Until he was 11, Zachary Wadsworth's idea of music was the Dave Matthews Band rocking out of his boombox or his dad playing folk tunes on fiddle and hammered dulcimer. Then he attended one of the Richmond Symphony's Kicked Back Classics concerts and snared one of the seats among the musicians that are allotted for listeners. He sat with the violinists.
"I'd never really heard classical music up to then," he recalls, "and I'd never experienced the formative side of music-making, when performers work together to make it happen. And there I was, surrounded by people doing it. It was one of those moments that changes your life." It turned a Chesterfield County preteen into a self-described "classical music dork."
The son of Robert and Mary Ellen Wadsworth is now a lanky, vaguely preppy-looking 24-year-old living above a vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., and pursuing a doctorate at Cornell. Wadsworth has snared a string of awards for his compositions, the latest being a first-place win in the ASCAP/Lotte Lehmann Foundation Art Song Competition for Young Composers.
He received a $3,500 cash prize, a commission to write a song cycle to be premiered in three major American cities and publication of the work by E.C. Schirmer, a leading imprint for classical vocal and choral scores.
The award, named for one of the greatest opera singers and song recitalists of the 20th century, promotes composition of art songs (also known as Lieder, German for "songs"). Art songs are pieces written to poetic texts -- often lyrical poetry meant to be sung by classically trained voices, generally with piano accompaniment. Think of a poetry reading set to music.
Lieder occupy one of the more esoteric niches of classical music. Most of the household-name composers, from Haydn and Mozart to Britten and Bernstein, wrote them; but only a few notably, Franz Schubert owe much of their fame to their songs. The genre may be heading into the classical mainstream, though. Some hot properties in contemporary American composition, such as Jake Heggie and Osvaldo Golijov, are prolific songwriters. (Dawn Upshaw will sing "Ayre," the widely lauded cycle by Golijov, Feb. 22 at the University of Richmond.)
Wadsworth has an inside track on art songs because he's a singer. He was tenor soloist in the choir of St. Mary's Episcopal Church and a regular in musicals at Monacan High School, from which he graduated in 2001. He continued singing as an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music and during studies for his master's degree at Yale.
"He's a multitalented young man a violinist and pianist as well as a singer who's immersed himself every way he could in music," says Melissa Marrion, the now-retired Virginia Commonwealth University professor who instructed "my dear Zachary," as she calls him, in piano and music theory during his high-school years. "What he may know best," she says, "is the voice."
"I write instrumental music, but I think I work better when I have a text," Wadsworth says. "And even when I'm writing for instruments, I find that the rhythmic language and melodic contours of the voice [affect] my writing."
His work stems from many branches of contemporary art music, Wadsworth says. "I listen to tons of different styles of music. I was big on Steve Reich and the minimalists when I was at Eastman. More recently, I've been on a bel canto kick, listening to a lot of Handel. Some people tell me I'm a postmodern composer; others say I'm a neo-romantic.
"I'm attracted to the gestures and sounds of early music, straight-tone singing, modal writing, the baroque style of singing and playing."
He's also into dead poets. "Partly, that's practicality you can use their texts without worrying about copyrights. Also, I love John Donne and some of the American metaphysical poets," he says. "And I've done a lot of choral settings of sacred and liturgical texts, which not that many of my contemporaries seem to be into."
He's produced more than a dozen songs, song cycles and choral works; his one-act opera, "Venus and Adonis," was premiered last summer at the Long Leaf Opera Festival in North Carolina.
In a couple of years, Wadsworth may revisit the ground where his compositional seed was first planted. He's in preliminary discussions with the Richmond Symphony about writing a piece for the orchestra. S
To hear samples of his music, visit www.zacharywadsworth.com.
Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.