NYFOS offers a week of cold-weather songs as we settle into the winter season.
With a text by Langston Hughes, this song depicts a winter moon as a thin crescent, a rationed portion of a moon for a season when resources grow scarce.
“Litany”, from John Musto’s masterful set of songs Shadow of the Blues is, in my humble but educated opinion, a perfect song. I actually find it difficult to describe how I feel about this song—it has a profound effect on me every time I hear it. John, who has been inspired by many amazing poets during his long and productive career, in this case took Langston Hughes’ words and elevated them to another dimension. Not because they needed elevating, mind you, but because John is that gifted. As in Fauré’s “Clair de Lune”, the piano sets the mood beautifully before the singer joins in. The two together make time stand still.
I have heard many performances of this song, live and recorded, and I have sung it myself in recital, so I know whereof I speak. The recording I have chosen is the orchestrated version, which highlights the rich harmonic colors, and features the clear and nuanced vocal interpretation of Jubilant Sykes. The song exists brilliantly in multiple versions. It is a song for the ages.
Gather up, in the arms of your pity
The sick, the depraved, the desperate, the deprived
All the scum of our weary city
Gather up in the arms of your pity
Gather up in the arms of your love
Those who expect no love
“I Dream a World” is one of the most beautiful and loving poems by Langston Hughes I have come across. Langston speaks about a dream world where every person is equally as valuable and should be treated with respect. As farfetched as this idea may seem, I believe that this world Hughes is speaking of can actually come to fruition. He didn’t see it in his lifetime and I probably won’t see it in mine, but he contributed to that becoming a reality one day. A long time ago I dedicated my life to music as my contribution to making the world we live in a better place for everyone. So I accept “I Dream a World” as a call to action to do even more for the world so we as a people can stop dreaming and start living. I will be premiering a setting of “I Dream a World” by Damien Sneed on October 9 at Carnegie Hall at 8pm with the composer at the piano. Damien and I actually made our Carnegie Hall debut together in Wynton Marsalis’ Abbyssinian Mass. I was a soloist and he was the conductor. So it is very fitting for us to collaborate again for our return to Carnegie for our recital debut. Please come out if you can to hear the first performance of this powerful piece
I Dream a World
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind–
Of such I dream, my world!
“Ballad of the landlord” is a poem by Langston Hughes. It basically is a dialogue between an African American tenant and a white landlord. It’s interesting to me that Langston doesn’t offer any opinions. He tell’s the story as it happens and the reader/ listener has no choice but to develop their own opinion. This poem was set to music by composer William Bolcom in 2002 as part of his cycle “Old Addresses”. Musically, Bolcom marries the worlds of classical singing with soul and even hip hop. This piece was given to me by American Song specialist Paul Sperry at the Manhattan School of Music. If you want to see a live performance of “Ballad of the landlord”, I will be singing this piece on my debut recital at Carnegie on October 9 at 8pm.
During my rehearsals with Ricky Ian Gordon for our concert on September 18, I noticed that in his home there was a framed poem on top of the door to his studio. I asked him about it, and he expressed to me that it meant a lot to him, and was one of the most significant settings of a poem that he’s written. The poem is “Luck” by Langston Hughes. It’s very short, but incredibly deep. Take a listen.
Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
To some people
Love is given,
Right after I left Opera Theatre of St. Louis last summer, I went to West Palm Beach Florida. I was competing in the national rounds of a year long competition presented by NANM (National Association of Negro Musicians) NANM is the oldest organization for the preservation of African American Music. Each year, there is a different instrument that is the focus of the competition. Knowing that it was the year for “voice” my teacher helped me put together a solid program. The singers were required to present an Aria, Lied, African American Art Song, and a Spiritual. Surprisingly, I had never even heard of an African American Art Song. I began to research and came across a composer by the name of Margaret Bonds. I instantly fell in love with her music and message. She had a very strong friendship with Langston Hughes and often would set his poems to music. I knew that whatever piece I chose, it would have to be a Langston Hughes setting by Bonds. My voice teacher sent me a song called “Minstrel Man” from her cycle “Three Dream Portraits” and that was it! I felt that the music was heartbreakingly beautiful and the poetry deepened my love for Hughes.
I competed with “Minstrel Man” amongst the other requirements, and ended up winning first place. Winning was something I was proud of, but I was more excited about my new relationship with this extraordinary piece of music and poetry. I went on to sing this piece in recital at the Heidelberger Früling Festival, Manhattan School of Music, and will sing it at Carnegie Hall during my recital debut on October 9 at 8pm.
It speaks to me because it describes the struggle of a person having to basically grin and bear the atrocities facing them. I resonate with the text in two different ways. I interpret it as a black man in America having to experience racism every day and not feeling able to do anything about it other than smile and try to forget. I also interpret it as a professional singer who, no matter what awfulness I go through in my day, has to stand in front of hundreds sometimes thousands of people and pretend like there’s nothing wrong. It’s a powerful piece and I’m sure it will touch you in some way. Take a listen.
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