Critical Acclaim for CASTOR AND PATIENCE
[The New York Times Critic's Pick ] "Warm, steady, restrained, securely tonal, the orchestras in [Spears's] works tend to serenely repeat small cells of material, without strange instruments or strange uses of conventional ones.
So self-effacing is Spears's style that the somber drone at the beginning of this new piece emerges without pause from the ensemble's tuning, as if by accident. The overall effect is of a smoothly unfurling carpet — reminiscent of Philip Glass in its unhurried yet wrenching harmonic progressions — atop which voices soar.
And soar, and soar. The agonies and pleasures of "Castor and Patience," running through July 30 at the Corbett Theater at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, are like those of a less densely orchestrated Puccini. As in "Tosca," "La Bohème" or "Madama Butterfly," unabashedly, even shamelessly effusive vocal lines draw us poignantly close to characters in a rending situation: here, a Black family riven by disagreement over whether to sell part of a precious plot of land.
[...] Tracy K. Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former poet laureate, has produced a libretto as unshowy as Spears's score. An original story rather than one of the transformations of existing material that currently clog the opera world, her text is largely prose, and never purple; modest arias arise naturally out of the dialogue. Inflamed by aching music — the orchestra of 36 is conducted with calm confidence by Kazem Abdullah — the result is passionate, but also clear, focused and humble.
[...] Their outpourings are so fervent, the melodies so sweet, that you can find yourself moved nearly to tears by more or less random lines [...] But by the second act, the tension inexorably rising, resistance to a work so openhearted, tender and plain-spoken seems futile. If it's emotionally manipulative — in the distinguished tradition of Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Carlisle Floyd — it's expertly so."
-THE NEW YORK TIMES (Zachary Woolfe) July 2022
[From The New York Times Best Classical Music Performances of 2022] "In a very different but also deeply satisfying vein, Gregory Spears and Tracy K. Smith's "Castor and Patience," which premiered at Cincinnati Opera in July, was an unshowy, restrained, warmly tonal exploration of a Black family and the land it owns."
-THE NEW YORK TIMES (Zachary Woolfe) December 2022
"Powerful and evocative, Cincinnati Opera's 'Castor and Patience' is a sweeping epic
[...] The hallmarks of the opening night performance were its evocative, poetic libretto, gorgeous orchestral score and powerhouse cast of singing actors.
[...] Spears' music helped to convey the feeling of nostalgia that pervades this work, while it also propelled the action. The music was grounded in minimalism and its rhythms, colors and moods were continually changing. The composer inserted dissonances and subtle chord clusters in tense moments of the score, and he also summoned antique, Baroque-sounding music and even a waltz.
He set the singers' lengthy conversations in long phrases of arioso, and the arias and ensembles were gently lyrical, all over an ever-changing palette in the 35-piece orchestra. One of the score's most beautiful moments was his sumptuous prelude to Act 2, which was symphonic in scope."
- CINCINNATI BUSINESS COURIER (Janelle Gelfand) July 2022
"With music by Gregory Spears, composer of Fellow Travelers (a 2016 Cincinnati commission), and a libretto by Tracy K. Smith, Castor and Patience is a powerful work, one that will repay repeated listenings.
[...] To turn so complex a libretto into a musically satisfying opera requires a gifted composer, and Spears is undoubtedly that. His eclectic style unfailingly advances the drama. At various times, the score captures Castor's growing desperation, Wilhelmina's generosity of spirit, Judah's frustration with the restrictions placed on a Black teenager, and, in the closing moments of the opera, Patience's transcendent love of place and family."
- OPERA NEWS (Joe Law) July 2022
Critical Acclaim for THE TOWER AND THE GARDEN
[Philly's best classical performances of 2018] "First heard years ago in one of the humbler corners of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, composer Gregory Spears seems to be emerging into the first rank of American composers, most recently with his opera Fellow Travelers, but even more recently with his 30-minute choral work The Tower and the Garden, premiered at an October concert by the Crossing. His harmonies are growing ever more lush, but the point is the emotional gravity they contain."
- THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER (David Patrick Stearns) December 2018
Critical Acclaim for WALDEN
"The impact of Spears's art is achieved with deceptive simplicity. Harmony, rhythm and texture all seem elementally direct and transparent. Cumulatively, however, they become the vehicle for intense, varied and powerful emotional complexity. The five segments chosen from Thoreau's 1854 text could not be more disparate. Yet Spears molded them into a compact, cohesive whole that speaks with a naked intimacy that's almost painful."
- THE WASHINGTON POST (Patrick Rucker) September 2018
Critical Acclaim for the opera FELLOW TRAVELERS
"Spears, a forty-year-old Virginia Beach native who first won wide notice for a deft operatic adaptation of Willa Cather's story "Paul's Case," possesses a singular compositional voice, unlike any that has been heard in opera before. The instinct in this art form is always to heighten the emotions, to raise the psychological stakes. Spears, in contrast, forgoes grand gestures in favor of transient moods."
- THE NEW YORKER (Alex Ross) January 2018
"Originality in the arts is a vague and overhyped virtue. Few works are completely original. All creative artists borrow from others, both masters they revere and contemporaries they may be in competition with. Still, originality just comes through sometimes, as the composer Gregory Spears demonstrates in his personal, boldly quirky score for the wrenching, and sadly timely, opera 'Fellow Travelers,'"
- THE NEW YORK TIMES (Anthony Tommasini) January 2018
"Review: Gay Love in the Time of McCarthy
Welcome to the McCarthy era and its "lavender scare," which swept homosexuals into the wider dragnet intended for Communists and other "subversives." That's the claustrophobic setting of this heart-wrenching yet musically lucid drama by the composer Gregory Spears, with a libretto by the playwright Greg Pierce that illuminates a painful chapter of gay history.
[…] The opening act is a near-perfect example of fast-flowing musical drama. The budding attraction between Tim and Hawk has all the infectious warmth, humor and sweetness of the early scenes in "La Bohème." The music, libretto and sure-handed stage direction by Kevin Newbury create a tidal pull that rushes the action along and the audience's sympathies with it.
[…] Mr. Spears's music is characterized by the tonal freshness and propulsive momentum of Minimalism. But his vocal writing is charmingly idiosyncratic, alert to the revealing irregularities of speech in dialogue and, in arias, animated with squiggly ornaments reminiscent of the early Baroque. The instrumental texture, too, is a mix of crisp repeated patterns and sensual wind solos, which the orchestra, under the baton of Mark Gibson, plays with pliancy and style.
The musical reflection of human speech and its psychological fluctuations are sometimes stunningly faithful.
[…] With its smart music and sharp-edged romantic drama, "Fellow Travelers" seems assured of lasting appeal. But the large clusters of audience members who stayed behind in the lobby after Sunday's performance discussing and analyzing the show suggest that — at this moment in time, in particular — it offered much more than mere entertainment."
- THE NEW YORK TIMES (Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim) June 2016
" 'Fellow Travelers" by Gregory Spears, which just concluded its world-premiere engagement at the Cincinnati Opera, has history and timeliness going for it, but it ultimately succeeds as a sad, tender love story of two men. The opera is based on Thomas Mallon's 2007 novel, which explores the purges of gay government employees in the early Cold War period: the Lavender Scare that went along with the Red Scare. Greg Pierce's taut, clean libretto keeps just enough of the political background to evoke the atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia of the period, but it zeroes in on the central relationship. That is unequal from the start: Timothy Laughlin, a neophyte from Fordham University, is seduced by Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official who is older and worldlier, a privileged Harvard man.
Mr. Spears's subtle, lyrical music is beautiful without being obvious or sentimental. It captures Tim's superficial shyness and hesitancy as well as his deeply passionate nature, which finds an outlet in his devotion to the Catholic Church, anticommunism and, most of all, Hawk. In Act I, their love affair unfolds dreamily in 6/8 time; in Act II, it comes apart as Hawk, unable to truly commit, perpetrates a stunning act of betrayal. Yet such is Mr. Spears's talent that we feel for Hawk as well: In the poignant, revealing aria "Our very own home," the rhythmic heartbeat on the piano shows that Hawk is suffering too. Mr. Spears also writes exquisitely for vocal ensembles: The large ones have a madrigal-like quality that makes the world around Tim and Hawk multidimensional.
[…] Mark Gibson led the 17-member ensemble in Mr. Spears's alluringly transparent orchestration."
- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Heidi Waleson) July 2016
"At Cincinnati Opera, a gay love story unfolds in the shadows of McCarthy era
With each passing year it becomes ever more apparent that the brightest hope for new American opera lies with worthy, smaller-scaled music theater works, carefully nurtured in collaborations between regional opera companies and other institutions, cast with the best young native talent, produced at a high professional level and mounted in appropriate venues.
[…] Composer Gregory Spears' and librettist Greg Pierce's music drama, based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, is a poignant and moving meditation on a particularly shameful episode of gay history.
[…] Yet the opera, moving tautly across the rapid-fire scenes of Kevin Newbury's staging, shuns polemics in favor of doing what so many operas have done before — telling a deeply human love story. That the emotional bond survives social approbation and betrayal also is nothing new to opera, but the contemporary resonance the opera's creators bring to their complicated interplay of characters and situations is smart and sharp-edged.
[…] Spears is unusually sensitive to the irregular cadences of American speech, and his setting of words to music is masterly. […] "Fellow Travelers" is one of the most accomplished new American operas I have encountered in recent years. It deserves to travel widely among the nation's smaller regional opera companies."
- CHICAGO TRIBUNE (John von Rhein) July 2016
"The melancholy that permeates Fellow Travelers is made all the more potent by the restraint of its presentation. Gregory Spears's opera, given its world premiere by Cincinnati Opera on June 17, elicits tears not because it demands them, but through its understated treatment of an impossibly sad situation.
[…] By tapping a vein of abundant, heartrending sentiment, the creators have created a gay La Bohème.
Fellow Traveler's libretto and its musical treatment are often deliberately prosaic. Spears's word setting is so exact that much of the sung text, consisting of recitative delivered over quasi-minimalist ostinatos, registers as speech. These characters mostly converse in the buttoned-down argot of their bureaucratic milieu, which makes it all the more telling when the lovers' music takes flight: most notably in Timothy's Act I aria "Last night," and Hawks's Act II "Our very own home," both marked by neo-Puccinian lyricism. The opera's spare orchestration suggests both emotional reticence and the sense of events heard from a distance, echoing across time. Spears wisely avoids 1950s pastiche; instead, in moments of public interaction, he invokes archaic dance forms—a waltz, a sarabande—to conjure the formality of the capital's manners. Throughout, the precision of his operatic technique is formidable: this is music that breathes along with the story it tells.
[…] All in the cast are to be commended for their diction: a tribute to Spears's attention to text as well as to the care with which the production was prepared. It was also a testament to conductor Mark Gibson, eliciting consistently transparent textures from his seventeen-player orchestra, and staying finely attentive to the conversational pace of the music. Fellow Travelers' delicacy came through in full, and so did its emotional wallop."
- OPERA NEWS (Fred Cohn) July 2016
"[Spears] has evolved a distinctive musical voice that blends consonance, (non-Reichian, non-Glassian) minimalism and Baroque and pre-Baroque subtleties with feathery filigree and intimations of Janácek's internal repetitions. The orchestral colours reveal a rare ear for subtle, arresting combinations and sonorities. The music has a flow, somewhere between Cavalli and Wagner, in which the vocal lines, without losing their melodic shape, blend into the instrumental textures, and the action moves subtly from recitative-like conversation to quasi-arias. There are deeply affecting solo scenes, and a dramatic betrayal confrontation. It is all very beautiful."
- OPERA (UK) (John Rockwell) Sept 2016
"Gregory Spears's Fellow Travelers, a two-hour opera that is a striking streamlining of Thomas Mallon's political novel of the same name.
[…] Spears's style includes the repetitive structures of classic minimalism as well, though the influence is mainly evident in the overall texture of the music — a feeling that shifts should not be drastically signaled but tucked in.
[…] The central relationship's triumphs are emphasized by orchestration and vocal writing that mirror the ornamental practices of early baroque music. A burst of grandeur a la Gabrieli animates the initial scene. Later, when Laughlin goes to Fuller's office to leave a political book he has bought for his benefactor, a brief trombone duet signals the bond that is soon to find sexual expression. The ensuing bedroom scenes were ardent, with Hawk the dominant partner.
The rhetoric and stylistic luster of the early baroque were definitely felt. There were decorative wind solos; and some of the string writing, especially in the second act, called for little to no vibrato. There was a stunning scene with Hawkins in the second act, set against a dogged string drone that supplied extra tension. There were also traces of Stravinsky's neoclassical style in the accompaniment. Some of the vocal writing may owe a debt to the late-neoclassical Stravinsky of The Rake's Progress, especially in the first act.
Spears avoids the division into 'numbers' that Stravinsky deliberately revived. His long-breathed phrases generally avoid the tedious seesawing from parlando to arioso and back again found in many modern operas. Overall, the music wears its indebtedness lightly and projects a fresh personality.
A wonderful vocal ensemble for the main characters near the end has the dramatic and emotional heft of Verdi.
[…] The musically engaging Fellow Travelers relives one of the most intensely toxic eras with its clear-eyed spotlight on a heart-tugging romance in a hostile environment."
- AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE (Jay Harvey) Sept./Oct. 2016
"Fellow Travelers also illustrates the important role of storytelling in the success of contemporary operas, something of far less importance in centuries past, when operatic plots were often regarded as little more than scaffolding from which to hang the music.
The tonally based music of Spears is certainly listener friendly, a marriage of the repetitive techniques of minimalism with the expressive lyricism associated with romantic opera. But it is also wedded to a well-told, dramatically involving story."
- THE TORONTO STAR (William Littler) July 2016
"Deeply felt 'Fellow Travelers' makes powerful impression
The new opera, "Fellow Travelers," set to a ravishing musical score by Gregory Spears with a libretto by Greg Pierce, is based on the 2007 historical novel by Thomas Mallon. Mallon was at the opening to take a bow with the cast during the premiere's lengthy ovations.
Provocative, well-sung and inventively staged by Kevin Newbury, it is an important work, and the kind that invites dialogue.
[…] Their initial love scene was passionately staged, with long, soft chords in the orchestra for their first kiss, and rapturous music as they dreamed of going to Bermuda. But the emotion was most poignant near the end of their story, as Hawk held Tim and sang "Let me hold you for an hour. That's what we get." The opera's most revealing moment, it indicated that for them, real, open love would always be forbidden.
[…] Devon Guthrie was a warm-hearted Mary Johnson, Hawk's assistant who warns Tim to be careful in an achingly lovely aria. Later, she was riveting as Hawk confessed what he had done and she screamed at him, "You swine."
The action unfolded cinematically over 16 scenes, which seamlessly overlapped. Cast members theatrically criss-crossed the stage, pushed set pieces on and off, and sometimes carried on several conversations at once.
[…] Spears' music for the singers was conversational, and he set Pierce's poetic text in long streams of arioso. The composer's lyrical orchestral score was anchored by minimalism. Its propulsion helped to move the action along, while melodic fragments in winds and piano added glints of color.
The lean orchestration sometimes recalled neo-classical Stravinsky, and once Britten. There was also the unexpected element of music inspired by medieval troubadours, with the strumming of chords under a lyrical melody. Singers and orchestra had ornamented phrases, lending an antique flavor.
The composer inserted other interesting touches, such as a slightly dissonant "Silent Night" that was woven into the undulating music of the Christmas party scene. The occasional soaring of a clarinetist recalled the clarinet player in Mallon's novel."
- CINCINNATI ENQUIRER (Janelle Gelfand) June 2016
"Finding Opera and Freedom in Cincinnati
Fellow Travelers achieves a universality equal to that of Fidelio because there are elements in it that speak to our common humanity in subtle yet palpable ways. It is the finest new opera I have seen since Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's Dead Man Walking premiered in 2000. The music is gorgeous but also very specific to the dramatic narrative. The lyrics are not so literal that they narrow the focus of the story.
[…] That Fidelio and Fellow Travelers can speak so directly to audiences, even though the former was composed in 1805 and the latter 210 years later, says so much about the unique expressive power of opera but also to the sad truth that the famous formulation by Martin Luther King that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice" is still way too long and slow."
- WQXR's Operavore (Fred Plotkin) July 2016
"Lavender Blues: A new opera explores an old Washington drama.
[…] With its tragic circumstances, malicious villains, tortured lovers, and ill-fated romance, Fellow Travelers lends itself naturally to operatic adaptation, though that should not minimize the achievement of composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce in masterfully executing Mallon's novel for the stage."
- THE WEEKLY STANDARD (James Kirchick) Aug 2016
"Author and playwright Greg Pierce's [Fellow Travelers] libretto is a superb adaptation, limning the most crucial episodes into words that are conversational, elegiac or horrifying. They form an ideal framework for Gregory Spears' powerfully compelling score.
Pierce's concision and dramatic skills render fully believable characters, realized by a remarkable cast. The opera begins with Tim and Hawk's fateful encounter on a park bench in DuPont Circle, where Tim is reviewing notes for an article on McCarthy's wedding ("Who gets married at lunch time on a Tuesday?"). He doesn't know this particular bench is a meeting place for gay men, according to Johnson's book, and he's an easy mark for the appropriately nicknamed Hawk, who is clearly a veteran cruiser.
[…] I'm still pondering exactly what makes Spears' score so effective and the best answer is that the music genuinely allows the text to be sung, something I've rarely experienced with contemporary operas. It's accessible in the best sense of the word and flows seamlessly from scene to scene. There's no percussion in the 17-piece orchestra, which gives each section more power to convey tension, drama, and passion.
[…] Spears also uses the modal conventions of the medieval French trouvère tradition to powerful effect in arias for Tim and Hawk. The melismatic phrases sung over orchestral accompaniment of harp-like strings or drones add poignancy to expressions of unattainable, passionate love.
[…] When he [Hawk] pleads with Tim to accept things as they are and not hope for anything better ("Our Own Home"), Lattanzi's understated delivery packs an emotional blow to the solar plexus."
- PARTERRE BOX ("Donna Anna") June 2016
"'Transcendent' Fellow Travelers Premieres at Cincinnati Opera
The music of Gregory Spears is an amalgam of styles including romanticism, minimalism, and early music, all of which are clearly perceptible in Fellow Travelers. His penchant for the Romantic takes the form of lush orchestral swells that accompany moments of both drama and tenderness. Influences of minimalism permeate the score with steady repetition, layered scoring, and carefully-controlled dissonances. Suggestions of early music practices include drone accompaniments and chant-like melodies tinged with florid melismas.
Fellow Travelers does not maintain the rubato-laden quality of many works in the operatic genre, and the insistently metronomic music lends itself well to the conversational style of much of the libretto. The rhythmic integrity of the vocal performances was highly commendable, and the execution of the pulse-based score was even more impressive in retrospect after attending a performance of the rambunctious and ever-fluctuating Die Fledermaus on Saturday. The constant rhythmic drive also provides stark moments of contrast to moments where the pulse is momentarily halted—most notably, Timothy and Hawk's first kiss, which weightlessly suspends the audience in time before returning to the driving narrative.
Spears' treatment of carefully-controlled dissonance recalls both Renaissance polyphony and minimalism and proves crucial to the support of the libretto. After beginning in a charming and effervescent C Major, the first true moment of dissonance forebodingly occurs after Timothy and Hawk make love for the first time. Immediately following is Timothy's heart-wrenching aria "Last Night," sung with clarity and conviction by Aaron Blake, in which the battle between consonance and dissonance reflects Timothy's internal struggle between love and faith. The scene in which Hawk is interrogated for suspected homosexuality begins with a brassy crash, and the first act ends with the chilling exchange between Timothy and Hawk that asks "What if they are watching us?" as the rest of the ensemble lurks behind a sheer black scrim.
In Act II, the motivic material from Act I returns, but with increasing points of tension in the harmonic language. In light of the building tension, the most striking moment of the second act is Hawk's aria "Our Very Own Home." […]
Though the term "transcendent" when applied to music often suggests some sort of Straussian journey beyond the physical realm, Fellow Travelers is transcendent in it's own way—the music transcends style and influence to create an accessible opera for contemporary audiences, and the libretto transcends time to bring new, present-day relevance to haunting events of our nation's past."
- i care if you listen (Amanda Cook) June 2016
"Contemporary operas do not thrive in a system in which the works of the 19th century reign supreme in America's opera houses. This superb musical drama is cause for celebration, especially in the first-class world premiere, a result of the ongoing collaboration between the Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.
Playwright and dramaturge Greg Pierce has flawlessly adapted the Thomas Mallon's novel of the same title into a riveting libretto, succinct in verbiage, utterly clear in narrative, and rich in dramatic power.
Gregory Spears' astonishingly beautiful music is an equal partner, soaring at key moments into arioso passages that underscore intense soliloquies, or at other times, settling down into extended conversations that seamlessly blend into set pieces for ensembles, for the role of Mary, and for the two central characters. The text is beautifully set and the music never obscures it, but emphasizes it with careful repetition of key statements, often in florid melismas."
- SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL (Rafael de Acha) June 2016
Critical Acclaim for the opera PAUL'S CASE
[Opera review for Paul' s Case] "The story, instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever dreamed of escape, refinement or belonging, proved poignantly stage-worthy on Wednesday night at Here, where a taut, splendid operatic adaptation by the composer Gregory Spears and the librettist Kathryn Walat opened the second annual Prototype festival. Performed by UrbanArias, a young Washington company that specializes in contemporary chamber opera, Cather’s story took on the tones of dream and dance."
"Mr. Spears’s elegantly spare music, with its gamelan-redolent modes and clockwork repetitions, Baroque vocal fillips, intricately woven ensembles and dramatically placed dissonances, further infuses the tale with a sense of ritual and inevitability."
"Robert Wood, the general director of UrbanArias, conducted the players of the American Modern Ensemble and the pianist Keith Chambers in a luminous account of Mr. Spears’s ravishing music, scored for string quartet, double bass, two clarinets, piano and harp. All told, the sold-out premiere provided Prototype, which will offer four more new operas and related events, with a sublime start."
- THE NEW YORK TIMES (Steve Smith) January 2014
“I was haunted most of all by Gregory Spears’s 'Paul’s Case,' based on Willa Cather’s classic 1906 tale of a doomed young Pittsburgh aesthete. …his plaintive, eerie score delves into the inner world of Paul, who defies his teachers, steals from his employer, lives grandly in New York for a few days, and ultimately chooses death over shame. Spears, too, has minimalist roots, and draws also on the bittersweet textures of Renaissance consort music and the vocal ornaments of Baroque opera."
"The ending is as quietly harrowing as anything in recent American opera. Paul, having thrown himself in front of an onrushing train, has a split-second glimpse of the life he will not live—he sees 'the yellow of Algerian sands, the blue of the Adriatic.' ...The vocal line repeatedly comes to rest on a quick, courtly two-note descent; in its final iteration, the figure is pushed up another step, to a high, hopeful, heartbreaking A. The opera ends, as it began, with a procession of bell-like E-major piano chords, dissonant tones sounding in their midst. At once impassive, bright, and dark, they echo Cather’s cosmic closing phrase: 'Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.'"
- THE NEW YORKER (Alex Ross) February 2014
"In "Paul's Case," given its world premiere on Saturday by the small company Urban Arias, the composer Gregory Spears combines minimalism, baroque gestures, and extended vocal techniques into a distinctive and pungent musical language. This haunting 90-minute work is based on a story by Willa Cather: Paul, a high-school boy with artistic and status yearnings beyond his middle-class life in 1906 Pittsburgh, steals money and goes to New York. He lives the high life in the Waldorf-Astoria for a few days, and when exposure is imminent throws himself under a train.
Mr. Spears and Kathryn Walat distilled the tale into a surreal fever dream, with other characters continually commenting on Paul's "case." Unlike many contemporary opera composers, Mr. Spears has a gift for writing ensembles, and they are original. In the powerful opening scene, as three female teachers and the school's principal try to articulate what disturbs them about Paul, short lines of text overlap, creating a tense, fragmented environment, like Cubism in sound."
- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Heidi Waleson) April 2013
"Now, in only its second season, the festival can claim its first masterpiece, the chamber opera Paul's Case. With music by Gregory Spears and a libretto by Mr. Spears and Kathryn Walat, this gem redeems dozens of evenings struggling with listless or unreachably far-out contemporary opera."
"It's a perfect marriage of text and music, creating a series of tableau-like scenes, as if Paul's story is being related through a series of exquisitely posed still photographs—exactly, in fact, the lapidary manner in which Paul envisions his life.
Mr. Spears' music is grounded in the chugging, surging rhythm of the train on which Paul escapes from his drab hometown. Overlaying that is a dreamy haze of slowly shifting musical lines that never seem to develop or change. Instead, they just drift. The melodies recall palm court music, light classical pieces played as background music in upscale restaurants of the period. It's a striking depiction of Paul's adolescent attitude that there is neither past nor future, only a blissful, eternal present in his suite at the Waldorf Astoria."
- THE NEW YORK OBSERVER (James Jorden) January 2014
Ten Notable Performances and Recordings of 2014 "Gregory Spears's chamber opera "Paul's Case," the most memorable event in last year's edition of the suddenly indispensable Prototype Festival, succeeded in bringing to dramatic life Willa Cather's oblique, ambiguous story of a young aesthete on a downward spiral. The tenor Jonathan Blalock was transfixing in the title role; Spears's score glistened beautifully and eerily around him."
- THE NEW YORKER (Alex Ross) December 2014
[Opera review for Paul' s Case] "Willa Cather’s short story, once a staple in English classes, was adapted by Gregory Spears into an arresting little piece that communicates its haunting story with clarity and a sense of inevitability."
- THE WASHINGTON POST (Roger Catlin) April 2013
- THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER (David Patrick Stearns) January 2013
"The clear [Prototype Festival] highlight was Paul's Case by Gregory Spears (seen on January 13). With a smart libretto by Kathryn Walat and Spears himself..."
"And the music made the show. It was basically tonal, with an underlying minimalism that sounded nothing like the Glass-Reich template. There were many repeated phrases, vocal and instrumental, which may have alluded to Baroque practice. The vocal lines were eminently singable, without breaking down into obvious arias; many of them began with an odd, hiccup-like ornament. What was even more remarkable was the instrumental colour, with the piano providing intensely dramatic punctuation, a harp accenting quietly, two clarinets lending a soft, floating quality ideally evocative of Paul's dreaminess, and a string quintet filling out harmonious pungent accompaniment, lush and billowing. To these ears, it was all very beautiful."
- OPERA MAGAZINE (UK) (John Rockwell) March 2014
[Review for the opera Paul's Case] "The compact grit-to-glamour tragedy, with its willowy protagonist and its chorus of disapproving adults, seems ready-made for opera. ...Finally, it arrived at the Prototype Festival, and the result is a compact, alluring, and attractively obsessive work that bangs around claustrophobically inside Paul’s mind."
- NEW YORK MAGAZINE (Justin Davidson) January 2014
Top 5 Buzzed-About Young American Opera Composers "The Wall Street Journal's Heidi Waleson lamented the all-too-short run of the 40-minute The Bricklayer when it premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 2012. Meanwhile, Paul's Case, taken from a Willa Cather short story, was developed over several years through American Opera Projects to become the hit of the 2014 Prototype Festival."
- WQXR (Amanda Angel) June 2015
Critical Acclaim for REQUIEM
“The young Brooklyn composer Gregory Spears, an avatar of the new "alt-classical" movement, has composed a Requiem as a dance score, with Middle French poetry and Breton folk texts alternating with excerpts from the liturgy...Medieval and and post-minimalist styles commingle freely here, along with shadowy tinges of Britten and late Stravinsky. It all goes down with disarming ease, but Spears's close knowledge of vocal technique, and his luminous writing for the harp, hint at deeper mysteries."
- THE NEW YORKER (Russell Platt) March 2012
"Gregory Spears’s "Requiem’’ is some of the most beautifully unsettling music to appear in recent memory. [...] Scored for an unusual instrumental ensemble - recorder, chimes, harps, organ, and viola - and six voices, the music sounds like a Renaissance madrigal remixed for the postminimalist age. [...] It’s hard to know what to call this music, though it must be a challenge to perform, and the musicians on this recording do exemplary work. It is harder still to explain the cold shiver it induces."
- THE BOSTON GLOBE (David Weininger) January 2012
[Requiem Album Review] "Spears intersperses the swan myth with the requiem text, much of it reflecting lyrical Baltic influences of Arvo Pärt, but with a young composer's restlessness. The swan's song is speculatively re-created with otherworldly vocal ornaments. The piece also contains counterpoint that echoes 16th-century madrigals as well as a modern sense of theatrical timing that keeps your ears on edge until the last note. The most individualistic part: The piece seems not to contain any judgments or emotional reactions to death. It's not tragic or liberating. It just is."
- THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER (David Patrick Stearns) November 2011
"The musical models for the [Spears] Requiem are clear, such as musique mesurée, but the influences are ambiguous and touching. You never quite know if you are listening to music inspired by Monteverdi or La Monte Young. Are you hearing the spaciousness of contemporary Russian composers Vladimir Martynov and Alexander Knaifel condensed or the minimalist pulse of Steve Reich sprinkled over arpeggios? The result was delicately balanced by effective performers, most of whom are early music specialists, but the Requiem feels loosened from an explicit time. As with the music of Britten and the painting of Gauguin, Mr. Spears's art is not reconciled to the world most of us live in. It awakens a sharp longing to demagnetize the compass of modern sentiment."
- SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL (Jeffrey Edelstein) July 2010
- THE NEW YORKER (Alex Ross) June 2010
“… a requiem Mass sung in Breton, Middle French and Latin, performed live (by musicians including Mr. Williams and Mr. Spears) — is the most distinguished component of the evening. It summons up a shimmering medieval aura — positively High-Elven — of voices, harps, chimes, recorders and viola and harps.”
- THE NEW YORK TIMES (Alastair MacCaulay) June 2010
“…Williams is fortunate to have it [Hen’s Teeth] accompanied by Gregory Spears’s splendid score, played live by an ensemble of 10. This Requiem Mass unconventionally blends portions of the Latin text with that of a non-liturgical one in Middle French about the song of a dying swan (a metaphor for the lover), plus a couple of fragments in Breton. At times the jangling together of singing voices, violin, harp, recorder, chimes, and electric organ is magical, like feathers stroking the back of your neck.”
- THE VILLAGE VOICE (Deborah Jowitt) June 2010
“In the world premiere of “Hen’s Teeth,” Williams invoked ‘Swan Lake,’ then created one of his own, set to a beautiful requiem composed by Gregory Spears. […] Spears’s rich, harmonic score was sung by six vocalists, the piercing soprano by Ruth Cunningham. They were accompanied by harp, viola, percussion, and several troubadour harps – including the one played by Williams himself. In the intimate setting of Dance New Amsterdam, the opulence of live music was especially grand.”
- DANCE REVIEW TIMES (Martha Sherman) June 2010
“…the work has been set to a moody score by composer and conductor Gregory Spears…sung in Breton, Middle French and Latin by the likes of half the cast of Anonymous 4 (Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) and 4 members of the acclaimed male a cappella vocal group Lionheart (Michael Wenger, John Olud, Lawrence Lipnik, and Kurt-Owen Richards.”
- CITY OF GLASS CULTURE BLOG June 2010
Critical Acclaim for
A NEW SANCTUS, BENEDICTUS, AND AGNUS DEI (for the Mozart Requiem)
"Judging from Wednesday's performance at Trinity Church Wall Street, Spears has managed a remarkable feat. Though his setting of the "Sanctus," "Benedictus," and "Agnus Dei" (the only movements for which no Mozart material has survived) doesn't sound like Mozart at all, he's used the choir and the orchestra very much as Mozart did.
Quigley led a well-judged performance in New York: In the Mozart, his tempos were fast enough to keep momentum without blurring the notes in Trinity's resonant space, and the music's drama was held just enough in check to let Spears' more tormented passages, when they arrived, pack a wallop."
- THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER (Matthew Westphal) February 2016
"Completion without finality is the curious fate of the Mozart Requiem.
Left unfinished at the composer's deathbed, this touchstone choral work has been the ultimate unfinished masterpiece - which hasn't stopped many from trying, over the centuries. The latest completion, by Gregory Spears, is also among the boldest".
- THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER (David Patrick Stearns) February 2016
[Review of A New Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei for the Mozart Requiem] "His new "Sanctus," "Benedictus" and "Agnus Dei" drew on hundreds of years of music history, with echoes of Bach and Mozart, glowing Romantic harmonies, glints of contemporary dissonance and the effective use of timpani and long-held bass notes to give a pre-Enlightenment sense of religious awe and certitude.
In place of Süssmayr's loud, pompous and empty "Sanctus," Spears' version opened with a quiet air of mystery and expectation, with turbulent, hushed tones from the choir. The solemn "Benedictus" used slow-moving harmonies that sound like they arrived from the late 19th century and minimalist patterns in the strings to achieve a sense of hard-won peace and tranquility. In the "Agnus Dei," grimly moving triplets ascended and fell over dark and insistent repeated harmonic structures in the choir, giving the movement a dark and pulsing sense of religious solemnity."
- SOUTH FLORIDA CLASSICAL REVIEW (David Fleshler) November 2013
["O Columbia" at Houston Grand Opera: opera review] "Unlike many contemporary opera composers, Mr. Spears writes brilliantly for vocal ensembles. Starting with neoclassical-style clarity, he builds textured, complex musical structures that sound old and new at the same time, and his skillful text settings use minimalist-like repetition to give Mr. Vavrek's pointed, thoughtful words even more power and emotional specificity. Exploration, risk and loss are elegantly balanced in the opera's first two sections. In the first, Becca conjures up Sir Walter Raleigh and the lost colony of Roanoke; in the second, she communicates with an astronaut on the Columbia and then watches in horror as the disaster unfolds. Mr. Spears works this contrast between excitement and elegy through rhythmic variation and texture, switching from contrapuntal energy into homophonic keening. The "loss" sections—as when the ensemble repeats the words "Washed away" in the Raleigh section and Becca's aching cry of "Columbia, do you read me?" in the second part—are piercingly moving. ...Mr. Spears's crystalline orchestrations for strings, two oboes and an English horn were eloquently performed; such was the composer's skill that sometimes the voices felt like part of the instrumental texture."
- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Heidi Waleson) September 2015
"Set to 18th-century American poems and letters, the five-part dramatic cantata [Virginiana] cleverly employed period conventions that slowly morphed into ecstatic tapestries of sound, using repetitive devices, quirky rhythmic turns and subtle dissonances to illustrate the author's tale of unrequited love. Spears's magical score deserves a wide audience and he's definitely a composer to watch for."
- TODAY'S ZAMAN (Alexandra Ivanoff) April 2015
[Opera Review for The Bricklayer] "Mr. Spears, a young, New York-based postminimalist composer, matches the spareness of Ms. Moshiri's text with luminous, pointillistic writing for his five-piece chamber orchestra.
- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Heidi Waleson) March 2012
[Opera Review for The Bricklayer] "...inventive, precise and colorful music. He knows how to score for chamber orchestra, and the work is replete with "Persian" influences, from the filigreed vocal lines with their distinctive keening warble to the Bricklayer's signature sound of the "ney," that smoky, unearthly-sounding flute. Constantly varied and rich in texture...the music is rhythmically complex yet easily accessible, no mean feat these days for modern opera. The quieter passages have a gossamer transparency that strikes the ear as almost neo-Romantic in sweep and emotional power. Spears is definitely a composer to watch."
- HOUSTON PRESS BLOG (D.L. Groover) March 2012
“In a resourceful, astonishingly beautiful Wilfred Owen setting by Gregory Spears, Amelia Watkins, a soprano, and Anthony Roth Costanzo, a countertenor, intertwined in languorous flights.”
- THE NEW YORK TIMES (Steve Smith) April 2011
[On the JACK Quartet’s premiere of Spears’ string quartet Buttonwood] “This impressionistic portrayal of an inner landscape is admirable for its unflamboyant honesty.”
- THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER (David Patrick Stearns) November 2010
“A diaphanous song [Coleridge] by Gregory Spears and Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” ended the recital proper.”
- THE NEW YORKER (Alex Ross) February 2010
[From David Patrick Stearns’ Best in Classical Music for 2009] “Greg Spears' adaptation of the Willa Cather story "Paul's Case" wasn't just staged quickly, but was also composed in a deadline-imposed heat. Yet Spears' music - in this odd tale of a young Pittsburgh dandy on the loose in New York - had solid dramatic timing, compassionate characterizations, and huge potential.”
- THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER (David Patrick Stearns) December 2009
“Mr. Spears’s hauntingly paradoxical music—feral and refined, unsettled and serene—is especially electrifying during statements of anticipation and regret … Mr. Spears coils minimalist motifs sufficiently tightly so that they spring naturally and necessarily into neo-romantic idioms… a beautiful, heartrending work…”
- MUSIC WEB INTERNATIONAL (Jeffrey Edelstein) September 2009
“A composer with an exquisite, distinctive voice…the music feels subjunctive, reflecting the overall title: wishful, regretful, and wistful; it is rapt resignation, gazing out from music’s seashore.”
- MUSIC WEB INTERNATIONAL (Jeffrey Edelstein) March 2009
“Now, at Bard Summerscape, comes the world premiere of Prokofiev’s original 1936 account of the ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare,’ … Prof. Simon Morrison of Princeton, who found this score in Russian archives, has restored it, with the orchestration of four passages realized by Gregory Spears from Prokofiev’s manuscript annotations.”
- THE NEW YORK TIMES (Alastair Macaulay) July 2008
“Gregory Spears … explored the orchestra’s capacity for innovative timbre. Mr. Spears, whose music has figured in the orchestra’s Underwood New Music Readings, fashioned a dreamy suspense in ‘Finishing,’ with fluttering flute and trumpet solos, tinkling percussion and shimmering strings…”
- THE NEW YORK TIMES (Steve Smith) November 2008
"The glistening sonic soup in the remarkable Finishing by Princeton-based Greg Spears used drone effects less prominently than Crumb, but using dictaphones.”
- PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER (David Patrick Stearns) April 2007
“The concert concluded with Eighth Blackbird's scintillating account of Gregory Spears's ‘Soar-Stop’ …”
- THE NEW YORK TIMES (Anthony Tommasini) July 2001