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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

It's complicated...

Chansonnier (Songbook) of Jean de Montchenu (c.1470)

To be honest, the last several months have been rough. For those who've followed my mental health posts, I'm at that stage in treatment where the medications have leveled out my brain to where I'm not swinging between extremes but I am numb. Depression is the norm punctuated by short, intense periods of anger and irritability. I'm grateful for my life as a performing artist because it helps me show up and play the required role, so to speak.

I'm grateful for my friends in Collective Euphonia. We had our first major program since the pandemic this past weekend at the Lenfest Center in Lexington. Originally planned for the fall of 2020, we relished the opportunity to present "It's complicated... songs and scenes on relationships."

In our mutual-admiration-society post-show thread, I said I founded the collective to make great art with my friends in a genuinely collaborative and democratic space. I'm so happy we could do that.

(Our program is below. It was not live-streamed. If an archive video becomes available, we'll post it).

(L-R: Corey Crider, Julia Goudimova, Amy Scurria, Sandra Krueger,

SW, William McCorkle, Asherah Capellaro, Anna Billias)

Anyone living with clinical or bipolar depression might be familiar with the huge welcome relief which comes with consecutive happy days. Not being dramatic; not intending to over-share but simply shine a light on an area of wellness and identity we don't talk about enough.

Another aspect of identity was at the heart of the romantic program: sexuality and gender. We mixed things up and heard warm reviews about the variety of styles and pairings, couplings of music and humans. "Isn't it queer..." was an alternate title before I knew our composer-in-residence, Amy Scurria would dedicate her latest song, "Listening" with this courageous affirmation: "Gender is not binary. We are, rather, built of a thousand different cadences. Proudly dedicated to my fellow Queers."

Her gorgeous, audience-favorite premiere treats Amy Lowell's poem the way Mahler ends his song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Amy's piece repeats the poem's last line, "a thousand cadences," with a seven-fold echo, paralleling Mahler's melancholy-tinged seven-fold echo, "ewig" (always, forever).

Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878),. "Sunset"

This has already been a long and circuitous thank you to my friends for joining me Friday and Saturday to put together a wildly eclectic program, from Sondheim and Barber to Handel and Brahms, with romantic comedy rubbing elbows with violent mythologies refracted through post-tonal musical idioms. We leapt from pop to avant-garde, with electric/acoustic guitars, solo piano & piano four-hands, harpsichord, and cello joining each instrument. It made for a many-colored evening where style, period and voicing - complimenting the music and enhancing the entertainment value.

One of our goals was to touch our audience with a range of emotions, like laughter, love, sadness, and among other states of awakened being, conscious...

CE members Asherah Capellaro, William McCorkle and Pedro Szalay in our mental health series,

Listening to Paintings: Renewal and Healing, Taubman Museum of Art, May 2021.

Washington and Lee University

Concert Guild presents:

It’s Complicated: songs & scenes on relationships…

Collective Euphonia

Wilson Concert Hall, 21 January 2023


Now-Later-Soon, from A Little Night Music Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021)

Sandra, Asherah, Scott, Julia, William

No, di voi, non vo fidarmi G. F. Handel (1685-1759)

Asherah, Sandra, Pedro, Julia, William

Can you invent another woman? (from Written on Skin) George Benjamin (b. 1960)

Asherah, Pedro, William

Am I In Your Light (from Doctor Atomic) John Adams (b.1947)

Sandra, Pedro, William

Listening* (Amy Lowell) Amy Scurria (b.1973)

Scott, Julia, Anna

Liebeslieder-Wälzer, selections Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Asherah, Sandra, Scott, Corey, Pedro, Anna, William

A Hand of Bridge Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Asherah, Sandra, Scott, Corey, William

Songs that go like this…

The Song that Goes Like This (from Spamalot) John Du Prez and Eric Idle

Asherah, Scott, Anna

The New Kid in Town arr. Corey Crider

Asherah, Sandra, Scott, Corey, Julia, William

Unworthy of Your Love (from Assassins) Sondheim

Sandra, Scott, William

Coda: Zum Schluss (from Neue Liebeslieder-Wälzer) Brahms

Asherah, Sandra, Scott, Corey, Pedro, Anna, William

*Premiere performance

Collective Euphonia are:

Anna Billias, piano

Asherah Capellaro, soprano

Corey Crider, baritone

Julia Goudimova, cello

Sandra Adans Krueger, mezzo-soprano

William McCorkle, harpsichord and piano

Amy Scurria, composer

Pedro Szalay, choreographer and dancer

Scott Williamson, tenor and founder

(Stephen Sondheim, 1930-2021)

Notes on the program

Content warning: the following contains depictions of violence and sexual content.

Whether or not “all is fair in love and war” is a supportable claim, “it’s complicated” is a fair descriptor of all types of human relationships. Tonight, we’ll be focusing on the intimate varieties, or “the many faces of love.”

This program was almost called “Isn’t it queer…,” a nod to Sondheim’s most popular song, “Send in the Clowns.” Barber & his partner/librettist Menotti, George Benjamin, and George Frederick Handel companion Sondheim on a musical journey which pushes the hetero-normative to the margins. To borrow a childhood cartoon song, “we’ll have a gay old time!”

Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers had one of the most remarkable decades in music theatre history during the 1940’s. Oklahoma launched their partnership in 1943: it was followed by Carousel (1945) and South Pacific (1949). Sondheim in the 1970’s was equally accomplished. 1970 brought the prototypical “concept” musical, Company, backed up by Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976) and Sweeney Todd (1979).

The latter “musical thriller” and its eponymous “demon barber” open a closet door on the dark side of human relationships. Conflict, injury, and pain are necessary components for the storyboard of relationships. Anger, bitterness and revenge are real as compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Like Eros and Thanatos (Love and Death), such twin poles are dynamically intertwined. Whether or not a correlation exists between creative examples of heightened eroticism and artistic depictions of violence is beyond the scope of these notes. Life’s ubiquitous undercurrent of threat surfaces in Sondheim’s trio from A LittleNight Music, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, and the Barber-Menotti one-act, Hand of Bridge. Love may be patient and kind; it is also dangerous.

John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV contains one of English poetry’s great alliterative barrages. “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” is also the text of Robert Oppenheimer’s aria in Doctor Atomic, by composer John Adams and librettist-director Peter Sellars. It’s violent conflicts – mimicked in Sellars gestural staging – are in counterpoint with Kitty Oppenheimer’s poignant aria, “Am I in your light?”

Camille Paglia titles her book about “43 of the world’s best poems,” Break, Blow, Burn.

“Batter my heart,” was memorably set by Benjamin Britten in a song-cycle of Holy Sonnets for his partner, the tenor, Peter Pears. The poem is a bold example of the not infrequently unsettling union of sex and religion, the sacred and profane. After its title line, the sonnet continues with a series of violent action verbs which all conform to codes of sexual innuendo. Like Zeus with Ganymed, this god is having his way with the poet:

for you/ As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.

Donne’s language does what his poem describes. Here’s the final, forceful quatrain:

Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again, / Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chase except you ravish me.

Sondheim retools Donne’s language in the opening trio of A Little Night Music. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film, Smiles of a Summer Night, Sondheim adopts the director’s quirky, witty, disarmingly human tale and makes it his own. Where his previous two shows, Company and Follies, both wove their “concept” into the fabric of the story, Night Music’s concept is a musical one. “For someone who loves the perennial puzzle… the idea of a Theme and Variations in which the Theme was a metric one” appealed to the composer. Sondheim makes his musical work with a score composed entirely in triple time (save 11 bars of underscoring). “Now, Later, Soon” introduces three of the story’s principals, and then intertwines their solos in a trio shaped by the surreal twists of a dream.

The last major production Sondheim collaborated on before his death in 2021 was a new, queer version of Company. The lead character, Robert was re-named Bobbie and played by a belter; Paul married Jamie rather than Amy. In this “Now, Later, Soon,” we don’t see Frederik; we meet Freddie. Freddie’s young wife, Anne has yet to consent to the marriage’s consummation. Freddie’s son, Henrik, a budding cellist, sings of rejection’s frustrations before Anne’s love-song waltz, “soon, I promise.”

The Nightingale figures prominently in Romantic era poetry and music, and we will encounter one among Brahms’ charming dances. The Nightingale’s origin story comes from Ovid, in the violent, “bones and all” tale of Philomela and Procne. [CW]: After promising to retrieve his wife’s sister, King Tereus assaults and repeatedly rapes his sister-in-law, Philomela. He silences her by cutting out her tongue. She ingeniously weaves her tale into a tapestry for her sister, Procne to decipher. Procne kills and feeds Tereus his/their son. Procne and Philomela escape and are transformed into a Nightingale and a Swallow.

Along with Titus Andronicus and Game of Thrones, George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s Written on Skin foregrounds a scene of cannibalism as punishment and revenge, upending traditional tropes. Our protagonist is an archetypal “Woman,” who defies her abusive husband, the Protector and reclaims her autonomy in a climactic “payoff” scene. Benjamin’s and Crimp’s most recent opera, Lessons in Love and Violence is based on Marlowe’s queer history play, Edward II. Both music dramas are acclaimed for their inventive and distinct treatment of complex and tragically consequential relationships.

Johannes Brahms’ major works – the four symphonies, concertos, and the German Requiem – cast an impressive enough shadow to obscure the fact he began his career as a prodigious pianist and choral conductor. Following the success of his op. 39 Waltzes for piano duet, his Viennese publisher encouraged him to dance more. The LiebesliederWaltzes are settings of poems by Eusebius Emmeran, the nom de plume of Georg Friedrich Daumer.

Eusebius was the poetic half of Robert Schumann’s twin alter egos; the “heroic” persona was called Florestan, after the Heldentenor of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. Given their friendship and the shared salon culture of the time, it is easy to imagine Brahms and Clara (Schumann) reading through these exquisite miniatures. The first set was so popular it was followed by a second grouping of New Love-song Waltzes.

Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, like Britten and Pears, were partners in life and art. While Barber’s and Menotti’s love story ended before the former’s death, their collaboration led to some of the most distinctive operatic writing in the so-called “American Century.” A Hand of Bridge premiered in 1959, at Menotti’s 2nd annual Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds) in Spoleto, Italy.

The 9-minute musical drama (the shortest single opera in the standard repertory) features two unhappy couples at their nightly card table. Barber deftly balances his lyrical voice with jazz-influenced accompaniments and a breezy rhythmic drive. Each member of the vocal quartet has a distinct musical soliloquy. In between these compressed arias come interjections related to games of cards and relationships. Among other coded jokes, Sally covets a “hat of peacock feathers.” A varied and potent symbol – for privilege, vanity, & renewal – peacocks are a long-standing cipher for gay men. Maynard Solomon’s infamous article, “Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini” unhinged the classical music closet door when it appeared in 1989.

Amy Scurria’s new song, Listening, includes the following dedication: “Gender is not binary. We are, rather, built of a thousand different cadences. Proudly dedicated to my fellow Queers.” Scurria’s song is an outpouring of lyric beauty embodying the poem’s closing image: “So is this one music with a thousand cadences.”

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