Lee Hoiby, 1926-2011

March 30, 2011

“For me, composing music bears some likeness to archeology. It requires patient digging, searching for the treasure; the ability to distinguish between a treasure and the rock next to it and recognizing when you’re digging in the wrong place. The archeologist takes a soft brush and brushes away a half-teaspoon at a time. Musically, that would be a few notes, or a chord. Sometimes the brushing reveals an especially lovely thing, buried there for so long.”

Lee Hoiby, master of opera and song and longtime collaborator with American Opera Projects, died on March 28, 2011 at Montefiore Hospital in New York City, following a short illness.  Mr. Hoiby was 85.

Born on February 17, 1926 in Madison, Wisconsin, Hoiby was introduced to opera by legendary composer Gian Carlo Menotti, his teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music.  His musical catalog incorporated operas, oratorios, choral works, concerti, chamber works, song cycles, and more than 100 songs.  Hoiby’s first opera, The Scarf, was declared by Time Magazine and the Italian press as the Spoleto Festival’s first hit, and his setting of Tennesse Williams’s Summer and Smoke was championed as “the finest American opera to date.”  His last opera, a setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, awaits its world premiere.

In addition to being a longtime collaborator of AOP, Hoiby was also a longtime friend.  He served as a Composer Chair for two years on AOP’s Composers & the Voice series, and in 2006, AOP commissioned his setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Darkling Thrush as part of the multimedia opera Darkling.  Another of Hoiby’s operatic works, This Is the Rill Speaking, had its first professional and orchestrated performances through AOP at SUNY Purchase and New York’s Symphony Space in April of 2008.  This Is the Rill Speaking was based on a play by Lanford Wilson, who died last week on Thursday, March 24th, just four days before Hoiby.

Rounding out AOP’s collaboration with Hoiby, AOP Artistic Partner Steven Osgood (Composers & the Voice) worked with the composer and conducted both A Month in the Country and Summer and Smoke with the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater.  The latter was produced this past fall to celebrate the work’s 40th anniversary; both MSM productions were recorded by Albany Records, with the Summer and Smoke recording to be released later this year.  (To purchase A Month in the Country, click here.)

For more information regarding The Lee Hoiby Institute for American Music, please visit www.leehoibyinstitute.org.  A memorial service will held on a date to be announced later this spring.  Mr. Hoiby is survived by his partner Mark Shulgasser.

For the NYTimes obituary, please click here.
For the Schott Music tribute to Mr. Hoiby, please click here.

Hoiby’s Rill cd reviewed in Opera News

October 28, 2008

Opera News has reviewed the latest CD from Lee Hoiby that features a recording of This is the Rill Speaking performed by Eastman Opera a few months before the staged AOP premiere that took place this past April. Benton Hess was the conductor for both Rill productions.

Opera and Oratorio


Cowdrick, Hannigan, Cramer, Iezzi; J. Wilson, Wilgenbusch, Arnold; Eastman Opera Theatre Orchestra, Hess. Texts. Albany Records TROY 1028

With his 1987 opera Bon Appétit!, American composer Lee Hoiby (b. 1926) took on the making of a chocolate cake, as told through the actual words of celebrity chef Julia Child. Hoiby composed Bon Appétit! in 1985 for American actress Jean Stapleton, who sang the 1989 premiere at the Kennedy Center and later performed it in an off-Broadway run, paired with another Hoiby one-woman one-act, The Italian Lesson. The libretto for Bon Appétit! was adapted by Hoiby’s frequent collaborator Mark Shulgasser from transcripts of two episodes of Child’s TV show, The French Chef. The overwhelming popularity of Child (1912–2004) came not just from her culinary expertise but from her self-deprecating humor and matter-of-fact style. Hoiby wisely left most of the gags for the staging and wrote a tuneful but straight-ahead vocal line with no melismatic flights of fancy. The performance here by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Cowdrick, an assistant professor of voice at Eastman, is likewise engaging but not showy. What’s delicious about this twenty-minute piece is Hoiby’s lively, playful accompaniment and his colorful orchestration for piano and chamber ensemble. Like Child’s whipped egg whites, Bon Appetit! may be light and frothy, but it’s the result of a master’s sure touch.

This is the Rill Speaking
is a chamber opera adapted by Hoiby and Schulgasser from a 1965 play of the same name by Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who provided the libretto for Hoiby’s 1971 setting of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke. Set for six singers playing eleven characters,This is the Rill Speaking is a tender evocation of small town America circa 1950, similar in nature to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Though the work was written in 1991, a New York City performance produced this past spring by American Opera Projects was billed as the opera’s “world-premiere professional production.” Eastman Opera Theatre gave the premiere performance of Hoiby’s orchestrated version of the opera as recently as January 2008, directed by Johnathon Pape, and this recording soon followed. The six Eastman students in the cast do a more than serviceable job, though some use hick accents that are fake and intrusive. Hoiby’s writing for voice and orchestra moves with surprising ease between urban swagger and country languor.

The Eastman Opera Theatre Orchestra conducted by Benton Hess provides fine accompaniments to both works.


NEA honors opera Oct 31 in D.C.

October 24, 2008

Next week, the NEA will give its first ever lifetime achievement awards in opera a week from now in Washington D.C.. If you are in the area, check it out. You’ll get to see a recorded tribute to Leontyne Price from our own Lee Hoiby (This Is the Rill Speaking) who has worked with and written for Ms. Price for many years. Here is the information from the NEA’s release.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has established its first individual arts award in 25 years, the NEA Opera Honors. The awards, which celebrate lifetime achievement and individual excellence, will be presented on October 31 at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, with performances by the Washington National Opera and members of its Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program, conducted by Placido Domingo. NEA chairman Dana Gioia says that the new award “recognizes that American opera has truly come of age with our singers, musicians, composers, directors, designers and opera companies who are second to none in the world.” OPERA America, the national nonprofit service organization, is the NEA partner in the Opera Honors program. In this inaugural year of the award, Washington National Opera is also a partner.

The first NEA Opera Honors are being given in four categories: singer, composer, advocate and conductor. Soprano  Leontyne Price is known for her elegant musicianship, her generosity to young singers and her remarkable recording legacy. Composer Carlisle Floyd has had a long and distinguished career; his many memorable operas include Susannah and Of Mice and Men. Advocate winner Richard Gaddes, the general director of the Santa Fe Opera and co-founder of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, is known for challenging, adventurous programming. James Levine, who has led the Metropolitan Opera premieres of work by composers from Mozart to Weill and the world premieres of American operas by John Corigliano and John Harbison, has also fine-tuned the Met orchestra into one of the world’s leading ensembles.

For more information, visit www.arts.gov/honors/opera, www.operaamerica.org and www.dc-opera.org

Here’s Leontyne Price singing Hoiby back in 1994:

“The future of American opera is in good hands…”

July 10, 2008

Opera News reviews This Is the Rill Speaking

One of the highlights of the New York area’s opera season was the presentation of two of Lee Hoiby’s operas — specifically, the first professional production of his 1992 one-act This Is the Rill Speaking and the New York premiere of the latest revision of his 1986 grand opera, The Tempest. Both works were presented at SUNY Purchase in late April, under the aegis of the University and American Opera Projects. Subsequently, This Is the Rill Speaking was performed in New York City’s Symphony Space. On April 26, both operas were performed, with a panel discussion occurring between performances.

Based on the play by Lanford Wilson, This Is the Rill Speaking is an opera without a traditional dramatic framework. It offers a series of vignettes of American small-town life as it was in the postwar era of the late 1940s and early ’50s. Literary and dramatic touchstones would include Winesburg Ohio, Spoon River Anthology, Our Town and Under Milkwood. The music is precious and nostalgic without being cloying, lyrical and emotional without overstatement. Hoiby’s light, exquisite scoring adds tremendously to the music’s impact. The six cast members — Abigail Fischer, Andrew Garland, Malinda Haslett, Nicole Mitchell, William Ferguson and Justin Petersen — each performed in multiple short roles. To their credit, and that of director Ned Canty, the listener managed to retain a sense of which of their characters they were enacting. Each of these young singers deserves a paragraph of praise. Suffice it to say that we can expect further great performances from them, and that the future of American opera is in good hands. The performance space at Purchase was rather small. Fortunately, scene designer Glenn Reed and lighting designer Peter West were up to the challenge, making creative use of the entire stage. Benton Hess and the AOP Orchestra provided sensitive, assured accompaniment.

Read entire review

Seldom-Heard Operas by Lee Hoiby Evoke Calm & Storms

April 30, 2008
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Music Review

Seldom-Heard Operas Evoke Calm and Storms

Published: April 30, 2008

For lovers of vocal music, Lee Hoiby is a name to be reckoned with. Leontyne Price and Renée Fleming have been among the composer’s champions, and his songs are common currency for vocal students. Fate has not been as kind to Mr. Hoiby’s 11 operas — a pity, given the admirable craft and imagination they reveal.

Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times

Justin Petersen and Abigail Fischer in Lee Hoiby’s opera “This Is the Rill Speaking.”

In a valuable act of reclamation, American Opera Projects and the Purchase College Conservatory of Music provided welcome exposure for two of them, “This Is the Rill Speaking” and “The Tempest,” on Monday night at Symphony Space. What the two works share is conventional tonality, deft setting of English text and idiomatic librettos by Mark Shulgasser. Otherwise, they could hardly be more different.

“This Is the Rill Speaking,” a 1991 one-act setting of a Lanford Wilson play, offers a vision of rural, small-town life through snatches of conversation patched together like a comfortable quilt. Mr. Hoiby’s unfailingly gracious music mixes a nostalgic glow with moments of winking mischief and gentle seduction. Six singers fill 11 roles, accompanied by a string quartet, double bass, wind quintet and harp.

The American Opera Projects staging, designed by Glenn Reed and billed as the work’s first professional production, was spare and economical: a few scattered chairs and benches, a table and a wooden fence long and tall enough to conceal quick costume changes. Ned Canty, the director, provided clean, effective blocking.

Among a solid cast of young singers, Abigail Fischer, a mezzo-soprano, stood out for her attractive tone, abundant feeling and clear diction. Andrew Garland, a baritone, and William Ferguson, a tenor, also made strong impressions. The conductor, Benton Hess, drew a secure if not always polished performance from his instrumentalists.

Mr. Hoiby’s “Tempest,” from 1986, is a linguistically faithful condensation of Shakespeare’s play, set to a grandiose score for full orchestra. The conservatory’s Purchase Opera presented an hour of excerpts in concert, with its Purchase Symphony Orchestra onstage behind the singers, and the chorus in a balcony.

You could argue that while Mr. Hoiby’s writing never lacks potency or passion, his idiom is too conservative to realize Shakespeare’s strange, magical world properly. There are exceptions; one is the raging storm of a supremely evocative overture. Another is the role of Ariel, a stratospheric coloratura part reminiscent of Zerbinetta’s in Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

Molly Davey brought a brilliant technique and an otherworldly shimmer to Ariel, and Robert Balonek was a strong, earnest Prospero. Eric Barry, as Caliban, was admirable in the big showpiece, “Be Not Afear’d,” but otherwise was overshadowed by the bug-eyed antics of Trinculo (Rasdia Wilmot) and Stephano (Julian Whitley). The remaining roles were capably handled, and the conductor, Hugh Murphy, provided lively guidance.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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