Multi-talented composer comes to Hyde Park

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Composer Glen Roven will be in Hyde Park this month for the Chicago premiere of one of his song cycles. –Photo courtesy of M. L. Rantala
Glen Roven has been in show business since he was a teenager. He was as a rehearsal pianist for “Pippin” while still in high school, and at 19 was the musical director of “Sugar Babies” on Broadway. He has worked as composer, lyricist, conductor, pianist, and CD producer throughout the U.S., (notably in New York City and Los Angeles) and internationally, having lived and worked in London for a decade. His extensive work for television includes the Placido Domingo Special, NBC’s 60th Anniversary Special, the final television appearances of both Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., TV tributes to Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali, Harrison Ford, John Travolta, and Ron Howard, the last ten AFI Tributes, Leonard Bernstein’s 60th Birthday Tribute and much more. He has won four Emmy Awards.

He has he has conducted the Kennedy Center Honors, the Presidential Gala at Ford’s Theatre, and four presidential inaugurations (for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush).

Yet, less than a decade ago, when he turned 50, he found that he was getting less work. He turned his energy and attention to classical music. Without the formal university training of the majority of classical composers, he still found his footing.

His second symphony will have its world premiere later this month at Geffen Hall, and a new song cycle will have its premiere next month. Over two dozen leading opera singers participated in the first performance of “The Hillary Speeches,” a setting of excerpts from speeches by Hillary Clinton performed by Lawrence Brownlee, Isabel Leonard, Matthew Polenzani, Nathan Gunn and others which was streamed worldwide the day Donald Trump became president.

Roven made his Carnegie Hall debut conducting his Violin Concerto based on Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s book, “The Runaway Bunny,” with Glenn Close (narrator) and the American Symphony Orchestra.

Later this month Roven will be in Hyde Park for the Chicago premiere of his song cycle Six Ancient Chinese Poems for voice, oboe, and piano.

In a telephone interview I asked him about his work and his views of the contemporary music scene.

He explained that he dropped out of Columbia because of his work on Broadway, but that didn’t mean that he stopped studying. He has, for example, taken private lessons in composition describing himself as “not self-taught, but self-experienced.” He humbly noted that he’s “basically like a 25-year-old” when it comes to composing classical music.

Nonetheless, his lifetime in music has created contacts the world over, and he noted that he has been gratified that so many talented classical singers have already performed his work, particularly his songs.

The idea for the Six Ancient Chinese Songs came from Chinese soprano Hui He. She asked Roven if he had ever set any Chinese texts. Although he hadn’t, he said he knew instantly that he would. He dived into “Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women” collected by American poet Jane Hirshfield, and selected six 11th century poems. The premiere was sung by soprano Laura Strickling in 2015. The cycle was originally composed for high voice and piano, but Roven was asked about incorporating oboe and has since done so. The Hyde Park performance will feature Chicago tenor Henry Pleas, III, Sara Fraker (oboe), and Casey Robards (piano).

Roven told me that he took some inspiration from Benjamin Britten in writing the music for the Six Ancient Chinese Songs. In Britten’s “Curlew River” the composer didn’t write for Japanese instruments (Britten’s musical parable draws on a Japanese Noh play), but he did evoke the sound of the Japanese instruments and music. Roven has taken the same approach.

I asked him what listeners should expect in this song cycle, and what they should listen for. He explained, “This is a type of music you should let wash over you. Don’t think too much about it. They are very short songs, like haiku, over quickly. Then you are onto the next. Listen for the chanting of the piano, listen for the wind of the oboe, listen to the piano imitating Chinese instruments, and listen for the arpeggiated figures.”

I asked Roven who some of his favorite living composers are. He was quick to reply, offering enthusiastic appreciation of Lowell Lieberman (“his Flute Concerto is immediately arresting, you can’t stop listening.), Jake Heggie (notably his operas “Moby Dick” and “Dead Man Walking”), and Ricky Ian Gordon (“I love all his art songs.”).

Since Roven has worked in musical genres that have huge audiences, I asked him if he had ideas on how classical music could expand its audience base.

“I feel very strongly about this. Everything should be done in English. All the operas, all the art songs. I was at the Met seeing the family version of ‘The Barber of Seville’ (in English).The whole audience was rapt, and the kids were laughing. If Mozart were alive today and saw that no one in the audience understood Italian and were reading the libretto on the back of a chair, he would say that this is crazy. Do it in English. This would be a big fix.”

Roven is so convinced of this that he has created numerous translations of opera and art songs into English for just this very reason.

And what about music with no text? How do we get more folks in the seats at the symphony or for chamber works? Roven believes music presenters must do more to educate their audiences. “You have to give them a key to understanding the music to get them on board.” He believes in pre-concert lectures or even brief explanatory remarks from the stage immediately before a work is performed.

“The big picture is education. People need to know what they are listening to.”

For a man just under 60, Roven already has a huge list of accomplishments and composed works. I asked him where he finds inspiration.

“Someone once told me that inspiration is for amateurs. If I don’t write, I don’t eat. You can’t wait for inspiration.”

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Glen Roven’s Six Ancient Chinese Songs will be performed as part of the concert, “Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Poems for the Longing Soul.” Tues., Apr. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hyde Park Union Church (5600 S. Woodlawn Ave.). Tickets are available at the door or visit http://songsofinnocence.eventbrite.com.