Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Season Finale: Serenade to Orpheus

Below are my program notes for Opera Roanoke's season finale concert, Mother's Day Serenade. I hope you will join Maestro Steven White, celebrated soprano Elizabeth Futral, RSO principal horn Wally Easter, composer Ricky Ian Gordon and the rest of our musical team for a concert of beautiful vocal music, May 8 at 2:30 pm.

Serenade to Orpheus

The Serenade is a quintessential example of music existing for its own sake. The serenade may also be a nocturne, a lullaby or a rhapsody; it is a “song without words” (Lieder ohne Worte) when the voice is absent. When the voice sings the song the serenade is, it reminds us why the serenade is synonymous with music’s primary gift, the gift of melody. Harmony and rhythm may be melody’s equal partners in this triumvirate, but where she exists complete-unto-her-self, her brothers’ individuality cannot mask their interdependence. We remember music’s tunes, and for good reason. Song is what first inspired us to music, and melody is what keeps us coming back to this endless vault of artistic treasure.

The ultimate and original musical myth is that of Orpheus. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice inspired some of the very first essays in the operatic genre. And from the 18th century on, Orpheus has been synonymous with the musician’s muse. As the Serenade is pure music, song at its most essential, the Orpheus legend is music’s “creation myth,” the story of music’s “intelligent design.” As Prometheus brought the power of fire to humanity, Orpheus bestowed an equally powerful gift. Song is the gift to move hearts, change lives and, if not alter the course of history, at least affect it. Simply put, the Orpheus story is about the impossible-to-quantify power of music.

The opening works on this Mother’s Day Serenade program are songs without words for strings. The Rachmaninoff Vocalise is one of the most beloved examples of a wordless serenade for voice. Vocalise is a literal “song without words” to showcase the sheer beauty, facility and power of the human voice. Dvořák’s Serenade is indebted to Mozart (whose most popular instrumental work, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik translates more accurately as A Little Serenade than A Little Night Music). The opening movement sets the lyrical tone of this beloved five-movement suite for strings. Elgar’s “Adagio for string orchestra” Sospiri (originally called Soupir d’amour, “sigh of love”) is one of the most achingly beautiful slow movements in all of music.

Benjamin Britten was one of the most prolific composers of vocal music in history. His Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is one of the masterpiece song-cycles in the repertoire. He is widely regarded as the greatest British composer after Henry Purcell, and the best song and opera composer in the English language. Britten was one of music’s true prodigies (in the line of Mozart and Mendelssohn). A modern polymath, Britten was equally distinguished as conductor, concert pianist & accompanist, visionary impresario and successful producer. He founded an opera company, and one of Europe’s most innovative annual festivals in Aldeburgh. With his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s legacy includes one of the finest training grounds for young musicians in the world. His output includes a dozen operas, songs in a half-dozen different languages setting a veritable compendium of “who’s who” in European poetry. Britten’s Serenade is one of the finest examples of the song-cycle as poetic “anthology.” Rather than a multi-movement work unified by a single poetic source (as Britten did for sets of Auden, Rimbaud, Michelangelo and Donne poetry), the Serenade charts a nocturnal progression from the gloaming of dusk to the “dead” of night using a varied chorus of poetic voices.

One of the distinguishing marks of Britten’s Serenade is the masterful counterpoint between the tenor voice and solo horn in duet. It is a compliment to Ricky Ian Gordon’s gifts that his Orpheus and Euridice is favorably compared to Britten’s Serenade. In his hour-long work of musical theater, Euridice is played by a soprano, and Orpheus is voiced in “songs without words” by the clarinet. The composer’s notes on his work illuminate the creative process and open a window of understanding to an artistic soul.

Hidden somewhere in my subconscious, an old obsession with the Orpheus and Eurydice myth was boiling to the surface. When I was little, one of the foreign films that one of my three sisters took me to was the beautiful Black Orpheus with Bruno Melo and Marpessa Dawn. What could I really have understood in that story?

Marcel Camus’ 1959 classic film is a (literally) brilliant retelling of the Orpheus myth set in the Carnaval of Rio di Janiero. Orpheus is the prototypical musician. He is the “original” troubadour, the first performing artist. When his beloved Eurydice is fatally bitten by a serpent, Orpheus “with his lute” charms even the lord of the underworld, Pluto (or Hades). He wins her life, only to lose her a second time when he turns back in doubt to see if she really is there. It is a story as haunting as it is resonant with meaning. Gordon’s modern-day Orpheus was inspired by the love and loss experienced by its composer. He continues his account of the work’s genesis:

But something lingered. Because one night, at four in the morning, I rose from sleep, went to the dining-room table, and wrote the entire text. It seemed I suddenly had a deep identification with Orpheus; only my Euridice was not bitten by a snake, but robbed slowly by an incurable virus. Somehow, in my mind’s eye and ear, I saw Todd as “Orpheus” playing his “pipe” instead of a lute or a lyre. Euridice (I changed the “y” to an “I”) was both herself and the storyteller; the notes were his and the pianist’s, and the words were hers.

Opera Roanoke’s presentation of Orpheus and Euridice is the first East Coast performance of the version for string orchestra. The composer describes the Lincoln Center premiere upon which the current version is based.

This [chamber] version of the piece was given its world premiere with the soprano Elizabeth Futral, Todd Palmer on clarinet, and pianist Melvin Chen, as well as Doug Varone’s dance company, on October 5, 2005, as part of the Lincoln Center New Visions, American Songbook, and Great Performers series. In his review, in New York Magazine, Peter G. Davis wrote, “Both Gordon’s text and music are couched in an accessible idiom of disarming lyrical directness, a cleverly disguised faux naivete that always resolves dissonant situations with grace and a sure sense of dramatic effect—the mark of a born theater composer.”

The mark of all the great theater composers on this program begins with and returns to song. Whether nocturne, vocalise, “song without words” or chamber opera, these serenades sing the power of music itself. It is our privilege to share this music with you.

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