HUSA: 2 Sonnets from Michelangelo. The Trojan Women.
Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney, Akira Endo
First Edition Music FECD-0023 {} {} TT: 57:10


Very Seventies. As a rather sly send-up of "end-of-millennium" and "top-ten" lists, musical compére Jim Svejda proclaimed Karel Husa the Greatest Living Composer. It was a provocative, odd choice, probably intended as such. Husa's had a nice career, as classical composing goes, with time spent mainly in the academy, and not wholly free of the charge of falling prey to academic fads. But he certainly hasn't the visibility of a Carter, Adams, Rouse, Reich, Tippett, Davies, or even John Rutter and P. D. Q. Bach. You have to make a slightly greater effort to hear Husa's music. Husa, born in Czechoslovakia, became an American citizen in 1959, but like his compatriot Martinu, he has always looked back toward his native country. His best-known work, Music for Prague, musically responds to the Soviet repression of 1968, and more than a little of his catalogue deals with war and political repression.

Politically and as a human being, Husa stands with the angels. Unfortunately, I consider him the victim of the "well-written piece." There's nothing obviously wrong with his music, but there's nothing particularly individual about it either, and little interesting. The 2 Sonnets from Michelangelo (1970) could have been written by a lot of people at the time. Both instrumental works, they attempt, like Debussy's Prélude à l'apres-midi d'un faune, to closely follow a literary text. To my mind, Husa doesn't get all that close. That is, my mind comes up with different music for the texts, and I can't tell when he's moving from one idea of the sonnets to another. One could argue over the success of the Debussy in this regard, but it ultimately doesn't matter. Debussy provides interesting music that makes sense even if you don't know Mallarmé from Mallomars. Husa, on the other hand, writes a fairly ugly, monochromatic piece which seems stuck in a tar pit.

The Trojan Women, also programmatic, at least moves. It has its good moments. Based on the Euripides tragedy, it, like the Michelangelo Sonnets, also seems written in Steelcase gray, but the story permits it. Again, you can't really call it a bad piece, but you have only to put it beside something like Barber's Medea or Schuman's Judith to see its shortcomings. There's very little memorable about it -- no genius theme, no feat of pure composition, no eye-popping color to lift it beyond the merely blameless. It leaves the mental listening room almost immediately.

This program comes from the old Louisville Orchestra series of (then) contemporary music. The performances are both acceptable, the sound a little tinny, as the Louisville LPs tended to be. Endo does better than Whitney, but he leads the more interesting piece. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for this particular recording, I look forward to more releases in the series. Whitney was one of the great commissioners, with an uncanny sense of who, among the traditional Modernists, to ask for something really good as well as where to find abandoned gems. There are some wonderful recordings of Piston, Mennin, Diamond, Bergsma, Foss, and others awaiting transfer.


S.G.S. (February 2005)