Ned Rorem has written something like 500 songs in his lifetime as a composer. I heard 11 of them tonight -- three entirely new -- at Carnegie Hall as part of a world-premiere orchestra song cycle prepared for mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. As one of those "unabashedly melodic" contemporary composers, Rorem is someone I probably should have discovered a while ago, but didn't. Sara Fishko's mention and playing the other day on WNYC of a landmark re-released recording of his songs hinted to me that I'd like the music, and tonight's show confirmed it. His quote in the program really summed up well something I noticed: "I like to put down on paper what needs to be put down, and not put down what doesn't need to be put down." It sounds obvious, but isn't always the case.
The compact Orpheus ensemble, famous for performing without a conductor, coheres well with that mentality. Their playing was lush, without overwhelming Graham's vocal lines. She stood at the core of the orchestral semicircle and glanced at the music on her stand only very briefly for each page. My joy as well as frustration with the songs was that they are so economical. Each line of each relatively brief poem is sung just once and then not again (except for the final song, a fantasia on one word only: Alleluia). So just as you are getting to know and love a character, a musical mood, it's over. It reminded me of great movie cues strung together on a soundtrack and separated from the film.
The most touching text for me was "Death and the Young Man," which includes a painfully beautiful repurposing of an old line: "Just be gentle. This is my first time." I especially liked the melding of words and music in "For Susan," "A Journey" and "Clouds." "The Serpent" ('I’m Serious about my Singing Career!') elicited laughter, and "The Lordly Hudson" made me beam with pride to discover a lesser-known pean to New York. Graham's performance was so good you felt the audience straining to withhold their applause after every song. The crowd finally let loose after Emily Dickinson's "Wild Nights," the 10th piece. Perhaps people didn't realize that "Alleluia" was the 11th song, and not just some valediction. Thus, after the clapping died down, the performance of it felt like an encore.