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Classical 101

Classical Music for World AIDS Day

TWO AUDIO PIECES   Today is World AIDS Day. In the years since this disease came to prominence we've all learned of the advances in medical research and practice that have prolonged the lives of those diagnosed with HIV. We've kept tallies of lives lost to this illness. And we've struggled to come to terms with an existential question the disease has raised: What does society do when it sees a chunk of itself crumbling away? Anger, fear, sorrow well up in the individual and collective heart, but so does their bold yet quiet sister, hope. And art awakens to carry these emotions, like messages in bottles, out into the sea of human consciousness. Classical music has made any number of tributes to those who have suffered from this insufferable disease. New York flutist Don Hulbert has started a list of classical compositions that reflect the HIV/AIDS experience and humanity's attempts to come to terms with it. The music on this list embraces all genres, from symphonies for large orchestras to the most intimate art songs. Some of the composers on the list have succumbed to AIDS, but others, HIV-positive or not, live on. Hulbert's list does not include Mark Adamo's Late Victorians, a work of uncertain genre whose text (a pastiche created from Richard Rodriguez's Harper's Magazine essay "Late Victorians" and poems by Emily Dickinson) is a mini-drama of San Francisco life in the age of AIDS. Naxos has recently released the world-premiere recording of this work in a performance by soprano Emily Pulley and journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan in the narrator's role, with the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra under Sylvia Alimena. Adamo's Late Victorians came about after what the composer describes as a tortuous creative process, one which began happily enough with a commission, then rode rapidly into blank slate territory. "I could not write," Adamo begins the notes that accompany the world-premiere recording of Late Victorians. "I had been asked to write: the project was to be a set of songs for mezzo-soprano.  But I could not write." The thrilling terror of filling that blank slate hadn't stayed Adamo's hand; it was something altogether more somber:

"We - I and thirty other people from my church, an ad-hoc hospice - had just buried Bob, a man we hardly knew until he fell ill with AIDS. And Don, whom I had just directed in an opera, was failing. The things that seemed unacceptable to me was how ordinary this was all becoming."

Adamo had read Richard Rodriguez's 1990 essay "Late Victorians," a piece Adamo describes as "a memoir of San Francisco in the first years of the plague." The essay haunted him:

"I carried that essay with me everywhere the winter of 1992. But I couldn't set it. It was too long: too much. I didn't want to write this experience. I didn't recall choosing to witness it. I needed to write this song cycle, and I could not."

The work that was to be a song cycle for mezzo-soprano ended up a music drama for orchestra, narrator (who speaks sections of Rodriguez's essay) and soprano (who sings Dickinson's poetry). The form of Late Victorians unfolds in four sections, each a day-in-the-life vignette, which the narrator declaims against an orchestral backdrop. The soprano role is a sort of poetic Doppelgänger of the narrator, her language the exalted yet still painfully truthful poetry of Emily Dickinson. The vignettes themselves convey emptiness ("The painter left one afternoon, saying he would return the next day, leaving behind his tubes, his brushes, his sponges and rags. He never returned"); gallows humor ("If he's lucky, he's got a year, a doctor told me. If not, he's got two"); grief ("I stood aloof at Cesar's memorial service: the kind of party he would enjoy, everybody said"); and, finally, hope. Not hope that people will stop dying of AIDS, but that others will be there to care for them as and when they do ("Sometimes no family came. Or parents came but left without reconciliation, some preferring to say cancer. But others came: Nurses, nuns, the couple from next door. They washed his dishes, they walked his dog.") In Adamo's hands, the social dissonance of the painter who never returned to finish the job is at once beautiful and full of a certain sweetly bereft questioning: [audio:adamo_1.mp3] And here's what hope sounds like, as neighbors and friends of the dying step in to make his journey to the grave less lonely, even if no less difficult: [audio:adamo_2.mp3] In other words, Late Victorians unfolds how living with AIDS - or living without AIDS, for that matter - unfolds: moment by moment, in a process that moves in one and only one direction. To Adamo, the form of the finished piece is like the Stations of the Cross:

"In the Catholic churches I knew growing up, you will often find twelve friezes, or sculptures, representing Christ's journey to Calvary and, beyond, to transformation," Adamo writes. "During Lent, the faithful walk from frieze to frieze; meditate upon the image; and move on. The images themselves are static . . . It is the pilgrim who is dynamic, making the journey from image to image, walking the walk."

The walk of the AIDS sufferer is different in the details from that of one who does not bear this cross. Adamo's Late Victorians is a powerful a reminder of the rvages of AIDS, and it no less powerfully calls upon us to admit, as did  John Donne, that anyone's death diminishes us, because we are involved with humankind.