A glance at the above cast list might prove to be confusing. Here real people are juxtaposed with characters from a play. What kind of opera is this? A finely crafted, cleverly inventive one. Librettist John Shoptaw has combined a play (Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor, 1851) and real history (the assassination of President Lincoln, April 14, 1865). The assassination is told from the perspective of the actors performing the play at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Backstage and audience realities alternate with (decidedly unfunny and rather too many) scenes from the play.
This is a wonderful surprise. When the Editor proposed the disc, from the title I suspected it would be about the Lincoln assassination, as Our American Cousin was the name of the play performed that evening in Ford’s Theater. But I did not know the composer, Eric Sawyer (b. 1962), nor his librettist John Shoptaw, and knew nothing of this opera, which is truly “hot off the press,” having been premiered in Boston just last year.
Boston, Massachusetts, is home to a tremendous amount of new music and composers. This fall Boston’s new music ensembles joined together at the new Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) concert hall for a four-day festival. The Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music ran September 18-21 and featured eight cutting-edge concerts, with seven world premieres, supplemented by multimedia works, visual art collaborations, and special events.
Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. It is a date of obvious and deep importance, especially in the realms of politics and religion.
Don’t expect the Tom Taylor comedy Lincoln attended the night he got shot. The opera tells the story of the Lincoln assassination seen through the viewpoints mainly of the actors in Ford’s Theater. The effect comes close to what it would be like if Hamlet were told by the company of players. One notes a lot of talk about the Founding Fathers these days, and other than the cynical manipulations of those figures and their thought according to whatever party line, it probably goes through and over most people’s heads.
If Third Stream music, the merger of classical music and jazz, never took hold within either musical world as it might have since its official inception in the late 1950’s, the best examples of the genre still prove that it was more that just an academic pipedream.
Not so long ago, a Boston concertgoer who loves large-scale music by living composers didn’t have a lot of options. They could look for freak occurrences on the schedules of local orchestras. Or they could Amtrak to New York to hear the American Composers Orchestra.
Conservatory graduates trained to sightread literally anything—remember those crazy Solfège parties?—would start to wonder what it was all for, if their true destiny was to sleepwalk through the cello line in the Candide overture until Social Security kicked in.
On Sunday, the Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music’s last pair of concerts at the ICA began with two people and finished with over sixty, in a glass box on the harbor. The former were Matt Haimovitz, on cello, and Geoff Burleson, on (and in) piano. Children standing on the postmodern boardwalk outside pressed their faces against the window as Burleson hit keys with one hand and reached in with the other to pluck at the piano’s viscera, as Augusta Read Thomas’s Cantos for Slava (2008) required.
Two spiritually charged pieces from vastly different worlds by Lee Hyla, who has recently lefts his long-time post at New England Conservatory for an appointment at Northwestern University in Chicago. Both of these pieces were written for Nessinger while Hyla was in residence at NEC. At Suma Beach (2003) is a work in four sections for mezzo, solo clarinet, and chamber ensemble, based on the Noh play Matsukaze.
Michael Gandolfi (b. 1956) teaches at Tanglewood, so it is reasonable that his music should appear on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s label. This band, under its music director and conductor Gil Rose, is dedicated to the performance and promotion of contemporary American music. The members have successfully recorded several CDs for other companies, but this program and a recording of John Harbison’s ballet Ulysses are the inaugural releases on their home label. The fact has been a while in the offing. Well, it is here now, and the results are brilliant.
Three orchestral works by Michael Gandolfi, composer of The Garden of Cosmic Speculation (M/J 2008). In his highly useful notes, Robert Kirzinger knights Gandolfi “master of innumerable compositional approaches”, purveyor of a technical and stylistic smorgasbord that will at least partly please everybody. As with Cosmic Speculation, there is great skill on display, though what this display of variety adds up to is anybody’s guess.
John Harbison began composing a full-length ballet based on the legend of Ulysses in the 1980s without any prospect of a staged performance. The ballet’s second act, “Ulysses’ Bow”, was played in concert and recorded by André Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1984 but the complete score didn’t come off the shelf until 2003, when the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, led by Gil Rose, brought it to belated life. Their efforts were eminently worthwhile, as the recording of the entire work released on their own label confirms.
One of the reasons John Harbison (b. 1938) is now probably our country’s premier serious composer is the comprehensive range of his catalog. He has made a conscious effort to address all of the various classical genres, from a three-act opera to many kinds of miniatures, both vocal and instrumental.
Inaugural Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music Features Boston’s Leading Musicians, Composers, and Ensembles
2008 Ditson Festival is Co-Produced by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
The Institute of Contemporary Art continues to push boundaries in its fall lineup of performances, and this year a lot of these boundaries are musical.
“The artistic goal of our performing arts program is to present to Boston the full range of what artists are doing across disciplines,” says David Henry, the ICA’s director of programs. “For the first year and a half we highlighted dance. But you cannot ignore music.”
John Harbison’s ballet Ulysses (1984, rev. 2003) was inspired by the final scenes from Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse, where the hero strings his bow and goes on to win back both his kingdom and his wife. The ballet is in two large parts, ‘Ulysses’ Raft’, and ‘Ulysses’ Bow’, the latter having been previously recorded by the Pittsburgh Symphony on Nonesuch. This is the first recording of the complete ballet, which (incredibly) still awaits staging.
Arnie the Hep-Cat. Gunther Schuller became a working musician at the young age of 16, picking up professional gigs as a horn player in New York. By the time he turned 18, he was principal horn of the Cincinnati Orchestra under Goossens. By 20, he had joined the horn section of the Met Orchestra. He also became a busy studio musician. Perhaps his most famous dates came to him as a player in the Gil Evans-Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions.
A Neo-Romantic smash. John Harbison has always commanded the respect of his fellow composers, although the public at large, I think, has yet to tumble to him. He has written music in every genre, including a few operas, concerti, sonatas, religious choral works, oratorio, and string quartets. He studied with Piston, Sessions, Kim, Blacher, and Dallapiccola, among others, and ended up going his own way. He has received the MacArthur “genius” award.
Perfomance: FIVE STARS
Sound: FIVE STARS
John Harbison’s Ulysses ballet is undoubtedly one of his most colourful, accessible works, and a far cry from the cool convolutions of his Great Gatsby opera. Fragments of the ballet floated around the concert world during the 1980s, but the first complete performances and recording did not occur until the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Music Director Gil Rose undertook this truly heroic task in 2003.
NORTHAMPTON - It is rare to encounter an opera premiere outside the big cities or big festivals but Amherst composer Eric Sawyer and Berkeley poet John Shoptaw have done the almost-impossible. They raised $100,000 (from foundations and generous individuals), enlisted the talent (some of it from Opera Boston), and produced their new opera, Our American Cousin, on Friday at the Academy of Music in this town. This was its first fully staged performance. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project was in the pit, led by Gil Rose.