June 28, 2008: Overture
(Continuing the story about my poems being set to music by the composition fellows at Tanglewood)
I drove out to Tanglewood on June 27 to attend a performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group, which involved some pretty good German poetry set to memorable music by Schubert and Brahms. It was a moving and exhilarating evening, and some of the impressive young singers performing the music would surely be singing some of the new settings of my poems. I also signed the contract for my upcoming work with the composer-fellows. The Tanglewood Music Center was actually paying me for my services, and was going to put me up at Seranak, the home of the legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky, whose idea Tanglewood was (it’s a rambling old mansion on a hilltop with one of the most gorgeous views in the Berkshires—named after SER-ge A-nd NA-talie K-oussevitzky). I was even going to be reimbursed for my gas mileage!
I also got to see an advance copy of the summer Tanglewood Music Center program, which listed all the composers, performers, and guest faculty. I was the last entry on an alphabetical list that included such esteemed musical figures as pianist Emmanuel Ax, soprano Renée Fleming, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, choreographer Mark Morris, and conductor/composer/pianist André Previn—a rather more glamorous list than the ones on which I’m usually included.
I also learned which poems of mine each of the composer-fellows had chosen and was happily surprised by both the choices themselves and who made them. The composers had each been given a sheaf of poems from which to choose one to set (one of the poems, in the form of three sonnets, was offered to three different composers, but none of them opted for this arrangement). Since there would be only a month before the concert at which their work would be presented, all the poems were relatively short. I was especially pleased by the range and unpredictability of the choices. The shortest poem, “Renato’s Dream,” is a brief narration by a Brazilian poet friend about his dream of speaking with the great Brazilian poets; it was chosen by Jeff Stanek, from Madison, Wisconsin. “Shut-Eye,” a violent prose poem depicting a frightening dream about shooting oneself in the eye, was the choice, quite against stereotype, of British composer Charlotte Bray, from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Chinese composer Yao Chen picked “Her Waltz,” a poem in which my elderly mother describes a dream in which she sees herself dancing with a chair. “In the Mist,” all hushed atmosphere, was the choice of Helen Grime, from Edinburgh, Scotland. Matti Kovler, from Jerusalem, selected what is perhaps the most “American” poem in the group, “Song,” a playful lyric about a moose on the loose in the Maine woods. And Jane Stanley, from Sydney, Australia, picked “Six Words,” an intricately compressed dialogue poem with only one word per line (possibly, I like to think, the world’s shortest sestina). I admired all this independent thinking, and was now looking forward all the more eagerly to meeting the composers into whose hands my poems were being put.