The presenting organization Curious Flights took off in 2013 to feature the rarely heard corners of the modern music repertory. Over the weekend, at the San Francisco Conservatory, they introduced the West Coast premiere of the seventy year old Airborne Symphony by Marc Blitzstein, who wrote this monumental work while serving in the Air Force in the early forties. (Blitzstein, who was openly gay, was later murdered in a homophobic attack in 1964). Blitzstein's music was championed by Bernstein, whose contemporary On The Town was performed at the same time at Davies.
Tenor Brian Thorsett, after an early career kicked off at Merola that saw him work through the classic repertory, is now focused on modern works and other forgotten oddities. He and another Merolini, baritone Efrain Solis,were the soloists in the Airborne Symphony. Thorsett will also sing another massive choral piece based upon WWII events, Britten's War Requiem with the Berkeley Community Chorus & Orchestra in early June. We asked him to introduce us to these pieces.
Can you tell us about the ?
It's a great narrative of ingenuity and this man's desire to learn how to fly when seeing birds up in the sky. It is the story of how he tried many times and failed and failed, and eventually succeeded. Of course, the consequences of acquiring the technology is ability to go and travel and explore and it opens up the world to you. It is a propaganda piece too on the surface. Hitler is bad, and we have this great technology and we're going to come and get you. It was originally written for a film commissioned by the Air Force that never got produced.
The first whole section of the tenor coming in at the very top of the show, talking about the wonder of flying and telling all these old stories: Mesopotamia, and flying on the back of the eagle, and she could not master that and tumbled down; the story of Icarus and how he failed because man isn't meant to fly; and Leonardo came up with plans for an helicopter and that failed; and man keeps trying to fly, and keeps on failing and failing and trying to do it.
That's the whole opening narrative, how man keeps to innovate and innovate. Then, there is this idea of how Hitler is a horrible person and we developed flight and America has the best planes in the world and we're going to go and take care of business. Then there is a famous baritone aria, the ballad of the bombardier, a section when you're in the Air Force, you're always prepared to go into battle, you get ready and wait. The bombardier talks about — this is the baritone's big aria — writing a letter to his love about doing these things, going to fly, what he's about to do. He's about to go on his first night flight as a bomber. It's a very heart rending thing. If anything is ever excerpted from the show, or pieces by Blitzstein, this is one of the most famous.
He wrote the hand that rocks the cradle, which is probably the most famous thing he did, and this one solo from the show, that's the most famous number. He's nineteen year old soldier getting ready to go in battle, not sure if he wants to do it, not quite certain.
The music is unabashedly American, it's this interesting style of early American musical theater, it reminds me somewhere between Richard Rogers and Leonard Bernstein. It does not have the rhythmic or harmonic complexity of Bernstein and it's a little more advanced than Richard Rogers' music. They are all overlapping in this time period. Harmonically, it's much more daring than Rogers, the modulations and the use of time signature, and the use of an all-male quartet, there is barbershop quarter feel.
My opening aria is a very blue note character song, a patter song where they tell the story over the same melody over and over again, just exposing plot. An oratorio would have a recitative. Blitzstein uses the musical theater convention of patter song to get the narrative out. The baritone has the love song, a slow musical theater ballad, and there are this Copland-esque wide open harmonies, very Americana, think Rodeo or Appalachian Springs, there are actually recitatives that have the wide open harmonies, and he's trying to capture that, the wide open space of the sky. It's obviously an homage to Copland, who again was writing at that time too. His tone amalgam of Rogers, Bernstein, Copland, that's what people hear, that sounds like that. It's a unique style, that borrows from a lot of people. I'm not saying he's not innovative, but he's not doing anything new. I'm shocked his opera Regina is not produced more.
You are also singing some Korngold songs, from the same time period, are there similarities?
Not so much. I think Korngold was by far the much more individual and advanced composer than Blitzstein. Korngold, in his movie music obviously did not try to push the music too far (he did it with orchestration, but not with harmony and melody). There is that similarity where they weren't trying to challenge things to much.
Two of the Korngold's songs [on the program] are from a score he wrote called "Give us this night." All the text are by Hammerstein, it was an actual musical movie, the entire movie is a musical, it's not a picture that has songs, or a movie that has orchestrated scenes, and maybe has one song in it. This was a through-composed musical that had very little talking to move from scene to scene and was mostly composed music, and lots of songs in it. It was written as a vehicle as a Met mezzo named Gladys Swarthout and a Polish tenor Jan Kiepura who was a phenomenal star in Eastern Europe, and had this matinee idol good looks and who could sing. His English wasn't terribly good, people didn't forgive him that, he didn't do much afterwards.
You will sing in the Britten War Requiem in June, you seem to have a special affinity for this composer.
Britten is a right of passage for every tenor. He wrote most of his music for Pears and his operas are very tenor-centric as the lead character. As a tenor, somewhere in your training, you will be assigned a Britten song. Either you love it or you hate it. All my tenor colleagues are on one side of the aisle.There's no 50/50. I just happen to love it. It's very intellectually challenging. The harmonic language, the tonal language, his choice of poems. Technically it's very challenging.
Peter Pears had such an individual voice, technically he had things he could do not many singers could do, and Britten would exploit those. If you don't have this, which I don't have the same ability that Pears did, you have to find a way to honor what Britten wrote. So it's this great musical jigsaw puzzle that challenges you at every level. And it's so satisfying when you come to the end of the road, and you perform this. I just think his music is the pinnacle of the 20th century. I think he's going to be the greatest composer of the 20th century when we look back many years from now.Airborne Symphony