Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Themes and Variations

I hate themed recitals.  To me, the singer is saying that he doesn't feel like the music can stand on its own.  Now, a lot of people don't agree with me, and honestly, that's okay.  Differences like that keep our business vibrant.  After reading that, you might look at the title of this blog and think, "Well, gee, this is a blog about a themed recital."  True, to a point.  It was a challenge I thought a lot about, however, the poetry won out in the end.

The first performance of this recital is doing double duty as my graduate recital at the University of Tennessee.  I started a masters at UT back in 2001 and left Knoxville in 2004 without finishing the degree.  After I moved back to the area, I took a look at what credits I was lacking and decided to get in touch with the university to see if I could finish.  Long story short, I was re-admitted.  I had already been looking at music for a recital program and that research turned into research for my grad recital.

Academic recitals have a stigma of being somewhat staid in their set-up with the requisite groups in each of the main languages and the obligatory  Baroque/early Classical piece at the beginning.  Avoiding that prescription was priority number one; I wanted a program that would translate to the professional concert platform which meant it had to be interesting for the audience.  To achieve this goal, I decided to build a program around the song literature of one language and/or one poet.

As I was doing some listening, I ran across Thomas Hampson's CD of songs set to Whitman's poetry and was moved by both the poetry and most of the settings.  It was then that I decided I would build a program around Whitman's work, with this CD serving as the basis for my research.

The original plan was to lay out the different sets of the program to mirror the layout of the final edition of Leaves of Grass (LOG).  That presented a couple of problems.  First, the program was beginning to turn into a Ned Rorem program.  As much as I enjoy Rorem's music, a whole program of his Whitman settings would not be an interesting evening for me or the audience.  Second, not all of the groups in LOG had a poem that had been set to music.  While I did want to commission one or two pieces for this recital, I would have had to commission many more to fill out a program.  Finally, Drum Taps, Children of Adam, Calamus and the poems written about the end of life had much more material than the other sections making it a rather uneven program that looked like a reach in terms of making the idea for the set-up work. It began to feel like I was fitting the repertoire to the framework rather than the other way around.

So, I went back to square one.  I knew I wanted to do a Whitman program, I wanted it to have some sort of structure, and I had two pieces that I absolutely wanted on the program: Rorem's War Scenes and William Neidlinger's "Memories of Lincoln".  A few years ago I had performed Vaughan Williams's Dona nobis pacem.  The poem that begins that piece is Whitman's "Reconciliation".  Several years before that I had become acquainted with a piece by Richard Danielpour called American Requiem, which includes a haunting setting of the poem "Vigil".  Apparently, the Drum Taps poems were resonating with me.  In addition to this, I was drawn to Whitman's writing about male love, be it overtly homosexual or simply about male comradery in the middle nineteenth-century.  This is how I came to the decision to divide the program in two with the first half showcasing the war poetry and the second half focusing on poems of friendship and love.  With this set-up, I realized I was also able to make a small statement about two culturally relevant issues of the day: the cost of war and gay rights.

With the repertoire I've chosen, I think I've achieved a pleasing balance (to me, at least) between showcasing wonderful, interesting songs that stand on their own and a program fit around a theme, something that doesn't sit well with me.  There is a definite frame in place, obviously.  However, I feel like it is something that's dictated by the repertoire rather than repertoire chosen to fit the theme.  It will definitely be a challenging project for me, and I believe that will translate into an interesting and challenging evening for the audience as well.  In my opinion, that's a win-win!  What do you think?


  1. The recital certainly has interesting possibilities. I happen to be a fan of so-called "theme" recitals. I like being able to fit disparate repertoire together in a way that is logical to the audience. Sometimes the "theme" is simply an access point. I am looking forward to reading about your journey!

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