Friday, March 27, 2009

Music for Lee Hoiby Fans: Some Suggestions

Since last weekend’s concert with the Dorian Quintet and Stuart Malina playing his Sextet for Winds & Piano, several people have told me they became “Hoiby Fans” that night, asking me what I’d recommend to build up their library, adding some of his music to their collections.

On my blog at Thoughts on a Train, you can read about my chance to visit with Lee Hoiby who was able to come to Harrisburg for the concert: we had dinner with him before and a brief chance to chat afterward as well. Several people enjoyed meeting him and hearing him talk in the post-concert Q&A and no one seems to believe his birth-date was correct in the program.

Some believe there really are only two types of music, whoever said it first – good and bad. I like all kinds of music but just because I like Elliott Carter’s music doesn’t mean I’m not going to like Lee Hoiby’s music. There are lots of modern “atonal” – gnarly, difficult – composers whose music I don’t care for just as there’s a great deal of tonal – tuneful, accessible – composers whose music I also don’t care for. Perhaps a better way of delineating “good or bad” would be to say “sincere or insincere.” It’s not a degree of talent, either: it’s the ability to connect with a listener, an intangible talent that cannot be taught and which few of us learn.

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First of all, Lee Hoiby's Sextet has been recorded by the Dorians with the composer at the piano, available on the Summit label. Another earlier work of his, a very delightful and typically tuneful work called “Diversions” is available on another Summit CD.

Among his other instrumental works, I would highly recommend his 1st Piano Concerto, written in the mid-1950s, which was on the Citadel label with other American composers’ works for piano and orchestra but appears to be out-of-print now. I listened to the other pieces once but come back to Hoiby’s concerto often: it’s a favorite of mine and I loved playing it on the radio. If you can find it in back-stock or get it from a dealer, I highly recommend it. I would hope it would be reissued soon or perhaps a new recording made of it. It’s absolutely delightful: the first movement is especially wonderful in its lyricism and the last movement just keeps me smiling from beginning to end.

Another CD offers his 2nd Piano Concerto, a more substantial piece, perhaps, along with a solo piano work, the “Schubert Variations” and the Violin Sonata, all of which I also highly recommend.

Hoiby is best known as a writer for the voice. Having worked with Gian-Carlo Menotti when he was in his 20s, involved in the production of several of his teacher’s operas from that decade, he has produced many fine operas himself – in fact, the few I have heard I find more sustaining than several of Menotti’s later works. His newest recording is his setting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Shakespeare's text adapted by his partner and librettist Mark Shulgasser, recorded in full on the Albany label and just released earlier this month. I have not, because of my schedule, had the time to sit down and devour it whole (wanting, also, to read the original Shakespeare before listening to each of its three acts). Still, you’re going along with the business of staged theater set to music which may suffer a bit if you can’t see it (directly or indirectly) and then suddenly you’ll hear something jaw-droppingly beautiful that transcends any limitations opera-on-CD might have for people unfamiliar with the work.

The Tempest was completed in 1984 but not recorded till now, following a recent staging at SUNY Purchase – with a surprisingly good cast in all the roles. More recently, he and Mark have collaborated on another Shakespeare opera, Romeo & Juliet, finished in 2004 but still looking for a premiere production. Lee himself described it as “the best of the lot.”

Of his earlier operas, Summer and Smoke (setting Tennessee Williams’ play) is not recorded (or at least not available) except for the “Anatomy Lesson” scene. It had been produced for PBS in the 1980s when they did that sort of thing and it would be great if this could be released as a DVD.

A Month in the Country (originally produced as Natalia Petrovna) is based on a Turgenev story. At the moment, one of my annoyances is dealing with several boxes of still unpacked CDs which is where my copy must be lurking: I wanted to check the final scene which as I recall had another of those drop-dead gorgeous ensembles (an octet?).

For those who might be unwilling to drop themselves into a full-length opera, here is a CD with two one-act operas, recorded by the Eastman Opera Theater, including his lively setting of an episode from Julia Child’s TV show, Bon Appetit!, which captures Hoiby’s wit and ability to roll with the energy of his subject. I’m not familiar with This Is the Rill Speaking which fills out the double-bill here, not that I need to be to recommend it.

If you are familiar with the music of Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti, then you should have no problem enjoying the music of Lee Hoiby. Barber is without a doubt America’s greatest composer of songs. Hoiby excels with these miniatures. His latest collection of songs was recently released on the Naxos label, called “A Pocket of Time” which includes 21 songs and a duet (incidentally, from the opera A Month in the Country). Recorded two years ago with the composer at the piano, this is a wonderful recording for any Hoiby fan to have.

As a musician always looking for reinforcement, two of the most inspiring works I’ve ever heard – the equivalent of an artistic anthem crossing all national boundary lines – would be Schubert’s An die Musik (not just because it’s Schubert but anything called “To Music” should be listened to as a Daily Affirmation) – listen to this YouTube compilation of tenor Fritz Wunderlich with translation in the foot-notes – and the Composer’s Aria from Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, which got me through many low-points in my career (here is Tatyana Troyanos singing it from a Metropolitan TV Broadcast in 1988).

Now I’ve added a third musical prayer – Lee Hoiby’s song “Where the Music Comes From,” the sixth song on this Naxos album, which I’ve listened to probably 10-12 times a day this past week. It’s not “about” music – in fact, music is only the first line – but it speaks perhaps to the importance of music as just one aspect of what sustains us. It’s the composer’s own text:
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I want to be where the music comes from

Where the clock stops where it’s now.

I want to be with the friends around me,

Who have found me, who show me how.

I want to sing to the early morning

See the sunlight melt the snow.

And oh, I want to grow.

I want to wake to the living spirit

Here inside me where it lies.

I want to listen till I can hear it.

Let it guide me and realize

That I can go with the flow unending

That is blending, that is real.

And oh, I want to feel.

I want to walk in the earthly garden

Far from cities far from fear.
I want to talk to the growing garden,

To the devas, to the deer.

And to be one with the river flowing

Breezes blowing sky above.

And oh, I want to love.

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The song itself is as simple as it could be, three slightly varied strophes that begin with one of those circular accompanimental patterns that Schubert might have used to set the mood just before the voice enters. I could imagine the composer sitting at the piano and coming up with this pattern, wondering where it could go and before realizing the clock had not indeed stopped, he had completed this song (if it took him hours of sweat to work out the details, it certainly doesn’t show).

If some of the other songs on this album – especially “The Lamb,” “In the Wand of the Wind,” and “Lady of the Harbor” along with the emotional impact of his “Last Letter Home” – hadn’t reminded me that Lee Hoiby is one of the finest composers of songs in this country, this one showed me why. It may sound no more modern than if Schubert had written it himself – aside from a characteristic modal inflection now and then – but it wasn’t written by somebody out to imitate Schubert’s style: it was written by someone who understands Schubert’s heart.

Jay Nordlinger’s witty liner notes quote Hoiby calling this “my Cat Stevens song” :-) and concludes with the observation
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“I have heard a number of singers sing Hoiby songs. But the best singer of them, I have to tell you, is Hoiby himself – even now, even in his eighties. ...More than once I have heard him sing ‘Where the Music Comes From’ which, from his throat, becomes a personal prayer: a prayer for direction and growth. Once you’ve heard him sing it, the song gets under your skin. Of course, it gets under your skin anyway, as does so much of the music of this remarkable, individual man.”
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Not striving for any sense of completeness, I want to mention there’s also a new collection coming out on April 1st with soprano Ursula Kleinecke-Boyer that also includes “Where the Music Comes From” and other selections also included on the “Pocket of Time” disc among others, but also includes what is probably his most performed (in fact, maybe even over-performed, at the expense of other songs overlooked), “The Serpent.”

There’s a story that a voice coach once told him “If you throw a brick out of a window on the Upper West Side, you will probably hit a soprano who has learned ‘The Serpent.’” For some reason, I have actually never heard this song – and since Ms. Kleinecke-Boyer’s disc ends with it, I will have to add it to my collection just to feel... well, a little more complete about it.

One of Hoiby’s great champions was the soprano Leontyne Price, one of America’s greatest opera singers ever and who, early in her career, premiered Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, arguably the finest songs written by an American composer, and for whom Barber created the role of Cleopatra in 1966 for the Met-opening Antony & Cleopatra. For her, Hoiby wrote a set of songs called simply “Songs for Leontyne” which she included in her 1965 Carnegie Hall debut, a recording only recently issued on the RCA label called “Price re-Discovered.”

Two of those songs are included in the Naxos “Pocket” CD – along with the anecdote about Ms. Price and the composer performing the song “Evening” at a party. Afterward, the soprano told the composer “You played that awfully fast,” to which he replied, “That’s the way it goes, Leontyne.”

- Dr. Dick

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