial admiration for the Italian dictator had been expressed by quite a few worthy folk, including Shaw and Freud, but in the absence of Taruskin who has been very articulate on the subject, I asked Levitz to speak on Stravinsky's anti-Semitism, which she did. Apparently his attitude was not dissimilar to that of many European conservatives at the time, but at least, she said, he never condoned the killings that ensued from it (the way Ezra Pound did, for example).

2 Asian Operas in Vancouver

Tan Dun is another culturally displaced composer (from China) who seems to be following in Stravinsky's steps in more than one way. His intense and inventive use of percussion (including water and paper) rarely fails to startle and stir, but his setting of the English language could definitely benefit from collaboration with a native speaker. That was my overall impression of his 3-act opera presented with one intermission, Tea: A Mirror of Soul, with a libretto by the composer and Xu Ying, in a sumptuous production we attended May 9, 2013 as part of the Opera America convention in Vancouver, BC. The opera, published by Schirmer, who generously provided a copy of the score, dates from 2002 and has already been produced in Tokyo, Amsterdam, Shanghai, New Zealand, Lyon, Stockholm, Oldenburg, Santa Fe, and Philadelphia. The cast of 5 (2 Americans, 2 Chinese, and one Canadian) was headed by the radiant soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, along with 3 Japanese onstage percussionists and the Vancouver Opera Chorus - "as Monks Chanting (religion)" - and Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Darlington, directed by Paul Peers. There are many beautful moments inspired by chant in this work, and the trance-inducing rarely lasts as long as in comparable works by Philip Glass, for example. But to this writer at least the faulty prosody is too often as disturbing as it is in Stravinsky's English settings, with stresses in the wrong places like the first syllable of "began," or the second syllable of "tender," to name just two of many examples that interfere with the comprehensibility of the text.

Much more satisfying, if on a much simpler scale, was an opera viewed the same day in Vancouver, as part of the conference: Naomi's Road, a one-acter in 5 scenes by Ramona Luengen on a libretto by Ann Hodges (who directed it) based on the eponymous novel by Joy Kogawa. Presented by Vancouver Opera in Schools, that had commissioned it in 2005-06, it tells the story of Canada's treatment of citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, which was even worse than that of the U.S. Endured were not only interment but permanent loss of property, livelihood, and often the will to live. The opera ends on a note of hope and reconciliation, however. Japanese, Chinese and Koreans were among the four singer/actors portraying 9 characters, all excellent, accompanied by pianist Candy Siu. A very good recording of the work is available; Sam Chung, who plays Naomi's would-be pianist brother Stephen, is the only cast member we saw who is also on the CD.

League/ISCM, Kirchner

Another composer who followed Stravinsky to some extent, though he studied with Schönberg, as well as Bloch and Sessions, the influence of all of whom can be heard in his work, was Leon Kirchner (1919-2009). Stravinsky warned him, he told me, not to take a job in academia, for fear it would stifle his composing - advice he did not take, becoming one of Harvard's most respected and revered (if also sometimes feared) teachers of composition and performance. The League of Composers/ISCM (which prominently displays a Milken Archive photo of Stravinsky on its website) gave Kirchner's work a place of honor, the finale, on its 90th anniversary Season Finale 2013: Reflections & Memories, June 17, 2013 at Merkin Hall. It also featured former Kirchner student Allen Shawn in the world premiere of his Pas de Deux (2013) at its March 30 Tenri concert of the same name with flutist Sue Ann Kahn and bassist Lewis Paer, abetted by clarinetist Alan Kay and guitarist William Anderson in other works by Charles Wuorinen [(misspelled Wourinen in the program)], Eugene O'Brien, Henry Brant and Alba Potes. Nearly all were delightful and consistently entertaining, especially Wuorinen's early (1960) pieces for Bert Turetzky and Brant's 1977 Cerberus which recalled both Ives and Peter and the Wolf.

The Kirchner work was entitled Lily, version for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble (1978) - reconstructed and edited by David Fetherolf, based on portions of Kirchner's 1977 opera of the same name (starring Susan Belling in the title role) based on Saul Bellow's novel Henderson, the Rain King, which had been a disastrous failure in its one and only full production at NY City Opera. There is some lovely, lyrical music in the piece. But the composer's self-indulgence, including his own recorded voice bemoaning his fate and "my mu-u-u-u-sic lessons"!" is really a bit much, not to mention the nonsense language he made up for the African natives to sing. Lou Karchin, founder and conductor of the ISCM orchestra and a former student of Kirchner's [(as was I)], agrees that were the opera written just a bit later there would have been a consciousness lacking in it that would have made use of a real African tongue like Swahili or one of the Bantu languages.

Kirchner and his music are however much better served with a CD entitled Revelations, produced by his daughter Lisa and the pianist Joel Fan on the Verdant World Records label, available at Classics Online. As critic Stephen Smoliar put it so eloquently in his online review of the disc, there is a "sense of literary discourse" in every work here. Soprano Diana Hoagland shines in 3 vocal performances with Fan, while Beverly Hoch is heard accompanied by the composer. But the most satisfying work is the 9-minute solo piano finale, "The Forbidden," inspired by the figure of Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann's novel, Doktor Faustus, who was in turn inspired by Schönberg. Derived from the composer's own valedictory Fourth String Quartet, it has a drama that convinces from start to finish.

Symphony Space

The League/ISCM's next production will be at Symphony Space, the site of numerous notable concerts this past year, a few of which we were able to attend. Violist Richard Auldon Clark led his Manhattan Contemporary Chamber Ensemble Jan. 4 in two of his own works, two by Seymour Barab, and one each by Walter Hartley and Bohuslav Martinu, all but the last, from 1932, composed over the past decade. Paul Cohen was the soprano saxophone soloist in Barab's quintet for sax and strings, and the world premiere of Hartley's quartet for sax and strings. Clark duoed with pianist Lois Anderson in the other Barab work and with clarinetist Scott Gerhard in his own. Tenor Michael Slattery, accompanied by string quartet, sang and spoke the major work, Clark's setting of Mark Twain's posthumously published "War Prayer." This is a text which should always be welcome on programs, especially when foolhardy military invasions are contemplated. It has been adapted as a film at least three times, and set to music many more, most notably in 1995 by Herbert Haufrecht (1910-1998) in his very last composition.

Victoria Bond's Cutting Edge series, also at Symphony Space, presented three concerts, of which we were able to attend two, April 8 & 29. The first of these featured the young quartet "loadbang," consisting of baritone Jeffrey Gavett, a trumpet, trombone, and bass clarinet, in a series of short, mostly noisy works by Alexandre Lunsqui, Reiko Füting, Andy Akiho, and Douglas Gibson's "Fanfare for the Common Audience," based on an irate letter complaining about the dissonance of such composers as Copland and Barber. Pianist Kathleen Supové and actor Oleg Dubson followed with Bond's own comic skit, "The Page Turner," replete with clusters, tinkling, drinking, and almost everything but playing. The US premiere of Hannah Lash's monodrama Stoned Prince brought back loadbang for the finale, based on "the public and imagined private life of His Royal Highness Prince Harry over the past five years." Again many clusters were present, along with much falsetto and music aptly self-described as "disorienting."

On April 29, the somewhat more mature ensemble Cygnus, with reliable soprano Elizabeth Farnum, guitarists Oren Fader and William Anderson (and two additional guests), and cellist Chris Finckel collaborating wtih flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, oboist James Austin Smith, and violinist Calvin Wiersma, performed six works. Four were premieres, including "Pregnant Pauses" by Faye-Ellen Silverman (another former Kirchner student); "Souffrir/Symphonier," written for the group by Andrew Waggoner; and two works which Bond conducted: "Estat ai en greu cossirier" (on a 12th century troubador text in Occitan) by Frank Brickle, and "Homage to [Vaclav] Havel" by Symphony Space director Laura Kaminsky. Mohammed Fairouz's "Three Fragments of Ibn Khafajah," a tribute to "gay love from 1200 years ago," were sung provocatively in Arabic, sometimes with a wobbly vibrato, somtimes chirpily with a slightly disembodied vocal tone. Larry Alan Smith's "An Infant Crying," based on texts by Arnold, Whitman, and Tennyson, commissioned and premiered by Paul Sperry in 1984, was the oldest work on the program. The Kaminsky, commissioned by Cygnus and inspired by Beckett, asserted the importance of the powerful voice of poets, often imprisoned for "subversive activities."

The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society and American Opera Projects collaborated at Symphony Space June 13 with the world premiere of Beauty Intolerable, a series of 16 Millay texts affectingly set for two sopranos, a mezzo, a reader, and piano by Sheila Silver. Veteran NYCO star Lauren Flanigan was pretty solid, only occasionally a little wobbly. Mezzo Deanne Meek came across (intentionally) as a little screwy, reader Tandy Cronyn a little arch. Risa Renae Harman glowed as though the pieces had been written for her - which they were. Christopher Cooley and Kelly Horsted were the pianists. Dona D. Vaughn directed. The moods ranged from bebop to dreamy, to understated to perky to sweet and quite racy, concluding the penultimate song, concluding: "Punish me, surely, with the shaft I crave!" The overall experience was quite enjoyable, recalling our trip to Millay's Steepletop home last year with composer Joel Mandelbaum, who has set a number of Millay poems quite beautifully, most notably, "Love Is Not All."

Except for a few duets and trios, the piece could have been a one-woman show. "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" was a one-woman show built on Kurt Weill songs, starring Angelina Réaux some two decades ago. Now that title belongs to cabarettist Mark Nadler, who combines that Weill/Nash song with 14 others, only half a dozen of them by Weill, in a one-man show subtitled "Musik from Weimar and Beyond." We caught the final Saturday matinee May 18 in its April 29-May 19 run at the York Theatre, and were impressed with the material, the presentation, and the performance. A family secret carried through to the end keeps the tension going, as violin, accordion, and slide projections keep the focus on context and contemporary reverberation. The contributions of Brecht, Schwartz, Dietz, Hollander, Deval, Spoliansky, and a surprisingly ŕ propos Aznavour add up to more than a sum of their individual parts.

Anna Nicole at NYCO

Finally we come to the sad case of the American model and would-be actress Anna Nicole (1967-2007), and the New York City Opera, whose swansong production Sept. 17-28 at BAM (we caught the penultimate night) turned out to be the US premiere of a 2011 opera about her by two Britishers, composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas. [One doesn't quite know whether to feel sorrier, or angrier, about her, or about the demise of the company. Started with the help of Mayor LaGuardia 70 years ago, the end of NYCO can only be called a crime and a shame, as neither the likely incoming mayor who models himself on Fiorello, nor the outgoing mayor who could have put the thing in the black with a minute fraction of his enormous wealth, has indicated a willingness to lift a finger to save the situation. The bankruptcy announced Oct. 1 was made all the bleaker by the Tea Party's shutting down the U.S. federal government the same day. What are we coming to? And who is to blame?]

In the case of Anna Nicole Smith, whose death from a drug overdose paralleled that of her son months before (not to mention her idol Marilyn Monroe), the British team seemed to want to indict the paparazzi with their faceless, ubiquitous, insect-like cameras, which keep clicking even after the music has stopped (eerily invoking the likely survival of cockroaches after a nuclear war). Perhaps they had Princess Diana on their mind. But their opera has neither the lyricism nor the pathos to merit comparisons they might have liked, to heroines in La Bohčme, Manon, or La Traviata. There's a potential social indictment here when the entire company screams at the small titular figure (literally): "Get some tits!" and she does, urging a wacked-out plastic surgeon (Richard Troxell) offering implants: "Supersize me!" Suddenly she's a success, and then a celebrity. What does that say about her, and about society?

Part of the problem, though, is the aspiration to comedy in the work. "I'm quite uncomfortable with it now," the composer admitted to New York critic Justin Davidson. "It's mocking someone's real life. I wouldn't do it again." American coloratura soprano Sarah Joy Miller as Anna trills and arpeggiates in a register originally written for the much heavier lyric soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who premiered the role in London. She also pole-dances (in an aria that was slightly extended for her), vamps, delivers lines like "I want to blow you all... a kiss," and even simulates providing such service to her billionaire octagenarian husband (a solid-voiced Robert Brubaker) - surrounded by a chorus blocking the view.

Fellatio seems to be the landmark of one NYCO production after another - from A Quiet Place to Powder Her Face, which was also at BAM, and exhibited (that seems to be the right word) 25 completely nude men walking around the stage, allegedly impersonating the main female character's lovers, but by all appearances more interested in each other than in her. Not that I've anything against nudity or sensuality on stage. Far from it. But there was none of the former and precious little of the latter in this production (with 13 principals, chorus, and orchestra conducted by Stephen Sloane, directed by Richard Jones). Just a string of more four-letter words than I've ever heard in an opera libretto (mostly in the mouth of capable Susan Bickley as Anna's mother, and the chorus).

Perhaps that's to be expected from a librettist famous for his Jerry Springer Opera which seems to have been deemed too vulgar to play on a New York stage - at least perhaps until now... The audience didn't seem to mind. But again, what does that say about us, and about a company that leaves only one opera company in New York with a season. the Met, a house which is not, in Tony Tommasini's words, one "that fosters new opera." That was NYCO. We shall miss it.

LEONARD LEHRMAN wrote the first English singing translations of Glinka's A Life for the Czar, Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka, and Mussorgsky's Getting Married. Excerpts are among his 1,250 YouTube videos along with 9 of his 10 operas, 3 of his 6 musicals, and many of his 196 other works. His opera Hannah will receive its U.S. premiere Dec. 9 at Malverne Community Presbyterian Church and Dec. 23 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan.


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