Many musicians are offering their performances and compositions online during this time of isolation, so I want to make my small contribution.
Here is a setting of a poem by Susan Scott Thompson called “Waltzing the Spheres”. I first encountered it when I heard it read on a PBS broadcast at the time of 9/11. I knew immediately I wanted to set it, but never got around to it until years later when I set it on a commission from Philadelphia’s Lyric Fest. You can read Lyric Fest artistic director Suzanne DuPlantis’s blog post about the piece here, and the entire poem is posted here.
The crisis we are in feels somewhat like 9/11, so it seems like the right piece to offer now.
I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful singers do the piece. Kiera Duffy (famous for her performance in Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves”) gave the premiere with pianist Laura Ward; Kelly Ann Bixby has performed it; Meredith Lustig sang it on a New York Festival of Song program; and Mary Mackenzie recorded it for her album Vocalisms. Here Mary sings it with pianist Heidi Williams:
It may be at this challenging moment that the best way we can “hold each other closer in the turn” is by keeping our physical distance from one another – at the same time we cling to one another with our hearts.
I was very moved by Kiera Duffy’s intense and beautiful performances of my new song Waltzing the Spheres at Lyric Fest’s concerts featuring settings of poetry by women this weekend. While Friday’s performance at Bryn Mawr College was very fine, today’s at the Academy of Vocal Arts was even more powerful and emotionally potent. Laura Ward’s piano accompaniment – for my song, and for the entire program – was varied in color, sensitive in timing and nuance. Laura and her Lyric fest colleagues, Randi Marazzo and Suzanne DuPlantis, are experts at devising satisfying programs, and there was a good bit of material with which I was unfamiliar, including songs by Paul Bowles (setting Gertrud Stein), Florence B. Price, and, of all people, Irving Berlin. Baritone Randall Scarlata offered Berlin’s setting of lines from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (Give me your tired, your poor…”), this from a 1949 show called “Miss Liberty”. I loved Randy’s interpretation of Ives’ “The Greatest Man”, funny and touching in quick succession. The other very fine singers were tenor Joseph Gaines (his “Visit to St. Elizabeth’s”, text by Elizabeth Bishop, setting by Ned Rorem, was memorably harrowing), mezzo Elizabeth Shammash (charming in both another Bishop setting, this one by Lee Hoiby, and the Bowles mentioned above) and Suzanne herself, touching in a Jake Heggie duet with Elizabeth. There were also premieres by Benjamin Boyle, Douglas Cuomo, Michael Djupstrom, Daron Hagen, and Maurice Wright, and I thought every piece had something to commend it. I shouldn’t overlook the contribution of actress Michelle Eugene, who, for some of the songs, read the poetry before the setting was performed. I was a little skeptical about this idea beforehand, but after hearing it I think it was a good experiment that helped call attention to the poems. Certainly she read beautifully, with thoughtfully considered shadings of the texts.
UPDATE: David Patrick Stearns’s review of the program is here.
Here I am with Kiera:
and with Laura:
and here’s a rogue’s gallery of composers (L to R: Maurice Wright, myself, Douglas Cuomo, Michael Djustrom, and Ben Boyle):
I haven’t been posting for a bit because I have been trying to make progress on my new piece for The Crossing, to be premiered this June here in Philadelphia. But I am lifting up my head from the drafting table to point out that I have a couple of premieres coming up, one with Lyric Fest, the other with Network for New Music. (I’ll write about the Network piece in a future post.) Kiera Duffy, soprano (pictured at left), and Laura Ward, piano, will give the first performances of my Waltzing the Spheres at Lyric Fest concerts Friday, March 28, at Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall (7:30 pm) and at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce Street in Philadelphia (3:00 pm).
At a moment when the voice and piano recital is said to be something of a tough sell, Lyric Fest, like the New York Festival of Song, SongFusion, and SongFest, is an organization finding a good deal of success in its commitment to the medium. Founders Laura Ward, Suzanne DuPlantis, and Randi Marazzo are expert at devising intriguing programs. The upcoming concerts are devoted to settings of American women poets, with some familiar pieces, some little known, and some brand new – besides myself, Abbie Betinis, Benjamin Boyle, Douglas Cuomo, Michael Djupstrom, Daron Hagen and Maurice Wright will have new pieces done.
My text is by Susan Scott Thompson. I first came across the poem when I heard it recited on a Bill Moyers program very shortly after 9/11. I found the text terrifically touching, and immediately knew that I wanted to set it. It took a little while to track down the poem and the author, but I did eventually get a letter from Susan granting permission to set the poem. Sadly, she died a few years ago, and never got to hear this setting. You can read an article by Susan that includes the poem and discusses the PBS use of “Waltzing” here.