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The Ever-Soaring Del Tredici

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America’s greatest gay composer, transcribing his consciousness and wit

Until now this renowned gay composer hasn’t seen a recording of his music released since 2001’s “Secret Music” issue on the lamentably departed CRI label. Del Tredici is thus delighted at the unexpected release of his 1972 “Vintage Alice” from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Paired with earlier songs to poetry by James Joyce, the music appears as part of Deutsche Grammophon’s prestigious 20/21 series.

Recorded between 1993 and 1997, these performances finally see the light of day thanks to conductor Oliver Knussen, who exercised an option on his Deutsche Grammophon contract to share Del Tredici’s music with a wider audience. Knussen conducts soprano Lucy Shelton, a high-flying modern music specialist who was dating Knussen at the time. The Asko Ensemble and pianist Del Tredici himself also perform on the disc.

During a telephone interview from his New York City home, Del Tredici expressed his pleasure with Deutsche Grammophon’s “beautiful production.”

“I haven’t had a European disc in a while and it has already gotten some quite good reviews in Time Out New York and Gramophone. I’m very pleased,” said Del Tredici. “David Gutman even mentions that I’m a gay activist.”

The conversation naturally turned to Del Tredici’s “It’s a Gay Life.” Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, commissioned the symphonic cycle adapted to texts by Paul Monette, Allen Ginsberg, and others. The work premiered in 2001 to mixed reviews.

The song cycle’s tepid reception hardly equaled the censorship that greeted the aborted June 21, 2002 at Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival début of Del Tredici’s “Wondrous the Merge.” The 20-minute piece, written for the Elements String Quartet, includes spoken excerpts from James Broughton’s explicitly erotic poem of the same name. Deemed too risqué for Michigan, only the non-controversial baritone aria and instrumental music was performed at the festival.

After getting wind of the intended censorship, Del Tredici learned that the festival is funded by Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant organizations.

“That seemed to me to be the problem,” Del Tredici was quoted as saying before the performance. “Though they told me that the poem’s language was too sexually explicit for their audience, it appears that old-fashioned homophobia was the root of the trouble. For an older, pillar-of-the-community married man like Broughton to realize and act upon his long-repressed homosexuality, as his autobiographical poem depicts, is the right wing’s worst nightmare.”

Del Tredici refused to allow the festival to call the performance a world premiere. The unexpurgated premiere will take place in New York’s Merkin Hall this fall.

“Gay Life” is another story. Though I praised certain parts of the cycle, other critics found themselves variously shocked and embarrassed by the composer’s openness. Some felt that Del Tredici’s public acknowledgment of gay intimacies is best avoided.

“I labor to do the opposite,” declared a chuckling Del Tredici. “If you write music called ‘Gay Life,’ you want to celebrate what was supposedly uncelebratable in the past. I’m very much for having all my secrets up front and common knowledge, as I’ve always done. Be it alcoholism or being gay or whatever, they’re part of me.”

In telling his “secrets,” Del Tredici may have simply been doing what he has done in a 12-step recovery program for close to two decades. Hollywood celebrities may be lauded for such openness on “Oprah,” but few composers succeed with such candor. It’s no wonder that cellist Matt Haimovitz is trying to cultivate a new audience for modern American classical music by performing in rock clubs.

“Certainly I learned to be more open in 12-step groups,” Del Tredici acknowledged. “At a certain point—I’ve been sober 18 years—I decided, ‘I’m going to bring this out into my life. I can do that.’ It was a very conscious decision. I chose what I did, and I’ve certainly taken my lumps for it. It has certainly affected critics like the one in San Francisco. The attack was so virulent, I was wondering what was behind it.

“I’m tired of the way composers’ lives are prettied up with all the negative or controversial aspects taken out. I don’t want to be another one of those composers. For example, the books on Copland, until recently, didn’t even mention that he was gay. In general, the gay issue is so closeted over in biographies.

“I want to create a body of music that is explicitly gay so that it will exist. Once it exists, there it is. Deal with it! Because there really isn’t music that is specifically gay. Some of it is ambiguously gay. When I choose texts for pieces like ‘Gay Life,’ I make sure they’re explicit.”

Del Tredici’s latest song cycle, “On Wings of Song,” reflects the fruits of his openness. Its second song, “New Year’s Eve” was written by Carla Drysdale as an appreciation for his piano performance, in drag, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts on New Year’s Eve in 1998.

The composer reveals the song’s origins in the liner notes for the May 29 Merkin Hall performance.

“At breakfast on New Year’s Day [1999], Carla presented me with her newly-minted poem and I delightedly set it to music,” Del Tredici recalled. What lifted her, moved her, was not so much my piano playing or the celebratory night, but rather the audacious dress and accessories in which I flew, as it were, across the keyboard. The song is fast and fiery, with an overdeveloped piano part reminiscent of my New Year’s Eve exertions.”

Many other Del Tredici songs for piano and voice reflect his sexual orientation. Three songs from the cycle “Brother,” set for vocalist John Kelly (known for his Joni Mitchell impersonations) appear on the “Secret Music” disc. That disc, along with another CRI disc devoted solely to Del Tredici, is currently available at qualiton.com.

Del Tredici’s major song cycle that no one will perform is called “My Favorite Penis Poems.” It ends with Allen Ginsberg’s “Please Master,” an extraordinarily erotic S/M duet for baritone and soprano.

“We were going to do it at the Museum of Sex in New York—I thought it would be a perfect venue—but they don’t really have a concert space. It’s amazing how groups shy away from anything having to do with explicitness, be it gay or simply sexual.”

I asked Del Tredici why he had chosen to set Ginsberg’s explicit gay S/M poem as a female/male duet.

“I know,” he responded with a laugh. “It’s very inappropriate. The cycle alternates baritone and soprano songs, so I wanted to bring the singers together for this. I thought ‘Hell, straight people do S/M too. It can have a little bit of that in it.’ Ginsberg’s poem is explicitly male-male, but this is a ‘pants role’ in reverse.”

Which harkens back to “Vintage Alice,” a fabulous work, distinguished by Del Tredici’s trademark hilarious inventiveness and fantastic leaps of musical imagination. Yet it, too, caused controversy at its first performances, this time because it was one of the first tonal works the born again neo-romanticist dared to offer to a musical establishment that considered the tonality of the three Bs passé.

“I discovered Lewis Carroll’s sentiment, his world of wit and whimsy, demanded another kind of music. Without realizing it, I got tonal,” said Del Tredici.

Del Tredici’s wit and whimsy had always been there. But he had never thought to express them in composition until he discovered in Alice “a way to let out my humor into music.

“I saw things in the text that I wouldn’t have thought of had I not had that text in front of me,” he said.

Listeners will especially enjoy the rhythmic distortions that accompany the Queen’s declaration, “She’s murdering the time.”

Another new disc, Reference Recordings’ “Bells for Stokowski,” counts Del Tredici’s 18-minute “In Wartime” among its three premiere recordings. His first piece for wind symphony was begun on November 16, 2002, shortly after Congress authorized an invasion of Iraq.

Captured in stunning sound, “In Wartime” contains two connected movements, “Hymn” and “Battlemarch.” In the first, Del Tredici transmutes wit into irony, embedding fragments of the hymn “Abide with Me” within music that expresses the coalescence of forces in prayer before battle. One cannot help but cast a wry smile at the brilliance of choosing The University of Texas Wind Ensemble to perform the work.

Although Del Tredici is currently most interested in writing chamber music, he remains “always on the lookout” for settings that express sexuality and gay poetry. He’s especially interested in the poetry of Antler, a gay poet who writes “in the Ginsberg style: very erotic, very real, and inadvertently shocking because he uses language not in the poetic canon as words you can use.” Even as he searches for new texts, Del Tredici witnesses performances of his compositions, such as the April premiere of “My Goldberg” with pianist Bruce Levingston in Alice Tully Hall. “Gotham Glory: Four Scenes from New York,” a commission from Carnegie Hall written for gay pianist Anthony De Mare, receives its premiere in Zankel Hall in March 2005.

“On Wings of Song,” Del Tredici’s 35-minute sequence of five songs for soprano and piano, played without pause, débuts at Merkin Hall on May 29.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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