Mark Adamo: Late Victorians; Regina Coeli; Overture to “Lysistrata”; Alcott Music. Emily Pulley, soprano; Andrew Sullivan, narrator; Dotian Levalier, harp; Eclipse Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sylvia Alimena. Naxos. $8.99.
Hannibal Lokumbe: Dear Mrs. Parks. Janice Chandler-Eteme, soprano; Jevetta Steele, mezzo-soprano; Kevin Deas, bass; Taylor Gardner, child soprano; Rackham Symphony Choir, Brazeal Dennard Chorale and Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins. Naxos. $8.99.
It is possible to admire and like the impulse behind creation of a piece of music without necessary admiring or liking the result. It is also possible to admire and like both the intention and the work, without necessarily wanting to live with the piece over time. That is the situation with Mark Adamo’s Late Victorians and Hannibal Lokumbe’s Dear Mrs. Parks. Adamo’s half-hour work is a tribute to AIDS victims, written in 1994 and revised in 2007. There continues to be much hand-wringing about AIDS and many acknowledgments of those it has affected, especially in the artistic and homosexual communities that have been hit hardest by the disease. But after a while – with ways to prevent transmission of AIDS now well known and the unending drumbeat of requests (if not demands) for sympathy (and money) – the whole “tribute” field starts to seem a little overdone. Adamo’s work is well crafted and cleverly titled: the name refers to Victorian houses in San Francisco, whose large gay community was hit especially hard by AIDS; the title was originally that of a magazine article that partly inspired Adamo’s work. Other inspirations for Late Victorians were the poetry of Emily Dickinson as reinterpreted by Camille Paglia, and the device from Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony in which orchestra members walked offstage in the finale. Adamo, best known as an opera composer, weaves these influences together skillfully: words from the magazine piece are spoken; four Dickinson poems are sung; and the works’ four movements are tied to each other with solo cadenzas by musicians who then leave the stage (an effect missing in the recording, of course). But does the work…well, work? Certainly the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra under Sylvia Alimena plays it well – this is an outstanding group in any music. But the cleverness of the concept tends to overwhelm the emotions underlying it, drawing attention more to structure and form than to the “tribute” elements that Adamo says are his main point. Furthermore, there is nothing really new in noting – however thoughtfully – that AIDS has claimed many young and worthwhile (and potentially worthwhile) lives. Listeners may not have heard Late Victorians before – this is its first recording – but they have heard its sentiments before, often, and that fact tends to vitiate the effectiveness of the piece.
The shorter works on the Adamo CD are less fraught and more effective in their own ways. Regina Coeli is the slow movement from Adamo’s 2007 harp concerto, “Four Angels,” here rescored for strings alone. It is a piece of subtlety and grace. Overture to “Lysistrata” (2006) is short, bright, bouncy and very much in the spirit of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture, which Adamo cites as a source. Alcott Music, from the opera Little Women, is Adamo’s revision of his Alcott Portraits of 1999, which he composed for the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra. Although it is imbued with themes from the opera, the three-movement suite stands on its own as a character piece whose emotions range from dreamy and wistful to excited and exuberant.
Hannibal Lokumbe’s Dear Mrs. Parks is a “tribute” piece in the same line as Adamo’s Late Victorians, but in even more extended form: it runs an hour and features large orchestra plus solo and choral voices. In 10 movements whose length varies from one minute to 13, the work – essentially an oratorio – pays tribute to civil rights icon Rosa Parks through imaginary letters written to her. This 2005 undertaking, for which Lokumbe (born Marvin Peterson) wrote both words and music, is as well-meaning as can be. The imaginary letters come from a black civil-rights activist, a white civil-rights pioneer killed by the Ku Klux Klan, and a young black man whose generation has received the benefits of the struggle. There is also a child soprano who represents innocence and hope, an obvious bit of typecasting that points to one of the work’s weaknesses. Obviousness abounds here – in the words of the tributes; the musical mixture of blues, jazz, gospel and African music; and the tremendous adulation heaped on Rosa Parks. Such adulation, although unsurprising, is singularly inappropriate for a woman who led for decades by her modesty and self-effacement – she always said she refused to give up her bus seat when told to do so simply because she was tired, not because she was acting in the service of a grand cause. The cause was grand, and it was perhaps inevitable that it would adopt her as one of its leading symbols; but year after year, it was Parks’ quiet fortitude that was most impressive – more so than this extended piece of hagiography. The music here is mostly well crafted (although quite derivative – intentionally so), and the performers bring enthusiasm and skill to the project. But it feels like a project, a carefully constructed piece designed to tug at such-and-such heartstrings in such-and-such a way. For limited audiences, Dear Mrs. Parks may have ongoing appeal, but it is hard to see the work as having staying power in purely musical terms.