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Roremania: Bernard Jacobson attends a birthday celebration


 

"Ned Rorem": the name has a certain ring, a swagger to it. When I first encountered it on an early LP release list back in the 1950s (attached, if memory serves, to a piano sonata coupled with Julius Katchen’s recording of the Bartók Third Piano Concerto), the image it conjured up was of outdoor Western life, something healthy and cowboyish. Most music-lovers know by now that the real Ned Rorem is not exactly like that. Not that there is anything specifically unhealthy about him (except in the eyes of the homophobic)–but this gifted and idiosyncratic American composer is the very antithesis of the cowboy. In his music, in his brilliantly written diaries of life in Paris and elsewhere, and in his often introspective and sometimes sardonic personality, the image he presents is rather that of the confirmed indoors-man, not an ivory-tower dweller, but someone intensely concentrated on the civilized side of life, and on artistic self-expression–a denizen of the concert room and salon rather than the prairie.

In recent weeks, musical institutions around the United States have been celebrating the 80th anniversary of Rorem’s birth in Richmond, Indiana. Fittingly, the festivities have been especially enthusiastic at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, which came into the world just a few months after he did, and now ranks among the finest schools of musical performance–perhaps even as the finest–in America. Rorem won a scholarship there when he was nineteen, and he has served on the school’s composition faculty since 1980. Curtis’s two-week "Roremania" festival started on the actual birthday, 23 October, with the composer’s full-evening song-cycle for four voices and piano, Evidence of Things Not Seen, and ended (in the first fully-staged operatic production in the Kimmel Center’s 650-seat Perelman Theater) with his 1965 Strindberg-based Miss Julie, taking in a range of choral, chamber, and organ works and some more songs along the way. In early December, moreover, the Philadelphia Orchestra is schedule to premiere Rorem’s Flute Concerto, commissioned for its principal flute, Jeffrey Khaner.

Rorem’s output is very far from being restricted to vocal music. He has produced a wide variety of works in every genre, including four piano concertos, many other orchestral pieces, and three symphonies (all three splendidly performed by José Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on a CD recently released in the Naxos "American Classics" series). For many listeners, however, it is the songs and other music for the voice that constitute the core of Rorem’s oeuvre, and in their different ways both Evidence of Things Not Seen and Miss Julie demonstrated why. Presented twice on the same day with Curtis students on stage and in the pit–I saw the afternoon cast–Miss Julie was performed in its 1979 revision into a one-act format, reducing the original two-hour duration to an hour and a half. Under David Agler’s baton, the performance I saw seemed in every respect musically excellent. In terms of staging, it unfortunately partook of Chas Rader-Schieber’s taste for superfluous incident and "business" and his habitual propensity for ignoring physical reality. When your prima donna is not exactly sylph-like in build, to make her bob up and down to and from a kneeling position is cruel; and the flowers strewn all over the stage were pretty to look at, but nearly caused a disaster when the baritone slipped on them and ended up just a few inches from hurtling into the orchestra pit. (Incidentally, given Rorem’s often expressed disgust at the relatively minor prominence commonly accorded to composers in comparison with performers, I wonder what he made of the biographical listing of conductor, director, and colleagues as "Creative Team.")

As for the work itself, it was particularly revealing to see and hear it just a few weeks after the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s production of another American opera, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Floyd’s setting takes its inspiration from traditional sources in American folklore, and clearly aims at friendly down-home approachability. But I found in it a fatal lack of progression from idea to idea–nearly every line in the music seems to stop dead, instead of leading persuasively to what follows–and an equally fatal lack of memorable melody. Miss Julie has, admittedly, its weak points. The drama takes a while to gather momentum, and it is also some time before the main characters are given vocal lines that–like, for instance, practically every line in a Mozart opera–are character-specific. In strong contrast with Susannah, however, Rorem’s work, while triumphantly avoiding the vocal strangulation endemic in more avant-garde operatic idioms and treating the human voice with consideration and understanding, moves with admirable certainty from point to musical point, and culminates in at least twenty minutes of lyrical melody that not only stems unmistakably from character but stays hauntingly in the listener’s ear and mind long after the performance is over.

About Evidence of Things Not Seen, on the other hand, I have no reservations at all. This compendious work may well go down to posterity as Rorem’s masterpiece. In its 36 songs, he has given us a kind of "summa" of all that the genre–of which he has produced more than 400 examples–means to him. Evidence was mostly composed in 1997, though two of the settings included, of Julien Green’s "He Thinks Upon His Death" and of Paul Goodman’s "Boy With a Baseball Glove," go back respectively to 1951 and 1953, and had (as the composer put it in his introductory note) "waited all this time to find a home." Such a project is an ambitious one. It might indeed be called dangerous, given the propensity of churlish people in my profession to detect unseemly arrogance in what could be seen as challenging comparison, in its different field with the contrapuntal "summa" of Bach’s Art of Fugue.

Well, arrogant or not, the result in my view is a triumph. Founded on the poetry and prose of 24 authors (among whom Auden provides five texts, Goodman four, Whitman three, and William Penn, Stephen Crane, and the 18th-century hymnodist Thomas Ken two each), the songs include 18 solos, six duets, four trios, and eight quartets, grouped in three parts, which are respectively titled Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. As this may suggest, Evidence of Things Not Seen (the longest work Rorem has created, with the sole exception of Miss Julie) concerns itself with topics, by turns lyrical, comical, tragical, and amorous (and sometimes more than one of these at a time), from every corner of human experience in this world, and it does not shrink from addressing mystical issues evocative of another one. In his firmly tonal and at the same time keenly individual idiom, Rorem has captured all of these varied veins of thought and feeling with searching precision and unstinted sympathy. There is a wealth of emotional variety in the piece, and of rhythmic, melodic, and textural variety too. And, best of all, nowhere in the cycle’s nearly hour-and-a-half’s duration is there a trace of the momentary decline in level of inspiration that has, from time to time, afflicted even some of Rorem’s best music with the occasional blank patch.

A fine recording of Evidence is available on the New World Records label. The Curtis performance, too, was fully worthy of the work. The singing of soprano Tammy Tyburczy, mezzo Alexis Barthelemy, tenor Glenn Alamilla, and baritone James J. Kee realized every nuance in the piece and drew every drop of luxury from its sumptuous vocal lines, while Mikael Eliasen’s contribution at the piano was a stunning display of virtuosity and musical understanding. The proliferation of such performances, in Philadelphia and elsewhere (Evidence was done in New York just a day later), as well as the arrival of several notable recordings, suggests that a welcome reassessment of Rorem’s stature may be taking place. In a perceptive New Yorker column in October, the magazine’s music critic, Alex Ross, observed that Rorem

has grumbled many times in print over the genuflections rendered toward an atonal showman such as Elliott Carter, who happens to be celebrating his ninety-fifth birthday this year (and looks eighty). Indeed, Carter has benefited from a version of the intentional fallacy, according to which any music that is complex in design is automatically held to be complex in effect. Rorem’s scores seem, by comparison, modest and naïve, but this description applies only to their surface, and not to their emotional or psychological import.

The remark may derive a certain element of irony from the fact of its appearing in a journal that has consistently, over the past two decades, subscribed to exactly that fallacy. But it jibes very well with my own view of the matter. Ned Rorem, I suggested in a review of a collection of his prose writings published recently as A Ned Rorem Reader,

writes music of dangerous simplicity. The simplicity is on the face of it; and the danger is that, if we are snowed by the simplicity, all sorts of mordancies are likely to emerge from the depths and bite us when we are least expecting it.

Considering the confusion that arises from the question of simplicity’s opposite (which can be either "complex" or "complicated"), and considering also the indirection that lies at the center of Rorem’s art, I was amused and gratified, in the Reader, to find Rorem himself using "less complicated, more complex" as a descriptive phrase, and to encounter "indirection" cited in J.D. McClatchy’s foreword, along with "instinctive grace, intellectual aplomb, a lyrical line," as hallmarks of the composer’s essays no less than of his music.

Altogether, a new respect and a more widely shared admiration for this gifted creator may constitute just another step in a contemporary turning away from what may be variously described (depending on your viewpoint) as complicated, pretentious, obscurantist, or profound, and toward a reaffirmation of musical values at once simple and complex. Rorem has often drawn a distinction between the French, whom he prefers, and who in his view are "profoundly superficial," and the Germans, whom he sees as "superficially profound." If I suggest that Rorem himself qualifies for the description "profoundly superficial," that should in no way be taken as a negative judgment on a man whose music, as Alex Ross put it, "is too mysteriously sweet to die away."

© Bernard Jacobson

 

 


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