June 21, 2007 Music Review | ‘Gay Life’

Song That Comes From the Words of Friends


The composer David Del Tredici has written of three times during his career when he felt compelled to reject all he had been taught and rely on instincts — three times he had to, in a sense, come out.

The first was during his mid-20s when, feeling creatively blocked, he dared to compose for pleasure. The second came when he re-embraced tonality, becoming a trailblazer for the Neo-Romantic movement. The third involved integrating his complete personality into his work and celebrating his identity as a gay man.

The signature piece of this latest phase is “Gay Life,” a 45-minute cycle of six songs for baritone and orchestra, commissioned and given its premiere in 2001 by the San Francisco Symphony. On Tuesday night at The Graduate Center at CUNY in Midtown, the work received its New York premiere in a new arrangement for two tenors and piano, here the dynamic vocalists Rob Frankenberry and Dennis Tobenski, with Mr. Del Tredici, an accomplished pianist, at the keyboard. The free event, which included engaging and distinctive song cycles by Chester Biscardi, Darien Shulman, Roger Zahab and Mr. Tobenski, part of the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series, also acknowledged Mr. Del Tredici’s 70th birthday.

In 1996 Mr. Del Tredici received poems from Michael D. Calhoun and W. H. Kidde about an experience the three had shared in an empowering body-focused workshop in Wildwood, Calif. Mr. Del Tredici began setting them immediately, the first texts he had set in 20 years that were not drawn from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books.

These songs, “Ode to Wildwood” and “In the Temple,” open the “Gay Life” cycle. In each the music pulsates with plush tonal harmonies and Straussian lyrical extravagance. Still, an obsessive element makes the music seem disorienting and modern. The piano writing is thick with clashing dissonances and unhinged harmonic outbursts.

The third song, a setting of Allen Ginsberg’s “Personals Ad,” which gently riffs the entries in gay newspapers, is a compact and punchy work that eventually bursts into cascades of chords. “After the Big Parade,” a setting of another Ginsberg poem, describes the specter of disease and hostility that impeded the joy of the 1991 Gay Pride Day parade. The music has a crazed Ives-like energy, teetering between exuberance and terror.

Mr. Del Tredici dedicates the fifth song, his moody setting of Paul Monette’s “Here,” a graveside eulogy, to Paul Arcomano, his partner, who died of AIDS in 1993.

The final song turns the shortest poem, Thom Gunn’s “Memory Unsettled,” into a 15-minute rumination. In the final episode, Mr. Frankenberry and Mr. Tobenski traded the phrase “We remember you” over and over. Though the music is emotionally indulgent, the unflinching excess captivates you.

Though the piano part, adapted from the orchestral score, is awkwardly difficult, Mr. Del Tredici handled it ably to create swirling sonorities. Surely one of New York’s orchestras should present this major work by a significant New York composer as it was originally conceived.