What does one say about a concert dedicated to the dead, dying and those living with HIV/AIDS? What does one say about gifted composers, singers and writers dying all too soon from AIDS? What does one say about their deaths falling on deaf ears due to the social stigma of being gay, lesbian, a person of color or transgender to say nothing of the fierce battles for funding research and inventing new drugs to help those suffering from this horrific disease? These are just some of the questions that any mention of AIDS provokes. And so what does this writer who has lost many friends to AIDS say when he’s invited by AIDS QUILT SONGBOOK co-curator composer-pianist Gordon Beeferman to come and write up the show? Why yes of course and so he takes the L train from 14th Street / Union Square, Manhattan to Bedford Street Brooklyn on a brisk fall night and finds himself in a room which looks even better than its pictures. Elegant, a gleaming black Boesendorfer concert grand parked center stage, the audience respectful, attentive.
The sixteen numbers on the program, which included five premieres, were delivered with complete professionalism — this after all is New York, where nobody wastes your time — which isn’t surprising because many of the performers have lots of experience in popular song, musical theater and opera.The music here was strong and enormously varied and so were the words. Susan Snively’s words — ” I have a poisoned heart / — ” which opened her poem ” Fury ” were as dramatic as Daniel Wheelcock’s setting of them sung by tenor Alex Richardson over the composer’s rapid arpeggiated chords with Thomas Bagwell the expert accompanist.
Beeferman’s music for “Ode to a NYC Condom “, to words by his frequent collaborator Charlotte Jackson, was arch and poly-stylistic, and sung here by baritone Brian Mextorf whose experience in some of the best American opera houses shows — strong stage presence, direct and easy rapport with an audience, clear enunciation, and a firm understanding of the text and how to project it. The premiere of “Why I’m Here ” by Michael R.Jackson, who wrote both words and music, impressed with its fierce litany of exclusion — ” I came here to talk about black, queer men / Who face such oppressive forces / ” which African-American bass-baritone Joe Chappel expressed movingly and dramatically, with Beeferman again at the piano. And it’s no accident that Chappel was chosen to be a member of the chorus in the three year world tour of the seminal Philip Glass-Robert Wilson-Lucinda Childs opera ” Einstein on the Beach ” (1975-76) because Glass’ music demands complete concentration every nanosecond. The Brooklyn edition of the AQSB also featured the world premiere of recently famous Kevin Puts’ setting of Mark Campbell’s ” You and Your Big Mouth ( For Larry Kramer )” which came off as a realistic and hence not entirely flattering portrait of the ever controversial New York-born author-Oscar-nominated screenwriter– for Ken Russell’s film of D.H.Lawrence’s novel ” Women in Love “– playwright and activist whose anger at the human cost of AIDS spurred many to ACTUP, even in Beverly Hills. Baritone Jesse Blumberg activated that barely contained anger which Beeferman matched especially in Puts’ furious coda for piano.
And it was a telling reminder that anger whether we like it or not is an essential part of life. And let’s not forget that Elizabeth Taylor’s anger and grief at the death of her beloved actor friend Rock Hudson made her found the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
There were lighter moments too, like composer Herschel Garfein’s setting of his own “No Giggly Time,” which evoked boogie woogie and tango and which Brazilian-born soprano Ariana Wehr sang with great style, Bagwell again at the piano. And there were political-cum-personal moments like composer-pianist Fred Hersch’s setting of Garfein’s “Ordinary” which probably describes Hersch’s AIDS pill regimen which he has been using for years. Hersch was set to play it but Bagwell, who stepped in to do it here, gave a reading which may be as transparent and touching as Hersch’s notes on the page.
But this writer feels that nothing on this AQSB program came close to or surpassed the setting by Chris de Blasio, who was born in 1959 and died from AIDS in 1993, of fellow New Yorker Perry Brass’ poem ” Walt Whitman in 1989 ” which imagines the Brooklyn-born poet coming down ” to the hospital room ; / ” as he “cries / ” as each one is taken.” by AIDS, and every time he hears it he weeps. But isn’t art supposed to remind us that our bonds with others are far more important and necessary than the artificial ones of race, gender and politics which seem to drive our daily lives in this increasingly fearful world ? Baritone Jesse Blumberg and Bagwell seemed to answer that question with a perfect performance of a perfect song and yes this writer wept. And — there are many beautiful covers of “Walt Whitman in 1989 “