Dallas — The concept of artist as critic is not new—look back to George Bernard Shaw or Harold Clurman in theater, for instance—and some newspapers have a tradition of hiring composer-critics. That line is becoming blurry again as media changes, newspapers continue to shrink and digital outlets enumerate.
Here at TheaterJones, we hired Gregory Sullivan Isaacs as our chief classical music and opera critic precisely because of his decades as a composer, musician and conductor. His vast knowledge of the repertoire adds a unique and authoritative voice.
So what happens when he composes a new work that’s having a world premiere by a local chamber music ensemble, featuring artists he regularly writes about? We celebrate it, natch.
This work is a dramatic cantata called Undelivered, with a libretto compiled and written by Suzanne Calvin, Director of Media and Public Relations for the Dallas Opera, and is presented under the auspices of Fort Worth’s Hall Ensemble. The world premiere is Sunday, May 11 at the DeSoto Corner Theater, with repeat performances Tuesday, May 13 in Fort Worth and Wednesday, May 14 in Weatherford.
The work uses text from the speech that John F. Kennedy was to give on that fateful day in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
It is written for singers and chamber ensemble, and features Karen Hall, cello; Kevin Hall, bassoon; Mark Houghton, horn; Gary Levinson, violin; Aleksandra Holowka, viola; Jennifer Chang, violin. The singers are Virginia Dupuy, mezzo-soprano; Jacquelyn Lengfelder, soprano; and Jeffrey Snider, baritone. Isaacs conducts.
Of the piece, Hall Ensemble Artistic Director Karen Hall says “The music runs the gamut from complex contrapuntal writing to outright gorgeous. While this is not a religious composition, there is a subtle overlay of the Catholic Requiem Mass and Gregory has incorporated some of the chant where appropriate.”
“While the assassination is a key event in the story about JFK, it is only tangential in Undelivered,” she adds. “This piece is about the message of the speech. This cantata brings that message that is still amazingly timely, forward through the decades to be heard again today.”
TheaterJones initiated a conversation about the work with Isaacs and Calvin. In this Q&A, they talk about the development of the world, and Isaacs divulges what being a critic has taught him about composing.
TheaterJones: How did the idea for Undelivered develop?
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs: When Suzanne first approached me about writing the music for a libretto based on President John F. Kennedy’s undelivered speech I was intrigued. We had casually discussed the possibility of working together for a couple of years at that point.
Suzanne Calvin: I’d been conducting some online research on an unrelated matter when I stumbled onto “the speech” and realized at once it might be just the thing to bring to the concert stage. With Gregory’s enthusiastic approval for the project, I went to work on the libretto first and then set about seeking permissions. I confess; I wasn’t entirely successful and some of the text actually had to be replaced midway through the process; however, once we got to the right person at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, they gave us their blessing for use of the undelivered speech. And that was the key.
GSI: By that time, it was a little late to get a major new piece performed. All of the organizations already had settled on their upcoming season programming. But I had an idea. I was commissioned to write a piece for the Hall Ensemble for a May concert. I wrote that piece, we did a reading and they liked it, I guess. I then called Karen Hall and said “how would you like a slightly larger piece?” There was a big intake of breath but she agreed and I went to work at once setting the text to music.
Although it’s always a challenge to set prose to music, it’s particularly daunting to set lines like “At a time when we’re steadily reducing the number of Federal employees, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.”
All I can say is “Don’t try this at home.”
Describe the architecture of the finished work.
GSI: Suzanne gave the text a large overall arching shape. We first hear the challenge in an 1825 speech by Daniel Webster. He says that if the United States’ experiment in democracy fails, it will doom it for future generations.
SC: As well as for other nations aspiring to recreate the same democratic experiment around the world. Essentially, Webster says if we can’t make it work here, with all our advantages, then democracy isn’t viable in the long term.
GSI: Next, it’s JFK’s speech itself interrupted by “an obstacle.” Suzanne and I created a Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter song sung by a clueless elected official.
SC: We both thought that, although Undelivered is a serious piece, it needed a bit of levity or “comic relief.” Our hope was to do it in a way that contributed to the overall message of the work, rather than distracting from it, and was designed to draw a sharp contrast between the JFK’s uplifting message and the paralysis that afflicts our political system today.
GSI: The politician’s song is followed by an instrumental passage called “The Incident.” This is, of course, the assassination, but we only allude to it. This is a positive piece about Kennedy’s direct message to the American, people. Fifty years later, we still need to hear these words and pay heed to them.
SC: This is followed by an affirming anthem, “Gather Us In”—adapted from G.D. Matheson’s 19th century verses in The Oxford Book of Prayer. I originally envisioned it in “gospel music” terms but I love what Gregory’s done with it, creating something new in a traditional American idiom.
Gregory, gospel music isn’t exactly in your wheelhouse, is it?
GSI: I had no experience in writing gospel music. But I do have a lot of experience singing congregational hymns, so that is what I wrote. It is a “turn to page 320 in your hymnals” anthem. Hopefully, it will make everyone there want to “go to meeting.”
SC: All week long I’ve been waking up to the strains of “Gather Us In” in my head. I have to say it’s a lovely way to start the day. We decided to end the piece with a new folk song. Simple and accompanied only by a cello playing pizzicato, like a guitar. The text revolves around the caparisoned or, riderless black horse, “Black Jack,” which is the most indelible memory many of us have of that somber funeral procession.
GSI: When we tried this out at a music club meeting, following the affirmation of “Gather Us In,” the “Black Horse” was a stark reminder of the tragedy of that day and, judging from the audience reaction, seemed to tap into the emotions people experienced when they first heard the news. The assassination isn’t mentioned elsewhere in the work, so this simple tune at the end of the cantata brings the audience face to face with the cold reality of our national loss.
Gregory, you’ve been a musician all your life and a composer for several decades, not to mention a conductor who has held directorships with orchestras and opera companies. Now that you’ve been writing music criticism for the past five years for TheaterJones, how has this affected how you compose and conduct?
GSI: One thing that is very different the way I approach writing music now that I have been reviewing. I am much more aware of how the music reaches the listener and how it needs to grab them and not let them go until you have reached the end. Even transitions and the smallest musical bridge must keep the listener engaged. Once you lose their attention even for instant it takes a long time to get them back in the line. Once they start thinking about something else, your composition has failed at that moment.
» The first performance of Undelivered is 7 p.m. Sunday, May 11 at the Corner Theater in DeSoto Town Center as part of the Uptown/Downtown concert series. Tickets are $10 and available at the door or at www.artsdesoto.com.
» The other two performances are part of the Hall Ensemble’s 2013-14 concert series. While there might be some tickets at the door, buying them in advance online will assure you of a seat: www.hallensemble.org
- May 13, 7:30 p.m. will be held at The Lilipad, 1310 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth. Food will be served by Chef Vance Martin from Lili’s Bistro.
- May 14, 7:30 p.m. Chandor Gardens, 711 W. Lee Ave., Weatherford.