It isn't horrible because I happen to like the song a lot. "Come to the Moon," is an obscure Gershwin tune and I thank Lloyd Schwartz for introducing it to me by recommending Broadway Show Stoppers (get it!). I'm not sure why the song is infiltrating my thoughts now (dreams of escape?) but in my experience, the only way to rid oneself of an earworm is to hear the song in its entirety. Unfortunately the "worm" activates itself when I'm away from my music collection. So I've done the obvious: searched the nooks and crannies of YouTube for a video, preferably of an award-winning college choir like this one giving it the full treatment. No such luck. Instead, I waded into the apparently very deep waters of the Japanese Vocaloid . The "singer" of Gershwin's tune is Megurine Luka (巡音ルカ, a twenty-six year old female who "sings" in both English and Japanese. What strikes me as bizarre here is that the vocaloids are opting to cover these old standards. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? You tell me.
(The bittersweet conclusion of the story of my poems being set to music by the composition fellows at Tanglewood)
July 30, 2008: Grand Finale
Last night’s concert was a memorable event. Nearly 300 people—friends and Tanglewood Music Center people, musicians and people curious about the future of contemporary music—crowded into Tanglewood’s old barn of a Chamber Music Hall and spilled over onto the lawn to hear the results of this summer’s Vocal Composition Project, the first time the Tanglewood Music Center’s young fellowship composers ever got to work closely and systematically with a living poet.
I’d returned to Tanglewood the day before for the dress rehearsal, only a few days after the conclusion of the overwhelming, astonishing five-day/14-event Elliott Carter centennial celebration, at which the 99-year-old composer was present at several world premieres and in which almost all the Tanglewood fellows participated. Carter was certainly an inspiration, and a challenge, to the composition fellows. He’s one of the great setters of American and modern poetry. The festival offered memorable performances of his profound and quirky settings of Elizabeth Bishop, Quasimodo, Ungaretti, Montale, John Ashbery (who, a mere 81, was present for the premiere of Carter’s hilarious and luminous new a cappella sextet, Mad Regales, a pun—Carter loves literary puns—on “madrigals”), and, most moving of all, a recent cycle of Wallace Stevens poems, the autumnal In the Distances of Sleep, sung by the remarkable young Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey (who the week before had made another huge impression in John Harbison’s Symphony No. 5, which includes poems by Czeslaw Milosz, Louise Glück, who was also present, and Rilke). At one of the panel discussion, British conductor/composer and Carter advocate Oliver Knussen talk about how Carter’s poem settings always began with the vocal line, filling in the accompaniment later
Was this how the composition fellows were going to approach my poems?
At the rehearsal, participants and onlookers alike were breathing a sigh of relief that they had survived the exhausting Carter week.
(The story of my poems being set to music by the composition fellows at Tanglewood continues with some new wrinkles.)
July 26, 2008: An Interlude
Writing in the first installment of this blog about being both a poet and a critic, I commented that the happy occasion of my poems being set to music also opened a door between these two compartments of my life. But something I hadn’t anticipated came up that makes me think that door should have remained closed. I hadn’t the slightest inkling that being a guest artist working with young composers at the Tanglewood Music Center, the separate educational wing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, could be regarded as a conflict of interest. But I was wrong. A Boston arts reporter who had evidently seen thisblog (or had it pointed out to him) contacted me and the editors of The Boston Phoenix, for whom I’ve been a free-lance reviewer for thirty years, alerting us that he was writing about this alleged ethical breach in his blog. Peter Kadzis, the Phoenix executive editor, responded that the Phoenix didn’t regard it as such, that the newspaper felt honored by my invitation, and pointed out the long history of artist-critics. All one had to do was read my recent reviews of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and compare them to what I had written before this occasion to see if the slightest change in my attitude had in fact occurred (I’ve always said what I think, sometimes at my own peril; it’s one of my character flaws). I explained the nature of this invitation, repeating in what I regarded as forthright, thorough, and candid detail what I had already quite publicly disclosed on this website.
When the blog appeared, it included so little information about what my role actually was, misguided readers evidently got the impression that I was getting a big payoff (laughable!), that my poems were going to be performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (rather than by student singers and pianists), and that I even had a recording contract and would be getting residuals! The responses on the website ranged from “What’s the big deal?” to appalling insults and attacks on my character, my poems, and my friends, and offering completely false information as fact. This created something of a firestorm and bloggers are still debating the issue, some with common sense and seriousness and some with astonishing, dismaying, frightening hostility. Every silver lining, I guess, has its dark cloud.
In the meantime, the workshops with the composition fellows have been very exciting and moving. The more I hear of the settings (at this point I’ve heard two almost complete and only parts of the rest), the more impressed I am by the young composers. And their teachers. I started going (with no additional remuneration) to sessions with the composers and performers I was not contracted to attend. Shulamit Ran has been consistently insightful and inspired in her detailed comments and suggestions about the scoring, about clarifying the composers’ intentions, about getting closer to the meaning of the poems. The vocal coaches for this project were two celebrated sopranos, opera star Dawn Upshaw and Lucy Shelton, who is best known for her work in contemporary music (Elliott Carter dedicated a marvelous song cycle to her that she sang with glowing eloquence during the Tanglewood’s Contemporary Music Festival unprecedented five-day all-Carter hundredth birthday celebration). They became so interested in and involved, they both came to all the sessions, not just the ones to which they had each been separately assigned. Their feedback to the singers and pianist was both practical and deeply thoughtful, always making the performers more aware of verbal and emotional nuances and helping them bring these underlying elements to the surface. It was a cooperative venture. The composers were happy to make changes that would help the singers and pianists and get closer to the poems. My “job” was to make sure my intentions were understood, and to clarify phrasing, diction (especially getting these young concert singers to sound more “American”), and the pronunciation of foreign names. The whole process was illuminating.
Listeners to NPR and readers of the Boston Phoenix have long enjoyed and profited from Lloyd Schwartz’s music criticism, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. I personally am in his debt for recommendations he has made over the years. (On Lloyd's recommendation I bought, for example, a CD called Broadway Showstoppers, in which under John McGlinn’s direction opera singers give their full-bodied renditions of "Tea for Two," "Swanee," "Who," "Dancing in the Dark," "Come to the Moon," "All The Things You Are," and other terrific songs.) Schwartz is also a distinguished poet, author of several acclaimed books of poetry, editor of a significant volume about Elizabeth Bishop. His work has appeared in many outstanding magazines and been anthologized in The Best American Poetry.
Because of things he has written as a guest blogger here, Lloyd has now been attacked on the "Exhibitionist," the Boston Globe blog. The focus of the attack is that Schwartz’s poems have been set to music by six young composers who are composition fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center this summer. Schwartz’s sin is that he has accepted an invitation to visit the center to hear the pieces performed and to work with the young composers. This, says his accuser, may compromise Schwartz’s objectivity as a critic of any Boston Symphony Orchestra event now or in the future.
The charge is preposterous. The custom of putting up a distinguished visitor, and paying that person a modest honorarium to give a talk or to work with students, is routine and unobjectionable. Character assassination is an unfortunate element of the blogosphere, and any attempt to impugn the integrity of Lloyd Schwartz is despicable. Is it possible that the Globe blogger has it in for a writer for a rival newspaper, the smaller, fiercely independent Phoenix?
(The third installment of the story about my poems being set to music by the composition fellows at Tanglewood)
I just got back from Tanglewood where I had my first meeting with the composition fellows who are setting my poems to music. But before I tell you about that encounter, let me first tell you about… the ghost! As I’ve already written, we were being put up at Seranak, the cozy 34-room guest cottage near Tanglewood with the great view (actually, a mansion shouldn’t be called a “cottage” unless it has a minimum of 36 rooms). We were greeted by Peter Grimm, the delightful and knowledgeable manager-overseer of the estate, who eagerly showed us around and made us feel perfectly “at home.” Our room for this weekend, to our surprise, was actually Serge Koussevitzky’s own bedroom, a spacious room with the best view of the lake and the distant hills. Between the two front windows stood an old armoire with a full-length mirror, inside of which—still—were the maestro’s concert clothing (tails, vests, trousers, white summer jackets, and a spectacular array of footwear, from blue leather bedroom slippers to two-toned saddle shoes). In a dresser drawer were his collection of collars, and, resting on one shelf of an imposing secretary, a huge bible. We’d been warned that Koussevitzky’s ghost haunted the premises, but were later informed that it was surely Natalie’s, whose niece, Olga, Koussevitzky married after Natalie’s death. Several times during the night the bathroom door swung open, but this was more likely the wind than any ghost—it were the ghost, we were assured, we’d know it.
The sad news of the previous week was that maestro James Levine needed surgery—a cyst on his kidney required the removal of the kidney—and he was forced to cancel the rest of the Tanglewood season. The Sunday afternoon of our arrival marked the first time a substitute conductor was filling in for him. Assistant conductor Julian Kuerti was leading the renowned pianist Peter Serkin in Bach and Mozart and also be conducting symphonies by Haydn and Schubert. These weren’t exactly memorable performances, but at least they went off without a hitch, a testament to young Kuerti’s professionalism. During the intermission, a young man came up to me and asked if I was Lloyd Schwartz. He was Jeff Stanek, from Madison, Wisconsin one of the composers who’d be setting my poems. He had the score to another musical setting of his, to a sequence of poems by Lucy Rosenberg, his grandmother, called “Summer Whimsy.” It would be performed on a night I was back in Boston. But there was a rehearsal the afternoon after our group meeting and I asked if I could come.
That night Barbara Cook (I’m a huge fan) appeared at Seiji Ozawa Hall, and that was a memorable concert. Celebrating her 80th birthday year, she sang not only with her usual sensitivity to phrasing and musical line but also with more energy and fuller voice than I’ve heard from her in several years. One of the highlights was a pairing of “letter” songs: a poignant slow-motion rendering of self-deception in “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter (and Make Believe It Came from You)” in tandem with Stephen Sondheim’s heartbreaking, self-knowing “I Wish I Could Forget You,” from Passion. But she also raised the roof with an obscure early Gershwin number, “Nashville Nightingale,” and Ray Charles’s “Hallelujah, I Just Love Him So!” which was also a vehicle for introducing her terrific accompanists: Lee Musiker (piano), Peter Donovan (bass), and James Saporito (a percussionist with especially shimmering cymbals). An amazing, exhilarating evening.
Next morning, I met with Shulamit Ran, this summer’s Tanglewood composer-in-residence. She was working with the six young composers who would be setting my poems. I had a two-hour session scheduled with them that afternoon and so, sitting out on the Seranak veranda, we talked over what I should do. I was impressed with Ran’s concern for her students—I was sure she was a great teacher—and her sense of humor.
(Continuing the story about my poems being set to music by the composition fellows at Tanglewood)
I drove out to Tanglewood on June 27 to attend a performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group, which involved some pretty good German poetry set to memorable music by Schubert and Brahms. It was a moving and exhilarating evening, and some of the impressive young singers performing the music would surely be singing some of the new settings of my poems. I also signed the contract for my upcoming work with the composer-fellows. The Tanglewood Music Center was actually paying me for my services, and was going to put me up at Seranak, the home of the legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky, whose idea Tanglewood was (it’s a rambling old mansion on a hilltop with one of the most gorgeous views in the Berkshires—named after SER-ge A-nd NA-talie K-oussevitzky). I was even going to be reimbursed for my gas mileage!
I also got to see an advance copy of the summer Tanglewood Music Center program, which listed all the composers, performers, and guest faculty. I was the last entry on an alphabetical list that included such esteemed musical figures as pianist Emmanuel Ax, soprano Renée Fleming, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, choreographer Mark Morris, and conductor/composer/pianist André Previn—a rather more glamorous list than the ones on which I’m usually included.
I also learned which poems of mine each of the composer-fellows had chosen and was happily surprised by both the choices themselves and who made them. The composers had each been given a sheaf of poems from which to choose one to set (one of the poems, in the form of three sonnets, was offered to three different composers, but none of them opted for this arrangement). Since there would be only a month before the concert at which their work would be presented, all the poems were relatively short. I was especially pleased by the range and unpredictability of the choices. The shortest poem, “Renato’s Dream,” is a brief narration by a Brazilian poet friend about his dream of speaking with the great Brazilian poets; it was chosen by Jeff Stanek, from Madison, Wisconsin. “Shut-Eye,” a violent prose poem depicting a frightening dream about shooting oneself in the eye, was the choice, quite against stereotype, of British composer Charlotte Bray, from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Chinese composer Yao Chen picked “Her Waltz,” a poem in which my elderly mother describes a dream in which she sees herself dancing with a chair. “In the Mist,” all hushed atmosphere, was the choice of Helen Grime, from Edinburgh, Scotland. Matti Kovler, from Jerusalem, selected what is perhaps the most “American” poem in the group, “Song,” a playful lyric about a moose on the loose in the Maine woods. And Jane Stanley, from Sydney, Australia, picked “Six Words,” an intricately compressed dialogue poem with only one word per line (possibly, I like to think, the world’s shortest sestina). I admired all this independent thinking, and was now looking forward all the more eagerly to meeting the composers into whose hands my poems were being put.
Lloyd Schwartz is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Classical Music Editor of The Boston Phoenix, and a regular commentator for NPR's Fresh Air. His most recent book of poems is Cairo Traffic (University of Chicago Press), and he is co-editor of Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters for the Library of America. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Pushcart Prize, and The Best American Poetry. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
Lloyd has agreed to post regularly over the next several weeks about the progress of the thrilling project he describes below. Thank you, Lloyd. -- sdh
June 25, 2008: Before
Last February, I received a delightful invitation from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Karen Leopardi, the Associate Director for Faculty and Guest Artists at the Tanglewood Music Center, sent me an email asking me to participate in a poetry project with the composition fellows at Tanglewood this summer. This year's composer in residence, Shulamit Ran, the Israeli-born Pulitzer Prize winning musician who has served as composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Lyric Opera, decided that she wanted the six composers working with her this summer to concentrate on vocal music—each of them setting a poem by the same poet. I was the poet she selected.
I would meet with the composers a couple of times to talk to them about my poems and answer any questions they might have for me. And one more thing. At the Contemporary Music Festival this summer, the featured events are works by Elliott Carter, celebrating his 100th birthday (this coming December). I’m a longstanding Carter aficionado. He’s done some fascinating and ambitious settings of contemporary poetry, including works by Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Ashbery, three major 20th century Italian poets (Ungaretti, Quasimodo, and Montale), and a symphony (his Symphony for Three Orchestras) inspired by Hart Crane. In college, he was an English major; early in his career he did evocative and shockingly tuneful settings of Frost and Emily Dickinson. I’m also something of an expert on Bishop (I just edited the Library of America volume Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters—virtually her collected works). So Tanglewood has also asked me to talk to the composer-fellows about Carter’s Bishop cycle, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, which will be performed at the festival. On July 29th, there’d be a concert at the Chamber Music Hall at which the settings of my poems would be performed. At the end of the concert, I’d also participate in a discussion about musical settings of poetry with Shulamit Ran and John Harbison (the director of the Contemporary Music Festival at Tanglewood, and a brilliant text-setter himself).
Would I be interested?
I suspect most poets would be thrilled—who wouldn't want to hear what one's poems sounded like to someone else? There’ve been some extraordinary, revelatory musical settings of poetry (also some terrible ones). It would be wonderful to be a “collaborator” in a new masterpiece. I’ve been traveling around the country speaking about Elizabeth Bishop and giving readings of her poems. It’s been a joy. But how satisfying in the midst of all these Bishop events to have something in which my own work was the center of attention. But maybe this invitation even meant something more to me. I’ve been writing poems seriously for nearly fifty years. But I’ve also been a music critic for more than thirty years. Rarely does a door ever open between these two compartments of my life. Now it has!