I wonder whether the reason our second commission—Gregory Spears’ song cycle Walden, to verses by Henry David Thoreau—has such a special place in my heart is because its birth was so difficult. I can’t objectively know. Yet its message of simplicity in all things, rendered in a superb recording released late in 2022 by its creators, baritone Brian Mulligan and collaborative pianist Timothy Long, provided me with perspective and solace this winter when some of us hadn’t entirely shaken pandemic PTSD.
The irony is that Walden’s conception and gestation were so easy—joyous, even. Early in the planning stages for our 2017-2018 season, Romana Jaroff, the always-on-point Managing Director at IMG Artists New York, pitched the idea for a recital in which Brian and Tim would have an opportunity to perform one or both of two song cycles by the great American composer Dominick Argento (1927-2019), which they had recorded for an August 2017 release on the Naxos label. I loved so much about this concept: Argento is precisely the kind of American master whose music should have a regular presence on our series. And I had been following Brian’s career with growing admiration from his student days at both Yale School of Music and The Juilliard School in the late 1990s as he progressed from strength to strength in everything from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (while still in training at Aspen) to the title characters in Adams’ Nixon in China and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (the latter two at San Francisco Opera). Brian’s omnivorous musical and theatrical appetites clearly encompassed new works, and it was time for our second new song cycle to be commissioned. If we asked Brian and Tim to come and perform just one of the two Argento cycles on their new album*, would they be willing and able to combine it with a premiere? If so, any thoughts as to a composer?
As it happened, Brian and the composer Gregory Spears had never collaborated despite their having become friends while attending the Eastman School of Music together. Greg’s stunning operatic setting of Willa Cather’s short story Paul’s Case had won him fans in Washington at its 2013 premiere by Urban Arias, and his Fellow Travelers, based on Thomas Mallon’s historic novel set during the McCarthy era, earned national raves at its 2016 Cincinnati Opera unveiling. Later that summer, Greg visited Brian backstage while the latter was performing as John Proctor in Robert Ward’s The Crucible at Glimmerglass Festival and a, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could work together someday?” had been shared. Our offer through Brian of the commission almost instantly gratified their wish; the discovery soon thereafter that Thoreau’s Walden had been a seminal work in both artists’ lives meant we suddenly had everything we needed for our new song cycle—composer, source material, and performers—in one fell swoop and in almost record time.
The Foiled Premiere
Following a round-table preview discussion hosted by George Washington University at which Greg, Brian, and Tim whetted all appetites for the new piece the day before the scheduled premiere, Brian phoned me later that evening, concerned that scratchiness and congestion were building in his throat, head, and chest. Sure enough, he awoke the next day with the full-blown symptoms of a rhinovirus clogging his airways and making the possibility of his singing that evening a non-starter. It was shortly before 11:00 a.m.; we needed to cancel that evening’s 7:30 p.m. recital at warp speed.
In the greater scheme of human calamities, canceling a performance is of no consequence at all. Yet for those of us raised with the mantra, “The show must go on,” it goes against our religion. You have no choice but to instantly focus and maintain a fine balance between compassion and adrenaline-fueled efficiency, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” to implement the cancellation.
Through electronic communication, phone calls, and radio PSA announcements, we alerted ticket-holders that the concert for that evening was postponed until a rescheduled date could be found. We missed only a handful of patrons who either weren’t online or hadn’t checked messages before leaving for the Kennedy Center. It’s to the everlasting credit of my Kennedy Center colleagues that they stood in solidarity at our patron desk with me to greet those stragglers and expertly redirect them to complimentary seats at a ballet performance slated for that same evening in the Eisenhower Theater. And I’ll always be grateful to Greg Spears, who showed up to step forward and greet patrons as well, sharing his own disappointment as the composer whose premiere had to be postponed.
Within a week, we’d found a Sunday matinee in September of 2018 that worked as a “rematch date” for everyone, and Walden finally had its day. Brian and Tim performed a brilliant recital and were able to repeat the same program several weeks later at New York’s Baruch College. Life went on. Then Brian alerted me in 2019 that there was a good possibility that he and Tim might be recording Walden. Against all odds, the recording progressed in 2020 during the worst of the pandemic, including vocal works by Missy Mazzoli and Mason Bates, two other leading American composers, who were also receiving their first recordings. Brian gallantly mailed me a CD before the album’s release late in 2022. And that’s how this recording became, as the days were short and the weather still wintry and gloomy, my “happy place” to tide me over ‘til spring.
Greg’s “voice” is uniquely his own, yet he makes use of minimalism’s repeated figurations: sometimes the vocal line intones phrases for emphasis on sustained pitches almost hypnotically. Brian’s ability to whittle his voice down to a confidential piano dynamic and to articulate the words clearly and meaningfully counts for much in this music. I know I’ll enjoy hearing how other artists who are able to embody Thoreau’s rugged individualism will make this music their own in the coming decades. And the piano part is every bit as integral as the vocal—as Tim reminded me recently, “Like a lot of minimalist music, it’s so much harder than it sounds if you do it right.”
Those words from Tim came during a wonderful catch-up meeting earlier this summer while he was here conducting Handel’s Semele at Wolf Trap. Two weeks before we met, I’d stayed up past my bedtime to watch the live stream of a concert celebrating the San Francisco Opera centenary from the War Memorial Opera House. Brian performed a gripping rendition of “Batter My Heart,” a showstopper set to a John Donne poem John Adams composed for Robert Oppenheimer in his 2005 epic Doctor Atomic. Brian will spend much of the coming season immersed in Wagner, including Lohengrin at San Francisco Opera this fall and Wotan in Die Walküre led by Yannick Nézét-Séguin in Paris. And Greg’s new opera, The Righteous, will premiere next summer at Santa Fe. I love the “small world” interconnectedness of all our lives and music. And we’ll always have Walden.
*Of the two recorded Argento cycles, the one Brian and Tim selected to perform here almost didn’t happen at all due to resistance from the composer. Written in 1974 for the great English mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf had won Argento the Pulitzer Prize. Yet despite the increasing tendency of female singers to undertake such classic song cycles as Schubert’s Winterreise and Schumann’s Dichterliebe written to be sung from a male perspective, Argento needed to be convinced that Virginia Woolf could “speak” through a male interpreter. Brian and Tim flew to Argento’s home in the Twin Cities and sang through the entire cycle, winning the composer’s approval, and celebrated with a post-cycle toast over one of Argento’s patented homemade rounds of Negronis.