Lives Remembered: Lee Hoiby

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The Independent Online

Lee Hoiby, who has died aged 85, wasan American composer in the romantic mould, principally of operas, but his fine lyrical gift waswell suited to the medium of art songs (of which he left over 100), and he also composed a substantial body of music for orchestra, chamber ensembles and the church.

Born in Wisconsin of Scandinavian descent, he came under the influence of the pianist Egon Petri and, and upon graduating from the University of Wisconsin was intent at first on becoming a concert pianist. A series of successful compositions led him to studies with America's leading opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti and his first opera The Scarf (after Chekhov) was performed in Spoleto, Italy, in 1958, to considerable acclaim. In the same year he was commissioned by the Louisville Opera to write a work for a new television studio in that city and for this he turned to Maurice Maeterlinck's Sister Beatrice, and the opera enjoyed a first recording on the Louisville Orchestra's own LP label.

Natalia Petrovna (after the love story by Turgenev) followed in 1964 and in 1971 Tennessee Williams gave permission for his play Summer and Smoke to be turned into an opera. One of Hoiby's most successful works it enjoyed several revivals, most recently by the Manhattan School of Music in 2010, and the first CD recording of this production was released only recently. Hoiby went on to compose two Shakespearian operas: The Tempest (1986), to a libretto by his partner Mark Shulgasser, produced in 2008 by the Purchase Opera Company and recorded, and the as yet unperformed but lavishly scored Romeo and Juliet (2004).

Hoiby never quite abandoned his quest to become a professional pianist and at the age of 45 resumed his studies, making a professional debut in the late 1970s and he was the soloist in the premiere of his own Piano Concerto No 2 in 1980. He also wrote three ballets, one of which, After Eden (1966) was produced and recorded by the Harkness Ballet.

His rich orchestral palette and refined aesthetic were widely admired, especially in musical theatre: he was as much at home with lighter themes as with grand opera. Singers such as Marilyn Horne, Leontyne Price and Frederica von Stade have regularly performed his music. A consortia of opera companies and universities is collaborating for the world premiere of Romeo and Juliet next year.

Bret Johnson

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