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Hyphenated-Americans

In late 2017, Michael and I were busy trying to finalize the 2018–2019 NYFOS season. We had settled on the W. C. Handy project, and we were thinking about celebrating a famous poet on a later evening. (That poet turned out to be García Lorca, featured in our April 24 program.) But the third show remained a mystery. Then I heard the December NYFOS Next concert down at Elebash Hall. That program was devoted to Leonard Bernstein and other composers who had been influenced by him, and it included Daniel Sabzghabaei’s At the Door. I was transfixed by Daniel’s music, filled with the fascinating sonorities in the piano—including the visual frisson of seeing the piano lid raised all the way to 90 degrees, functioning as the barrier between the lovers—and an imaginative, daring use of the human voice. I told Michael, “We have got to bring that music to our mainstage series. Everyone needs to hear Daniel’s—what is it, a cantata?” At first we thought of pairing At the Door with other stories of thwarted lovers, picking up on the work’s story. But we saw a more interesting possibility, something to address our current national quandary about welcoming people of other nationalities into our country. Daniel is Persian-American, and At the Door is set to a poem in Farsi. NYFOS has ventured far afield in its 31-year history—a couple of years ago we did a song in Zulu. But it was time to open our borders even further, and Daniel Sabzghabaei proved to be our passport.

The debate on immigration to America was in the headlines when we first discussed tonight’s program and, as we predicted, the debate has continued with full-blown xenophobia on the extreme right, and conciliatory entry quotas on the other side. America was once proud to be a melting pot. Suddenly we are being told that the national food is to be Wonder Bread. To shed some light on the issue, we decided to celebrate a group of new American citizens and first-generation composers who work and reside in the U.S. Our roster includes professors at distinguished universities and award-winning performers: Brazilian-American, Chinese-American, Persian-American, and Puerto Rican (culturally hyphenated, if not technically). All of them are active in the ongoing development of our nation’s music, character, and ethos. Their musical voices span two generations, and draw deeply from their varied geographic and cultural origins. Tonight we are proud to celebrate their work as we revel in the new sonorities and rhythms they bring to American music. We look forward, with some hope, to a day when artists from everywhere might have the freedom to work wherever they like, and be welcomed with open arms in America.
—Steven Blier, with Michael Barrett


Elementos (Elements) (2010)
Music by Clarice Assad / Text by Daniel Basilio

All the songs in ELEMENTOS were born out of some kind of personal pain: pain that turns into introspection or fuel for change, heartbreak giving way to happiness, or heartache forcing us to make life-decisions. Written between 1998 and 2010 and conceived with an operatic female voice in mind (though I had never met an opera singer when I sketched the first tune), they were just a way of coping with life. I left them in a drawer along with many other pieces, but I was thankful I’d saved them when I met lyricist Daniel Basilio. Basilio, inspired by the stories, wrote words to draw the connections between human emotions and the four elements: earth, fire, water and air.

They do not appear in chronological order. I began humming “Esconderijo,” the finale one day, when I was about 20 years old, when things felt just right after a long dark period. At 26, I wrote “Maré de Água Viva,” the water movement, a painful realization that life was made up of permanent change. “Flor de Lã” and “Fogaréu” I wrote at 32, during a confusing time of loss and fear. Writing the music eventually set things into motion, forcing an imaginary bridge-burning after a wounding experience.

In 2016, the San Antonio-based SOLI ensemble commissioned a chamber version of this piece and invited me to perform with them. It was a great experience and began a beautiful collaboration between us. But tonight— so many years later—will be the first time these songs come to life the way I had first imagined them—for mezzo-soprano and piano.
—Clarice Assad


Three Chinese Love Songs (1988)
Traditional Chinese Folk Poetry / Translation to English by Bright Sheng

Three Chinese Love Songs was requested by Seiji Ozawa as one of the commissioned works for the celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 77th birthday at Tanglewood in August 1988. Prior to this, I had just finished a large orchestral work for the New York Chamber Symphony entitled H’un (Lacerations):  In Memorium 1966–1976, a work about the “Cultural Revolution” in China. I composed H’un around the interval of the minor second instead of using any kind of melody or tune. Since it is about a tragic period in China, the work sounded harsh and dissonant, creating the drama and expressiveness I wished to evoke.

At the same time, the inevitable call for the search of tonality in my writing, though not necessarily in the sense of triads, was increasing daily. I needed to write something quite different. The Tanglewood commission was an opportunity that enabled me to fulfill this need and to explore other compositional ideas. Setting Chinese folk songs seemed natural and appropriate.

Three Chinese Love Songs was premiered on August 26th, 1988, on a program entitled “Tributes in Song to Leonard Bernstein” at Tanglewood. The performers were Lisa Saffer, soprano, Barton Fine, viola, and Yehudi Wyner, piano.
—Bright Sheng


At The Door (2017)

This setting of Rumi’s Ghazal 436 is an intimate scene for high voice, medium voice, and piano which focuses on the bond between the the Lover and the Belovéd; a tenant which pervades not only much of Rumi’s output, but many of his Sufi contemporaries and is a focal point of Sufism as a whole. In this mystical sect of Islam, the relationship between the Lover and the Belovéd is a deep and extremely personal one for each of us. We, as the Lover, all desire oneness with the Belovéd yet are consistently unable to achieve this true unison of body, spirit, consciousness, psyche, and self. The Belovéd takes on different meanings for each of us; however, what remains consistent is the desire for oneness with that which is unattainable; the Belovéd is the amalgamation of intimacy. In this scene, these two figures converse separated by a door, the Lover requesting entry to the Belovéd’s abode, and the Belovéd questioning the Lovers intentions. While the two consistently come very close to each other, a true unification is never achieved, only brief spurts of fleeting sensuality and passionate intimacy abound, the ever present Door separating the two incessantly, the oneness constantly fleeting into the ether.
—Daniel Reza Sabzghabaei


33 Suenos (33 Dreams) (2018) American Premiere
Music by Roberto Sierra (b. 1953)
Poetry by Juan Carlos Garvayo / Translation to English by D. P. Snyder

During one of my visits to Spain, Juan Carlos Garvayo, my friend and collaborator of many years, handed me a book titled 33 Sueños with his name inscribed as the poet. For over two decades, he has premiered and performed many of my works but I had no idea he wrote poetry. I took the volume back with me to the USA, and once I had the chance to glance through it, I immediately decided to set all the poems for baritone and piano. Juan Carlos’ poetry immediately spoke to me; the oneiric aspect of the poems connected with my music—a term the often appears in my works is “like a dream”. The writing process was vertiginous, as one poem led to the next, in fact as in a dream.
—Roberto Sierra

Bright Sheng: Three Chinese Love Songs

I’m honored to be sharing songs with you this week, the week of the “Hyphenated Americans” concert at Merkin Hall! I have loved exploring the music of two of the composers featured on Wednesday’s program: Bright Sheng and Daniel Sabzghabaei. This is a chance to hear many different styles of music influenced from the hybrid experiences of the composers. I’m particularly struck by how the language affects the style and even my vocal approach to this music. Chinese and Farsi couldn’t be further from typical “American English” or from each other, and I get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sing in both of these languages back-to-back.  On the program you will hear “Three Chinese Love Songs” by Bright Sheng, which are arrangements of folk melodies for soprano, piano, and viola. It has been very satisfying to hear Cindy Wu work her magic on a very difficult viola part with lots of harmonics! When I asked her for something to listen to in order to get a better sense of how the language is sung and what the style of Chinese folk song is, she sent me this video, a setting of the first song in the set. Listen to the brightness of the language and the incredibly expressive sliding in the vocal line. I probably don’t have to tell you that this version is produced quite differently than what you’ll hear this Wednesday, but it’s a lot of fun—enjoy!

Brahms: Muss es eine Trennung geben

This song is full of desperation, and is most expressive in the piano part and harmonic changes. Yet, it is so beautiful. I recommend this recording by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau & Hermann Reutter.

Béla Bartók: Tomlocben

Bartók once said that a simple folk melody can accommodate more complicated harmony. And here is a case in point. This descending Dorian tune repeats itself while the text changes, but the piano accompaniment changes quite bit along with the text, from consonance at the beginning to something more dissonant. I learned a great deal from performing this song many years ago.

Twenty Hungarian Folksongs 1. Tomlocben (Jail) by Béla Bartók

Samuel Barber: The Daisies

I love this popular song because of the simplicity and charm it brings out from the moving eighth notes on both the voice and piano. Sometimes the least pretentious can be most rewarding.

Leontyne Price with Barber at the piano

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmXeA1GpXns
Marilyn Horne with Martin Katz

Ravel: Shéhérazade

This three-song set is equivalent to three scenes from an opera. It paints the actions of the text both in reality and in abstraction, but in its most effective way, it depicts an unyielding longing for something unfathomable or unobtainable.

Ravel’s Shéhérazade sung by Jessye Norman with Colin Davis with the London Symphony

Bernstein: Nachspiel

I was Lenny’s assistant with Michael when we prepared the premiere of this set of eight songs for mezzo-soprano, baritone and piano four-hands. “Nachspiel” is the last one which has no text and all singers (and pianists, and perhaps the audience) humming together. It is so exquisitely written, touching and beautiful.

“Nachspiel” from Arias and Barcarolles by Leonard Bernstein

Bright Sheng: Three Chinese Love Songs

Perhaps the most famous contemporary cross-cultural composer, Bright Sheng has an original compositional dialect that combines Western traditions and Chinese traditional and folk music. His music results from both his personal cultural upbringing and his intentional study and research of the principles underlying both nations’ musical traditions. His schooling was primarily in America. However, he is constantly involved in compositional and academic endeavors that strive to blend and define international musical styles. One such example was his participation in the Silk Road Project. Born in China in 1955, he moved to the United States in 1982. These Three Chinese Love Songs come from shortly after his immersion into American schooling in 1988. Within a very traditional chamber music setting, the music demands extended techniques to achieve certain Eastern sounds to blend with the lyric lines of the soprano. Even after only six years of studying in the United States, Sheng developed a very enticing and organic blend of cultural styles, marrying different traditions into three beautiful songs.

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