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CD144   Somewhere To Get To: Music of Rodney Lister


CD144 Somewhere To Get To
Music of Rodney Lister

Collage New Music • D'Anna Fortunato • Pascale Delache-Feldman • Ian Greitzer • John Hollander • David Hoose • Denise Konicek • Rodney Lister • Mary Westbrook-Geha • Joel Smirnoff • John Ziarko

  • Notes by Paul Driver
  • Complete texts
  • 79'10" total playing time

CD144     $15.95

Purchase from Canticle Distributing


Music of Rodney Lister

1. The Bear's Lullaby (1993)
    John Ziarko, viola; Rodney Lister, piano
   Of Mere Being (1993-2000)
  Poems by Wallace Stevens
    D'Anna Fortunato, mezzo-soprano; Rodney Lister, piano
2.     I. Toward a Supreme Fiction
3.     II. A Clear Day and No Memories
4.     III. The Snowman
5.     IV. Another Weeping Woman
6.     V. The Palm at the End of the Mind
7. A Little Cowboy Music (1980)
    Ian Greitzer, clarinet; Joel Smirnoff, violin; Pascale Delache-Feldman, contrabass; Rodney Lister, piano
8. Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish (1999)
  Text by Susan Stamberg
    Denise Konicek, soprano; Rodney Lister, piano
9. Everness (1990)
  Poem by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Richard Wilbur
    Denise Konicek, soprano; Rodney Lister, piano
10. The Birds (2000)
  Poem by Hillaire Belloc
    Denise Konicek, soprano; D'Anna Fortunato, mezzo-soprano; Rodney Lister, piano
11. The Repetitive Heart (1985)
    Joel Smirnoff, violin
12. Sure of You (1994)
    Rodney Lister, piano
13. Blue Wine (1989)
  Text by John Hollander
    John Hollander, narrator; Rodney Lister, piano
14. Somewhere To Get To (1996)
  Poems by W. H. Auden
    Mary Westbrook-Geha, mezzo-soprano
Collage New Music, David Hoose, director

Linda Toot, flute; Robert Annis, clarinet;
Catherine French, violin;
Joel Moerschel, 'cello;
Christopher Oldfather, piano

Listen Listen:

The Birds by Rodney Lister (Poem by Hillaire Belloc)


This carefully recorded and well-sung Arsis CD offers a nice portrait of a distinctive Amerian figure, dominated by the composer's own clear and sensitive piano playing. ...It all adds up. Rodney Lister is one of the people you should hear and get to know if you care at all about current American music.  --Paul ingram, Fanfare, July/August 2005

This is another fine release from this label and gently recommended to listeners who like to explore the lyrical byways of American music.  --John Story, Fanfare, Sept/Oct 2005

Music of Rodney Lister
by Paul Driver

This sequence of songs and chamber pieces presents a portrait of an artist whose influences range across both sides of the Atlantic, embracing such British figures as Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Michael Finnissy, and an American collection including Ives, Copland, Virgil Thomson, Arthur Berger, Milton Babbitt and perhaps those 1930s leftwing figures, Stefan Wolpe, Marc Blitzstein, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. To Lister's own political strain must be added his practicing Christianity, his ardent interest in literature, and his wide experience as a performer and teacher of music, if we are to begin to pin down his distinctive sensibility.

For all his openness to stimuli he is very much his own man, practicing the compositional life in his own way, writing a little most days, and writing for the people around him. There is a sort of Schubertian festivity about the way he involves his acquaintanceship in his art. Friends and colleagues saunter through his œuvre in the form of dedications and birthday tributes, and his evident conviction that music should be written for use has far more in common with Britten's humble, perhaps Anglican, desire to serve the community, than with anything like Hindemith's need to inundate us with Gebrauchmusik.

The viola-and-piano duet, The Bear's Lullaby (1993) was written at Greenwood Music Camp in western Massachusetts, where Lister is on the faculty. "My little house," he says, "is in the middle of the woods, and I was always afraid that, on my way home late at night, I would run into a rabid raccoon or worse, a bear." Rather than registering alarm, this brief, hypnotic movement seeks to lull any hostile presence into a sense of musical security. Lister takes Faurè's violin-and-piano Berceuse as a source, but his musings on its pattern of notes produces something closer to a Satie Gymnopédie.

Of Mere Being (1993-2000) is a cycle of five poems by Wallace Stevens, set for soprano and piano, though also conceived as choral pieces. The first song, a declamatory setting of the verse inscription to Steven's extended Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, is marked "bold and ardent," but the cycle's characteristic manner is indicated by the "quietly moving" tempo of the next setting, A Clear Day and No Memories. Using moderate speeds and his gently roving diatonic harmony, Lister memorably captures the wry transcendentalism of Steven's work, epitomized bythe last line of The Snow Man, where the snow-listener beholds "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

A Little Cowboy Music, commissioned by Toby Armour for performance at the public library in Somerville, Mass, as part of the 1980 National Library Week, is scored for clarinet, violin, contrabass and piano, and is a quodlibet. This Latin word translates as "what you please," and denotes a light-hearted piece in which several popular tunes or fragments are ingeniously combined, whether horizontally, vertically or both. The finale of Bach's sublime Goldberg Variations is a quodlibet, one of whose tunes (fitting into the harmonic framework of the theme) is the distinctly unsublime Krant und Rüben or "Cabbages and Turnips."

In A Little Cowboy Music Lister deftly juxtaposes and combines no fewer than seven tunes of a traditional American character "The Streets of Laredo," "Good Bye, Old Paint," "Green Grow the Lilacs," "The Ballad of Jesse James," "Red River Valley," "Home on the Range," and the Roy Rogers television show theme, "Happy Trails to You," familiar to him as a small child. As befits a commission for a library, the work exhibits plenty of book-learning in the way it exploits the unlikely contrapuntal possibilities of this material, yet the result has a definite outdoor breeziness.

With its outrageous Ivesian, and indeed Finnissian, overlays, the piece is a great deal of fun, but there is more to it than that. A buried poignancy and even pain is hinted at by the words to "Red River Valley" that Lister has written in the score below the violin part near the end: "Come and sit by my side if you love me, / Do not hasten to bid me adieu, / But remember the Red River valley / And the girl that has loved you so true."

Word-setting proper is a preoccupation for which Lister has a Britten-ish fondness: he is a prolific composer of songs, part-songs and cantatas, and his choice of texts is a constant surprise. Milhaud extracted a song-cycle text from a catalog of agricultural machinery, so perhaps Lister is not being all that offbeat in setting a recipe. The recipe for the late Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish (1999) - as notated by her daughter-in-law Susan Stamberg - is, we are told, the one "that SOUNDS terrible, but TASTES terrific." Lister makes of it a delightful little parody of a baroque cantata. At the same time he evokes the deadpan manner of a writer dear to his heart, Gertrude Stein.

Also for soprano and piano is Everness (1990), a setting of Richard Wilbur's translation of a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, suggesting that nothing that happens is ever lost. Oblivion does not exist because God saves everything, however insignificant. Even the transient images in mirrors are part of "that diverse crystalline memory, the universe," and Lister's piano writing with its detached and dissonant, reverberant chords well catches the crystalline quality.

Adding a mezzo-soprano to the same combination is The Birds (2000), a masterly treatment of a little Hillaire Belloc poem in which the infant Jesus makes living birds out of clay. This "gently rocking" music is written entirely with the white notes of the keyboard, except for a single accidental. On the first of its two occurances, the word "Paradise" is allocated an F-sharp, clashing with a G below, and pain of our earthly longing for such an estate is instantly suggested. On the word's second appearance this pain has been slightly assuaged, though there is still a harsh interval - that of a tritone, the diabolus in musica- between the voices. The interval is softened first to a perfect fourth, then to a perfect fifith, by the echoing mezzo. The song enfolds within its three-minute span a whole metaphysic.

The Repetitive Heart (1985) for solo violin (originally written for solo viola), is a rather more ambitious affair. After a tiny prelude featuring that interval of the tritone, the player embarks on a study of a repeated rhythm - a dotted eighth-note followed by an eight-note - that Lister came across when playing John Cage's The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, a work for voice and "closed" (ie. tapped) piano. When the figuration has become more elaborate, the prelude returns and is amplified into an impassioned melody. Pulsing figuration and expressive melody then alternate, with further appearances of the prelude, until the latter turns satisfyingly into a codetta.

Lister says the piece is about "the beating of the (my) heart" and "the subjective nature of the perceptions of time." And he reveals that it is all based on a tune by Tina Turner. Rather as he fiddled with the Fauré Berceuse, here he permutes the notes of Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It," using the sort of "magic square" number grid that Maxwell Davies habitually employs to generate pitch-material out of plainsongs. Just before the end of the piece, the tune's end is quoted directly, the words at this point being "who needs a heart when a heart can be broken."

The solo piano piece, Sure of You (1994), takes its title from this exchange in Winnie-the-Pooh: "Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. 'Pooh,' he whispered. 'Yes, Piglet?' 'Nothing,' said Piglet, taking Pooh's paw. 'I just wanted to be sure of you'." The piece, marked "pensive," is another musical search for security, another Bear's Lullaby perhaps.

Blue Wine (1989) is the most unusual work on the disc, and an example of "melodrama" in the strict sense: spoken words with musical accompaniment. The text by the poet John Hollander already has a musical character, being a set of variations on a theme. Blue wine, and blueness itself, is considered in short sections that move overall from the meditative mode to the narrative and back again, and perhaps can be seen as a response to Wallace Steven's long poem, The Man with the Blue Guitar. Lister's music is self-effacing to the point of asceticism: elemental gestures, bare intervals, single notes, all free-floating in an open form. There is an exhilarating, if sparsely written, climax evoking "brightness of flame" and "flavescent gold," and a calmative hymn soon follows. Blue Wine may be a curious work, but it is unmistakably a reflection of Lister's sensibility.

Maxwell Davies's influence is again evident in Somewhere To Get To (1996) in what Lister calls the "little isorhymic motets" that form interludes between four settings of W. H. Auden. This work originated in Lister's desire to write a piece marking Milton Babbitt's 80th birthday, and to do so in a way that would allow him to end with quotation from the end of a Babbitt work he loves and has often played, Composition for Viola and Piano. To ensure an organic connection between the works, he drew a pair of six-note tunes from the Babbitt to use as material. An association in his mind between the Babbitt and Auden's poetry - specifically "Musée des Beaux Arts," the final setting - was purely subjective, but out of such serendipity is art created.

The song-cycle is scored for the Pierrot lunaire combination of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, voice and piano, and is notable both for its formal continuity - the flow of songs and instrumental passages recalls that of Britten's vocal-orchestral Nocturne - and for the distinctness of the various treatments. In "Their Lonely Betters" the voice is set in relief against what Lister thinks of as "birds and bees music." In "The More Loving One" the violin imitates a mandolin. The third setting, Lister says, is " a monodic recitation whose accompaniment consists mainly of the notes of the tune prolonged." The fourth is modeled on Elizabethan viol fantasias. Between the second and third songs is a wonderful expressionistic rendering of a storm - the one that the poet wakes to hear in "First Things First." The work as a whole portrays the passing of a day, starting in late afternoon, moving through a still evening and the night-time violence of a storm, and ending at dawn with the emergence of the Babbitt piece.

© 2003 by Paul Driver
(Paul Driver is the music critic of The London Sunday Times)


Rodney Lister

Rodney Lister
has received commissions, grants, and fellowships from the Berkshire Music Center, the Fromm Foundation at Harvard, the Koussevitsky Music Foundation at the Library of Congress, the Fires of London, the Poets' Theatre, the Virgil Thomson Foundation, the Preparatory School of the New England Conservatory, Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble, the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, among others. His works have been performed at Tanglewood, the Library of Congress, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and in New York and London, among other places by performers including Joel Smirnoff, Tammy Grimes, Phyllis Curtin, Jane Manning, Mary Thomas, Michael Finnissy, Kathleen Supové, Jane Struss, Boston Ceceila, the Blair Quartet, and the Fires of London.



As a pianist, he has been involved in premieres, first US performances, first UK performances or first Boston performances of works by Virgil Thomson, Peter Maxwell Davies, Milton Babbitt, Michael Finnissy, Philip Grange, Judith Weir, Lee Hyla, and Paul Bowles, among others

He is currently on the faculty of the New England Conservatory where he teaches composition and the Preparatory School of New England Conservatory, where he teaches composition, theory, and chamber music and is co-director of the annual contemporary music festival. He is also a music tutor at Pforzheimer House, Harvard University, and is on the faculty of Greenwood Music Camp.

Mr. Lister received his early musical training at the Blair School of Music in Nashville, Tennessee. He was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music from 1969 to 1973 and at Brandeis University from 1975 to 1977. In 2001 he received his Ph.D from Brandeis University. In between his stay at those two institutions he lived in England, where he studied privately with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. He also was a member of Davies's composition seminar at the Dartington Hall Summer School of Music. He was a Bernstein fellow at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in 1973. His composition teachers, aside from Davies, have been Malcolm Peyton, Donald Martino, Harold Shapiro, Arthur Berger, and Virgil Thomson. He ha also studied piano with Enid Katahn, David Hagan, Robert Helps,and Patricia Zander.

Collage New Music was founded in 1972 by Boston Symphony Orchestra percussionist Frank Epstein. The group is widely admired for its scintillating performances of music by great composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Over the past three decades Collage has given more than 200 first Boston performances, including 80 world premieres. Collage has commissioned new works by Luciano Berio, John Harbison, Fred Lerdahl, amd many Boston-based composers. Many of the finest American singers of contemporary music have appeared as guests with Collage, as have Seiji Ozawa, Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbitt, Clark Terry, Vanessa Redgrave, and others

Pascale Delache-Feldman was a prize winner at the Prague International Chamber Music Competition and received first prize with honors for double bass at the Paris Conservatory. She has performed as a soloist with the North Shore Philharmonic, Greensboro Festival Orchestra, Longy Chamber Orchestra and others. An avid chamber music player, she is co-founder of the Axiom Duo with cellist Emmanuel Feldman. They have concertized both in the US and in Europe; and they have recorded for Synergy Classics. Ms. Delache-Feldman studied at the Paris Conservatory and the Curtis Insititute of Music. She teaches at the Longy School of Music, Tufts University, University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and the Rivers School of Music.

D'Anna Fortunato has been a frequent soloist with such major orchestras as the Detroit Symphony, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Louisville Symphony, and the Pittsburgh Symphony. She has also sung leading roles with the Opera Company of Boston, the Boston Lyric Opera, the Augusta Opera Company, the Rochester Opera Theater, and the Kentucky Opera Association. She has participated in chamber music series with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, among many others, and has toured extensively as a member of Liederkreis Ensemble, winner of the 1980 Naumberg Chamber Music Prize. Her festival appearances include the Marlboro Music Festival, Tanglewood, the Monadnock Music Festival, the Bach Festival of Rome, and the Casals Festival. She has recorded for Harmonia Mundi, Nonesuch, CRI, Northeastern Records, and Music Masters.

Mary Westbrook-Geha's active career has taken her to Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Dresden, and throughout North America. Since 1978 she has been a soloist with Boston's Emmanuel Music in their world-renowned cycle of Bach cantatas. She frequesntly appears with the New England Bach Festival, and she has performed with the Bach Aria Group. She has appeared with the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Boston, San Francisco, Jacksonville, and Tallahassee orchestras, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and summer festivals at Tanglewood, Caramoor, and Marlboro. She has recorded on Denon, Arabesque, Music Master, ARSIS, and Marlboro Recording Society labels.

ian Greitzer is the principal clarinetist with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, the Rhode Island Philharmonic, the Boston Classical Orchestra, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. He is also a member of the Boston Conservatory Chamber Players, Boston Musica Viva, Dinosaur Annex, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and the Boston Conservatory Faculty Wind Quintet. Mr. Greitzer is currently a faculty member at the Boston Conservatory and the Boston University School of Music.

John Hollander was born in New York City in 1929. He has written several volumes of poetry including Picture Window (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), The Figurehead (1999), Tesserae (1993), Selected Poetry (1993), Harp Lake (1988), Power of Thirteen (1983), Spectral Emananations (1978), Types of Shape (1969), and A Crackling of Thorns (1958), which was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. He has written seven books of criticism and edited numerous books; he was co-editor of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature (1973) and Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls (with Anthony Hecht, 1967). He has also written books for children and has collaborated on operatic and lyric works with such composers as Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, George Perle, and Hugo Weisgall. John Hollander's many honors include the Bollingen Prize, the Levinson Prize, and the MLA Shaughnessy Medal, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, he is currently the Sterling Professor of English at Yale University.

David Hoose has served as Music Director of Collage New Music since 1991. Under his leadership, Collage has gained a reputation for programming compelling new works in vibrant juxtaposition with contemporary classics. In twenty years as music director of Boston's Cantata Singers & Ensemble, David Hoose has demonstrated great commitment to new music by guiding the ensemble through many commissions and giving first Boston performances of dozens of works. With the Cantata Singers, David Hoose received the ASCAP/Chorus America Award for Adventurous Programming. He has served as Music Director of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra since 1993 and has appeared as guest conductor with the St. Louis Symphony, Utah Symphony, Singapore Symphony, Korean Broadcasting Symphony, Quad City Symphony, Handel & Haydn Society, Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and Emmanuel Music, and with the orchestras of the New England Conservatory, Shepherd School at Rice University, USC School of Music, and the Eastman School. Professor of Music and Director of Orchestral Activities at the Boston University School of Music, David Hoose appears regularly with the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Orchestra.

Denise Konicek is a well-known soprano soloist in the New England area. Critics have acclaimed her "silvery tone," "elegant and finely controlled virtuosity," "exquisite operatic voice," and "exceptional range...[with] brilliant high notes." Her performances have been broadcast at WGBH, KSJN, and National Public Radio. She has recorded music by Dvorak and Shostakovich on the ARSIS label (CD120)

Joel Smirnoff, violinist, condcutor, and eminent pedagogue, joined the Juilliard String Quartet in 1986 and has performed on four continents with the group since that time. Mr. Smirnoff became first violinist of the Quartet in 1997, replacing Robert Mann. In addition to his work with the Juilliard, Mr. Smirnoff has been an active solo performer and conductor and has a recorded catalogue of solo works for the violin, many of them world premiere recordings of contemporary works. In 1983, Mr. Smirnoff was awarded the second prize in the International American Music Competition for Violin in Carnegie Hall and was subsequently presented in debut by Carnegie Hall in its series, "Emerging Artists," as well as by Town Hall in its "Midtown Masters" series. In 1997, Mr. Smirnoff appeared as violin soloist at Tanglewood in a concert dedicated to the memory of the violinist Louis Krasner, performing the Berg Violin Concerto in a performance conducted by Bernard Haitnik. He is Chairman of the Violin Department at the Juilliard School and has served as Head of String Studies at the Tanglewood Music Center. As a conductor, Joel Smirnoff has been a frequent guest with the New World Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, the Bael Sinfonietta, the Juilliard Symphony, the Juilliard Orchestra and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Mr. Smirnoff also plays jazz, performing frequently as improvising soloist with Tony Bennett.

JohnZiarko is principal violist of the New Hampshire Symphony. He is formerly principal violist of the Hamburg and Fort Worth Symphonies, and former assistant principal violist of the Amsterdam Philharmonic. He is on the faculty of the New England Conservatory,the Longy School of Music, and Greenwoood Music Camp.