The ‘fetish’ thing aside, David Del Tredici talks about his work, and about gay themes in classical music

David Del Tredici. (Paula Court)
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Let’s start with the fetish gear.

After all, the equipment was prominent enough to be featured in the lead of a New York Times review of David Del Tredici’s music, at Carnegie Hall two weeks ago, from an evening in which the composer “walked to his seat … accompanied by a tall, neatly dressed man wearing a leather dog collar bristling with sharp studs.”

Reached at his New York apartment in the week leading up to his 75th birthday concert at Le Poisson Rouge, on Thursday evening, Del Tredici had only one note for the Grey Lady: “They didn’t mention he was on a leash!”

It would be foolish to argue that Del Tredici—a musician who bucked trends in the atonal '70s in order to go Romantically lush, and who came out as a gay man in the '80s—doesn’t delight in provocation. Even better is the fact that he has the raw skills to back them up: a Pulitzer Prize for one of his several long-form pieces based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, as well as multiple orchestral pieces commissioned by the New York Philharmonic (try to find his “Tattoo,” recorded by conductor Leonard Bernstein) make up just a part of his resume.

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“Well my intent was, this is a maverick concert,” Del Tredici told me, in reference to the month-long celebration of radical American composers situated around Carnegie Hall. “It supported the theme. And it was for fun.”

And how did his boyfriend like it? “He loves doing it, otherwise I wouldn’t do it; we’re both exhibitionists,” Del Tredici said. “I don’t know if he’s really my boyfriend; he’s new in my life, I’ve known him for maybe a month. We bond around doing stuff like this. … It’s particularly fun to do at 75!”

All spur-of-the-moment prankishness to the side, though, Del Tredici has a more sober, engaged political streak, as well. Several previous song cycles reflecting his sexuality—like “3 Baritone Songs” and “Gay Life”—are as assertively progressive as they are occasionally naughty.

“I get courage from my texts," he told me. "That feels very vitalizing and expansive for my technique."

One of Del Tredici’s more recent efforts in this vein, “A Field Manual,” will be played at tonight's Le Poisson Rouge birthday bash. Discussing the piece, Del Tredici allows that “it’s a continuation of setting poetry which is quite explicitly gay. ‘A Field Manual’ is poetry of Edward Field—a wonderful poet that I know. … He has one called ‘Old Acquaintance,’ where the baritone—it’s a song about his dick. So he has to sing about it. And [the cycle] ends with a lesbian story recounted in ‘Sweet Gwendolyn,’ where the countess seduces her in sort of an S & M scene.”

Tellingly, this performance will not be a New York premiere, though, unlike the other pieces on Thursday’s program. (Del Tredici’s "String Quartet No. 2," played by the Orion String Quartet, will be a local premiere, while “Felix Variations,” in which the composer’s namesake cousin is the soloist, is a world premiere.) And like “Gay Life,” “A Field Manual” has yet to see a recording. Is there a pattern here?

“Because of the gay thing? I think that’s an issue. That is an issue in classical music still. … You can be quietly gay, but you can’t crow about it!” Del Tredici said, with a laugh that sounds like another defiant crow.

Though Del Tredici isn’t only interested in the hardcore.

“‘A Field Manual’ is brash and naughty and in your face, but the string quartet is much more romantic and lush. It has no connection to so-called filthy music.” And his “Felix Variations” are patterned after Paganini.

While still vital at 75, Del Tredici says he’s not being approached as much for orchestral pieces these days, which he finds suits him.

“I wrote so much orchestral music, so I feel I’ve made my statement. And it’s a lot more work! You write the piece and then you have to orchestrate it—it’s another whole step—whereas with chamber music it comes out the way it comes out.”

This relaxed nature seems of a piece with Del Tredici’s casually playful mood at Carnegie Hall. And it’s a tradition he may continue this week at Le Poisson Rouge.

“Maybe I will do something,” he said, as we talked about the outlandish attire. “Though I’m going to blame it on you if I do.”