July 1, 2008

A Neo-Romantic smash. John Harbison has always commanded the respect of his fellow composers, although the public at large, I think, has yet to tumble to him. He has written music in every genre, including a few operas, concerti, sonatas, religious choral works, oratorio, and string quartets. He studied with Piston, Sessions, Kim, Blacher, and Dallapiccola, among others, and ended up going his own way. He has received the MacArthur “genius” award. For many years, he has served on the board of Emmanuel Church in Boston, where they do a Bach cantata every week with full forces and at the highest professional level. I first encountered his music in the Seventies, having read a rave review by the New Yorker‘s Andrew Porter.

Harbison himself claims the influence not only of Bach and Stravinsky, but also of jazz. As a teen, he led a group. Many currents feed his music, and not just the ones you’d think of right away. As I say, he remains true to himself without feeling the need to adapt to this or that “new thing.” His music always impresses me with its directness -- the feeling that he has said exactly what’s on his mind, without fuzz or static.

Considering Harbison’s credentials and career, you would expect a different fate for his two-act, full-length ballet Ulysses. He wrote it twenty-five years ago, without receiving a commission first and trusting that eventually somebody would take it up. Inspired by a television broadcast of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’ Ulisse in Patria, particularly the climactic scene where Odysseus slays the suitors, Harbison steeped himself in Homer’s poem and the major works it inspired. He gathered material for years. Nevertheless, to date, no ballet company has performed it. The separate acts -- “Ulysses’ Raft” and “Ulysses’ Bow” -- have been played by orchestras, and “Bow” received a recording led by Previn. Yet this is the first recording of the entire ballet, which again points to the unhealthy state of music in my own country. As far as I’m concerned, the ballet takes its place with the other outstanding modern musical treatments of the theme: Dallapiccola’s opera Ulisse and Nicholas Maw’s super-symphonic Odyssey, neither of which most classical-music listeners will have heard.

Ulysses is a story-ballet, and the story is, of course, that of Homer’s Odyssey. It’s too much to ask for everything in all twenty-four books of the poem, and Harbison does a spectacular job fashioning something workable which retains the essentials. Unlike Dallapiccola’s Ulisse and Maw’s Odyssey, the music doesn’t meditate on the philosophic implications of journey. Harbison has specifically located his inspiration in the physical: the image of the bow drawn and fired again and again, the killing of the suitors in a confined space with no escape. The music owes an obvious debt to the early Stravinsky ballets, particularly Le Sacre du printemps, in that it’s music for both the “eye” and the body. Over and over, it evokes pictures and actions, from the prelude to Act I where your mind “sees” the lapping of the waves against Ulysses’s boat, to the cyclops Polyphemus’s rage, to the climactic scene. Actually, the music reminded me most of Samuel Barber’s ballet for Martha Graham, Medea (Cave of the Heart), but that too shows the influence of the Stravinsky ballets.

Harbison has written that he wanted to avoid the psychological in this ballet. Ulysses is a man to whom things happen but who reacts to them rather than reflects upon them. The music creates a brutal, yet truly classical atmosphere. It looks out, rather than inward, and powerfully at that. We are used to a sanitized classicism -- just think of the centaurs, centaurettes, and punk mini-satyrs in Disney’s Fantasia or the “monumental” classicism of Claude of Lorraine or even of some of Picasso. The Greek stories themselves are fairly savage and terrifying. The Homer epics brim full of blood, mutilation, hackings, excrement, even cannibalism, as well as (I admit) some of the most radiant nature-writing in Western civilization. Although Harbison emphasizes the first, he doesn’t slight the second, especially in the Nausicaa scene, perhaps my favorite book of the entire Odyssey. Harbison gives us here a mini-suite of dances -- from the ball-tossing of the princess and her girl-friends to the “ritual dances” of the court as they welcome the disguised Ulysses as their guest.

Harbison writes about the difference between ballet and symphony, especially about the different nature of the musical demands for both. The symphony needs “open-ended” ideas which lend themselves to development, while the ballet needs ideas which satisfy the listener with merely their statement (this is surely influenced by the limits of a dancer’s stamina). For all of that, however, the musical structure of the ballet hangs together. Motives -- like the ones for Ulysses’s wanderings, for Penelope, and for Ulysses’s bow -- pop up in more than one section, and there’s a similarity of tone (although musical variety) for most sections. Harbison refers to a “quasi-Wagnerian” assignment of Leitmotiven to various characters and plot elements. Surely, most of them have gone by me during my first acquaintance with the score, but what I have picked up on has enhanced the pleasure of the work. Also, Harbison uses inventive orchestration dramatically -- tubas depict Polyphemus, the ondes martinot Circe, yelping trumpets Charybdis, for example. Furthermore, several sections run together to produce a long, quasi-symphonic span, especially true of the second act, where everything seems to rush to the ballet’s climax. This score will keep me occupied for a long time.

Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project do a fabulous job, with first-rate playing and a wonderful pace. The ballet runs close to an hour-and-a-half, and yet it never bores you, due, I think, not only to Harbison but to Rose. The sound is fine.

S.G.S. (June 2008)