Monday 30 October 2023

Two Cities: Ned Rorem in Paris & New York - centenary celebrations at London Song Festival

Ned Rorem in 1953, photographed by Man Ray (image from
Ned Rorem in 1953, photographed by Man Ray (image from

Two Cities: Ned Rorem in Paris and New York; Jonathan Eyers, Christopher Killersby, Nigel Foster, James Crutcher; London Song Festival at the Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed 27 October 2023

During Ned Rorem's centenary year, an imaginative overview of his songs alongside vivid extracts from his diaries

The American composer Ned Rorem would have been 100 last month, on 23 October 2023. He nearly made it to his 100th birthday, dying last year just after his 99th, and remained active as a composer until 2013. Rorem was such a vivid and vital character during his long life, publishing five volumes of diaries covering the years 1951 to 2005, that it is slightly surprising that for his centenary, his music has not been more widely performed. Perhaps there is something of what might be called 'The Ethel Smyth Effect', the lively character revealed in the printed diaries (notably in Rorem's case, his espousal of the bad boy in post-war Paris) seems somewhat at odds with the music. 

As well as operas and symphonies, Rorem wrote over 500 songs, many of them grouped in cycles. Rorem wrote 30 or so song cycles of which the culmination was perhaps Rorem's 1997 work Evidence of Things Not Seen, an evening-length sequence of thirty-six songs for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and piano.

As part of the Autumn, City and Country season at the London Song Festival, artistic director and pianist Nigel Foster chose to focus on Ned Rorem on Friday 27 October 2023. At Hinde Street Methodist Church, Foster was joined by baritone Jonathan Eyers, tenor Christopher Killerby and actor James Crutcher for an evening of Rorem's songs, Two Cities: Ned Rorem in Paris and New York, giving us the chance to hear 23 of Rorem's songs interspersed with readings from his diaries. Tenor Christopher Killerby stood in at remarkably short notice (around a week) and we must be grateful to him for managing to learn around a dozen unfamiliar songs, a remarkable achievement.

Rorem travelled to France in 1949 and apart from a sojourn in Morocco, would spend his time based in Paris until he departed for the USA in the late 1950s. Thus Foster's programme neatly divided into two halves, the first centred on Rorem's diary entries for his life in Paris, the second his return to the USA, life in New York and the illness and death of his partner James Holmes from AIDS-related problems. The songs interspersing James Crutcher's readings were not placed by date but more by subject matter, so that music, song and narrative all linked together. Thus the sequence around Holmes' illness and death included songs from the 1940s such as the Elinor Wylie setting, Little Elegy, and the original 1947 version of the Emily Dickinson setting Love's stricken "Why".

The diary entries for the Paris period, which featured lots of significant name-dropping from Noel Coward to Cocteau and Poulenc to Marie Laure de Noailles, also had a great deal about Rorem's chasing of men and his sexual activities. The diary felt very performative, with Rorem very full of himself, and frankly you wondered at his getting any composition done at all! Rorem would later comment about his struggles with alcoholism in the 1950s and 1960s that "The minute a drop of wine touches my lips I begin to be this other person—an infantile regression takes place". 

The songs, by contrast, tended to be lyrical and tonal with an emphasis on the voice. There were no printed words and both singers had fine diction, but they were aided by the fact that Rorem, when writing a song, seemed to have a focus on the clarity of the word settings. Many of the songs had quite discreet piano parts (not necessarily simply, I must emphasise) which supported a long vocal line so that words were paramount. We began with For Poulenc, a song written in 1963 in the wake of Poulenc's death which combined a witty waltz with lyrical vocal line. 

Some songs stood out for the element of imagination that Rorem brought to the challenge. So the Edmund Waller setting, The Dancer (from Nantucket Songs of 1979) featured a striking alternation between voice and piano, whilst in the 1959 Theodore Roethke setting The Waking the piano very much coloured the words. Nantucket (also from Nantucket Songs) set William Carlos Williams and the results were wonderfully languorous, almost seductive, and Such beauty as hurts to behold (a Paul Goodman setting from 1957) was positively rapturous.

Ned Rorem in later life (image from
Ned Rorem in later life (image from
With the return to New York, the voice in Rorem's diaries changes. He is less concerned with simply picking men up, and his return to the USA was in order to concentrate on composition and most of his works from the 1960s were commissions. But many of the diary entries we heard covered the relationship with James Holmes and his long decline and demise. The result had a more elegiac tinge which chimed better with the songs.

Some were vivid, such as the 1959 Roethke setting, Snake with its complex piano writing whilst others like Little Elegy and Love's stricken "Why" were quite short and remarkably touching. The 1951 song, He thinks upon his death (a Julien Green setting used in Evidence of Things Not Seen) proved to be remarkably intense and developed into something powerful indeed. We finished with another of the Nantucket Songs, another Theodore Roethke setting, From whence cometh Song? shared between the two singers and providing to be intriguing indeed, combining a florid yet declamatory vocal line with interesting harmonies in the piano.

Nantucket Songs is definitely a cycle that I would like to hear in full. Given Rorem's liking for song cycles, giving an overview of his song output in an evening was always going to be a challenge, but Foster's selection proved intriguing and varied, even though sometimes you wondered what the effect of a particular song would be in its original setting. There is definitely scope here for a Ned Rorem song series, combining his song cycles with the songs of others. I hope someone out there is listening.

The young American actor James Crutcher proved to be an admirable reader, bringing out a real sense of Ned Rorem's own voice, always vivid and engaging.

Support Planet Hugill: Buy Songs of Ned Rorem (Susan Graham, Malcolm Martineau), and Evidence of Things Not Seen from Amazon

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