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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Remembering Roger Sessions

From my perspective, one of the greatest American-born composers was Roger Sessions (1896-1985).

Unfortunately, Roger Sessions is not a household name in the broader world of classical music. While he did command a dominant role in American music for several decades before and after WW II, it's pretty rare to hear any of his music performed today. This oversight is one of the great travesties of our current culture. One would hope that his chamber, orchestral, and operatic repertory would at some point be rediscovered and reintroduced into the concert repertory for a new generation of listeners.

For now, most of what I know about Sessions and his music is from old recordings, dusty scores, and fading memories of the man himself.

I was still a teenager when I watched him from a distance in the halls at Juilliard when I was an Extension Division student there in the early 1970s. At that time I learned about him through his students, such as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Andrew Violette. He was a very well-liked teacher. Sessions had a very European outlook (having lived there for so many years). This world view stuck with him in NY (and at Princeton, NJ where he lived and taught). I recall that Mr. Sessions liked to have lunch at an upscale Italian restaurant near Juilliard known as "Mario's."

From my naïve and uninformed perspective at that time, Sessions seemed really ancient. In the avant-garde 70s, he was still writing Symphonies - how "retro." His aging hand appeared to be glued to his pipe, although I never saw smoke coming from it. He spoke in a soft voice, and sat silently much of the time looking off into space deep in thought. When he did speak, it was in a nearly incomprehensible drone and with a low-pitched mumble. His pace of speech was agonizingly slow. Sessions seemed to be the antithesis of some of the hyper-charged forces of nature that permeated the Juilliard culture, and in my teenage ignorance, I didn't realize how sharp the old man really was.

Besides his private students in composition at Juilliard, I recall that Sessions taught a class in counterpoint and that his classroom was directly adjacent to my L&M (Literature and Materials) classroom. All I know about counterpoint is probably the result of intra-classroom osmosis.

It was over the course of the next few years that I would hear, study, and experience Sessions music with a more informed eye and ear. His published books about music are amongst the finest I have ever read. His body of music is substantial and of the highest quality. I'm a huge fan of his nine Symphonies, the Violin Concerto, his piano sonatas, and the Solo Sonata for violin - just to name a few.

Sessions was also one of the most influential teachers of the late 20th century, and was the driving force behind an entire generation of composers, some of which I have studied with. I suppose that I'm an indirect recipient of some of his knowledge, since his students included the likes of Earl Kim, Robert Cogan, Robert Ceely, Malcolm Peyton, Milton Babbitt, and Donald Martino. I guess I'm a second-generation Session-ite, a bona fide Sec-session-ist.

Fortunately, up until his death in 1985 Sessions remained active and received a number of major commissions. He completed some of his most important orchestral works late in life, and penned some rather challenging and impressive piano pieces in this period too (Sessions was an excellent pianist).

My shameful first impression of him in the early 70s as "an old man" was quickly rectified. It soon became clear to me that Sessions had more brainpower and musical chops than I could ever hope for, and over the years I have been rather embarrassed by my misinformed youthful first impression.

One of the big turning points for me, where I became a huge fan of his work, came after I moved to Boston. The Boston Opera Company, under the direction and leadership of visionary conductor Sarah Caldwell, mounted one of Session's operas: Montezuma (1963). The opera in three acts, lasts 2 1/4 hours, and contains dense atonal music and great singing from beginning to end. It's a 20th century masterpiece. The thought provoking libretto was written by Giuseppe Antonio Borgese.

While Montezuma had had it's premiere over a decade earlier in Berlin, the Boston Opera Company delivered the American premiere in the Spring of 1976. (Once, at a reception that followed a Fromm Music Foundation concert at Harvard, I met a Sessions-look-alike Physics professor who in 1964 had attended the Berlin premiere of Montezuma - a copy of the program is shown below).

The Boston premiere of Montezuma was a real happening. I still recall the excitement in the hall at the old (and physically decaying) Orpheum Theatre. Throngs of prominent composers had made the pilgrimage to hear Sessions' work. (I recall that Don Martino, Robert Cogan, Malcolm Peyton, Robert Ceely, Francis Judd Cooke, Ezra Sims, Harry Chalmiers, Rodney Lister, and Scott Wheeler were at the performance that I attended). A scan of a page from my copy of the Boston Opera Company program book is shown below...

The vocal roster included Donald Gramm and Phyllis Bryn-Julson. I just noticed some familiar names in the orchestra too, such as Marylou Speaker (Churchill) who was the Boston Opera Company's Concertmaster before moving on to a post with the Boston Symphony. She passed away just recently at the age of 64. Andre Lizotte (who I knew at Berklee) and Robert Annis (from NEC) were in the clarinet section. Robert played bass clarinet in Montezuma. Dean Andersen and Dennis Sullivan were among the battery of six percussionists. In an interesting roll of the dice, 25 years later I would work with Dennis as colleague in the Information Systems group at Zurich Scudder Kemper Investments. The chorus drafted to sing in Montezuma was a rag-tag band of mostly amateur singers from the local colleges, including Lowell State, Regis College, and Tufts.

Given the complexity of the vocal, choral and orchestral music in this work, the Boston Opera Company production was rather good. I think everyone present at those performances knew that history was being made, and that this was a really important musical event - not only for Boston - but the the country as well.

What we didn't know at that time, or didn't even suspect, was that this great seminal work by one of America's leading composers was probably receiving its' final performance.

Montezuma, as important and outstanding as it is, did not enter into the repertory of opera houses across the US or across the world. Even worse, it was never commercially recorded. For the limited number of composers of my generation and older who were fortunate enough to be present at the Boston Opera House to hear Montezuma live, this was a unique and "once in a lifetime" experience.

While I have a piano vocal score of the Montezuma to study, it would be nice to see it performed again on the operatic stage. I'd even settle for a good quality commercial recording of the work. But, given the current musical climate, it's pretty doubtful that this will ever happen.

But all is not lost. Deconstructing-Jim (being the pack-rat that I am) has unearthed some old cassette tapes made of the April 4th, 1976 Montezuma live radio broadcast. The sound quality is not the best, but you can hear the singing pretty well. These rare recordings are all that we have, and I hope that listening to Montezuma in its' entirety will resonate with those of you who never had an opportunity to hear this great work before. Feel free to download it to your media player or iPod. Each of the three Acts are lengthy, and the MP3 file size is approximately 40 MB for each section.


Montezuma, ACT 1 40 MB

Montezuma, ACT 2 42.3 MB

Montezuma, ACT 3 38.8 MB