Friday, May 8, 2009

Composer Ned Rorem

11 Songs for Susan by Ned Rorem
Performed by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
May 11, 2009
Carnegie Hall, 154 West 57th Street

Composer Ned Rorem
Ned Rorem, always oblivious to musical trends, has followed his own path as a composer. He’s been called the father of American art song for a reason—he writes beautiful tunes with beguiling melodies, whether they are song cycles (like Aftermath, which he wrote following 9/11) or his most recent opera, Our Town, which was performed at the Juilliard School last spring.

The 85-year-old Rorem’s newest work, 11 Songs for Susan, is something of a hybrid: he’s composed three new songs to go along with orchestrations of eight earlier works, to be sung by one of his foremost interpreters, mezzo Susan Graham, who will sing the premiere accompanied by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on May 11.

Rorem recently spoke from his home on the Upper West Side about 11 Songs for Susan, Our Town and other musical matters.

Kevin Filipski: What do you think of Susan Graham, who has sung your music regularly and will premiere the aptly-named 11 Songs for Susan?
Ned Rorem: She’s obviously a wonderful singer, and of singers with really good voices, she’s one of the very few who give a damn about new music and singing in her native tongue. It’s strange that we have such an inferiority complex about our own art, even though in other ways we’re the greatest country in the world.

KF: 11 Songs for Susan was commissioned by Orpheus?
NR: Yes—I thought that was nice, that their heart’s in the right place for being involved with contemporary music. And there are just two or three singers that care about contemporary music almost exclusively, so I’m very pleased to have done these songs for Susan to sing.

KF: On the Orpheus program, your music is being played alongside Haydn, Ravel and Stravinsky. Any thoughts?
NR: Ravel couldn’t be more French, like Satie, Poulenc, Debussy and Faure. There are only two musical aesthetics in the world, French and German, and I suppose I’m on the French side. If I were shipwrecked on a desert island and could only take one composer with me, it would be Ravel. And Stravinsky is the composer of the 20th century. There are two different breeds of composers and I’m in the Stravinsky bunch, not the Schoenberg bunch. Also, I used to prefer Haydn to Mozart, but now I’d say Mozart over Haydn.

KF: How did you come to write an opera of Our Town, the iconic American play?
NR: Every American composer who writes operas has always wanted to do Our Town. But no one could ever get the rights. The librettist, JD McClatchy, is a very close friend of (playwright) Thornton Wilder’s nephew, who finally gave him the rights. I think I did a pretty good job composing it: it’s singable, it’s very American, and it’s musical without being complicated. The play is more than just the sum of its parts, which is why it’s lasted so long. The opera, like the play, is not tragic, but very wistful and sad. If I could leave just one or two big works for posterity, Our Town would be one.

KF: Are you planning to attend the concert?
NR: I’ll be there—not least because Susan’s singing. I don’t especially like to go to concerts of my own music. I guess I can bow fairly well while onstage, but sometimes I don’t want to go if I think that the performance may be second-rate. I won’t have to worry about that this time, however: she’s a good singer and Orpheus is a good orchestra.

KF: What are you working on now?
NR: I have neither prose nor music on my plate right now. In a way, I have said everything I’d have to say through my music. However, having said that, if I do get commissioned to write some new work, like something for five voices—I’ve already done works for two, three and four voices—I’d be happy to do it.

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