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CLASSICAL  January 2009

CLASSICAL January 2009

Subject:

Fussell, Wilde, Crane

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 27 Jan 2009 09:14:56 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (80 lines)

Charles Fussell

*  Wilde, Symphony for baritone and orchestra
*  High Bridge Prelude

Sanford Sylvan, baritone
Boston Modern Music Project/Gil Rose
BMOP Sound  1005  Total time: 45:32

Summary for the Busy Executive: Nice, but no more.

Charles Fussell has established his career in New England.  He studied
at Eastman with Thomas Canning and Bernard Rogers but has also worked
with Boris Blacher and Virgil Thomson.  His musical orientation is largely
tonal (although structural elements of serialism hover at the edges),
with no fear of dissonance.

The two pieces here pay homage to two icons of Gay Pride -- Hart Crane
and Oscar Wilde.  Crane and I grew up in the same part of the country.
Both of us have a special connection to New York City, and I must admit
that part of my vision of New York comes from Crane, particularly the
sense of ancient history that stubbornly clings to the city, despite the
inhabitants' determination to ignore almost everything but what they
themselves have seen or experienced.  High Bridge Prelude, an orchestral
showpiece, captures the glory and the busyness of New York, with fanfares
and scurrying strings.  But there are ghosts as well, sounds associated
with the docks.  Fussell means to provide a portrait of Crane -- manic
one moment, depressed the next -- but you need know nothing of Crane to
enjoy the piece, thank goodness.  It picks you up and carries you along
on a wave of superb, streamlined orchestration.

Fussell describes his Wilde as "a symphony that wants to be an opera."
If opera is drama and drama involves conflict among characters, this is
no opera at all.  It meditates on Wilde's life, to be sure, but a listener
needs to know something of that life to make sense of the piece.  There
are always liner notes, I suppose, but that just means Fussell's music
doesn't realize his aims, despite his program.  Opera generally sketches
in mundane details, but Fussell wants nothing but essence.  This is also
a "vocal symphony," a fairly problematic genre since so few texts echo
musical structures.  Usually a composer -- sometimes with his "librettist"
(here, Wilde himself and Will Graham) -- has to do a bit of either forcing
or canny choosing.  To Fussell's credit, one doesn't sense forcing, but
the choice of texts ultimately disappoints, despite some neat moments.
These include a wonderful "music-hall" sequence about a woman no better
than she should be, which morphs into a simple and affecting love song
to Wilde's wife, Constance.  Both the ditty and the love song owe much
to Virgil Thomson's take on the vernacular as well as to his opera Lord
Byron.  However, Wilde, like many of his admirers, could be as sentimental
as a teenager.  Fussell and Graham emphasize this streak in him, probably
without realizing it.  There's none of the dazzling wit, the hard look
at society (and at himself), that draws most people to Wilde in the first
place.  The figure here comes off not as an heroic martyr, but as whiny
and weak.

Although well-made, the symphony has musical problems, chiefly most of
the vocal part.  There seems no reason for it.  With a few exceptions,
it's not particularly memorable, nor does it often contribute to the
symphonic argument.  In fact, usually that argument comes to a halt when
the voice enters.  For me, the purely-instrumental second movement of
the symphony, depicting Wilde's wanderings after prison, succeeds best
and indeed lifts the score to a level of interest it has only fitfully
before and after.

Gil Rose and his BMOP players make handsome work of both scores. 
Sanford Sylvan, the baritone soloist in Wilde, displays his usual virtues
of intelligence and clarity.  I've never cared for his sound, however,
which strikes me as reedy, and his short-i vowels ("ih") come across as
long e's, as in "eek." Thus the line, "It will whisper of the garden"
becomes "eet weel wheesper of the garden," as if declaimed by the Mexican
bandit in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Also, the disc is a stingy 45
minutes.  You may want to audition the disc before committing to a
purchase.

Steve Schwartz

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