The destructive power of jealousy makes a good subject for opera. One of Shakespeare’s plays about this most irrational emotion, the tragedy Othello, has been turned into a very good opera by Rossini and a great one by Verdi and his best librettist, Arrigo Boito.
About a year and half ago, we did a NewMusicBox cover on David Rakowski, in preparation for which I studied his then 80 solo piano etudes and became a hardcore devotee. These quirky pieces are a rare breed—they’re pithy and some are even hysterically funny, no small feat to accomplish in the abstract, non-representational medium of music. As a result, pianists flock to them, and they are fast becoming staples of the contemporary solo piano repertoire. But all through our talk, David insisted that he’s more than “the piano etude guy”.
In listening to this magnificent collection of orchestral pieces by the Brooklyn composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel, it’s difficult to know whether to be more knocked out by his stylistic versatility or his technical prowess. I’ll settle for both. Bermel’s music is intricate, witty, clear-spoken, tender and extraordinarily beautiful. It also covers an amazing amount of ground, from the West African rhythms of Dust Dances to the Bulgarian folk strains of Thracian Echoes to the shimmering harmonic splendor of Elixir.
I find it astonishing that this delicious oratorio hasn’t been performed or recorded much. It’s every bit a crowd-pleasure and very much in the tradition of middle-American composers of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, such as Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Aaron Copland. Lukas Foss was born in Berlin in 1923, then moved to Philadelphia as omens of war threatened Europe. He moved to American and studied with Sergei Koussevitzky for several years before attending Yale, where he studied with Paul Hindemith.
The German-born, American composer Lukas Foss passed away several weeks ago after a long and distinguished career. Here is a recent recording of WWII-era work that is accessible yet complex, a delightful piece that truly deserves this high quality digital recording. I am glad to be back: enjoy.
To count up the musical influences in the works on Derek Bermel’s new album, Voices, featuring the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, would prove impossible. He is a composer as comfortable mixing jazzy trombone riffs with plunky, Asian harp-piano duets, as with combining eerie portamento violins and Stravinsky-like primitive rhythms. To say that Bermel’s music is adventurous would be an understatement.
Just in time for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln comes this ambitious opera from American composer Eric Sawyer and librettist John Shoptaw. This is courtesy of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, an exciting program of releases focusing on modern American music.
Lukas Foss’ 1944 oratorio The Prairie, based on a poem by Carl Sandburg, easily falls into the same category as extended American vernacular vocal works such as Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley (1948) and Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land (1954). However, unlike these other pieces, The Prairie – which went a large way toward making the reputation of its composer -- was forgotten.
In Fanfare (31:2), I reviewed a Naxos release of chamber music by Robert Erickson (1917-1997), a California-based avant-garde composer and respected teacher. I found the music on that disc uncompelling, with the glowing exception of a late work for piano and chamber ensemble, Recent Impressions. In it, Erickson’s obsessions with sonority, Asian music, Schoenbergian Klangfarbenmelodie, and Cage-like purity came together to produce something quite individual.
These two orchestral works by Charles Fussell are new to me, as is his music in general. Wilde, Symphony for Baritone and Orchestra, was runner-up for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, a surprise not because of its merits or lack thereof, but because the style is not typical of most contenders from that era. Since the track record of Pulitzer decisions is decidedly mixed, runner-up status is considered a badge of honor among some new music aficionados.
What might seem the most innocuous music is often the most avant garde, the most challenging, the spark that forces us to question the boundaries of what we might call jazz. Gunther Schuller’s Journey Into Jazz, composed in 1962, is just that: a children’s narrative, telling the story of one Eddie Jackson, “a boy who learned about jazz,” a communal mode of music-making that is free, ostensibly, of all the restraints that come with genre labels.
The Variants for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra prove the point that jazz and straight music don’t mix!
New England composer Charles Fussell has specialized largely in symphonic and chamber music that features voices, and he writes for the voice comfortably and idiomatically. He has an authentic gift for text setting, and his vocal lines are unabashedly lyrical and expressive. Idiomatically, Fussell’s music is eclectic, incorporating folk song as easily as serial techniques. His Wilde, symphony for baritone and orchestra, was conceived as a sketch for an opera about the British author, with a text by Will Graham.
That rather gaudy sign in Jordan Hall reading “New England Conservatory” is intended to remind audiences of the institution where this acoustic jewel is located. Rarely is its presence so apt as during the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s annual “Boston ConNECtion” concert, recognizing the ongoing relationship between the ensemble and the school. The 11th such performance, on Saturday, was a typically substantial affair, dexterously played by the ensemble and conducted with authority by Gil Rose.
The best-of compilations that mark the end of each year can have the unfortunate side effect of relegating their contents to the past, treating them as relics that go into a shoebox in your closet marked “2008.” But if these are the best of what a year had to offer, they should be coming with us, getting played, heard, and talked about after the calendar flips. So here are some “bests” from the past year to take with you into 2009 and beyond.
Lee Hyla: Lives of the Saints/ At Suma Beach
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose - BMOP/sound
Charles Fussell (b. 1938) resume includes studies at Eastman with Bernard Rogers, in Berlin with Boris Blacher, a long stint as Virgil Thomson’s “assistant,” and a variety of posts in the Boston area (including the Boston University faculty). The two pieces in this collection are outgrowths of planned operatic projects, evidently not yet brought to fruition. High Bridge is meant to be a study for an opera based on the life of Hart Crane.
Appearing in the outer movements, Slyvan’s charisma enables Fussell’s Wilde to soar. The work sets selections from Wilde’s letters to Lord Alfred Douglas that reflect on the joys of fatherhood and his despondency after his trial and incarceration. Fussell folds in an artful Victorianesque tune, its temperament bending to suit the mood. The curtain raiser, High Bridge Prelude (alternately called High Bridge, Portrait of Hart Crane) is taken from a larger work commemorating Hart Crane.
As a grand ballet, Harbison’s immense Ulysses is something of an enigma and an anachronism: The composer fills 80 minutes absent a hope for choreography with a lissome program and vocabulary that recall music of a less dissonant era. There’s even an ondes Martenot—for Circe of course. We detect throughout sly touches and eloquence the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) handles with aplomb. BMOP appears to have assumed the mantle once held by the Louisville Orchestra, shepherding and recording a swath of modern, if not quite modernist, music.
Lukas Foss based his 53-minute cantata The Prairie on Carl Sandburg’s poem of the same name from his collection of Americana called The Cornhuskers. Written in the summers of 1941 and 1942, music from The Prairie first was heard in an orchestral suite played by the Boston Symphony directed by Serge Koussevitzky Oct. 15, 1943, and May 15, 1944, Robert Shaw led the cantata’s premiere in New York’s Town Hall.
The major classical recording labels, a few notable exceptions aside, seemed determined to continue their march toward irrelevance and oblivion this year. For independent outfits the prognosis was better: The budget-priced Naxos reigned supreme, while hardy concerns like Hyperion, Kairos, Testament and Bridge produced invaluable offerings. But some of the most robust activity in 2008 involved labels operated by those with the most to gain: musicians, orchestras, composers.