Stephen Flaherty: Rolling on the River
On Monday, when the New York Pops celebrates ten years of Michael Feinstein’s uber-swanky cabaret room Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, the audience will hear the debut of a new work by Oscar-moninated and Tony-winning composer Stephen Flaherty. With lyrics by Bill Schermerhorn and arrangements by David Hamilton, American River Suite will be performed by the 65-piece New York Pops and will be sung by Tony-winning actresses Idina Menzel and Anika Noni Rose, as well as the children’s chorus from the Choir Academy of Harlem.
Commissioned by Macy’s, American River Suite celebrates the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s legendary journey up the river that bears his name. “It’s really a celebration of the Hudson River in particular and American rivers in general,” Flaherty says, and describes the piece as a “tone poem.” The 17-minute suite is in seven parts, the first and last of which are proper songs—“Half Moon” and “American River”—that feature Schermerhorn’s lyrics. “It tries to create the different and many moods of the Hudson,” Flaherty says of his work. “In terms of the shape of it, it starts in the present day and then looks back towards the beginning of the history of the Hudson, with Henry Hudson discovering it.”
To create the suite, Flaherty spent a lot of time by the Hudson River, listening to its natural music. “You get a lot of ideas,” he says. “I knew that there were many parts to the river and its history and its story...I wanted to go back to the early days of the river and imagine what that must [have been] like, before modern-day Manhattan was here, and so the beginning [of American River Suite] is much more primitive in sound. It's sort of moody, and I use a lot of ethnic drums and percussion. And then as it goes through we have modern pop percussion.”
In a press release, Flaherty described each of the segments of American River Suite: “The piece takes the listener on a musical journey, beginning with the song ‘Half Moon,’ which announces Hudson's arrival through the mist, to the bold vistas of ‘Majestic Valley’; from the fiery fiddle-playing of ‘Sparks and Smoke,’ which celebrates The Clermont, the first steamboat to sail the Hudson River, to the infectious ‘River at Play.’ The suite ends in the present day with "American River," a song which celebrates the spirit and vitality of this river we love.”
Writing a stand-alone suite presents different challenges from writing a song for a musical, but telling a story through music is universal. “Most of the music in the suite is instrumental, and certainly it tells a story, but it's not locked into a dramatic situation,” Flaherty says. The biggest difference, he says, is using the music to create images and emotions instead of a plot. Still, he adds, “There is definitely an emotional story when you listen to the piece.” Flaherty believes that American River Suite sounds like dance music, and he hopes that choreography can be added someday.
Celebrating American history is nothing new to Flaherty. Since Ragtime premiered in the late 90s, Flaherty says that he has received many requests to write songs for the Fourth of July. “Shortly after Ragtime premiered on Broadway, I premiered a suite of songs based upon the score to Ragtime with the Boston Pops,” he remembers. “That was part of their Fourth of July televised celebration, and that went so well that they wanted me to write an original piece for them.” Since 2000, Flaherty has composed music for the New York Pops’ annual Fourth of July concert, and last year, they performed the “Getting’ Ready Rag” from Ragtime, which was, as on Broadway, orchestrated by William David Brohn.
Most famous as half of the music-and-lyrics team of Ahrens and Flaherty, the collaboration with lyricist Bill Schermerhorn is somewhat a departure for Flaherty. “It's a totally different process with every person you work with,” he says. “When I first came to the city, I wrote my own music and lyrics, so I have an understanding of how text sits on music because I did it for many years myself. But when I first came to New York in '82, in the first six months, Lynn Ahrens and I began our collaboration and we've been going well for 27 years, now, so it's been a great experience. Obviously, she and I are very intuitive. With Bill, he came up with the idea of what the piece would be, and he helped create what the scenario might be, and I interfaced with him, adding my own ideas to that. Bill is somebody who, in general, likes to write lyrics first.” When collaborating with Ahrens, he says, he frequently writes the music before she adds her lyrics, although sometimes they create both halves in unison. “I think you get that over time,” he says.