Ted Waddell | Democrat
Composer Lee Hoiby at his Steinway grand piano. He combines hand-written musical notation and computer-generated sheet music, visible on the screen over his head.
His musical heritage runs wild
By Ted Waddell
LONG EDDY “I was about four of five years old when my mother took me to my grandma’s home one day, and she sat down at the piano and started to play “Shine on Harvest Moon” or something, and I was just popeyed,” recalled 82-year-old Lee Hoiby, a local composer of opera and songs with an international following.
The composer-to-be grabbed at her skirts, demanding to be shown how to play the piano, and on the spot Violet taught him “‘Chop’ Sticks and one other thing… I picked it up, BINGO! just like that.”
Born in 1926 of Scandinavian extraction, Hoiby’s maternal grandfather was a violinist, and his aunts performed in an all-girl saxophone band.
Like Brahms, he was forced by his father to entertain in alcoholic dives, a series of performances that led him to rebel against any form of popular music.
Today, Hoiby and his companion, Mark Shulgasser, live in a restored late 1880s farmhouse along Basket Brook, complete with an 18-foot waterfall once used to provide power for a local sawmill the foundations of which still survive.
Since 1979, Shulgasser has been Hoiby’s literary collaborator on numerous projects, including the libretti of all his operas and vocal chamber works, and has produced and directed Hoiby’s works at venues throughout the United States.
While studying at the University of Wisconsin, Hoiby assimilated the highest levels of European musicianship from the Pro Arte Quartet, led by Arnold Schoenberg’s son-in-law Rudolph Kolisch, along with playing as a kithara virtuoso in an ensemble of garage-made instruments with the American hobo composer Harry Partch.
At Madison, Hoiby’s gift of the piano was fine-tuned and nurtured by the Danish virtuoso Gunnar Johansen, and later his own pianistic mentor, Egon Petri, the Busoni acolyte, with whom he studied at Cornell and Mills College.
He resisted “tooth and nail” the offer of a full scholarship to study composition with Gian Carlo Menotti at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia until “they sent me a plane ticket… and I left my car, books and piano,” along with a job in San Francisco, and for the next two years was immersed in strict Palestrina counterpoint, which led to an interest in operatic composing.
Hoiby’s 1957 one-act opera “The Scarf” was noted at the first Italian Spoleto Festival, and produced at the New York City Opera the following season.
As he composed more operas, the critics weighed in with positive reviews; Washington Post critic Paul Hume said of the closing octet in “A Month in the County,” written in 1980, “…overwhelming beauty, a supreme moment in opera,” while Irving Lowens, music librarian of the Library of Congress wrote of “the clean simplicity, the beautiful eloquence of the vocal lines.”
Harriet Johnson of the New York Post said of his 1971 setting of Tennessee William’s “Summer and Smoke,”, with libretto by Lanford Wilson, “the finest American opera to date.”
In 1986, Hoiby continued his exploration of lyricism with a setting of Shakespeare’s final play “The Tempest”.
On April 28, 2008, under the auspices of the American Opera Projects (AOP), excerpts of “The Tempest” and “This is the Rill Speaking,” an opera in one act from the play by Lanford Wilson, were performed by the Purchase Symphony Orchestra at Peter Sharp Theatre, Symphony Space in NYC, billed as “Brave New Operas.”
His works have been recognized by awards and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“My musical reputation is based upon my songs, upwards of 100 art songs, like Shubert and Brahms wrote,” said Hoiby.
In January, 22 of his songs will be released by Naxos on a CD titled “A Pocket of Time,” performed by “two wonderful American singers” soprano Julia Faulkner and baritone Andrew Garland.
During 2008, several of Hoiby’s works were performed across the U.S.: the premier of “Summer Suite for Concert Band” in Clarkesville, TN; the College Band Director’s National Association Southern Division Conference in Columbus, GA; “Last Letter Home” with the Heartland Men’s Chorus in Kansas City, MO; and “Summer and Smoke” in Los Angeles.
A few years ago, Hoiby and Shulgasser remodeled an old barn into a studio overlooking Basket Brook, and a Steinway Concert Grand sits quietly in a corner equipped with recording equipment.
“I feel I have the ideal life for a composer, to do nothing but compose and practice the piano, garden and enjoy the revolving seasons in such a beautiful area,” said Hoiby. “This is the reward you get for being alive… I feel blessed and proud to have spent my life writing music.”
The local composer practices Chopin’s etudes every day to keep his fingers in shape.
A couple of week ago, the United States Army Chorus performed Hoiby’s “Last Letter Home,” commissioned by the Male Choir Commissioning Consortium, a work inspired by a letter written by a soldier to his wife and children, never to be opened unless he died, at Trinity Church in the city.
In his 34th year, Private First Class Jesse Givens drowned in the Euphrates River on May 1, 2003 in service to his country.
Before he died, Pvt. Givens wrote a letter to his wife, Melissa, 5-year-old son Dakota and their unborn child, Carson.
“Please, only read it if I don’t come home,” he wrote. “Please put it away and hopefully you will never have to read it.”
Than came that fateful day when Melissa was notified her beloved husband had perished in a world far, far away from home.
“I searched all my life for a dream and I found it in you,” wrote Givens. “I have never been so blessed as I was on the day I met Melissa… you are my angel, soulmate, wife, lover, and best friend. I am so sorry. I did not want to have to write this letter. There is so much more I need to say, so much more I need to share. A lifetime’s worth.”
“Do me one favor. After you tuck the children in, give them hugs and kisses for me. Go outside and look at the stars, and count them. Don’t forget to smile.”
Hoiby said he was inspired to compose “Last Letter Home” after a friend sent him a collection of letters penned by soldiers who died overseas, and in the wake of getting permission from Melissa Givens to use her husband’s letter.
“This one stuck out like a gem,” he said. “Every time I read the letter, I cry. It’s a once in a lifetime chance to write something like that.”