May 01, 2008


Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!; Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. Ralph van Raat, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Scott Wheeler: The Construction of Boston. Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of The Boston Cecilia conducted by Donald Teeters. Naxos. $8.99.

      Jaunty, intense, committed, flighty, concrete, abstruse – the works on these CDs are packed with sometimes-contradictory emotions that lend them substance even if the music itself will not be to all tastes. Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938), himself a pianist, created something of a piano monstrosity in The People United Will Never Be Defeated! The work runs more than an hour, including its optional improvisatory section, and is enormously difficult to play; yet at its heart lies a simple Chilean song, ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! – one of many written when Salvador Allende ruled Chile in the mid-1970s, a time dear to the hearts of avowed leftists such as Rzewski. The work is structurally as well as technically complex, and it is to Ralph van Raat’s credit that he manages to make its structure clear while surmounting its considerable challenges. The original tune has 36 bars, and Rzewski builds 36 variations on it – six groups of six. The propagandistic orientation of the piece, clear enough from its title (and likely to be off-putting to some), is further emphasized by occasional quotations from socialist songs, including (among others) Brecht’s “Solidarity Song.” Rzewski’s work is ultimately more impressive than involving: in addition to traditional pianism, it requires the performer to engage in such 20th-century touches (once de rigueur, now rather old hat) as slamming the piano lid and whistling along with the music. The variations themselves show impressive range and are both well contrasted (“Marcato” followed by “Dreamlike, frozen”) and effectively used to build on each other (“Crisp, precise” followed by “Relentless, uncompromising”). Yet this huge works lacks the immediacy and emotional appeal of the 10-minute Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which fills out this CD. The shorter piece is the fourth and last of Rzewski’s Four North American Ballads, and is imitative/impressionistic music through and through. Rzewski makes the piano imitate the sound of the old cotton milling machinery in the mills of South Carolina, building a work of great power until the blues quietly emerge from within the factory sounds. Van Raat follows Rzewski’s instruction to play the mill-machine music as “expressionless and machinelike,” and this makes the emotional impact of the blues all the greater. There really is a song called Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which is played near the end of Rzewski’s work and becomes its capstone.

     Scott Wheeler’s The Construction of Boston, which can be performed as opera or oratorio, lasts not quite as long as Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! and is as lucid and witty as Rzewski’s work is focused and intense. Wheeler (b. 1952) here offers a mostly tonal work with a very high reach indeed: it suggests that artists are engaged not just in creation but in Creation with a capital C. Three artists are given important roles: Dadaist sculptor Jean Tinguely (sung by tenor William Hite), painter and sculptor Robert Rauschenberg (baritone Christòpheren Nomura), and painter, sculptor and collage artist Niki de St. Phalle (soprano Sharla Nafziger). Rauschenberg creates the geographical setting of Boston and attracts people to it, but the climate is harsh and the people have nowhere to live, so the Spirit of Boston (mezzo-soprano Krista River) brings Tinguely to the city to create buildings that harmonize human living space with nature. Still missing is beauty, so the Spirit arranges for St. Phalle to appear, bringing loveliness and hope. It is impossible to take this fairy tale at face value, of course, and neither Wheeler’s music nor the text (by Kenneth Koch) suggests that we should. But Wheeler and Koch are trying to convey a serious message: the importance of a celebration of art in communities and for every individual – art that permeates life, makes living more meaningful, and helps people strive for still greater joy in the future. Despite the wit of words and music, the message is laid on a little thickly, and The Construction of Boston has a somewhat provincial and overly esoteric feeling about it. Still, it is very well performed by members of The Boston Cecilia and is very easy to listen to – Wheeler’s text settings sound natural and unforced throughout. What Wheeler has created (or Created) here is a work of considerable interest and not inconsiderable charm.

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