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American composer Lee Hoiby is well-known for his more than seventy songs, many of which continue to find places on the recitals and recordings of such established singers as Leontyne Price, Jennifer Larmore and Erie Mills, as well as many other concert singers. In an impressive coup, the world premiere of a new Hoiby song cycle was given in Person Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus on Saturday, April 6, 2002, on a program jointly sponsored by the North Carolina Literary Festival and the UNC Institute for the Arts & Humanities.
Entitled The Life of the Bee, the cycle has five songs with texts by NC poet and Hillsborough resident, Jeffrey Beam, drawn from a larger work-in-progress of the same name. Fellow poet, Shauna Holiman, who also has a separate career as a soprano recitalist, was so taken with Beam's bee poems that she had Hoiby set five of them to music through a commission from the UNC Institute for the Arts and Humanities ( on whose board Holiman is a founding member).
Beam's poems characterize various activities and residents of a bee hive. "Millennium Approaches" begins the cycle with a brief elegy to the spent blossoms the bees have used to keep themselves and their world going. "The Spirit of the Hive" speaks to the inevitable call of wildflowers to the bee. "The Sting" depicts the fierce protection that the worker bees provide the hive from intruders. "Ars Poetica: The Queen" describes an ancient queen bee surveying her kingdom. "The Swarm" evokes the exultant power of a bee swarm as it bursts out into blossoms. Beam uses short, precise phrases mixing natural images with literary language to form his arresting verse. Lines describing the hive ("...this, then, is my cathedral. Built of wax and lives.") and the swarm ("...the miraculous droning, sibilant dances directing and thumping....") give an idea of the poet's style.
Hoiby's music gives each song a specific atmosphere and mood. His assured style and finished forms show an experienced understanding of how music can enhance a text without overwhelming it or distorting it. He has sparingly but tellingly employed the natural buzziness of the cello strings to suggest bee flight and fight without becoming cute or obvious. He finds a menacing darkness for the worker bees, a mystical wonder for the queen and an exuberant power for the swarm.
The three performers in the premiere on Saturday are all professional musicians. Holiman has sung many song recitals in the New York City area and has a new CD coming out this summer on Albany Records, which will include the Hoiby/Beam songs. Cellist Wendy Law is currently pursuing her masters at the Juilliard School and has played in chamber recitals at Alice Tully Hall and the Kennedy Center with Yo-Yo Ma and Leon Fleisher. Pianist Brent McMunn is currently the assistant conductor of the New York City Opera, has performed in chamber festivals in Los Angeles and Santa Fe and has recorded CDs on three different labels.
Holiman possesses a focused voice, not overly powerful but full of character, which she uses fully for various effects. She is an unabashed actress, blustery as the worker bee, radiant as the queen and awe-struck describing the swarm. McMunn had admirable precision and fleetness of fingers in the dense piano lines, while cellist Law added a rich warmth to the mix. The performers easily held the audience's attention throughout with their committed, intelligent portrayals.
The cycle will be repeated with cellist Barbara Stein Mallow on April 18th in New York City at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall, with the composer and poet in attendance. Congratulations to Beam, Hoiby and the performers for a beautiful, evocative work.