- 28 November, 2009
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Opera written in memory of those who have died or have suffered from AIDS
On November 17, Naxos USA releases world premiere recordings of four instrumental and vocal compositions by American composer and librettist Mark Adamo. The CD will include Adamo’s emotionally-charged memorial of the AIDS pandemic for voices and orchestra, Late Victorians (1994, rev. 2007) on texts by Richard Rodriguez and Emily Dickinson; Regina Coeli (from his 2006 concerto, Four Angels, for harp and orchestra); Alcott Music (an orchestral suite drawn from the 1999 opera Little Women); and his Overture to Lysistrata (from his second opera by the same name, premiered in 2005). The recorded performances feature the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Sylvia Alimena, with soloists Emily Pulley, soprano, Andrew Sullivan, narrator, and Dotian Levalier, harp.
Late Victorians (1994, rev. 2007) was written by Mr. Adamo as an emotional tribute and dedication to victims of the AIDS crisis. In the winter of 1992, Mr. Adamo had seen many of his friends and acquaintances lost or suffering from AIDS. Having been commissioned to write a song cycle for mezzo-soprano, Mr. Adamo had initially thought of a powerful 1990 essay entitled Late Victorians by the American writer and Pulitzer nominee, Richard Rodriguez. Written for Harper’s Magazine, Late Victorians was about the first years of the plague in San Francisco. In notes for this CD, Mr. Adamo writes about the essay, stating “A central image was the Victorian house: those ‘painted lady’ Victorians that waves of San Franciscans had reclaimed, had refurbished, and were now leaving empty as AIDS swept the city. The once haunted houses were becoming haunted once again. I carried that essay with me everywhere the winter of 1992. But I couldn’t set it. It was too long: too much. I didn’t want to write this experience. I didn’t recall choosing to witness it.” Though the composer read the essay frequently for over a year, musical inspiration eluded him. He eventually set a different text for the original commission.
Yet, Mr. Adamo continued to be drawn to the subject matter of Rodriguez’ essay. Some months later, he reread another essay on poet Emily Dickinson by social critic and controversial feminist author Camille Paglia. Paglia’s essay, he notes, “paints a violently different picture of Dickinson,” which caused him to view her poetry in a more haunted light. Furthermore, later that season he was asked by The Washington Post to review a concert of Haydn’s famous Farewell symphony, in which Haydn directed a musical ‘joke’ for the finale, in which members the orchestra exit the stage one-by-one until only two violinists remain. Suddenly, the combined influences from the tragic losses of the exploding global AIDS crisis, memorable quotes of text from both Rodriguez and Dickinson, and a fresh, yet darkly ironic view of Haydn’s musical suggestion, caused Mr. Adamo to begin composing Late Victorians as a symphonic cantata, almost a chamber opera. “This piece had found shape. I started sketching it at once, and completed it in the winter of 1994. The formal, oblique Rodriguez text would be spoken. Four Dickinson poems, singing everything the Rodriguez would not say, would be sung. And the four movements would be linked by solo cadenzas written for players from each choir of the orchestra, after which they would leave the stage.”
Thirteen years later, in May 2007, as Mr. Adamo prepared for this recording, he completed a revision of the work, and debuted the new score with the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Sylvia Alimena, in Alexandria, VA. The composer notes, “This world premiere CD is meant in tribute to the living and in memory of the dead.”
In liner notes about the Overture to Lysistrata, Mr. Adamo says of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, “Its smart, elegant, and irrepressible overture is a model of the form.” When New York City Opera gave the Manhattan premiere of Lysistrata in 2006, I couldn’t resist trying to compose a comparably ebullient opening.” Regarding the original premiere of this second Adamo opera, with the Houston Grand Opera in 2006, Alex Ross of the New Yorker described it as “a brittle antiwar satire becomes a sumptuous love story, poised between comedy and heartbreak. And it works. …I relaxed a minute after the music began, knowing that I was in the hands of a brilliant theatre composer.”
Based on Mr. Adamo’s 2007 concerto for harp and orchestra, entitled Four Angels, the composer writes, “Regina Coeli is the slow movement, rescored for strings alone. Regina Coeli meditates on Mary, Mother of Jesus. In Roman Catholicism, she is considered the Angelic Queen who, at the hour of her death, was assumed bodily into heaven by the seven orders of angels over whom she now reigns. She intercedes on behalf of human beings at the right hand of God.” Four Angels was originally commissioned and premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra in June 2007, championed by former NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin. Regarding the concerto’s debut, Tim Page of The Washington Post stated, “Adamo’s scoring for harp struck me as direct, idiomatic and appealing, and the performance by Dotian Levalier, for whom it was written, was both subtle and majestically authoritative.” Mr. Levalier also performs the harp solo on the CD.
The final work on the new CD, Alcott Music, is an orchestral suite based on Mark Adamo’s first critically acclaimed opera based on Louisa May Alcott’s novel of Victorian-era America, Little Women. The score heard in this recording is a dramatically revised version of a previously composed suite written for the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra in 1999, entitled Alcott Portraits. Though the original suite, written for the opera’s spare orchestration of wind quintet, percussion, harp, and strings, was well received, Mr. Adamo was personally unsatisfied with the suite and temporarily withdrew it from his publisher’s catalogue. In preparation for this recording, Mr. Adamo altered the work, cutting one movement entirely, recasting new thematic material from the opera’s opening, and reducing orchestration with percussion, celesta, harp, and strings. Regarding his new version, Mr. Adamo writes, “Now voice and orchestra were timbrally one: and compressing the kinetic orchestra gave the string-writing in particular a satisfying virtuosity. The first movement of the new Alcott Music leads, through a dreamscape of whole tones, to a statement of Jo’s major aria, “Perfect as we are.” Meg’s answering aria, “Things change, Jo”, wistful and exalted, forms the centerpiece of the second slow movement. And, in “Alma and Gideon”, the girls’ parents’ wedding music, accelerated and rescored, brings the suite to a gala finale.”