May 4, 2001.
I attended the première of David Del Tredeci’s Gay Life: A cycle of six songs for amplified baritone solo and orchestra Thursday night [May 3, 2001] at Davies Hall with William Sharp as the soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony.
My capsule view is that it was valiantly sung and strikingly orchestrated but that the words, particularly those of the better known three of the five poets, were not well set.
The flamboyant orchestration seemed to me to be the gayest aspect of the piece, though others might suggest that writing for the sound of the voice rather than the sense of the words has some gay root. I’m a writer, and I consider words important, and don’t understand why someone would both choose to set and largely throw away the sense of poems which somehow are supposed to add up to “Gay Life.”
The program note quotes from an interview in which Del Tredeci reflected on setting Lewis Carroll texts:
With nonsense, I felt I could do whatever I wanted with the words. When I began to set the Alice in Wonderland texts, I took the craziest ones first, like “Jabberwocky,” because they were the most adaptable to my atonal language.
Over the decades of setting Alice texts, he became tonal, and it is not that the words are inaudible (they are amplified) or were badly articulated (baritone William Sharp’s articulation cannot be faulted and he met the challenges of the “up and down and all around” vocal writing lasting 45 minutes).
The cycle “came to me in a burst—a burst of gay pride, really,” according to Del Tredeci. “It began in August of 1996 as a result of my experience at the Body Electric [massage] School’s week-long retreat called ‘The Dear Love of Comrades.”
The texts of first (and, in my opinion, best) of the songs, “Ode to Wildwood” and “In the Temple,” were written by retreat participants Michael Calhoun and Wilson Kidde. The Body Electric School’s retreat center, above the Russian River, is Wildwood, and the song makes references to Julie Andrews Point. Del Tredeci believes that “the spirited music evokes the unalloyed joy of gay men celebrating in a safe environment.” (There is nothing in the text to shock the horses.)
The first song’s final couplet—“The spirits in my being and the animal in my soul, | Met with Julie Andrews and brought balance to the whole”— are “deconstructed through fragmented repetition” (again quoting the program note), though the repetition cannot compare with that in the final song. It had some of the lilt of Virgil Thompson, like “They told me you had been to her,” my favorite aria from “Final Alice.”
The temple of the second song, according to Del Tredeci, “is a beautiful sacred space at Wildwood where ritual work is taught and practiced. ‘In the Temple’ is a hymn (him!) to sensual awareness. In fact, it ends with my own poetic addition (‘Ah! Men!’). It is relatively brief and dare I say is set straightforwardly.
The ironic humor of Allen Ginsberg’s “Personals Ads” is lost in percussive bravura. Sound better matches (but still overwhelms) sense in Ginsberg’s dark “After the Big Parade”:
Will they ever regain these hours of confetti’d ecstasy again?
Have they forgotten the Corridors of Death that gave such victory?
Will another hundred thousand desert deaths across the world be
cause for the next rejoicing?
Del Tredeci said he asked Ginsberg to suggest some erotic poems. The two Ginsberg poems Del Tredeci set seem to me quite unerotic, and I can’t imagine why anyone would try to set the line “Yesterday’ve returned to their jobs and arthritis now Tuesday.” Just looking at the page, I can tell that “yesterday’ve” and “arthritis” are daunting words to try to sing, and I’ve never written any vocal music. Del Tredeci himself describes the orchestration as “rowdy” (an adjective I’d apply to “Final Alice” and “An Alice Symphony” as well).
Reading the texts before the concert, I was steeled for “Here,” one of the elegies for Roger by Paul Monette. It is a heartbreaking, shell-shocked poem. The song was “written in memory of my lover, Paul Arcomano, who died of AIDS at the age of 34 in 1993.” I can’t say that the sense is broken up, since the title word is the one that is desperately repeated.
If the piece had ended there, I would have been mildly disappointed but better able to remember the pleasures of the first two songs. Alas, “Memory Unsettled” is the longest of the six songs, lasting about fifteen minutes. There is a moving Thom Gunn poem that must be about two men dying of AIDS, but the song is dedicated to the memory of Del Tredeci’s mother.
More than any of the others, the text was irritatingly slighted and betrayed here. Gunn’s quatrain is not particularly inspired in the first place—
When near your death a friend
Asked you what he could do,
“remember me,” you said.
We will remember you.
It is followed by a narrative, which I guess was voiced, but the finale is and endless, needy repetition of “Remember me.” It is not chanted, but enunciated with anguish each of what I estimate to have been 600 times. That was tedious and irritating (and, I’ll admit, threatening) enough, but to make matters worse Del Tredeci dared to expropriate music that Henry Purcell wrote for the dying Dido and bits of Wagner’s liebestod (and more).
In my view, Del Tredeci completely distorted Gunn’s touching poem. If he was going to incorporate music for which I and presumably many others know the words—not just “Remember me!” but “but forget my fate”—in art about AIDS, I think that the fate should be addressed.
The audience (not notably more gay than usual) grew restive with what seemed to be aborted endings of the string of “Remember me!”s, and the applause was tepid (either in contrast to the last première I heard in the hall, John Adam’s also problematic and overblown “El Niño,” or to the indifferently performed and clearly under-rehearsed Richard Strauss “Don Juan” that followed intermission.
I have to add that I found the composer charming and a very youthful-looking 64. I could with complete sincerity praise the singer, William Sharp, whom I found surprisingly alone (and unsurprisingly wiped-out) backstage, while everyone else there was fawning on the composer.
We were not introduced to his slave (at least the man who he usually parades on a leash) Guy. He was, reputedly, there, but David didn’t think that MTT et al. were ready for a leashed partner.
4 May 2001
©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray
P.S. (5/5/2001) Alan Ulrich’s San Francisco Chronicle review seems harsh but just. In particular, “You can’t help wondering why Del Tredici simply didn’t orchestrate in a manner that allowed the intelligibility of the verse to come through.”
Del Tredici’s reiterated “Remember Me,” in intervals of seconds and thirds, proves more of an obsessive ordeal than a lament. The quotations from Purcell, Tchaikovsky and Wagner’s Liebestod are mere pastiche, desperate attempts to connect with the tradition of Western music.
And, that the piece (which I would like somewhat better if its title was modified to “Bits of Gay Life,” “suggested that musical autobiography is not dead but has merely been hibernating or undergoing extended therapy, and this may be the most garish example of the genre since Strauss’ Symphonia domestica.”