Michael Brofman wanted to keep things simple for this season at The Brooklyn Art Song Society (BASS). The vocal accompanist and BASS artistic director said that the past few years BASS was becoming more and more extravagant. Two years ago, the Wien festival included 11 composers. Last year’s “La France” had up to 20 composers, as well as a re-creation of George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” with all the French composers, using it as the promotional image.
“This is my MTV Unplugged concert, if you will. I wanted there to be a ‘straight, no chaser’ effect,” he said.
New season — American Iconoclasts
This season is titled American Iconoclasts and features only five portrait concerts — Ives, Barber, Rorem, Copland, and Gershwin. Brofman said he wanted to convey a sense of the “canon” of American music.
“To be an American Iconoclast is in my mind a seal that you are an indispensable part of America’s cultural history. And of course, each of these composers forged their own path, and rebelled against an ingrained aesthetic assumption. Ives did so by ignoring the barriers between high and low-brow music, and Gershwin in the same way blurred the distinction between jazz and classical. Barber wrote in a romantic style that spoke to him, even at the height of surrealism and atonality. In an ironic twist, Ned Rorem rebelled against having to be an American composer at all and moved to Paris. Copland decided that his music would aim to speak to the common man, not the elites and intellectuals,” he said.
Brofman’s original working title was “Americana” but he quickly realized that it didn’t have the right connotation, implying an emphasis on folk traditions. There is some of that, such as with Copland’s works, but that wasn’t Brofman’s desire as the main takeaway. He was a little hesitant to settle on American Iconoclasts, because it didn’t roll off the tongue easily, compared to the past two festivals. In the end, he stuck with it “because it was the truest to the inner being of what the series is about,” he said.
Definition behind the title
What exactly is an iconoclast? The dictionary defines it as “a person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions.” To Brofman, there are two important connotations to this term.
“First, an iconoclast is not someone who challenges convention merely for its own sake—that’s more a rebel or an upstart. An iconoclast has their own set of rules they create for themselves. In other words, iconoclasts are still bound by rules: it’s just their own rules, not those determined by society at large,” he said.
“Secondly, the work of an iconoclast always is on some level in reference to the self. Another way of saying it is there is always an awareness of the unique personality of an iconoclast in everything they create. Their art is always an expression of a sum total that is the iconoclast, rather than some object beyond themselves,” Brofman said.
As far as adding the term “American”, Brofman said it isn’t enough to be a composer that “attacks settled beliefs or institutions” and also has American citizenship.
“American identity is not geographic, but rather ideological,” he said. “In my mind ‘American-ism’ is synonymous with individualism, and an American Iconoclast, in order to be so, has to in some way tap into this essence.”
He said that’s why the most “American” sounding composers like Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson studied in Paris, and iconic American works like Kurt Weill’s musicals or Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western film scores were written by immigrants.
Brofman hopes audience members go not to just one American Iconoclasts concert, but several or even all of them, in order to experience something greater. He hopes they can see the breadth and variety of these five composers, but also their combined experience enlivens something about the American spirit that needs to be felt instead of understood intellectually.
“I also hope that I can successfully convey what I think is the main ‘thesis’ of the series: that being American is more than just being from a place, and that’s what makes this country special,” he said.
On November 2, part two of the American Iconoclasts will feature the work of Samuel Barber. Barber was the leading composer of the neo-Romantic movement that dominated American music in the middle of the 20th-century. The performers include BASS favorites soprano Lucy Fitz-Gibbon, baritone Steven Eddy, and pianist Spencer Myer. Composer Nick DiBeradino gives a free pre-concert lecture at 7PM.
For details and ticket information, visit BASS website.