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.
With rare exceptions, ballet scores are best left to the theater, unless extraneous material can be excised and substantial excerpts forged into a concert suite (or two). Select ballets by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ravel and only a handful of others who excelled in the genre deserve comprehensive treatment in the concert hall.
Harbison’s Ulysses- evidently not yet danced- is such a superb piece of narrative writing that it does more than hold attention for its 80-minute span. Even without choreography or stage pictures, the score weaves an intriguing tale through telling transformation of thematic devices and instrumental possibility.
One of the composer’s great gifts is his ability to take the listener inside the events of the Ulysses epic minus the need for a specific scenario. The sequences unfold with splendid variety of material and color, sustaining an emotional and dramatic arc from Act 1 (“Ulysses’s Raft”) through Act 2. As in many of his large works, Harbison draws brilliantly upon the vast resources of the orchestra to conjure the whirlwind nature of the protagonist’s adventures.
Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project are expert champions of this neglected score. The playing is detailed and sweeping, providing Harbison’s ballet with the intimacy and sonic splendor it needs to be revealed as a compelling achievement.