Robert Carl
November 1, 2008

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.

These two vocal works come from different worlds, literally. At Suma Beach (2003) is a loose interpretation of a classic Noh play, with the text alternating between Japanese and English throughout. When the former, the music evokes gestures from traditional Noh theater music (though never literally); when the latter, the music gets more freely “gestural.” Lives of the Saints (2000) is a larger work, which sets autobiographical writings of four Catholic saints (Jerome, Theresa, Lawrence, and Francis), framed at beginning and end by cantos from Dante’s Paradiso. Its musical language is more wide-ranging (it bears no stylistic resemblance to Virgil Thomson, by the way) and is to my taste, very successful.

Hyla has the ability when needed to write “breaks” that sound like total chaos, but can also rein it in to produce sustained, hushed lyricism, as in his setting of St. Theresa. For me, the standout in the work is the setting of a text by St. Francis of Assisi. One would expect this to be all lovely bells pealing and birds atwitter, but to Hyla’s credit, he takes a completely contrary approach in his setting. The libretto concerns self-abnegation, even debasement in the face of God’s greatness, and the music lurches and jolts like a boxing match. The soprano at times uses a megaphone (shades of Del Tredici) and assumes a witchy persona. This is perhaps the part of the entire disc where I hear a jazz influence most distinctly, in the macro-rhythm of the big formal blocks ramming against one another. It’s an exhilarating romp.

It probably seems that I like the Saints better than Suma, and that’s true. But the latter projects strength, elegance, and restraint, quite appropriate to its subject, and holds its own well in the pairing. I’ve heard snatches of the composer’s music over the years, and always enjoyed it, though earlier it seemed at times to me a little too proud of its messiness, and not as authentically visceral as it aspired to be. But having heard a soulful orchestral work at Tanglewood a few years ago, and now this disc, I’m happy to say I’m impressed, and feel that maybe the composer has found a happy balance between his own “raw” and “cooked” musics.

I’ve made a general comment elsewhere about these BMOP/sound productions (in my review of Michael Gandolfi), but special praise needs to go out to Mary Nessinger, who is a singer to die for. Not only does she have the technique to handle the often-ferocious demands of this music, but also her dramatic skills are superlative. She can switch from one persona to another on a dime, so much so that it seems a little scary, like multiple-personality disorder. No danger of that literally, though, as Nessinger is obviously in control, and able to take great expressive risks in the service of Hyla’s vision. He’s blessed to have her as a collaborator.