David Del Tredici has played numerous roles, and intersected with a wide variety of other classical eminences, over the last half-century. As a young man, he brought his first composition to the offices of Darius Milhaud – who immediately proclaimed him “a composer” – and then, years later, he became one of John Adams’s first instructors at Harvard.
Del Tredici worked in the serial trenches during the heyday of the high-academic style—and then shot to the front ranks of the neoromantic movement, in the 1970s, with a series of works based on the writings of Lewis Carroll: including Final Alice, Vintage Alice, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning In Memory of a Summer Day.
Less well known but just as exciting (and potentially more so, depending on one’s affection for Carroll-infused works) are Del Tredici’s trio of hard-charging symphonic works from the 1980s – March to Tonality, Tattoo, and Steps. The latter two of these works have each received intense, worthy recordings at the hands of the New York Philharmonic. The Leonard Bernstein-led rendition of Tattoo – occasionally out of print but now once again available as part of Deutsche Grammophon’s “The Americans” box set of Bernstein – has the slight edge over Zubin Mehta’s account of Steps, though both are worth seeking out.
While much has been made of Del Tredici’s “march” back to tonality, not least by the composer himself, these later works are still spiky enough to carry a resemblance to early atonal efforts, like Syzygy, in addition to the composer’s other settings of texts by James Joyce. “Steps is my most dissonant tonal piece,” the composer wrote in liner notes that accompany a New World Records reissue of the orchestral essay. “I tried to create a harder-edged tonality: one with fewer referential glances, less consonant glow.” Yet just because it lacks a consonant glow isn’t to deny its fine, otherworldly shine.
Another facet of Del Tredici’s art comes from his status as an “out” gay composer. Frequently drawing from poetry that the composer typifies as “explicitly” gay, Del Tredici’s song cycles in this vein include Gay Life (yet to receive a premiere recording), which pivots off of writings by Allen Ginsberg and others. Three Baritone Songs, however, is available on the New World label – with the composer himself on piano. “Matthew Shepard,” a poem by Jaime Manrique about the infamous, hate-crime murder of its eponymous subject, becomes, in Del Tredici’s hands, a sort of prayer for when “the soul leaves the body.” As in many Del Tredici pieces, however, moments of both savageness and beauty come across as nobly ensouled.