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Chamber Music Northwest preview: David Del Tredici’s “Bullycide”

By Brett Campbell

July 17, 2014

Although he’s one of the most acclaimed composers of his generation, David Del Tredici was worried when his new composition for piano and string quintet was about to premiere last August at California’s La Jolla SummerFest.

“I felt like a bull in a china shop,” the 77-year-old California-born, longtime New Yorker remembers. Even though his new Bullycide’s passionate music would appeal to fans of Brahms and other Romantic composers as well as contemporary music aficionados, he also knew that “classical music is the most conservative area of the arts, socially and textually speaking,” he told Oregon ArtsWatch. “The other pieces on the program were so well mannered, and a big piece on a gay-related social topic is unusual.”

David Del Tredici helped re-open the door to tonal composing.

David Del Tredici helped re-open the door to tonal composing.

That topic was a tough one. The inspiration for Bullycide, which receives its Northwest premiere at Chamber Music Northwest (which co-commissioned it) Monday and Tuesday, came from the well-publicized 2010 suicide of the young college student Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after his roommate posted surreptitious video footage of Clementi’s fling with another male student. Del Tredici, who has written several other works dealing with aspects of gay life, soon learned that Clementi’s was only the latest in a long string of bullying-induced suicides of young gay Americans, which stirred memories of the composer’s own childhood. “I was also bullied a lot in school,” he recalls. “I was flooded with painful memories… that awful feeling of being treated as a ‘defective’ person,” he wrote in the program notes for Bullycide.

His sexual orientation wasn’t the only thing that made Del Tredici an outsider. Coming of age during the iron reign of postwar academic modernism, he struggled to reconcile his inclination toward tonality (that is, music with recognizable key centers, which dominated Western composing for centuries) with the prevailing mid-20th century emphasis on the atonality that ultimately alienated so many listeners. Finally, in 1976, he became one of an initially small coterie of composers who rebelled by returning to tonal composing with Final Alice, the first of an extensive series of glittering works composed over a quarter century based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland stories, which he thought demanded the consonant harmonies of Romantic and other pre-modernist music. One of them, In Memory of A Summer Day, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize in music, and he’s received commissions and performances from many major American orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony) and chamber ensembles such as the Orion Quartet, along with numerous fellowships and other honors, including induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Subsequent generations of composers have followed Del Tredici and other elders back to tonality. “So many composers who heard the recording of Final Alice have told me, ‘I was 19 and I heard your piece and I realized I didn’t have to follow what my teachers said'” about tonality being passe, Del Tredici says.

Yet the long-time City College of New York music prof insists that few have followed him all the way back to full fledged neo-Romanticism. “Nobody does it like me,” he says. “My tonality is radical. Most composers now will have tonality as a tasting thing and make it a little more modern. But for some reason, I who started it have gone back farther,” to the 19th century harmonies and big melodies beloved of many classical fans.

After his years-long Alice obsession finally ebbed (like an earlier passion for setting James Joyce’s words), Del Tredici, a one-time piano prodigy, explored various inspirations (including a deliciously campy Dracula and poignant Lament on the Death of a Bullfighter I saw him perform on piano with singer Hila Plittman and chamber orchestra at the Ernest Bloch Music Festival in 2002), and increasingly found himself drawn to music on gay themes, including 2001’s Gay Life and others.

Del Tredici, though of course happy that bigotry is receding, worries a bit that the lack of oppression might deprive today’s young gay composers of some of the motivation that inspired their elders. “I think there’s going be a paradoxical effect,” he muses. “Among all composers, there’s a hugely high proportion of gay people: [Aaron] Copland, [Leonard] Bernstein and so many others. I think we all grew up totally despised as a group, so we developed insanely well because music was all we had. It’s like the piece of sand in the oyster that makes a pearl. What happens now if there’s no more grains of sand? I’m predicting that the proportion of gay composers will go down and level out.”

As the recent spate of bullycides reveals, though, America has yet to entirely overcome its homophobia, and Del Tredici’s nine-movement Bullycide certainly channels the anguish the composer and so many others felt upon encountering the horrific consequences of ignorance and hatred. But the eventful half-hour long sextet is far more than a scream or a screed. Its rich neo-Romantic melody and harmony will appeal even to conservative listeners who treasure their Brahms and Strauss. Yet it’s still recognizably a contemporary creation.

“I use a lot of 21st century rhythmic devices that would never happen in the tonal music of the past,” Del Tredici explains. “So the combination of the tonality of the past with rhythms of the present gives it some life and a peculiarly 21st century sound.” There’s also a searing, modern moment when the musicians are called upon to recite the names of some victims of bullycide.

The new sextet’s potent combination of passion, familiar harmonic and melodic territory, and contemporary energy explains why he needn’t have worried about the La Jolla audience’s reaction. “A lot of people were very moved,” he recalls of the premiere. “Some came up to me and said they were in tears. I didn’t realize that might happen.”

It might also be due to the fact that, despite its brutal inspiration, Bullycide winds up not being at all a bummer to experience — which initially puzzled its composer. “I wondered why, when I was writing Bullycide, it had so many happy moments,” he remembers. “Toward the end, there’s a calm resonance, a little bit like a requiem.” In the end, like the young people who inspired it and to whom it’s dedicated (Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown, Zack Harrington and Seth Walsh), there’s a lot more to Bullycide than their deaths. “[The victims] were so young and if they could have just gotten over that hump, they would have had the wild times and ups and downs that I had at that age,” he says. “I finally realized: I’m creating the life those people would have had if they had lived.”

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