Judith Clurman’s febrile brainchild Essential Voices USA is exactly that—they provide a gorgeous canvas on which contemporary classical composers paint scenes depicting our lives today, much as the Dutch Masters did a few hundred years ago. On April 8, the DiMenna Center saw the glitterati of composers, and those who love them. thrill to an evening of conversation and song, moderated by Midge Woolsey and billed as “Beyond Broadway: Composers Go Choral.” Woolsey is for many of us one of the voices of classical music on radio, and her gift for facilitation gave each of the nine composers on the panel an opportunity to shine in his or her own way.
Whom, you may ask, were the composers honored on the program? Among the brightest jewels New York has to offer: Maury Yeston, Sheldon Harnick, Larry Hochman, Andrew Lippa, Stephen Schwartz, Joshua Schmidt, Georgia Stitt, Jonathan Tunick and David Shire. Unfortunately, Richard Maltby was in London and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens were likewise unavailable. The composers, lyricists, and orchestrators were arrayed to Woolsey’s left on the audience left side of the performance area, while Essential Voices USA, led by Clurman, with the amazing Tedd Firth at the piano, and with one for DiMenna, where the event was held, we were many for the show!
Leading off was “Reason To Be Thankful” by Hochman and Harnick, with a heartfelt solo by Steven Moore, whose clear voice punctuated the sweep and grandeur of the music, providing a poignant reminder that the United States was born to be one nation of many people. My patriotism is tinged by some of the benighted behavior of my fellow citizens, but music like this brings us back to task.
Hochman’s “Meditation” received its New York premiere, of which there were a number that evening. Written in 2007 for Hochman’s synagogue, the music features a chorus of women’s and men’s voices in unison song that is compelling, contemplative and rich. Every work of the evening complemented those before and after in subtle ways and this song felt rich, aged, and wise.
“Mysterious Cat” is an a cappella setting of Vachel Lindsay’s poem that has been a favorite since childhood for Tunick. The music has as much mischief as the poem and a small ensemble of 13 voices caterwauled in a most tuneful fashion reminding those of us of our loving “felines” for our own kittens of all ages. Lindsay was a popular American poet in the beginning of the last century. The work is impossible not to hum along with and mischief was well and truly managed.
The late Marvin Hamlisch was a man of many parts that, unless you were part of the contemporary classical scene, or went further than the surface ripples of his more public career, you likely didn’t know. His setting of one of his favorite poems, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Music,” is so brilliant, so economical in artistry, that it’s Asian brush-stroke painting. Clurman worked with Hamlisch extensively to bring to fruition this choral work that was completed in this edition in 2009. Performed exclusively with piano and voice, though other scoring includes a flute, this World Premiere made a spectacular debut. There is an atmospheric motif on piano that punctuates the a cappella vocal portions, always giving us a return or anchor point from whence we again depart. Pure tone alternates with modern harmony and expanded blues-esque inflection. The assonance and dissonance of the music are reminiscent of Nature–as cruel as she is beautiful and often at the same time.
Yeston set up his “He’s Allowed Me” by explaining how Dr. Martin Luther King’s Memphis speech said so much to him that he asked Coretta Scott King for her permission to set the words to music. Ironically, Yeston pointed out, within the last 24 hours of his life Dr. King made statements that were almost prophetic, about longevity having its place, but God’s will superseding all. The piece is Handel-esque oratorio in the choral part, with a very free solo portion made more delightful by Alonso Johnson’s rich, clear voice. It’s thrilling to hear the styles work their magic together and chilling as well, hearing those words again and knowing their very personal portent, even as they are being spoken in a larger context.
The excerpts from the a cappella “Sing Out Mr. President” project were among my favorite pieces of the evening. There are 16 in all, and there were three on the program. One of the rules of engagement for the project was to set a Presidential quote. Another was that a canon of some kind needed to be incorporated. All of the composers knocked it out of the park and all in very different ways. First here was Lippa’s setting of Woodrow Wilson’s “I Believe in Democracy.” Rather than being jingoistic, the words are inspiring and the music more so. “Opinion is Power” uses words of Thomas Jefferson in a setting by Hochman and they are iconic in their onomatopoetic thunder. It’s a tiny canon with a big shot! “With Hope and Virtue,” Stitt’s setting of Barack Obama’s words is frugal and fugal both. There’s a texture between the smoothness of the higher voices and the drive of the lower voices with an open “American” harmony that is both heraldic and classic. After the larger group had done the last song, a smaller group of seven voices did it and it was equally beautiful in both incarnations.
Next was Schmidt’s work with Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” Movements 9 and 10. Schmidt gave us insight to both Stevens, who once broke his hand on Ernest Hemingway’s jaw, and the power of words, as Schmidt mentioned seeing an excerpt of this poem as part of a tattoo on a young “punky” woman’s back and wondered if conservative Stevens could ever have imagined that. Schmidt wrote this piece for high school students and tasked himself to write each movement with full orchestration in 30 minutes or less. Movement 9 begins with a harmony so low and subtle that it could be the sea or a wall of sound. The beauty of the entire work is that you need to decide “what” the blackbird actually is–very “Life of Pi” – and equal beauty is Movement 10 that captures the movement of individual birds, as well as the cloud-crowd moving, as one, then as individuals, then as returning to the collective mind.
Shire told a lovely story of the original of “Travel,” a song he and Maltby wrote, that was designed as part of a larger story where a family sings around a piano about the joys of travel. In this instance the family was Essential Voices USA and they had a great deal of fun with the piece. Shire then explained that, at one point, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett were considering doing the song, which wound up in “Starting Here, Starting Now,” and that they decided to make a lyric about husbands and wives more pertinent to two friends who would be performing, as he shrugged his shoulders and said “it was the 70s!” Some of us nodded knowingly, while others in the room were very young when the world was changing in that way.
Penultimate was a moving choral rendition of “Make Them Hear You,” from Flaherty and Ahrens’ “Ragtime,” arranged especially for Essential Voices USA. The call for action to make sure future generations understand the importance of events that occur is something we need today. Especially in this choral arrangement, I heard in my mind’s ear what it might sound like to weave in a bit of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” from “Les Misérables,” as well.
The final work of the evening was Schwartz’s “Testimony,” originally commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and based on excerpts of interviews by Dan Savage and Terry Miller from their “It Gets Better” campaign. While he initially directed “Testimony” toward LGBTQ youth who were bullied and contemplated suicide, Schwartz got many requests from a host of people, from different walks of life, who also feel a sense of being outside. Setting the work for a mixed chorus gives greater breadth to the work and it was the best way to send us off into the night, spinning and floating on clouds of inspiration. In the heavens, perspective lets us see all kinds of stars.
Essential Voices has released two CDs, “Celebrating the American Spirit” and “Cherished Moments: Songs of the Jewish Spirit.” Get them here from Sono Luminus, http://www.sonoluminus.com
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