Be careful what you tell artistic directors

Lyric Fest presents letters set to music

5 minute read
What van Gogh saw in a Mediterranean coastal town. “Fishing Boats on the Beach,” 1888.
What van Gogh saw in a Mediterranean coastal town. “Fishing Boats on the Beach,” 1888.

A year after his first wife died, the physicist Richard Feynman wrote her a letter. He loved her, the future Nobelist wrote, but he wasn’t just saying that because he knew she liked to hear it. “I write it,” Feynman said, “because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you. . . . You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.”

The letter was found in Feynman’s files after he died in 1988, over 40 years after he wrote it. It ends with a PS — an apology for not mailing it because “I don’t know your new address.”

Composer-conductor John Conahan set Feynman’s letter to music in a piece that premiered at the latest Lyric Fest song concert, along with eight other specially commissioned songs that use letters as their texts.

Most composers choose poems when they add music to words. Letters present special problems. As one of the composers pointed out during the pre-concert discussion session, poetry has a formal structure. The composer can work with it or against it. Letters are free form constructions.

The composers can apparently blame me for any difficulties they encountered. Lyric Fest’s co-director, Suzanne DuPlantis, says I gave her the idea for this concert 11 years ago. I don’t have a clear memory of the matter, but it sounds like something I could have said. I’ve read several volumes of letters over the years and I’ve always felt American composers should build more pieces around the great prose produced by American writers. One of the musical masterpieces of the 20th century, in my opinion, is Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a setting of a long prose passage by James Agee.

To the letters

The composers all managed to handle the problems created by my idle thought. They all chose interesting letters — a good start all by itself — and they created music that added to the impact of the text or enhanced it some other way. Most of the vocal writing was straightforward but appropriate. The piano accompaniments always created moods and suggested scenes.

Challenges encourage creativity. Some of the composers rose to the occasion by doing things you can only do with music. We’re all familiar with the famous letter in which Abigail Adams tells her husband he and his colleagues should “Remember the Ladies” when they fashion laws for their new country. Abbie Betinis gave it a broader range of emotional colors by turning it into a duet. As mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht sang Abigail Adams’s exhortations, baritone Keith Phares repeated some of them, like a man reading a letter aloud. Betinis finished the duet with an excerpt from Adams’ reply, but we would have known how he felt even if we didn’t hear his “You are so saucy.”

Avoiding the overwrought

For his setting of the letter Amelia Earhart wrote her husband just before they married, Thomas Lloyd hit an emotional peak that might have seemed overwrought if an actress were just reading the letter. As a musical statement, it was a reminder that Earhart was coping with the central conflict of her life. She wanted the marriage, with the companionship and sexual passion it offered, but she didn’t want to give up aspects of her life that were just as important to her.

In Benjamin Boyle’s setting of a letter by Zelda Fitzgerald, the text is a peaceful meditation on death but the sudden hops between musical moods reflect Zelda’s erratic personality.

The afternoon included some humor, as Lyric Fest’s concerts usually do. Tenor Andrew Fuchs got to sing Gabriel Kahane’s setting of a Craigslist posting: Today I met the messenger of God. He was selling M&M’s on the F train. Logan Skelton contributed four “Letters to Santa,” starting with a request for one of everything that reminded me of the cabaret song “Santa Baby,” which Eartha Kitt introduced more than 60 years ago. The good-humored finale was a letter to a future college roommate from a young man whose father was a poet with lots of artsy friends. The unknown personage was advised the letter writer looks forward to “living with a sane person for a change.”

A winning contribution

Eight of the premieres were written by veteran composers with bios that list performances by major orchestras and chamber groups. The ninth was the winner of Lyric Fest’s young song composers competition, 22-year-old Temple student Isabella Nicole Ness, who set a letter by Vincent van Gogh.

The letter itself is a fascinating look inside van Gogh’s mind. Most of the long text lists the things he’s seeing in a Mediterranean coastal town, with meticulous descriptions of the colors. Ness captured the weight of all that with her setting of the words and prefaced it with a beautifully written piano introduction that made a perfect opening for the whole concert. She included the signature at the end and her gentle setting of “Vincent” was a touching reminder of the letter writer’s identity.

No review of a Lyric Fest concert should omit Laura Ward’s work at the piano. The composers were able to write accompaniments that create moods and set scenes knowing their creations would be played by an accompanist who’s a master at getting every nuance out of the scores she plays. With Ward’s accompaniments added to the royal work contributed by the four vocalists, the composers should have felt their missives received the best premieres a hardworking creative personality could ask for.

What, When, Where

Sincerely Yours, Letters Set to Music: Musical settings of letters by van Gogh, Lincoln, Abigail Adams, and others. Premieres by Abbie Betinis, Benjamin C.S. Boyle, John Conahan, Daron Hagen, Juliana Hall, Lori Laitman, Thomas Lloyd, Isabella Nicole Ness, Logan Skelton. Other works by Argento, Puckett, Hoiby, Smith, Kahane. Kelly Ann Bixby soprano, Andrew Fuchs tenor, Katherine Pracht mezzo, Keith Phares baritone. Laura Ward piano. Lyric Fest: Laura Ward, Suzanne DuPlantis artistic directors. April 3, 2016 at Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce Street. 215-438-1702 or

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