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Gerald Busby Makes Welcome Return to Carnegie’s Weill Hall with New Song Cycles
Gerald Busby, composer
Composer Gerald Busby, openly gay and openly HIV-positive, and perhaps best-known for his scores for the ballet “Runes;” opera, with Craig Lucas, “Orpheus in Love;” and Robert Altman film “Three Women,” had been out of the public eye for too long a time, but made a welcome return for “Gerald Busby’s 70th Birthday Celebration,” a concert at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, on December 18. (The actual birthday was two days earlier.) Busby offered ten distinguished works, mostly song cycles and mostly world premieres, often angular, but tonal and ingratiating, written during the past decade, and most poets whose works he set were present, as were some other esteemed colleagues.

The composer was at the piano to assist Metropolitan and New York City Opera lyric baritone Richard Byrne, singing two song cycles. In the quizzical “Travelers,” to Mary Ann McFadden’s words, newborn eels, or “Elvers,” suggest the sensual as well as the nurturing. Stars mentioned twinkle from the keyboard in “Crickets.” “Peace” proves at once hushed and breathtaking—“You, perfect rose/shining alone on your tall stem”—and heated, aroused. Comely lads populate “The Beard Songs,” the one work not making its debut here, with poems by Mark Beard. “Waiting for the Ferry” takes an affectionate look at the love of a younger and an older man, singer and composer-pianist both caressing the phrase, “He adores you.” In “Cockney Lad,” an icon, classically chiseled, is worshiped with awe. An exuberant martial figure describes “the Young Men’s Christian Association,” site of the sexual encounter with the “Panting muscled receptor/Of admiration/And impalement.” One verse is rugged and rich in Nature imagery. In “Teasing Youth,” playful but dripping with desire, one wonders if the lust object seeks a rendezvous or if enticement with a bulging basket is an end in itself. Set to more ominous martial music, “Berlin, 1936,” depicts attraction to a soldier for the totalitarian regime, “bringer of cold redemption and chill fear.” An interlude of repose depicts the “Nordic god marching proud” in post-coital slumber, “Embracing warmth, outflung limbs’ fragrant sweat.”

Busby’s settings of Alice Rose George texts, in “Bird into My Bed,” consider loves that have and haven’t worked and were sung, in a sharply focused high soprano, by Jessica House, with Nurit Tilles at the piano. In the brooding “The Impossible,” the speaker laments having been “singed” by a lover, sex unspecified, who “left me for a man.” “Voice” is propulsive—the titular sound “makes me feel at home”—and “Breakfast” is a reverie, until “your wife” speaks up. Peace and turbulence alternate in “Frederic, On Leaving,” where the speaker has come to terms with love ending—or hasn’t she? “Racing” is restless, a quest or search, with a high-pitched, desperate ending. In “The Music,” with House and Tilles, employing John Moyne and Coleman Barks’ translations of 13th century Turkish poet Rumi’s Persian verses, the ruminative and the pulsating are juxtaposed. “The Music,” the “title song,” is reflective, the speaker, with age, gaining in mysticism and faith. “The Ocean Moving All Night” is appropriately flowing and dotted with light and dark. Moonlight, water and lover are elements of the mysterious “Folded into the River.” “Let’s Go Home,” flowing as well, contrasts the busyness encountered with the solitude desired, the wish for a place “where we can walk around without clothes on.”

Busby’s haunting “Room Tone,” to Keith Waldrop poetry, in which musical and religious references abound, called for, and received, virtuoso performances by versatile mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway and pianist Tilles. The songs are the reverent “Legend;” tumultuous “Bodily,” with Holloway deftly negotiating florid passages; “Theme,” where the vocal line is spare and Tilles had the bravura trills and wide-ranging phrases; “Feelers,” with vehement outbursts punctuating the low, slow song, grim with foreboding; and “House of the Soul,” statement of a driven spirit. With Tilles, Holloway limned the closeness of a mother and young son, the father apparently absent (“my father’s emptied highboy”), until her retreat into a mental or emotional state where he cannot follow, in the, at first sentimental, then increasingly disturbing “The Mother Songs,” excerpted from Richard McCann’s “Close Summer Air” and “In the Other Room.” In “Afternoons,” the boy plays—play acts?--amidst his mother’s clothes (“I withdrew/the black mantilla in tissue paper, the black/slip whose silk rose/opened on my boyish chest”). “She Said” is a flirtatious dance. “I Am Twelve” was delivered with naïve, childlike innocence. The boy sets his mother’s hair, “slicking/each wet strand with gel and rolling it,/telling her half-invented gossip, telling her/You are so beautiful such pretty hair”—enough said. She has a breakdown, prompting questions, “What Does She Do In There?” and “Is she angry at us?” As she unravels, she shatters the quiet of “She Called Us” with a plaintive “Who has not died” and sudden cry of, “Go out and play.”

With Jenny Lin at the keyboard, tenor Steven Goldstein delivered Busby and Mac Wellman’s abstract, playful and serious “A Shelf in Woop’s Clothing”--a cycle marked by ancient references and much toying with grammar and meaning--with humor and intensity. Goldstein and Lin also collaborated on Busby’s dramatic “Songs from Ancient Greek,” serious, even nihilistic meditations on aspects of love, lust, kisses, propositions, “burning touches … and even a few scratches,” using Robert Lenardon’s translations of Strato’s, Meleager’s, and anonymous works. In Strato’s “How Long?” the speaker expounds on ephemeral love and beauty to hurry a lover along. Passion is disorienting in Busby’s high-lying and forceful “The Frenzy of Eros.” In “I Don’t Love Men Any More,” Meleager gives up hirsute men (!), “far too shaggy … woolly sheep and hairy goats”--leaving them “for herdsmen to mount and embrace”--for women, who elicit a dulcet paean—“I … long for their bodies, smooth as silk.”

In an instrumental interlude, the quartet clair-obscur, from Berlin, made up of Jan Schulte-Bunert, Maike Krullmann, Christoph Enzel, and Christian Biegai, on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone instruments respectively, introduced “Speak,” a suite for saxophone quartet, giving an eloquent account of a work that, without a stated program still conjured up clear images. The first movement chugs along happily, segueing into blues evoking a smoky room, late at night, in New Orleans, say. Then both strains are heard simultaneously. The second movement feels like a cityscape, with moments of quiet in a busy metropolis, humming with activity. The third movement bubbles with activity, mocks, and encompasses extremes of range. Slower and quieter, the fourth movement is nocturne-like, and the fifth, bustling and urbane.

For a finale, Busby brought his vocal quartet together for “Porch Swing,” a dark, elusive, possibly tongue-in-cheek sestina by Maggie Paley, eliciting musical variety from the composer, with a breezy waltz motif for whimsical phrases that bubble up here and there. The listener must content him or herself with no more than hints at exactly who or what the loved one is and whether present or absent.

Some additional works by Busby—“Old World,” with late organist Calvin Hampton, “Stars,” with soprano Jenny Haydn Brown and flautist Michael Parloff, “Court Dances,” “Parallel,” and “Camera”—are heard on a new Innova CD, “Music of Gerald Busby.”

photos by Joseph R. Saporito

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