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Cantatas for Soprano
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Wayne PETERSON (b.1927]
Transformations (1985) [14:55]
And the winds shall blow (1994) [23:33]
The face of the night, the heart of the dark (1990) [18:37]
PRISM Quartet (Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, Matthew Levy, Zachary Shemon, saxophones)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. January 31 2011, Distler Performance Hall, Medford, USA (Transformations); January 24 2010, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, USA (Winds); June 29 2015, Jordan Hall, Boston (Face) BMOP SOUND 1053 SACD [57:08]
Here’s a teaser: Which is the only piece to have won the Pulitzer Prize for music, which only did so, because the Pulitzer Advisory Board over-ruled the specialist jury? The answer is Wayne Peterson’s The face of the night, the heart of the dark, here receiving its debut recording a quarter of a century later. An account of the controversy (and some deeply relevant aesthetic questions that arose from it) is provided in this
fascinating contemporary article by Allan Kozinn, which appeared in the New York Times.
Peterson’s career began as an improvising jazz pianist during the first stirrings of be-bop in the 1940s; indeed its spirit hovers around all three of the offerings here to a greater or lesser degree, most obviously in the unusual And the winds shall blow for saxophone quartet and orchestra without strings. Originally written for the Raschèr Quartet, the jazz in this work extends beyond the nature of the instrumental forces required to perform it. The orchestration is lissom and flexible, the melodic lines spare. In the opening section the individuals in the splendid Prism Quartet introduce themselves in solo riffs and duets – Peterson bides his time in exposing the listener to the sonic potential of the full ensemble. The allegro that emerges is dominated by jazzy rhythms and textures, which coalesce in a full climax, which ends rather abruptly and morphs directly into the second concluding movement. This builds tentatively towards what appears to be the technical and emotional heart of the work, an extended cadenza for the solo quartet. It is at this point that the real timbral distinction between solo quartet and ensemble truly becomes apparent to the naïve ear. The be-bop credentials of the work re-emerge as it tumbles headlong towards a tumultuous conclusion. At odd times the rhythmic and melodic interplay between percussion, piano, wind and brass recall the Stravinsky of the Symphony in three movements. Having said that, the work in its entirety seems far from derivative in both form and feel. The performance is confident and assertive; the vivid recording immediate and lifelike. In the surround option towards the work’s conclusion, notes ricocheted and rebounded around my living room like aural ping-pong – the effect was spellbinding!
The disc opens with the orchestral work Transformations from a decade earlier. On paper this is a modest quarter-hour study for small orchestra, but it is a measure of Peterson’s craftsmanship that the piece feels far more substantial, even on repeated hearings. This composer makes full use of his keen ear for colour and texture. One gets a real sense that every dot, rest and dynamic has been precisely judged. This is detailed and busy music. The composer reveals in the note that the first seventeen bars of Transformations “…constitutes an expository statement from which all that follows is derived.” The passage yields an upbeat from which two melodic lines, one rising and one falling, emerge and ultimately converge. The piece takes its title from the constant metamorphosis of this material. The solo trumpet takes a leading role and leaves the listener in little doubt of Peterson’s jazz sensibilities. Transformations is characterised by instrumental lines of crystalline clarity (this is especially evident when listening in surround) and an alternating fast/slow current. Ultimately the notes scatter and the music gradually decelerates into quietude.
The prize-winning piece The face of the night, the heart of the dark concludes the disc and was inspired by a line in Thomas Wolfe’s 1935 collection of short stories From Death to Morning. These are impressions of life on the city streets and Peterson’s work inhabits an appropriately urban terrain. The opening Adagio is an atmospheric nocturne, but don’t let that descriptor lull the reader into expecting easy background music – it is anything but. The work makes use of a full orchestra and while Peterson’s penchant for detail inevitably elicits music of great complexity, the contrasts between wind and string sonorities in this first movement help the listener to navigate it. The concluding fast movement is a tougher listen still, complex but exciting. It’s a dizzying, colourful ride that ends rather somewhat unpredictably, with what the notes assure us is ‘’a stunning seven-octave tutti C.”
I actually found The face of the night…. much harder work on first acquaintance, having been lulled by the clarity (and indeed my enjoyment) of the first two pieces into listening to the whole disc in one sitting. In retrospect this was a mistake as having heard it a few times in isolation, greater familiarity only increased my admiration for Peterson’s skills as an orchestrator. He cites Elliott Carter as a major influence: in fact I have subsequently found that listening in depth to this work has provided a’ gateway’ to some of Carter’s big orchestral canvases of the 60s and 70s (Piano Concerto, Concerto for Orchestra, Symphony of Three Orchestras), pieces that have always seemed fascinating on the surface, but which ultimately defeated me. Having said that, I detect a tad more humanity in these three pieces by Peterson and I have enjoyed the opportunity to get to know them.
On a final note, a word about the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, their indefatigable conductor Gil Rose and their house label BMOP Sound which has now released more than 150 titles. The complete absence of bias toward (or against) any school, movement, trend or ‘ism’ has enabled this exemplary group to present as comprehensive a survey of 20th and 21st century American orchestral music as it is possible to imagine. The quality and consistency of performance and recording on these discs remain a wonder to me; they are matched only by the breadth of repertoire represented. I can only encourage readers unfamiliar with their charms to dive in: you will almost certainly be glad you did. The Peterson disc here reviewed is a worthy addition and a first-class introduction to a composer, who has largely gone under the radar of the record companies and the public.
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