28 March 2011

Lee Hoiby, 85, American Opera Composer, Has Died

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LEE HOIBY |  Madison, WI, February 17, 1926 — New York, NY, March 28, 2011  

Lee Hoiby, an American disciple of Gian Carlo Menotti who went on to become an acclaimed composer for the lyric stage, and whose songs were interpreted by the likes of Leontyne Price, Frederica von Stade and Marilyn Horne, has died. Hoiby, who was 85, died at New York's Montefiore Hospital following a short battle with metastatic melanoma.

The composer, whose compositional language remained unabashedly tonal over the span of his career, never signaled a desire to retire. At the time of his death, had recently completed a setting of Romeo and Juliet with a libretto adapted from the Shakespeare play by his partner Mark Shulgasser. 

A piano prodigy who, it initially seemed, might have become a performer, Hoiby studied with Gunnar Johansen and Egon Petri at the University of Wisconsin, and, later, Darius Milhaud at Mills College. Hoiby began his opera-compositional studies in earnest with Menotti at the Curtis Institute of Music. He went on to assist the Italian-American composer in the Broadway productions of The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street. Hoiby's first opera, titled The Scarf — a chamber opera in one act — received its premiere at Italy's Spoleto Festival, and at New York City opera the following season. It was his next work for the lyric stage, though, which brought Hoiby greater stateside attention: Natalia Petrovna, the composer's adaptation of Turgenev's play A Month in the Country, had its world premiere at New York City Opera in 1964, with Julius Rudel conducting and William Ball directing. Hoiby's revision of the opera was produced at Manhattan School of Music in 2004, under the title A Month in the Country, and was recorded for release by Albany Records. In 1971, Summer and Smoke, an adaptation by Hoiby and Lanford Wilson of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name had its world premiere at the St. Paul Opera Association in Minnesota. The following year, Rudel led the first New York City opera performances of the work, staged by Frank Corsaro and starring Mary Beth Piel and John Reardon, who had created the roles of Alma and John at the world premiere. Summer and Smoke was revived by Manhattan School of Music in December 2010. Hoiby's other works for the stage include the one-act opera buffa Something New for the Zoo (1979), and his 1986 setting of Shakespeare's The Tempest, which premiered at Des Moines Metro Opera. In the late-'80s, Jean Stapleton starred in an off-Broadway and touring production of a double-billing of Hoiby's musical monologues, The Italian Lesson (1981) — a setting of the popular Ruth Draper character sketch — and 1985's Bon Appétit! (featuring text adapted from a transcript of chef Julia Child). A one-act chamber opera adaptation of Lanford Wilson's This Is the Rill Speaking — with a libretto penned by the playwright — premiered in 1992. 

Hoiby was also a notable contributor to the American song repertory, having composed more than one-hundred songs, of which American soprano Leontyne Price became perhaps the most notable exponent. Hoiby's vocal compositions for the concert stage — many composed during an era when serialism and atonality were in vogue — seem to effortlessly synthesize influences as diverse as Monteverdi and American blues, and still strike the ear as gracious, finely crafted and distinctly American. Indeed, as an avowed tonalist, Hoiby was not averse to backward glances in an effort to describe his own compositional methods: "For me, composing music bears some likeness to archeology," he said recently. "It requires patient digging, searching for the treasure; the ability to distinguish between a treasure and the rock next to it and recognizing when you're digging in the wrong place. The archeologist takes a soft brush and brushes away a half-teaspoon at a time. Musically, that would be a few notes, or a chord. Sometimes the brushing reveals an especially lovely thing, buried there for so long." 

Hoiby is survived by his partner and longtime collaborator, Mark Shulgasser. spacer 

More information can be found at LeeHoiby.com

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