The first words you’ll hear in composer Michael Gandolfi’s new piece “In America” are those of Mark Twain. “Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak,” the singers exhort. Our nation, they continue, “sold its honor for a phrase.” For Twain, that phrase was “Our Country, Right or Wrong!” While Gandolfi says he wants to leave open-ended what he’s referencing, it could just as easily be “Make America Great Again.”
For the message “In America” sends is that to speak up is to fulfill a patriotic duty. Gandolfi, who has been on the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center since 1997, is speaking up in perhaps the way he knows best. “In America” will premiere Monday during the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra’s concert at Seiji Ozawa Hall. TMC fellow Gemma New is scheduled to conduct.
Over the phone, Gandolfi explained that the TMC had charged him with writing a “contemporary version” of “Songfest: A Cycle Of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra” in celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. In that piece, Bernstein set to music the work of poets including Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, and Gertrude Stein in celebration of the United States Bicentennial.
Like “Songfest,” which will be performed later in the summer, Gandolfi’s piece is written for orchestra and six vocal soloists. And like Bernstein’s sources, Gandolfi’s sources span centuries. The libretto is comprised of prose and poetry from Americans such as Walt Whitman, H.L. Mencken, Martin Luther King Jr., poet Brenda Hillman, and Emma González, the survivor of the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., who has channeled her newfound visibility into activism.
“I feel like they should be heard forever,” said Gandolfi. “They’re patriots. They’re Americans in the truest sense of the word. I don’t have anywhere near the courage of these people, not even close.”
This “Songfest” sequel of sorts was commissioned around two years ago, but didn’t materialize until this spring, when Gandolfi barrelled through the approximately 30 minutes of music in two months. There was a reason for the delay, he said. “I would think I had a handle on what I wanted to do, and then some whacked-out thing would happen in the news,” he said. “I would feel like my piece was suddenly irrelevant.”
Gandolfi spoke at length about his piece, which is sectioned into what he calls three “panels” without pause. One portion includes open harmonies reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s Americana fantasy “Appalachian Spring,” and the piece pays homage to the long American love affair with television by incorporating a recurring motif that Gandolfi said sounds like a “miniseries theme.” At certain points, percussionists shake maracas at the audience. However, that’s not supposed to be festive, the composer explained.
“To my mind [the maracas] are basically saying “Wake the F up,” he said. “I’ve instructed them to shake those, go right out to the audience like you’re trying to shock them. . . . I think it will work.”
“It’s powerful. It’s a very dense, very moving, adrenaline-invoking orchestration,” mezzo-soprano soloist Katherine Beck, 28, said over the phone. “I try and keep my emotion in check to deliver the message, because it’s so relevant.”
The composer purposefully took a long view of American history to avoid getting caught up in the news cycle, but every quote rings relevant in the present day. In the interview, Gandolfi expressed vehement frustration with President Trump’s actions and social-media presence. “In America” itself never criticizes any contemporary figures by name, but most selections explicitly rail against injustice.
Though “In America” does not flinch at darkness, it is not written out of a desire for any sort of destruction. “I love this country. I love the freedom we have as artists,” Gandolfi said. “I learned from writing the piece that maybe our country is about struggle. It’s not meant to be comfortable.”
Such a bent, Gandolfi mused, would not have been not out of character for Bernstein. “What if Bernstein were around now? I don’t know for sure what he would have done, had he been asked to write a piece like [“Songfest”] again. I can only go by what I know about him,” said Gandolfi. The two met on a few occasions, including one memorable 1986 master class at Tanglewood at the cottage of the late composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, which lasted from 5 p.m. until 3 a.m.
“I can’t imagine [Bernstein] not speaking out. He probably would be far more over the top than what I did,” Gandolfi said.
TANGLEWOOD MUSIC CENTER ORCHESTRA
At Ozawa Hall, Monday, 8 p.m. Lenox. www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.