A Rorem Success

Sing down: From left, Kurt Ollmann, Rufus Müller, Delores Ziegler, and Lisa Saffer.Photo: Toby Wales

Ned Rorem feels unloved, unappreciated, and underperformed. So what else, you may ask, is new? Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Mahler – composers since the beginning of time have felt neglected and/or misunderstood, even in ages more hospitable to new music than ours. Perhaps Rorem’s spirits will pick up as 1998 progresses and the events celebrating his 75th birthday inevitably multiply. The festivities have already begun handsomely with the world premiere of his latest work, Evidence of Things Not Seen, an ambitiously scaled three-part cycle consisting of 36 songs and lasting some 90 minutes. The score was recently performed in Weill Recital Hall by the New York Festival of Song, and after just one hearing I will rashly proclaim it one of the musically richest, most exquisitely fashioned, most voice-friendly collections of songs I have ever heard by any American composer.

It’s heartening to find Rorem, our most word-conscious composer, returning to a form in which he has always excelled and once practiced prolifically. He wrote some 400 songs between 1945 and 1980 but has produced only a handful since, citing native singers’ shameful neglect of their own vocal repertory as the reason. That situation is perhaps beginning to change, although Rorem remains pessimistic. His somber mood even pervades the progress of his new cycle, as reflected in the titles of its three sections: Beginnings, songs about moving forward and the wistful optimism of young love; Middles, about coming of age, the horror of war, and romantic disappointment; and Ends, mainly about death and concluding with William Penn’s stern Quakerly evocation, “Faith lights us, even through the grave, being the Evidence of Things not seen.” Twenty-four poets guide us on this journey, a choice selection by a songwriting composer as noted for his literary discrimination as for his skill in finding ways poetry can be inflected, interpreted, and expressed by the human voice. Many of Rorem’s favorites are here – Auden, Roethke, Goodman, Colette, Whitman – and there are guest appearances by Baudelaire, Kipling, Wilde, and Yeats. It must have taken a very self-confident composer to revisit and find such a fresh musical response to familiar poems like Wordsworth’s “The Rainbow” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee.”

Much has been made over the years of Rorem’s Gallic bias, and the sensibility of these 36 songs is indeed closer to the mélodie than to the Lied – and that despite the cycle’s abendfüllende (evening-length) proportions and a confessional aura that casts more than a furtive glance east of the Rhine. Even so, I can’t imagine who else could have composed these songs, which so vividly reveal the sort of distinctively American voice once so disarmingly described by Steven Blier, with Michael Barrett a co-founder of the New York Festival of Song: “Song is best when songful – straightforward, accessible, actable, communicative. It loves subtlety but is resistant to intellectual complication.” Just so, and although I’ve heard perhaps only a quarter of Rorem’s vast output, each one of his songs fulfills the implications of that statement.

It was wise to cancel the intermission and perform the cycle without a pause, especially since the musical invention sustains such a high level and the tension-and-release progress has been so astutely judged. Four singers are required, and when they are brought together to raise the emotional temperature at key moments, Rorem reminds us that his ensemble writing is every bit as evocative as his music for solo voices. For all of that, I imagine that singers will want to excerpt individual songs. I can begin by recommending that rapturous setting of “How Do I Love Thee,” although when it’s heard out of context, one loses the reference to the cycle’s opening question, “From Whence Cometh Song?”; both songs begin with the same yearning six-note phrase, a correspondence that tells us something about Rorem’s musical allegiances. For sheer beauty of vocal line coupled with razor-sharp prosody, even Virgil Thomson’s virtuosity in this department is bested in “Their Lonely Betters.” And has any song composer expressed pent-up agony or controlled hysteria more chillingly than in “Faith,” an AIDS poem by Mark Doty? Another Auden text, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” begins in a dislocated “valse monotone” rhythm and develops into a disturbingly seductive mini-opera about a lovers’ tryst, slyly characterized by Rorem in his brief instruction to the singers at the top of the score: “Furtive but spacious, hopeless but fun.”

What finally impresses me most about Evidence of Things Not Seen is how generously the music flatters the voice and prompts a singer’s most expressive instincts. I have heard Lisa Saffer, Delores Ziegler, Rufus Müller, and Kurt Ollmann on other occasions and in other contexts, but I have seldom heard them connect words and notes so naturally or respond so eagerly to their material. Each carried a score, but the solo songs were sung from memory and projected with a vocal freedom and interpretive eloquence that took the breath away. I pray that some enterprising record label plans to hustle them and their two expert accompanists, Barrett and Blier, into a recording studio and preserve this exciting performance.

It only remains to salute the New York Festival of Song, which, with the Library of Congress, commissioned Evidence of Things Not Seen and was rewarded with an instant classic. Over the past ten years, the Festival of Song has become a fixture on the concert scene – its imaginatively programmed concerts and ever-expanding roster of singers now attract audiences packed with appreciative fans – so maybe the outlook for the song recital is not so grim after all.

A Rorem Success