CLOFO reviews John Harbison: Ulysses
Many of us remember a 1986 Nonesuch recording of an exciting orchestral piece by American composer John Harbison (b. 1938) called Ulysses Bow (later released on First Edition, but no longer available). However, upon reading the album notes, we discovered much to our chagrin that it was only the last half of a full-length ballet. With this enterprising release from BMOP/sound, we now have the complete score.
Inspired by his having seen Monteverdi’s opera Return of Ulysses, Harbison decided back in 1983 to write an evening-length ballet for large orchestra based on the wanderings of the legendary Greek hero. But ballets of that scope had long since become dinosaurs, and the composer had to come up with four separate commissions from different symphony orchestras to fund it. It’s good he persisted, because Ulysses must rank as one of Harbison’s finest dramatic creations, even if it had to wait twenty years for its complete world première performance.
Harbison uses a system of thematic labels, or leitmotifs as Richard Wagner called them, to identify various aspects of the scenario, which is based on Homer’s Odyssey. Accordingly, the first act, known as Ulysses’ Raft, begins with a rather wistful motif representing our hero’s journey. But Ulysses and his band of brave men soon encounter all sorts of bizarre characters and situations, set to some of the most colorfully animated and engaging music Harbison has yet produced. Highlights include the enchantress Circe’s song rendered by that granddaddy of electronic instruments, the Ondes Martenot [track-4, beginning at 00:40], and a highly dramatic “Land of Shades” scene with brass fanfares reminiscent of the fate motif in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony. There’s also an exciting “Sea Perils and Shipwreck” episode complete with the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, whom Zeus dispatches with lightning bolts represented by thunderous percussion.
The second act, entitled Ulysses’ Bow, concerns itself with our hero’s homecoming, the defeat of his wife Penelope’s suitors and his reunion with her. Those familiar with that 1986 recording will find it packs an even greater emotional wallop now that it’s finally in context with the first act. The opening prelude contains some intense outbursts, which may remind you of those massive orchestral chords when Judith opens the fifth door in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. The first scene, “Ulysses’ Return,” features a plaintive oboe solo that may bring to mind the subdued beginning of the Appian Way in Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. The crazed dance of the suitors is a tarantella from hell, and the scene depicting their demise at the hands of Ulysses and his son Telemachus will leave you breathless. The final reunion between our hero and his wife is pure magic evoked by the wave of an impressionistic wand. It ends this exceptional stage work in moving neo-romantic fashion. Franz Schreker would have loved it!
Composing a full-scale ballet in this day and age took a lot of courage, considering the chances of getting it performed were practically nil. But Harbison persevered, and now we have him to thank for a contemporary dance masterpiece, particularly as it’s performed here. The music couldn’t possibly have better advocates than the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and its conductor Gil Rose. The detail, emotional sweep and carefully judged dynamics that Maestro Rose brings to this score are exceptional.
The recording is just as impressive as the music. It was made concurrently with the first performance of the complete ballet in 2003, but there are no unwanted utterances from the audience. An ideal venue (the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall) and some exceptional sound engineering give this expansive music just the right amount of breathing space. The realistic soundstage and sharp instrumental focus guarantee you, virtually speaking, the best seat in the house. The instrumental tone is totally natural over the entire frequency spectrum, which includes some pretty profound bass. Audiophiles will have a ball with this one! (Y080412)
- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (CLOFO.com)