One of the reasons John Harbison (b. 1938) is now probably our country’s premier serious composer is the comprehensive range of his catalog. He has made a conscious effort to address all of the various classical genres, from a three-act opera to many kinds of miniatures, both vocal and instrumental. (This summer of 2008 will see the Tanglewood premiere of his Fifth Symphony.) Although one does not automatically associate him with dance, back in the early 1980s Harbison was determined to create a large-scale ballet, even though no choreographers or dance companies were lining up with commissions. After being deeply moved by a 1983 performance of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses, he had discovered his subject and embarked on a project that has been in continuous fruition over two decades.
Harbison conceived the score in two large sections of almost equal length of approximately 40 minutes each: “Ulysses’s Raft” and “Ulysses’ Bow.” In this way, the possibility of at least a partial performance always existed; in fact, in 1986 the Pittsburgh Symphony under André Previn recorded the second half for Nonesuch. Because the composer did not have to deal directly with the practical day-to-day vicissitudes of an actual theatrical embodiment, the score has been subject to constant revision, so that one hopes what we have here is Harbison’s final word on the subject. This means that the music can be approached and appreciated by the listener as primarily a concert-hall experience. Although the work is accompanied by a fairly detailed program linking each of its 20 segments to a specific action in the story, Ulysses also makes sense as a frieze-like abstract musical construct- a kind of gigantic symphonic poem or even a two-act opera without words- whose interrelated ideas are very closely and intricately argued on a formal plan.
Each half consists of 10 separate movements played more or less continuously: a prelude followed by five scenes interspersed by four interludes of a mostly transitional nature, with the former usually of somewhat greater duration and moment than the latter but all sharing in the same fund of themes and their extensive elaboration. The stylistic language is both vivid in a dramatic sense but also meaningful as a necessary cog in a gradually evolving musical structure. One can occasionally discern roots in Stravinsky’s ritualistic neo-Classical idiom (the composer references Apollo in his very forthcoming annotation), but there is nothing self-consciously austere or mannered here, as the rich sonorities all derive from Harbison’s masterly fusion of all the major currents of mid-20th-century music both here and abroad.
The peroration, combining “The Ritual of the Purification” (after the startling but justified outbreak of violence against the suitors of “The Trial of the Bow”) with the ceremonial “Reunion” of Odysseus and his family, is profoundly moving, healing, and reconciling, giving us an almost cosmic perspective on the epic. There are other passages- the tuba-dominated Polyphemus scene, the dreamy Nausicaa section, the slinky saxophone of Circe, the ondes Martenot depicting the Sirens, plus all the countless oceanic overtones scattered throughout- that makes this one of the juiciest and most multidimensional of Harbison’s impressive output.
Together with Richard Dyer’s full and incisive annotation (Dyer has a long familiarity with this music- he interviewed the composer for the earlier Nonesuch LP)- and, most important, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s absolutely stunning, all-encompassing ultra-realistic sound ambience, we have here one of the outstanding releases of contemporary American music of the decade. Need we say more?