Monday, March 23, 2009

A Visit with Lee Hoiby

It’s probably been almost 30 years since I’d last seen Lee Hoiby, despite the infrequent letters, e-mails and phone calls over the intervening decades. I’ve heard recordings of his music and on too few occasions heard some of it live. So it was great he was able to come down to attend this past weekend’s performance at Market Square Concerts with Stuart Malina playing Lee’s Sextet for Winds & Piano with the Dorian Wind Quintet.

At first, it didn’t look like he was going to make it but then, a few days before the concert, he was able to change his schedule and come down. Ellen Hughes and the Market Square Concerts Hospitality Committee went into action and arranged for Lee and Mark to stay with Martin & Lucy Murray.

E-mails and phone calls traveled back and forth, including a line I forwarded to Ellen from Lee in which he figured, after estimating the length of the drive from their place along the Delaware River, he would need “a good long nap before the concert.” Considering Lee just turned 83 last month and I was unaware of any further details of his state-of-health, there was some concern about things - would a friendly but large dog be capable of knocking him down, for instance.

They would arrive sometime on Saturday and return the next day.

Before the concert, we met them for dinner at one of the better known restaurants downtown not far from Whitaker, a proximity that could come in handy if we were running late.

Lucy was joking that she had tentatively reminded Lee about maybe wanting to take a nap and he said very robustly, “No!,” eyeing the grand piano, “I want to play four-hand duets!” And so instead, they played Ravel and Schubert!

Though I had not met Mark before, I recognized him from the publicity photo accompanying the new recording of The Tempest which I’d just received a couple days before: he was the librettist for the opera, adapting Shakespeare’s original text and therefore more than just Lee’s collaborator in life.

I first corresponded with Lee around the time Samuel Barber’s Antony & Cleopatra was premiered at the overly grand opening of the grand new Lincoln Center home of the Metropolitan Opera. One of the many issues the critics heaped on the composer concerned his setting Shakespeare’s original text, for some reason (there were many other issues I won’t go into here that turned this work into a disaster only somewhat mitigated by its gorgeous but now overlooked music) so I found it surprising that here Lee had since set two more Shakespeare plays – The Tempest and, more recently, Romeo & Juliet – with Mark adapting the original texts. Lee looked at me in surprise: “Why not?! They’re some of the most beautiful words in the world. What more could a composer ask for?”

As we worked out way into the restaurant, he said “you know, for some reason, people say iambic pentameter is the hardest to set to music, but I’ve always found it very easy...” The thought trailed off as we were ushered toward our table.

As the server put the bread in little upright cornucopias and sprinkled olive oil on small plates, talk focused first on cooking and then combined cooking with music as Lee told us about the one-act opera (or musical monologue) he had done with actress Jean Stapleton, better known as the long-suffering TV wife of Archie Bunker but who, despite her singing [sic] on the show, actually had a very good voice. Called Bon Appetit!, it set one of Julia Child’s recipes to music – adapting one of her TV cooking shows’ episodes about the making of a French chocolate cake (however one says in French “to die for”). (Checking on-line for links, I also discover Mark adapted the text for this and for its companion piece, “The Italian Lesson,” based on a classic Ruth Draper character sketch.)

Julia Child came to see one of the performances and went backstage as soon as it was over. During the bows, Lee was meekly sitting on-stage at the piano waiting for “Julia” to come out to take her bow but the Stage Julia and the Real Julia were having too much fun talking off-stage to be bothered by taking bows.

At this point, it was time to settle on a wine. No one had yet decided what entrees to order and, given my lack of culinary prowess, talk of whether it should be red or white much less any further delineation (the menu also described them with adjectives like “juicy” and something that struck me as the equivalent of “chunky”) flowed right over my unimbibulous head. It was then decided to order a bottle of Pinot Noir.

Examination of the menu filtered through further conversation, ranging from Lucy’s founding of Market Square Concerts 27 years ago to the arts scene in Harrisburg today in general, from Mark talking Lee into writing an opera on Romeo & Juliet (he had first passed on the idea – it’s been done before – until Mark put some sample lines in front of him which Lee quoted from memory and which I cannot even remember, but which immediately brought to the composer’s mind how well these lines could be set to music), then foundering on my attempts to finish copying my violin sonata.

The server came back with a question about the wine, long after most of us would have expected to be drinking it. She seemed confused about what had actually been ordered, mentioning some entirely different wine much less familiar to me than your basic Pinot Noir (alas, they have four different kinds of Pinot Noir on the menu).

Noir, though, appeared to be a stumbling block. Noir: she chewed it over like maybe it was one of those “chunky” wines, pronouncing it as if (a) she’d never heard the word before and (b) it had three syllables. Then someone pointed to it on the menu for her as I might do for fear of mispronouncing the dish and ordering instead a grilled tractor.

We realized by now we had forty-five minutes before the concert and had now spent slightly less than forty minutes sitting down to the table and settling the issue of The Wine. There was some confusion about the Buffet – you could order it separately as a meal but yet it came with every entree. The way things were going, we jokingly wondered if we could order an entree, eat the buffet-that-came-with-it and take the entree home with us? We were assured everything we ordered could be ready in 10-15 minutes (“it’s the pizzas that take the longest”), no problem. Still, three of us opted for the Buffet à solo.

Conversation continued as salads and soup were served. By now we had moved on to our mutual radio experiences – Lucy working years ago as a volunteer at WMSP, the classical music station originally associated with Market Square Presbyterian (the MSP of the call-letters), mine in years spent at our local NPR station and Mark, currently announcing at their local NPR station (I thought he said as a volunteer though there’s not that much difference in the pay scales). We traded horror stories and humorous anecdotes.

There was talk, as we looked around waiting for the entrees, about theater in London and concerts in Harrisburg. Lee talked about being surprised by hearing something on the radio in the middle of the night that so startled him and here it turned out to be a quartet by Haydn who, we all agreed, was full of many surprises and very much underrated.

From there, we moved on to Schubert who also often had his surprising turns, placing unexpected notes that made you, playing them, want to check where you were, exactly. Lee remarked about one song by Schubert – “Gute Nacht!” – how it started with a downward C Minor arpeggio (the only clip I could find on-line that didn't start in the third measure is sung by tenor Peter Pears) but in the last verse, he switches it to C Major (and here he demonstrated the two) creating such a magical effect that always left him with a tug at the heart (or a lump in the throat, I forget, but the reaction was comparable). It reminded me why Lee Hoiby is such a fine composer of songs and setter of words.

Lucy wasn’t sure which song it was and I, geek that I am, suggested “Isn’t that one of the songs from Schöne Müllerin?” to which Lee replied “Uhm... yes, I think so,” but doubtful, too kind to correct me that, as I discovered later, it’s the first song of Winterreise (I’ll take Schubert Lieder for $1,000, Alex – BRAAP, sorry).

By this time, the entrees arrived. We now had less than half an hour before the concert began. Fast food it is not, but those of us who had ordered the Buffet made quick work of what turned out to be various salads and antipastos (which I always think should be antepasto if it’s supposed to be “before” the meal rather than “opposed” to it, but I digress: clearly, I do not belong in such a restaurant). After debating if it would be improper to show up late (Lee’s piece at least was on the second half), conversation was now consumed by more important matters.

With 12 minutes to kill, the final details were quickly despatched and we hurried off to the concert hall. By this time, those of us who had ordered the buffet noticed, too late, its well-stocked dessert corner.

“Running Late” now translated literally. Martin, Lucy and Lee charged on ahead. The last thing I wanted to see was a headline in the morning paper like “Composer Has Heart Attack Running Late for Concert.” Mark, N and I, after one last look back at the desserts (“Local Would-Be Composer Has Heart Attack After Snarfing Down Trayful of Cheesecake”), brought up the rear.

For the concert itself, you can read my post, “The Composer in the Audience” over at “Dr. Dick’s Market Square Concerts Blog” (the name has now been expanded upon request).

After the concert, there was little chance to talk. Meeting Stuart Malina, Lee thanked him for his performance. Stuart had conducted a short work of Lee’s some years ago but neither could quite remember or place what it might have been. I had brought with me my copy of The Tempest which I then asked both him and Mark to autograph – I rarely bother artists for their autographs but having both the composer and the librettist here and with the disc being brand new and all, it was too good to pass up, even though they had to cramp their signatures to fit the little bit of space left in the margin. I’m hoping, now that The Tempest is available for others to hear, finally, it might prompt some opera company to look into their collaboration on Romeo & Juliet which was completed in 2004 but is still looking for its first performance (Lee says “it’s the best of the lot,” and he’s written a lot of operas).

And he is currently working on some new choral pieces – one for the Harvard Glee Club, as I recall, which reminded me of one of the first pieces of Lee’s I’d heard, the choral anthem on John Donne’s “Ascension” with its full brass and organ written for the National Cathedral (“powerful enough to knock me out of my socks,” I think I said) and starting off the cathedral’s long unavailable dedication recording. We talked about computer software – the one he originally started using is no longer in business so he’s switched over to Sibelius which he likes very much – and in the few minutes remaining before we parted ways, several other things like how he and Mark take a 45-minute walk every day.

When I thought he might be tired after a busy day, he said “No! My mind is all jazzed - I couldn't get to sleep now.” Clearly, this is a man for whom age is a state-of-mind.

With any luck it won’t be another 30 years before I’d see him again – that would make me almost 90 and make him even more amazing than Elliott Carter is now. Age has not withered him nor would custom stale his infinite variety (to turn a phrase) but frankly, by then, neither of us could probably much handle “running late.” Well, me, anyway...

The next morning before they left, Lee sat down at Lucy’s piano and played through several Chopin etudes, his daily routine. And then, they were off.

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