Interpreting the Work of Living Composers

I will never forget that moment, when I first performed a work that I often describe as “my song,” “Dream Come True.” It was arranged for my voice by composer, Lucy Coolidge. I hadn’t yet met Lucy in-person, but she had heard me perform other works she’d composed and because of that, with her seal of approval, she sent along “Dream Come True.” I knew she was in the audience. All I could hope was that I did justice to her exquisite composition. And, thankfully, she loved it.

I recall thinking, “Is it hers or is it mine?” and unlike some of the more interesting times I’ve taken liberties with opera arias or art songs, “She’s TOTALLY going to know it if I don’t follow the dynamic markings!” I am particular about this type of thing, because I am a composer myself, and I certainly know if someone changes my music. But, I also find it interesting to see where things intuitively take an artist performing my work.

Another example, where I have experienced great fun and sheer musical delight, is the work of legendary American composer, James Cohn. I have known Jim for years and have loved his work from the very beginning. I have the distinct honor of performing several of his works for soprano, at the Tuesday Morning Music Club on October 23rd. One of my favorite selections by Jim is his “Psalm 23.” It goes places that you don’t expect it to, with soaring plateaus and complicated rhythms. I love to perform it and to give a modern interpretation of such an ancient text. Then, there’s “Catnip” from his opera, KATrina! It is the title character’s “mad” scene and what soprano doesn’t like to go a little crazy onstage (yes, complete with wearing cat ears)? Both Lucy and Jim leave a good deal of creative space for the interpreter of their work, and it is greatly appreciated.

I think that ultimately a musical composition by a living composer (and others) is a not-so-blank canvas upon which the performer keeps the integrity of the original work, while breathing the new life of personal interpretation into the music. And, I am very grateful to have so many wonderful living composers in my life, whose work I can share with audiences far and wide.

Yolanda Johnson