Let’s say for the sake of context that I first became aware of the American composer David Del Tredici and his extensive string of extensive works based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” fantasies through a 1983 recording of “In Memory of a Summer Day,” the first part of a larger work, “Child Alice” (1977-81). It’s fair to say that I’d been waiting three decades to hear “Child Alice” in full. The opportunity came at last on Friday in a concert presented at Jordan Hall by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project to conclude its 20th-anniversary season.
What I heard was what you would expect: exuberantly virtuosic music, extravagantly tuneful, frequently pitched at frenzy’s edge. It was thrilling, overwhelming, historic.
What I felt, unexpectedly, was sad. Intensely so.
Not because of the performance! Gil Rose, BMOP’s founder and conductor, and his players delivered at their customary high standard throughout what was preordained to be a long evening. “Child Alice” comprises two halves: “In Memory of a Summer Day” and the triptych “Quaint Events–Happy Voices–All in the Golden Afternoon.” Each spans more than an hour, and incorporates a Carroll poem that prefaces an “Alice” book.
Neither the instrumentalists nor Courtenay Budd, an estimable soprano well versed in Del Tredici’s idiom, seemed overly taxed by evening’s end, when a thinned but still-substantial audience awarded a hearty ovation to them and to Del Tredici, who looked visibly moved.
What twisted my gut was perceiving at last what Del Tredici must have meant us to feel when he realized the work’s extraordinary architecture. Much has been written of individual effects: Mahler’s cinematic span and palette, Strauss’ grandiose tale-spinning and chest-thumping, throes of ecstasy like those of Wagner’s Isolde (no coincidence, surely).
In “Summer Day,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, repetition and modulation of a sing-song melody evoke a longing, wistful and then obsessive, for what one can’t possess: fleeting youth, forbidden love. When followed in close succession by “Afternoon” — where that same melody is teased loudly to excite anticipation, but then slips in wraithlike, a cloud-enshrouded memory — the music’s arc thwarts consummation. The end, suffused in golden ache, is as tentative as the beginning. Nothing resolves.
Joy abounds in “Child Alice,” in its winsome melodies and reckless wit, and in the evident pleasure Del Tredici takes in exploiting an orchestra’s capacity for volume and sensation. But there is penetrating sadness in its psychological acuity — and sadness, too, that a work so singular should have waited so long to return. On that last count Del Tredici is fortunate, as are we listeners, to have an advocate so resourceful, skillful, and determined as Rose.