Uptown Gay and Lesbian Alliance (UGLA) is producing a Northeast Los Angeles Pride Day entitled “Classic Cabaret,” a musical program featuring music by 3 lesbian and 8 gay composers. You may already know that these 11 men and women are a very small percentage of recognized composers who are lesbian and gay.
When I was a teenager, growing-up gay—even in a city like Los Angeles—was something to be hidden. In addition, being a classical piano player and the youngest person in my high school class (I graduated high school at 16), I was constantly on guard, sometimes teased and even called names. (“Marylou” was a favorite of some of my junior high classmates!) After high school and beginning to be out and about, the fear of being caught—by friends, family, school officials, police—was great and constant.
As I look back, I am struck by the fact that I had a hero! Someone I was first introduced to when I was 14 years old: Aaron Copland!
Copland became known as the Dean of American composers and the man who captured the spirit of “America” by the very sound structure of his compositions. At that time, I learned his now ultra-famous piano piece “Cat and the Mouse.” What made that so meaningful, was that, at the same time, Copland was being called before GOP Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations accused of being a communist or, at best, a sympathizer! How could this be, I thought? Copland wrote “Cat and the Mouse”!
When I was about 20, I played the Variations at a concert at a Los Feliz Catholic Church here in Los Angeles. In the audience was my mother who overheard a Catholic priest whisper to his companion, “that boy has a troubled soul!
My interest in Copland continued into college where, at USC, I learned his “Piano Variations.” Written in 1930, this piece struck fear into most listeners, due to it’s unrelenting dissonance and, according to Leonard Bernstein who championed the piece, could be counted on to empty most auditoriums after the first few notes were played! (In fact, when I was about 20, I played the Variations at a concert at a Los Feliz Catholic Church here in Los Angeles. In the audience was my mother who overheard a Catholic priest whisper to his companion, “that boy has a troubled soul!”)
When I debuted in London, I programmed Copland’s Variations and sent him The Times of London’s review. To my surprised excitement, I received a letter from Copland thanking me for playing his piece! Later, I began working on a project with the Rockefeller Foundation to record all of Copland’s piano music. I had several personal and amiable correspondences with Copland on this project. I still treasure these letters.
Finally, in college, I read about Copland’s personal life. His trysts with Leonard Bernstein and his mentoring and helping so many of America’s young composers. What an amazing man, I thought. He is truly an American Hero!
Copland will be represented by three of his settings of poems by Emily Dickinson sung by Soprano Catherine Card. His famous “Cat and the Mouse” will follow and a choreography to the music will be danced. His last composition on the program will be his Piano Violin Sonata. Next will be selections from “Winter Words” by Benjamin Britten as sung by Tenor Scott Blois. This will be followed by two Los Angeles Premiers: Neil Weikel will recite his “Poem 161” with an accompaniment I wrote and then “Raw Silk,” a rag for piano by Nurit Tilles will close the first half of the program.
The second half will open with the Los Angeles Premier of Byron Motley’s “Songs of My People.” These five songs were written to various poems and the piano accompaniments were written by Barbara Sherrill. Catherine Card will return as the singer in Byron’s pieces and as the reader in Eve Beglarian’s rendering of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s poem, “Fireside.” Los Angeles composer Denise Dimin will have her song “To Know What It’s Like” sung by Byron and then he will sing his own original composition “Paris.” The program’s closing segment will be “Ragtime Bass” by Virgil Thompson, “Ricercare” by Gian Carlo Menotti, “Somewhere” from “Westside Story” by Leonard Bernstein and the program ends with my piano piece “Toccata,” which I wrote in 1957.