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WCO: Purcell, Ives, Alexander
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Program
Purcell: Ode on St. Cecilia's Day (1692)
Charles Ives: Fugue for Small Orchestra
Elizabeth Alexander: Music for St. Cecilia's Day

Performers
Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra
American Master Chorale
David Crosby, conductor

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Celebrating St. Cecilia's day -- the patron saint of music -- Saturday evening at the First Congregational Church, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the American Master Chorale put forth a laudable effort with a program of music by Henry Purcell, Charles Ives, and Elizabeth Alexander, the last a premiere performance of a work commissioned by the WCO. I commend the effort because there was something less than satisfactory about all three works.

But I wouldn't hold the performers too responsible for all the troubles Purcell's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day (1692) presents. Nobody can sing the many e's and u's the text contains and hope to sound like anything. As one wag remarked at intermission, it would have been much better in Italian. Language problems to one side, David Crosby conducted the orchestra with evident love and knowledge of the score, and the instrumental playing was quite good, though I found the slower tempos somewhat lugubrious. The main problem was that the American Master Chorale, a 16-voice ensemble, boasts no really good voices and several outright bad ones. In no way were they equal to the extraordinarily difficult tasks Purcell's convoluted vocal lines set forth. As about half the singers had solos, the vocal deficiencies stood out in painful high relief. Purcell's music sits right on the transition from Rennaisance to High Baroque, which results in some of the most wonderful yet slightly bizarre sounds one could imagine. So there are many great moments in the work, but the given performance -- it takes an hour -- seemed interminable.

Ives's Fugue for Small Orchestra, written between 1909 and 1916, embodies many of this composer's most forward-looking elements, complexity heaped upon complexity in the most amazing textures. The fugue's very long and sinuous subject, announced by the solo cello, expands into a rich and ornate orchestral sound augmented by full organ. But such music requires a rock-steady rhythmic impulse to maintain its coherence, and because that was lacking, the performance ended up being diffuse and confusing.

Alexander was on hand for the first performance of her Music for St. Cecilia's Day, and both in her pre-concert remarks and in the program notes there appeared a warning not to see the work as a pastiche. Not knowing the score and based on a single hearing, I think a detailed criticism is impossible. But claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the pastiche element was certainly a foreground part of the experience, with snippets of Joplin-style rags, a quotation from Gounod's Ave Maria, a slice of Beautiful Dreamer, two bars of Strauss' Rosenkavalier and lord knows what-all tossed into the mix. The resulting collage offers clearly intentional opportunities to smile, especially in its treatment of Philip Dacey's poem The Musician, which provides the text and combines sacred and secular elements in a light-hearted but nevertheless serious way. The audience -- the church was nearly full despite the rotten weather -- gave the composer and the performers sustained applause at the conclusion of the eight-minute work. I hope we get to hear it again and to know it a little better.

Isthmus, November, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson




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