Thanks to the combination of hard work and jet lag, our week at the Intimacy of Creativity seminar in Hong Kong is nearing its end, with a weekend of concerts at HKUST (on Clearwater Bay) and then downtown at the Asia Centre.
It has been a rare opportunity to focus on new songwriting with a likeminded group of young composers and singers, the majority of whom have travelled from the US. Rare, because still, so few modern classically-trained composers seem interested in writing songs. Why not? Today’s singers are on the whole a talented and open-minded bunch, certainly up for a challenge. And, with any luck, songs can easily travel the world, and become useful to many people; which I don’t think can generally be said for the piles of orchestral works which student composers are commanded to write by their colleges.
The presiding geniuses of this songfest have been composer Bright Sheng and Michael Barrett, a pianist and founder director of the New York Festival of Song. Bright and Michael were both assistants to Leonard Bernstein, whose 99th birthday is being surreptitiously celebrated in this week of events, and it has been magical to hear their constant stream of reminiscences about him. Bernstein’s music has been represented by Arias and Barcarolles, a 30-minute cycle (words by Bernstein himself, Yiddish folk writers and Jennie Bernstein, the composer’s old mum) for two singers and piano 4-hands. The title, we learned, was gifted to the composer many years earlier by President Eisenhower. Bernstein visited the White House and played a Mozart Concerto (which the President didn’t like) followed by Rhapsody in Blue; which Eisenhower approved of, saying ‘it has a theme. Music has to have a theme – not like all those arias and barcarolles’. ‘Arias and barcarolles’ Bernstein realised was Eisenhower’s way of describing classical music. I have a feeling the resulting song cycle might jar some Anglo-Saxon ears with its unashamed sentimentality, but in the hands of super-skilled American singers (and under the fingers of Bright and Michael) it is coming across as both gripping and loveable, an unusual combination.