Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose.
BMOPSound 1001 Total time: 80:32.
Summary for the Busy Executive: 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
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
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 Music Orchestral 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.
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