University of Hartford "H" Magazine - Winter 2019

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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Harbison: Winter's Tale; Hersch: Leaves of Grass

01/13/2013 1:00 pm
01/13/2013 4:30 pm


Host Keith Brown writes:

Keep Shakespeare in mind as you listen this Sunday to a twentieth-century operatic treatment of another one of his famous plays, and then a musical setting of verse by America's great gay bard.

Contemporary American composer John Harbison (b. 1938) adroitly edited the text of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1610?) into the more concise form of an opera libretto. He cut the five acts of the play down to two. Harbison retitled his own libretto Winter's Tale. This his first opera premiered in 1974 in a chamber version tailored for San Francisco Opera's American Opera Project. Harbison revised and expanded upon his score in 1991. Interpolated into the operatic action are six "Dumbshows" or pantomimes inspired by Elizabethan theatrical practice.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project revived Winter's Tale in 2005 on stage and again in 2009 as an unstaged recording made at Mechanics' Hall in Worcester, Mass. Gil Rose conducts the orchestra and chorus of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with thirteen vocal soloists. Winter's Tale comes to us on two BMOP Sound compact discs released in 2012.

Walt Whitman (1819-92), the creator of 'free verse" in the English language, sang America's praise through all his rhapsodic, unrhymed, unmetered prose-poems. Many composers have been attracted to Whitman's poetry, and demonstrated how well it works for the singing voice. (After all, Walt himself wrote, "I hear America singing, " and it's well known he loved opera. )

You would think that a modern gay male American musician would want to set as a cantata the "Calamus Poems" incorporated into Whitman's epic Leaves of Grass. These are the first overtly homosexual poems in English. Jazz composer Fred Hersch (b. 1955) decided not to tackle them in his two-part jazz oratorio Leaves of Grass (2005). Instead, he selected passages that reveal Whitman's deep understanding of our basic human nature as mirrored in his own idiosyncratic personality. Two distinguished jazz vocalists, Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry, interpret nineteen passages from Leaves. The composer plays piano and directs his own six member instrumental ensemble. Palmetto Records issued Fred Hersch's Leaves of Grass on a single silver disc.