Curators of art shows nowadays often open wide-angle lenses that cast a cultural context for viewers to compare and contrast a central artist among peers: Sargent’s watercolors at the MFA, Courbet’s circle of Realists at BC’s McMullen Museum. That wider point-of-view is welcomed in the concert hall, too. The Gardner Museum’s red cube of joy, aka Renzo Piano’s Calderwood Hall, hosted a 90th birthday party Sunday for composer Ned Rorem. Appearing as New York Festival of Song, celebrants Steve Blier and Michael Barrett, pianists and devotees of America’s chamber art song, incised for a keen full house a rich, affectionate insider’s etching of icon Rorem.
Blier and Barrett, alert and witty comperes, hand-picked 15 of Rorem’s 500 songs deftly interleaved with notes, reminiscences, quotes, and one song each of Rorem’s musical friends, rivals, and inspirations (yes, some of them lovers): Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Bowles, Marc Blitzstein, Theodore Chanler, Aaron Copland, Francis Poulenc, and Virgil Thomson.
Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano and Andrew Garland, baritone played off each other glowingly, singing incandescent solos and playful duos, and reading zingy selections (as did the pianists) from Rorem’s witty, trenchant, and unsparing diaries. A stylistic Luddite, Rorem cast wry barbs at modernists and hurled fulminations at war-hawks.
Rorem, born in Indiana in 1923 of hardy, Norwegian Quaker stock, grew ears finely attuned to the selection and setting of quality poems. Rorem’s gem-like settings we heard were of poems by Gertrude Stein (“I Am Rose”), Paul Goodman (“The Lordly Hudson”, “Rain In Spring”), Robert Frost (“Come In”), Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti, and many by Walt Whitman, a kindred spirit. Blier chose plum pairings for the other composers, too: Lindsey gave a soigné, ravishing reading of Poulenc’s majestic “C” with Louis Aragon’s heartbreaking paean for a war-torn Loire Valley.
A prolific and durable composer, Rorem wrote scores of instrumental, chamber and orchestral works, notably: sinewy reflections for solo cello After Reading Shakespeare; Symphony #3, rambling, amiable, loose-limbed, and tuneful (conducted by Bernstein), and Air Songs, orchestral etudes that won a 1976 Pulitzer Prize. His corpus of vocal music is especially extensive, not just songs, but choral works, and operas, Miss Julie and Our Town full-length.
Rorem’s often blithe bagatelles largely celebrate youthful joy and love. Microsongs cumulatively, surprisingly and satisfyingly evolve into cycles, airing pristine clarity and fresh logic, like Poulenc or Thompson. With deceptive simplicity they carve lovely arcs of melody for singer and piano, quick studies of timeless delights and meanders through life’s leas and thickets.
Lindsey prowled like a panther and sang like an angel, here fierce on a pacifist plea by William Penn (“The Comfort of Friends”), there demure on Copland’s “Dear March, come in!” nimbly set for Emily Dickenson’s vernal intimacies. Garland’s strong high baritone overcame initial buzzsaw roughness into apt expressions of Whitman’s affirmations, either boldly conquering in “Full of life now” or shyly acquiescent among rough-housers in “A glimpse”.
Summoned from the wings for a brief encore, five a capella voices of the New England Conservatory sang Rorem’s typically intense autobiographical observation, the aquarelle evocation “Early in the Morning.” A signature miniature, it’s a bright candle, never flickering, abrim with youthful vigor and hope eternal.