Picnic Cantata / Dinner at Eight
SIX PACKETS OF OATMEAL
In the past several seasons, NYFOS has been lucky enough to present three songs cycles by Gabriel Kahane: Craigslistlieder, The Memory Palace, and Three Vernacular Songs. Lucky is not a word I use lightly. In his early years as a composer, Gabe was usually both the singer and the pianist for his own songs, and he excels at both tasks. The brash Craiglistlieder were a splashy début success in 2006, tapping into a cultural moment with immaculate timing. He described them as “a pastiche that opened a lot of doors for me.” One of the doors they opened was mine.
My friend Charlotte Dobbs had spoken to me several times about her friend Gabriel Kahane, and one afternoon she gently insisted on inviting him to join us for tea. Gabe showed up wearing an outrageously oversized pair of white-framed sunglasses, which I later came to understand were “ironic” white sunglasses. Without any fanfare, Gabe sidled up to my piano and sang through the entire score of Craigslistlieder. I’d never heard anything like it before, and I must admit that I was speechless when he was done. The piano parts alone are a tremendous technical challenge, and the vocal line ranges freely from counter-tenor to bass-baritone depths. Could anyone else ever hope to perform them, or did they belong only to their creator?
Gradually Craigslistlieder entered my own repertoire via a series of wonderful baritones—first David McFerrin, who had a special way with “Neurotic and Lonely”; then Chad Sloane at Wolf Trap (still my favorite “Assless Chaps”); and then Andrew Garland and Theo Hoffman—each of them vivid, daring, hilarious, and heartbreaking in his own way.
Gabriel Kahane (b. 1981) comes by his musical talent honestly. His father is the pianist/conductor Jeffrey Kahane. Gabe has been deeply versed in classical music since he was an infant, but he has equally deep roots in folk, rock, and jazz—and equal respect for them. The list of credits for this young man is nothing short of humbling. He’s written a musical for the New York Public Theater, accompanied bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff in European recitals, fulfilled commissions for the Kronos Quartet and the L.A. Philharmonic, and jammed with the likes of Rufus Wainwright and Elvis Costello. In 2014, his major label debut, The Ambassadors, was cited by Rolling Stone as “one of the year’s very best albums.” He was the first composer-in-residence with Orpheus. And last year, after performances with over half a dozen orchestras across the country, he released Crane Palimpsest, in a recording with the Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra The Knights.
Kahane’s style has developed a great deal since Craigslistlieder. The Memory Palace, a compilation of five early songs, premiered at NYFOS in 2011. Gabe described those pieces as “the beginning of my finding a musical language that I felt that I could speak. It is like my Opus 1.” Its musical idioms straddle blues, German art song, and an array of 21st century styles blended into something unique, original, and emotionally complex. “I have tried to figure out if I am writing pastiche Schubert songs, only in English. But then I think of this quote from György Ligeti, whose music I adore: ‘Anything that is truly new is just two extant things that haven’t been combined before.’ So—what if I take this gesture from music that is 150 years old, and marry it to the way we sing popular music now?”
Kahane continues to blossom. His 2016 album The Fiction Issue demonstrated a new kind of austerity, with more angular vocal writing, briefer musical sections, and more detail in its instrumental commentary. When I received the score for tonight’s piece, Six Packets of Oatmeal, Gabe was not surprised when I observed that it seemed to be continuing down the path of The Fiction Issue. “But the music springs directly from the poetry.
And the poem? “I was at the MacDowell Colony in 2010, working on a setting of a Galway Kinnell poem, ‘Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight.’ That’s when I learned about his poem ‘Oatmeal,” which he’d written there. It is standard for the artists at the MacDowell to come together at suppertime after a day of writing or composing, but it seems Kinnell divided his lunch into two portions and ate the second half of it for dinner—alone. There is beautiful humor in the poem, but it is really about the painful solitude of being an artist. And his loneliness is behind the creative act of making up mealtime companions.”
“Little Sleep’s Head” is intense and opulent, written for piano, cello, and Gabe’s own voice wailing and murmuring into a microphone. “Oatmeal” is more chant-like, making use of piano sonorities other than the usual hammer striking the strings. “Those sounds get you into a space that is less secular, more other-worldly, quasi-religious. It evokes the kind of isolation that Kinnell seemed to favor. I received a phone call from his widow—I’d written a letter asking for the rights to the poem, but hadn’t received a response. She described their kitchen table, littered with two year’s worth of mail, on which she had only recently discovered my letter. It had been sent months, if not years, earlier. The Kinnells took the world in slowly.”
While Kahane’s music is beginning to turn up on recital programs and cabaret shows, “Oatmeal” is one of the few pieces that he’s actually written for another singer to premiere. It led him to consider the piano writing carefully. “There are certain sonorities that read very beautifully on the guitar, but when played on the piano they sound sentimental, too emotionally direct. Similarly, when writing vocal music for someone with operatic training and not the unadorned mike style I use, questions of functional harmony arise. I want to avoid anything that reads as pastiche.” He was also thinking about the acoustical ambience of concert halls. “Context determines how we receive a piece of music. The austerity in ‘Six Packets’ stems from a concern about the innate romanticism of the trained voice in tandem with certain kinds of familiar harmony. The leanness of the piano writing, combined with the plucked strings and the harmonics, should spur the singer to a slightly sparer, less trained sound. The soloist won’t have to project over a thick accompaniment.”
The music of Six Packets of Oatmeal gently runs the gamut, from the grooving popular style of the fourth song to the twelve-tone row that begins in #2 and is heard complete in #6. “Ultimately I get out of the way and let the poem guide me,” said Kahane. The result is a delicate portrait of Galway Kinnell, a gifted artist who led a hermetic life. Written around the time of the 2016 election, it is as much of a response to our times as the brash Craigslistlieder was to the burgeoning age of social media.
DINNER AT EIGHT
I first encountered William Bolcom in the early 1970s through his piano recordings on Nonesuch—several dapper albums of ragtime, including a few of his own pieces, and his groundbreaking LPs of Tin Pan Alley songs where he accompanied his wife Joan Morris. I was smitten. Here was a classical musician with an impressive pedigree—hell, he’d studied with Milhaud and Messaien, he could even write twelve-tone music. But he respected American popular song as much as I did. When I first heard Bolcom and Morris live in 1977, I left the hall fired up with a new, clear purpose in life: I wanted to give song concerts as vital, as stimulating, as surprising as my two idols. After an eleven-year gestation period, NYFOS was finally born in 1988. In my mind, Joan and Bill are its godparents.
Bill is the Hippie-King of classical music—a counter-cultural outsider mixing genres like a stoned bartender. In his magnum opus, the William Blake cantata called Songs of Innocence and of Experience, he tossed country and western, rock, blues, and reggae numbers together with sections reminiscent of Mahler and Berg, neoclassicism, atonal music, and folk songs. Bill was also an early advocate of Brazilian and Argentinean music—which proved to be another linchpin of my artistic life. Freely mixing every kind of tonality and atonality with the cadences of popular styles and dance rhythms, Bolcom flouted all doctrines, received wisdoms, trends, and fashions.
But it took him many years to get around to opera. When I first knew Bill in the late 1970s, he demonstrated a marked disdain for classical singing, although he’d done his time as a vocal répétiteur in his early years. (“Maybe that was the cause of the disdain,” he muttered.) He couldn’t understand why opera professionals continued to study voice throughout their careers—“Haven’t they learned how to sing by now?” he would ask—and tended to characterize the full-throated cry of a soprano as “inexpressive.” Like Sondheim, he preferred the dryer verbal and emotional clarity of actors to the opulent roar of highly trained voices. Bolcom’s transition from the cowboy of classical music (which is how I always thought of him) to the guru of classical music (which is closer to his current status) began in 1984 with Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It was simply too big and too good to be ignored. I first heard it at BAM, the New York theater that is so “downtown” it’s all the way in Brooklyn. When the oratorio came to Carnegie Hall a year or so later, the evening seemed like a coronation for the Hippie-King.
I think that writing Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which included difficult, extended sections for operatic voices, must have started to open Bolcom’s mind to the new trends in classical singing. Bill was becoming aware that opera singers in the late twentieth century had developed far greater acting skills than the “park-and-bark” school that had prevailed through the 1950s and 60s—not to mention far more natural English diction. “After all, how many other singers from that time can you count—besides Evelyn Lear—whose English you could understand?” he commented.
Bolcom’s first high-profile solo piece for a classical singer was the song cycle I Will Breathe a Mountain, written for Marilyn Horne and Martin Katz and premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1992. I was not used to seeing Bill in such formal surroundings. The pre-show Q&A on Carnegie’s august stage seemed like a very late bar mitzvah for this normally informal artist. By this time he had already been invited to write his first opera for the Chicago Lyric (McTeague, 1992), followed in rapid succession by two more commissions from the Lyric, A View from the Bridge (1999) and A Wedding (2004). All of them had libretti by Arnold Weinstein, who had been Bolcom’s literary partner since 1960. Arnold’s words had also fueled Bill’s three “actor’s operas” Dynamite Tonight, Greatshot, and Casino Paradise as well as his four-plus books of cabaret songs. When Arnold died in 2005, I worried that Bill’s interest in opera might die with his collaborator of 45 years.
But I had a plan. As a result of a whopping fine levied against a number of New York radio stations, the New York State Music fund was soliciting projects from artists and presenters throughout the state. Suddenly NYFOS had a very promising opportunity for a commission. I had the crazy idea of mounting two new one-act operas—comedies—scored for duo-piano. I knew that we would ask composer John Musto for one of them. His regular librettist at that time was Mark Campbell, and I hoped that I could arrange a marriage, or at least a first date, between Campbell and Bolcom.
The result was the 2008 double bill Bastianello (Musto) and Lucrezia (Bolcom), the first a wry, philosophical Italian folk tale, the other a no-holds-barred sex farce set as an Argentinean zarzuela. As our then-Executive Director Elizabeth Hurwitt said, “One is a morality play, and the other is an immorality play.” Mark and Bill enjoyed their collaboration very much and became good friends. Tonight we shall sample a suite of songs and arias from their latest work, Dinner at Eight, prior to its premiere this March at Minnesota Opera.
I spoke to both creators about the project, which is is based on the 1932 play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. “Arnold and I had talked about making an opera out of Dinner at Eight some years ago. Then I forgot all about it until I saw the movie again—in 2008.“ Bill brought the idea to Mark, who told me, “It was a smart idea. So I proposed it to Dale Johnson, Artistic Director of Minnesota Opera, and soon a commission was born—my fifth with the company—through their New Works Initiative.” (His other operas with Minnesota include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night and The Shining.) Mark plunged right in and within months delivered a complete libretto to Bill. Anne Kaufman Schneider, the playwright’s daughter, gave it her blessing, and suddenly the project had legs.
One person who did not have legs, however, was Bolcom. He’d taken a severe fall and was suffering from eight broken ribs. Everyone was worried about Bill, sending him flowers, candy, audiobooks, and whatever we could think of to sustain him through his convalescence. He, in the meantime, got busy with Dinner at Eight. “Bill finished the score in eight months,” Mark told me. “That’s impressive for any composer, but especially incredible considering his physical condition.” Bill had also damaged his hands and was unable to use a pen or pencil for some time. Luckily, he had already learned how to compose on the computer using a popular program called Sibelius. “I had taken 28 hours of lessons—a student of mine taught me—and I finally had a decent enough command of the software. This was the first score I wrote almost completely on Sibelius—sure, I jotted down a few ideas, but they were practically illegible. I’ve had six operations on my hands.”
Bill and Mark gravitated to Dinner at Eight because they both wanted to fuse opera with musical theater. Bill’s previous opera, A Wedding, had a light touch as well. “I didn’t really want to string together the libretto with show tunes,” said Mark. “The arias are usually structured like popular songs, with many in the usual A-A-B-A format. But Dinner at Eight—the play—is dark, darker than the Hollywood movie on which it’s based. Using a lot of rhyme seems an obvious stylistic choice, but is inconsonant with the story.” I was surprised—Mark is one of the great rhymers on the scene, and his razor wit has been a feature of so many of his libretti. He explained, “Rhyming text works best in purely comic works. In Dinner at Eight, there’s a fatal illness, financial ruin, unhappy marriages, a suicide. I feel that a lot of rhyme would’ve upset the balance and pushed the opera too far into the comic realm.”
When asked about the musical influences for the opera, Bill simply shrugs. “Everybody, everything I’ve ever heard—it’s all kicking around up there. I simply write what I need to create a given character, a given scene. These are highfalutin people—upper East Siders—not my crowd, really. Their music needed to be elegant. That’s why there are a number of waltzes. It just seemed appropriate to them.”
The beauty of Dinner at Eight is the way it balances the light and the dark—a modern dramma giocoso. “We tell the dark side of the story unsparingly, but also know the power of a few good laughs to keep the audience from feeling utter despair.” Mark told me. “These people are getting through an impossible time—the Great Depression—the best way they can.”
“And some of them are ruthless—Dan Packard is out to destroy Oliver Jordan,” added Bolcom. “That gets softened in the movie, but the play pulls no punches.” “And that is why it is so relevant to us right now,” said Mark. “‘The party goes on,’ they sing. And we too need to stay civil, stay together, and weather the next upheavals. The audience can relate to every character in the opera and Bill’s music only humanizes them all the more.”
A PICNIC CANTATA
Paul Bowles’ A Picnic Cantata has been something of a NYFOS signature piece ever since our late board member Morris Golde brought it to Michael Barrett’s attention in the early 1990s. I remember going with Michael to listen to it in the Lincoln Center Library Research Division—the LP was long out of print. Alternatively spiky and lyrical, utterly unpredictable, and oddly graceful, Bowles’ music won me over. We programmed it on a double bill with a concert reading of André Messager’s operetta L’amour masqué—a project so ambitious that I had to check my archives to reassure myself that my memory was not deceiving me. We should have renamed ourselves “The New York Festival of Chutzpah.”
Michael and I have offered A Picnic Cantata a few times—that first production in 1992, a revival when we made our first appearance at Weill Recital Hall in 1994, and a re-mount at Merkin 13 years ago. But we’ve always yearned to record the work, and will finally do so this week. Coming home to Paul Bowles’ music and James Schuyler’s words has been a pleasure and something of a revelation. In the 25 years since we first encountered A Picnic Cantata, we’ve learned more about both the composer and the poet. Its colors seem more vibrant than ever.
Paul Bowles was born in 1910, a native of this city. His creative life was always divided between music and literature. As a child he wrote stories and poems, and by the time he was 17 his work had been published in the magazine Transition, alongside poetry and prose by Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and André Gide. In his adolescence he dabbled in music as well, composing pieces on his family’s piano. He tried going to college at the University of Virginia, decided he was wasting his time, and hopped on a ship for Paris without letting his parents know. Upon his return a few months later, he plunged into music study with Henry Cowell, who introduced him to Aaron Copland.
Copland became Bowles’ teacher and mentor, even though Bowles hadn’t truly made a decision whether to pursue literature or music as a career. He returned to Paris to meet up with Copland. Bowles’s charm, wit, erudition, and good looks endeared him to Gertrude Stein and indeed to the entire Parisian set, whose denizens included Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound, and Virgil Thomson. Thomson and Copland saw to it that Bowles’ music was heard in London and New York, and by 1933 it was clear that Paul Bowles was a musician to reckon with. Thomson also got his young protégé his first theatrical commissions, beginning with the John Houseman/Orson Welles production of Horse Eats Hat in 1936. Bowles’ incidental music was to become a feature of over twenty Broadway plays including Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie.
In 1938, Paul Bowles married novelist Jane Auer, and the two lived a peripatetic life. Their favorite ports of call included Mexico, Morocco, and Ceylon—Paul bought himself an island there named Tabropane—with frequent travels elsewhere. Jane preferred to be in New York, where she was part of the hippest artistic circles. But Paul Bowles liked life abroad and would only return to New York when he had to score a new Broadway play or hear the premiere of a new piece he’d written.
Travel may have been Paul Bowles’ calling, but his New York stays were far from dull. During the wartime years, Paul and Jane shared a Brooklyn Heights brownstone with a few housemates—Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in one bedroom, and Gypsy Rose Lee in another. The mind boggles as one tries to imagine their cocktail conversation. After the war the Bowleses lived at 28 West 10th Street, this time sharing their digs with the duo-pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. Jerome Robbins lived down the block at #26, and Leonard Bernstein was in #32. Fizdale recalled how Bowles and Bernstein would open their studio windows and play piano duets across the airshaft. Paul and Jane Bowles hung out with Marc Blitzstein, Ned Rorem, John Cage, Edwin Denby, and Oliver Smith.
It was Smith who brought Gold and Fizdale together with the poet James Schuyler in 1953. The pianists were enjoying tremendous success, while Schuyler was at the very beginning of his career. He had already become the fourth writer in a group that would eventually be named The New York Poets—Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery were the others. Schuyler was the late bloomer. He had managed to get individual poems of his into prestigious periodicals, but he didn’t publish a complete volume of poetry till the late 1960s. He lacked the bravado and the initiative of his fellow writers. When big stars like Gold and Fizdale offered him a commission to write for them, he jumped at the chance. The pianists chose their friend Paul Bowles to write the music. Ten years earlier they had hired him on Copland’s recommendation to write them a piece, and been pleased with the result. The money for this commission came from music patron Alice Esty, who had studied singing with Leontyne Price’s teacher Florence Kimball. Esty was an indefatigable and generous patron of song in the 1950s and 60s, and often premiered the works she’d financed. A scrupulous if unexciting performer, she midwifed songs by Ned Rorem, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and many others.
Schuyler was compatible with all of these artists. Music was in his blood. He was an accomplished amateur pianist—jazz was his thing—and was an ardent fan of both Art Blakey and Sviatoslav Richter. He loved the late French romantics like Franck and Reynaldo Hahn, and found special inspiration in the music of Fauré, whose combination of sensuality and objectivity mirrored his own poetic voice. Schuyler was especially compatible with Arthur Gold, with whom he launched a love affair. Gold was a confident man of the world taking a break from his ongoing relationship with Fizdale, while Schuyler tended to be more delicate and introverted. (Fizdale enjoyed a dalliance with Frank O’Hara during that time.) Schuyler ended their relationship a few years after the premiere of A Picnic Cantata, but the breakup left him troubled. In its aftermath he had a severe anxiety attack, exacerbated by the sudden deaths of two members of his circle, the painter Violet Lang and the lyricist John Latouche. This breakdown was a precursor of the many bouts of mental illness that would plague him for decades. In the 1960s and 70s, Schuyler was institutionalized several times and often lived a marginal existence when he was released. He took heavy doses of psycho-pharmaceuticals, mostly tranquilizers, during the last half of his adult life. His behavior could be erratic and sometimes frightening to his friends. Only a few of them were strong enough to handle him when he was in his darkest phases.
But Schuyler could also be endearing, funny, disarmingly open, and loyal, and this is the man one gets to know through his poetry. He charmed and seduced through his poetic voice, even during his periods of distress. He reveals his character in his libretto for A Picnic Cantata. For example, he was a voracious eater, and the amount of food these women bring on their picnic is a fantasy come true, a gourmet/gourmand’s delight. The fifth section reflects his love of flowers, as the ladies read a hilariously lurid version of the garden section in the Sunday paper. Schuyler had an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, and when he writes, “I never miss the garden section,/It describes Heaven to perfection,” he is merely stating the truth. And I imagine that the tale in the advice column—a woman agonizing about her affair with a married man—has its parallel in the Schuyler-Gold-Fizdale love triangle. His wry sense of humor is pervasive throughout the libretto—the women are simultaneously self-dramatizing and utterly demure. It wasn’t for nothing that he christened himself “Dorabella,” after the impulsive, daffy character in Mozart’s Così fan tutte.
Yes, there is a 50s camp sensibility in A Picnic Cantata, with its loopy, hyper-realistic descriptions of ordinary things and its emotions swimming to the surface at inappropriate moments. But the work’s greatest strength is its delicate balance of sensuality, seriousness, lightness, and irony. The key to the piece is its childlike innocence. In this world, a picnic basket seems to hold the entire contents of Zabar’s, a car materializes on cue, and the gathering together of these four friends seems like an act of providence. Schuyler melds the bluntness of Gertrude Stein and the fantasy of Maurice Sendak, allowing simple things to become paradoxical and mysterious.
In Paul Bowles, the poet found an ideal collaborator. The composer found a way to bring this world to life in music that mixes bitonality, Poulenc-style post-impressionism, and pure American melody. Each of the work’s six movements has its own atmosphere. In the first section, where the ladies meet and make their picnic plans, the music is square and clangorous—the giddiness of four prim people. You can also hear that Bowles has spent some time in Morocco and Ceylon; he uses exotic chords and scales that seem to evoke non-European instruments. The ladies’ first stop is Hat Hill Park (named after the mythical freedom-fighter Henry Hat). For this he writes a chorale that evokes the mystical lyricism of Poulenc’s religious works. In the third section, the music perks up as the women tuck into the picnic. As they unpack, the women sing in polytonal chords, which (in tandem with the percussion writing) suggest the sounds of gamelan.
The women appear to consume massive amounts of food very quickly, and then settle back to watch the clouds. For the first time we see them in a state of languor, and Bowles allows the harmony to relax as the vocal melodies float by gently. Then it’s time for the ladies to read the Sunday paper, starting (of course) with the horoscope. They recite readings for Taurus and Gemini in a burst of manic energy, ending with triumphant flourishes in the piano. Then the first alto reads the advice column, and we hear the work’s only solo song. The tone becomes sincere and poignant, with Bowles’ most beautiful melody in the whole piece. By the end of the letter, we aren’t sure whether the singer is reading from the paper or confessing her own guilty secrets to her friends.
The garden section of the paper comes to the rescue with a clangorous tango located somewhere between Asia, Bali, and Brazil. The music chatters, gyrates, and moans as these four proper ladies go native, revealing unsuspected depths of sensuality. After that, they pack up and drive home in a finale that has an odd tone of foreboding and mystery. Suddenly Bowles’ music is stern, square, and heavy—who else has written a piece that paints the uncomfortable shift from vacation to work, weekend to weekday, abandon to constraint? With a chorus of “toodle-oo’s” the women disappear back into their routines.
A Picnic Cantata premiered at Town Hall in 1954. Originally Bowles seems to have thought of it as a piece for male quartet; the first movement is still written for two tenors, baritone, and bass. But Bowles and Schuyler must have realized that the piece might come across as too precious, too “twee” if sung by men. They instantly recast it for female voices, and engaged four African-American singers from Juilliard’s graduate division. I spoke to Martha Flowers, who sang the first soprano part. She was friends with Robert Fizdale, who sometimes accompanied her voice lessons with Florence Kimball, Alice Esty’s teacher. “He was very reserved and gentle, and what a musician! We always sang better when he was there. Arthur Gold was snazzy. Bobby was quieter, and what a wonderful artist.” I wondered how they presented the piece. “Well, we wore concert gowns, no costumes, and we used scores. We didn’t have any staging. Of course, we knew the piece cold—we’d worked on it quite a lot. And we were so enthusiastic about it!” How was it received? “The premiere was a great success, though it was considered a bit avant-garde for its time.” Did the singers find it difficult, then? “Oh, no. It’s not hard.” When I mentioned that her assessment might have been different if she hadn’t been singing the top voice, Martha Flowers burst into laughter. “Well, yes. Perhaps!”
Alas, the collaboration of Schuyler and Bowles was a one-time event. Schuyler never wrote another libretto, and Bowles was already devoting more and more of his time to fiction. According to Ned Rorem, “In 1949, with the publication of The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles became ‘the author who also writes music,’ after having long been ‘the composer who also writes words.’” Bowles settled in Tangier, far from New York’s Town Hall, leaving behind a small, largely unpublished oeuvre for later generations to discover and enjoy. Searching out his music is like participating in a hunt for Easter eggs—a fact I am sure he would enjoy. His novels are dark, but his music often has a sweet, childlike joy. For the twenty-nine minutes of A Picnic Cantata, all’s right in the world.