December 1, 2008

Nice. Charles Fussell has established his career in New England. He studied at Eastman with Thomas Canning and Bernard Rogers but has also worked with Boris Blacher and Virgil Thomson. His musical orientation is largely tonal (although structural elements of serialism hover at the edges), with no fear of dissonance.

The two pieces here pay homage to two icons of Gay Pride—Hart Crane and Oscar Wilde. Crane and I grew up in the same part of the country. Both of us have a special connection to New York City, and I must admit that part of my vision of New York comes from Crane, particularly the sense of ancient history that stubbornly clings to the city, despite the inhabitants’ determination to ignore almost everything but what they themselves have seen or experienced. High Bridge Prelude, an orchestral showpiece, captures the glory and the busyness of New York, with fanfares and scurrying strings. But there are ghosts as well, sounds associated with the docks. Fussell means to provide a portrait of Crane—manic one moment, depressed the next—but you need know nothing of Crane to enjoy the piece, thank goodness. It picks you up and carries you along on a wave of superb, streamlined orchestration.

Fussell describes his Wilde as “a symphony that wants to be an opera.” If opera is drama and drama involves conflict among characters, this is no opera at all. It meditates on Wilde’s life, to be sure, but a listener needs to know something of that life to make sense of the piece. There are always liner notes, I suppose, but that just means Fussell’s music doesn’t realize his aims, despite his program. Opera generally sketches in mundane details, but Fussell wants nothing but essence. This is also a “vocal symphony,” a fairly problematic genre since so few texts echo musical structures. Usually a composer—sometimes with his “librettist” (here, Wilde himself and Will Graham)—has to do a bit of either forcing or canny choosing. To Fussell’s credit, one doesn’t sense forcing, but the choice of texts ultimately disappoints, despite some neat moments. These include a wonderful “music-hall” sequence about a woman no better than she should be, which morphs into a simple and affecting love song to Wilde’s wife, Constance. Both the ditty and the love song owe much to Virgil Thomson’s take on the vernacular as well as to his opera Lord Byron. However, Wilde, like many of his admirers, could be as sentimental as a teenager. Fussell and Graham emphasize this streak in him, probably without realizing it. There’s none of the dazzling wit, the hard look at society (and at himself), that draws most people to Wilde in the first place. The figure here comes off not as an heroic martyr, but as whiny and weak.

Although well-made, the symphony has musical problems, chiefly most of the vocal part. There seems no reason for it. With a few exceptions, it’s not particularly memorable, nor does it often contribute to the symphonic argument. In fact, usually that argument comes to a halt when the voice enters. For me, the second movement of the symphony, depicting Wilde’s wanderings after prison, succeeds best and indeed lifts the score to a level of interest it has only fitfully before and after.

Gil Rose and his BMOP players make handsome work of both scores. Sanford Sylvan, the baritone soloist in Wilde, displays his usual virtues of intelligence and clarity. I’ve never cared for his sound, however, which strikes me as reedy, and his short-i vowels (“ih”) come across as long e’s, as in “eek.” Thus the line, “It will whisper of the garden” becomes “eet weel wheesper of the garden,” as if declaimed by the Mexican bandit in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Also, the disc is a stingy 45 minutes. You may want to audition the disc before committing to a purchase.

S.G.S. (December 2008)