David Del Tredici’s ambitious ‘Child Alice’ reveals a complicated vision.
Boston – When David Del Tredici abandoned atonal modernism in favor of brightly orchestrated, unabashedly melodic works based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There,” in the early 1970s, his forsaken modernist colleagues rounded on him swiftly, much as they had when George Rochberg left the Serialist fold around the same time. To hear the modernist faithful’s criticism, you would have thought that Mr. Del Tredici had taken up cheerful portraiture in a Jackson Pollack universe.
But it wasn’t that simple. Mr. Del Tredici’s “Alice” pieces are hardly Brahmsian throwbacks, a point that Gil Rose demonstrated on Friday evening at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, when he led the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the soprano Courtenay Budd in a stunning performance of “Child Alice,” the most ambitious work in the series. (Mr. Rose and company also spent last week recording the score for their BMOP/Sound label, due out in 2017.)
Granted, these works thrive on captivating, memorable tunes, and abound in orchestral scoring redolent of Sibelius, Mahler, Strauss and Wagner (for starters). But they also, and just as crucially, use hefty stretches of dissonant, chaotic music—full of clashing rhythms, juxtapositions of lugubrious string figures and screaming wind and brass scoring, and as many effects as a modern percussion section can muster—to describe Carroll’s trippy, topsy-turvy world.
“Child Alice” runs about 21/4 hours plus intermission and requires a huge orchestra. It has a central, rather gymnastic soprano line, which Ms. Budd rendered with alluring subtlety at times and ecstatic energy elsewhere.
Mr. Del Tredici composed the work in four large sections, each commissioned and first performed separately, but always intended as a unified whole. The best known of its components, “In Memory of a Summer Day,” which draws its text from the preface of “Through the Looking Glass,” is Part I; Part II, which includes a setting of the preface to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” includes “Quaint Events,” “Happy Voices” and “All in the Golden Afternoon.”
The four movements sit together well. Themes from “In Memory of a Summer Day” return, fleetingly, in the later sections, and the same combination of grand Romanticism, controlled cacophony, relentless drive and high volume levels prevails throughout the score. You are tempted, at first, to take in the music as a rich-hued reflection of the “Alice” stories as young Alice Liddell saw them—strange but innocent, with a carefree quality that Ms. Budd captured beautifully in her rendering of the ornamental vocal themes that suffuse “In Memory of a Summer Day.”
But gradually, the score reveals a more complicated vision. Each half presents its vocal text twice—first from Alice’s untroubled viewpoint, and then, after a sweeping orchestral interlude, in a more angular, spiky, fragmented setting that suggests the decorous Carroll’s wrestling with his unconsummated fascination with young Alice and her sisters. Like any fairy tale, “Child Alice” is simultaneously entertaining and disturbing, a whimsical fantasy on the surface with a sense of real terror within.
Perhaps distance has made it possible to focus more on the work’s musical and emotional complexities and less on Mr. Del Tredici’s interest in tonality, which is no longer controversial. Mr. Rose, Ms. Budd and the players made a passionate, high-energy case for it. They also used it to put a double bar on their 20th-anniversary season, and to underscore their stature as one of this country’s finest new-music ensembles. And they left a listener wishing that Mr. Rose would consider reviving Mr. Del Tredici’s equally kaleidoscopic “Final Alice” (1976), a big hit, and lightning rod, in its day, but sadly neglected in recent decades.