Wanting to create a rich, musical mosaic expressive of New York City, Jesse Blumberg, Artistic Director of the Five Boroughs Music Festival commissioned 20 songs — themed to Gotham — from twenty leading contemporary composers. The resulting Five Borough Songbook is to have its premiere October 6 at the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood.
Lisa Bielawa’s Breakfast in New York features a text based on conversations overheard in diners all over the city. A Tom Cipullo song, G is for Grimy: An Ode to the G Train is the composer’s good-humored revenge on that notorious subway line. The cycle overall includes an aesthetic balance between the serious and the less so.
Mohammed Fairouz’s Refugee Blues is based on an Auden poem about the unfolding of the Holocaust as considered from American shores. Richard Pearson Thomas wrote both text and music for The Center of the Universe, an exemplar of the one true New York City religion. Blumberg describes Thomas’s song as “a real barn burner.”
Just as all five boroughs are represented among the twenty songs, the cycle is to be presented in each of the five boroughs during the upcoming year. Walt Whitman — a notable condenser and communicator of the cosmic immensity of the metropolis — is featured in the texts of several of the cycle’s songs. Ricky Ian Gordon’s contribution uses a text modified from Whitman’s poem City of Ships.
Composer Jorge Martìn, whose opera Before Night Falls met with critical acclaim, explains why he lightly altered Whitman’s City of Orgies, Walks, and Joys! for his Five Borough Songbook song. “When I’ve set Whitman previously, I was purist about it, wanting to remain faithful to the text. But I’ve decided now to be a little freer, because there’s something in Whitman’s rhythms that works when you recite his long rolling lines but that can get lost when you sing them. Set to music, the verse can grow overly wordy. To avoid that, I trim a bit.”
Martìn says that Whitman’s writings are imbued with the poet’s well-documented love for opera. “You can sense that certain poems in Leaves of Grass are like recitative, others like arias, and that throughout, there is a big, operatic sense of pacing. Looking at City of Orgies, Walks, and Joys! I thought, wow, what a terrific first line. And the poem is so Whitman, just right out there with what it’s about. Yet for a time, I was stumped as to the right way into it musically. I was convinced I’d be setting it for baritone and piano, when I got a reminder e-mail from Jesse that we had a vocal quartet – soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone – plus a piano and cello. Right then it struck me that using a man’s and a woman’s voice would be very Whitmanesque, given his bi-sexuality. And suddenly, after being stuck for a long time, I conceived of the opening line, City of orgies, in sort of a honky-tonk rhythm, and thought a violin would sound great. The finished composition is for tenor, mezzo, piano and violin. The other serendipitous thing was that in sketching the piece, I kept feeling like I wanted to use the Bach chorale tune, Wachet auf. So I worked it in as a cantus firmus.” Cantus firmus, Latin for “fixed song,” is a pre-existing melody used as a basis for a polyphonic composition. “I had to manhandle the chant a bit to make it fit,” says Martìn, “and I rather liked the theological implication in this context. In the end, it wound up as a cantus firmus that itself had to be worked, instead of everything else having to work around it.” That is to say, it is a cantus not so firmus. “It’s a jolly fun piece!” Martìn concludes.
Tickets to the October 6 premiere may be purchased here.
The Queens and Manhattan premieres are scheduled respectively for November 12 and January 12; Staten Island and the Bronx will have their day in May and June.
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