The Maestro

Composer Henry Mollicone of Saratoga debuts a new song cycle based on Native American texts
Henry Mollicone FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BATON: Saratoga's Henry Mollicone wields a speedy stick at the podium.

FOR ALL his years in California, composer Henry Mollicone has never completely lost his New England accent or his boyish sense of wonder and discovery. Indeed, despite all the sophistication of his music, he can still seem a little self-conscious and slightly mystified at how to cultivate fresh support for his next big musical idea.

That idea, commissioned by South Bay soprano Nancy Wait Kromm, will receive its world premiere Saturday in Willow Glen. The cycle Songs of the Human Spirit is based on Native American texts, four verses that revive Neolithic views of man's spiritual place in nature, prefaced by a flute solo. Kromm will sing the short collection, with Mollicone at the piano. Complementing the song cycle will be the composer's popular and affecting Beatitude Mass for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, featuring the Stone Church Choir. (The program will be repeated on Nov. 13 at Trinity Cathedral in San Jose.)

Mollicone, who lives in Saratoga, has reached a pivotal point in his life—his middle 60s, which some call the age of retirement—but has no plans to slow down. He has taken a leave of absence from his music directorship of the Winchester Symphony Orchestra and his teaching position at Notre Dame de Namur.

In their place, he now accepts invitations to appear as guest composer/conductor around the country—he just completed a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan.—and to fulfill new commissions. (His A Song for Our Planet, for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, will be premiered next spring by the combined choral forces of Seattle First Baptist Church and Plymouth Church of Seattle.)

Meanwhile, Mollicone has been approached by a recording producer interested in making a video documentary about The Face on the Barroom Floor, the most performed American opera of the last four decades. Mollicone is no stranger to opera, having enjoyed acclaim for his full-length Hotel Eden, Coyote Tales and Gabriel's Daughter, along with the one-acts Emperor Norton, Starbird, and The Mask of Evil. Yet, Face, premiered in 1978 by the Central City Opera in Colorado, and staged there every year since, has proved to be his passport to recognition here and in Europe.

Directly inspired by a painted face on the floor of the Teller House Bar in Central City, the 30-minute cabaret opera is scored for three singers, piano, flute and cello, and entwines parallel stories, one set in the present, the other in the late 19th century. In The New Yorker, in the 1980s, Andrew Porter described a performance that included "Henry Mollicone's The Face on the Barroom Floor, revived this year with something like a cult success. The drama is predictable but strangely powerful; the audience is gripped."

The documentary project, still in the talking stages, would trace the history of the story itself—the 1887 poem by Hugh Antoine D'Arcy—and the long success of Mollicone's opera; It would also include clips from the 1914 Charlie Chaplin/Mack Sennett film of the same name. (Country music stars Tex Ritter and Hank Snow both performed songs on the subject.)

The DVD documentary project does need to raise funds to move forward—modest funds, relatively speaking—and Michael Morris of Orchard Valley Fine Arts Foundation stands ready to collect tax-deductible contributions.

The Beatitude Mass meanwhile has raised more than $100,000 to benefit homeless shelters and social programs that support those in need, a stipulation Mollicone attached to the benefits of any production. The work has been performed many times around the Bay Area and in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties as well.

Songs of the Human Spirit

Saturday at 7:30pm; donation

Stone Church, 1937 Lincoln Ave., San Jose

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