The origin story of Patricia Leonard’s new piece sounds so much like fate that you’d think it had been scripted. It is almost enough to make the composer believe in something like destiny.
This is how Leonard tells it. In 2009, she was working at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. One day, a friend asked her to lunch. In the Met cafeteria, Wendy Bryn Harmer, a young soprano and a friend of her lunch date, asked if she could join them. Harmer happened to mention that her husband was a devotee of the letters of John and Abigail Adams, “and he can’t believe that no one has set them to music,” as Leonard remembers the conversation.
Before lunch ended, Leonard, an Everett native and graduate of Boston Conservatory, gave the singer her card and told her, “I’m a composer. Let’s do this.” The next day, she found a book on her office chair: “My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams.”
“And from then on,” Leonard added, “we never looked back.”
More than five years after that fateful meeting, “My Dearest Friend,” a song cycle drawn from a selection of the hundreds of letters between Abigail and John, scored for soprano, baritone, and orchestra, is set to have its first performance on Friday at Jordan Hall. The path from that first meeting to the premiere has been tortuous, with no small number of obstacles. “We joke that if I had written about Thomas Jefferson, none of this would have happened,” said Leonard.
Yet in persevering to bring this serendipitous work to fruition, Leonard can perhaps take comfort in a few of John Adams’s own words. “I am determined to control events,” he said, “not be controlled by them.”
Indeed, the project rapidly took over her life as she dug into the approximately 280 letters in the book. From the start, she wanted the piece to cover the span of the protagonists’ lives rather than just a single period. Soon she was roaming through the large corpus of letters, more than 1,100, preserved by the Massachusetts Historical Society. She chose letters that detailed the protagonists’ bond, as well as those alluding to crucial moments in the founding of the United States. From 46 of the letters, she eventually crafted a libretto of 14 numbers (plus an orchestral introduction).
Leonard became so enmeshed in the piece that she left her job at the Met, where she’d been for a decade, to focus on it. Several times she thought, “I’m in this too deep. But you know what? I didn’t care, because I’d already [fallen] in love with them. From the beginning, I was under their spell.”
“My Dearest Friend” also contains numerous allusions to the Adams’s home state, especially to their home town. “I wish myself at Braintree,” wrote John from Plymouth to Abigail in 1772. “I want to see my Wife and Children every Day, I want to see my Grass and Blossoms and Corn, every Day.”
It was after the piece was finished that things began to go awry. On her way to the first rehearsal in 2011, Leonard saw an e-mail from Harmer, and the news was almost freakishly bad. Harmer had been singing in a Glimmerglass production of Cherubini’s “Medea.” According to Leonard, the opera set contained small plastic balls of sand, and Harmer had accidentally ingested some. Needless to say, she was out of commission. The premiere was delayed, plans for the Boston Conservatory Orchestra to give the first performance fell through, and “everything just kind of fell apart.”
Finally, Leonard decided to produce the performance herself. Friday’s concert will feature Harmer and baritone John Moore, as well as an orchestra of area freelancers under the baton of former Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Sean Newhouse.
Asked what she wanted listeners to take away from hearing “My Dearest Friend,” Leonard mentioned two sides of the piece. “I want them to understand that these were important people, just like the rest of the pantheon of American founders,” she said. “And also, it’s a great love story. This woman did so much for her husband.” She pointed to a song late in the piece where Abigail, in a lonely 1782 letter, writes, “How dearly have I paid for a titled Husband.”
“I think she went through a lot,” said the composer. “But I also believe there would be no John Adams without Abigail. We would not have the John Adams that went on to be the first vice president and the second president — he wouldn’t have gone that far without Abigail.”