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New Music Harvest celebrates work of Ned Rorem


Music for voice and various

instruments by Ned Rorem and others.

New England Conservatory, Nov. 17.


LAST WEEKEND'S NEW MUSIC Harvest Festival served up a broad range of lectures, classes, and concerts culminating in a concert honoring Ned Rorem, recipient of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Horblit Award for distinguished composition by an American composer. The Festival featured recent compositions for chorus, chamber and wind ensembles, piano, voice and synthesizer, as well as for jazz and symphony orchestras. Sunday night's retrospective consisted largely of Rorem's songs from throughout the last forty years, but also included a trio for flute, cello, and piano.

The music of Ned Rorem receives its impetus from poetry, predominantly American poetry. This fact dictates that his major contributions are works for voice with accompaniment, such as individual songs and song cycles. Rorem also creates works for voice and orchestra, including Swords and Plowshares, which received its premiere from the Boston Symphony Orchestra last Thursday.

Ned Rorem responds to the stimulus of American poetry with a distinctively American musical style that strives to convey not only the mood of a poetic text, but also its very words. In the accompaniment to the title song of The Santa Fe Songs (1980) for baritone and piano quartet, for example, one can hear the bustle of automobiles, a department store, the Chamber of Commerce, a moving van and "cities crowding on the Trail," as well as a description of the celebration of the Feast of St. Francis and the entry of his image into the cathedral. The music is not mimetic -- one does not hear car horns blaring or the recitation of Mass -- but evocative.

In other songs of the cycle, based on the poetry of Witter Bynner, Rorem transforms the text into music in a similar fashion. In "Opus 101," the words "He not only plays/One note/But holds another note/Away from it" are conveyed by limiting the piano part to two notes -- a procedure that, through their interaction with the music of the strings and the voice, produces an effect that is remarkably moving. In "Yes, I Hear Them" we hear the "steps on the staircase," but again, not through an imitation of the sound of stairs being climbed.

While baritone Kurt Ollmann sang The Santa Fe Songs (with accompaniment from principals of the BSO and pianist Donald St. Pierre) in a straightforward and expressive American style, tenor Vinson Cole, accompanied by pianist Patrick Stephens, sang a selection of Rorem songs in a stunningly sweet voice. In "Rain in Spring," (1956) by Paul Goodman, we do not hear the raindrops but the music of the rain. In Stephen Foster's "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair," (1990) Rorem retains Foster's melody, considering it integral to the poem, but supplies it with a personal accompaniment.

In The Trio, (1960) performed by Leone Buyse (flute), Ronald Feldman (cello), and Randall Hodgkinson (piano), the flute, which dominates the first movement, may be considered as a replacement for the voice. The closing of this movement includes a striking passage of rhythmic unison. The second movement consists of a dialogue of repetition between the flute and the cello, with increasingly frequent and vehement interjections of chords and singly struck high notes from the piano. The cello is featured in the third movement, while the concluding Allegro molto is recognizably constructed from four consecutive notes of the scale.

The concluding work, Poems of Love and the Rain (1963), sung dramatically by mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski (attired in a Rothkoesque dress and accompanied by pianist Brian Zeger), is a cycle of songs based on the poetry of Auden, Dickinson, Roethke, Cummings and others. In the first song, from "The Rain" of Donald Windham, we once again hear the music of the rain, but its impact is lessened by the striking similarity it bears to that heard earlier in the 1956 song. In much the same way, the song "The Apparition," by Theodore Roethke, resembles the song "Yes, I Hear Them" from the cycle heard earlier.

However, just when the listener is beginning to suspect that Rorem's musical palette is somewhat limited, the power of the framework of songs that the composer has constructed emerges, almost as if he consciously wished to dispel any doubts about his creativity. The song cycle is a palindrome, with the first eight songs repeated in reverse order in new settings (in some cases concluding verses replace the previously presented material). The ninth song of the seventeen-song cycle is not repeated.

Through his technique, the composer explicitly acknowledges the plasticity of poetic meaning. "The Apparition," when reprised, has a completely different character from its first presentation; whereas Auden's "Stop All the Clocks" was initially a lamentation, it was transformed during the repetition into a song of irony.