In honor of World AIDS Day last Thursday, December 1, the Trinity Church hosted the annual Benson AIDS Series concert. It featured the works of (clockwise from top left) Kevin Oldman, Robert Chesley, Lee Gannon, and Chris DeBlasio, composers who died of AIDS in the 1990s.
Musicianship of high order marks AIDS Day remembrance
By Michael Clive
for Downtown Music Express
Potent choices of time and place magnified the impact of the fine musical performances last Thursday, December 1 at the Benson AIDS Series concert, held each year in honor of World AIDS Day. As part of the “Concerts at One” series at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel, the free concert provided a fuller artistic experience in one lunch hour than most expensive uptown tickets deliver in a full evening.
Built almost 160 years ago, the Trinity Church building stands where the morning sun once cast shadows of the World Trade Center over Broadway. More than just an architecturally distinctive reminder of spirituality in the midst of Wall Street’s commercial bustle, it is a symbol of endurance, remembrance, and rebirth. And it is one of the city’s most beautiful consecrated spaces — an inspired and inspiring venue for commemorating composers Robert Chesley, Chris DeBlasio, Lee Gannon and Kevin Oldham, all of whom died of AIDS in the 1990s.
The hour’s music was superbly programmed and performed. A grouping of six songs by Robert Chesley set to introspective lyric poems by Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Coatsworth, and Walter de la Mare emphasizing nature and the cycle of life. Compositionally, they combine the American art-song tradition exemplified by Ned Rorem and the transparent lyric mastery of England’s Gerald Finzi. They were lovingly essayed by Marshall Coid, whose beauty of tone and ease of vocal production make him a rarity among countertenors.
Almost startling by contrast, two highly declamatory songs by Chris DeBlasio sounded more like operatic arias — dramatic, overtly emotional monologues with devilish war-between-the-sexes texts by Ilsa Gilbert. “Butcher” and “Whatever You Say, He Sings” push both soprano soloist and pianist to the extremes of their instruments with theatrical effects. Their parodic melodies and dancing rhythms can switch from waltz to tango on a dime. Soprano Janet E. Hopkins was an ideal interpreter, especially with the bright, reverberant acoustics of Trinity Church adding luster to her already gleaming voice.
Hearing Lee Gannon’s eloquent Sonata for Cello and Piano, I was reminded of an old chestnut about Papa Haydn, who — after his long and incredibly productive career — is reputed to have said on his deathbed, “What a shame. I was just learning to write for the woodwinds.” One lifetime is just not enough for most composers to learn what they need to know about the wide range of orchestral instruments. Yet in this sonata, Gannon, whose instrument was the flute and who died in his mid-thirties, displays a masterly understanding and deep affection for the cello.
Inventive and lushly emotional, the sonata is written in a romantic, post-impressionistic style that exploits the cello’s affinity for passionate expression. But it requires a virtuoso soloist who can produce a singing tone and purling legato, and who can play comfortably and precisely in the cello’s upper reaches for extended passages. Perhaps it was written specifically for cellist David Eggar and his instrument; it certainly sounded that way.
When classical composers set music to words they write themselves, the results are mixed at best. And that aptly describes the impressions conveyed by Kevin Oldham’s “Across the Sea” and “Not Even If I Try.” His sentimental, deeply felt verse is not on the same technical level as his music. But it directly confronts themes of love and loss as nothing else on the program did. Sung by heldentenor Gilles Denizot, it was a fitting valediction.
Special praise must go to Mimi Stern-Wolfe, who accompanied all soloists at the piano with unflagging artistry. In 1990 she created the Benson series to promote the work of gifted composers and musicians fighting HIV/AIDS, and to preserve the creative legacy of those who have already passed.