A Hoiby Festival of Sweet, Not Sour, Notes Starts Tonight

Few composers might use the idea of setting a chocolate cake recipe for voice and piano, but composer Lee Hoiby will do just that with the West Coast premiere of "Bon Appetit!" on Tuesday. But there's a deeper metaphor. In some ways, it's also his sugary statement against what he considers sour notes.

"Atonality left me cold. It irritated me and hurt my ears," Hoiby recalls about his first experiences with a musical technique that he has strenuously avoided throughout his long and prolific career.

Hoiby's music will get extended hearings during a weeklong festival beginning tonight at Cal State Long Beach with a performance of "Summer and Smoke," an opera based on the play by Tennessee Williams. It will be the premiere performance of an expanded and revised version of Hoiby's 1970 opera, with a new production by the composer's close collaborator of the last 10 years, Mark Shulgasser. Cal State Long Beach faculty member Michael Carson will serve as musical director.

"It's the only play that Williams ever gave permission to a composer to set," claimed Hoiby, 63, who is in town for the festival. "I knew Tennessee back in the early '60s, and he immediately took a liking to my music, even though he normally wasn't interested in the work of modern composers."

A self-described loner who lives two hours outside New York City on 40 acres of land in a rural area of the Delaware Valley, Hoiby rarely travels, spending most of his time composing in a barn that has been converted into a work space. Originally from Wisconsin, he studied composition with Gian Carlo Menotti and noticeably carries on his mentor's tradition of lush tonality and musical theater that's simple and intimate.

"Menotti gave me rigorous lessons in counterpoint, orchestration and harmony. That is the only way composition should be taught," he recalled about his teacher, renowned as a composer who outspokenly defied many of the new trends in music during the 1950s. It was also Menotti who gave Hoiby his first lessons in opera and theater.

"I hated opera, and in many ways still do," admitted Hoiby. "But Menotti gave me an assignment to do an operatic scene, and from then on I guess I've been hooked."

Other events at the festival this week will include several performances of Hoiby's vocal and chamber music. Television actress Jean Stapleton will perform in Tuesday's "Bon Appetit!," a musical setting of a 1961 television broadcast of Julia Child demonstrating a recipe for baking a chocolate cake.

"Actually, the original idea for 'Bon Appetit!' came from Mark (Shulgasser)," Hoiby explained. "We then wrote Julia a letter asking her for permission to write the piece and she sent us back an enthusiastic letter and some videotapes." Child, who now lives in Santa Barbara, plans to attend the performance.

Stapleton, who has sung in several Broadway musicals, including a recent production of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," will also perform Hoiby's small, one-act opera "The Italian Lesson." The composer will accompany her at the piano.

When asked if he thinks television personalities make good characters in musical theater, Hoiby was quick to reply: "Why not? I'm only using two of the greatest female icons of American television history: Edith Bunker and Julia Child."

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