April 23, 2015


Charles Wuorinen: Brokeback Mountain. Daniel Okulitch, Tom Randle, Heather Buck, Hannah Esther Minutillo; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Real de Madrid conducted by Titus Engel. BelAir Classiques DVD. $29.99.

Michael Murray: Five Blake Songs; Four Songs of Solomon; Neutral Tones; Three Donne Songs. Navona. $16.99.

Joseph Summer: Shakespeare Concerts 4—Orpheus with His Lute Made Trees. Navona. $16.99.

Joseph Summer: Shakespeare Concerts 5—Full Fathom Five. Navona. $16.99.

Bruce Babcock: Chamber, Vocal and Choral Music. Navona. $16.99.

Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn: Fireworks and other music. Navona. $14.99.

     Conservatives often accuse the homosexual community of having a “gay agenda,” while members of that community – and their supporters outside it – deny that such an “agenda” exists. Charles Wuorinen’s operatic treatment of Annie Proulx’ story, Brokeback Mountain – for which Proulx herself wrote the libretto – is likely to intensity the argument. Wuorinen handles the tale of two doomed gay lovers in the American West in 1963 and thereafter as a straightforward modern opera. He assumes that audiences will relate to and empathize with the characters just as much as they would with Puccini’s Bohemians or Schoenberg’s Moses, characters that are inarguably remote in time and circumstances from the audience but that nevertheless provoke and invite audience involvement. This is at best an arguable underlying assumption outside the artistic community itself (where gays make up a higher percentage than in the general population). It is simply the sexual behavior of Ennis and Jack that sets them apart and sets up the pathos of their story – and it is that very behavior that gay-rights groups repeatedly state is none of anyone’s business and not a reason for discrimination or, indeed, any undue attention being paid to homosexuals. But that behavior is the linchpin of Brokeback Mountain as a story, a libretto and an opera, an in-your-face (although of course not actually shown) element, without which Ennis and Jack have no character or meaning whatsoever. So the opera requires audiences to feel resonance with a story whose central behavior the vast majority of people do not practice, behavior that may indeed cause deep revulsion. This is quite a mountain for the music to climb. The opera never really surmounts it. Wuorinen underlines the emotions of Proulx’ libretto, which expands on her original short story in ways that the film version of Brokeback Mountain did not: the movie was rather sentimental, but the opera tries to be meaningful and relevant and have something to say about society in general, and as a result it overreaches. Wuorinen has some clever ideas, the best of which is using Schoenbergian Sprechstimme as a way to show Ennis’ awkwardness and difficulty expressing himself in the first act, allowing this lead character sung lines only beginning in Act Two, as he begins to realize who he is. By and large, though, Wuorinen’s music comments on the events instead of enhancing them, leaving Proulx’ story – with its requirement of strong sympathy for its central characters – as the main driving force. It will likely drive many listeners away. The soloists, chorus and orchestra are all fine, and Ivo Van Hove’s stage direction is well-thought-out and effective, if somewhat overdone – a sparer setting might have dovetailed better with the societal implications that Proulx and Wuorinen seek to emphasize. Opera is itself a niche form of music these days, very far from its role as the popular entertainment of its day in the 19th century and early 20th. Brokeback Mountain is strictly for a niche audience within the niche audience that finds the form of opera attractive.

     There is an interesting contrast between the sexual theme of Brokeback Mountain and the setting by Michael Murray of Four Songs of Solomon. Murray’s songs, performed by tenor Andrew Childs with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský, celebrate sexual intimacy in both explicit and implied ways through biblical words. There is a sense of immediate listener connection with these sentiments of thousands of years ago that is largely absent in Brokeback Mountain, which at times seems more an advocacy piece than a musical exploration of one aspect of human sexuality. Murray’s settings, in any case, are effective in exploring the complexities of physical intimacy. And they contrast interestingly with his Three Donne Songs, which feature mezzo-soprano Ann Moss and a string quartet: violinists Zola Bologovsky and Amy Ripka, violist Justin Oullet, and cellist Dorothy Braker. Donne’s words, and Murray’s supportive treatment of them, take a decidedly cynical view of love that stands in opposition to its more-typical idealization. Equally intriguing are Murray’s settings of Five Blake Songs, which are simply for voice (Moss) and clarinet (John Ferraro). The emotions of William Blake, from the secular and irreverent to the deeply and mystically religious, resound through these short pieces in a way that the spare settings make clear. The fourth song cycle on this Navona CD is somewhat less involving: Neutral Tones is also for just two performers (baritone Chris Thompson and violist Peter Sulski), but the material here – from Thomas Hardy – is more forthright than is Blake’s, with Hardy exploring such entirely mundane themes as aging. Instead of providing a stronger connection with listeners, this fairly straightforward focus, as interpreted musically by Murray, just comes across as rather wan. Still, the disc as a whole offers some worthwhile areas for listeners to explore.

     So do the Shakespeare Concerts Series discs that Navona has been releasing from time to time, primarily featuring music by Joseph Summer. Shakespeare has always offered composers a marvelous vehicle for connecting directly with audiences, and the fourth volume in this series shows many ways of doing so: it includes music not only by Summer but also by Karol Szymanowski, Thomas Chilcot, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. There are some genuinely fascinating contrasts here, for example between Vaughan Williams’ Orpheus with His Lute for soprano (Kathryn Guthrie) and piano (John McGinn) and Summers’ Orpheus with His Lute & Sonnet CIII for soprano (Guthrie again) and violin (Josef Špaček), and between Walton’s Daphne (Guthrie and McGinn) and Summers’ Leda and the Swan (Guthrie and pianist Miroslav Sekera). In addition, Korngold’s Four Pieces from “Much Ado about Nothing” (Špaček and Sekera) show how effectively elements of Shakespeare can be translated into non-vocal settings and still communicate effectively. In the fifth Shakespeare volume, Summer’s works are complemented by ones by Thomas Linley, Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, Michael Tippett – and Beethoven, whose Piano Sonata No. 17 (“The Tempest”), played well (although without any particularly new insight) by Sekera, concludes the CD. This disc focuses on Shakespeare The Tempest, one of his most powerful and enigmatic late plays, in which the air spirit Ariel sings “Full Fathom Five” to music that is long since lost. Settings by Summer, Tippett, Ives and Stravinsky are sufficiently varied to show just how deeply these words have affected composers of very different orientations, while pieces looking at other elements of and characters in the play, including Caliban and Miranda, show just how rich a trove of musical ideas Shakespeare’s work has provided, and continues to provide.

     Like the Shakespeare discs, a Navona release called Time, Still mixes vocal and instrumental music in an attempt to communicate different feelings and emotions; but all the works here are by a single composer, Bruce Babcock, and while the works are generally pleasant and sometimes emotive, they tend to a sort of compositional sameness that makes the disc better heard in bits than straight through. Babcock’s settings of four Dorothy Parker poems, This Is What I Know (featuring Juliana Gondek, soprano, with Rakefel Hak on piano and Doug Masek on alto saxophone), nicely evokes the moods of the words, but these rather extended pieces are less effective than All unto Me, a hymnlike choral work that communicates quite directly and movingly in a performance by the Coventry and Canterbury Cathedral Choirs of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, conducted by James Walker. The remaining pieces here are a mixed bag. Irrational Exuberance for alto saxophone (Masek), cello (David Speltz) and piano (Louise Thomas) offers enjoyable contrasts between lyrical and propulsive passages, while Metaphor Two for piano solo (Robert Thies) is effectively quiet and contemplative. The two remaining pieces on the disc are less interesting and sound more formulaic: Springscape for harp (Marcia Dickstein), flute (Angela Wiegand) and viola (David Walther) and Imagined/Remembered for cello (Armen Ksajikian) and piano (Thies). Both are well-made but less emotionally convincing than the other works here.

     All the music is instrumental on a Navona CD featuring works by Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn. Lovers of contemporary writing for woodwinds will especially enjoy this release, whose more-virtuosic pieces come across better than those that try to be emotionally moving. Joker’s Wild (played by the Kiev Philharmonic under Robert Ian Winstin) and Fireworks (featuring Robert Young on soprano and alto saxophone, with the Wichita State University Symphonic Wind Ensemble conducted by Victor Markovich) open and close the disc very brightly and effectively, but the rest of the material here is variable in quality and interest level. Variants (Leonard Garrison on flute and piccolo, Jeffrey Savage on piano) and Swarm (Garrison on flute and alto flute, Shannon Scott on clarinet) are straightforward, if well-constructed. A piece called ...and I will love the silence... (with ellipses at the title’s start and end) seems designed to contrast sound and sound’s absence, but it does not really have much to say, despite fine playing by Keri McCarthy on English horn and Ruth Boden on cello. Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano (Eric Palmquist and Emily Sternfeld-Dunn, respectively) compresses forceful, somber and agitated elements into three short movements titled to tell audiences exactly what the composer is trying to put across, and Firecracker for solo clarinet (Shannon Scott) starts very stridently and then provides some opportunities for the performer to show how an essentially legato instrument sounds when played staccato. There are interesting elements within Sternfeld-Dunn’s pieces, but most of these works are less effective in their totality than in some of the elements of which they are constructed.

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