Chorus, Ray Adams debut ‘Aspen Songs’ |

Chorus, Ray Adams debut ‘Aspen Songs’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Ray Adams expects some big emotional moments in the Aspen Choral Society’s annual spring concerts this weekend in Carbondale and Aspen.

Robin Sutherland, a friend of Adams and the pianist of the San Francisco Symphony, will hear, for the first time, “The Longing,” a song composed by Adams in memory of Sutherland’s late mate, Jose Padgett. Adams will premiere another of his works, “Spencer’s Song,” an ode to father-son relationships, written with his college-age son, Spencer, in mind. Set to a Yeats poem, the song closes with the line, “And I will miss you when you have grown.” There are also songs which touch on the moving themes of love and death. One, “Love Is Stronger Than Death,” hits both ideas.

“They’re very intimate,” said Adams of the six songs that comprise his new cycle, “Aspen Songs,” which debut with performances Friday, March 28, at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School Barn in Carbondale, and Saturday, March 29, at Harris Hall in Aspen. “Each one carries its own meaning ” for me, and for various people who will be listening. Robin hasn’t heard [“The Longing”]; he’ll hear it for the first time when we play it. He told me, ‘I want you to sit next to me and walk me out of the barn if I fall apart.’ ”

The setting of Friday’s concert amplifies the emotions; Sutherland, a former Carbondale resident, performed several concerts with Adams and the Aspen Choral Society at the CRMS Barn in the ’70s.

“And that last line of ‘Spencer’s Song’ ” I’ll probably weep a bit, too,” continued Adams, the music director and conductor of the Aspen Choral Society, as well as its resident composer.

While the response might be strong, Adams has wrapped the spring concerts in a small packages than has become customary. For several years, the concerts have highlighted a massive choral work ” either a well-known masterwork like Mozart’s Requiem, or the premiere of one of Adams’ own creations, like “The Passion” or “Angels.” Those pieces have required full orchestras and a hefty membership in the choir. Perhaps most exhausting of all, many of those musicians came from out of town, and required several days of housing. For Adams, the former housing director for the Aspen Music Festival and School, the toll of grand-scale concerts became overwhelming.

Potential relief arrived when Adams received a poem that Sutherland had composed for his deceased companion. “I set ‘The Longing’ and thought, what other short pieces can I do?” said Adams. Adams scanned his own orchestral works, and pulled an aria out of his “Passion,” which debuted three years ago, and reworked it for just one voice and three instruments: violin, cello and piano. Adams began to recognize the song form as a strong vehicle for more personalized feelings.

Of “Spencer’s Song,” he said, “As a parent, you always think about this day ” but it doesn’t hit you till it happens ” when they’re grown and gone. You take everything for granted, then you put them on a plane for college. It’s joyful, and it’s really empty. I was thrilled for Spencer to be going to New York to study theater. Then I went home and I was empty.”

For “Eternity,” Adams was moved to write both the music and the lyrics. “It’s for someone I was very much in love with,” he says. “And I’m still in love with her. That was my first foray into poetry writing.”

Smaller has meant easier on the logistics side. The choir, comprising mostly local singers, is a relatively compact 60 to 70 voices. There are 13 instrumentalists, several of them residents of the Roaring Fork Valley.

But Adams’ artistic load has not been lightened, and in this respect, he is not complaining. Smaller works like “Aspen Songs” ” which will feature soprano and former Aspenite Judeth Shay, a frequent participant in the Choral Society concerts ” magnify the impact of each sound component. (The instrumentalists for “Aspen Songs” are cellist Betsy Furth, pianist Terry Lee and violinist Julian Hallmark, plus clarinetist Stephanie Zelnick, who plays on “Love Is Stronger Than Death.”)

“It was harder,” said the 55-year-old Adams, a New York native who arrived in the valley in 1977 and founded what would become the Aspen Choral Society a year later. “There’s nowhere to hide in a little quartet. In a big, big piece, if you blow the second flute part, no one’s going to hear it. You can fix it later. With a quartet, if I haven’t written well, it’s a bad experience for everyone.”

Adams has a more career-oriented motive for downsizing his work. Exporting a work for choir and orchestra ” that is, having it performed somewhere outside of his home valley ” is an expensive and unwieldy prospect. Having a song for voice and three instruments played elsewhere is a relative cinch.

“That’s my goal,” Adams said of having his music performed outside the Aspen area. “It’s the only way people are going to know who I am and what I write.”

Adams has not washed his hands of grander musical ambitions. This summer, he will return to the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, in California’s Temecula Valley, to work on his “American Symphony.” The work will be set to texts written exclusively by 20th century American writers; so far, Adams has selected a piece by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I Am Waiting,” and also opted to include poetry by e.e. cummings. He might also devote some time this summer to writing more songs, to build a repertoire of small, accessible works.

And listeners looking for a bigger choral sound at this weekend’s concerts have not been forsaken. The concerts include a segment of excerpts from works ” Mozart’s Requiem and Vivaldi’s Gloria, both of which have been performed in full by the Choral Society, as well as works by Bach, Barber and two pieces by John Rutter ” that have been arranged for chorus and piano. A highlight of the segment, says Adams, will be Faure’s “In Paradisum,” a different take on the requiem form than audiences are accustomed to.

“Most Germanic requiems end with a very stern piece, the sturm und drang,” he said. “The French kind of changed that. ‘In Paradisum’ is not stern. It’s a request that God’s holy angels will lead you to paradise. I used that at the end of my requiem.”

Rounding out the spring concerts will be “Appalachian Spring.” The Choral Society’s performance of Copland’s signature work is a mix of both small and big ideas.

On the small side, this version is scored for just 13 instruments. Before it became a core part of the orchestral repertoire, “Appalachian Spring” was composed on the smaller scale, for Martha Graham’s dance company. (And before Graham gave it its more familiar name, Copland titled it “Ballet for Martha.”)

Copland then rescored the piece for orchestra, and “Appalachian Spring,” with its mix of jaunty rhythms, spirituality, and overt Americanness, became an icon of America’s cultural blossoming in the post-World War II era.

“It’s an American piece. It’s not an imported European ballet, like ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘The Nutcracker,'” said Adams. “This was a barn-raising. This was written here. It was an American activity.

“Later in his life, Copland was doing 12-tone, completely avant-garde stuff. But that short period of Americana cemented his reputation.”

To Adams, “Appalachian Spring” was not only iconic and popular, but brilliant.

“For me, this piece is the epitome of orchestral chamber music,” he said. “It’s not just a quartet. It’s 13 players, and all of them have to be practically soloists. The three winds ” bassoon, clarinet and flute ” they’re under the gun all the way.”

This spring, Adams is expending his energy on musical issues, rather than logistical ones. It can be equally draining, but this time is has him excited rather than wearied.

“I’ve upped the pressure on myself,” he said. “I have a premiere, and the ‘Appalachian Spring.’ I have to carry this. With the singers and the players, of course.”


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