Enchanting music

Festival Miami celebrates Ned Rorem's eightieth birthday,
and LAWRENCE BUDMEN was impressed

Ned Rorem is one of the few composers to achieve distinction both as a musician and a man of letters. Rorem studied composition with the distinguished American composer Bernard Wagenaar at New York's Julliard School and privately with composer-critic Virgil Thomson. He has been greatly influenced by the music and culture of France. His nine years in Paris were chronicled in Paris Diary, the first of many books and essays. Rorem's compositional output has been prolific -- numerous song cycles and vocal works, orchestral works, chamber music, and operas. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music and has been the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees. On 23 September at the University of Miami's Gusman Hall in Coral Gables, Florida, Festival Miami 2003 presented 'Happy Birthday Ned Rorem' -- an eightieth birthday salute to this distinguished creative artist.

Rorem's String Quartet No 2 (1950) is clearly the work of a gifted young composer who is enchanted by all things French. The opening Lento; Allegro ma cantabile bears a strong resemblance to the first movement of Ravel's quartet. The third movement Allegro molto could well be one of Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales -- so lilting are its Gallic perfumes. The Pastoral speaks in the lyrical terms of Samuel Barber while the concluding Lento has a decidedly British tinge -- the long-limbed melodic curves of Vaughan Williams may have been at work on the composer's imagination. This is enchanting music. The lovely, unabashedly romantic melodies beguile the listener. The frankly old fashioned lyrical bent of this music is its real strength. The Bergonzi String Quartet gave this score a lush, rich toned performance. There was rhythmic propulsion and vigor in the fast sections, yet the quartet never exaggerated the music's pulse. Ross Harbaugh's golden cello tone was a tower of strength, matched by Glenn Basham's singing first violin. Violinist Scott Flavin and violist Pamela McConnell also played with intensity and dedication in this splendid revival of a lovely work.

The song cycle Ariel -- 5 Poems of Sylvia Plath for Soprano, Clarinet, and Piano (1971) represents a very different Rorem. Plath's death-obsessed texts are deeply disturbing. The composer has set this poetry (with its brutal references to suicide and Nazi atrocities) in an angular, dissonant musical idiom. At times the vocal line borders on atonality. Crashing chords pound out from the piano line while the clarinet speaks in a tonal, coolly cerebral mode. The soprano's vocal writing makes wild leaps into the uppermost register. To articulate the text clearly is a major challenge in this intense, often angry work. (The music's occasional lyricism and calm generate from the clarinet line.) The score was originally written for the great American soprano and teacher Phyllis Curtin. Soprano Jana Young (a University of Miami School of Music faculty member) accomplished the near impossible. She encompassed the bold leaps and wide range of the vocal part splendidly -- always singing with strongly focused tone and perfect intonation. Her diction was excellent. Almost every word of Plath's poetry was clear despite the punishing vocal writing. Clarinetist Margaret Donaghue played with beauty and elegance. The blend of Donaghue's clarinet and Young's soprano was exquisite. Pianist Russell Young (Ms. Young's husband) was a tower of strength at the keyboard. Here was a powerful and moving performance. Ms. Young also sang Rorem's early Alleluia (1946). This is one of the composer's earliest existing works. He repeats the word 'Alleluia!' forty seven times. The music is both jazzy and prayerful. Ms. Young sang this Rorem signature piece in a clear toned, ringing soprano voice with splendid piano obbligato by Mr Young.

Songs from An Unknown Past (1951) was a real surprise. Here Rorem set seven poems in English madrigal style. The choral part writing is masterful. There is an elegance and lilt in this music that is irresistible. Witty, dance-like melodies abound in this engaging score. The University of Miami Chamber Singers sang this music superbly. The pure, high tones of the sopranos were ravishing. The ensemble's rhythmic precision was marvelous. Presiding over this splendid choral group was Jo-Michael Scheibe, UM's master choral conductor. One can always count on Scheibe to unearth interesting and unique choral works. This Rorem score is a real gem. Scheibe commanded bright toned singing from his excellent chamber vocal group.

Bright Music (1999) is a chamber divertimento. In musical language both astringent and lyrical, Rorem combines flute, piano, two violins, and cello in a five movement suite. The opening Fandango: Wild and Clear is quirky and vigorous. The middle section of Dance-Song-Dance: Fast recalls the musical Americana of Aaron Copland. Another Dream: Very free evokes French languor. The concluding Chopin: Presto is a super fast, witty virtuoso romp. This music demands the utmost virtuosity from the musicians and the UM ensemble delivered that and more. Tian Ying played the piano line brilliantly. He clearly has a real affinity for the contemporary musical idiom. His keyboard flourishes were dazzling. Ying also displayed a lyrical bent in the slower sections. Flutist Christine Nield-Capote played her prominent part with sparkling insouciance and purity of tone. Basham and Flavin added brilliance to the high string end while Harbaugh's caressed the melodic lines that Rorem loves to give to the lower, darker toned string instruments. Here was bright, witty music played with panache! (Ms. Nield-Capote also gave a lovely, songful performance of Mountain Song (1949), an early Rorem piece that recalls Wayne Barlow's oboe work The Winter's Past.)

Festival Miami presented the full spectrum of Ned Rorem's chamber and vocal writing. The music was all beautiful and striking, the performances excellent. Here was a real tribute to an American master! Happy Birthday Ned Rorem and many more!

Copyright 13 November 2003 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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