Classical Voice of New England
Thomas Healy
July 1, 2009

This recording from Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project includes two of John Harbison’s prominent vocal works, the Mirabai Songs and his opera, Full Moon in March. The former is based on a text by a 16th-century Indian mystical poet and street-dancer, while the latter is loosely adapted by the composer from a play by William Butler Yeats. The last piece on this recording is an elegiac tribute to Calvin Simmons, a young conductor of the Oakland Symphony who died in a boating accident.

Full Moon in March, written in 1977 (five years before the Mirabai Songs) offers much interaction between varied elements within the ensemble. The opening fanfare reminds one of Stravinsky in its slightly off-balance phrasing and in its eccentric instrumental activity. In this work there is much attachment to individual gestures within both the instruments and the singers. At times there are certain groups or individuals attached to certain singers. But there is a mixing and matching so that, unlike the Mirabai Songs, there is a constant unpredictable treatment of pairing and grouping of the ensemble. In fact there is a lot more individual activity that draws much attention to other unique elements occurring simultaneously with the narrative trajectory.

This is not to say that this material has no contextual importance. On the contrary, hearing a varied mix of individual parts that doesn’t comment or support the narrative, but rather is affected in its own right, does a lot more to increase the profundity of that narrative. However there is still a lack of disruption in the established order. There is an overarching realistic presence in this work that is too quickly understood. It is a certain unwavering, objective quality that contains all of the musical material and presents it in a respectable fashion. The climaxes, the accompanying instruments, the scattered gestures do offer moments of wonderful discovery, and examples of this come and go throughout the piece. There is however an unmistakable processed manipulation that holds at bay any pervasive or disruptive chaotic element that is so necessary. It’s not constant chaos itself that is needed, for that would redefine chaos as order, but the constant possibility of chaos within a strictly ordered establishment. This work is full of wonderful dramatic moments. Technique is certainly not lacking. But we never get lost, we never misunderstand the situation, and as a result we never forget ourselves.

In the Mirabai Songs, Harbison chooses to accompany the mezzo-soprano with a small chamber ensemble. Accompany is the operative word, because that is exactly what the ensemble does: without exception the singer dominates the entirety of the piece. There are reccurring moments in which there is a tendency in the writing to allow for the ensemble to increase in intensity and volume with the singer. But in the context of the ensemble’s somewhat background nature, these moments take on a very specific dramatic quality that suggests an increasing intensity within the narrative of the piece rather than a variation of the established hierarchy of the ensemble.

Indeed, one may criticize that this class system within the ensemble is a little too established and is treated too carefully not to disrupt the accepted order. In these songs there is an unmistakable lack of confidence within the ensemble. Or rather there is an over-conditioning of the separate personalities. There is a process undertaken to supplant their individuality and collect the ensemble into a single animal with suggestions and remembrances of their unique quality. Now don’t get me wrong, the individual colors of each instrument are produced and managed with great expertise and brilliancy. But colors are hardly what define an instrument’s uniqueness, or rather if this were the element upon which one would rely to identify the idiosyncrasies of each instrument, then surely a single, multi-faceted abstract instrument would dominate and undermine its individual parts. In my opinion, there is something lost in an intimate work like the Mirabai Songs by taking this approach to vocal writing. The words and the mezzo-soprano are entirely clear (Janna Baty in this recording does wonders with this role), and the dramatic narrative is almost too sober. Moreover, there is a certain gentilhomme quality in the way in which the chamber group interacts with the soprano. And though all the most important points are clearly translated, I believe a certain depth of expression is lost and even avoided throughout this work.

The last work on this CD, Exequien for Calvin Simmons, is an intimate, elegiac work. It is a somewhat odd addition to the otherwise more flamboyant nature of the other works but it can be seen as what the title, exequien, suggests, a going-out. When pitted against the two vocal works it certainly seems to represent a different genre but it mostly provides a satisfying conclusion to the heady events of the opera and the songs. It is a short, sentimental, and gentle personal piece of music that points forward rather than wrapping up the entire CD.