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ROREM: Piano Album I; 6 Friends Carolyn Enger
Naxos 559761 - 51 minutes

These 33 piano miniatures by one of the American masters of the form are quiet celebrations of love and friendship. Ned Rorem just turned 90, and this album is a testament to his long run as one of this country's finest composers. Piano Album I brings together pieces from 1978, written for Rorem's lifetime companion Jim Holmes as well as other friends and colleagues, including Judy Collins and Eugene Istomin. Six Friends, from 2007, are tributes to Marian Seldes, Jerome Lowenthal, and others. The pieces from both sets are intimate, wistful, and beautifully crafted. If there is any signifi- cant difference or break in style between the works in this 29 year span, I can't detect it. Many of these brief evocations became the germs of larger works, yet each one evokes a tiny world of its own. It's hard to pick favorites among so many gems, but I find especially beautiful 'For a Perfect Friend', a gift "for Jim on Christmas eve", and 'For Rosemary', a trib- ute to Rorem's beloved sister. These are by no means schmaltzy pieces. There is a bittersweet lyricism in Rorem's shorter works; it's just that the emphasis is on the sweet.

The other thing to celebrate in this album is the pianist, who is ideal for this project. Carolyn Enger's playing is beautifully nuanced and songlike through all of these pieces by no means an easy achievement. There are no opportunities for grandstanding here. These are not big statements, but very personal ones, and Enger brings them fully to life. Many of these are world premiere recordings, making this an important album as well as a warmly appealing one. SULLIVAN

NED ROREM = "The Art of Sound - Jose Serebrier Conducts the Music of Ned Rorem": Symphonies Nos. 1 - 3; Piano Concerto No. 2; Cello Concerto; Pilgrims; Flute Concerto; Violin Concerto; "Selected Songs" - Soloists/3 diff. orchestras - Naxos (5 CDs)
November 25, 2010
Audiophile Audition

Ned Rorem's name deserves to be included in the short list of America's greatest composers, and frequently is. Yet, he and his music also, frequently and deservedly, stand alone in the twentieth century landscape and in the history of American music itself. For, if names such as Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein are first thought of in terms of an "American" sound and if more recent names such as John Adams and John Corigliano might be a new definition of the same esthetic, then Rorem's music provides another unique view of the same notion. One reason is that Rorem has always been a composer for whom words and music are linked. His vast and stunning vocal output prompted Time Magazine to declare him "the world's best composer of art songs".

In this new wonderful collection of Rorem's music by Naxos, the art songs disc might be a good place to start. Ned Rorem, as both a composer and as a person, can be found in its essence, stripped of all but the emotions and the melodies found in the "selected songs", so thoughtfully performed by soprano Carole Farley, with Rorem at the piano. This disc offers thirty-two short gems from the composer's vast output of songs. The unique aspects of Rorem's' place in American music history can also be found, at its core, in these songs. Rorem is a Romantic in style. His music can be bold, crying out, declamatory, exuberant and, occasionally, tender and sad. On this disc alone, listen to the range of feeling in such songs as "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (Robert Frost), "Youth, Day, Old Age and Night" (Walt Whitman) or "Spring" (Gerald Manley Hopkins). It is impossible not to be impressed and moved by the texts, by the amazing meld of melody, harmony and word and, in this case, by the magnificent and thoughtful performance by Farley who has the immense good fortune of performing with the composer at her keyboard.

The Rorem Symphonies, found all on the first disc in this collection, are exciting, sweeping, dramatic works where melodies are long arched, harmonies are interesting but purely housed in traditional tonalities and the orchestrations are brilliant and clever. All three of Rorem's symphonies on the first disc in this collection are conducted by Jose Serebrier, a champion of contemporary music and well acquainted with Rorem's music. Another conductor who championed Rorem was the great Leonard Bernstein who gave the first performance of the Symphony #1 and the #3. The first symphony, written in 1950, is characterized by exciting brass writing and a bracing finale. The second motive that defines the work is Arabian in character; devised from a tune Rorem apparently picked up on a trip to Morocco. Both the Second and Third are also very fine works filled with soaring melodies and an open, accessible optimistic feel. The Symphony #2, in particular, was left unplayed for awhile before being "resurrected" by Serebrier, in the composer's words. These performances are top notch and well worth hearing. All of these works deserve to get more play, especially by American orchestras.

The Piano Concerto #2 and the Cello Concerto were, for me, pleasant surprises. On this disc, Serebrier conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with Simon Mulligan, piano and Wen-Sinn Yang, cello. The Piano Concerto #2 dates from 1951 and was first performed by Julius Katchen and the French Radio Orchestra. This work was viewed, at its premiere, as a logical extension of the American-ism exemplified by Gershwin. While it does have moments that are quite jazzy in nature and some sweeping Copland-esque gestures, it is still uniquely Ned Rorem. The Cello Concerto is a more recent work, from 2002. Intended as a reworking and expansion of ideas found in his Dances for Cello & Piano, Rorem gives the work an unusual structure. Built on eight short movements or episodes, Rorem also indulges his fancy for "programmatic subtitles" such as "Three Queries, One Response" or "One Coin, Two Sides". Rorem also points out in the program booklet that such titles are not meant to imply anything literal but rather suggest the mood or structure in play. This is a great addition to the cello repertoire with moments of great fun, technical display and even some quiet solitude.

Both the Flute Concerto, from 2002, and the Violin Concerto (1985) are also multi-movement works with intriguing section titles. Rorem's Flute Concerto, written for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the present performer, Jeffrey Khaner, was originally conceived as a somewhat programmatic work, after Homer's "Odyssey". Ultimately, the titles (such "Leaving-Traveling-Hoping") are reflective of a mood and not a particular story. This is a wonderful work, full of ample technical flourish and prolonged stretches of great melody and beauty. The Violin Concerto is similarly thematic but does bear a very interesting structural difference from the other concerti in this set. The opening section, a pretty and pensive melody entitled "Twilight," is used as a theme to establish a Toccata in a set of variations of sorts. The two clearest examples are the "Chaconne" and the "Rondo". This, too, is a very nice work and beautifully played by Philippe Quint, who has many other contemporary works in his repertoire. My own favorite of these concerti is the Cello but they are all quite good and deserving of much more review than this mention.

There really is so much to admire in this fascinating and pretty comprehensive collection of Rorem's work. All of this music is well-written, well-performed and sets high standards for what American twentieth-century masterworks will stand the test of time. The fifth disc is an interview with Rorem, conductor Serebrier and Naxos radio promotions manager Raymond Bisha. The interview, with extracts from the composer's works, is quite interesting to listen to. Jose Serebrier is clearly a dedicated and skilled devotee of contemporary music, the present composer in particular. Rorem is engaging, a good conversationalist and can discuss his art in a thoughtful, insightful way without coming across as a university professor! Each music disc has been issued separately by Naxos over time and merits a detailed review of its own accord. In the meantime, anyone interested in Rorem or needing to hear accessible, thoughtful, high quality "contemporary" music would enjoy this tremendously. Now, if Naxos and Mr. Bisha would please record one of my favorite Rorem works (ever!), An American Oratorio, I would be even more gratified!

--- Daniel Coombs

White House could help classical music by having fun with it
April 25, 2010
Anne Midgette

With its series of musical events last year, the White House has already started to send a signal that the arts are an important part of our nation's life. And it's wonderful that classical music was part of the mix.

But I worry that part of the signal -- especially where classical music is concerned -- is that the arts are a duty more than a pleasure: good for us, but a little dull. I fear that President Obama spoke for a majority of his generation when he expressed his concerns, before the classical music event in November, about knowing when to clap.

I think the strongest message the White House could send to our nation about classical music is that it's actually enjoyable. There's a certain gravitas associated with the office of the president, but music should represent a way to break free of that. There's no better way to send a signal about the benefits of classical music than to show Obama having fun listening to it.

I suggest that the White House dispense with classical music convention and start hosting shorter concerts: half an hour, 40 minutes, 20 minutes. A more informal format might mean that you could give several concerts a year -- perhaps in tandem with state visits or other official functions -- rather than a single longer one that bears the weight of representation on its shoulders.

White House concerts are a great way to promote American music. But the suggestions I'm about to make aren't just about promoting the wide range of music that falls under the heading of "classical" -- it's also about things I think that the president and others might enjoy. So here are some half-hour concert ideas:

Have William Bolcom, an eminent Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, appear with his wife, Joan Morris, and do a few sets of his cabaret songs. Have the Bang on a Can All-Stars do David Lang's "Cheating, Lying, Stealing" (we could use more electric guitar in the East Room); or have the group eighth blackbird perform Steve Reich's "Double Sextet." Both composers are recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize.

Invite Meredith Monk with her ensemble to do some of the pieces from her album "Book of Days." Ask Steven Blier, director of the New York Festival of Song, to stage part of the program of Harlem Renaissance songs he did a few years ago. Have Wendy Sutter play Philip Glass's gorgeous "Songs and Poems for Solo Cello" (they're a couple; he wrote them for her). Have mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sing songs by Ned Rorem, Charles Ives, Stephen Foster. Have the Kronos Quartet play George Crumb's "Black Angels."

Not all of these concerts would appeal to everyone, but they represent a broad enough spectrum that everyone would find something to like. They'd honor a lot of significant American artists. The music is engaging, stimulating, quirky, alive. And no one would have to worry about when to clap.

White House concerts also have a representational function. Yet it's not clear what role music plays in our nation. There are two large classical organizations in Washington that bear the word "national" in their official titles: the Washington National Opera and the National Symphony Orchestra. (There's also the National Philharmonic at Strathmore, but let's start with the big ones first.) It's not clear that either of these institutions plays a national role, nor are they the best in the country, but it would be fantastic if they could be used in some way as part of a national vision for the arts.

So here's one more suggestion: Invite both of their artistic leaders to the White House as part of your half-hour concert series. Have the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, give a short piano recital. Have the general director of the Washington National Opera, Placido Domingo, sing. These are both people of considerable presence and stature. The president would probably enjoy them, and it would be at least a sign that our so-called national symphony and national opera company might have some role to play in our nation's cultural life, which we're all eager to promote.

Furthermore, it would be fun. And that's got to be part of the point of the exercise -- or there isn't any point at all.

Audiophile Audition 12/4/2009
December 03, 2009
Steven Ritter

NED ROREM: On an Echoing Road - The Prince Consort/ Alisdair Hogarth, director and piano - Linn

Ned Rorem is the greatest underrated composer living today. Though he has complained in the past that his reputation as a song composer (Time Magazine's "Best Songwriter in the World") overshadows many of his instrumental works and they are eminently worth getting to know anyone who pens over 600 songs in this day and age, each unmistakably well-crafted and melodically oriented, each set to words by poets of the ages, is bound to have some sort of stereotype set upon them. But who cares, and really, why should the composer? No matter what is said or done, those things that the public determines to be worthy are the things that will survive, and if even only half of his 600 songs are still being sung in conservatories and recital halls 100 years from now-and they will be-it will be enough to ensure a lasting legacy. But my prediction is that there will be many more works testifying to this legacy apart from the vocal ones.

We are given here 29 songs of varied stripes and coming from all sorts of influences, the Anglo-sympathizer, the early French influences which never quite left Rorem, and the purely American, sometimes built from the composer's competitive spirit that was always going up against the likes of Copland and Barber. Many are well known, like his arrangement of Jeanie with the light brown hair, or Orchids. Others are not quite as ingrained in the public mind, though serious listeners will no doubt recognize many of them. Each is sung solo or in combination with the British-based group The Prince Consort. I simply must name them, as they are so deserving here: Anna Leese, soprano; Jennifer Johnston, mezzo; Andrew Staples, tenor; Tim Mead, counter tenor; and Jacques Imbrailo, baritone. Under the sturdy direction of pianist Alisdair Hogarth, this recital comes together with a bang and immediately takes it place among the best Rorem song discs ever assembled. Linn's gracious Super Audio sound compliments the singers in solo and in tutti. Easily one of the best this year, purchase absolutely required!

TrackList: Early in the morning; Are you the new person drawn toward me?; Rain in Spring; For Susan; Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening; Jeanie with the light brown hair; To a young girl; Catullus: On the burial of his brother; Requiescat; I will always love you; That shadow, my likeness; On an echoing road; I strolled across an open field; Alleluia; Little Elegy; Sometimes with one I love; Hymn for Evening; Orchids; On a singing girl; Now sleeps the crimson petal; What if some little pain; Look down, fair moon; The Rainbow; Do I love you more than a day?; Their lonely betters; Do not love too long; Comment on War; The Serpent; Full of life now
Wednesday 28 October 2009 23.30 GMT
Andrew Clements

Evidence of Things Not Seen Holywell Music Room, Oxford

Though 19th-century German song remains at the heart of the fortnight-long Oxford Lieder festival, programmes range far more widely across the world and up to the present day. One of this year's major events was the belated European premiere, by the Prince Consort, of a song cycle by the American Ned Rorem, who is now 86.

Rorem's songs are at the heart of his output, and Evidence of Things Not en, completed in 1997 for four singers and piano, was designed as a summation of his songwriting art. Lasting about 90 minutes, it includes 36 settings of 24 authors grouped into three parts entitled Beginnings, Middles and Ends, which trace out a lifespan of experience: from youthful optimism, through the harder-edged realism of maturity, to a final contemplation of death. The selection ranges widely, from the 17th to the 20th century, although Auden, Whitman and Paul Goodman feature prominently; the title comes from the last song, setting words by William Penn, one of the founders of the Quakers.

Stylistically, most of Rorem's songs could have been composed at any time in the last 100 years, but his music is pliably expressive, its weighted response to the words acutely sensitive. The sequence is wonderfully varied � some declaimed to florid piano, others introspectively lyrical. The outstanding singers of the Prince Consort caught the sense of accumulating weight of experience perfectly.

The Times, London
October 28, 2009
Geoff Brown

Prince Consort at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford

German-language lieder take the lead position in the Oxford Lieder festival. But praise to the organisers and the feisty young voices of the Prince Consort for not forgetting Ned Rorem, the American composer who has devoted much of his career to the lyric art. By the age of 40 he had written 400 songs, fresh, limpid, at peace with tonality, in some ways closer to French or English traditions than the American vernacular. Now, at 86, the total is past 600. In 1997 he created a pinnacle with his concert-long Evidence of Things Not Seen, 36 settings for vocal quartet and piano, delivered in three ruminative sections, Beginnings, Middles and Ends. The Prince Consort gave the European premiere.

Though not in the best location. The Holywell Music Room, in business since 1742, has history on its side, but on Sunday the small space and resonant acoustic fused dangerously with four gifted vocalists - Anna Leese, Jennifer Johnston, Nicholas Mulroy, Jacques Imbrailo - singing their heads off. Without the programme's song texts, numerous words would have stayed a mystery, mislaid in the decibels' blare.

Even so, this autumnal retrospective of Rorem's art worked much magic. The texts, some from prose, reflected elements in his diverse make-up: Quaker upbringing (William Penn), male homosexual love (Auden, Whitman, Paul Goodman), French colouring and perfume (Baudelaire, Colette). Oddly, some of the gayest texts brought the plainest musical responses. But the lyric flow was usually guaranteed when sopranos Leese and Johnston intertwined, as in Colette's On an Echoing Road, gently supported by rippling arch patterns from Alisdair Hogarth's supportive piano.

Rorem's best effects stemmed from thwarted expectations: As I Walked Out One Evening, say, with music teasingly contradicting Auden's metre, or the wickedly lilting Comment on War (Langston Hughes). The simplest effects came from the Quaker hymns and thoughts that closed each section and led us toward the grave and death - the final evidence of things not seen. A loud and frustrating concert, but still moving and necessary.

The New York Times
May 12, 2009
Allan Kozinn
Written, at Least Orchestrated, for a Singer

Composers love it when A-list interpreters champion their works, but most performers who reach the stratosphere slowly shed the contemporary pieces in their repertory.

The mezzo-soprano Susan Graham has moved in the other direction. In the opera house she has created roles in works by John Harbison, Jake Heggie and Tobias Picker. Her recitals usually include at least a nod to modernity, and among her recordings are superb discs devoted to songs by Charles Ives and Ned Rorem.

Mr. Rorem has said he admires Ms. Graham's performances of his music, and with a commission from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, he wrote her a new group of songs - sort of. Actually, only 3 of the �11 Songs for Susan� are freshly composed. The rest, written over several decades, and already in Ms. Graham's repertory in their original versions for voice and piano, have been orchestrated for the first time.

The set was the centerpiece of Orpheus's concert at Carnegie Hall on Monday evening. The program listed the performance as a world premiere, although listeners who heard Orpheus and Ms. Graham perform the work on Saturday in Easton, Pa., could justifiably object to that description.

As it turns out, the distinction between the old and new songs was slight: Mr. Rorem's style - his approach to text setting, melody and the voice - has been remarkably consistent over the years. His consonant harmonic style has not changed greatly either. And in any case, the new orchestrations work as a great equalizer. They use woodwinds and brasses colorfully and inventively, and require suppleness from the strings.

Did classic Rorem songs like "Clouds" and "The Lordly Hudson" need orchestration? Not really, and at first I missed the spareness and economy of the piano versions and the sense of intimacy that those qualities let a singer achieve. But perhaps it was just a matter of getting used to the altered sound and scope.

If these magnified settings led Ms. Graham to project differently from what she does when she performs with a pianist, she made the transition beautifully and convincingly. Her graceful phrasing and alertness to both musical and textual nuance made the most familiar of these songs sound new, and the pieces written for her - particularly a David Bergman setting, "Death and the Young Man" - drew on her ability to create characters quickly and movingly.

Orpheus opened the concert with a brisk, sharply accented and appealingly gritty account of Haydn's Symphony No. 26. A performance of Ravel's "Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte" went seriously awry at first � chalk up another round of wincing to dicey horn playing - but was soon set right. A rhythmically vital and generally well-played account of Stravinsky's "Danses Concertantes" closed the program.

Tempo Magazine, Cambridge University Press, 2008
Bret Johnson
Rorem: Piano Concerto No. 2; Cello Concerto. Simon Mulligan (pf), Wen-Sinn Yang (vlc), Royal Scottish National Orchestra c. Jose Serebrier. Naxos American Classics 8.559315.

This is the sixth Naxos release devoted to Ned Rorem, and the third one in this series conducted by Jose Serebrier, who intiated this series with the sensational recording of Rorem's three symphonies. The new release contains two works of superlative quality, separated by over half a century. The Piano Concerto, written in two months whilst Rorem was in Fez, Morocco in late 1950, has all the silken fluency of his early music, so eloquently apparent in the First Symphony and the early piano sonatas. But the Concerto, despite its rich harmonic language and vast whirling Ravelian keyboard filigrees, is in tightly-structured sonata form. Rorem has tended to move away from classical formats in his later music in favour of a more flexible 'panel' style, whereby each work comprises a suite of short movements, closely interrelated and sequential in content and mood. This Concerto, however is one of his largest three-movement pieces, and at nearly 35 minutes bears worthy comparison to the best of Poulenc and Milhaud. Unashamedly romantic and restlessly searching out new keys and infinite modulations, it seems possessed of the inexhaustible energy of youth and hope. The powers of invention, assurance and sheer virtuosic brilliance not only of the solo writing but also of the orchestral accompaniment are nothing short of breathtaking, and one agrees with Jose Serebrier, who says in his informative sleeve notes that this piece deserves to be in the forefront of the great American piano concertos. It is dedicated to the legendary pianist Julius Katchen (1925-69), who was an early champion (he recorded the Second Piano Sonata). Happily Simon Mulligan here is more than equal to the formidable technical challenges, and the result is that with this recording we have a major discovery on our hands. What of the First Concerto (1948)? Rorem has said 'It languishes, unloved, in a trunk'. Not for too much longer, I hope! It is now abundantly clear that the early Rorem works are as worthy and valuable as anything that followed. A recent release of early choral music (which I reviewed in Tempo Vol. 60, No. 238) has provided further evidence of that. The Cello Concerto (2002), Rorem's most recent major concertante work (apart from the Concerto for Mallet Instruments from 2004/5), inevitably has a much more autumnal feel, and is also in a more 'camerata' style, rarely using full orchestra but relying on the poetic power of intimate dialogues. Over its 25-minute span, though, the composer achieves a striking sense of unity and progression. There is a quiet power in this music, an affirmation that even in everyday things (like in some of the movement titles - 'One Coin, Two Sides', 'there and back'), there are resonating echoes which give rise to musical responses. The longest (7-minute) movement 'Three Queries, One Response' is a sustained miniature tone poem. I felt as if this was not only music of reflection, but also of a continuing impulse to give voice to deeply felt emotions. We have been blessed with many rich examples of the power of Ned Rorem's music to give expression to such feelings, and long may it continue. It is always rewarding to see from his website that, at nearly 84, he is still committed to new projects and to the extension and development of his art. This wonderful series of recordings is the least he deserves in recognition of his lifetime of achievement and there can be few better bargains available in any record shop. I am confident this release - another glorious milestone - will prove popular, and it deserves to earn�many awards.

Special to The Commercial Appeal, Sunday, November 2, 2008
Jon W. Sparks
Concert review: Soprano Mary Wilson shines at IRIS performance

It was a celebration mixing the old and the new at Saturday night's concert by the IRIS Orchestra at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre.

There were luminous performances throughout, but the brightest was Ned Rorem's "Songs Old and New," a song cycle commissioned by IRIS and presented in its world premiere just days after the composer turned 85.

The old songs were previously published with piano accompaniment. What was new was an orchestral arrangement for six poems, plus three new songs using material by Edgar Allen Poe. The poetry, including works by Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Robert Hillyer, Christina Georgina Rossetti and Paul Goodman, are exquisite in depictions of love, wit, life and heartbreak.

Rorem's treatments are stunning, evocatively American, rich with intelligence and passion. The orchestrations shimmered and played with the texts, sometimes reflecting them, sometimes going the other way; passages of foreboding, for example, were set against seemingly innocuous verse.

The star of the evening was soprano Mary Wilson whose virtuoso performance infused the songs with crystalline beauty. Her expressive voice is perfectly suited to the Rorem works, bringing along warmth, whimsy and color.

As ideally suited as her voice is to contemporary works, it is no less adept with the classics. She performed Mozart's "Exsultate, Jubilate," a gorgeous motet created by the composer when he was a teenager. But it is a fully mature work, and Wilson's soaring performance nailed it with breathtaking precision.

New York Times, September 9 2008
Vivian Schweitzer
Honoring a Modern Composer Shaped by French Tradition

The composer Ned Rorem is known primarily for his more than 500 art songs, which overshadow the rest of his considerable oeuvre. He has also written many symphonies, concertos, operas, string quartets and other chamber works, some of which were performed on Friday at a Bargemusic concert (part of the Here and Now series) celebrating his 85th birthday in October.

Mr. Rorem's musical aesthetic has been shaped by his admiration for French composers, and he has always maintained that he is a descendant of the French, not the German, tradition. He began studying Debussy and Ravel as a child in Chicago and lived in Paris for much of the 1950s, documenting his bohemian life as a gay man there in "The Paris Diary," his racy 1966 literary debut. He later published other diaries, letters and essays.

While his openness about his personal life was considered shocking at the time, Mr. Rorem has always been more conservative as a composer, eschewing avant-garde trends for a primarily tonal and lyrical style. He has referred to serialist composers as serial killers and has asserted that Schoenberg is not among the "great composers of the 20th century." He has also disparaged minimalists like Philip Glass.

Along with the French sources, jazz has also influenced Mr. Rorem's compositions. The jazz strain was strong in the virtuosic "Song and Dance for Piano Solo" (1986), written for a piano competition, and played well here by Olga Vinokur. That influence could also be heard in the "Valse Rappel�e," the second movement of Dances for Cello and Piano (1983), which Ms. Vinokur performed with the cellist Adrian Daurov. In addition, that suite included a rhapsodic, melancholic Prelude; a frenetic, dissonant Scherzo; and a nostalgic, melodic movement, "The Return."

A Ravelian aesthetic, as well as Russian influences like Shostakovich, were discernible in Mr. Rorem's rarely performed String Quartet No. 2 (1950), composed in Morocco. This work, the earliest on the program, was ably played by the young Voxare Quartet, whose members are Mr. Daurov; the violinists Emily Ondracek and David Marks; and the violist Erik Peterson.

"Bright Music" for flute, two violins, cello and piano (1987), with Shawn Wyckoff on flute, lived up to its title. In the first movement of "Fandango," impressionistic ripples of jaunty sound are followed by a robust waltz. "Pierrot," the subdued second movement, features wistful flute and string melodies. String pizzicatos dance over a whirling piano line in "Dance-Song-Dance," the third movement, with two lively sections interspersed with a Coplandesque interlude.

Mr. Daurov spun out the elegiac singing lines of the cello solo in "Another Dream," and all five musicians had fiery roles in the manic "Chopin."

New York Times, April 25 2008
Bernard Holland
Leaving High Drama Behind for a Trip to Grover's Corners

Modesty and a taste for the ordinary are not opera's usual ingredients. Thornton Wilder's ''Our Town,'' in the operatic version by Ned Rorem, came to the Juilliard Opera Center on Wednesday night. Its just-folks serenity could only be American.

There are no big people doing grand things in turn-of-the-20th-century Grover's Corners, U.S.A., nor are there little people doing violence to one another on the grand scale that opera expects. In ''Our Town'' getting up and having breakfast are events as major an any. It's not something Puccini would have understood.

By definition ''Our Town'' is also about a place, not a set of principal singers, although in its rank-and-file of equals the lovers George and Emily are more equal than anybody else. Absent is the dramatic arc that takes stories and people from A to B. Here unfolding events are broken into pieces, rearranged out of order and frozen in time.

Wilder's play and, happily, Mr. Rorem's setting of it are sweet-tempered without being sugar-coated. Death and the unhappinesses it leaves behind are as much topics as life and its small pleasures.

Mr. Rorem's music builds on favorite hymns and sings with a familiar tunefulness subjected to touches of acid. The Juilliard Orchestra, conducted by Anne Manson, makes important use of the piano. Mr. Rorem's vocal style could possibly be described as one continuous horizontal flow, but I like to think of it as a series of closely connected, self-sufficient arias.

Mr. Rorem does acknowledge grand opera by elevating the soprano role of Emily to something wide-ranging and declamatory. Jennifer Zetlan, who played the role at the Aspen Music Festival two years ago, sings beautifully and affectingly. The part could not be in better hands.

Alex Mansoori (the Stage Manager) and Alek Shrader (George) are solid and convincing. The singing citizenry of Grover's Corners includes Marc Webster, Jessica Klein, David McFerrin, Ren�e Tatum, Julie Boulianne and Nicholas Bentivoglio.

Edward Berkeley's direction adheres to the tone of simplicity that ''Our Town'' brings with it. John Kasarda's set is a deep, blank stage with straight-back chairs arranged and rearranged. The story of J. D. McClatchy's libretto is operatic in itself: Wilder didn't want his play as an opera, refusing applications by eminences like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. In 2001, the Wilder estate gave in.

Mr. McClatchy rejiggers and condenses. He has to. Music and words move at different speeds, and when opera kowtows to original texts the results are usually fatal. Ask Verdi.

Christian Science Monitor, February 2008
Brian Wise
Percussionists Drum Up Interest Among Orchestra Fans

Theatricality is a basic aim of John Corigliano's music. He once wrote a flute concerto inspired by the Pied Piper legend in which the flutist leads a chorus of children off the stage, and a violin concerto based on the film "The Red Violin." But a request a few years ago for a percussion concerto left him stumped. "All I could see were problems," says the Pulitzer Prize winner.

Corigliano says that while he loves to feature the percussion section in his symphonies, he feels that percussion concertos sound "like orchestral pieces with an extra-large percussion section." The soloist is incapable of playing a real melody and his or her identity is lost amid the myriad bangs, crashes, and splashes of the percussion arsenal.

Nevertheless, a consortium of six orchestras had commissioned the composer to write a piece for Evelyn Glennie, the formidable Scottish percussionist. After considering his options, Corigliano decided to focus on melodic instruments such as the vibraphone and chimes, and an orchestra pared down to strings alone.

Glennie will premiere the concerto, called "TriplePlay," with the Pittsburgh Symphony on Feb. 21. It is one of four � count 'em, four � major percussion concertos being performed in the United States over the next month. The others are by Jennifer Higdon, Steven Mackey, and Kevin Puts, all highly respected composers who have come to the medium quite recently.

These pieces are the latest sign that the percussion concerto, inherently a modern invention, has moved beyond its novelty phase. Orchestra administrators see percussion works as a draw for new audiences, with their athletic spectacle and ability to exploit non-Western sounds. Composers and soloists are increasingly exploring percussion's subtler qualities.

Glennie finds that composers are taking a "less is more" approach to the medium, using fewer instruments in more nuanced ways.

"Percussion is the most adaptable family of instruments," she says. "The biggest challenge is to project percussion in a lyrical way." She adds that one of her favorite pieces is the 2003 Mallet Concerto by Ned Rorem, a composer best known for art songs.

"He made it clear that he was simply going to write a piece of music and it was my job to make it work on percussion. There are no pyrotechnics, just sheer music and therefore we have a timeless piece."

Like Corigliano and Rorem, Mackey resisted traditional drum fireworks. The Princeton, N.J., composer wrote "'Time Release," which focuses on the dark, throbbing sounds of the marimba, at a time when his mother was ill. She died shortly after the piece was finished.

" 'Time Release' is a very serious piece," he explains. "I felt like there's fragility and a vulnerability to the sound of the marimba that I found to be very touching. It's some of my most solemn and grave music."

The Scottish percussionist Colin Currie premiered the piece in 2005 and performed it with the Baltimore Symphony at New York's Carnegie Hall last weekend.

Sometimes a percussion piece can be soft and subtle while delivering on the requisite spectacle. Jennifer Higdon's "Percussion Concerto," also written for Currie in 2005, requires the soloist to dart about the stage playing 17 different instruments, including bongos, Chinese temple bells, and glockenspiel.

"I wanted quite a bit of this concerto to have exquisitely quiet moments because people never think of percussion that way," Higdon says.

One of her more unusual solutions was to have Currie apply a cello bow to the vibraphone with one hand while playing it with a mallet in the other. "It definitely is a workout," says Higdon. "I think the quiet part actually made it harder sometimes."

Christopher Lamb, the principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic, sees a predictable pattern. Composers may start with modest goals for a concerto, but they'll meet at his studio where he keeps a vast arsenal of drums, cymbals, shakers, and other arcane instruments. The temptation to experiment becomes too great, "and there are all kinds of racks, and drums, and marimbas, and it turns into a van full of equipment," he says.

Nevertheless, Lamb believes that some of the best pieces aren't preoccupied with volume. In 1999, he premiered the "Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra" by the Chinese-American composer Tan Dun. The piece, which explores the ritualistic sounds that can be made using water, has long sections of tranquility. "Percussion should be explored more for its colors as a virtuosic instrument," he says. "It's more than a bash festival."

The News and Observer, February 17 2008
Craig Jarvis
The Nick Of Timing

RALEIGH - Conductor Grant Llewellyn glances nervously at the empty chair. Ten minutes until the recording session starts, and the clarinet player has called to say he has been in a car accident.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet and the N.C. Symphony's other 67 musicians run through scales, finger their instruments and chat on the stage of the empty Meymandi Concert Hall. Inside the makeshift control booth, engineers watch the clock.

The delay may be unavoidable, but the schedule is unforgiving. The engineers have to fit two hours of recording and breaks into a union-clad three-hour session.

The missing musician, Michael E. Cyzewski, plays the distinctive E-flat clarinet part in Ned Rorem's "Lions (A Dream)," the piece they're recording. The orchestra librarian scrambles to see if the score's publisher can fax the part so the symphony's other clarinetist can step in.

"Unfortunately, it's not one of the string players," says symphony general manager Scott Freck. "We have plenty of them."

The late January session comes on the second day of a grueling week laying down tracks for a pair of CDs, one for release in 2009, the other in 2010. The two-disc deal with the Swedish classical music label BIS Records represents the orchestra's first commercial recording and a bid for international attention.

For all the precision and exacting detail of classical music, recording it leaves more to chance than you might imagine. The European recording crew knew nothing about the orchestra nor the hall's acoustics until a few days before the sessions began. The engineers would be working with music far less familiar than Tchaikovsky's concertos or Beethoven's sonatas -- three of the works on the first disc have never been recorded before. And the unusually tight schedule makes the outcome even less predictable.

And then comes Cyzewski's delay.

With five minutes to spare, the clarinet player shows up intact, and everyone falls into place. Llewellyn gets the OK from the control room and plunges the ensemble into "Lions."

The clock keeps ticking.

A bet with Marsalis

Ingo Petry, one of three German engineers who have traveled to Raleigh for the recording gig, jumped at the chance to produce Rorem's 1963 work. He knew nothing about the N.C. Symphony, but he knew Marsalis, the three-time Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, who lives in Durham.

"Oh yes," says Petry, a classical pianist. "That's why I'm here. When I heard Branford, well, I might be very much interested."

With experience in classical music as well as jazz, Marsalis makes an ideal choice for "Lions," a 14-minute piece that Rorem based on a dream. Repeated sections lull the listener into a strings-induced reverie that sets up the jazz combo, which is then subsumed by a rising wave of discord.

In a control room fashioned out of storage space, Petry and the other two engineers take their seats at a table laden with recording equipment, digital clocks and timers and a metronome. Aerosol cans and boxes of odds and ends are pushed aside to make room for cables and speakers. A tiny monitor is pointed at Llewellyn.

The orchestra plays and replays sections, trying to make the music as flawless as possible. Through their headsets, the BIS crew listens as Llewellyn insists that Marsalis is playing the wrong note. The jazz star disagrees.

"Wanna bet?" Marsalis asks.

"I'd take it," says Marsalis' piano player, Joey Calderazzo. "He's been on a losing streak."

At the break, Llewellyn heads to the control room to listen to the passage played back.

"He's playing C then B-flat," Llewellyn says triumphantly. "Maybe it's jazzer's license, but he's all over the place. OK, I can live with that, but he's going to owe me a lot of money."

When they return to the stage, it is Marsalis who's triumphant. Waving the sheet music at Llewellyn, he points out what no one had considered: The score is wrong. It calls for a C one time and a B-flat another.

"It was a misprint, man," Marsalis says. "I got you!"

Freck shakes his head. A music publisher in business for 40 years has a misprint? Unbelievable.

Producer as conductor

Conductors aren't accustomed to anybody telling them how to direct the orchestra. But a producer's not just anybody.

Speaking to the orchestra through a microphone, Petry says he wants to hear the strings reach a crescendo over a particular chord change. Check the intonation between the first clarinet and the first horn. The F-sharp on the glockenspiel is too soft. The brass should be more majestic.

He hears far more in the 68-member orchestra than seems humanly possible. In fact, because of the 40 microphones scattered about the stage all feeding into his headset, he hears more than even the conductor.

Petry and his colleagues, Marion Schwebel and Andreas Ruge, all trained at the same music university in Germany, where everyone studies a musical instrument as well as the technical side of recording. Their incredibly developed ear holds the orchestra to a greater degree of uniform accuracy than the musicians are used to.

At first they had to learn how to pace themselves for the multiple takes required in recording.

"The first take they played, they were almost ready to go home because they gave everything," Petry said in an interview the day after the Rorem session. "Of course, in a way I appreciate that. But I know if you give everything on every day you're just not going to survive the day."

Besides getting to know the orchestra, the recording crew had to get to know the venue. When Meymandi Concert Hall opened in 2001, the hall's acoustics and design were widely praised, including in The New York Times.

But the BIS team finds that it's a mixed bag. Petry calls it "spacious but dry."

The hall's high ceiling creates an open sound, but it also makes sounds disappear quickly instead of reflecting back downward, Petry says. Some orchestra members have a hard time hearing one another from across the stage. As a result, they rely on the conductor's signals, and that can make them come in late.

On the other hand, the hall produces sound that is not overly bright and not too reverberant, which Petry says is good for the American CD. A warmer, more integrated sound, though, might be preferable for the Rachmaninoff concerto recorded for the 2010 disc.

"You always want both," Petry says. "There are rarely any halls on this planet which give you both at the same time."

As the session nears two dozen takes on this day, Petry is down to the final minutes of recording time. He has the orchestra play one part again and again. As he listens, he waves his hand to the rhythm of a soft rising of strings, then he puts his thumbs up and nods. He pushes the speaker button and addresses the musicians.

"That was just out of this world," he says. "Thank you for that."

They finish with 24 seconds to spare.

Who will hear?

Some of the hall's shortcomings and the inevitable human errors can be corrected in mixing and editing sessions back in Sweden. But even in these days of computerized splicing, there's only so much fixing that engineers can do. It would be too time-consuming and expensive to alter the pitch of a single instrument, for example.

"I can adjust a bar here and there," Petry says. "It's too fast, so you slow it down. It's possible. But you cannot spend a whole day in fixing one note. You leave it in."

And just who, besides fans of the symphony, is going to hear these recordings? The hope is that important critics and respected publications will take notice. If the symphony people dream big, one of the discs would be nominated for a Grammy or another prestigious award.

David Chambless Worters, the symphony CEO and president, expresses the aspirations in grand terms.

"The audience is the world," he says. "This represents the N.C. Symphony's first opportunity to present our artistry to the music world. It's about building your reputation."

The two-CD project will not make a profit. It will cost $300,000 to $500,000, but that amount will be covered by a donation from Sandra Henson of Chapel Hill and Bob and Connie Eby of Pittsboro.

On the final day of an exhausting week of rehearsals, Worters introduced the donors to the orchestra and, he said, the musicians gave them a loud and sustained ovation.

It sounded pretty good in the old concert hall.

Juilliard School, New York, April 2008
Peter Jay Sharp
Our Town: The Music of Memory

Few composers take on a classic drama and come out artistically alive. Verdi did it three times with Shakespeare, Schoenberg did it with the Bible and Berlioz and Gounod did it with Goethe, but most of the efforts have been sad ones. Ned Rorem is another exception. As a Midwestern-born American, he understands the setting of Thornton Wilder's great drama Our Town. As an exceptionally intellectual man, he understands the Wilder's philosophical foundations. And as one of the great art-song composers today, he has conserved his operatic writing for what he feels will work.

With a play 90 percent Wilder, and mainly structural changes by America's favorite opera librettist, poet J.D. McClachey, Rorem has written a drama which is poignant, emotional, sometimes funny, but never far from Wilder's original study of life, death, remembrance and the meaning of existence itself.

Premiered at Indiana University last year, the New York premiere took place this week at Juilliard, a school whose voices and orchestra were, for the most part youthful, but always professional. Besides this, the skeleton set sticks to the original drama, the acting is physical, nuanced and effective. By the end of the two-hour opera, one had come to a dramatic and operatic climax which grabbed at the emotional heartstrings.

For those unfamiliar with Our Town, the drama begins with a description of the "ideal" American town, Grover's Corners, New Hampshire circa 1904. A place where, as the "Stage Manager" (a combination of God, Greek Chorus and minor character parts) says, "Nothing ever happens" But some things do happen. George and Emily fall in love and marry. Emily dies in childbirth and implores the Stage Manager to spend one more day on earth, this her 13th birthday. And here she discovers not only the "magic" of living, but the tragedy that we never seize each moment, that "w don't have time to look at each other."

It is stunning drama. McClatchey changes the opening of the original with the funeral procession, and adds some pedestrian words from Dr. Gibbs about how the world depends on love. Wilder would never stoop so platitudinous. But we needn't worry about this, not with such a lovely composition.

Rorem starts with five dissonant chords, repeated and varied at emotional moments. They are not jarring, but they show that "something" is of import, even if we don't know it. The music is continuous, without a single "song". For a man of Rorem's genius, this is .disappointing. . In Emily's dazzling monologue at the end, I needed so much an aria like Ain't It A Pretty Night, from Carlisle Floyd's Susanna. Certainly Ned Rorem is capable of this, but I suppose he felt that one "star" piece was not right for the opera.

The orchestra does have its very American Copland-Harris-like motifs, and the quotes from hymns at the right places gives it the right grounding. No percussion, modest forces, simple enough for any occasion, and conducted beautifully by Anne Manson. Most endearing are the seamless sounds from vocalists .

One must first single out Jennifer Zetlan as Emily. She has the only really difficult passages, in the third act. One can picture Rorem saying "On earth, they sing without affectation. But realizing what happens after and what we need to know, we need something more emotional, more difficult. Yet Ms. Zetlan, reserved earlier, let herself go here with a radiant soprano voice that caught all the anguish of the situation.

Alex Mansoorti was the omnipresent Stage Manager with a folksy baritone (and a lovely caricature of the Druggist), Both groups of parents were fine, but neither had great musical challenges. Alex Shrader was George, the baseball-loving kid who grows up to realize death, and his voice was equally affecting.

What we must say above all is that this was such endearing music. Possibly even enduring music. Just as the original drama became a staple of amateur dramatic societies for several decades, this opera should easily make its way into the repertory. Certainly, it is one of Ned Rorem's most lovely creations.

Gramophone Magazine, December, 2006
Lawrence A. Johnson
ROREM: Piano Concerto No. 2 (1951). Cello Concerto (2002)

Simon Mulligan, piano; Wen-Sinn Yang, cello; Royal Scottish National Orch/José Serebrier, cond.
NAXOS 8.559315 (B) TT: 59:18
Naxos again earns the respect and admiration of serious record collectors. There are many important recordings here, some world premieres. The two concertos on the Rorem CD are separated by a half-century. Piano Concerto No. 2 was composed in 1951 for Julius Katchen and in spite of highly favorable reviews fell into oblivion for five decades. It's a brilliant showpiece for the soloist and you'll hear traces of Rachmaninoff and other romantic composers, but with an overall American flavor. The Cello Concerto dates from 2002, and in this Rorem gives titles to each of the 8 sections which include There and Back, Competitive Chaos, A Dozen Implications, Valse Rappelee (an orchestration of one of Rorem's works for cello dating from 1984, and a final Adrift which softly fades into nothingness. This concerto is a worthy addition to repertory for the instrument. Both concertos are splendidly played and beautifully recorded.

Bret Johnson
Review: Piano Concerto No. 2; Cello Concerto

Simon Mulligan (pf), Wen-Sinn Yang (vlc), Royal Scottish National Orchestra c. José Serebrier. Naxos American Classics 8.559315.

This is the sixth Naxos release devoted to Ned Rorem and it contains two works of superlative quality, separated by over half a century. The Piano Concerto, written in two months whilst Rorem was in Fez, Morocco in late 1950, has all the silken fluency of his early music, so eloquently apparent in the First Symphony and the early piano sonatas. But the Concerto, despite its rich harmonic language and vast whirling Ravelian keyboard filigrees, is in tightly-structured sonata form. Rorem has tended to move away from classical formats in his later music in favour of a more flexible 'panel' style, whereby each work comprises a suite of short movements, closely interrelated and sequential in content and mood. This Concerto, however is one of his largest three-movement pieces, and at nearly 35 minutes bears worthy comparison to the best of Poulenc and Milhaud. Unashamedly romantic and restlessly searching out new keys and infinite modulations, it seems possessed of the inexhaustible energy of youth and hope. The powers of invention, assurance and sheer virtuosic brilliance not only of the solo writing but also of the orchestral accompaniment are nothing short of breathtaking, and one agrees with José Serebrier, who says in his informative sleeve notes that this piece deserves to be in the forefront of the great American piano concertos. It is dedicated to the legendary pianist Julius Katchen (1925�69), who was an early champion (he recorded the Second Piano Sonata). Happily Simon Mulligan here is more than equal to the formidable technical challenges, and the result is that with this recording we have a major discovery on our hands. What of the First Concerto (1948)? Rorem has said 'It languishes, unloved, in a trunk'. Not for too much longer, I hope! It is now abundantly clear that the early Rorem works are as worthy and valuable as anything that followed. A recent release of early choral music (which I reviewed in Tempo Vol. 60, No. 238) has provided further evidence of that. The Cello Concerto (2002), Rorem's most recent major concertante work (apart from the Concerto for Mallet Instruments from 2004/5), inevitably has a much more autumnal feel, and is also in a more 'camerata' style, rarely using full orchestra but relying on the poetic power of intimate dialogues. Over its 25-minute span, though, the composer achieves a striking sense of unity and progression. There is a quiet power in this music, an affirmation that even in everyday things (like in some of the movement titles � 'One Coin, Two Sides', 'there and back'), there are resonating echoes which give rise to musical responses. The longest (7-minute) movement 'Three Queries, One Response' is a sustained miniature tone poem. I felt as if this was not only music of reflection, but also of a continuing impulse to give voice to deeply felt emotions. We have been blessed with many rich examples of the power of Ned Rorem's music to give expression to such feelings, and long may it continue. It is always rewarding to see from his website that, at nearly 84, he is still committed to new projects and to the extension and development of his art. This wonderful series of recordings is the least he deserves in recognition of his lifetime of achievement and there can be few better bargains available in any record shop. I am confident this release � another glorious milestone � will prove popular, and it deserves to earn some awards.

The New Yorker, March 24 2008
Russell Platt
The New Yorker: "Cello Love"

The violin has more glamour, the viola more soul, the bass more thundering power. But the cello remains the most versatile member of the string family, and there could hardly be a more inviting introduction to its charms than "My Tunes" (Sony Classical), a new disk by the German cellist Jan Vogler. Vogler's intense and febrile sound is restrained by classical discipline and enriched by a searching musical intelligence. His accounts of short works by such disparate composers as Bach, Tchaikovsky, Elgar ("Salut d'Amour"), and Henry Mancini ("Moon River") are brisk, eloquent, and immaculately detailed.

Ned Rorem has been a lyrical presence in American music for more than half a century, but rarely with such power as in the Cello Concerto (2002), part of a new disk by the conductor José Serebrier and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos). Deftly scored for a pared-down orchestra, it is the finest of Rorem's many concertos, consistently inventive and shot through with piercing melancholy. The somewhat self-effacing soloist, Wen-Sinn Yang, is buoyed by the beautiful suave sounds that José Serebrier coaxes from his group; Simon Mulligan is a more decisive presence in the merrily Gershwinesque Piano Concerto No. 2 (1951), the album's opening flourish. Rorem's music is also the point of departure for "After Reading Shakespeare," a recording of unaccompanied works by Pulitzer Prize-winning composers by the maverick cellist Matt Haimovitz (on Oxingale, his own label). Rorem's eponymous piece comprises a vivid series of miniatures inspired by famous excerpts from the Bard's plays and sonnets; intriguing new works by Paul Moravec ("Mark Twain Sez") and Lewis Spratlan ("Shadow") complete the album.

Gramophone Magazine, December, 2006
Lawrence A. Johnson
Lovingly remastered classic collection of early Rorem - Indispensable

This reissue of a long-unavailable 1964 Columbia recording revives some vintage performances of Ned Rorem's early songs by a quintet of the era's finest singers. The American composer's remarkable ability to distill a precise mood with the greatest economy is most impressive here - his lyricism so supple and natural it seems as pervading as a gentle breeze.

The disc also serves as a salutary reminder of the extrodinary interpretative gifts of several artists of the 1960's - no least Donald Gramm, as heard in a warmly sonorous rendering of "To The Willowtree." The bass is at his finest in the settings of poems by Paul Goodman and Theodore Roethke, with delicious caustic tone-painting of Roethke's evocative lines of decay in "Rootceller." And he is equally deft and graceful in the quicksilver infatuation of "Sally's Smile" and the quirky humor of "My Poppa's Waltz." Phyllis Curtin is the other big name here, though her performances are somewhat less consistent considering her association with Rorem's music. Her soprano is a bit strident in the upper tessitura of "The Silent Swan" but she conveys the interior melancholy with great feeling. There are similarly edgy moments in the settings of "Three Psalms," yet ultimately her fully committed vocalism is thrilling. In her spare contributions, soprano Gianna d'Angelo is an equally dedicated interpreter.

One of the (re-)discoveries of this disc is Regina Sarfaty. The mezzo's rendition of Rorem's famous 17 second "I am Rose" is still unbeaten, and her agile virtuosic rendering of the insane asylum in the "Visit to Saint Elizabeth's" is a classic. Charlels Bressler's unique timbre is something of an acquired taste, through the tenor is superbly evocative in the Moss setting of "See How They Love Me." His plangent tone is well suited to "A Christmas Carol" from Three Medieval Poems as well, and he is ardent and impassioned in Rorem's setting of Whitman's "Youth, Day, Old Age and Night."

The composers accompaniments are nonpareil, lucid, unsentimental and with flowing tempi that avoid gilding the lilly. More recent Rorem song anthologies such as those by Susan Graham (Erato, 5/00) and Carole Farley (Naxos, 1/02) offer wider-ranging portraits with several selections of more recent decades. But this disc, lovingly remastered with complete text, restores to the catalogue and extraordinarily valuable disc, indispensable for every Rorem collection and essential for all aficionados of American song.

By Kelly N. Martin: Special To The Pilot
November, 2007
N.C. Symphony Proves Versatile and Polished

If there were doubts about the stylistic limitations of the North Carolina Symphony in concert with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, they were surely eliminated after last Thursday night's performance in Southern Pines.

Music Director Grant Llewellyn described the evening's program as a sort of musical hybrid, but due to the versatility of both the quartet and the orchestra, the addition of the saxophone and drum set seemed quite natural.

The combination of musical selections, though from different genres, flowed so easily from one piece to the next that they were able to generate an aura of dreamy and fantastical sounds throughout the entire program. After opening with Michael Daugherty's "Sunset Strip," a reflection upon the various sounds and images of Sunset Strip from the 1950s through the 1990s, the symphony combined forces with the quartet for Rorem's "Lions (A Dream)" for jazz combo and orchestra.

The jazz combo appeared early on and continued to play similar material that was sometimes swallowed by general cresendos. Listeners were at first soothed as the piece opened in a state of reverie but were then awakened with oscillations from consonance to stormy dissonance -- the harmony itself a hybrid. These surreal orchestral writings ranged from a simple motif of the mellow tenor saxophone to waves of complicated texture. With the blend of both symphony and quartet, Rorem's experience was powerfully carried into sound.

Following the dual effort, the Marsalis Quartet played three more songs in their best known jazz style. After an innovative rendition of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," the quartet walked off stage to a full standing ovation.

The program was nicely bookended with another reflection on images, this time with Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Consistent with the other works, the piece delivered a colorful dreamlike character. As the work progressed, the piece seemed less to illustrate the pictures and became more immersed in the continuous psychological experience of moving from one state of mind to the next.

And Llewellyn's emphasis on the melancholy tempo of the "Bydlo" allowed for the gentle sadness of the oboe to draw the audience into another place and time. The work was also especially fitting this evening since Ravel used the alto saxophone in the "The Old Castle" orchestration. A rare event for a saxophone to appear in a classical piece -- and performed here by Branford Marsalis -- the exotic quality made it an ideal choice.

Contra Costa Times
August 12,2007
An evocative 'Our Town' emerges in Walnut Creek

"QUIET" ISN'T A WORD often used to describe operas, but it's exactly the word that comes to mind in Festival Opera's luminous new production of "Our Town."
It's not that there isn't a lot of powerful music, or glorious singing, in Ned Rorem's opera, which opened in its West Coast premiere Saturday at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek. It's just that the dominant sense of Rorem's score is one of quiet reflection and gentle, affecting tenderness.

That's as it should be in this adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 play. Wilder's original, which layered the charm of small-town Grover's Corners over a profound dramatic statement about the human condition, is a masterpiece of subtle nuance.

So was Saturday's three-hour performance. Conducted by Michael Morgan and directed by Beth Greenberg, the opera seems destined to beguile fans of the play as well as those who have never seen it performed.

Wilder was opposed to an opera based on "Our Town." But one can't help think he would have approved of this version. The libretto, by American poet J.D. McClatchy, faithfully captures the spirit of the text, and Rorem's beautifully textured score is evocative and flattering to the voice.

Rorem, whose art songs have set hundreds of American texts, limns the opera with hymns and graceful harmonies. There are episodes when the music grows agitated -- a rant by the drunken choral master, Simon Stimson; a scene in which George Gibbs considers leaving Grover's Corners. The Act II wedding scene features a witty quote from Mendelssohn's march. For the most part, though, the orchestral writing is lean and transparent, capturing the play's essential quality of unadorned simplicity.

Heading an outstanding cast, soprano Marnie Breckenridge was a radiant Emily; vocally brilliant, dramatically urgent, she was girlish and appealing in her early scenes and magnificent in Act III. Tenor Thomas Glenn, whose character ages from early teens to middle-aged, was an excellent, firm-voiced George. Tenor Richard Byrne sang the Stage Manager role with eloquence and admirable restraint. Bass Kirk Eichelberger was a resonant Dr. Gibbs, mezzo-soprano Patrice Houston a generous-voiced Mrs. Gibbs, and soprano Marcelle Dronkers a sympathetic Mrs. Webb. Darla Wigginton's nosy Mrs. Soames, David Cox's avuncular Mr. Webb and Trente Morant's salty Stimson made fine contributions. Under Morgan's direction, the Festival opera Orchestra and Chorus were in top form.

Director Greenberg made all the right decisions, moving the cast around with a minimum of fuss. Matthew Antaky's sparsely decorated, handsomely lit set, and Susanna Douthit's period costumes re-created Wilder's early 20th-century America in painterly strokes.

The Newark Star Ledger
January 2,2007
Double Concerto for Violin and Cello/ After Reading Shakespeare'

The 83-year-old Ned Rorem just published the ostensibly final installment of his diaries ("Facing the Night"). But this disc -- an entry in Naxos' valiant American Classics series -- reminds us that, despite the fame of his books, he has always been a composer first. With Rorem such a natural songwriter, even his instrumental works have a singing quality, including his characteristically Francophone Double Concerto of 1998. He wrote it for violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson, whose recording comes with Rorem's seal of approval: "Whatever the piece may be worth (as the composer, that isn't for me to say), the interpretation is ideal (that is for me to say)." He also composed his intricate but approachable solo cello suite "After Reading Shakespeare" for Robinson, in 1981. The technical challenges disappear, as she voices the score with a rich inner calm.

Inquirer Music Critic
August 23,2006
New angels help opera evolve
By David Patrick Stearns

The cast of "Our Town," composed by Ned Rorem and premiered at Indiana University.

Typically, when a great American play is turned into a potentially great American opera, the news is trumpeted from the skies, or at least from one of the big-city opera houses. Not with Our Town - Ned Rorem's opera version of the classic Thornton Wilder play - whose quieter, more gradual birth is taking place on a circuit of theaters that may bring it to a university near you.

Yes, university.

The official world premiere was in February at Indiana University. Had you vacationed in the right place, you also might have happened onto the piece at the Lake George (N.Y.) Opera this summer. Or at the Aspen Music Festival, whose production was conducted by the eminent David Zinman, but sung by students rather than stars. This, for something the 83-year-old composer was born to write?

Says Rorem, whose hindsight usually ranges from pessimism to hopelessness, "it was a marvelous idea."

New operas are usually commissioned by one or two companies, often on different continents, and are more or less shot out of a cannon - with an opening production assembled without the benefit of a workshop or tryout. There are successes, but even among those, some parts are good, others not.

Unlike them, Our Town had what every new opera needs - a workshop, at Indiana last year and promised productions beyond the premiere, thanks to a commissioning consortium that was headed by Indiana University but also included Aspen, Lake George, Opera Boston, the North Carolina School of the Arts, and Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, Calif.

So far in the series of performances, the piece has been recast from two acts to three; more changes are likely. Critics have been alternately beguiled, charmed and left cold. But with different viewpoints arriving in each new production, the industry knows the jury is still out. In other words, the piece "is protected" from failure, says Aspen stage director Edward Berkeley.

It's possible that Our Town couldn't have happened any other way. Both the Wilder estate and librettist J.D. McClatchy wanted Rorem: He lived amid the milieu that spawned the 1937 Our Town, and he was a contemporary of Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, who pioneered the Americana school of composition ideal for an operatic adaptation of the piece. However, Rorem wanted a fee that would allow him to live for the three years that any major opera is likely to require.

Bigger opera companies might balk at committing to an over-80 composer with only a few operas to his credit. But the consortium assembled $250,000, which is comparable to big-opera-house commissions; half came from Indiana University, and the rest was spread among the others.

Budgetary risks were further minimized by the values that come with higher learning. Aspen counts on only 12 percent of its budget from the box office; conventional opera companies shoot for three times that. The piece's value to students participating in its creation may be priceless. In a festival that's as much about teaching as performing, Our Town "embodies everything we care about," said president Alan Fletcher.

It's a viable model, said Helane Anderson, promotion manager of Boosey & Hawkes, the opera's publishers: "Rather than the companies' saying ' we have budget issues so we can't participate,' the consortium has them pay less to... be a part of something that's major."

And not just opera. Indiana University, again, just premiered the new choral work Sun Dogs, by the sought-after British composer James MacMillan. Aspen is planning to commission dance pieces. The Juilliard School of Music recently celebrated its 100th anniversary with 47 commissions, including a cello sonata by 90-year-old Milton Babbitt, and struck gold with the Lowell Liebermann opera Miss Lonelyhearts, in a production shared with the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.

With a history of nurturing about 80 works into being, Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa is now part of Music Accord, which, for only $7,500 a year from each of its 10 members, has delivered three new chamber-music works over the last decade by major composers such as David Del Tredici and William Bolcom.

Most appetizing, says Hancher's artistic director, Judith Hurtig, are projects to which the university makes a unique contribution: The Terry Riley/Kronos Quartet piece Sun Rings incorporated recordings of outer-space noise culled from years of research done in Iowa.

However protected in some ways, these working conditions hardly exist in a utopian bubble. The final scene of Bill T. Jones' 1990 dance-theater work Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land featured local Iowa actors fully and frontally nude. Audition ads alone set off a raging controversy.

"It was pretty ugly," Hurtig recalled. "The university's legal office was very much aware with what was going on, and they were OK with it... . We had plainclothes policemen all around the audience."

It sold out, by the way.

When playwright Craig Lucas was commissioned by Juilliard to write what became The Listener (which premiered in January), he wrote a sprawling story about the drug-and-sex-steeped youth culture of 21st-century Seattle. (Says one twentysomething to another, "I love your search engine!") The intention wasn't salacious, but to prepare the actors for what they would encounter after graduation - multiple roles in the same play, plus extensive nude scenes.

Both that and Liebermann's Miss Lonelyhearts, based on the Nathanael West novel about an alcoholic advice columnist who develops a Christ complex, are works whose daring defies conventional commerciality. Nobody can say whether the protected circumstances prompted less-compromising work, since academia at its most liberal is still a microcosm of what's outside of it. But when asked for an upbeat, celebratory work, the reputedly lightweight Liebermann delivered an opera that's so hard-hitting that some student cast members defected.

"We handled it as in the real world," said Juilliard president Joséph Polisi. "We talked to them as professionals. We told them that what you do onstage doesn't have to be your opinion. A few preferred not to be part of it. We respected that."

As important as this world is becoming to upper-echelon composers - and negotiations are under way at various institutions for major new works by Wynton Marsalis and Peter Maxwell Davies - it's only one possible route, as opposed to being the panacea. Though Aspen has the outward markings of an operatic greenhouse - plenty of rehearsal, plus fresh-voiced singers close to the age of their characters - the Our Town opening was derailed by an orchestra that became inexplicably spooked ("It was as if a black cat crossed the stage," said one person involved with preparations) and performed as if sight-reading.

Key roles in this story of life, death and the afterlife were understood only superficially by the student cast. Rorem's score, for all its exquisite, distilled moments, still hadn't settled into its new, three-act form.

Yet the piece exists - representing a creative coda in Rorem's life. Also, its intimate story has the best chances for an optimum impression at venues like Aspen's cozy Wheeler Opera House. Conditions may not always be that way once the opera graduates from its consortium.

From there, all bets are off. Rorem isn't about to eschew the less-suitable but real-life gargantuan glamour of the 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera, were he given a chance. "[Playwright] Edward Albee won't let certain plays be done in certain places," Rorem says, "but why not just take the money and run?"

Naxos Flute and Violin Concerto CD Reviews

Editorial Review

Ned Rorem (b. 1923) holds dual citizenship: in the realm of words and the realm of music. In the first, he has produced a notoriously frank multivolume diary; in the second, numerous symphonies and chamber music works. But it is his hundreds of songs that make him famous, for this is where his two worlds meet and merge. However, this disc, celebrating his approaching 82nd birthday, presents three of his instrumental works. Spanning four decades, they vary greatly in style and content, but have in common a singing, sometimes almost spoken quality; Rorem calls this "a setting of words that aren't there." Indeed, both concertos have six movements whose descriptive titles strongly imply a narrative thread. Those of the Violin Concerto (1984) are thematically connected; they begin with "Twilight" and end with "Dawn." Soft, slow, lyrical passages alternate with busy running ones; timpani crash, woodwinds sing, the violin converses with the orchestra. The very difficult, brilliant solo part, played with easy virtuosity and a gorgeous tone by Philippe Quint, exploits every instrumental resource; the orchestration is masterful. The Flute Concerto (2002) was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra for its principal flutist, Jeffrey Khaner, who plays it splendidly on this premiere recording. It features violent dynamic contrasts and imaginative orchestral sound effects; the flute adds color and rhythmic verve, acting more like a partner than a soloist. "Pilgrims" for string orchestra is slow, lyrical, warm, tonal, with lovely soaring melodies. The title refers not to America's founding fathers but to a biblical quote: "...strangers and pilgrims on the earth"; though written in 1958, it too has never been recorded. --Edith Eisler

Another Fabulous Rorem Disc, August 15, 2006 Reviewer: D. A Wend

Naxos has issued another excellent CD is what is becoming a Ned Rorem cycle. This CD opens with a short work called Pilgrims, written for string orchestra. The subject of the music has nothing to do with the founding pilgrims but was based on a Bible verse from Hebrews. The mood is one of reflection, not sad but one of recalling things that were not attained. The Flute Concerto was written in 2002 but is more of a suite than a concerto. It was written on a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra for their principle flautist Jeffrey Khaner, who performs the piece here. The six movements bear the names: The Stone Tower, Leaving-Traveling-Hoping, Sirens, Hymn, False Waltz and Resume and Prayer. The music is a kind of Odyssey, which was considered as a possible title. The concerto begins with an energetic first movement named for the studio in New York where the music was composed, the second is quite and reflective while the third, Sirens, is mysterious with the flute calling out to caress and tempt sailors. Hymn is scored for five instruments: bassoon, piano, trumpet, viola and flute; a short interlude that gives way to the False Waltz with a comic waltz tune interlaced with boisterous music punctuated with tympani. The final part, Resume and Prayer brings back the musical ideas in the prior movements with a long cadenza for the flute, ending quietly.

The Violin Concerto was composed in 1984 and like the Flute Concerto is cast in six movements, again making it more of a suite especially since each movement is treated as a narrative being thematically linked. The movements are: Twilight, Toccata-Chaconne, Romance Without Words, Midnight, Toccata-Rondo and Dawn. The Romance Without Words title was borrowed from Mendelssohn and is a song that had its words removed. As the names indicate, the concerto is something of a journey. Dawn recalls the Twilight section; the jagged rhythms of the Toccata-Chaconne are reflected in the false waltz of the Toccata-Rondo. The soloist, Philippe Quint plays beautifully, especially in the Midnight section with he beautifully conveys the mysterious and melancholy atmosphere. José Serebrier conducts another wonderful program of Ned Rorem with the first two works being World Premiere records. I will be looking forward to further releases. D.A. Wend

Who knew Rorem's non-vocal music was so wonderful?, May 20, 2006 Reviewer: J Scott Morrison

You can guess from this review's title that it will be a rave. Until I heard Rorem's symphonies (also on Naxos) a couple of years ago, I had no idea that Ned Rorem could write so beautifully for orchestra. Well, I did know, too, because years ago there were recordings of some of his tone poems (String Symphony, Sunday Morning, Eagles -- Louis Lane, Atlanta Symphony) but that was long enough ago that it had slipped from memory. Since hearing this CD I pulled them out and reveled in their beauty, too. On this disc we have two concerti that are entirely engaging, the Flute Concerto and the Violin Concerto, and for 'filler' another tone poem, 'Pilgrims' (for string orchestra).

Pride of place goes to the alluringly beautiful Flute Concerto. Written for and played here by the principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Jeffrey Khaner, it is a collection of six movements that have little to do with classical concerto forms; Rorem himself says it could just as properly be called a suite (and the same applies to the Violin Concerto). Taking his inspiration partly from the flute music of the impressionists, particularly Debussy, we hear music of many moods. The separate movements have more or less arbitrary titles -- implying but not really outlining some sort of narrative. Rorem has said that no matter what kind of music he is writing he always has silent song lyrics in mind -- 'words that are not there' -- and this gives his music both a narrative feel and a rhapsodic construction. For me the two movements that I connected with most are 'Leaving-Traveling-Hoping' with its pastoral calm, and 'False Waltz' with its repeated timpani figure and skittering flute. (Interestingly, there is a movement in the violin concerto that also has a repetitive timp figure as a kind of chaconne bass.) Khaner, whose name I knew but whose solo work I didn't, is a nonpareil flutist. I particularly like that he doesn't have the fruity vibrato so commonly heard from European flutists. Still, he has numerous tone colors at his disposal; not an easy thing with an overtone-poor instrument like the flute. I am eager to hear more from him.

The Violin Concerto is from 1985 and has previously been recorded by Gidon Kremer, a recording I have not heard. Rather more expressionistic that the Flute Concerto, it too is a six-movement suite rather than a classic concerto. Phillippe Quint, whose recording of William Schuman's violin concerto I quite liked, is a marvelous advocate for this virtuosic work. Still, I am less struck by this concerto than the Flute Concerto, which I feel confident will enter the repertoire.

The 'filler' is Rorem's 1959 'Pilgrims' which doesn't refer to America's founding fathers but takes its title from a passage in Hebrews (11:13) and actually was prompted by a passage quoting that verse in Julien Green's novel 'Le voyageur sur la terre' (we will remember that Rorem lived in France a number of years and is an ardent Francophile). For string orchestra and lasting about seven minutes, it is elegiac and richly harmonized with much use of divisi strings.

The performances here could hardly be bettered. José Serebrier, who earlier recorded the three Rorem symphonies with the Bournemouth Symphony, conducts the excellent Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in idiomatic and persuasive accounts of this music. He also contributes the helpful booklet notes.

Enthusiastically recommended, particularly for the Flute Concerto.

Scott Morrison Editorial Review / Barnes & Noble

After the appearance several absorbing volumes of diaries and memoirs, Ned Rorem's career as a writer threatened to overshadow his primary work as a composer. But in recent years, with Rorem now in his 80s, a number of recordings have thankfully brought our focus back to the unique lyrical gifts that define his music. His vocal music has always been considered his most significant contribution -- and song recitals by Susan Graham and Carole Farley have demonstrated its beauty -- but his work for orchestra is distinguished as well. Naxos has followed up a fine recording of Rorem's three symphonies with this equally important orchestral release. The program begins with Pilgrims, a touchingly somber work for string orchestra from 1958, never before recorded, but the biggest news is the premiere recording of Rorem's Flute Concerto, written in 2002 for Jeffrey Khaner, principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who performs it here. A large-scale addition to the instrument's none-too-vast concerto repertoire, Rorem's work prompts an ongoing flow of melody from the soloist, also revealing the surprising range of moods and expressive shadings of which the flute is capable. Khaner's brilliant performance of the solo part is matched by Philippe Quint's eloquence in Rorem's Violin Concerto (1985). Both concertos unfold over an unusual six-movement design, almost like song cycles, and in both cases it's easy to see the truth of Rorem's claim: "I conceive all non-sung pieces as though they were songs -- like settings of words that aren't there." As in Quint's other recordings of American repertoire for Naxos -- Schuman's Violin Concerto and Bernstein's Serenade -- this is a commandingly authoritative performance, one that's full of personality and drama. Spanning five decades, the works on this album reflect the breadth of Rorem's contribution to the American orchestral repertoire -- and its undeniably high quality. Scott Paulin

Gramophone Committed performances all round.... This is relaxed and indulgent music. Peter Dickinson

Philadelphia Inquirer All the wit found in earlier works is [in the Flute Concerto], but put to more serious purpose.... Rorem, in his 80th year, [is] exploring new territory with more invention than ever before. Flutist Khaner plays with the authority of one who both knows the territory well and is happy to maintain elements of mystery. David Patrick Stearns

Courier-Post Jeffrey Khaner crafts a colorful reading.... Philip[pe] Quint captures the fleeting moods in Rorem's six-movement violin concerto. His taut playing invigorates the music. Robert Baxter

New York Times
August 21,2006
What Next? A Trio of American Operas
By Alex Ross

July was New American Opera Month in the purple hills of upstate New York and western Massachusetts. You could hardly drive your Smart car from the lesbian bed-and-breakfast to the organic farm stand without running over an adaptation of a literary property. Stephen Hartke’s “The Greater Good” made its début at the Glimmerglass Opera, in Cooperstown. The Lake George Opera, in Saratoga Springs, presented Ned Rorem’s “Our Town,” which had its première in Indiana earlier this year. Elliott Carter’s opera “What Next?” (1999) belatedly had its first American staging, at Tanglewood. Back in New York, Elliot Goldenthal’s “Grendel” was the centerpiece of the Lincoln Center Festival, in a Julie Taymor extravaganza. These performances, all well attended, came at the end of a musical season that brought John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic” to the San Francisco Opera, Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy” to the Met, and Lowell Liebermann’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” to Juilliard.

Are any of these new operas towering masterworks that will alter the course of music history while winning the hearts of millions? People have been asking that loaded question of American opera for a hundred years, and the way they phrase it almost demands a negative answer. Better to ask whether a new work is strong enough to hold the stage. If it does, it has a future, and the masterpiece-sorting can be done by later generations. “The Greater Good,” “Our Town,” and “Grendel” passed this test: lustily, wistfully, and by a hair.

Hartke’s “The Greater Good” is a tightly constructed, vividly imagined piece that may mark the emergence of a major opera composer. The excellent libretto, by Philip Littell, is based on Maupassant’s story “Boule de Suif,” which tells of the misadventures of a menagerie of bourgeois and aristocratic types who are travelling by coach in the middle of the Franco-Prussian War. A Prussian commandant stops the coach and lets them know that they can proceed only if Boule de Suif, a bighearted, big-boned prostitute who is on board, services his needs. She patriotically refuses. The others play elaborate psychological games to make her give in. They are greater whores than she. The challenge of this scathing little tale is that not a lot actually happens. Hartke seizes control with a subtle riot of sprung rhythms, colliding tunes, jazzy rave-ups, onomatopoeia (cat lovers will want a forthcoming Naxos recording if only for the Comtesse de Breville’s mewling, chirruping aria, “I miss my cat”), musical in-jokes (listen for the would-be-transcendent “Rosenkavalier” trio that never gets off the ground), and, at the end, a delicately shattering anthem of despair. Hartke is celebrated for his orchestral music, which mixes Stravinskyan neoclassicism, minimalism, jazz, and Balinese gamelan. The dazzle of his orchestration was no surprise; the sizzle of his theatre sense was big news.

The melancholy Americana of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” has long fascinated American composers. Aaron Copland, who wrote music for the 1940 film adaptation, wanted to make an opera out of it, but Wilder did not coöperate. Ned Rorem, who has written only one other evening-length opera in his eighty-two years, eventually received permission from the playwright’s estate. The drama plays to his strengths. Its mundane scenes of all-American life—baseball, drunkenness, gossip, marriage—elicit from Rorem the clean-lined, crisp-figured style that typified American music before the Cold War, and to which he has stayed uncompromisingly true. The unsettling transformation of the third act, in which we see the world through the eyes of the dead, makes him go deeper; at times, the music becomes uncharacteristically turbulent and grand. (Rorem has always prided himself on his Francophile restraint.) Wilder’s ghosts remind us that we never appreciate the transient glories of daily existence until it is too late. The very fabric of the score—its luminous orchestration, its pearly vocal lines, its gently pulsing rhythms, its celestially circling song of young love—evokes the mundane beauty that we overlook.

J. D. McClatchy, who sleekly adapted “Our Town” for Rorem, is the librettist of the moment; somehow, he also found time to write “Miss Lonelyhearts” for Liebermann (unfortunately, not a success), and to collaborate with Taymor on “Grendel.” The original source for the latter is John Gardner’s sardonic, poetic 1971 novel, a postmodern masterpiece in which the monster whom Beowulf slew strikes back with a tell-all memoir. The New York State Theatre was packed with spectators who were eager to see what new wonders Taymor had wrought, and they were not cheated: her staging included a decadent, stage-spanning Dragon, figures dancing in midair in strobe light, decomposing puppet beasts and beastly machines, and comically preening heroes who appeared to have studied the production numbers in “Showgirls” for choreographic inspiration. Goldenthal kept pace with the images, deploying a meta-Wagnerian, bass-heavy orchestration, semi-improvised episodes with a hard-rock tinge, thumping bacchanalia in the manner of Carl Orff, and spells of post-minimalist lyricism along the lines of recent John Adams. The trouble was that he merely kept pace; the score followed the action rather than drove it. Still, it had a certain mythic weight, and the show was a wow.

Glimmerglass, Lake George, and the Lincoln Center Festival all fielded mostly young, mostly unknown casts for their productions, proving that celebrity singers aren’t needed to attract audiences to new opera. True, Denyce Graves played the Dragon in “Grendel” (in woefully ragged voice), but the main attraction was the little-known but very fast-rising bass Eric Owens, in the title role. His hefty, tonally focussed, richly colored voice cut through the tumult of Goldenthal’s score, and his vital, naturalistic acting gave heart to a high-tech spectacle. Steven Sloane authoritatively marshalled the orchestra. In “Our Town,” which was directed by Nelson Sheeley and conducted by Mark Flint, the vocal standout was Sarah Paige Hagstrom, passionately engaged as Emily. At Glimmerglass, where David Schweizer put together a sharply humorous staging of “The Greater Good” and Stewart Robertson led a spot-on orchestral performance, Caroline Worra created a radiant and heartbreaking Boule de Suif.

At the Tanglewood festival, everyone was dumbstruck by the work ethic of James Levine. Sidelined in the spring with a rotator-cuff injury, the grand Pooh-Bah of the Met and the Boston Symphony has shed several dozen pounds and, if possible, seems more unstoppably dynamic than before. One weekend, he conducted three different all-Mozart programs, including all of “Don Giovanni.” Another weekend, he led, on consecutive nights, Schoenberg’s “Gurre-Lieder” and Strauss’s “Elektra,” which require orchestras of a hundred and forty and a hundred and fifteen players, respectively. I caught Levine’s last Tanglewood feat of the summer, in which he dissolved the difficulties of Carter’s “What Next?” The piece appeared on a program of short operas, alongside Hindemith’s “There and Back” and Stravinsky’s “Mavra.” The director Doug Fitch deftly tied the three works together with Dali-meets-Warhol imagery. The singers were Tanglewood students; the gleaming soprano voices of Chanel Marie Wood and Kiera Duffy, and the commanding contralto of Christin-Marie Hill, stood out.

“What Next?” is an anti-opera that pointedly avoids conventional narrative. Paul Griffiths’s libretto describes, in knotty, jokey, Samuel Beckett-like style, the aftermath of a highway accident. The characters may or may not be dead, and are trying to figure out what world they belong to. Carter’s hyper-complex musical language is fit for the subject, effortlessly summoning a hectic, rush-hour atmosphere. The various characters are assigned governing intervals—perfect fifths, minor and major seconds, tritones, and so on—and if two notes are insufficient to define a personality, that may be the point; at the border of death, the precious illusion of individuality disintegrates. This is the same disenchanting wisdom that Rorem imparts in the final act of “Our Town.” The overlap is ironic, because, for fifty years, Rorem and Carter have been considered polar opposites in American music, the one defending tonality and the other rejecting it. In their late operas, they are seeing humanity with almost the same eyes, as a frantic dance to a misheard tune.

Denver Post
August 1,2006
Set to music, "Our Town" comes alive
By Kyle MacMillan

"Goodbye, My Town."

With those words, the newly deceased Emily Webb accepts her fate and bids a heart-rending farewell to life on Earth in the fitting culmination to Ned Rorem's powerful new operatic adaptation of "Our Town."

The Aspen Opera Theater Center unveiled the Western premiere of the 2 1/2-hour work Saturday evening - the first of three performances in the 1889 Wheeler Opera House as part of the continuing Aspen Music Festival.

In an innovative partnership that could serve as a model for future such projects, the festival was one of five co-commissioners of the opera, with the Indiana University Opera Theater serving as lead commissioner and presenting the world premiere in February.

Put simply, "Our Town" is a winner. Unlike so many freshly minted operas that are immediate busts or need considerable reworking, this one succeeds flawlessly on nearly every level.

Rorem and librettist J.D.

McClatchy, a prominent poet who has collaborated on several other operas, kept things appropriately simple. Aside from a few necessary parings, they scrupulously hewed to Thornton Wilder's masterful 1938 play, letting the drama unfold in a clean, clear and appropriately intimate way.

To his credit, director Edward Berkeley brings this same spirit to his staging, emphasizing the honesty and humanity of the story. Like many productions of the play, the sets are minimal, with pantomime taking the place of missing props and scenery.

There is virtually nothing innovative about the opera's musical language, a fact that will likely serve as the dividing line between its critics and fans. Devotees of the avant garde are likely to turn up their noses, while anyone not opposed to traditionalism will probably love it.

"Our Town" follows solidly in a 50-year tradition that forms the heart of American opera - unabashedly vernacular, lyrical creations such as "Susannah," "Summer and Smoke" and, well known to Colorado audiences, "The Ballad of Baby Doe."

Rorem, an 82-year-old composer who was long out of fashion because he refused to accept the atonalism that dominated classical music for much of the 20th century, has crafted a pleasing, tuneful score that responds to the story in a direct, uncomplicated manner.

Although he questions his abilities as an operatic composer in his program statement, Rorem clearly has an affinity for the voice, and "Our Town" demonstrates his theatrical instincts in convincing fashion.

David Zinman, the festival's world-renowned music director, makes a rare appearance in the pit, drawing the best from his fine student orchestra and bringing this opera vibrantly to life with his usual care and intelligence.

Because Aspen makes use of apprentice singers priming for their professional careers, performances can be a little uneven at times. Although that is true in certain cases in this production, no excuses have to be made for Jennifer Zetlan.

This dynamic young soprano, who shined last year in Aspen's production of "The Cunning Little Vixen," turns in another terrific, all-around performance in the pivotal role of Emily.

A first-rate actress with a confident stage presence, Zetlan looks the part and convincingly conveys Emily's evolution from shy adolescent to young mother-to-be to death. She has a lovely, forceful voice with fetching, pitch-perfect high notes.

Portraying Emily's lifelong sweetheart, George Gibbs, is another fine actor, Matthew Morris, a light tenor who struggles with a few high notes but is strong overall. Jason Collins effectively handles the role of narrator/stage manager but his otherwise fine tenor voice is hurt by a pronounced vibrato and an often-forced upper register.

Other notable performances include bass Tom Dugdale as Dr. Gibbs, tenor Jonathan Smucker as chorus master Simon Stimson, an alcoholic contrarian, and mezzo-soprano Mary Ann Stewart, who delights as the busybody Mrs. Soames.

Most new operas are placed on a shelf and forgotten, but it seems a good bet that other opera companies will jump at the chance to stage this wonderful new take on an American classic.

May 9, 2006
Serebrier Records More Rorem Premieres
by R. Richardson

Following on the steps of his memorable recording of the Rorem three symphonies (two of them world-premiere recordings) José Serebrier gives us now the world premiere of Rorem's string orchestra masterpiece, "PILGRIMS", a gem that should attain the notoriety of Samuel Barber's famous "Adagio for Strings", and the first recording of Rorem's new Flute Concerto, recently premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Jeffrey Khaner, who is the soloist in this CD.

José Serebrier makes the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic sound full and warm in the string piece, and absolutely accurate and razor-sharp in the accompaniment of the two concertos. It's hard to imagine a better performance. Obviously the Liverpool is a first-class orchestra, but it takes a master like Serebrier to bring out all their potential. The Flute Concerto is masterfully played by Khaner, who obviously knows every nuance and every note in his heart and mind. He gives a truly spectacular, virtuoso performance. The variety of sound and colours is amazing. The work itself, a sequence of several movements in the form of a suite, is quite different in style and character from the older Violin Concerto, (which was previously recorded by Gidon Kramer and Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic).

The Violin Concerto in the Naxos CD has the advantage of the soloist, the young Russian-American Philippe Quint, who surpasses Kramer by a long shot, in articulation, musicality, even intonation. It sounds like an incredibly difficult work, but Quint manages to make it sound easy and even simple. We heard him previously in the memorable recording of the beautiful Concerto by the American composer William Schuman, with José Serebrier conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, (which perhaps was Quint's debut recording). The Rorem performance is even better sounding, which is remarkable, considering that the CD of the Schuman is truly exceptional. Quint sounds now more assured. Obviously he has known the Rorem Violin Concerto for a long time.

"Pilgrims" give the strings of the RLP the opportunity to shine under Serebrier's inspired direction. He manages to obtain a Stokowskian string tone and glow, the sort of sound quality that hasn't been heard on disc since Stokowski. The work and the performance are a delight.

All three works are quite different in character, while the Rorem style and spirit remain recognizable in each. The orchestrations are brilliant and the writing for the solo instruments obviouslly challenging, but extremely idiomatic. It's the kind of recording one wants to hear again and again.

This is one of the most rewarding recordings of new music I have ever heard.

Classics Today Review
by David Hurwitz

This is a very easy call: marvellous music, exceptional performances, top-notch engineering--it all adds up to the strongest possible recommendation. Pilgrims is a lovely, lyrical work for string orchestra that makes an attractive disc-opener, but the two concertos are the standout items. Both are written as suites of brief movements, avoiding traditional forms. They actually resemble song-cycles more than anything else, and given Rorem's acknowledged mastery of that medium, not to mention the relationship between the concerto idea and vocal music generally, it's obvious that he is in his element.

The Flute Concerto is a world premiere. It was composed in 2002 for Jeffrey Khaner, and it's an exceptionally fine piece, beautiful to listen to and (evidently) quite grateful to play. We seem to be enjoying a bonanza of fine modern flute concertos, what with this work and the numerous pieces written for Sharon Bezaly as well. At about 30 minutes, it's a substantial piece, and Rorem's orchestration is beautifully calculated to give the soloist maximum opporunity for display, without the orchestra ever sounding excessively inhibited. Best of all, the thematic material really is memorable.

The same virtues characterize the Violin Concerto (1985), which was recorded previously by Bernstein and Gidon Kremer. Frankly, Philippe Quint plays better, with more attractive tone, and Serebrier offers a very fine account of the accompaniment. Rorem's orchestral music doesn't get the same amount of attention as his songs, but like the French music that he so admires, it allies expressive directness to a keen sense of instrumental color and superior craftsmanship. As a supplement to Serebrier's superb recording of the composer's three symphonies for Naxos, this disc is a must for collectors.

The Chicago Tribune
November 10, 2003 issue
Quite the birthday party: 80-year-old Ned Rorem and his prolific works are celebrated properly

Looking like a birthday boy who's enjoying the attention, Ned Rorem bounded into Chicago, his spiritual home, over the weekend when the 14th Chicago Humanities Festival gave him an 80th birthday tribute on the festival's closing day.

A host of musical organizations near and far are honoring the prolific American composer and writer this season, and it hardly seems coincidental that new works have been flying from Rorem's fecund pen.

The humanities festival devoted two programs Sunday afternoon in Thorne Auditorium of the Northwestern Law School to his vocal and instrumental chamber music, a rich and largely unknown body of works. The CUBE Contemporary Chamber Ensemble played his '81 quintet "Winter Pages," followed by a conversation with the composer.

The festival's closing concert brought together 10 performers for a rewarding program that spanned nearly 50 years of Rorem's astonishing output, which in quantity alone makes him unique among living masters. The composer, looking boyish in a rakish silk scarf and knitted cranberry-colored socks, was not hard to spot in the large, enthusiastic audience. Too bad the printed program failed to identify several of the personnel, and the biographies were confused.

While American music of the 1950s through the '70s was dominated by the 12-tone brigade of composers whom Rorem acidly calls the "serial killers," he cultivated his own garden, ignoring the winds of modernist fashion. Now that tonality has staged a major comeback among younger composers, he must feel vindicated. The remarkable consistency of his musical language means that his works are all solidly rooted in tonality and all sound like Rorem, whether they date from 1955 (his song "Early in the Morning") or 2002 (his song cycle "Aftermath").

No living composer has produced a larger or more impressive body of songs, of which Rorem has written hundreds, many exquisite vocal gems. Even his instrumental works, he says, are songs without texts. Sunday's program contained a healthy sampling of his vocal art. Baritone Kurt Ollmann and pianist Michael Barrett, both longtime Rorem interpreters, made something special of everything they performed. Soprano Jane Jennings and mezzo Christine Antenbring were hardly less good in the exultant "Gloria" of 1970. Their voices sometimes beat against each other like angels' wings.

The program also held two very recent Rorem works, "Aftermath" and String Quartet No. 5. The song cycle spans five centuries of poems about war and death, suffering and loss, fusing them into one of the most powerfully moving pieces anybody has written in response to 9/11. Joséph Kaiser was by far the best of the three baritones I have heard perform "Aftermath," and he was strongly assisted by Stefan Hersh, violin; Tanya Tomkins, cello; and Barrett, piano.

The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 19, 2003 issue
Rorem at 80: Still making music that amazes

When a composer with a long creative history hits the age of 80, you can usually assume that the surprises are over. But in his characteristically contrary way, Ned Rorem defies all of that - how, I'm often not sure.

His Cello Concerto, premiered in March in Kansas City, Mo., is an example. Though the opening moments have the kind of escalating luminosity you'd expect from Rorem, I sit almost agape, listening to the radio recording of the concerto and how new it feels. Then, for an entire 90 seconds, the cello soloist holds a single penetrating note while the orchestra comments tentatively with a variety of colors and harmonies. Is that note some sort of last hope? An existential thorn in the side?

Asking such questions of a new concerto is a luxury we don't often have. Clearly, this isn't a composer in a state of old-age creative consolidation. That's why the Rorem retrospective that's happening all over the Philadelphia area starting Thursday - his 80th birthday - is filled with new and recent works.

His 1997 magnum-opus song cycle, Evidence of Things Not Seen, begins the two-week Roremania festival mounted by the Curtis Institute of Music - from which Rorem graduated in 1944 and where he now teaches - on Thursday. Aftermath, Rorem's response to 9/11, is Nov. 2. For two performances on Nov. 7, Curtis Opera stages Miss Julie (the first opera production in the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater). On Nov. 1, a new Rorem song, "The End," will be premiered at West Chester University. From Dec. 4 to 6, the Philadelphia Orchestra introduces Rorem's Flute Concerto with soloist Jeffrey Khaner.

Even if it were not constantly growing, the Rorem output would be impossible to get your arms around. Besides publishing numerous volumes of candid, racy diaries that have made him the object of scandal, he's also written four symphonies, four piano concertos, numerous orchestral and chamber works, nine operas, choral works of every description, ballets, and hundreds of songs.

The Associated Press Wire
October 21, 2003 issue
Curtis Institute celebrates 80th birthday of composer Ned Rorem

He's tired of the lack of recognition of contemporary classical music and the simultaneous elevation of mindless pop, he's tired that performers get the raves while composers go unrecognized, and he's tired because, well, he's turning 80.

But the man who has been called one of the greatest American composers of the last century brightens when discussing The Curtis Institute's upcoming two-week celebration of his life and work.

"It has sort of taken me pleasantly by surprise," Rorem said in an interview from his home in New York City. "It's certainly more than I expected."

The occasion of his milestone birthday has proven a fitting time for The Curtis and other institutions to take a fresh look at Rorem, a Curtis alumnus and longtime teacher, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for music and a Grammy Award, and celebrated essayist and diarist.

The "Roremania" festival begins on Rorem's birthday Thursday with a performance of his magnum opus "Evidence of Things Not Seen," a 36-song cycle based on works of 24 poets from Auden to Yeats and completed in 1998. Concerts of Rorem's choral and organ music and chamber pieces also are planned, as well as a retrospective of his art songs.

The festival concludes Nov. 7 with the Philadelphia premiere of 1965's "Miss Julie," Rorem's only full-length opera. Rarely performed in recent years, it has undergone revisions by Rorem's longtime colleague Mikael Eliasen, head of Curtis' opera and voice department and creator of "Roremania."

"What I'm hoping to do as his birthday gift is put 'Miss Julie' on the map again," Eliasen said. "Ned has a wonderful ability of accumulating great emotional strength until by the end of the piece you're hit on the head with this big, powerful stuff."

Rorem, who graduated from The Curtis Institute in 1944 and joined the faculty in 1980, said the world has become more culturally and politically ignorant during his lifetime.

"We're the first century in history in which music of the past is emphasized over music of the present, and performers are considered more important than composers," he said. "And even educated people who know about art and literature often know nothing about music."

All this makes him disheartened about the fate of the arts, as well as the world.

"In 10 years, we'll either blow ourselves up or we'll be one big, stupid, happy family with McDonald's in Afghanistan - and art as you and I know it will have ceased to exist," said Rorem, raised a Quaker but a longtime atheist.

Rorem was born on Oct. 23, 1923, in Richmond, Ind. His father, economist C. Rufus Rorem, was a co-founder of Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

He soon moved with his family to Chicago, where his introduction at age 10 by a piano teacher to the works of Debussy and Ravel proved a life-altering experience. He soon began composing his own music and went on to study at Northwestern University, Curtis and Juilliard.

Rorem won a Pulitzer in 1976 for his suite "Air Music" and The Atlanta Symphony recording of Rorem's "String Symphony," "Sunday Morning" and "Eagles" earned a Grammy in 1989. But Rorem arguably is better known for his writing, specifically his candid and racy diaries from his early years in New York and Paris.

He also garnered kudos for 1991's "Piano Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra," commissioned for pianist Gary Graffman, who lost full use of his right hand after coming down with a rare ailment.

Asked which pieces he most likes or dislikes, Rorem replied that he doesn't critique his work - he says that's for others to do - but he hopes that his compositions will persist in the musical canon.

"It's terribly important to me that I leave something (behind). I know a lot of people who say they don't care, but I do," he said. "I don't know what life means ... but I do know that art is a way to give life meaning."

The New Yorker
October 20, 2003 issue

Ned Rorem will not go away. For decades, he has been an elegant anomaly among American composers, adhering to an austerely lyrical Franco-American style that went out of fashion sometime during the Eisenhower Administration. He came of age in the nineteen-forties, when a young composer could go to Paris, dash off a bundle of unaffectedly beautiful songs, and get written up in the weeklies alongside Norman Mailer and Montgomery Clift. Rorem was among the last American artists to pull off a plausible Parisian exile, and when he came back, in 1957, he found that composers were being hailed not for the excellence of their craft but for the extravagance of their theories. Time passed, and Rorem kept writing. The high-powered modernists who dismissed him as irrelevant became irrelevant themselves. Now he is celebrating his eightieth birthday, and, just as the man himself looks twenty years younger than he is, the music is sounding peculiarly fresh. Nothing in his thousand-work catalogue radiates genius, but the career gives off a kind of accidental grandeur—accidental because Rorem has famously disavowed the grand gesture in composition.

The oddity of Rorem’s career is that ever since he made his literary début, in 1966, with “Paris Diary,” he has been known more for his writing than for his music. The writing has an insolence and a swagger that the music lacks. The spectacular self-absorption of the diaries—“A stranger asks, ‘Are you Ned Rorem?’ I answer, ‘No,’ adding, however, that I’ve heard of and would like to meet him’”—made the young Rorem famous for being famous in his mind. He was, at the same time, a pioneer of modern gay culture, speaking freely and fearlessly of his desires. The musical essays and reviews hold up better; they may not be quite as deft as those of his mentor Virgil Thomson, but they are less often egregiously wrong. (After rereading Rorem’s superb appreciations of Benjamin Britten, I turned to Thomson on “Peter Grimes”: “not a piece of any unusual flavor or distinction.”) The “Ned Rorem Reader,” a recent compilation from Yale University Press, can stand beside Berlioz’s “Memoirs,” Debussy’s “Monsieur Croche the Dilettante-Hater,” and Morton Feldman’s “Give My Regards to Eighth Street” as one of the wisest and wittiest composer books ever published.

Rorem the composer is a more reticent being. He has his heart-on-sleeve moments, but more often he speaks in shy, gentlemanly phrases. Melancholy lurks in even the brightest corners of the music—a melancholy that has surfaced more strongly in Rorem’s recent writing, in particular his diary “Lies,” which recounts the final illness of his partner, the organist and composer James Holmes. Would we pay less attention to Rorem if he did not have such a way with words? Perhaps, but it is also possible that Rorem would never have acquired a literary reputation if he had not made his name in music first. As usual, he says it best: “I am a composer who also writes, not a writer who also composes.”

Early on, Time called Rorem “the world’s best composer of art songs.” The phrase has followed him around like a faithful puppy ever since. The songs are, indeed, among the best in the contemporary canon, showing Rorem’s uncanny ability to breathe notes into words while leaving a poet’s thoughts intact. In 1997, he produced a tour de force of his text-setting art, the cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” which incorporates thirty-six poems by twenty-three poets. It takes the listener on a quietly epic journey from innocence to experience and on to solitude and extinction—essentially, the entire span of a human life. The Curtis Institute, in Philadelphia, will present the cycle on Rorem’s birthday, which falls on October 23rd; the Miller Theatre, in New York, will reprise it the following day.

The songs are a given; it’s the instrumental music that is in danger of being overlooked. In the last decade, Rorem has written three string quartets that rival any modern American efforts in the form. All are made of short movements in succession; most of Rorem’s longer instrumental pieces follow this pattern. The individual movements sound like genre studies or cast-off sketches, but they coalesce into unexpectedly gripping narratives. The Fourth Quartet, which the Emerson Quartet recently played at Zankel Hall, includes a once-in-a-lifetime movement called “Self Portrait,” in which the cello holds forth in a rambling, halting chant while the three other strings play frigid chords around it. It’s like a less innocent version of Ives’s “The Unanswered Question,” a work in which solo voices ring out against a background of unchanging, oblivious strings. Here, oblivion appears to encroach on the protagonist and eventually stamp out all embers of emotion.

Rorem’s writing for orchestra is equally impressive. He capitalizes on his reputation for understatement by saving huge sonorities for significant occasions; as a result, his rare musical outbursts seem not so much theatrical as visceral, as if they were blows sustained in real time. The thirteen-minute tone poem “Eagles” unleashes a welter of sound, but the clean, treble-heavy orchestration never thumps in place or plods along; it simply lifts off, like the birds of the title. The recent Cello Concerto nods several times to favorite predecessors—pealing, dissonant fanfares recall Messiaen; a kind of slide show of contrasting chords brings back the Interview Scene in Britten’s “Billy Budd”—but it also includes three extended songs without words which could have been composed only by Rorem, each one sadder, lonelier, kindlier than the next. There are many first-rate pieces of this kind—the Third Symphony, the Violin Concerto, “Lions,” “Sunday Morning,” the Piano Concerto in Six Movements—but it is a rare day that you hear any of them in the composer’s home town of New York.

A paradox haunts Rorem’s career. He insists that he has no interest in making “Major Statements,” yet he has always longed to be taken seriously—to have major statements made about him. He 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 benefitted 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. Rorem resembles such latter-day figurative painters as Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, who followed the onslaught of Abstract Expressionism with landscapes and still-lifes. Their deceptively conventional images conceal large, ambiguous worlds of feeling.

The recent diaries of Rorem are painful to read, not because the author is indulging the old exhibitionism but because he is exposing losses suffered by his ego. One entry shocked me: he notes that for nearly a year he heard nothing from the Beaux Arts Trio about his work “Spring Music,” which he had been commissioned to write for them. It’s one thing not to get a phone call returned—but a half-hour composition? Rorem may have a famous name, but he works down in the trenches with the thousand American composers who labor more for love than for fame, and never for money. Notably, his eightieth-birthday celebrations are unfolding not at Lincoln Center but at smaller venues like the Miller Theatre, Merkin Hall, and the 92nd Street Y and at music-loving churches such as St. Thomas and St. John the Baptist. (Likewise, Rorem’s music has tended to thrive on independent labels; among the best current releases are “Bright Music” and the three symphonies, on Naxos; “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” on New World; “Eagles,” on Albany; and “War Scenes,” on Phoenix.) If Rorem has been frozen out of the pretentious marketplace of neue Musik, he has the satisfaction of seeing his music prosper in communities for which it fills an immediate need. He is following Britten’s great injunction: “Our job is to be useful, and to the living.”

To read Rorem’s writing is to feel the agony and the bravery of composing in America. Anyone who writes music for a living is a hero, and Rorem is more heroic than most, because he has compromised so little of what he holds dear. His prose will outlast the sneering of his critics, and his music is too mysteriously sweet to die away. To him should go the final word: “The frustration of being nonexistent keeps us awake

His Masterpiece May Be Himself, Remade as Fiction
The New York Times
Published: October 26, 2003

by Johanna Keller

Ned, photographed in 1973 by Jack Manning for the New York TimesEzra Pound, Paul Bowles and Gerard Manley Hopkins are among the few writers who have also been known as composers. The composers Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann were also fluent prose writers. But arguably no one has been as acclaimed in both endeavors as Ned Rorem, whose 80th birthday, last Thursday, is being celebrated in numerous concerts around New York and elsewhere. Mr. Rorem's 17 books include 6 tell-all diaries, a memoir and collections of essays. He has composed some 500 songs, 3 symphonies, concertos and chamber works.

Johanna Keller, a visiting professor of journalism at Syracuse University, met recently with four of Mr. Rorem's literary and musical colleagues at the office of The New York Times to discuss his place in the worlds of American music and letters. Phyllis Curtin, a soprano, met Mr. Rorem in 1946, when they were students at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., and she sang premieres of many of his songs. Edmund White, a novelist, wrote the preface to "Lies," Mr. Rorem's most recent diary, published in 2000. J. D. McClatchy (known to friends as Sandy), a poet and the editor of The Yale Review, is writing a libretto for a new Rorem opera based on Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." And Daron Hagen, a composer, was one of Mr. Rorem's first students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, in 1981.

JOHANNA KELLER Songs are at the center of Ned Rorem's work, and he has often said that if he didn't have to write music for money, he would write only songs. Nevertheless, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his orchestral suite "Air Music," and he has composed four symphonies, numerous concertos and chamber works. Where do the instrumental works fit in?

PHYLLIS CURTIN To me, even the instrumental works seem to follow a text, as if something of what makes him write in a literary manner is there.

EDMUND WHITE I was listening to a recording of the symphonies and found them beautifully orchestrated. But it sounded like movie music. I didn't like it very much at first. It seemed episodic in a way that when you listen to a ballet score, you think, "Oh, yeah, that's where Petrouchka re-enters."

DARON HAGEN Well, I served as Ned's copyist for five or six years after I left his studio, and I got to know the pieces internally by copying the parts. This year he has two large works coming out, a cello concerto and a flute concerto. Structurally, both have a kind of extended fascination with cells, juxtaposed in an almost Calderian way. It's similar to the way he crafts those wonderful sentences.

J. D. McCLATCHY I disagree about the symphonies. I really like them. They are like music of the 50's, admittedly with a period sound to them. Maybe because I'm a writer, I pay more attention to song texts than I should. But when it's nonvocal, I can listen to the music and find myself . . .

WHITE Swept away.

McCLATCHY Absolutely. When Ned's writing without words, there's a sense of freedom that's not so confined to the emotional argument of a particular poem.

KELLER Sandy, you're embarking on an opera project, writing a libretto on "Our Town."

McCLATCHY This is the first time that the estate has allowed the play to be used for an opera. In fact, Thornton Wilder himself refused Aaron Copland's request to make an opera out of it, which seems in retrospect a grievous loss. I think Ned is the ideal person to undertake this music, not least because I see him in the tradition of Copland.

KELLER There are composers and writers gifted in the lyric and not the dramatic. Does that apply to Ned's other seven operas? "Miss Julie" never seemed to find its place.

HAGEN Six of the seven are chamber operas, and they do get performed a lot according to his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. The problem is that in the opera world there's a virgin complex. Once a piece is out there, it's very hard to convince companies to do revivals, even if you're Ned Rorem. The first production of "Miss Julie" met with mixed reviews. That can just kill you for years. But opera is long.

KELLER Ned survived tonality's dark age, particularly those decades, from the 50's through the 80's, characterized by the hegemony of the "serial killers," as Ned calls them. Now that there has been an undeniable return to tonal music, is he vindicated?

HAGEN During my lessons with him 20 years ago and in lessons with other pupils I overheard, he never spoke about tonality or serialism as something you should do or not do. I was always profoundly respectful of the fact that Ned never changed what he did. The music that he wrote when he was a kid was just like the music he's writing now. Only now it's better.

CURTIN Fads come and go. Ned has simply cultivated his garden all these years. This was my 40th year at Tanglewood, and it was fascinating to see that serialism and 12-tone music � all that was very exciting once, but much of it has gone away. KELLER As a prose writer, Ned had a succ�s de scandale in 1966 with the publication of "The Paris Diary." In it, he recounted eight years as the adored Adonis of 1950's Parisian salons. The book sent shock waves through the world of letters, although Ned considered the uproar more on account of his narcissism than his libertine sexuality. Have his diaries had an enduring influence in gay literature?

WHITE It was certainly a very self-dramatizing kind of writing. It's unusual to have the thoughts of a beautiful person, because most of them are just happy to be beautiful, and they don't have to bother with writing. As to their continuing influence, so much is dependent on the vagaries of publishing. But they go on.

McCLATCHY In the age of Oprah Winfrey, everybody confesses. Whereas when "The Paris Diary" appeared, that kind of intimate and sometimes salacious self-revelation was rare.

KELLER Ned has written that "the hero of my diaries is a fictional man." And Edmund, you've observed that Rorem is "an open book but a closed life."

WHITE In fact, we know nothing about Ned's thoughts or his experiences.

McCLATCHY Ned Rorem is, quote, a character, unquote, in his own diaries. He's created a character whom he continues to write about the way Byron did.

KELLER So we come to the subject of Ned's complicated character: acerbic, narcissistic, vulnerable, charming and completely candid � or is that pretense? The last diary, ironically titled "Lies," was for me his most revealing memoir by far. Brutally forthright, he wrote about the slow decline and death from AIDS of his partner, James Holmes.

WHITE The most terrible thing about AIDS is that it destroys the relationship, no matter how loving, between the two partners and eats away at the character of the person who's dying. Nobody has AIDS and is noble. That's why all these melodramatic, kitschy plays about AIDS are such lies. Ned told the truth. Maybe the diary is the best form for talking about AIDS, because it shows the quotidian pain, the shifts, the struggles, the reconciliations, the hopes, the dashed hopes. Everything is there.

McCLATCHY That's the only time Ned was really himself with others. He was so vulnerable, so stricken, so quiet, even, in his own way. It was the first time he seemed like someone I hadn't read about already.

KELLER The same period of loss also brought about an equally brilliant work, the evening-long song cycle "Evidence of Things Not Seen." Ned seemed to reveal a more profound seriousness beneath the glittering surface of his charm, his wit.

McCLATCHY Everything he wrote after Jim's death � the music and the texts � well, there was something changed about him that confronted him with a sense of vulnerability and mortality. Perhaps he'd been hiding before under all of this bravado or acerbity. Some of that veneer has been stripped off.

HAGEN I see him fairly frequently. The person that I saw the night that Jim passed away was very private, quiet, shy, intelligent, highly self-protective. It has been a worthy project to spend an entire life putting out a strong offense as the best defense � that is to say, in works of art, the creation of an enormous identity through the serial publishing of the diaries.

KELLER It has often occurred to me that the diaries are a kind of inoculation against discovery by others. The diaries, perhaps, are a kind of armor that, by revealing the self, actually protects the self.

CURTIN There is one word that comes to my mind about Ned, which is "shy."

WHITE He has a hard time meeting your eye. He's always trying to live up to a certain high level of intellectual discourse, of constant paradox, of nonacademic intellectuality, as though he's playing to an audience that no longer exists, of people like Jean Cocteau and Marie-Laure de Noailles. That's as powerful a motor in his personality as his desire to inoculate criticism by anticipating it.

CURTIN This summer we had an all-Ned concert at Tanglewood. Someone told him to come onstage afterward through a door in the lobby. Well, the music ended, the applause began, and Ned raced down the aisle, jumped up on a chair in the front row and leapt up onto the stage. I mean leapt.

McCLATCHY He likes celebrity. He would like the idea of people sitting around a table talking about him. But for all his concern with an image of himself in the world, what's most remarkable is that he's kept at what you'd call the inner task. Often in the rush of celebrity, artists fritter away their talent by losing themselves in the world. But he's always made a space around him in which he can get his work done. Few people have worked as hard.

HAGEN About 10 years ago I wrote Ned a letter from Yaddo that described a doomed love affair, writer's block, gossip and all sorts of nonsense. I got this beautiful little postcard back just saying: "Dear Daron: Colette said no one expects you to be happy. Just get your work done. Love, Ned." I put it up in my studio, and I got back to work.

CURTIN That says Ned, doesn't it?

KELLER Early on Ned wrote, "The most discouraging thing I can conceive of is that people should say on hearing of my death, `It's too bad he didn't leave a masterpiece to make his disappearance a tragedy instead of a farce.' " So what's the Rorem masterpiece?

HAGEN I don't think it's fair to say. The ennobling thing about Ned is that he can't get to sleep at night and can't wait to get up in the morning because today might be the day he writes the masterpiece. As depressed as he professes he is, he constantly creates things.

WHITE His masterpiece is his artistic personality. He's an extremely acute observer and a master of paradox, which is very French. He was able to import French culture while remaining a thoroughly American figure. In an era of dumbing-down and slipping standards, he really does stand for something.

McCLATCHY I agree with you, except that after an author's death, that personality fades and the achievement lasts.

HAGEN Ned is all about leaving the documents. He's acutely aware that what's left of us as oral history will burn away in a trice.

WHITE Some people are born old and others stay young. Ned's always been our young man. The idea of his being 80 is preposterous, but it doesn't deny the fact that, as Phyllis said, he's still leaping up onto the stage.

Composing His Thoughts
Rorem on aging, atheism and 'serial killers'
First published: September 10, 2003
The San Francisco Chronicle

Composer Ned Rorem turns 80 this year, and although he admits to feeling the effects of old age, he continues to write prolifically -- both music and prose -- and to offer his trenchant observations of the musical, cultural and political scene.

This week, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony will celebrate his birthday with performances of "Sunday Morning," an eight- movement orchestral work premiered in 1978 under Eugene Ormandy. For the occasion, The Chronicle invited Bay Area composer Charles Amirkhanian, the executive director of the Other Minds Festival, to talk with Rorem about "Sunday Morning," his own music and that of his contemporaries, landmark birthdays and much more. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Charles Amirkhanian: If you had been programming this event, would you have chosen a different piece than "Sunday Morning"?

Ned Rorem: I do think it's a good piece, and it hasn't been done much. As far as I know Michael has never performed anything by me before. I don't know how he got hold of it.

Amirkhanian: It's based on a Wallace Stevens poem. Tell me about that.

Rorem: I don't think that nonvocal music can be proved to have any meaning whatsoever. It means whatever the composer tells you in words that it means. All the other arts have concrete meanings -- they mean "cat" or "dog" or "Guernica" or something -- but music doesn't. But I like to have a framework that is coherent, and so I used the eight stanzas of Wallace Stevens' poem called "Sunday Morning." Each movement has a title that is drawn from those stanzas.

Amirkhanian: The poem is about an unnamed woman who becomes involved in the question of religion. She's not in church on Sunday morning, and it goes from there.

Rorem: Is that what it's about? I don't remember that at all. I don't remember that I read any analyses of Wallace Stevens. I've set quite a few of his poems to music -- I'll never do it again -- but I did it at a certain period. But it never occurred to me to analyze the poem or what it meant. Even if I did, I don't remember anything about an unknown woman.

Amirkhanian: You took the skeleton of this structure and transferred it into music. That's a very interesting idea.

Rorem: I've done that many times before. I did it with a poem called "Eagles" of Walt Whitman. I took every single line of Whitman's 18-line poem and emulated those lines in music. It's about two eagles mating in midair.

Amirkhanian: In this piece, there's a descending pattern that comes over and over again in different forms in each movement. I gather that this is a device that keeps the audience involved from beginning to end.

Rorem: I love it when people talk about my music and I hate it when they don't, but I never know quite what they're talking about. When people analyze my music in a formal way -- not by what it means in a Wallace Stevens-ish way but by what it is made of in a technical way -- I say to myself, "Oh gee, did I do that? I guess I did."

I never really talk about how I make a piece, and once it's done I go on to the next piece and I can't remember at all what I did. So I'm always pleased when somebody else sits down with a pencil and paper and analyzes it. Sometimes, with students or in a class, I'll talk about the construction of a piece, but not really very much of my own.

Amirkhanian: Do you enjoy teaching?

Rorem: Less and less. This will be my last year at the Curtis Institute. I'm just too old for it. It takes an awful lot out of me. I think I'm pretty good at it, but the older I get the less I know what it means to teach a so- called creative art. All you can do is look at a finished piece by a composer and tell them what's wrong with it. I can't make them compose out of scratch.

Amirkhanian: What do you think the predicament is for composers now, financially, if there's no government funding and fewer commissions?

Rorem: Things couldn't be worse for composers, and they're getting even worse by the minute. Nobody in America, and by extension in the world, knows what a composer is, period. Even cultivated educated people in America who might know all about literature old and new like Dante and Philip Roth, and they might know all about painting old and new from Michelangelo to Jackson Pollock, but even if they know Vivaldi if you say music they assume you're talking about rock music or pop music. And people like me and my brothers and sisters aren't even a despised minority, because for something to be despised it has to exist.

We're also the only century in history in which the past is more important than the present in music. Everything being done at Lincoln Center now is the same old thing -- Beethoven, Bach, Brahms -- not even Debussy or French music. The big stars now are performers. Itzhak Perlman, who lives across the street from me, makes in one night what I make in a year. Music now is the interpretation of standard classics, not the creation of new works. I think music is in a very very bad way.

Amirkhanian: Do you have any thoughts about the complicated guys? Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter and so on?

Rorem: The serial killers, I call them. They're a little out of fashion nowadays, and they don't scare the young people any more because young people don't think about them much. I never joined their forces the way some did, because I was too lazy to pretend to be something I wasn't.

Amirkhanian: One composer who went off in a different direction, especially with intonation, was Lou Harrison. I notice you've never done experiments with intonation. Why not?

Rorem: I'm not interested in it, and I never quite knew why Lou was. Because Lou wrote diatonic, straightforward, tuneful, lovely, emotional music, and yet he was always so interested in just intonation, and 14-note scales and 25-note scales. I like to write music, I don't like to concoct things according to a system. Lou was very important in my life, and he was older than I. He taught me the whole 12-tone rigmarole in about 45 minutes, which is all you need. But when he talked about just intonation, my mind would start to wander.

Amirkhanian: Other than being tired, what does turning 80 mean?

Rorem: It's what happens to other people but not to oneself. But I'd rather get a lot of performances and publicity and be depressed than not. Now that I'm closer than I was a year ago to the unknown, I'm very much an atheist and more so every day.

I think we've invented God to give some sort of meaning to life because life doesn't have any meaning. We've certainly invented money for that and we've invented art for that. It helps us kill time before time kills us. I'm not in despair, but I'm melancholy most of the time. But if I died today I'm not ashamed of what I've created.

The New York Times
February 26, 2006
Anne Midgette

Voices Raised in Song at Grover's Corners

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Feb. 25 - Aaron Copland wanted to make it an opera. So did Leonard Bernstein. But Thornton Wilder, the author of "Our Town," turned both composers down. Now, 68 years after it was written and 30 years after Wilder's death, the play has made it to the opera stage. "Our Town," with music by Ned Rorem and a libretto by J. D. McClatchy, received its premiere here on Friday evening by the Indiana University Opera Theater, one of six commissioners of this opera.
Mr. Rorem, 82, is in his own way an American master, and certainly a specialist in vocal music, with more than 500 songs; but he has written only one other evening-length opera, "Miss Julie," in 1965. The impetus for "Our Town" came from Mr. McClatchy, a friend of Tappan Wilder, the playwright's nephew and literary executor.

In remarks before the premiere, Mr. Wilder explained the Wilder estate's decision to go against the playwright's wishes: in effect, he suggested, the play is so well established that it can sustain all kinds of interpretations. Indeed, there had been talk of a Broadway musical, but Mr. McClatchy convinced Mr. Wilder that opera would make a better fit. Then he persuaded Mr. Rorem to write it.

The question remained whether Mr. Rorem was a good fit. He was, it turns out, and not only because he wrote an intimate chamber opera to match the play's spareness. "Our Town" opens with a hymn, and Mr. Rorem retained and refracted the familiar melody, turning pat modulations slightly bitter, as if the music were heard through a lens of nostalgia that turned it sepia. This nostalgia proved a hallmark of the score.

Sepia is a rich color: the music often sounded warm and burnished. Since Mr. Rorem divides the world into the ostensibly opposing categories of French and German, and puts himself in the French camp, it was startling to find so many Germanic elements in this score, with its use of motifs and even brief flickers of Straussian gesture to fit the play's underlying romanticism. Deftly matching the character of the play, Mr. Rorem's music is accessible, singable and full of integrity.

"Our Town," you may recall, is about life and love and death in Grover's Corners, N.H., early in the 20th century: boy (George Gibbs) meets girl next door (Emily Webb) amid white picket fences and the drugstore soda counter. Mr. McClatchy, while keeping most of the play's highlights, has distractingly sprinkled some rhyme over Wilder's deliberately plain words, swinging a piece balanced on the knife-edge between universality and sentimentality perilously toward kitsch.

The inherent problem with inserting music into a work that aims at plainness is epitomized by the Stage Manager, the play's ubiquitous narrator and the opera's most problematic role. In the play, this down-to-earth figure breaks down the "fourth wall" between actors and audience; but as an opera singer, he becomes just another performer onstage. What's more, many of the prosy parts of his narration are too long to sing. (In this production, by Vincent J. Liotta, some of the facts and figures he offers about the town are projected on the back wall of the set.) So he is left singing only the more poetic bits, which sound purple out of context.

In keeping with the small-town nature of the play, the opera's first performances are being presented by smaller companies and students around the country. If the cast members here were not uniformly strong, their youth and eagerness helped convey the play's spirit. Particularly noteworthy were Kevin Murphy as Dr. Gibbs, Jamie Barton as Mrs. Soames and Juliet Gilchrist as Mrs. Webb. Anna Steenerson, a light soprano, had nice success as Emily; Marc Schapman was an eager, boyish George. Eric McCluskey was not quite a match for the role of the Stage Manager. David Effron conducted the school's Philharmonic Orchestra.

Some new operas aspire to greatness. The creators of "Our Town" seem to have aspired to write an opera people would like, and they may have succeeded.
80 years young
Composer Ned Rorem has prolific plans for his ninth decade
By JoséPH DALTON, Staff Writer
First published: Sunday, August 24, 2003
The Albany Times Union

Ned Rorem, author and composer. SARATOGA SPRINGS -- The increasing longevity of humans has advantages for composers. Because the music world gets obsessed with birthdays and anniversaries, composers who make it to age 70 and beyond can expect tribute concerts at least every five years, and heightened attention to their music in general. Performers and audiences are led to think, "There's a living master in our midst -- we best pay attention."

Two who fit that bill are Elliott Carter, 95, and Milton Babbitt, 87, both of whom still compose and attend concerts of their music. But before either Carter or Babbitt became senior citizens, they were already old men in a certain sense: Their complex music epitomized the intellectual rigor and ivory-tower mentality that gave contemporary music its bad name.

Their foil has been the eternally nimble and youthful presence of Ned Rorem. Long before the return of Romanticism, Rorem steadfastly wrote in a tonal and accessible style. He's best known for success with the humble medium of the art song, and along the way has been a dry and insightful commentator on music and life.

It seems impossible, but Rorem is on the verge of also becoming a grand old man. He turns 80 on Oct. 23.

"He's supposed to be old," says David Alan Miller, music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, who conducted Rorem's Double Concerto for violin and cello in February. "But whenever I talk to him he seems fresh, vigorous and full of new ideas."

In residence for the month of August at Yaddo, the artist colony in Saratoga Springs, Rorem continues to focus on what is in front of him, which is always music. He's at work on a percussion concerto and looking ahead to new projects that will carry him well into his next decade, including his first full-length opera.


In a late-afternoon discussion, Rorem is relaxed and typically witty.

"To become 80 is what your grandparents do, and I really can't believe it," he says. "If I died right now, I'm not ashamed of what I'd leave in the way of books and music."

Fifteen books, some 300 art songs and dozens of orchestral, chamber and choral works is indeed an accomplishment, maybe even enough to allow the creator to take a break. But Rorem remains productive. And rather than drift off toward unknown realms, he continues to write what will bring in income.

"I haven't written anything not on commission for 40 years," he says. "I'd rather get paid than not get paid. It wouldn't occur to me to sit down and right a song cycle. If I wanted to write a song cycle, I'd get someone to commission it."

Rorem's current project, a Percussion Concerto commissioned by the British soloist Evelyn Glennie, is a stark example his workmanlike approach to composition. He is writing the piece despite a marked indifference to percussion.

"I'm morally opposed to percussion," he says. It's one of a repertoire of phrases that Rorem likes to throw about as much for shock value as anything else.

"In contemporary music, there's almost no music that doesn't sound better if you just leave (percussion) out," he says. "It's always doubling -- at the climax you don't need the cymbal crash."

Rorem's solution is a piece in seven movements, each focusing on a pitched percussion instrument, including marimba, glockenspiel and chimes. "In other words I'm writing music," he says, "instead of noise."

All this begs the question, why is he writing it at all?

"Money, and it seemed like a good thing to do," he says. "There's no such thing as an illegitimate format. Percussion is perfectly legitimate format, though I don't happen to dig it."

The lonely composer

"All my friends are dead," says Rorem. It may be another of his provocative overstatements, but his confession to loneliness is understandable.

In 1999, Rorem's companion of 32 years, James Holmes, died after a long battle with AIDS-related illnesses. Rorem chronicled Holmes' long decline and his own wrestling with mortality, as well as more day to day foibles, in "Lies: A Diary 1986-1999." Released in 2000, it is Rorem's sixth published diary and probably his most poignant.

"In many practical ways he held my life together," says Rorem of Holmes, whom he referred to as "JH" through his decades of recording their lives together in diaries. "He did the taxes, he ran the show."

A niece has taken up the logistical chores of Rorem's life, including managing finances and the like. And a year ago this month, during another residency at Yaddo, Rorem began a relationship with a man nearly 40 years his junior. His new companion still maintains his work and residence in the Capital Region but regularly visits Rorem at his homes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Nantucket, Mass.

"I told him I may be older," says Rorem, "but I think of myself as about 11 years old, and I expect to be treated that way."


When Rorem says, "The older I get, the simpler I get," the line seems supported by the economy and clarity of his current music and the general simplicity of his life. But it is betrayed by Rorem's embarking on the largest work of his career, a new opera based on Thorton Wilder's classic play "Our Town."

"We got the rights to it, which people have been trying to do for 50 years," says Rorem.

His librettist and creative partner is the poet and editor J.T. McClatchy, who was instrumental in securing permission for the adaptation. The piece is being commissioned by a group of companies, led by Indiana University.

McClatchy, an old friend of Rorem's and an executor of the Wilder estate, is editor of The Yale Review. He has previously written librettos for operas by Tobias Picker, Bruce Saylor and Francis Thorne.

"The time has sort of come" for the opera version of "Our Town," Rorem says. "It's too good to turn down. Most people think it's a good idea. Those who don't, think it's dangerous because it's famous." The pair's work on "Our Town" will take three years.

In the meantime, Rorem and his music are being celebrated in concerts across the country. During the last weeks of October, there will be veritable Rorem festivals in New York and Philadelphia, where he is on the faculty of the Curtis Institute. Among the highlights, the Philadelphia Orchestra will premiere his new Flute Concerto, and the New York Festival of Song will reprise his magnum song cycle, "Evidence of Things Not Seen."

"Everyone wants me to go to everything," says Rorem. "I can't, and I just hate the word 'hotel.'

He remains focused on new works and has a few other commissions on his list before embarking on "Our Town." Rorem doesn't admit that work keeps him young, although that seems to be the case.

Four years ago, when he was elected president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters -- an elite group of leading artists, composers, writers and architects -- he posited a theory of the artist that is his response to growing old: "If an artist stops being a child, he stops being an artist."

Disc captures essence of Rorem


"Rorem: Three Symphonies." Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (Naxos) "John Harbison says that whenever he sees Ned Rorem, he tells him 'Your orchestra pieces are your best pieces,' " says David Alan Miller, music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, recounting conversations he's had with composer Harbison. "Each one is so original. He always sets out to do something different."

Although Rorem is best known for his songs, his 1976 Pulitzer Prize was for an orchestral piece, "Air Music."

Of his symphonic works, which total about 18, only three are numbered symphonies, and they all date from the 1950s. They've just been issued together on disc for the first time, with José Serebrier conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The beautifully recorded performances make a convincing case for the neglected works.

Rorem's gracious writing here puts him in the mainstream of the American tonalist school, which patrons of the Albany Symphony have come to know so well. But his symphonies are a little more fiery, even funkier, than say Harris or Creston, but not so obvious as Morton Gould. And Rorem's orchestrations are a little weightier than in some of his more recent efforts, such as the Double Concerto heard last winter in ASO concerts in Saratoga and Albany. There's even judicious use of percussion, which Rorem now disavows.

Of particularly striking beauty is the opening movement of Symphony No. 2, which begins with a remarkably long but varied melody, primarily in the strings. At more than 15 minutes in length it is one of Rorem's longest continuous orchestral statements.

"Symphony is whatever you call it," says Rorem. "A symphony of Mahler is not the same as a symphony of Bach or Hadyn. A layperson is always impressed by the word 'symphony' even if they've never heard one. ... I did (another) piece called Symphony for Strings for Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I should have called it Symphony No. 4. That would be about 1983. ... I would probably never write another piece called symphony."

That's too bad for collectors, but it's good that we have Rorem's three in such a fine new disc.

"I consider Ned Rorem one of the two greatest American composers of our time."
-Julius Katchen, Le Courier du Moroc

Settling into this Ned Rorem Reader as into an armchair, you have now the chance to listen in on an extraordinary conversation about music and life, a conversation that he�s been having with himself for half a century, one that remains as effervescent and astonishing as it was when it all started.
-J. D. McClatchy

Rorem commands a peculiarly arresting style that makes for engrossing reading. A Rorem Reader is seriously overdue.
-Gary Schmidgall, author of Walt Whitman: A Gay Life

One of the great diarists of our language ... [they] delight, amuse, and enlarge our understanding of music and of life.
-- The Boston Globe

Thanks to his eloquence and intellectual gallantry, Rorem is one of those rare critics with whom it is both enjoyable and instructive to disagree.
-- Tim Page, The Washington Post

A sober and telling account, one well worth reading.
-- Seattle Post-Intelligencer

In every phrase, in each entry, his work replies that ..., to live is to love.
-- Gramophone , December, 2000

It's a hypnotically readable narrative, which mellows closer to pathos as it advances into old age.
-- Peter Davison, The Atlantic Monthly, December, 2000

These death-haunted, life-affirming pages are both agonizing and inspiring to read.
-- Richard Dyer, Boston Globe

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