"Only his heart eclipses Roger’s talent and generosity as an artist, colleague and human being."
- David McCarty, stage director and choreographer, fellow collaborator
Roger Ames was born in Cooperstown, New York, December 2, 1944, the son of a self-taught church organist and first grade teacher, (his free pass to play the organ as a teenager). This and undoubtedly his mother’s 42 years as a teacher helped define his passionate love for creating music as well as teaching and conducting it.
He attended the Crane School of Music, State University of New York at Potsdam, where he acquired a degree in conducting and music education. Over the past few decades of his life, he has taught at Somers High School, Westchester County, NY; American University, Washington, DC; The American School of Düsseldorf, Germany; was chair of Music-theater at the Hartt School of Music, Theater and Dance; and resident composer at Great Neck North High School. During that time, he did graduate study at the Hartt School, Webster University, American University in Washington, D.C. and attained a master’s degree in composition at Queens College, CUNY.
Also during that time, he helped found The Berkshire Ensemble for Theater Arts, (BETA), in Williamstown, Massachusetts, The Hamptons Ensemble for Theater Arts in South Hampton, New York (THETA), and was composer and collaborator the Central City Opera / Colorado Springs Conservatory Summer Intensive for many years. He has been resident artist at the New Dramatist playwright collective in NYC for nearly 3 decades, and resident teaching artist at Central City Opera for 14 years. He worked with El Paso Opera on several projects – operas for young voices created in collaboration with them.
He was first taken seriously as a composer while doing graduate study in Washington, D.C., after several years teaching choral music in Whitesboro, NY and Somers, in Westchester county. While in Somers he convinced nearly half the high school to sing in his large chorus (375 students, along with specialized ensembles), and many of those students have remained life-long friends.
To say farewell, and then to head to American University on a graduate music fellowship, he wrote his first large piece for chorus, children’s chorus, and orchestra. The venue for the performance was a gymnasium, since there were nearly 800 performers, with the visit of a high school chorus from Long Island, conducted by Frances Roberts.
His income in Washington came from two fantastic ‘day jobs.’ One, as minister of music at Westmoreland Congregational Church, the other from Street 70, now “Roundhouse Theater” in Bethesda, Maryland.
While at Westmorland, Ames began to realize what it felt like to be ‘championed’ by someone. Not only the church itself – but one singer whom he admired and who appeared in all the work he wrote especially for them – was most encouraging.
The late Donald Boothman encouraged him to write more art songs, being a strong interpreter himself of many art songs of his time, as well as the classic ones. Here is a short example of his singing one of Ames’ folk song arrangements. (Available chorally from Hinshaw Music).
His first big composer’s grant came from the National Endowment for the Arts – a chance to study with Samuel Barber… to develop his first opera and write his first song cycle:
While working at Street 70, he founded the Montgomery County Masterworks Chorus. They performed a number of great classical choral / orchestral works under his baton, and after he left for Europe they commissioned “Requiem for Unbelievers.”
In the Requiem, he set the traditional Latin text sections of the Mass – and then interspersed texts of Pulitzer Prize poet Anne Sexton. At that time, teenage suicide was rampant. It was his reaction to the many tragedies of suicide, affecting him as a teacher and a father, that drew him to Sexton’s poetry.
During this period, he also wrote a song cycle of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry, “Summer Sang in Me,” and another cycle to the poetry of Theodore Roethke. He revised his student cantata “The Child Is Father of the Man,” and it is now published under the title “Splendor in the Grass,” by GIA Music.
The Long Island Masterworks Chorus has performed several of his larger works, and commissioned a Piano-Choral Suite entitled “Ancient Songs of the Universe,” Frances Roberts, conducting, setting the poetry by Paul Rosen. Each movement concludes with an "Alleluia" setting. Tonal, bi-modal, and harmonically innovative, the piano serves as the anchor for the piece, and is meant to be a 'concerto' for piano and chorus. The setting is both dramatic and meditative, celebrating the birth, growth, and necessity for music in our lives.
While in Europe, Ames began work on “Amarantha,” and that led him to a workshop at the O’Neill National Music Center in New London, Connecticut – where he met Paulette Haupt and Timothy Nolen, both of whom championed his work for years. He also completed several song cycles while there.
He also worked in London, at the American School there, developing a process for working with ensembles in a collaborative way to develop complete pieces – something he had started at Street 70, with June Allen as mentor and director.
After returning to the U.S. he co-founded the Berkshire Ensemble for Theater Arts, in Williamstown, Massachusetts with his high school mentor and inspiration, Pat Zich, and worked with some of the finest artist-teachers in his career – young international students, too…
Ames also became Chair of Music Theater at the Hartt School of Music, Theater and Dance, University of Hartford. While there he met James Jordon, who became a champion of his choral music. He also was commissioned to write a number of choral pieces for European Choirs, from American folk song arrangements he’d originally written for Thomas Hampson, baritone.
While in Hartford, he also got his first Regional Equity premiere – of Martin Guerre, a music-theater work written with Laura Harrington. It won “Best Play of the Year,” awarded by Connecticut Journalists.
Credits: Susan Lambert for “Starry Night” Beth Fowler and Susan Lambert for “The Girl is Gone”
Since that premiere, Ames has written several other works for the stage including Hearts on Fire, premiered by the Contemporary Ensemble of the Minnesota Opera, now known as Nautilus Music-Theater, Ben Krywosz, Founder and Director. Libretto by Laura Harrington.
Credits: Maggie Meg Reed for “Every Man who Touches You”; Susan Lambert for “Cry of the Wolf”; David Elyaho for “Olive Tree”
After accepting a composer residency and choral conducting position at Great Neck North High School, Ames teamed up with Susan Lambert and David McCarty to form THETA, (The Hamptons Ensemble for Theater Arts), and created several new works for young voices, collaborating with the teenagers who attended the summer institute.
His brief foray into film music was writing for a French documentary on Aids – The featured theme was entitled “Love’s Gift,” here recorded beautifully by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.
He began to turn to larger choral forms, with oratorios and cantatas. First came a commission from the Greensboro Oratorio Society – conducted by William Carroll. They unfortunately did not get to premiere it because of the “Jesse Helms public funding for the arts era.” Grant providers decided that a Holocaust oratorio was too violent to receive its final performance grant! And so, the Long Island Masterworks Chorus, under the direction of Frances Roberts, premiered the full-length piece in 1997.
William Carroll did, however, conduct “Requiem for Unbelievers” after its premiere in Washington, and it was a beautiful, truly remarkable performance. Later on, he led his university choir in a beautiful performance of this commission by Westminster Choir College, setting the poetry of Wilfred Owen:
It was around this time that he published an arrangement of folk songs, dedicated to his brother, Don, and his sister-in-law, Connie Ames.
Shortly after 9/11, 2001, Dr. James Jordan commissioned a piece memorializing the children of the dead in that attack. He requested that “Amazing Grace” be at the center of the piece. Ames had written, the day of the attack, a Kyrie – without knowing at that time that it would match up beautifully to the simple tune of Amazing Grace. Upon combining the two themes, he wrote what has been a bestseller for GIA Music over the past 15 years. (There are many renditions on Youtube – this is conducted by Dr. Jordan).
The Oratorio Society of Minnesota, some years later, asked for an orchestral reduction of the Holocaust oratorio, which promoted more revisions. This version was conducted by Matthew Mehaffey and directed by Ben Krywosz of Nautilus Music-Theater.
Later on, the OSM, again conducted by Matthew Mehaffey, premiered “Let There Be Joy,” libretto by Laura Harrington, for harp, cello and large chorus.
At the same time being attracted to writing works for large chorus and instruments, Ames fell in love with “How Green Was My Valley,” and began to develop a music-theater piece based on it, with poet / painter Elizabeth Bassine, who later became his wife, guaranteeing more collaborations in the future. His love for Welsh music, both folk and sacred, had developed as a child. His father’s favorite hymns were almost entirely Welsh. As a result, he decided to use the stylistic intimacy and grandeur of the Welsh to color the score. Upon entering Mainstreet Musical’s international competition, the piece later received a director’s choice award from Broadway director Michael Mayer. It has been performed in concert in 5 U.S. cities – and awaits its first professional staged production.
Around this time, he began residencies at Central City Opera, as a composer and an artist-mentor. The company commissioned “En Mis Palabras,” a bi-lingual one-act, produced by Deb Morrow, collaborator Jeff Gilden. Here are two excerpts:
Ames joined with Colorado Springs Conservatory and the Central City Opera Company to write and produce 7 operas written ‘ensemble style,’ with gifted teens from Colorado and New York – all of them performed as part of the Central City Opera summer festival.
Moving West (developed from a ‘train vocal improvisation’)
All the while composing more choral octavos, many of them published by GIA Music, Chicago, Hinshaw Music, and others, and holding a residency as a composer and director of choral activities at Great Neck North High School, he has also written some 65 arrangements of stage and popular music. Some are available to the public at no charge.
Ames most recent premiere, “The Greatest Generation,” was also commissioned by the Oratorio Society of Minnesota. Dan Kehde wrote the libretto, based on a concept by Elizabeth Bassine, celebrating the heroism of World War 2 with a feminist lens. The work will be performed by the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, and an across-the-country multiple performance day of the work is planned for the 75th anniversary of VE Day, May 6, 2020. The piece employs music of the era, (Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others), along with original music and lyrics to tell the story of a family on the home front, with a father / husband missing in action.
Along with his one-act opera, “Yellow,” to the libretto of the painter Vasily Kandinsky, (commissioned by the El Paso Opera Company and Art Museum), Ames is using a technique of electro-acoustic music to trace the music that’s in Alice’s brain while the story unfolds.
Yellow Sampe Credits: Eric Hanson and Emperatris Carter
Currently, Ames is working with Elizabeth Bassine on a musical: “No Parking,” which takes place in an Alzheimer’s Unit in the 1980s. It will be premiered by the Nautilus Music-Theater in the 2019-20 season, directed by Ben Krywosz. A tour is planned, as well. Using shadows of characters from Alice in Wonderland, it is a story of letting go and moving on.
No Parking Short Demo Credits: Joan Barber; Rebecca Luker; Renee Claire Bergeron, Doug Shapiro, Tim Jerome
Ames is now working on several projects: A SEA SYMPHONY, based on the Irish and Maine legends of the Silkie (seal) and the fisherman, with Laura Harrington, ABRAHAM’S LAND, a music-theater work on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, with Lauren Marshall, playwright and lyricist, and preparing for a production of NO PARKING, (The White Rabbit Blues), his musical written with his beloved partner, Elizabeth Bassine.
In addition to his residencies, he spent many years working with other teachers, developing techniques that helped him co-write the textbook series, “Music! Words! Opera!” with Clifford Brook. His specialty, which he practiced in over 100 teacher training workshops, was on collaborative creativity and inter-disciplinary education.
The book series is available from GIA Publications, Chicago.
He and his wife, poet / artist Elizabeth Bassine, live in Cumberland Maine with their beautiful dog, Ani. Nearly all of their adult children are nearby, except for oldest son, Daniel Ames and grandchild David “the younger.” Daughter Beth and son David Ames, with Adam and Joanna Bassine, all live in New England, thankfully not far from places like this…