A musical composition by Stephen Brown is so unusual, even he has trouble classifying it. A cantata, perhaps? Mini-opera?
But labels don’t matter to the pianist and retired Southern Illinois University Edwardsville music professor. The important part is that “Giacomo Joyce” is being staged at Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis on Tuesday night.
The piece uses piano music, singing and dramatic narration to interpret a short story by the same name, written in 1914 by Irish novelist and poet James Joyce.
“Any James Joyce fan should come to see this for sure,” said Brown, 72, of O’Fallon. “But it’s tricky. No one has ever heard this music. They don’t know what to expect. I think there are a lot of nice tunes in it.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
The performance has been 15 years coming. Brown was still busy teaching, helping to direct SIUE musicals and playing in bands when he started working on “Giacomo Joyce.”
Then he ran into legal questions over his right to stage it without the involvement of Joyce’s grandson, who lives in France. Then his two original singers got divorced.
It’s tricky. No one has ever heard this music. They don’t know what to expect. I think there are a lot of nice tunes in it.
Stephen Brown on “Giacomo Joyce” the musical setting
Tuesday night, Brown and friends will perform “Giacomo Joyce,” which is about 35 minutes long, and other music inspired by or mentioned in Joyce’s work, including three pieces by late composer Samuel Barber.
“(The series is) designed to showcase the best musicians in our region, and it covers every genre you can imagine,” said Chris Peimann, director of marketing and publicity. “... It’s cool for them, and it’s cool for us.”
The “Giacomo Joyce” cast features Brown on piano, soprano Lori Barrett-Pagano and baritone Robert Reed, both of St. Louis, and narrator Jeffrey Skoblow, an SIUE English professor who teaches literature and a community theater actor.
Brown has long been a fan of Joyce, considered one of the most important and influential writers of the 20th century.
That success led them to try another Joyce project. Skoblow suggested “Giacomo Joyce,” which Joyce wrote around the time he started “Ulysses” but put away in a drawer. It was published more than 25 years after his 1941 death.
“It’s a beautiful and intense story with poetic language that I thought might appeal to Stephen as someone writing music to it,” said Skoblow, 61, of Edwardsville, a Joyce devotee for decades.
“You can feel the music in the writing,” Brown agreed. “James Joyce is just that kind of a writer. It’s prose, but it has a singing quality to it.”
The story is largely autobiographical (“Giacomo” means “James” in Italian). It revolves around an Irishman who teaches English in Trieste, Italy, which Joyce did for about 10 years.
The teacher develops a romantic obsession with the daughter of a wealthy Jewish man, ricocheting between adoration and disdain for her and creating a crisis in his marriage.
“It’s kind of a fantasy relationship that he has with this young student,” Skoblow said. “By the end of the story, he realizes that it can’t be. It shouldn’t be.”
It’s a beautiful and intense story with poetic language that I thought might appeal to Stephen as someone writing music to it.
Jeffrey Skoblow on “Giacomo Joyce” the short story
Brown’s musical setting includes styles ranging from tango to opera to classical. There’s even a march that Joyce refers to in the story. Skoblow calls the score “gorgeous.”
Brown began taking piano lessons in third grade. He earned a bachelor’s in art history at Harvard University and a master’s in music at SIUE, starting his career with the university’s Experiment in Higher Education in East St. Louis.
Brown collaborated with fellow faculty member Paul Gaston on an original musical called “Shirley Fairweather” about an academic who writes romance novels under that pseudonym. It was staged at SIUE and in New York.
“It was a showcase production,” Brown said. “It wasn’t like a commercial production. I think there were five performances.”
Over the years, Brown has performed in several bands, starting with The Jazz Dance Quartet in college. At that time, he was playing saxophone and flute.
Staging “Giacomo Joyce” will be a relief for Brown after waiting so long. Joyce’s grandson isn’t involved in the production, but Brown couldn’t resist referencing him in publicity.
“We sent a rehearsal tape of an earlier version of ‘Giacomo’ to Stephen Joyce, Joyce’s grandson, known as a self-appointed guardian of his grandfather’s legacy. He replied, via phone message: ‘I get sent so much crap. This is not crap.’
“With that endorsement ringing in our ears,” Brown writes, “we embarked on the present project.”
At a glance
- What: “Joyce Music”
- Where: Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd. in St. Louis
- When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
- Admission: $10
- Tickets: Online at www.sheldon.org or at the door
- Information: Call 314-533-9900