Saturday, April 28, 2007

These are two small wood sculptures by New Mexico artist Gary Wellman.

I bought them in Houston while playing with the opera there in 2004.
They were hanging in the gallery of the Menil Collection bookstore and
after several visits, I asked if they were for available.
Since they were, I took them right away.

Suspended on "invisible" strings, they suggest birds in flight.
While in Texas (God help me), they hung over my reed desk.
Now they hover in my bedroom.

I love them.

Friday, April 27, 2007

My post yesterday about Nicholas Phan and the concert we performed together in February got me thinking about my time in Houston. During 2004-2005, I spent ten weeks as principal oboe of the Houston Grand Opera, creating a caesura in my New York life. It was a gift. I had space to think about the course of my life, right in the middle of it.

Certain things that perforce make up a middle class life in the rest of the country (owning a home, dishwasher, washer and dryer, car, and having central AC) are uncommon (though not unknown) among my friends in the city. The cost of living here is daunting and approaches economic farce from time to time, but no one lives in New York if suburban comforts strongly seduce.

I was thinking about this last Monday night as I played (I actually thought about it after I played) the English horn solo in Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto in Carnegie Hall. The event was the debut concert of a young pianist named Xiayin Wang. George Manahan, Music Director of the New York City Opera conducted a top-shelf freelance orchestra. As I played this long and very beautiful melody accompanied by piano arpeggios and sustained strings, I became a aware of a feeling: fulfillment. My domestic circumstances may not be impressive by national standards (something that is on my mind this morning as I put off going to get my laundry from the cleaners in the rain . . .), but my life is full of great music performed with great colleagues in America's greatest musical city.

Now, I'd better get my galoshes and rain coat and go pick up my clothes. I have a rehearsal at Carnegie Hall in 90 minutes.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sunday, 11 February 2007

In February Helicon presented a its 81st Sympsoium, titled "The Art of English Song," which featured music by Purcell, Vaughan Williams, and Britten. It was a great night. The tenor, Nicholas Phan is an impressive young artist and a major rising star. I met him while playing principal oboe in the Houston Grand Opera back in 2004, and had wanted to make this program happen ever since. The continuo team is from the Orchestra of St. Luke's and is one of the best in this country. I particularly wanted to present a program combining English Baroque and 20th-C. music to explore the connections and contrasts that might result. Purcell is, of course, the great progenitor of English music and so was a strong influence on Britten and Vaughan Williams. Hearing these works together in one evening turned out to be illuminating.

Here is the program followed by my program notes.

Sunday, 11 February 2007


Nicholas Phan, tenor
Robert Wolinsky, harpsichord
Myron Lutzke, ’cello
Pedja Muzijevic, piano
James Roe, oboe


Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Songs for Voice and Continuo

If Music Be The Food Of Love
Music For A While

I Attempt From Love's Sickness To Fly
Sweeter Than Roses
Not All My Torments
There's Not A Swain
An Epithalamium: Thrice Happy Lovers

Olinda In The Shades Unseen
An Evening Hymn


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Canticle I for Tenor and Piano, Op. 40 (1947)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Ten Blake Songs for Tenor and Oboe (1957)

Three Folk Song Settings for Tenor and Piano


Word painting in “The Art of English Song”
by James Roe, Artistic Director

Song is the ubiquitous form for expressing emotion through words and music. Helicon’s 81st Symposium presents art songs by three of England’s greatest composers, Henry Purcell, Benjamin Britten, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. These composers were masters of a compositional technique called “word painting,” which is the use of musical tools to enhance the meaning of the text. Since the songs on this program are in English, we have direct access to the interplay between words and music.

Among the first musical choices a composer makes when approaching a text is that of key or mode. There are two main musical modes, major and minor. Major modes are generally happy, minor the opposite. One expects a sad sentiment to be sung in a minor mode, however composers can play with these expectations to highlight an underlying ambivalence in a text. One of the Purcell songs we’ll hear opens with the line: “I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly in vain, since I am myself my own fever and pain.” Purcell sets this unhappy realization in the sunny key of A Major. This surprising choice emphasizes not the pain of love’s sickness but our hapless complicity in it. The song becomes a self-amused realization of our own susceptibility to love’s traps. A successful song reveals such layers of meaning not evident in the music or the text alone.

Another musical choice is that of tempo. The famous Purcell song, “Sweeter than Roses,” opens with expansive, improvisatory music that evokes the nostalgic images of the opening line: “Sweeter than roses, or cool evening breeze, was the dear kiss.” This kiss seems to have gone exceedingly well, “first trembling made me freeze, then shot like fire all over.” On this phrase, Purcell launches into a fast tempo, painting the kiss’s fiery passion with shooting musical notes. The next line reads “What magic has victorious love!” Here, Purcell sets up a brisk, regular tempo emphasizing the power of love’s magic over us.

A composer’s most direct tool for word painting is melodic shape. Words are set to melody in two ways, syllabic and melismatic. Syllabic is the most common. With one note per syllable of text, it emphasizes clarity and flow. A melisma is more than one note sung on a single syllable. This expressive device highlights certain words and enhances their emotional impact. A fine example of syllabic word painting from this Symposium comes in the second of Vaughan Williams’ Blake Songs, “A Poison Tree.” Blake’s poem, from his “Songs of Experience,” is a chilling depiction of the progression of anger to fatal revenge. In the last line, the speaker sees his foe dead on the ground, poisoned by the fruit of enmity. “In the morning glad I see, my foe outstretched beneath the tree.” Vaughan Williams sets this line syllabically, each word descending step-by-step to the song’s final note, a long unaccompanied “D.” This unadorned, outstretched note represents the final resting place of the speaker’s victim. (Could the note “D” also denote the word “death”?) Melismatic text setting is a special expressive choice. When a composer writes a melisma on a word, the clarity of that word can be partly or even greatly obscured as the shape of the melody takes prominence over the natural flow of the text. A fine composer will use melismas in important moments where the expressive meaning of a word overwhelms its grammatical or rhythmic place in the poem. There is an irresistible example from Handel’s “Messiah” in the chorus “All We Like Sheep.” The opening line, “All we like sheep, have gone astray,” is set syllabically until the word, “astray.” On its second syllable, Handel writes a long undulating melisma. The melody practically goes haywire, jumping and leaping all about. Quite literally, it goes astray. Melismas offer performers great opportunity for personal expression. In his song “Not All My Torments,” Purcell writes exquisitely complex melismas to color key words such as “torments,” “pity,” and “sorrows.” The two final bars of the song are given over to a weeping melisma on the words, “I despair.” Listen for the way our musicians respond to passages such as these.

I cannot leave the topic of word painting without mentioning one of my favorite examples in all of music, which happens to be on this program. It comes in Purcell’s sublime song, “Music for a While.” Referencing the story of Orpheus, the text tells of music’s power to calm a troubled mind, if only temporarily. The song's second section describes music’s affect on one of the mythological Furies, Alecto. This Alecto is a singularly unpleasant girl. Armed with a whip, she has snakes for hair, bat wings, a dog’s head and blood dripping from her eyes. Yet music has the power to calm even this beastly creature, causing “the snakes to drop from her head and the whip from out her hands.” In his setting, Purcell repeats the word “drop” nine times, each one iterated with a single short note sung on the weak half of the beat. The effect is onomatopoetic word painting, and is immensely charming.

The songs featured in this Symposium are rich in these devices and many others. Keep your ears open. Let your imagination be stimulated by the words, the music, and the performers’ interpretations to heighten your experience of these masterpieces of art song written in our shared language.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I have a small painting by Franco Mondini-Ruiz called Woman Reading to the Sea. Actually, you could have one, too. He'll paint additional versions, "each of the same or better quality." (

The poet Lisa Williams was inspired by this image and has a poem by the same name published in the Spring 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review. I hope you enjoy them both.


After a painting by Franco Mondini-Ruiz

There’s a certain freedom in the long blue slant
of its uncaring, in the wind that knocks
the surface onto rocks, and there’s’ a dent

made in that wind by the woman who recites
straight into it, pretending the waves might hear
or that some larger being that is sea

or seeing hangs there listening, when sea air’s
so clearly full of its own gusts and grunts,
inanimate uprisings. In the line

of no one’s sight, her voice lost in the spray,
she feels a chilling freedom: how the foam
edges the sheets of zig-zag patterned water

while gulls’ shrill outbursts punctuate the sky
(one cloudy, sentimental phrase
or canvas brushed with amber, green, and rose).

What welcomes, and ignores, and doesn’t question?
Sheer emptiness. It’s like a husk
for her alone. It’s like a shell for absence.

Without an audience, she makes a noise
swallowed by waves and wind, just as
the waves themselves—or no, just like the drops

lost in the waves, which neither care nor keep
distinctions—sweep out a place
inside an amphitheatre she imagines

rising around her, with columns that crash
instantly, like the white foam that collides
and shreds its layered castles. Her words drift,

dissolve, and disappear. A crest
of words has surged and poured into the sea.
It doesn’t matter now what the lines say.

Friday, April 20, 2007

I'd like to share images of art works from my collection. I'll start with this quiet little work by New York painter Paul Moran. A couple years ago I walked into a show at Haim Chanin Gallery called "Black and White Abstractions." It was a great show and found the gallery director to be absolutely lovely. I was really taken by eight small paintings by Paul Moran that were lined up on a shelf. Eventually I saw many more in the back. Though they are conceived as purely abstract, I found them to be suggestive and emotionally rich even though quite small. This is the one I chose. It hangs by my bed.

Paul Moran
Untitled 05.01.11 (A)
Oil on paper
6.5 x 30 inches
16.5 x 76.2 cm

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Several nights ago, I was invited to have drinks with two literary ladies from the concert series I run, Helicon. Now sharing an apartment on the Upper East Side, they met during the first half of the last century, teen agers at art camp. ("Oh, She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen," beamed one. "I could never forget her," the other responded, "she read her own poems, published at the age of 14. I couldn't believe it.") Their current arrangement was brokered only because of a chance meeting in Central Park about six years ago. Isn't this the signal dream of all New Yorkers: around the next corner is possibility, our life could change forever and for the better? Fulfillment and footsteps, East Side West Side, we keep searching the sidewalks.

Both are women of letters with important books published and impressive academic careers. We had cocktails. Lillet or martinis, you choose. They were kind enough to read two poems I'd written. I'm an oboist, not a poet, so I don't write many, but I do enjoy dabbling. I'm an amateur in the true sense of the word. I mentioned that I wrote primarily for myself, and we talked about a poem's life as an act of contemplation. "A poem can be patient, but prose demands an audience." I'm not sure that these actually are poems, but the two lyrics below represent my best attempts. I thought I'd trot them out for some fresh air. The literary ladies were gentle with me, I hope you will be, too.

Alone in Leme - Rio de Janeiro, August 2005

Green-shadowed streets,
air thick with salt,
unseen, the sea calls
everything to itself.

With a lover's familiar touch,
waves caress the beach.
They comfort and coax,
beckoning impossible embrace.

Women dressed in white
offer their evening tribute:
champagne and candles lit
for their forbear, lost

deep in aquatic union.
Mourning and seduction toss
in the tide's methodic logic.
Unlit waves arch to kiss
the night's long horizon.


Last night I ate an oyster.
We eat them alive, you know:
a cold shock of briny sea,
death by dinner party.

The shell was big, and as I ate,
it cut the corner of my mouth at
the point where lip meets
lip and almost is cheek.

So thin that delicate line of lip,
so easily severed by the ancient creature’s
last futile line of defense—
I dabbed my own blood the rest of the night.

Today, the prick of pain
each time I smile brings to mind
the beast’s sharp shell, not
its cold, strange meat.