Song Cycles Honor Pride Month And Rise Of Feminism

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Taking their bows at the New York Festival of Song, which offered two cycles with contributions from eight different composers: (l to r) pianist Serene, composer Paula M. Kimper, pianist  Michael Barrett, mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson, soprano Devony Smith, librettist Elaine Sexton, composers Laura Karpman, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, Kayla Cashetta and Laura Kaminsky, and baritone Jorell Williams. One of the cycles was a world premiere. (Photos: Cherylynn Tsushima)
By Anne E. Johnson

NEW YORK – June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month, always a big deal in New York City. But this year, the festivities are bigger than ever because it’s also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an essential spark in the engine of the gay-pride movement. New York Festival of Song is marking the occasion with two concerts at the LGBT Community Center, the first of which, on June 11, included a world premiere song cycle curated by composer Laura Kaminsky.

Jeannette Rankin: Congresswoman, suffragist, and pacifist. (Library of Congress photo)

The program featured only works by women composers in two song cycles that focused on queer experience and feminism. The older cycle, Fierce Grace: Jeannette Rankin, is a four-song biography of sorts, commissioned by OPERA America and premiered in 2017, about the life and work of the first woman elected to the United States Congress. Librettist Kimberly Reed follows Montana native Jeannette Rankin through her career, then caps the series with a contemporary voice looking back on Rankin’s legacy.

Reed chose a different composer for each song, so the style varies widely. But, because the writer and singer remain the same, the overall piece mostly hangs together well. Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson truly became her character, developing and changing as Rankin aged. Reed provided minimal stage directions and props (a different hat for each song) to help, but Johnson didn’t need them; her vocal and physical acting communicated the role clearly.

“1917 – A Millinery Resolution,” composed by Ellen Reid, opens the cycle, showing Rankin as a rookie congresswoman, bemused by the fact that her male colleagues felt they needed to vote (the millinery resolution of the title) on whether Rankin could wear her wide-brimmed hat.

Soprano Heather Johnson as Jeannette Rankin through the years: bemused, frustrated, and standing her ground.

Reid presents the long text as an arioso, almost a speech, syllabic and through-composed, with no textual repetition. The piano accompaniment, played by Mila Henry, was as chordal and roiling as Brahms. Johnson’s upper ranged glittered as Rankin proudly called herself a women, not a lady, because “Ladies don’t fight. Fight for women, fight for suffrage, fight for peace.”

Laura Kaminksy, curator of the new cycle, wrote music for both works.

That fight for peace was perhaps Rankin’s defining purpose; she famously voted against U.S. involvement in both world wars. “1941 – Just Listen for the Bellowing” finds Rankin once again in Congress, trapped in a phone booth while members of the press hound her over her “nay” vote. Composer Kitty Brazelton expresses how trapped and pressured Rankin feels by giving her angular lines over a murky, arpeggiated piano part that seemed a bit beyond Henry’s reach.

Kaminsky wrote the music for “1968 – 10,000 Go-Go Boots,” representing 87-year-old Rankin’s involvement in the anti-Vietnam movement. The slow melodies halted and meandered like an aging mind and spirit, a bit confused by her surroundings but pleased to still be relevant. The final movement, “Present Day – Think is to Thank” by Laura Karpman, showed a young woman Googling info about Rankin and singing her gratitude to this pioneer in a sentimental musical language that owed too much to Bernstein.

Librettist Elaine Sexton knew people from the Stonewall generation.

Two more singers – baritone Jorell Williams and soprano Devony Smith — joined Johnson for the world premiere of the six-song cycle After Stonewall, a co-commission by NYFOS and Five Boroughs Music Festival. Speaking from the stage, librettist and longtime Greenwich Village resident Elaine Sexton admitted to being honored but fearful when she was commissioned to write about Stonewall even though she’d been a child in Vermont when the riots occurred. But then she realized that she had known people from that generation, most significantly Thea Spyre and Edie Windsor, gay rights activists who helped to legalize same-sex marriage. Sexton let this couple’s famous love inspire her.

The cycle begins with “Burning Bar,” composed by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum and sung by Williams, whose voice thrilled from his thunderous lower range to his delicate falsetto. The musical style leaned on minimalism; occasional blues notes provided effective coloration.

Jorell Williams, vocally thrilling in Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum’s new ‘Burning Bar.’

Spyre and Windsor are the subject of Kaminsky’s contribution, “Marriage Equality,” almost painful in its beauty. Johnson drew long, sustained syllables over a rippling piano part played expertly by NYFOS associate artistic director Michael Barrett.

Barrett accompanied all the songs except Laura Karpman’s baritone song “Still Queer,” which was played by Serene  (her job otherwise was to prepare the piano for some special timbres). Less sentimental than Karpman’s piece in the Rankin cycle, “Still Queer” relies on repeated upward leaps and stepwise motions downward to support the litany of evidence for queerness in the text. The composer chose to pull out and repeat the phrase “Queer in America” from the end of the poem as a structural technique throughout.

Tear-jerking empathy: Devony Smith in music of Kayla Cashetta and Paula M. Kimper.

It was apparent from incorrect order of the printed program that some songs had been switched at the last minute, a wise dramatic choice allowing soprano Smith’s two songs to be consecutive. Both songs are about memory. “Present, But Gone,” by Kayla Cashetta, is built like a spiritual, mournful and powerful, respecting the dead. On the other hand, Paula M. Kimper’s “Only After Stonewall,” which Sexton acknowledged was inspired by Joe Brainard’s 1975 poem “I Remember,” takes comfort in recalling details of Village life in the late 1960s, the time of Stonewall. Smith sang both with breathtaking, tear-jerking empathy.

Those two soprano songs were so profoundly moving that the final piece, “Anthem,” a strident march on the theme of pride by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon, seemed almost superfluous. Still, Higdon’s homorhythmic writing for all three voices was skilled and rousing.

After Stonewall is an important creation that captures both the gay history of the Village and how that history is passed on. As Sexton wrote, “I don’t remember Stonewall at all. But I do remember Edie, and Edie remembered, so I remember.” For as long as New York’s queer community endures, so will Stonewall. This new song cycle is now a part of its legacy.

New York Festival of Song continues its Stonewall at 50 celebration with two performances of Manning the Canon, a program of art song by gay men throughout western music history, on June 22 in Orient and on June 25 at the LBGT Center in Manhattan.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.