Tuesday, September 16, 2008

World Premiere: Steven Stucky August 4, 1964

This Thursday marks the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize winning composer Steven Stucky's August 4, 1964 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

The evening length work deals with war and civil rights, issues that are still valid today, not just 1964.

Collaborating with Stucky is librettist Gene Scheer, known for An American Tragedy premiered at the Metrolpolitan Opera and writing songs sung by Renee Fleming, Denyce Graves, Sylvia Mcnair, Stephanie Blythe, Jennifer Larmore and Nathan Gunn.

Thursday's performance features Laquita Mitchell, soprano; Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano; Vale Rideout, tenor; Robert Orth, baritone; and the Dallas Symphony Chorus and Orchestra led by Jaap van Zweden.

More on August 4, 1964:

The same night, Thursday, September 18th, the New York Philharmonic gives the U.S. premiere of Stucky's Rhapsodies, co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and BBC Proms.
Here is more about Rhapsodies:

You can listen to an in-depth conversation about Stucky's compositional process and winning the Pulitzer here with host John Clare...and the second conversation they had here about composition, creativity, LA Philharmonic and a solo cello piece, Dialoghi you can listen to here.

Listen and watch Stucky's Dialoghi with cellist Elinor Frey here.

Extra information
A podcast from WRR in Dallas with Stucky and Scheer.

Read more about August 4, 1964 from the New York Times:
Two Wars, Two Presidents, One Oratorio
A HAUNTED tenor voice will sing out in Dallas on Thursday. It will lament that a terrible war was based on a hollow threat, and that millions might have died because of a “mistake.”
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra wanted a grand piece of music to commemorate Lyndon B. Johnson, born 100 years ago, and it may have gotten more than it bargained for: a 70-minute oratorio with implicit reverberations about another war propelled by faulty intelligence, prosecuted by another Texan.
The work, “August 4, 1964,” composed by Steven Stucky to a libretto by Gene Scheer, is based on a single day in Johnson’s presidency, and it joins a genre of classical music rife with worthy intentions and inherent risks: compositions that address current or recent events.
On that date Johnson told the American people that North Vietnamese forces had attacked a United States ship in the Tonkin Gulf, prompting retaliation and precipitating the resolution used to justify the Vietnam War. The report turned out to have been false — a result of mangled and probably falsified intelligence relayed to the president — although an actual attack had occurred two days earlier.
Robert S. McNamara, Johnson’s secretary of defense and an architect of the Vietnam War, later acknowledged that the Aug. 4 attack had not occurred and said that if Johnson had known, he would not have ordered the retaliation.
“Had we known it was a tragic mistake,” sings the tenor portraying McNamara,
Had we known on August 4th, 1964, we were not attacked.
Had we known we would not have ordered the first bombing of North Vietnam.
Fifty-eight thousand U.S. dead.
Three point seven million Vietnamese dead.
But that is not the only historical resonance of the piece, whose premiere on Thursday looms as one of the major orchestral events of the season, and one with rare potential for controversy in this volatile political moment. On the same day as the Tonkin Gulf incident, Johnson was dealing with a more immediate tragedy: the discovery of the bodies of three civil rights workers who had been murdered in Mississippi, Andrew Goodman, James E. Chaney and Michael H. Schwerner. The killings helped galvanize support for Johnson’s civil rights agenda, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which forced Southern states to ease the path of blacks to vote, more than four decades before the nomination of a black man for president.
Using a collage of excerpts from Johnson’s official diary, transcripts of Oval Office telephone conversations, speeches and contemporary news reports, Mr. Scheer has woven the incidents together in a libretto presenting a nuanced view of a complicated man. It combines Johnson’s greatest and worst legacies and portrays him as noble and bitter, compassionate and bellicose.
The characters are Johnson (Robert Orth, baritone), Mr. McNamara (Vale Rideout), Mrs. Chaney (Laquita Mitchell, soprano) and Mrs. Goodman (Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano). The Dallas Symphony’s new music director, Jaap van Zweden, conducts.
In interviews past and present officials of the orchestra, Mr. Scheer and Mr. Stucky all said they had been aware from the outset that the work drew a parallel between two wars, Vietnam and Iraq, and two presidents, Johnson and George W. Bush. But they studiously played down the political issues.
“I think we should all, as citizens, reflect on the reality of what’s going on, and this may help,” Mr. Stucky said. “I certainly don’t want it to be seen as a statement about the present, because it is so much about the past too.”
The Dallas Symphony said that the Bush family had not been invited, and that Johnson’s two daughters had declined to attend. But others connected with the Johnson administration were expected in the audience, the orchestra said, along with officials from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, which cooperated with the project.
One historian given a copy of the libretto said he found the juxtaposition of the two issues “weird.” But then, “it must have been weird getting his mind around two such different crises happening simultaneously,” said the historian, Edwin E. Moïse of Clemson University, who wrote a book about the Tonkin Gulf incident.
“There’s a reason he looked like an old man when he got out of White House,” Mr. Moïse said. “The strain must have been terrible.”
“August 4, 1964” raises other questions. Classical music in recent times, especially in this country, seems less potent than other art forms as a means of challenging the status quo or making political commentary. But there have been powerful recent additions to the genre, including Steve Reich’s “Daniel Variations,” inspired by the 2002 murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
The Dallas work serves as a reminder of both the pitfalls and the value of such ventures. Too much relevance can lead to political schlock, like bad Prokofiev, or cornball (if sometimes endearing) hagiography, like Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” For the creators too much topicality may distract from the goal of making a piece of art that will endure.
Mr. Stucky said he had not thought of the work’s political implications as he was composing. “If you’re put in the position of writing polemical music or agitprop, you’re not likely do a good job,” he added. “I was concentrated on writing the best piece I could.”
Mr. Scheer agreed, saying it was “absolutely not” his intention to comment on politics; rather, he said, he wanted to depict Johnson’s “emotional reality.” “One of the worst things an artist can do is shove it down your throat,” he added.
Mr. Scheer pointed out that the McNamara lament, which occurs late in the piece, came about largely because he and Mr. Stucky felt that the tenor character did not have enough lyrical material. It also provided a sense of redemption for the character.
In the short term, topical works like “August 4, 1964” at least provoke conversation, and the attention that classical music institutions crave in a pop-ruled YouTube world.
“The Dallas Symphony hopes to make a musical and artistic statement with this,” said Mark Melton, the orchestra’s vice president for artistic operations, who was involved in choosing Mr. Stucky for the commission. “I really hope this piece will have a major life beyond Dallas.”
The man behind the idea of commemorating Johnson was Fred Bronstein, who was president of the Dallas Symphony until he moved on to the St. Louis Symphony six months ago. Mr. Bronstein said he had not seen the libretto and pointed out that the creators were given free rein about subject matter. The only stipulation was a piece for chorus, orchestra and four soloists to commemorate Johnson.
When asked about modern parallels, Mr. Bronstein answered indirectly. “History repeats itself,” he said. “How this war is judged, time will tell.”
For Mr. Stucky the task was daunting. He is a much sought-after composer, a Cornell University music professor who receives regular commissions from major orchestras. The New York Philharmonic is giving the American premiere of his “Rhapsodies,” which it commissioned, on the same night as the “August 4, 1964” performance. Mr. Stucky will be in Dallas.
But he said he had not written for chorus and orchestra since high school, which he attended in Abilene, Tex. His family moved to the state from Kansas when he was 10, and Mr. Stucky attended Baylor University in Waco. The Dallas Symphony liked the Texas connection.
After Mr. Stucky received the commission, he needed a librettist. Mr. Stucky’s publicist, Philip Wilder, had recently heard a work of Mr. Scheer’s sung by another client. He introduced the two men.
Mr. Scheer, also a songwriter, has collaborated with Tobias Picker on works including “An American Tragedy” at the Metropolitan Opera, and with Jake Heggie; their “Moby-Dick” is to be presented at the Dallas Opera next season.
Mr. Scheer immersed himself in the Johnsonian world, reading multiple biographies. Mr. Stucky, meanwhile, met with old Johnson associates and listened to anecdotes.
Mr. Scheer came up with the idea of basing the text on the confluence of events of Aug. 4, 1964. Coincidentally, he said, the Johnson library had featured the events of that day on a section of its Web site.
“Gene stumbled on this fact that we could encapsulate those two sides of America in the ’60s on that single date,” Mr. Stucky said. “That was a brilliant stroke.”
The two began meeting at a cafe near Mr. Scheer’s Upper West Side apartment in the spring of 2007. Mr. Scheer showed Mr. Stucky his first number, which begins with fictional words from Mrs. Chaney: “It was the saddest moment of my life./August 4, 1964—/The day they found my son James Chaney’s body.”
Mr. Stucky then produced an orchestral interlude, which became the seventh movement, “Elegy.” By the end of last summer Mr. Scheer had provided the first half of the libretto, and Mr. Stucky began setting it to music.
Mr. Stucky said he had made a mental checklist of what not to imitate: “Lincoln Portrait,” Britten’s “War Requiem,” John Adams’s “Nixon in China.” He described the musical grammar as somewhere between tonal and atonal, with an extroverted quality. Johnson’s lines are slower and more lyrical; the McNamara music tends to be faster, more nervous. When the chorus sings a text based on Oval Office diary entries (“7 a.m. Awake and up. 7:05 a.m. Breakfast. At 7:15 did exercises.”), the music is “strongly pulsed,” he said, with Minimalist tendencies.
Elegiac, almost devotional music accompanies lines from a Stephen Spender poem that was posted on the wall of Mrs. Goodman’s apartment. The chorus sings them quietly a cappella.
There is little hint of the music of the time — no rock ’n’ roll, no Bob Dylan — but Mr. Stucky said that attentive listeners might catch a ghost of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
Along with the Aug. 4 presidential material Mr. Scheer used Johnson’s powerful speech of a year later introducing the Voting Rights Act; words from a postcard by Mr. Goodman to his mother; and Mr. Schwerner’s application to the Congress of Racial Equality. His mother was not included because the commission allowed for only a quartet of soloists.
Mr. Stucky and Mr. Scheer both said they were not trying to write history.
“It’s about human emotions, hopes fears, generosity,” Mr. Stucky said. “I hope that people don’t arrive thinking that the Johnson onstage is a historical character. He’s a factor in a work of art. This is not a disadvantage but an advantage.
“Art moves us, provokes us, to think harder, more than history does. At least I hope.”

Program notes for August 4, 1964 from Laurie Shulman:
The Van Zweden era continues its inaugural month with this first major commission of the season. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky has teamed up with the acclaimed librettist Gene Scheer for August 4, 1964. The new work, which receives its world premiere performances this weekend, is a major composition for four vocal soloists, full chorus, and orchestra.
The Dallas Symphony commissioned this new oratorio in observance of President Lyndon Baines Johnson's 100th birthday, which took place three weeks ago on August 27. August 4, 1964 explores the epic tragedy of the larger-than-life, Texas-born politician. His legacy in civil rights is admirable. His escalation of the Vietnam War remains controversial. Taken together, those two issues encapsulate the turbulent 1960s.
Stucky's and Scheer's oratorio focuses on the events of a single day, August 4, 1964, with digressions that allow us to peer into the psyches of four principal characters: LBJ himself; his defense secretary Robert McNamara; Carolyn Goodman, the mother of Andrew Goodman, a murdered civil rights worker, and Fannie Lee Chaney, the mother of James Chaney, a Freedom Movement activist and Mississippi native who was also murdered. At the same time, the musical and textual digressions address the broader impact of the events that transpired that day.
With the chorus functioning sometimes as crowd and sometimes as Greek Chorus, and the orchestra as eloquent supporter and complement to Scheer's vivid text, August 4, 1964 is a proud and powerful addition to the corpus of musical works with political and historical resonance.
August 4, 1964
Steven Stucky
Born November 7, 1949 in Hutchinson, Kansas
Currently residing in Ithaca, New York
Libretto by Gene Scheer
Born April 28, 1958 in Manhattan
Currently residing in New York City
The libretto is rooted in historical events from the 1960s
Approximately 85% of Scheer's libretto is documented quotations or poetry; 15% of the text is Scheer's invention
Listen for the sharp character contrast between LBJ and McNamara, reflected in the pacing of their music
A Stephen Spender poem figures prominently, sung exclusively by the chorus
Steven Stucky recalls that, when this commission was in its infancy, he cautioned himself not to try to write another Benjamin Britten War Requiem or John Adams Nixon in China.
Benjamin Britten's 1963 masterpiece is, on the surface, an amalgam of a traditional sacred work and musical settings of poetry by Wilfred Owen. John Adams's pathbreaking Nixon in China is no hybrid, but unequivocally an opera, premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 1987.
So why the warning? Both Britten's and Adams's works grappled with major political issues. In Britten's case it was war. He was commissioned to write the Requiem in observance of the consecration of Coventry Cathedral. After having been bombed heavily during the Second World War, the city of Coventry, in England's Midlands, had built a new cathedral to replace the 14th-century edifice destroyed by the German Luftwaffe. All Britain recognized the symbolic value of this new house of worship - and of Britten as its composer. His pacifist War Requiem remains one of the crowning glories of twentieth- century music. The work made a bold statement in its departure from the traditional Latin Requiem Mass.
Nixon in China was a different animal. Adams had taken on a modern historical topic - Richard Nixon's historic visit to Red China in 1972 - and transformed that event into the stuff of high art. Adam's opera consists of six tableaux that explore the hemispheric differences in culture, politics, and world views between the United States and Communist China.
Explosive material? Potentially, in both cases. But no more volatile than what librettist Gene Scheer and composer Steven Stucky had to grapple with in the career of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The original commission called for a major work dealing in some capacity with Johnson: his life, his presidency, his legacy, in observance of his 100th birthday in 2008. That left considerable latitude.
August 4, 1964 is neither a requiem nor an opera. It is not a sacred work (though it has a spiritual dimension), nor is it a staged drama (though plenty of drama transpires within its pages). Librettist Gene Scheer worked diligently to zero in on an appropriate topic, devouring biographies of LBJ and perusing thousands of documents at the LBJ library in Austin.
Scheer stumbled upon the remarkable historical coincidence of events on August 4, 1964 [see sidebars, "History Lesson"]. The bodies of three civil rights workers who had been missing for seven weeks were discovered the same day as the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was the catalyst for escalation of America's military involvement in Vietnam. In one extraordinary day with major historical ramifications, the two dominant issues of LBJ's presidency -the civil rights battle and the Vietnam War - coalesced in a way that no one could have predicted or scheduled
"For the oratorio, I had to explain the events in broad strokes," says Scheer. "I wanted to make clear the fact that LBJ sent the bombing raids because he and McNamara mistakenly thought our forces had been attacked on August 4th. And of course I wanted to outline the tragic events which unfolded in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the same time. Still, the primary idea of this piece was to transcend the mere facts and to allow music to depict the emotional reality of this pivotal day, which turned out to be a significant turning point for LBJ and the nation."
Scheer's concept for the libretto made excellent sense to Stucky, who was a teenager during the events that unfold in the course of August 4, 1964. He remembers those events vividly, though he acknowledges that, like Scheer, he underwent a refresher course in these corners of American history in the process of writing this work.
Scheer's libretto does not hew strictly to that date, although several scenes in the Oval Office evoke the immediacy of the day's historic events. He opens with laments from two of the murdered civil rights workers' mothers, recalling the tragedy and horror of the day after the fact. We also meet Johnson's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (tenor). Juxtaposition has been established.
A poem by Stephen Spender
The chorus' initial appearance also departs from the actual events of the title date. Their text is the English poet Stephen Spender's "I think continually of those who were truly great." A contemporary and friend of W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Spender (1909-1995) came to prominence in the 1930s, writing personal and political poetry that revealed a strong social conscience.
His poem found its way into the libretto when Scheer learned that Andrew Goodman's mother, Carolyn Goodman, had placed a copy of it on the wall of her New York apartment when she learned that her son had been murdered. She also had several lines of the poem engraved on her son's tombstone.
"Spender's verse is connected to the emotional experience that Carolyn Goodman had during that awful time," Scheer says. "The lines from his poem were what brought her comfort." Stucky's setting reserves the Spender poem for the chorus.
Other movements draw upon various sources: LBJ's recollection of a visit to the home of a poor family in Appalachia; Mrs. Chaney's recollection of her grandfather's refusal to sell a successful family farm and the consequences of that refusal; Michael Schwerner's application to work for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the famous "We Shall Overcome" speech, which Lyndon Johnson delivered to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, following racial violence in Selma, Alabama. (Stucky incorporates snatches of the eponymous protest song in this movement; "We Shall Overcome" became the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.)
Reflective Moment for Orchestra Alone
Midway through August 4, 1964, the orchestra plays an instrumental Elegy.
"We thought it would be good to break up the pacing with an orchestral movement," explains Stucky. "It occurs at an emotional point, when the horrific import of some of what you've heard begins to add up. It's business as usual at the White House, except that Johnson and McNamara are beginning to talk about bombing."
Stucky actually composed the Elegy first, adapting a choral setting of the Latin motet "O vos omnes" that he had written in 2005.
"It was actually the first part of August 4, 1964 that I wrote," he recalls. "I didn't have the libretto yet, but thought I'd better get started anyway! The principal motive from the Elegy eventually became the main motive of the whole oratorio once I composed the rest of the music."
The score calls for three flutes (second doubling alto flute, third doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets (third doubling piccolo trumpet), three trombones (third doubling bass trombone), tuba, timpani, a large percussion battery [see below], harp, a quartet of vocal soloists, mixed chorus, and strings.

Stucky specifies four percussionists in addition to the timpanist, deployed as follows:
Player I: chimes, marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, bongo, 2 brake drums, and tam-tam (shared with Player II)
Player II: snare drum, tam-tam, high wood block
Player III: 5 tom toms, sandpaper blocks, whip, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal
Player IV: 5 temple blocks, bass drum, whip

Something more. . .
A new recording of Steven Stucky's Pulitzer Prize-winning Second Concerto for Orchestra is scheduled for release in early 2009 on the Bis label, with Lan Shui leading the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. That CD will also contain Stucky's Pinturas de Tamayo and Spirit Voices.
Listeners who wish to explore Stucky's other orchestral music may seek out Son et Lumière (David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony Orchestra; Albany Records); Dreamwaltzes (Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra; Bis), and Funeral Music for Queen Mary for Orchestra (after Purcell) (Clark Rundell and the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra; Chandos). Also: Michala Petri plays Stucky's Etudes (Recorder concerto)with Lan Shui and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (Naxos).
Further Reading
Ann McCutchan, The Muse that Sings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)
The composer's web site, www.stevenstucky.com, contains a generous sampling of his writings on music, as well as a biography, discography, list of works, and audio samples. Entries about Stucky appear in all the major music reference tools, including The New Grove II, The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, and Baker's.
- L.S. ©2008

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