Tour de force. I’ve been wading through a lot of contemporary dramatic music these days, mostly from a sense of duty—a very bad reason for learning—from Robert Grey’s “Navajo oratorio” Enemy Slayer to Daron Hagen’s Shining Brow, an opera on Frank Lloyd Wright’s marital irregularities and the awful horrifying destruction of the first Taliesin. I don’t consider either of these examples obviously terrible, but I would feel better for the current state of contemporary music if they were. Both show great craft and at least some talent. But neither especially lingers in the memory, and both suffer from an overall wash of sameness. In Grey’s case, it’s a kind of Vaughan Williams-y Pastoralism, while Hagen, while not helped by Paul Muldoon’s tastefully gray libretto (a surprise and a disappointment), seems to simply lose himself. Neither get to the heart of the matters they dramatize. It’s all very drab, proper, “correct,” faceless, and, in a way, genteel. One senses no risk at all and at least one eye out for critical approval, rather than something a story the creators had to tell. In that way, both reminded me of something like Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles.
As you might guess, all of this put me in a funk until I opened up this disc. Harbison’s Full Moon in March sets the Yeats drama A Full Moon in March. I must admit, I’ve never cared for Yeats’s dramas. I’ve actually seen some of them staged, including this one, and that didn’t help. Yeats seemed to tell a story he assumed I already knew and thus to allude to some point beyond my comprehension. Harbison’s chamber opera not only clarifies the drama, but it packs a punch all on its own. Harbison and Yeats together have made this a genius work. For all his cloudiness, Yeats actually does create drama in the sense that he creates a conflict of characters that matter. He doesn’t use the realism of most dramatists. The characters are not human, so much as mythic. The story is the old rite or fairy-tale of the queen who kills her suitors—a stripped-down Turandot, if you will. Yeats’s mastery of language makes these figures matter, and Harbison’s music brilliantly captures the ritual power of the text. The sound that lingers in the mind—something individual to this work—is percussion, but the composer uses other instruments as well. It hearkens back to the sophisticated primitivism of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments or Bartók’s Cantata profana. Harbison finds a powerful, convincing musical expression of Yeats’s words—tough to bring off. Perhaps Full Moon in March doesn’t equal the Stravinsky or the Bartók, but I can certainly put the score in that neighborhood without embarrassment. Harbison never seems to compose on automatic. This score bristles with serious musical thought.
Thanks to Dawn Upshaw’s recording, Harbison’s Mirabai Songs—settings of texts from the Indian ecstatic mystic translated by the influential American poet Robert Bly—have become something of a classic, as well they should. Again, the chamber ensemble sings with an individual sound. Again, Harbison comes up with something sui generis. The lyrics, although written in clear language (much clearer than Yeats, at any rate), are difficult to grasp, but Harbison’s music clarifies them. The poet, who has lost her husband and who has defied Hindu tradition by refusing to join his corpse on the funeral pyre, has been kicked out of her house, cut off from her family. She sings and dances on the street. The lyrics tell of her longing for the ecstatic forces to possess her. Standing in her open doorway, she waits for the “Dark One,” like a woman waiting for her lover. One will not readily hum these tunes, but they do give off a powerful charge.
Exequien was written in memory of the West Coast conductor Calvin Simmons, who died in a boating accident shortly after he led performances of Harbison’s Violin Concerto. “Exequien” are texts used in Catholic funeral rites. The term means literally “going out.” I imagine (don’t know) that it might refer to the procession of the coffin from church to burial site. Harbison takes the conventions of funeral music and re-constructs them. We expect a slow tempo, at least, and we get it. The instruments begin low and never make it out of their middle registers, and the dynamic may reach a mezzo-forte. But still, Harbison has yet again come up with a unique sound—no more than seven players, low strings, low winds, vibraphone, and maybe harp. Textures are dense, but never muddy. How does he do it, time and time again? Emotionally, Exequien trades neither in wailing nor even in sobbing. Overall, it’s somber but mostly reflective. It settles into a kind of funeral march, but the rhythm seems halting. It’s one of those pieces that creep up on you. Eventually, it lets you in rather than, like the Verdi Requiem, possesses you all at once.
I can’t praise the performers highly enough. Lorraine DiSimone and James Maddalena (as the Queen and Swineherd, respectively, in Full Moon) are, of course, known first-rate quantities. However, Frank Kelly and Anne Harley (as the Attendants) certainly sing at their level and may indeed outshine them. I never particularly liked Dawn Upshaw’s recording of the Mirabai Songs. These are sensuous works and I thought that Upshaw lacked that temperament. Indeed, her rendition put me in mind of the dutifulness that clings to a student recital. Janna Baty sweeps her away as she becomes a passionate woman waiting for total possession. At the least, she knows the songs are sexy.
Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project have come up with one of the most consistently interesting series of Modern and contemporary music in recent years. I haven’t liked all of the works presented, but it would have been unusual (not to say, freakish) if I had. Their obvious commitment, reflected in the cleanness of their playing as well as in their musicality, shines through in every bar. I remember the days when a contemporary score was lucky to receive even a bad recording. Fans of that genre did an awful lot of making do. Rose shows that we don’t have to. This definitely belongs in the winners’ circle.
S.G.S. (October 2010)