Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published September 27, 2022

Tonight’s program, Heroes, had a unique birth. It began with my desire to work with with the four musicians sharing the stage with me tonight, a quartet of artists who are frequent collaborators and close friends. While baritone John Brancy and violinist Charles Yang have lit up their fair share of past NYFOS evenings, Peter and Kara Dugan are making their debuts with us tonight. But I taught all of them during their student years, and have been thrilled to watch their rapid ascent in the musical world. I lusted after their creative energy and was determined to hire them for a concert.

In September of last year, NYFOS decided to delay our return to live concerts until mid-November; that autumn, many people were still not ready to leave their Covid cocoons and gather in an enclosed space. To launch our season, we opened with a teaser—a NYFOS@Home video. It was a perfect way to bring the Dugan/Brancy/Yang brigade onto the NYFOS roster, but I doubted that all four would be available. Miraculously, there was indeed a short stretch of time when they could be in New York to rehearse and film, and they signed on. What would the theme be, they asked? I did some quick thinking. I remembered that John Brancy had once been involved as a writer and performer in a program for K-12 students about superheroes. Following a hunch, I suggested that the five of us take up the subject of heroes, and they agreed with enthusiasm.

Heroes turned out to be a heartbreakingly beautiful video, and I thought it deserved a live performance. It would just need to be fleshed out with a few more songs. Once again the scheduling gods were on our side: the dream team had a small window of time at the end of this September, and I got to join the ensemble in a few numbers—I’d only played one song in the 2021 video.

In typical NYFOS fashion, tonight’s playlist spans centuries and genres. But all the songs spring from an idea of heroism that looks beyond the traditional implication of conquest and domination. Our heroes are musicians, writers, and freedom-fighters, some legendary, some unsung, a few celebrated on the battlefield, most appreciated for their peaceful efforts on the behalf of humanity.

For years I’ve had a hankering to play a duet with Peter Dugan, and I got the idea of starting our evening with a movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Its original title, of course, was “Bonaparte,” whom Beethoven idealized for his anti-monarchical, democratic views. But when Napoleon renounced his title, First Consul, and declared himself Emperor of the French in 1804, the composer became enraged. His former hero had morphed into a tyrant. Legend has it that when Beethoven heard the news, he marched to his table, tore the title-page of “Bonaparte” in half, and threw it on the floor. Having written music to embody his noblest ideals, he re-christened his third symphony the Eroica—heroic.

Franz Schubert’s “An die Leier” takes the story of the Eroica one step farther: a bard picks up his lyre to sing of battles and conquests, but the moment he begins to play he can only sing of love. Bruchmann’s poem is drawn from a text by the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, who celebrated the joys of life—erotic, gustatory, and romantic. While I have no doubt that Schubert shared Anacreon’s earthy appreciation for the pleasures of the flesh, his music lifts the idea of love into the realms of reverence with a hymn to the human heart.

Schubert’s music connects us to a classical hero beloved to musicians: Orpheus, whose glorious lyricism conquered the furies of the underworld and—in some versions of his story—even conquered death. Many operas recount this myth, but Christoph Willibald Gluck’sOrfeo ed Euridice is the gold standard. The sublime “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” has long been excerpted as a salon/encore piece in various arrangements; the best known of them is probably Fritz Kreisler’s version for violin, retitled “Mélodie.” Gluck sought to bring nobility and simplicity to the increasing decadence of baroque opera, which was becoming a circus of vocal narcissism and stage machinery. The bel canto purity of “Mélodie” makes a strong case for Gluck’s musical philosophy.

The Orpheus myth was also a central inspiration for the mid-20th century composer William Schuman, who was president of the Juilliard School from 1945 to 1961 before taking on the leadership of Lincoln Center in its very first days. His two-page, Elizabethan-style song, “Orpheus With His Lute,” became the basis for both a choral setting and a piece for cello and orchestra—as well as the title of his 2011 biography, Orpheus in Manhattan. Music this simple needs to be perfect, and there is not a note or a beat out of place in this tiny masterwork.

Orpheus may be the musicians’ hero, but there are also plenty of good songs about people famous for traditional kinds of bravery. Among the most fascinating of them is Don Quixote, the delusional hero of Cervantes’s epic 1615 novel. On first sight, his story seems fairly straightforward: a low-ranking nobleman, besotted with tales of chivalry, ventures into the world as a knight errant to serve his nation and revive a lost code of honor from a former age. But Cervantes’s writing is sly and prismatic, leading to an enormous spectrum of interpretations: a comic novel about a mad buffoon, a multi-textured defense of idealism, a tragic portrait of a man fighting the reality of death. Given that Cervantes is an expert at confounding the emotions of his reader, it seemed fitting to include two vastly different musical interpretations of his novel, one from the theater and one from the concert stage.

The Man of La Mancha opened off-Broadway in 1965, eventually moved to the Great White Way, and racked up 2,628 performances over six years as well as a shelf of Tony Awards. Its original lyricist was the great English poet W. H. Auden, but his approach proved too biting for the producers. Replacing him with Joe Darion, they got what they wanted: a more conventional, less confrontational approach, resulting in a musical that brought audiences to their feet night after night.

Maurice Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée was his last completed work. He wrote the songs on a commission from the director G. W. Pabst, who was making a movie about Don Quixote starring the legendary basso Fyodor Chaliapin. Ravel was beginning to experience symptoms of the neurological disease that would eventually end his life, and he missed his deadline. Pabst took this as an occasion to fire Ravel and use songs by Jacques Ibert instead. In fact, Pabst had commissioned a number of distinguished composers (including Manuel de Falla and Darius Milhaud) to write his sound track, thinking that he would later choose the one he liked best. This débacle brought an unhappy ending to Ravel’s brilliant career. But the subject inspired the composer to write some of his sweetest and most atmospheric songs, which elevate Don Quixote’s fervor and vitality to the heights.

The lives of the saints are a guiding light for many artists, and we’ve included two, one very well known, one obscure. St. Ita, née Íte ingen Chinn Fhalad, (480-570), is the patron saint of Killeedy, Ireland. Venerated in her lifetime for her austerity, purity of heart, and generosity to her community, she was thought to be the author of a classic Irish lullaby to the infant Jesus. The American poet Chester Kallmann adapted her words into a modern English translation, and the composer Samuel Barber used her tune as the basis for one of his best-known songs, “St. Ita’s Vision” from the Hermit Songs. Written for the young Leontyne Price, the cycle premiered in 1953 at the Library of Congress.

Peter Dugan’s brother Leonardo Dugan paints a vivid portrait of the Maid of Orleans in his cycle The Life and Death of Joan of Arc. “I have always been fascinated by the Middle Ages: armor, swords, courtly intrigue.” Leonardo explained. “In composing this song cycle for Kara Dugan, I wanted a story that had the medieval drama of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, but with a strong female protagonist, and the story of Joan of Arc came immediately to mind.”

Leonardo’s music is a fascinating combination of lyricism, jazz rhythm, and flashes of spiky, dramatic dissonance. We get a taste of all three in the second movement of his mini-cantata, where we see Joan in a crisis of conscience after leading a victorious charge. Abandoned by her king, she senses her looming martyrdom as she questions the bloodshed she has caused. Since composing this piece in 2014, Leonardo Dugan has gone on to compose his first opera, All Is Fair, as well as yearly contributions to a fascinating multimedia piece called The Decade Cycle, in which he sings (overdubbing all the harmony) and plays several instruments. His website is definitely worth a visit:  https://www.leonardodugan.com.

“Ambush on All Sides” also presents a battle scene, but this time there is no self-doubt, no post-victory pang of guilt. It is a virtuoso piece first published in 1818, though it probably dates from far earlier, judging from the multiplicity of versions of the work that have emerged. “Ambush” depicts the Battle of Haixia in 202 BC, when the feisty peasant Liu Bang defeated General Xiang Yu to become the founder and first emperor of the Han Dynasty. Long considered a masterpiece of Chinese classical music, “Ambush” was composed for the pipa, a four-string lute with a tradition in China that dates back two centuries. The short sections portray the gathering of the armies, the neighing of horses, the clashing of swords in battle, and Xiang Yu’s suicide after his defeat. It has become a speciality for Charles Yang and Peter Dugan, in their own devilishly clever arrangement for piano and violin.

It should come as no surprise that our own heroes, depicted by eight American composers, include no warriors. It is the pacifists that inspire us, and the people whose everyday lives demonstrate grace—including, of course, musicians.

Among them we include the Black American composer Florence Price who is enjoying a revival these days—Yannick Nézet Séguin has just issued a snazzy recording of her Symphonies #1 and #3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “In her First Symphony, we hear folkloric melodies blended with church music chords,” he wrote in the liner notes, “and chords that are opening up to jazz, to create something that sounds quintessentially American. She was adapting a European form and putting it into her own language.” The same could be said of the song “The Heart of a Woman,” where her fluid, opulent harmony brings Richard Strauss to mind. Alas, Price’s high-Romantic vocabulary was out of step with the prevalent taste for the acerbic in the 1950s, and after some initial success her music fell out of favor. Nor was the mainstream musical world open to welcoming a Black American woman into their inner sanctum. Today we can finally honor Florence Price for what she was: an impressively fertile artist with a rich musical palette—and the first Black woman to have a piece premiered by a major American orchestra.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s tireless, non-violent activism in support of civil rights has earned him a special place in our pantheon of heroes. The American songwriter James Taylor apparently felt the same way, and wrote a heart-stopping tribute to him, “Shed a Little Light,” in 1991. Taylor was inspired after reading a biography of the late Dr. King, and he brought his usual virtues to the piece: simplicity, directness, and the disarming honesty that have marked so many of his best songs.

Walking By Flashlight” is a tribute to two heroes: the former poet-laureate Ted Kooser, and the Grammy Award-winning composer Maria Schneider. Diagnosed with skin cancer in the late 1990s, Kooser was strictly forbidden from any contact with sunlight. For exercise, he took a daily 2-mile walk before dawn on the roads near his rural home in Nebraska. Emerging from a long period of depression, he began to compose a daily poem based on things he had observed during his hike. He then handwrote them onto postcards and sent them to a writer friend, Jim Harrison, with whom he had exchanged haiku some years earlier. The result is one of Kooser’s finest collections, Winter Morning Walks, a compendium of the 100 short poems written during his year of recovery. We are moved not just by Ted Kooser’s courage and clarity as he fought his way back to life, but also by the warm receptivity of Jim Harrison. In times of trouble, a trustworthy friend can become the hero we need the most. Maria Schneider was also deeply affected by Kooser’s words, and set nine of them to music for Dawn Upshaw. “These poems feel so like home to me,” she wrote, “connecting with my southwest Minnesota roots at so many different levels, that I find it almost astonishing.”

For certain lucky people, their earliest hero might be one of their parents. Few artists captured this kind of enthusiasm with more freshness than Charles Ives in “The Greatest Man.” Anne Collins, whose poem was printed in The Evening Sun, is no Ted Kooser. Yet even though her words seem generic, the poem has a naive honesty, as well as some literary sophistication—the rhymes for example, are sometimes hidden in unexpected places. Ives responds to her plain-spoken words with vigor and freshness, capturing the singsong quality of a child’s essay while avoiding the cloying trap of the “kiddy art song.” Returning to this piece after some years, I am struck anew by Ives’s skill; he knew how to write a light parlor song that has impact and specificity.

It might have been easier—or at any rate more expected—for a kid to idolize his elders in the jazz age than in the Viet Nam era. Leonard Bernstein, a hero to generations of people all over the globe, wrote the anti-war song “So Pretty” in 1968 with his longtime partners Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It premiered at what was then called Philharmonic Hall on January 21, 1968, in a fundraiser for the Congressional Peace Campaign Committee hosted by Bernstein and Paul Newman. Their goal was to raise funds for candidates who opposed the Viet Nam war. There was a starry lineup of performers, but perhaps the starriest of all was Barbra Streisand, who premiered “So Pretty” with the composer at the piano. The tone is even more naive than “The Greatest Man,” but the questions are more piercing:  where are the heroes? How did the world get to be this way?

For Peter Dugan, Stevie Wonder has earned a place in his pantheon of musical heroes—and I am in complete agreement. He describes him as “one of the great American songwriters of all time,” and goes on to say: “I think it’s always important to look to your heroes, and then find out who their heroes are. ‘Sir Duke’ is all about Stevie Wonder’s heroes. He names Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glen Miller, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald—pioneers of American music.” Peter and his duet partner Charles Yang recently came up with a dazzling arrangement of the tune, which boasts an instrumental interlude drawing on (in Peter’s words) “some of the sounds of contemporary jazz artists like Robert Glasper, musicians who are continuing to develop the art form, carrying on the traditions of folks like ‘Sir Duke’ and Count Basie in new ways.”

When we were planning this program last fall, my very first thought was, “Well, we’re obviously going to have to do ‘My Hero” from The Chocolate Soldier.” For me, it’s an old chestnut, recorded by the likes of Anna Moffo, Beverly Sills, and Jeanette McDonald, but no one in the cast had even heard of it. I assumed that when the gang listened to the tune they’d gently turn it down as impossibly old-fashioned (which it is). But after a week I got an email saying that Kara, John and Peter were on board.

“My Hero” was never a particular favorite of mine and I had never actually played it, but the song underwent a remarkable metamorphosis when I got my hands on it. It dates from 1908, and presents an idealized vision of marriage close to the one my parents must have been taught. But now, amazingly, I am also married, and these lyrics don’t seem sentimental or unrealistic to me any more—or old-fashioned. My wedding day was the single happiest of my life, and my husband is my hero. After all, he puts up with me. The words of the once-famous Stanislaus Stange may emanate from a past era, but in tandem with Oscar Straus’s high-cholesterol music they move me to tears.

So do Bob Dylan’s lyrics in our final song, “Forever Young.” All night long we’ve touched on the idea of the bard as a hero. Bob Dylan is one of the great modern bards, a singer, a songwriter, but more than that, a speaker of truth, and an inspiration to be our best selves. “Forever Young” does just that.

When I was in college, I always assumed this song was addressed to other young people, maybe even to a child. Revisiting the song, “Forever Young” has taken on new meanings—a reminder to stay flexible and agile and open as I age, to hold onto the enthusiasm of youth, and not give in to cynicism. Tonight’s program, created in tandem with a group of fearsomely gifted younger performers, has been like a B-12 shot for my spirit. The playlist was a true collaboration: everyone brought something fresh and unanticipated to the project. If heroes are the men and women who inspire you, Peter and Kara Dugan, Charles Yang, and John Brancy are my heroes. What a beautiful way to ring in NYFOS’s 35th season, our Coral Anniversary.

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.


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