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.
Gunther Schuller is not merely an award-winning composer, former principal horn of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, retired artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Festival, and member of the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, he also wrote the book on jazz. Two books actually, Early Jazz and The Swing Era (both Oxford University Press), and over a long and acclaimed career he has collaborated with or performed music by such distinctive jazz artists as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, among many others.
This fascinating recording is a window into one of the most underreported cultural stories of our time: the decisive effect of jazz on 20th Century classical music - greater in the long run, as Constant Lambert predicted in the 1930s, than the influence of serialism or neoclassicism. Written in the late 50s and early 60s for symphony orchestra and jazz ensembles, these rather austere but vital works by Gunther Schuller come in the middle of a phenomenon that began with Gottschalk and continues with Golijov.
Composers of today’s Olympian jazz-classical concertos would do well to listen to these deceptively understated, coolly creative pieces that capture the zeitgeist of the 1960’s. These three newly recorded 20-minute works (dubbed “Third Stream” by Gunther Schuller himself) explore and synthesize myriad interactions between a jazz combo improvising and a chamber orchestra reading a through-composed score with some big band gestures. All the new recordings reward relistening.
Lee Hyla (b. 1955) writes a muscular music that is deeply rooted in classical practice, but also owes a lot to more roughhewn influences: to my ear, at least, the strongest is progressive/free jazz. In an interesting way, he’s found a way to do what many composers have attempted but failed at—to produce a genuinely American form of Expressionism, freed from the trappings of fin de siecle Vienna.
Michael Gandolfi (b. 1956) is based in Boston, and has close ties, as both a former student and current faculty member, with the New England Conservatory and Tanglewood. This disc is a good introduction to his work, not only because it’s of high quality, but also because it shows the distinct development of his voice.
The late 1940’s to the early 1960’s witnessed several cross-fertilizations of then-contemporary classical music and modern jazz fashions. Given Gunther Schuller’s strong background in both worlds, it made sense for him to try and synthesize the two, decades before polystylism became a norm.
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.
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.
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.
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