Adventures in Words and Music

by Leonard Lehrman

What is music? Music by itself cannot answer. But the question is not addressed to music. Indeed music cannot listen. We who listen can answer; we must, we do answer, by words–and by our various ways of combining words and music. Unlike the birds and crickets who make in every generation the wordless music encoded in their genes, we are responsible for music, for the meaning of music, and for the constant renewal of meaningful music. Endowed with freedom to explore all sound, we make some sound into words and music. When we are lucky, we make some music out of our words, out of our freedom, out of our very perplexities….

These words by the musicologist William Austin, concluding an essay opening a volume on “Words and Music,” published in 1971 by Harvard in honor of the popular music appreciation professor G. Wallace Woodworth, are worth pondering, as we search for meaning, and responsibility, in music. They inspired musical settings both by this writer and Cantor Charles Osborne, which the two of us premiered (him singing, me playing) at concerts Aug. 16 & 20, 2009, honoring both our 60th birthdays. The program also included a dozen works by each of us and a song by Elie Siegmeister which we had premiered at his 70th birthday concert at Carnegie Recital in 1979, a setting of Langston Hughes’ “Ballad of Adam and Eve.” The program was telecast on cable and repeated Aug. 8, 2010 in Mahwah NJ as well as Jan. 23, 2011 at The Village Temple in Manhattan.

In 1989, Siegmeister had inspired me to join the Long Island Composers Alliance, which he had helped co-found in 1972. I retired from it in 1999, but returned this year and on June 13, 2010 presented a concert at United Methodist Church in Huntington of music by 11 composers. Memorialized at the concert were Siegmeister (1909-91), William Goldberg (1917-2008), and two composers who passed away in the weeks preceding the concert: Albert Tepper (1921-2010) and Adele Berk (1924-2010). Tepper’s daughter Marian Stern attended, and expressed gratitude to those keeping the legacy of her father’s music alive. Berk’s own text to her “Song,” seen in retrospect as a metaphor for her life, had been read at her funeral and was read again, and sung, at the concert:

I’ll write a song for you, And it will be full of love and joy, and sorrow, bittersweet. I’ll write a song for you, And it will be all mine to give, My gift to you And me. Here is my song for you. It will be mine as much as yours To sing, and to recall That which was ours, that which was ours and is no more. What’s through is through. But I have my song to sing for you. I’ll have my song to give to you.

Perhaps it’s what we read into it, or how we hear it, in the voice of a loved one, but I find these words at least as poignant as the Austin.

In the fourth of seven works sung by contralto Nadine Ascher in her program, “Perchance to Dream,” at Tenri June 27, 2010, Joseph Pehrson aspired in his 2009 work for solo voice, “phone,” to achieve expression with the use of pure phonemes, often achieving, in the second and third parts of the three-part piece a kind of Russian folk flavor, echoing the sounds that inspired Stravinsky and many composers of various republics in the Soviet and former Soviet Union. In the first part, he seemed eerily, and amusingly, though perhaps inadvertently, to be echoing the sound of an out-of-service telephone. The piece was the most successful of the evening, in part because one could concentrate entirely on the sound and the form, without straining to understand the words. All the other pieces had gorgeous words: Michael Oesterle’s French/English setting of Nicole Brossard’s “Marginal Way,” Viera Janárceková’s “Der Geheimnissvolle Nachen” after Friedrich Nietzsche, Julia Werntz’s “To You Strangers” based on 4 poems by Dylan Thomas, Mohammed Fairouz’s “No Orpheus” on 3 poems by Lloyd Schwartz, Alice Shields’ 6 songs on texts by Pablo Neruda, and a parlor song encore by Ezra Sims. The Fairouz and the Shields were impressively performed from memory, and all but the a cappella Pehrson and Werntz were sensitively accompanied by cellist John Patrick Popham. The microtonality featured in several of the works did not, unfortunately, enhance their expressivity: often a hooty pale vocal quality resulted from the effort to be as precise as possible in terms of pitch, allowing for no vibrato that might stray into a different microtone. But the most egregious sin was the failure to provide texts for the audience to follow. The back of the program listed websites where said texts could be found, and maybe that’s the wave of the future: Audiences should be prepared to arrive with laptops so they can Google those texts and follow them in Met Titles style. For this concert, though, even with enthusiastic audience members filling every seat, the communication of meaning was simply not what it should have been. Part of it was Ms. Ascher’s diction, of course, which was on the whole not bad.

On Saturday, May 29, 2010, we heard soprano Courtenay Budd, accompanied by composer David Del Tredici in two of his masterful song cycles, and his lovely “Acrostic Song” as encore, at BargeMusic. He was obviously inspired, by the poetry of Joshua Beckman in the 1998 “Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter,” and in the 1996 “Miss Inez Sez” by that of Colette Inez, who was present for the performance. The audience was given the full texts to follow, but Budd, who performed everything from memory, was not only beautifully expressive but impeccable in her delivery of every word and note. Especially memorable were the musical treatments of phrases like “hoarse voices,” “jabbering flowers,” and “The room spins… bouncing up and down”—particularly appropriate for the Barge. In “Rebellion,” dedicated to John Corigliano, “dirty books” invoked quotes from Tristan, Salome, and Götterdämmerung, while “A Good Cry” was dedicated to Del Tredici’s student Tom Cipullo, who was also present.

“Everyone knows Tom Cipullo,” announced Michael Barrett, by way of non-introduction, before accompanying soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, tenor Paul Appleby and baritone Andrew Garland in Cipullo’s “The Book” from Secrets, the penultimate work at the New York Festival of Song May 4th, 2010 concert at Merkin Hall. As usual, NYFOS Co-Directors Barrett and Steven Blier provided a packed program, with generous notes and (nearly) complete texts, surrounding Harold Meltzer’s “Beautiful Ohio” cycle in its world premiere with short solo works by Phil Kline and Raymond Lustig, along with excerpts from longer works for 1-3 singers by Russell Platt, Lisa Bielawa and Cipullo. Meltzer’s work was fresh off the drawing board, with even a last-minute change in the order of the 5 settings of poems by James Arlington Wright, sung by Appleby, the title song having been moved from the end to the middle. As with everything else on the program, titled “The Newest Deal,” it was hard to dispel a feeling of not-quite-completeness, or –finishedness, and the concert’s final work’s texts differed considerably from what was printed on the program. But in terms of audience impact that hardly mattered: Gabriel Kahane’s sensationally funny “Craigslistlieder” (2006) simply brought down the house. Having heard him perform some of them himself, I found it hard to imagine a more effective interpretation than the composer’s own, but in this version for trio NYFOS outdid him, and themselves. Bravi!

Another Merkin Hall concert, equally well-attended, was the Washington Square Ensemble’s “Spring Splendor,” featuring 2 NY premieres and 3 world premieres April 7, 2010. Pianist Stephen Gosling opened with the NY premiere of Fabio Grasso’s absorbing, well-formed “Blumentraum,” a 2006 homage to Robert Schumann, appropriate in this his bicentennial year. The world premiere of Laurie San Martin’s dancy “Two Pieces for Piano and Percussion” (2010, 2000) followed, essayed with joie de vivre by pianist Blair McMillen and percussionist Matthew Gold. Louis Karchin conducted the concert’s major works, noisily closing each half: the NY premiere of Richard Festinger’s Concerto for Piano and 9 Instruments (2007) and the world premiere of his own Chamber Symphony (2009). My favorite piece on the program, though, opened the second half: the world premiere of Robert Sirota’s delightful “Assimilations” (2010) for clarinet, piano, violin, and cello, smilingly but wistfully invoking the klezmer heritage he deserted when he converted to Christianity in 1987: “an attempt to express the poignant beauty and the sadness linking the world of my heritage with the person I have become.”

Back at BargeMusic, May 21s, 2010, Harold Meltzer’s Sequitur presented 8 works, including 5 world premieres, commissioned for and sung by mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger, “Here and Now,” accompanied by pianist Eric Moe, together with clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg, violinist Andrea Schultz, and bassist Jeremy McCoy. Also announced were Selections from Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, but these gave way instead to Tom Lehrer’s “We Will All Go Together When We Go.” (Lehrer was also a minor voice, with his lyrics for “The Derivative Song,” set to music by W. Benton Overstreet, in the first half of the June 1, 2010 World Science Festival’s opening night gala at Tully Hall; and a major voice, with his songs in fact providing the title and forming the backbone, for the 92nd St. Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists series program May 8-10, 2010: “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park: The Art of the Satiric Comedy Song,” narrated and partly sung by Sheldon Harnick, along with a talented vocal quartet, accompanied by a quintet, conducted from the piano by Rob Fisher.) As with the aforementioned Ascher concert, difficulties understanding all the unprovided texts detracted from the brave theatricality and certainly respectable diction of a very capable singer. “Protest Song,” the title of Michael Fiday’s setting of a Peter Gizzi text, seemed to be emblematic of the evening’s tone in general, which ranged from Corey Dargel’s comical “Pulitzer Prize Acceptance Speech” to a Neruda setting by Lee Hyla, an impressionistic Blake setting by Cipullo, Martin Bresnick’s dramatic take on William Blake’s “The Human Abstract,” Phil Kline’s sad setting of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Football Season Is Over,” Stefan Weisman’s provocatively repetitive “I Would Prefer Not To,” and Robert Beaser’s fulsomely effective “Martial Law Carol” on a text by Joseph Brodsky.

As Beaser remarked to me later, none of these were really true “protest songs.” For that, he agreed, one needed to visit Local 802 June 17, 2010 for the annual memorial meeting of the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case, this year celebrating the centennial of Earl Robinson (1910-1991), whose Ballad for Americans was performed, together with a proclamation issued by the mayor, in Seattle May 28, 2010, and whose Banjo Concerto will be performed at Queens College this fall. At Local 802, Robinson’s clarinetist son Perry performed a medley of his father’s tunes, including “Joe Hill,” “Black and White,” “I Kissed a Communist (Was My Face Red!),” and “The House I Live In.” The first and last of these were also sung in new arrangements by members of the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus and New York City Labor Chorus, who also premiered the choral version of “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been,” from the opera Alger, about Alger Hiss, which poet Kim Rich and I are writing together. Helene Williams also soloed, as she has every year since 1987, in Edith Segal’s “My Loved One” and, in memory of Howard Zinn, “Where Do I Belong?” from E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman.

Ethel Rosenberg is also a character in Angels in America, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner, made into an opera by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös and broadcast on PBS for the first time after midnight Monday, June 28, 2010. Julia Migenes and the rest of the cast sang well, though sometimes with strong Dutch accents, especially the baritone portraying Roy Cohn, with whom it was hard to sympathize, as the playwright seems to demand one do.

Another play on a related theme was presented by Peculiar Works June 3-27, 2010 at A Pop-Up Space, 2 Great Jones Street, under the title “Can You Hear Their Voices?” Hallie Flanagan (the Federal Theater Director who mothered and then nearly killed The Cradle Will Rock) and Margaret Ellen Clifford in 1931 adapted a story by the then Communist and Daily Worker writer Whittaker Chambers, who later turned coat and facilitated the destruction of Alger Hiss’s career and the rise of Richard Nixon’s. This revival condensed the piece a bit and provocatively cast across age, type, race and gender, providing a bit of Brechtian Verfremdung that both fostered and overcame the distance of the age, bringing it into our own. Farmers revolt and both flirt with and fear socialism, but a Tom Joad moment at the end brings it all together. Ralph Lewis and Barry Rowell directed. Seth Bradford wrote the incidental music. Like The Grapes of Wrath perhaps this piece will one day be fully musicalized.

A very successful musicalization has been effected by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, in their last great collaboration, a mock-minstrel show with a book by David Thompson called The Scottsboro Boys, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Elie Siegmeister’s most popular mass song, “The Scottsboro Boys Shall Not Die” (1933), was based on this story, the notorious case of 9 young African American men who were imprisoned for years for having allegedly whistled at two white women, who were in fact prostitutes. In the Vineyard Theatre production (Feb. 12-Apr. 18, 2010), 11 extremely talented African American men played all the parts, including (again cross-racial and cross-gender casting) the two white women, with just these exceptions: the veteran singer/actor John Collum appeared as the Interlocutor, the Judge, and the Governor of Alabama, who would grant clemency only at the price of “confession” (later shades of the Rosenbergs!). And Sharon Washington, the first to appear onstage, played “A Lady,” whose identity is revealed only at the end in a coup de théatre which audience members were asked not to disclose, so I won’t. Everything about the conception and execution of this piece was superb. The 17 musical numbers followed the story logically and were brilliantly written and performed, accompanied by an 8-piece band conducted from the piano/harmonium by Paul Masse. The tensions between blacks and Jews were brought to the fore, as the wrongly accused young men’s lives were only saved by the efforts of Jewish lawyers and Communists, but the seaminess on both sides—questionable motivation and wary appreciation—was palpable. In one of the most fiercely moving numbers, the defendants received this “Financial Advice:” “Keep the money, but get rid of the Jew!” “Southern Days” were nostalgically invoked, only to deteriorate into a quasi-casual mention of “lynching and cross-burning,” reminiscent of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit.” But it was the ending, which brings us up to the present day, that brought me to tears.

It’s not quite the circus that the Met put on in its first staging ever of Shostakovich’s early masterpiece The Nose (seen March 23, 2010). And it doesn’t have the futuristic panache of the World Science Festival’s Tully Hall opening, Icarus at the Edge of Time, a film by Al + Al with background music by Philip Glass, in which a transition from one epoch to another, 10,000 years apart, is represented by a change from 4/4 time to 3/4 time(!). But it does have the heart and soul that were represented by one of America’s great composers, the African American native of Cleveland who made his home in Freeport where he passed away at age 84 Nov. 24, 2009: Hale Smith–who has been the subject of several musical tributes on Long Island and in Manhattan. His student Marilyn Harris has put together a loving website.

Hale embraced both large and small forms, both the light and the serious, uptown and downtown. Venturing uptown, we were gratified to get press tickets June 24, 2010 to the Avery Fisher Hall concert featuring the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s Al largo (2010) and the Beethoven Missa solemnis. Thinking that one might indeed be a bit “at sea” (a free translation of the Lindberg title) without at least some preparation, I made it my business to arrive in time for Victoria Bond’s pre-concert lecture and interview with the composer. Amid a lot of not very coherent language (like his expression in the program notes, “I want to go back to that moment when tonality was still cold,” whatever that means), Lindberg did reveal a bit of the form of his new piece: two-part. And Bond did call attention to the important, virtuoso oboe solo in the middle, for which conductor Alan Gilbert gave prinicpal oboist Liang Wang a special bow. Otherwise, the lecture did little to illuminate the overall structure of either piece, illustrating a few Handelian contrapuntal passages in the Beethoven, making use of the Toscanini recording (forcing an unfortunate comparison between tenor soloist Jussi Bjoerling and everyone else, including the boyishly charming Anthony Dean Griffey). My impression of the new piece was similar to Anthony Tommasini’s: The washes of sound were evocative, not unreminiscent of several Scandinavian composers, from Grieg to Nielsen to Sibelius, occasionally filmic, and though not unattractive, “the piece did not earn its length.”

Venturing downtown, we formed part of a bare minyan at Golden Fleece Ltd.’s latest (18th annual!) commissioned program June 25, 2010: Thomas Carlo Bo’s Shadow of the City, a collaboration with Adam Samtur and director/lyricist Lou Rodgers, accompanied by clarinet/sax, percussion and piano, conducted by the composer; combined with Scenes–two of them, also conducted by Bo– from the 1970s Off-Broadway musical Boccacio with attractive music by Richard Peaslee and unfortunately fairly pedestrian book and lyrics by Kenneth Cavender. John Nelson was a cute fop in the Peaslee, in which Karen Jolicoeur was seductively convincing and Sean Attebury’s baritenor charmed. Some of the fairly complex vocal trio writing in the Bo, sung by Matthew Kagen, Heather Green, and Charles Coleman exhibited talent. On alternate nights (June 24-27) the cast switched parts.

And speaking of minyans, for its 8th annual Court Street Music Student Recital/House Concert, June 27, 2010, Jordon Witter, Ijoema Merenini and Helene Williams performed a program of Schumann, Siegmeister, Merenini and Lehrman, including settings of poems by Marcia McNair and Estela Eaton (the latter a premiere) who were present, honoring the memory of Susan Blake.

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