Colleen Gray pens Lee Hoiby biography


SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Colleen Gray, Slippery Rock University associate professor of music, has sung the works of American composer Lee Hoiby at venues around the world. Now she's written a resource book that includes a complete catalog of all of his known songs.

"The Life and Vocal Works of Lee Hoiby, American Composer and Classical Pianist (1926-2011): Including a Complete Catalog of his Songs" was published earlier this year by Edwin Mellen Press in Lewiston, N.Y.

"The book is really an outgrowth or branch of my doctoral dissertation that dealt with Hoiby's works," Gray said, while seated among many of Hoiby's original manuscripts in her Swope Music Hall voice studio.

"I have sung his work in Costa Rica, Croatia during my sabbatical, and in Australia as well as throughout the U.S., including Florida," she said.

Gray, who joined the SRU faculty in 1991, said Hoiby often spoke by phone with her from his Long Eddy, N.Y., home during his life. "And he sent me a number of his original manuscripts, which I cherish."

Robert Thieme, professor emeritus at West Virginia University, director of the West Virginia University Opera Theatre and vocal coordinator and head of accompanying among other titles, writes in the book's introduction, "Mr. Hoiby's vocal music conveys an easy lyricism that is enjoyable to hear and at the same time both challenging and rewarding to sing. Being a pianist myself, I was quickly drawn to his wonderful accompaniments. Mr. Hoiby was a superb pianist, and thus his accompaniments are always interesting, challenging and exciting to play."

"I have had a great time recommending these songs to professionals and certainly to all of my students. I've had the pleasure of accompanying the author, Ms. Gray, in the performance of many of his songs discussed in this book. She presents a scholastic understanding of these songs of Lee Hoiby, while also bringing to light many of the demands and joys in performing them.," he wrote.

"Until now there was no major source of information about Mr. Hoiby's songs. This 198-page book continues where a few papers and dissertations leave off to offer a full-scale approach to Mr. Hoiby's life and a catalogue of all of his completed works. I hope this book will excite and challenge you into delving more deeply into Lee Hoiby's works of lyricism," Thieme wrote.

Lorenzo Malfatti, who Gray calls a renowned coach who ran a program at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, "also ran a program in Italy, and I studied in that program in Luca, Italy. He offered the program there for 50 years - and he even got a medal from the Italian government for his work. He was my mentor and was in the first Fulbright class with Lee Hoiby, so he knew him quite well."

"He said, 'Colleen, I really think you should look into Hoiby's music, because I think his songs would fit well and compliment your voice.' So I did, and I have sung them for performances here and at national and international conferences. Hoiby became the topic for my dissertation, after I realized there was not much out there about him. He was still living and composing, so there was nothing that was complete," she said.

"So, in 2003, I finished my dissertation on Hoiby and as part of the dissertation I did a bio and a stylistic analysis, followed by a complete listing of all of his vocal works. That was really quite difficult because of the way he published. His more famous pieces were published by the big publishers, but most of his works were self-published, and they would come and go on his website. They were hard to find. I was in contact with him, and he would say, 'Hey, I wrote this new piece; I will send it to you.' The last contact I had with him was in 2007 when Malfatti died, and I called to tell him about his friend. I complimented him on a recent piece he had written, and it became a well-known piece about a U.S. soldier that went to Iraq titled "Last Letter Home,'" Gray said.

Hoiby said that although the piece was written for baritone, mezzo-sopranos should feel free to sing it. "But I told him 'you wrote it in bass clef and that does not encourage a female to sing it.' He said, 'You're right. I will send you a copy in treble clef' - and he did, and he signed it. I probably have the only copy in existence written in treble clef," she said.

Hoiby died in 2011 and "about that time Mellen Press had approached me about publishing my dissertation as a book. I was busy with other projects, and it has taken almost four years to complete the work, in part, because I had to re-do and re-focus the research and to add the rest of his compositions," she said.

"My dissertation itself became one of the major sources for the 'New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians' entry for Lee Hoiby and that was pretty exciting in itself. It is the go-to source for musicians. It is a huge encyclopedia of music, almost 30 volumes, and there are copies in every major library, including ours. To be quoted there is very exciting," Gray said.

"I am the only one who has a complete listing of his vocal works, so the book will primarily be a resource work," she said. "The book includes an annotated biography of his songs where I describe performance characteristic of the song, its style, demands on the singer or demands on the pianist. And there are some real demands on the pianist," she said. "For many it is a nice challenge, and the songs are very pianist in their style."

"I list the poems in the songs and talk about the poetry so that a student or a singer might review that material and decided if it is a song they would like to sing," she said. "All of his works are classical, and some might be appropriate for younger classical singers, but most are challenging and will require an advanced technique to perform. He was also famous for writing operas and wrote special works for concert pianists as well as orchestral works that were relatively successful."

"A lot of Hoiby's works were written for the great soprano Leontyne Price, and she premiered many of his works in recital. For the late actress and singer Jean Stapleton, he wrote a mini-opera monologue dealing with cooking." The work, which is a spoof of the famed French chef Julia Child, was presented in the musical comedy "Bon Appetite!"

"Most of Hoiby's works are very lyrical, and his dissonance is always for a reason. Most of his poetry is American poetry, most of it is in our vernacular and American. I just did a full recital of his works to open the concert series at West Liberty University, accompanied by Nanette Kaplan Solomon," Gray said.

Kaplan Solomon is an SRU professor emeritus of music and known for her work as a pianist.

"I have become the 'Hoiby Scholar' and it is kind of fun," Gray said.

The book includes Hoiby songs with dates of composition and revisions and includes Gray's remarks on the influences and methods of composition he employed in his approach to setting the text.

Gray drew on dissertations, published interviews with the composer and her personal correspondences with the composer in creating the book.

At SRU, Gray teaches applied voice, language diction, vocal pedagogy, opera performance and music history courses.

She earned her doctorate of musical arts degree in vocal performance and literature from West Virginia University, her masters in vocal performance at Duquesne University and her bachelor of science degree in music education at West Chester University.

Gray said she and Kaplan Solomon are considering creating an entire CD of Hoiby's works, adding, "But that project is not for the faint of heart."

Karl E. Schwab