FUSSELL: Wilde, Symphony for baritone and orchestra. High Bridge Prelude.
Sanford Sylvan (baritone), Boston Modern Music Project/Gil Rose.
BMOP Sound 1005 (F) (DDD) TT: 45:32.
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
Nice. Charles Fussell has established his career in New England. He studied
at Eastman with Thomas Canning and Bernard Rogers but has also worked with
Boris Blacher and Virgil Thomson. His musical orientation is largely tonal
(although structural elements of serialism hover at the edges), with no
fear of dissonance.
The two pieces here pay homage to two icons of Gay Pride -- Hart Crane
and Oscar Wilde. Crane and I grew up in the same part of the country. Both
of us have a special connection to New York City, and I must admit that
part of my vision of New York comes from Crane, particularly the sense
of ancient history that stubbornly clings to the city, despite the inhabitants'
determination to ignore almost everything but what they themselves have
seen or experienced. High Bridge Prelude, an orchestral showpiece, captures
the glory and the busyness of New York, with fanfares and scurrying strings.
But there are ghosts as well, sounds associated with the docks. Fussell
means to provide a portrait of Crane -- manic one moment, depressed the
next -- but you need know nothing of Crane to enjoy the piece, thank goodness.
It picks you up and carries you along on a wave of superb, streamlined
Fussell describes his Wilde as "a symphony that wants to be an opera." If
opera is drama and drama involves conflict among characters, this is no
opera at all. It meditates on Wilde's life, to be sure, but a listener
needs to know something of that life to make sense of the piece. There
are always liner notes, I suppose, but that just means Fussell's music
doesn't realize his aims, despite his program. Opera generally sketches
in mundane details, but Fussell wants nothing but essence. This is also
a "vocal symphony," a fairly problematic genre since so few texts
echo musical structures. Usually a composer -- sometimes with his "librettist" (here,
Wilde himself and Will Graham) -- has to do a bit of either forcing or
canny choosing. To Fussell's credit, one doesn't sense forcing, but the
choice of texts ultimately disappoints, despite some neat moments. These
include a wonderful "music-hall" sequence about a woman no better
than she should be, which morphs into a simple and affecting love song
to Wilde's wife, Constance. Both the ditty and the love song owe much to
Virgil Thomson's take on the vernacular as well as to his opera Lord
However, Wilde, like many of his admirers, could be as sentimental as a
teenager. Fussell and Graham emphasize this streak in him, probably without
realizing it. There's none of the dazzling wit, the hard look at society
(and at himself), that draws most people to Wilde in the first place. The
figure here comes off not as an heroic martyr, but as whiny and weak.
Although well-made, the symphony has musical problems, chiefly most of
the vocal part. There seems no reason for it. With a few exceptions, it's
not particularly memorable, nor does it often contribute to the symphonic
argument. In fact, usually that argument comes to a halt when the voice
enters. For me, the second movement of the symphony, depicting Wilde's
wanderings after prison, succeeds best and indeed lifts the score to a
level of interest it has only fitfully before and after.
Gil Rose and his BMOP players make handsome work of both scores. Sanford
Sylvan, the baritone soloist in Wilde, displays his usual virtues of intelligence
and clarity. I've never cared for his sound, however, which strikes me
as reedy, and his short-i vowels ("ih") come across as long e's,
as in "eek." Thus the line, "It will whisper of the garden" becomes "eet
weel wheesper of the garden," as if declaimed by the Mexican bandit
in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Also, the disc is a stingy 45 minutes.
You may want to audition the disc before committing to a purchase.
S.G.S. (December 2008)