Wagnerian leitmotifs meet Stravinskyian ostinati in Ulysses

Sequenza21
Christian Carey
June 11, 2008

It’s hard to believe that Pulitzer prizewinning composer John Harbison, who turns seventy this year, composed a full length ballet nearly a quarter of a century ago and it has yet to be staged. Ulysses (1984/rev, 2003), has been played piecemeal by various orchestras over the years; Andre Previn and the Pittsburgh Symphony recorded its second act, “Ulysses’ Bow,” for Nonesuch; but it wasn’t until 2003 that an orchestra performed the work in its entirety. That ensemble, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, has recently recorded Ulysses for their new imprint BMOP Sound.

Cast in two large sections, “Ulysses’ Raft” and “Ulysses’ Bow,” the ballet was inspired, according to Harbison, by Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses; in particular, its climactic scene in which the hero strings his bow and vanquishes Penelope’s suitors. Harbison’s fascination with this bold gesture demonstrates itself in the muscularity of his Ulysses. Never has his work sounded more determined or clearly delineated than here.

The score is influenced both by the early ballets of Stravinsky – several passages are evocative of Sacre and Petroushka – as well as Wagnerian music drama. Indeed one can trace several leitmotifs through the work in an evolving series of relationships. This is particularly explicit in the second Act, in which the “Bow motive” plays a prominent role. While the use of leitmotifs, a hallmark of the late Romantic era, and the modern rhythms and ostinati from modern ballet might seem an incongruous pairing at first, Harbison does an excellent job of reconciling these two seemingly disparate elements. The language he employs is thus both richly hued and viscerally exciting; above all, Ulysses is masterfully orchestrated. While this recording whets ones appetite for a staging of the full work, Harbison couldn’t wish for better advocates or interpreters of Ulysses than Rose and the BMOP; an excellent recording.