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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Concert Review: American Nightmares

Two major new works at the NY PHIL BIENNIAL.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"Breaker boys" are featured in Julia Wolfe's Anthracite Fields.
Photo from the Anthracite Heritage Museum.
Editor's Note: In honor of Julia Wolfe winning the Pulitzer for her piece Anthracite Fields, we are we are re-posting this review of its New York premiere from last year. Congratulations  to Ms. Wolfe!

In Pennsylvania's coal country, the borough of Centralia stands abandoned, due to an underground coal fire that forced citizens to flee the once-thriving municipality. Last week, the NY PHIL BIENNIAL unveiled two works that reminded one of that abandoned town: Julia Wolfe's Anthracite Fields and Steven Mackey's Dreamhouse. In their own way, each composition illustrates the dangers of the American dream, whether in the forced labor and brutal conditions of the coal mines or the uncertainty and terror of the decade following the collapse of the World Trade Center.

On Saturday night, Ms. Wolfe's hour-long Anthracite Fields was given its second New York performance  played by the Bang On A Can All-Stars, an electro-acoustic collective that specializes in modern music. They were joined by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street under the leadership of Julian Wachner, With the rear of the vast stage reserved for the  performing at the lip of the Avery Fisher Hall stage as a stunning series of black and white projections occupied the screen above.

Ms. Wolfe's distinctly American, tonal style rests in a comfortable spot between the minimalism of John Adams and the folk-song appropriations of Charles Ives. The pro-labor message of the libretto (assembled from field research and interviews conducted by the composer herself) and underlying sense of funereal dread evoke the sort of huge works that Dmitri Shostakovich wrote in the late Stalin era. The first movement, Foundation was Adams-esque, with its lengthy list of victims (all named John) drawn from the Pennsylvaina Mining Accidents 1869-1917 index. As the singer chanted the names, the "John" syllables struck like funereal bells, tolling over and over at the cost of drawing anthracite coal from the earth.

If the first movement was powerful, the second was simply devastating. Breaker Boys was written around a grim  little folk-rhyme "Mickey Pick-Slate." This obsessively repeated ear-worm outlined the plight of child laborers whose work in the mines (at eight cents an hour) was to pick coal out of rock rubble and to do so without wearing gloves. Haunting photos of these children stared out as the All-Stars blasted through Ms. Wolfe's propulsive rhythms, the relentless rock groove moving with the inexorable power of raw ore tumbling down a sluice.

Speech came next, a determined pro-labor statement delivered by guitarist Mark Stewart, the words originally by John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers. This was followed by the gentle Flowers, describing another rich gift of the earth in a delicate slow movement that gave some needed relief. The final assault came with Appliances, a work that at once celebrated the achievements of the industry and pointed out that the end result was empty consumerism. The work ended in a thunderous, powerful climax that made its point with earth-shaking power.

The Philharmonic finally took the stage for Mr. Mackey's Dreamhouse, an ambitious oratorio written in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Mr. Mackey's work is an oratorio for amplified voices, electric guitars and bass, and full orchestra, using the metaphor of building a perfect house to help re-establish the American dream in the uncertainty following the attacks of that grim day. As conducted by former New York City Opera music director Jayce Ogren, it became readily apparent that this huge work was ill-suited to the temperemental acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall.

Singer Rinde Eckert (who wrote the libretto of the work with Mr. Mackey) played the Architect, who narrated the work. His detailed descriptions of the construction of an ideal American home veered from the ordinary to the banal to the (sometimes unintentionally) hilarious. Mr. Eckert, a respected dramaturge, lecturer and writer has a generally pleasant and impressive voice in his middle register. However, he sang most of Dreamhouse in a falsetto croon that grated on the ears. Amplified in order to cut through the thick impasto of orchestration, his singing and became less welcome as the work moved through its three sections. Far better were the four singers of Synergy Vocals (also amplified) who were also amplified but not quite as loudly.

There's nothing wrong with the concept of blending electric instruments with an orchestra, but Mr. Mackey's results sounded clumsy and repetitive. Worse yet, the mix of monitor levels drowned out the orchestra players, and the whole work dragged past its 45-minute length. The worst of it was the final section, which was meant to be a majestic and hopeful coda but grew into an oppressive wall of sound, with constant repetition of the same phrase at levels above and beyond fortissimo. Eventually the construction collapsed in on itself, and not a moment too soon.

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