Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Notable: Smith's 'Truths' looks at Port's past

Not saying it's all he does, but Kile Smith, the composer-in-residence at this year's Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, is "a choral guy," so he probably can't help getting all caught up in the literary side, in the words, in the history, before getting down to the music. Just part of the job description. But sometimes the Philadelphia-based composer takes the word thing almost to the point of obsession: By the time he gets around to writing the music, he sometimes will have spent months digging through biography and history, selecting and rejecting and editing texts. Like, with "The Waking Sun," a piece commissioned by The Crossing, a 20-plus voice Philadelphia chorus, which is based on Stoic Roman philosopher Seneca. An interesting guy, to be sure: Playwright, scholar; banished by Claudius for having an affair with Caligula's sister, brought back to tutor a preteen Nero and eventually forced to kill himself for plotting to kill the little firebug. Supposedly. "They wanted a Seneca piece, and there’s a truckload of his writings," says Smith, "so I read reams, including all the plays, and the piece eventually came from those. Lots and lots of editing." And he went through the same process, pretty much, for "Plain Truths," a 20-minute piece for baritone and string quartet based on texts of prominent Newburyporters from the community's storied past, including the pot-boiling 19th-century novelist Harriet Prescott Spofford, the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and of course, self-appointed Lord Timothy Dexter, who presided over High Street, if nothing else. In fact, the title of the piece, which gets its NCMF premiere on Aug. 20, comes from Dexter's "A Pickle for the Knowing Ones; or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress," an 1802 work that is part political screed, part sermon and part diatribe against anyone who owed him money — in addition to being "one of the most remarkable writings ever produced," according to NCMF Artistic Director David Yang, who commissioned the piece. He was able to find all this material online. As usual, Smith got caught up in the history, especially the Dexter — so much so that he considered building the whole piece around just this one of the city’s most colorful figures before being talked off the literary ledge by Yang, a fellow Philadelphian. He admits to his weakness, his infatuation with words and history. Just don't call him a buff: "I love words and I do enjoy history," he says. "I’m no buff. Didn’t George Costanza say that? 'I'd love to be a Civil War buff. What do you have to do to be a buff?'”

Smith grew up in New Jersey. He and his two of his three sibs were members of the New Jersey All-State Chorus during his teen years. That's how he came under the spell of Brahms’ Requiem, the piece that made him want to be a composer. Actually, all it took was the first few bars. And, to be completely accurate, it wasn’t exactly the Requiem that set things in motion. It was "Nänie." After hearing the chorus perform the piece, one of Brahms’ lesser known works, the teenaged Smith searched for a recording of it. The only one he could find was a two-LP set with the Requiem. He listened to "Nänie" over and over, until he finally decided he might as well see what the rest of the music was about. “When I dropped the needle on the Requiem, those lower strings churning and sawing and pumping away made my jaw drop,” he says. “I was 17, I’d sung in church and school choirs all my life, but I never heard anything like this. And 'Selig sind/Blessed are' ... my heart pounded in my chest, I can still remember bending over at the Philips console, sitting on the sofa, holding my knees. I guess I was just ready for it. I decided then that I had to be a composer. I didn’t know how. I couldn’t even read music — and it had never occurred to me before then that one could be a composer, but Brahms changed my life.” He picked up the requisite skills in college — Philadelphia Biblical University and Temple University — as well as some other musical infatuations: Copland, Hindemith, but expecially Vaughan Williams, specifically the Five Mystical Songs, the Mass in G minor, and then the English Folk Songs. “He showed me, in the folk songs, how to set English, a very difficult proposition,” Smith says.

Since then, Smith has been keeping busy. Resident composer for both Jupiter Symphony in New York and Musica 2000 in Pennsylvania. Adjunct professor at Philadelphia Biblical University, teaching composition and advanced orchestration. Curator of the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Co-host of "Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection" and host of the contemporary American music show "Now Is the Time" on WRTI-FM in Philadelphia. He's also a writer, a blogger who scribbles about subjects as diverse as the Wanamaker Organ, reportedly the largest functional musical instrument on earth, with "patio-sized bellows that could crush a lawn tractor, which is used by the Philadelphia Orchestra," and the sad personal story about his failed contest entry, a haiku about the mostly forgotten and tragically misunderstood en-dash, used, if at all these days, to separate a dead composer's dates. "Not a hyphen," he writes, "Oh, no-no-no, and certainly not — as you might be tempted to use — an em-dash." The losing haiku, by the way, is "To separate birth/ from death, a life is wished, but/ the en-dash will do."  

As a composer, his work has been noted for its emotional power, direct appeal and strong voice, but defies easy categorization. He's written for Latin band, singer and orchestra, a wind ensemble work based on the changes to the swoony 1953 ballad “My One and Only Love,” the best known version, perhaps, done by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and, just a couple of months ago, found himself in the pop charts, with his string arrangement, a la "Eleanor Rigby," that forms the musical backbone of "Cold," just released on "Time Machine," the new album by the Peace Creeps, the indie Philly act. "It was fun," he says. "I’ve never felt a disconnect between classical and pop, something put there by both pop and classical lovers. Going back to Brahms, though, his Liebeslieder Waltzes, what are they but popular entertainment pieces? Or the country dances of Beethoven, Mozart? One specific thing I’ve learned from pop music is its flexible approach to text. It’s very American, I think. I like what the Peace Creeps do. They have a light touch, no fuss, efficient, and what’s good for pop is good for classical, too. 'Cold' is a good, tight song, just a slip of an emotion that walks by you, but which is true, very true. It hits home. Reminds me of a Fauré song."

You never quite know what the composer is going to throw at you. Like his “Vespers,” which pairs Piffaro, a Renaissance wind band, with The Crossing, a vocal ensemble that turns its collective nose up at anything written more than 15 years ago, to create a post-modern setting of a Reformation period service, as one critic put it. Or in "Plain Truths," which Smith composed right on the heels of "The Waking Sun," where you’ll run into jazzy Steely Dan-like chords in “Spirit of Freedom,” which uses texts from Garrison's "Liberator" and fugal inversions in “Oh, Andrew,” which is built around text from "Louie," the Spofford short story. Two of the songs, "Annie Lisle" and "Spirit of Freedom," may sound like they use 19th-century tunes, but they’re original. “I didn’t intend it at first, but it’s where the words led me, it just happens," he says, citing “Edelweiss,” one of the most remarkable songs of the 20th century, says the composer — and a tune that sounds like a traditional Austrian folk song, but is something Richard Rodgers wrote for "The Sound of Music." The Dexter section is the composer's Osmin aria for special guest vocalist Jeremy Galyon, he says, referring to Mozart's "Abduction/ Die Entführung aus dem Serail" K 384, a role Galyon sang for the Metropolitan Opera, so, with the character singing “Ha! wie will ich triumphien/Ha! How we will triumph,” Smith, while thinking about the Dexter words, put two and two together: "Osmin has octave jumps, I give Dexter jumps of a ninth, and some juicy low notes," he says. "And the refrain is, 'I am a friend to all,' which stops, and then adds, '…to all honest men!' So there’s humor there, I hope, and when he talks about ministers, it’s funny, but I never make fun."

“I adore the Spofford story 'Louie,' the one little section I used, and 'These sea-coast people see the world and learn' comes from it. It’s a darling bit of melodrama, and that one line summed up the cycle for me," he says. "The language is dated, sure, but all language is dated. I don’t care about that. I choose text that rings true. The abolitionist Garrison is a fire-breather, and his writing is over the top. But consider what he’s talking about, what he’s feeling, he should be over the top. The last song presented a problem, because it’s so much like a college fight song. But I play it straight, always. I never make fun of anything I set. I want everyone to hear Garrison, Spofford, all of them, and to be drawn right into them, and to feel that truth, too. I care nothing about if it sounds like this or that, if it’s archaic. I know all these things, it’s why I started with 'I am aware.' The words tell me everything I need to make the music. 'Annie Lisle' is a typical dying-child salon piece, but if I approached it as 'a typical dying-child salon piece,' it would fail. There is real life, love, and death in it. That’s the piece.”

But why no Marquand?

He may not be as colorful as Dexter or as fiery as Garrison, but he is one of the better known writers from the city.

Sorry, George Apley fans, still under copyright.

 JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Newburyport Chamber Music Festival will premiere "Plain Truths," a Kile Smith composition based on the texts of prominent Newburyport residents, at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 20 at St. Paul's  Church, 166 High St. Smith will give a pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m. He will also direct an open rehearsal of the piece with the quartet on Friday, Aug. 19, at 2:30 at St. Paul's, which is free. Also on the program is Rebecca Clarke's Irish and English Songs for voice and violin; Samuel Barber's "Dover Beach," Op. 3 for baritone and string quartet; and Leos Janacek's String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata." Tickets are $30; under 18, free. Click here for a complete NCMF schedule.

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