The Virgil Thomson Project at the Norfolk Festival: A Celebration of an American Musical Life

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Virgil Thomson, 1985. Photo Betty Freeman, courtesy of the Virgil Thomson Foundation.
Virgil Thomson, 1985. Photo Betty Freeman, courtesy of the Virgil Thomson Foundation.

The life and work of Virgil Thomson will be the focal point of the 2009 Norfolk Chamber Music Festival (June 20 – August 22). Performers, composers and poets including Dawn Upshaw, Susan Narucki, Ned Rorem, Martin Bresnick, Ezra Laderman, J. D. McClatchy, Robert Pinsky, Anthony Tommasini, Gilbert Kalish, JJ Penna and Lisa Moore will assemble in Norfolk for a celebration and reassessment of the contribution of one of America’s most original composers and influential musical thinkers. Performances, lectures, seminars and an exhibition of papers from the Virgil Thomson Archive at Yale University will take place from June 27 through August 22 (see attached list). Most events are free of charge.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on November 25, 1896, Thomson studied at Harvard before moving to Paris where he worked with the great pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger. Thomson was on a first name basis with Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky, Eric Satie and the composers in the famous group known as Les Six. Always fascinated by the relationship between language and music, he was friends with James Joyce and Ezra Pound, and enjoyed an extraordinary collaborative relationship with American poet and champion of modernism, Gertrude Stein.

After returning to the United States, he served as chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune from 1937 to 1951. His books about music include Words and Music, The Musical Scene, The State of Music and The Art of Judging Music, among others. An extremely prolific composer, Thomson wrote operas, chamber music, piano music, film scores and symphonies. Contemporary critics often described his music as witty and idiosyncratic. Perhaps the most famous example is his opera Four Saints in Three Acts which enjoyed a spectacular premiere in 1934 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Included in his many honors and awards were the Pulitzer Prize, a Brandeis Award, the gold medal for music from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Book Circle Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and more than a dozen honorary doctorates.

Thomson is especially remembered for his vocal music and for his views on setting the English language to music. He is perhaps the most appropriate of all American composers to serve as both an inspiration and point of departure for this year’s  Norfolk New Music Workshop (June 21 – July 3) which will focus on the composition of songs. Young poets, composers, singers and instrumentalists from across the country will come together to study Virgil’s music and the history of American Song as well as to add new works to the genre. The focus is collaboration from the first flash of poetic inspiration to the final note of a new song’s performance.

Leading the session is Martin Bresnick, Composition Professor at the Yale School of Music, and Grammy Award winner, Soprano Susan Narucki. .Bresnick says, “This summer’s Composer’s Workshop will be a unique opportunity to take stock of the current state of American art song, as well as provide a new look at the indispensable contributions of Virgil Thomson to the American vocal music tradition. The Norfolk program is one of a kind. New works, written to poems by a talented group of young poets as selected by J. D. McClatchy and Louise Gluck, will be performed by emerging singers and musicians on programs with some of America’s most important song composers.”

Bresnick and Narucki will be joined by world famous poet/librettist J. D. McClatchy, pianists Lisa Moore and JJ Penna, and a host of American song composers: Ned Rorem, Charles Fussell, Scott Wheeler, Graeme Koehne, Rodney Lister and Deniz Ulben Hughes. (Biographies of all participants are attached.)

The Workshop will feature a recital of American song from Jerome Kern to Milton Babbitt by Susan Narucki and JJ Penna (Saturday, June 27, at 8:00pm); and two concerts with the new works by young composers as well as songs by leading American composers (Thursday, July 2, and Friday, July 3, at 7:30pm). The Virgil Thomson Project also includes lectures by poet and librettist, J.D. McClatchy (Wednesday, June 24), and Anthony Tommasini, Chief Classical Music Critic of the New York Times and biographer of Virgil Thomson (July 1), both at 7:30pm in Battell Recital Hall, and seminars with the students and guest composers throughout the two weeks at 4:00pm. All events are free and open to the public except Ms Narucki’s recital which has general admission tickets for $15.

Norfolk Festival Director Paul Hawkshaw says of the Workshop, “It is really exciting to take a fresh look at the life and music of one of America’s musical giants through the eyes of a generation of brilliant young people, most of whom will be encountering him for the first time.”

Norfolk’s Virgil Thomson Project continues throughout the summer with performances of his Stabat Mater on July 17, Four Portraits for Cello on July 25, and Seven Choruses from the Medea of Euripedes on August 22. As part of the celebration, world-renowned composer, Ezra Laderman, and United States Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, have collaborated on a brand new song cycle that will be performed for the first time on Friday, July 25, by tenor James Taylor and pianist Wie-Yi Yang.

All events take place at the Ellen Battell Stoeckel Estate, Rtes 44 & 272 in Norfolk, CT.
Call 860-542-3000 for more information, or visit the Festival’s website at

The Festival is grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virgil Thomson Foundation for support of the project.

For Tickets and Information:
Concerts at:     The Music Shed, Rtes 44 & 272, Norfolk, CT
Call:                 860-542-3000

The Virgil Thomson Project: Norfolk Chamber Music Festival – Schedule
All events at the Ellen Battell Stoeckel Estate,
Rtes 44 & 272, Norfolk, CT 06058; 860-542-3000

Tuesday, June 23                   4:00pm            Seminar led by composer Scott Wheeler

Wednesday, June 24              7:30pm            Lecture: Anthony Tommasini, New York Times
Chief Classical Music Critic
“Words and Music in the Career of Virgil Thomson”
Battell Recital Hall, Norfolk Festival

Thursday, June 25                  4:00pm            Seminar led by composer Charles Fussell

Friday, June 26                       4:00pm            Seminar led by composer Rodney Lister

Saturday, June 27                   3:00pm            Seminar led by composer Ned Rorem
8:00pm            Recital: An Evening of American Song
soprano Susan Narucki, with pianist JJ Penna
Music of Thomson, etc, etc, etc, etc,

Monday, June 29                    4:00pm            Seminar led by composer Deniz Ulben Hughes

Tuesday, June 30                   4:00pm            Seminar led by composer Graeme Koehne

Wednesday, July 1                  7:30pm            Lecture: J.D. McClatchy, poet, librettist, author
“Words Into Music”
Battell Recital Hall, Norfolk Festival

Thursday, July 2                     7:30pm            Concert: Norfolk Contemporary Ensemble
Music for voice and chamber ensemble by Thomson and others

Friday, July 3                           7:30pm            Concert: Norfolk Contemporary Ensemble
Music for voice and chamber ensemble by Thomson and others

Friday, July 17                         8:00pm            Concert: Thomson’s Stabat Mater for soprano and string
quartet with music of Mozart, Ravel and Beethoven

Friday, July 24                         8:00pm            Concert: Music of Thomson, Laderman and more
World premiere of Ezra Laderman’s settings of poems by
U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky:  Jersey Rain
Thomson’s Four Portraits for Cello and Piano
along with music of Saint-Saens, Ravel and Piazzolla

Saturday, August 22                4:00pm            Concert: Norfolk Choral Festival, with Simon Carrington
Thomson’s Seven Choruses from the Medea of Euripedes
along with music of Purcell, Haydn, Schubert and others

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