The Coming of Age (2003) by Richard Festinger
for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano
West Coast premiere

1. Upon Waking
2. The Dry Dry Land. Here
3. Poem
4. The Coming of Age

Commissioned by the Mary Flagler Cary Trust for the Group for Contemporary Music. Texts by Denis Johnson.

I was saddened last May to read of the untimely death of Denis Johnson, one of the most compelling, prolific and original of our "young" writers. I met Denis in the summer of 1983. He was the poet in residence at the Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire; I was enjoying a composing residency at the Edward MacDowell Colony some hundred miles to the south, having just completed a Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley. Introduced by a mutual friend, I spent two engrossing days talking and laughing with Denis in the house once occupied by Robert Frost. Afterwards, steeping myself in Denis’ writings, I found his poetry and fiction both immediately powerful, and when asked in 2001 to propose a project with a literary component to the Works and Process series at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, I immediately thought of setting some of Denis’ poems. The result was my song cycle, The Coming of Age.

In spite of their origins during different periods of Denis' output, the four poems all center on the theme of love, its solace and transformative power. This common thread, as well as the beauty and directness of their language, is what immediately drew me to these particular poems, and led me to form them into a set. Three of the poems also contain musical imagery, which I found intriguing. Over a period of several months, I mused over the poetry, and how it might be set to music. The actual composition of the piece began at the end of June 2002, when I was again in residence at the MacDowell Colony in the southern New Hampshire woods.

The music of The Coming of Age is not particularly abstract, as it is in many of my other works, but is very much adapted to the poems, their various meanings and imagery. In one sense, a composer sets a text like a jeweler sets a stone, looking for the right musical character and mood to show the poem off in all its facets. For example, the second poem in the set, The Dry, Dry Land. Here, with its strange arboreal imagery, needed a preternatural musical evocation. Likewise, Poem, the third in the set, is so infused with a kind of vernacular iconography that it cried out for setting in an eclectic musical style that I chose to center around idioms of modern jazz.

Denis attended the world premiere performances in May of 2003 at the Guggenheim Museum, and read from his work before the piece was played. He was a quiet, generous man, a bit reclusive, but always available to me on those occasions when I sought him out. For me, tonight’s performance is in his memory.

— R. F.    

[from program for February 5, 2018 concert]