In Their Own Words: Composer Ned Rorem and Mezzo-Soprano Susan Graham

Classic Arts Features   In Their Own Words: Composer Ned Rorem and Mezzo-Soprano Susan Graham
 
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra closes out its season May 11 with a program that features 11 Songs for Susan, conceived and composed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Rorem. Composer and singer share thoughts on the new song cycle.


This special event will see the world-renowned mezzo-soprano performing the world premiere of three original songs and eight new orchestrations all by Rorem, who has been hailed by Time Magazine as "the world's best composer of art songs."

Graham has said, "Ned Rorem is the godfather of American song, with thoughtful melodies that go straight to the heart. I'm thrilled that Orpheus has commissioned orchestrated versions so that both Ned and I can revisit these jewels in a new way."

Rounding out the program will be Ravel's Pavanne pour infante defunte, Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes, and Haydn's Symphony No. 26.

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NED ROREM, composer

How did you come to start composing songs?

I started writing songs on pre-existing texts pretty young, not because I loved songs, but because I loved poetry. I didn't see why I shouldn't link my two loves, which were music and poetry, so I did. I was also lucky in that I had good people to sing them immediately, fellow students at Northwestern University, and at The Curtis Institute where I went to school when I was still a teenager.

For all the music and all the words you have written, have you ever linked the two?

No. I flatter myself that, whatever my songs are worth, at least my choice of texts is pretty good. If the Ned who writes words and the Ned who writes songs were both good, then I wouldn't need to write, I would just be able to drop them. They are two separate things entirely. It's also rather European of me, because Americans are almost always specialists, and Europeans are general practitioners.

11 Songs for Susan has a unique format, mixing new songs with orchestrations of old songs and including texts by seven different poets. Did you conceive this new work as a unified song cycle?

It's a song cycle if I say it is. I've written several so-called cycles, usually all on one poet or all on one theme. But these are not on one theme, and they certainly are not just on one poet. I was supposed to write a bunch of songs for Susan Graham, and so that's what I did. Susan is one of the few real singers _ that is to say with a real voice and a real reputation _ who does contemporary music. When Orpheus Chamber Orchestra asked me to write a piece for her, I was very pleased to do it.

You included three songs with Paul Goodman texts in this piece, and you have written many others over the years. What is the history behind your Goodman settings?

I've written perhaps 400 songs, of which the first songs were by Paul Goodman, who was a friend from my childhood. He was about ten years older than me. I wrote Clouds a long time ago on a Paul Goodman poem, and the orchestration just asked for strictly strings. The Lordly Hudson is one of the first and one of the most popular songs I ever wrote. I haven't actually heard this orchestral setting of The Lordly Hudson yet. I'm sure it will sound good, but I don't know if it needs all of this.

When you orchestrate songs, do you ever change or add musical material?

No, I'm not writing new material at all; I take it exactly as it is. I'm looking, for example, at I Strolled Across an Open Field, which is a rollicking song, and the orchestration is sort of obvious. It asks for these things.

One of the new songs, Wild Nights, and another that is decades old, The Serpent, share a daringly sparse style of accompaniment, with often just a single line supporting the singer. What draws you to this sound?

I'm an economical composer. I like to put down on paper what needs to be put down, and not put down what doesn't need to be put down. It's the same with orchestration: I try to keep as near to the original impetus as I can. And I try not to obliterate the singer with too heavy an orchestra. I don't like doublings in orchestration.

Your music has been a major influence on many younger American composers. Do you pay attention to what they are doing? Do you like what you hear?

I taught for about 15 years, but then I stopped teaching, and I don't know how to do it anymore. How do you teach? What does it mean? All you can do is deal with something that already exists and say what's wrong with it. But you can't make a person compose who isn't a composer. The farther I get from it, the less I know about it. And I don't feel an urge to keep up on what's happening, but I just do, by the nature of things. I try to go to friends' concerts and hear what's going on, and some of it I like and some I don't. I would say this: I think America, with all of its vulgarity, is the most interesting country musically in the world today. I can't even think of the name of a composer in France or Germany, let alone what they are doing.

What drives you to keep writing new music?

Money! I've said almost all I have to say, both in my books and in my music. I don't really think much about it anymore unless I get a commission. I've got a couple of very small commissions at the moment, but if I died now, I wouldn't be ashamed of leaving what I've done.

Seeing the song title Death and the Young Man brings to mind Schubert's Death and the Maiden. Did you have any such connection in mind? Is Schubert an important figure for you?

No, I didn't have Schubert in mind at all. I am not a lusty fan of Schubert. Those eight letters just make me yawn when I hear them. People are shocked when I say that. Schubert wrote some marvelous songs, but I don't sit down and listen to them or play them out of desire. I think the whole universe is divided between two aesthetics, French and German, and if that's the case _ and it is _ then I am definitely French. So I could live without Beethoven, I could live without Schubert, but I couldn't live without Debussy and Ravel and Satie, especially. Satie's big piece called Socrate is a masterpiece.

So much vocal music in the Western canon is sacred in nature, but in your output religious texts are relatively scarce. Still, a song like Alleluia, with its single word, does seem to have an ascendant spirit to it. What is your perspective on the intersection of religion and music?

I am an atheist; I don't believe in God. But I do believe in the literature that believers have produced over the years. There are some great works in the Bible, and that's what attracts me: the poetic value rather than the religious value. As for Alleluia, Lou Harrison had written a non-vocal piece for strings called Alleluia, and he was an influence on me when I was still a teenager, so I wrote a piece called Alleluia. I thought it was kind of cute just to have the singer sing one word in different ways.

You are known as the great American composer of songs, and you also have written many successful instrumental pieces, including a Pulitzer prize-winning orchestral work. What people seem to connect to in your music, no matter the format, is its "singing" nature. Is that a core quality of your music?

All music is song. Everything is sung, whether there is a singer around or not, even The Rite of Spring, even Bolero. The pitched human voice is what impelled music from the days of the cavemen up to the present. Even with people who've never written for the voice, music is the voice.

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Susan Graham
photo by Dario Acosta

SUSAN GRAHAM, mezzo-soprano

How did you first become acquainted with Ned Rorem's songs?

When I was 18 or 19 years old, in my first couple of years of vocal studies at Texas Tech University, I had juries at the end of every semester. I had to memorize six or seven songs and present them in front of a panel of faculty. Juries rolled around, and I was short one English song, so I looked through my American songbook and found this beautiful song. I needed something I could memorize quickly, and Ned's songs are usually so logical and organically put together. That song, Early In the Morning, made so much sense to me. It went in my head really fast, and I fell in love with it. It's a song about a spring morning in Paris, and the song says, "I was 20 and a lover and in Paradise to stay." At the time, I was 18 years old and in Lubbock, Texas!

Could you ever have imagined at that time that one day Ned Rorem would write a new piece for you to sing in Carnegie Hall?

I am speechless at the mere thought of it. At that time, I didn't even know if I would ever become a singer. I couldn't imagine ever getting to know Ned Rorem. There's another small chapter that followed just a few years later, when I first got to New York. I finished my studies at Texas Tech, and I moved to New York at age 25 and enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. As many young singers do, I sang at churches and synagogues on the weekends to supplement my income. One of my part-time church jobs was at the Episcopal Church of St. Matthew and St. Timothy, where Ned Rorem's long-time partner, Jim Holmes, was the music director. I was in the church choir, and on certain special days we would perform a Ned Rorem piece. We would look out into the congregation, and there would be a very handsome man with white hair and a red scarf tied around his neck, and whispers would go through the choir loft: "Ned Rorem is here!" He was a celebrity. After church one day Jim introduced me to Ned, and I just gushed.

How did you come to record an entire album of Rorem songs? Was he involved in the project?

I wanted to do my first recording of American songs, and the first thing I thought of was Ned, because I had been in love with his music all those years. I spoke to him, and he remembered me from the old church days. We spoke a few times about what songs to include and what he thought of different choices. The recording took place in Munich, so he wasn't present. Later, we performed a few of the pieces together at Alice Tully Hall. It was astonishing to have him accompany me on his own songs.

The songs in this set span many decades and include a wide range of poets. What is the quality that makes them all recognizable as Ned Rorem songs?

One of the hallmarks of his writing is a real organic honesty. He just seems to really be able to open his heart and let the music flow to the page. I don't know if he writes songs quickly, or if he agonizes for weeks over a song, but the end product seems to flow really naturally. There is not a lot of artifice in his writing _ it is always just essential. That's the gift that I think he has when he approaches the poetry. He is able to plumb the inner meanings of a poem and put it in a musical context that really fits.

What do you need to do differently to perform these songs with an orchestra rather than piano?

I have no idea! I've never heard the orchestrations, and I am still weeks away from rehearsing them, so I don't know what I am going to be faced with. There is a real rhythmic impetus to some of Ned's writing, such as The Serpent or I Strolled Across an Open Field, which are very pianistically percussive. I don't know how that's going to translate into the softer textures of the orchestra.

You maintain a very diverse career ranging from opera to recitals to orchestra engagements. How do you juggle all those modes of performance?

I take one step at a time, and try not to look at the big picture too much, because it is a little overwhelming. Is it hard to make the switch from one context to another? No, It's not hard to switch modes. It all comes from the same place, which is a deep desire to communicate. And while the process is very different in orchestra concerts or recitals or opera, it's all basically the same animal _ you just put on different clothes.

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The 8 PM concert will be held at Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage.

Tickets (priced $29-$98) may be reserved at Carnegie Hall.

For further information visit Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.



Ned Rorem is one of America's most honored composers. In addition to a Pulitzer Prize, awarded in 1976 for his suite Air Music, Mr. Rorem has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship (1951), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1957), and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1968). He is a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award; in 1998 he was chosen Composer of the Year by Musical America. In addition to his numerous musical achievements_ã”three symphonies, four piano concertos, an array of other orchestral works, chamber music, 10 operas, a myriad of choral works, ballets, theater music, and literally hundreds of songs and cycles_ã” Mr. Rorem is the author of 16 books, including five volumes of diaries and collections of lectures and criticism.

Dubbed in a Gramophone cover story as "America's favorite mezzo," Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Susan Graham has appeared with The Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, Opê©ra National de Paris, the Salzburg Festival, and most of the world's leading conductors and orchestras. Orchestral engagements have included performances of Berlioz's cantata La Mort de Clê©opê¢tre with the St. Louis Symphony under David Robertson, with the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel, and with the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle. She received rave reviews as Iphigê©nie in The Metropolitan Opera's 2007 performances of Gluck's Iphigê©nie en Taurid with Placido Domingo. In 2004 Ms. Graham received Musical America's Vocalist of the Year Award.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1972 by cellist Julian Fifer and a group of fellow musicians who aspired to perform diverse orchestral repertoire using chamber music ensemble techniques. Today, Orpheus continues this philosophy, performing without a conductor and rotating musical leadership roles for each work.  Over its history, Orpheus has built a legacy through its acclaimed recordings, performances, and collaborations with the world's most dynamic and esteemed soloists. In addition to extensive national and international touring, the orchestra presents an annual concert series at Carnegie Hall and appears regularly at major New York venues.

The Orpheus recording legacy consists of over 70 albums, including the Grammy Award-winning Shadow Dances: Stravinsky Miniatures. In 2007 Orpheus released a recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons with Sarah Chang on EMI Classics. Their next album, with pianist Jonathan Biss, is was releasd in the fall of 2008. Orpheus' extensive catalog includes albums on the Deutsche Grammophon, EMI Classics, Decca, SONY Classical, and Nonesuch labels.

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