A less-than-engaging opera at Peabody

Student's piece on singing family never quite adds up to cohesive package


April 06, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Nineteenth-century balladeers and social activists, a poet slain in World War I, Tibetan trumpets and cymbals, and a piece of nouveau-dada verse figured intriguingly into a weekend of musical premieres.

The balladeers in question are the siblings who concertized as the Hutchinson Family during the 1840s and '50s, bringing abolitionist messages with them. They inspired a one-act opera, If I Were a Voice, by Peabody Conservatory student Daniel Thomas Davis, given its first performance Saturday night before an overflow crowd at Peabody's Griswold Hall.

A structurally symmetrical sequence of scenes (capped by an epilogue) becomes more repetitive than informative; the characters remain rather vague. The score boasts some subtle orchestral coloring, but has an ultimately faceless quality, with spiky harmonies and angular melodic lines that never quite add up to a cohesive package.

Still, Davis effectively weaves in the lovely Hutchinson song that gives the opera its title, especially for a haunting fade-out ending. Also notable is a mad scene for the trouser role of the hallucinatory Judson Hutchinson (intensely sung by Alyssa Bowlby). Here, the leaps and bounds of the vocal writing strike home, and suddenly, the opera goes from distant history to the immediate and personal.

Davis clearly has potential. I'd bet he's got a much stronger opera in him.

The cast varied in vocal security and clarity of articulation, but carried out John Bowen's sensitive direction in uniformly persuasive fashion. Gene Young, a longtime composer/conductor on Peabody's faculty, shaped the score expressively and coaxed a vibrant response from the chamber orchestra.

This presentation by the Peabody Camerata also included the premiere of Young's Banish Evil From This Place, for four regular trumpets, two massive Tibetan trumpets and cymbals, and amplified voice. The decibel level was enough to banish all rodent life from the building for the next five years, but my interest in the music waned after the first wonderfully startling onslaught of low, rumbling drones, dissonantly squealing trumpets and shattering cymbals.

The poetry of Alan Seeger, who died on the battlefield in 1916, is powerful stuff. His sonnet Who Shall Invoke Her has been put by Peabody ensemble coordinator Rich Lauver into an engaging pop/jazz-flavored mode, moodily colored by vibraphones. The amplified, often high-stretching vocal part seemed an uncomfortable fit, technically and verbally, for countertenor Peter (Wen-Chih) Lee, during this premiere performance, but the instrumentalists made much of their music.

Calligraphic, Bernadette Brennan's winning entry in the 2004 Peabody Camerata Student Composition Contest, uses flute and harp to blend Eastern and Western idioms and is accompanied by the onstage drawing of Chinese letters. A lot more seems to have gone into the thinking behind the evocative, graphics-generated piece than came through in concert.

An inadvertent delay kept me from getting to Sunday night's presentation in the Shriver Hall Concert Series until intermission, when I was nearly run over by folks fleeing the performance. No surprise there. An all-contemporary-music program is not the norm at Shriver, and this one, by the New York-based ensemble Continuum, was packed with challenges.

The crowd that stayed for the second half got to hear a real gem - Conlon Nancarrow's 1942 Trio for Clarinet, Bassoon and Piano. Touches of jazz, musical halls and even the circus spice the kinetic outer movements, held together by the composer's distinctive rhythmic and harmonic voice. The fun piece couldn't be more tightly played.

Alfred Schnittke's Piano Quartet from 1988 also received a sturdy performance. The score doesn't quite hold together, but generates a certain power as it sets off angry, dissonant assaults and then, unexpectedly, gives way to eerie lyricism at the end.

Lawrence Moss was on hand to hear his 2002 Suite for Flute, Clarinet and Piano, which sends the winds bubbling up at the start to engage the piano in an intricately woven game. All very clever and colorful, if not quite memorable.

The premiere of Elliott Sharp's No Time Like the Stranger disappointed. Setting nonsensical verse ("now is word is look is eye is no is me," etc.) to wide-leaping vocal lines and pitting them against walls of atonal sound is not exactly new. Still, the gunlike percussion toward the end set up a funky beat that drove the work home in theatrical fashion.

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