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  • David Shengold


October 23 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ned Rorem in Richmond, Indiana, with what he termed his "upper-middle-class, semi-bohemian" Quaker family decamping to Chicago, where he came of age musically soon after that. Early piano studies with Margaret Bonds and theory with Leo Sowerby prefaced moving to the East Coast for graduate work at Curtis and Juilliard, plus championing by Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland. By the late 1950s, Rorem became one of American music's greatest diarists and essayists: both very widely acquainted with literature and extremely sensitive to linguistic nuance. Rorem, who died at age 99 last November 18, composed actively until 2010; he and many critics feel he reached his apex with 1997's song-with-piano cycle "Evidence of Things Not Seen."

The work sets 36 texts by 24 poets, including Auden, Frost, Housman, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Whitman, Wilde, Yeats, and his close contemporaries Mark Doty, Paul Goodman, and Paul Monette. Rorem described his music as--fairly atypically for American composers of his generation--deriving more from French than German ideas of structure and musical procedure. Debussy, Ravel, Arthur Honegger, and Francis Poulenc (both of whom he knew in his post-WWII Parisian jeunesse dorée period) served as particular models. His songs manifest this not only harmonically but in the prosody. Though Rorem created a substantive and varied oeuvre, he himself often stated that he'd be best remembered for his songs. He reaffirmed this during an interview occasioned by a 2003 Curtis performance of "Evidence of Things Not Seen" with four student singers and pianist Mikael Eliasen celebrating his 80th birthday.

An inveterate teacher, Rorem welcomed conservatory performances. He entrusted the cycle's January 22, 1997, Carnegie/Weill première by the New York Festival of Song to an S/M/T/B foursome of established vocalists (Lisa Saffer, Delores Ziegler Rufus Müller, Kurt Ollmann) and sanctioned its recording (New World 80575) soon afterward with Monique McDonald replacing Saffer. Yet in singing, Rorem prized musicianship and expressive, well-inhabited verbal phrasing above mere virtuosic display. He would doubtless be mordantly amused that his centenary is being commemorated in New York neither at Carnegie Hall nor Lincoln Center but at Manhattan School of Music, with Carleen Graham directing and Jeanne-Minette Cilliers as Music Director. To Graham's knowledge, MSM's is the cycle's first attempted staging. "But with Rorem's upcoming centennial, it is likely that others may attempt it. We are using 14 student singers and two student collaborative pianists who will take on various songs, sometimes sharing songs originally intended for only one singer. We hope we'll help this important work reach a new audience."


School of Music 10/22 at 2:00; 10/23 at 7:30

Tickets can be bought here:



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