Having just finished the NYFOS season in New York with our Lorca program, tossed off a Gershwin concert for our gala a couple of weeks later, and presided over my twentieth-fifth anniversary concert at Wolf Trap with music ranging from German Lieder to Cuban rumba, I am now in the throes of preparing a revival of Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life. This program debuted exactly 10 years ago—and not at NYFOS. At that time there was a bit of resistance from our board—gentle but palpable—against a show with an explicitly gay theme. Fate intervened in the person of my buddy Jesse Blumberg, the founder and Artistic Director of Five Boroughs Music Festival. He wanted me to do a project with them, and enticed me by asking, “Is there a show you’ve been dying to do, but can’t schedule with NYFOS?” “Well….I’ve always wanted to do an evening devoted to gay men.” “Done.”
Jesse and I came up with a passel of ideas, whittled them down, and found a strong arc for the show. I wanted to illuminate contemporary life, but also delve into music by gay composers from the classical canon. We had a devil of a time deciding what to call the concert. Our working title, clearly unusable, was SCHLONG BIRDS. Jesse sent me a list with more punny titles—ranging from corny Dad-jokes to some that were wildly off-color. But among them was “Manning the Canon,” which I loved. We added an explanatory clause, “Songs of Gay Life,” and solved our hardest problem.
The show was such a success with Five Boroughs that Michael Barrett urged us to bring it to NYFOS the following year. “And this is how all our shows should be: 75-80 minutes, no intermission, compact, contemporary.” “Manning the Canon” went from being the unwanted child to being the poster child for NYFOS. Our 2010 revival earned us a startling rave review from Anthony Tommasini at the Times—I never thought we’d earn his approval by programming Cy Coleman—and we brought it back once more in 2011. That night I promised myself that I would program “MTC” for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. I could not have anticipated what a big hoopla June of 2019 was going to be, nor did I have an inkling of the political background we’d be encountering. I just knew I wanted to commemorate the birth of the Gay Movement with this material and a cast of brothers.
Two of those brothers have been in every iteration of the concert, Matt Boehler and Scott Murphree. I can’t imagine this show without them. This year we’re adding in two newbies: baritone Efraín Solís, who recently sang our Lorca concert, and tenor Daniel McGrew, making his NYFOS debut. I look forward to watching Matt and Scott teach them the choreo for “You’re the Top,” our closer.
I chose Poulenc’s “Montparnasse” for today’s song. We do it in a section of art songs about romantic fantasy. Apollinaire’s poem is a self-portrait that recreates his early days in Paris after he emigrated from Rome. His poem looks at his young self with rueful self-deprecation, but Poulenc’s music fixates on the wide-eyed blond teenager with an unmistakable cloud of desire. Apollinaire conjured up a 19-year old with clothes from Old Navy. Poulenc transforms him into an Abercrombie model. He may be dumb, but with those looks, who cares?
Here is Ian Bostridge, with my friend Julius Drake at the piano. I don’t think of Bostridge as a sexy musician—meticulous and scholarly is how I’d describe him. But he and Drake create a gorgeous, gauzy mist in their performance of “Montparnasse.” Chapeau, gentlemen.
POULENC/Apollinaire: Montparnasse (Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake, pianist)
Gabriel Kahane is one of my favorite contemporary songwriters. He sprang to prominence with an early piece, “Craigslistlieder,” a brash, hilarious, and sophisticated song cycle based on internet postings. Gabe has a unique way of melding popular and classical styles, cross-breeding German art song and 90s power ballads, Fauré and Beatles, Stravinsky and Radiohead into something uniquely his own. His music has developed a great deal since New Year’s Day, 2007 when that calling-card cycle bounded onto the scene. But the allure of “Craigslistlieder” has remained undimmed. We’ll be doing one of the songs next week, when Chelsea Shephard delivers the most exquisite “Half a Box of Condoms” imaginable.
Gabe has written many songs I love. Here is my favorite: “Merritt Parkway,” which became the third song of “The Memory Palace,” a cycle he devised for NYFOS in 2011. In Gabe’s voice it sounds like a beautiful singer-songwriter ballad (which it is). When Andrew Garland sang it (and I played it), you could hear the admixture of Schumann and Wolf more clearly. Is it cabaret song, popular song, art song? Yes—and no—to all of the above. Maybe Gabe Kahane has invented a whole new genre.
And here is a link to the whole album, which you can listen to or even purchase.
An update: Julius Drake wrote me a note this morning, clarifying that he is a staunch devotee of American music, from Barber and Ives to Crumb and Argento. His inquiry—and his puzzlement—was about some lesser-known names whose music seemed rather sentimental to him. (And I do not disagree with him about those composers.) Julius reminded me that he’s made three CDs of American song with Gerry Finley. He is a certified Yankophile—after all, he puts up with me!
I’ve become friends with my British colleague Julius Drake. John Brancy introduced us a few years ago, and I am always touched that Julius makes sure to see me when he’s in town. I admire him very much as an artist, and have taken to sending him occasional emails when I am practicing. The mere idea of his presence—my inner Julius, I guess you’d call it—calms me and guides me at the piano. Julius has the career I thought I wanted when I was starting out, jetting around playing Schubert and Wolf for the great Lieder singers of our time. It turned out not to be what I was put on earth to do, but I admire the guys who devote their lives to keeping the standard repertoire alive (while I explore its beautiful fringes). And no one plays with more eloquence than Julius.
He came by at cocktail hour and I was all set to have a glass of wine and some marconas with him. But we ended up drinking seltzer together—Thursday is one of Julius’ low-calorie days, apparently. We spoke of our work, of course, and he eventually asked me which American composers I admired. “I find a lot of your music lovely but a bit sentimental,” he said. I asked which songwriters he came across the most often in England, and he mentioned two musicians whose songs rarely cross my music rack. I’m not a big fan of either, though I am far too much of a gentleman to specify their names. But I could see why he thought American music had a strain of treacle.
I play the music of my country all the time, but I was strangely at a loss when I had to give a list of composers. I managed to say, “Well, I think John Musto is a terrific composer.” “Oh, is he good?” “Um, yes. Very. And I am a fan of William Bolcom.” Julius said, “Oh, of course. Tends to be on the light side, I find.” “No, not really. Look again.”
I shocked myself by not being able to spout a list of go-to American songwriters. I think that is because I think in terms of specific songs, not composers. I love this, rather than I love him or her.
I happen to be working on an all-American program this week, and I want to redress the confusion I experienced when I was speaking to Julius Drake by focusing on American songs. Here’s a favorite: “O Boundless, Boundless Evening,” by Samuel Barber, from his final vocal work simply called 3 Songs, Opus 45. It was written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and premiered in 1974 at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. All three poems are English translations of European poems. This song, the final one, springs from Christopher Middleton’s version of Georg Heym’s “O weiter, weiter Abend.” The deep blues depicted in the words morph into bluesy chords in the piano, forming one of Barber’s richest and most sensual songs. As night inexorably falls and the sky morphs from azure to cobalt, the speaker tries to get every bit of pleasure out of the last bits of light. These are my favorite colors, and this is one of my favorite songs.
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