Unless I missed something, none of New York’s big musical institutions officially celebrated Ned Rorem’s 75th birthday last year in a major way, with extensive retrospectives, special concerts, gala premieres, and learned seminars. So this always resourceful composer has been thrown back on his own devices, and, I would say, he has been pretty successful – Rorem’s music turned up with frequency most everywhere in ‘98, and the party is still going on. Ned Rorem Hosts, a series currently in progress at the 92nd Street Y, includes conversations with noted American composers, together with performances of their music; the featured celebrity at the most recent program was Rorem himself. Since no guest host was invited to help stir the pot, talk was at a minimum. Too bad, I thought at first – as anyone who has read his memoirs and criticism knows, Rorem has stimulating views on everything from aids to zebras. But then, here is one opinionated composer who truly prefers that you listen to his music rather than hear him talk about it. And so we did, most pleasurably.
By now, Rorem has built up a sizable body of work, and, judging from the 60 or so scores I’ve encountered over the years, it is an astonishingly consistent catalogue in terms of style and quality. Rorem found his voice early on and never saw a reason to alter it in any appreciable way, despite swings in fashion and pressures to conform. All the music played at the Y concert was written around 1989-90, four elegantly crafted pieces completely confident about what they wish to express. The two instrumental works are particularly beguiling, as Rorem imaginatively applies his characteristic use of expanded tonality to realize the precise musical image he has in mind. Even without a prodding, descriptive title, Spring Music for violin, cello, and piano, played by the Peabody Trio, would conjure up a happy season of dewy optimism with its heady brio and bright instrumental colors. The five-movement String Quartet No. 3, played by the Mendelssohn Quartet, has weightier matters to communicate, striking a disturbing note of impending tragedy in the opening chaconne and sustaining the serious mood right up to a final whirling “Dervish.”
Songs have long been Rorem’s calling cards, but few of his extended cycles have a tougher sinew or deeper resonance than The Auden Poems for tenor and piano trio. These seven wry poetic statements appealed to him because, as the composer says, “they spoke to my condition. Each is an admixture of cynicism and vulnerability, of force and hopelessness, of hot sadness and cold joy, of an objectivity which nevertheless surges.” Jerry Hadley’s rather stiff vocalization only suggested these striking polarities, but the music’s lyrical strength and rhetorical power shone through even so. Finally there was Angelina Réaux’s delicious Grand Guignol interpretation of Anna la Bonne, a seven-minute monodrama to a Jean Cocteau text about a maid who poisons her mistress and written as an homage to Poulenc, the French composer who is perhaps closest to Rorem in musical spirit. If there are any more all-Rorem concerts of this quality in the works, let the birthday celebrations continue indefinitely.