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CLASSICAL MUSIC

A prolific paradox

Ned Rorem documents his adventures in composing, writing and sex, but how well do we really know him?

March 02, 2003|Johanna Keller | Special to The Times

New York — It's a snowy afternoon in Manhattan, and Ned Rorem is being warmly charming and coldly critical in a conversation that ranges from philosophical reflection to witty aphorism and sharp-tongued gossip.

He is sitting on the sofa in his Upper West Side apartment, wearing a snappy hot-pink-and-white-striped shirt that complements his silver hair. Beside him stands a bookcase filled with poetry, and on the wall half a dozen photographs and paintings depict him as a youth, the handsome enfant terrible of decades ago, who cut a wide swath through the most sophisticated (and gayest) circles of the mid-20th century.

Rorem, 79, self-described, is "a composer who writes." In six tell-all diaries and one memoir, he has meticulously chronicled his wide-ranging artistic, literary and sexual adventures for the past half-century. He has also authored collections of profiles, ruminations and essays about music. And then there is the music itself, close to 500 art songs (no exact count exists), three symphonies, nine operas, four piano concertos, ballets and choral, solo and chamber music works.

This is the creative outpouring of a man who is, famously, a codex of contradictions -- outrageously narcissistic and endearingly thoughtful, suavely charming and rudely cutting, wickedly witty, depressive, honest, vulnerable, courageous, grandiose, needy, abashedly shy and unreservedly exhibitionist.

Ask him who his predecessors are, for instance, and he'll be coy and revelatory all at once: "Rimbaud said that art is clever theft. So I never talk about my influences. If you're smart enough to know who you stole from, you try to cover your traces. And the act of covering your traces is the act of genius."

When Rorem writes, "I love to read my name in print, even in the phone book," it might be self-parody or he might be confessing something everyone thinks but no one admits.

Rorem can seem paradoxically oblivious to how damning his revelations might be. His compulsion for a kind of full disclosure is evident in a passage from his 1995 memoir, "Knowing When to Stop": "I have been in bed with four Time covers -- Lenny Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward and John Cheever (included among 3,000 proportionately anonymous souls, including one woman) -- and I performed out of a combination of duress and politeness. However, I grow uncomfortable when in other people's memoirs I read this sort of thing (maybe this will be excised when the time comes), especially when embellished by the writer's smug sense of charisma, boasting how he wouldn't put out for some star."

Rorem takes a sip of tea, and, by way of explaining himself, says, "All artists are children." He is replaying a leitmotif that appears in his writings. "And I suppose no artist ever thinks he or she ever gets enough attention."

For years, he has complained bitterly -- privately and in print -- about the lack of respect and remuneration paid him and his music. At times it seems that he was not taken seriously, was eclipsed by others of his generation and pigeonholed as a composer of mere songs.

But this season, a flurry of premieres, recordings and retrospectives is taking place across the country and abroad, in conjunction with his 80th birthday (he was born on Oct. 23, 1923).

Certainly Rorem never fit the mold of the acceptable 20th century classical music composer: He was too "pretty" (a word often applied to him). His diaries blatantly declared his homosexuality and his promiscuity. And -- even more damning in some circles -- he resisted the temptation to write serial music, clinging instead to tonality long after it was deemed passe.

"I always admired Ned's refusal to bow to the dictates of the time," says Charles Amirkhanian, musical director of the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, which this week opens with a Rorem birthday celebration. "His music is often brilliant, much more interesting than that of most tonal writers. His range of intellectual interests is sometimes astonishing -- he is so much more than a narcissist endlessly playing Dorian Gray, as he has sometimes been unfairly depicted."

Acclaim over 'Evidence'

If there is one work that pushed Rorem the composer firmly into the spotlight in the last five years, it would have to be "Evidence of Things Not Seen." Commissioned by the New York Festival of Song and the Library of Congress, the 36-song cycle was scored for six singers and two pianists, uses texts by 24 writers, ranging from Walt Whitman and W.H. Auden to William Penn. Rorem intended it as a summation of his songwriting career, and its three parts are titled "Beginnings," "Middles" and "Endings." "Evidence" was premiered in New York in January 1998 (it will receive its West Coast premiere as the centerpiece of the Other Minds Festival) to a tsunami of praise. The premiere also marked a sea change in the way Rorem was viewed.

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