Interview: Composer Gregory Spears Unpacks Thoreau in Upcoming DC World Premiere

On Saturday, April 28th at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Vocal Arts DC will present their newly commissioned, world premiere of composer Gregory Spears’ song cycle, WALDEN (based on Henry David Thoreau’s treatise by the same name). The recital will feature acclaimed baritone Brian Mulligan who will also perform the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning song cycle, Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Timothy Long will accompany on piano.

Spears’ music has received rave reviews for the operas Paul’s Case (Urban Arias, DC, Premiere 2013) and Fellow Travelers (Cincinnati Opera, Premiere 2016) from The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, OPERA, and many more. He was inspired to create WALDEN “in an era where our addiction to technology and consumerism increasingly threatens our shared sense of truth as a society.” He found himself newly drawn to Thoreau’s mystical search for wisdom and grounding in the natural world.

Gregory Spears. Photo courtesy of KRPR.

Mulligan, a ringing baritone with an intensely focused stage presence will present these two American works. His omnivorous musical appetite has allowed him to sing Verdi, Berlioz, Britten, Gounod, and Sondheim roles at the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, Opernhaus Zürich, and San Francisco Opera. He’s performed works by Mahler and John Adams with the San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and Atlanta Symphony, and recorded two extraordinary song cycles by American composer Dominick Argento, released on the Naxos label in 2017, one of which he will perform live at the recital.

Long is a pianist and conductor of Muscogee Creek and Choctaw descent. His work with singers and opera companies has included companies such as the Boston Lyric Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, the Juilliard School, New York City Opera, Opera New England, Opera Colorado, Utah Opera, Shreveport Opera, the Maryland Opera Studio, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Stony Brook Symphony Orchestra, and the Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra.

We sat down with Gregory Spears to learn more about his process and how he hopes the audience interprets the work.

DCTMA: Tell us the origin story of how you decided to create WALDEN?

Spears: I’ve always loved Thoreau, and I enjoyed the challenge of setting some of his intricate prose in an earlier song. Revisiting him again in a larger-scale work allowed me to explore more of the mysticism and spirituality in his words.

How is Thoreau present in the piece beyond his words?

I started writing in a spartan manner, using a two-note vocal melody supported by piano textures resembling basic finger exercises. As I continued working, the music became more elaborate through the layering of simple ideas. I was inspired by Thoreau’s challenge that we should look for the sublime in the most common materials.

What do you think Mulligan is able to uniquely bring to the piece?

Brian’s ability to commit fully to a text and communicate its meaning to an audience is very inspiring. Brian’s voice combines an incredible strength with an infectious warmth and an unmistakable emotional honesty. Similarly, when reading Thoreau I get the sense of disciplined and technically skilled artist radiating an aura of passionate beliefs.

How is this work similar/different to your past repertoire?

Much of my other vocal work — particularly in opera — involves florid vocal writing with lots of melismatic passages. For WALDEN I tried to simplify the vocal line in search for a more austere and direct setting. A relatively straightforward declamation felt right in counterpoint with Thoreau’s wonderfully intricate prose. I also saw it as a response to Thoreau’s call for “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”  As an exercise, in the first song I tried to limit much of the vocal line to two notes (tonic and dominant). The lines became much more elaborate in the end, but the listener might still hear how that initial compositional restriction shaped the musical language of the cycle. I also tried to connect the songs structurally through a series of interwoven sections. All the songs borrow from one another, which hopefully creates a sense of a larger narrative.

What’s exciting about working with Vocal Arts DC?

It’s a true gift to be asked to write a large-scale work for a world-class singer. It’s also wonderful to explore one’s compositional voice in song.

What do you hope audiences gain from this piece?

I hope it makes them want to read or re-read Thoreau! I could only choose a tiny fraction of his words, but his ideas about nature, the news, commodity culture, the dangers of technology, and the importance of living in the moment all feel incredibly contemporary. Also his demand that we hold tight to truth, democracy, and rationality and that we resist when our government betrays these values seems more important than ever.

Further information and tickets to the Saturday, April 28th performances are available at the Vocal Arts DC website. You can hear more from Spears, Mulligan, Long, and the creative team the day before the performance – Friday, April 27th at 11am. Attendance at the actual event is limited to invitation only, but Vocal Arts DC will be streaming the panel discussion live from their Facebook page.

The Gerald and Ann K. Perman Memorial Recital featuring WALDEN plays April 28, 2018, at the Terrace Theater at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.


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