13 May 2013

CD REVIEW: Ricky Ian Gordon—RAPPAHANNOCK COUNTY (A. M. Moore, F. Sherman, M. Tuell, K. Moreno, M. Walters; NAXOS 8.669028-29)

Ricky Ian Gordon: RAPPAHANNOCK COUNTY (NAXOS 8.669028-29)

RICKY IAN GORDON (born 1956): Rappahannock County and Late Afternoon (Song Cycle)—A. M. Moore, F. Sherman, M. Tuell, K. Moreno, M. Walters; Virginia Arts Festival Orchestra; Rob Fisher; M. Lattimore, mezzo-soprano (Late Afternoon); R. I. Gordon, piano (Late Afternoon) [Recorded ‘live’ during the World Première production at Harrison Opera House (Virginia Opera), Norfolk, Virginia, 12, 16, and 17 April 2011 (Rappahannock County) and at Scott Lehrer Sound Design Ltd., New York City, 25 January 2011 (Late Afternoon); NAXOS 8.669028-29]

Vats of ink and countless megabytes have been expended in the arguments about the need for ‘relevance’ in opera and Classical Music in general and which qualities make a score ‘relevant’ to 21st-Century audiences and listeners, regardless of the time and place of that score’s creation.  To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, these are ‘wars laid away in books’ that are waged by well-intentioned opera lovers, but such wars are not without dire perils: ardent traditionalists risk losing the interest of younger audiences and those new to opera, while those who seek to increase a work’s relevance to modern audiences by removing it from its composer’s original context risk alienating the subscription-buying, lifelong patrons of the arts whose expectations are often based upon decades of experiences with straightforwardly come scritto productions.  Taking this into consideration, there is obvious merit in the notion of centering focus on a relevant theme and building a work of art upon this foundation.  If this suggests opportunism, it is to the credit of composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Mark Campbell that their Rappahannock County succeeds so remarkably both musically and emotionally: it is not unlike Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in that, in a relatively brief time, it gets at the heart of an aspect of the collective American experience that has shaped all that has come after and, at its core, is both unique to America and unmistakably universal.

The American Civil War is a defining event in the history of the United States, a struggle of ideals as simple as man’s right to live as best preserves the wellbeing of his family and as complex as the bondage of one race at the hands of another.  It was a war during which sons betrayed their fathers and neighbors took up arms against one another.  Both national and deeply personal, the Civil War was the tangible eruption of abstract legislative, moral, and spiritual differences that remain as troubling in America in 2013 as they were in 1861, albeit in different guises.  It was at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor that the first shots of the Civil War were fired, but the ground most stained by the blood of combatants—Confederate and Union, all of them Americans—and most torn by the politics of succession, nation-building, and eventual Reconstruction lies within the Commonwealth of Virginia, birthplace of so many of America’s founding fathers but also host of the capital of the Confederate States of America and site of both the War’s first major battle at Manassas and Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  As a native Virginian whose family roots have grown in Virginia soil since Colonial times, Rappahannock County is for me an intensely meaningful exploration of an event of global proportions that is nevertheless in many ways also a family story.  Two of my ancestors, both of them Confederate soldiers, are known to have perished in the war, and a branch of my family was one of so many families who were affluent in 1860—including owning slaves—and had nothing in 1865 but their names.  It is an intensely troubling legacy to be the son of proud Southern families, to know that one’s ancestors were complicit in the act of regarding other human beings as possessions but also to celebrate the sacrifices made in defending a way of life that could not persist and in persevering in the years after the War in the transition from owning land to tilling it.  There is a certain guilt inherent in proud Southern heritage in a world that forgets all but the most unsavory aspects of Antebellum Southern culture, and it is cathartic to find in Rappahannock County a dedication to storytelling that is unapologetic but unbiased.  The horrors are there, undiluted, but also there are the political maneuvering and manipulating, the hope, the fear of freedom as potent as the hatred of slavery, and the innocence of ordinary soldiers, so poignantly expressed by both Mr. Campbell and Mr. Gordon in ‘I seen snow, Mamma.’  These are the words of a Louisiana infantryman who, far from home and surrounded by unfathomable death and destruction, finds boyish wonder in snowfall.  This is the essence of Rappahannock County, in which Mr. Campbell and Mr. Gordon have captured with rare open-mindedness the gripping ambiguity of war, the pride and shame, the loss even in victory, and the inescapable comprehension by even the least perceptive observer that, win or lose, the lives of men and of nations are irrevocably changed.

Recorded during the first performances of the piece at Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, Virginia, and released in the NAXOS American Opera Classics series, Rappahannock County is more of an extended song cycle or dramatic cantata than a true opera, at least as defined by the operatic works of Mozart, Verdi, or Puccini.  The five singers in Rappahannock County portray a vast array of rôles, spanning all niches of 1860s Wartime society.  The quality of Mr. Campbell’s lyrics is apparent in the way in which many of the individuals encountered in Rappahannock County emerge solely through the words with surprising but credible modernity: when one hears the voices of the Reverend Zachariah Springer, CSA Private Travis Bledsoe, and freed slave Lily Quinn, these archetypal figures engage one’s sensibilities with the sharpness of Matthew Brady’s celebrated Civil War-era photographs.  Musically, Mr. Gordon presented himself with a tremendous challenge, with a cast of so many characters who possess their own, meticulously-documented musical cultures combining in a single work.  It might have been easy either to present each character in a pastiche of the music that 21st-Century listeners associate with that rôle’s social circumstances or, as is done by many contemporary composers, to set all of the texts in the same musical manner, ignoring the differences of class, education, and heritage.  Mr. Gordon is too clever a composer to have pursued the facile solutions of these paths, however, and the facility with which he weds his musical inspirations to his librettist’s words is evident throughout Rappahannock County.  The orchestrations by Mr. Gordon and Bruce Coughlin reflect careful attention to the sounds of 19th-Century America without ever evoking moods of musical parody.  Sometimes with broad symphonic sounds and sometimes with intimate suggestions of the parlor songs so popular in America during the Civil War era, Mr. Gordon conjures musical vignettes that match the emotional colors of each scene.  Mr. Gordon’s music unfailingly allows Mr. Campbell’s words to be heard clearly, shaping the drama without imposing cheap effects or making obvious, hackneyed choices of tonal painting.  Both librettist and composer offer memorable creations, which combine in a score that is as approachably beautiful as it is challengingly varied in tone, musically and dramatically.

Shaped by the assured conducting of Maestro Rob Fisher, the Virginia Arts Festival Orchestra—an ensemble of seventeen players in this performance—plays with complete dedication to the score, bringing intellectual interpretation worthy of a performance of a score by Mozart or Mahler and ‘swing’ that rivals the best playing of ragtime bands.  Throughout the performance, the instrumentalists of the Virginia Arts Festival Orchestra seize every opportunity for stylish playing, no matter the style of the music at hand.  Maestro Fisher, an acclaimed conductor of musical theatre scores, displays an authentic understanding of Mr. Campbell’s and Mr. Gordon’s work, pacing each scene with ideal attention to its nuances, revealing humor even in despondency and menace even in joy.

If the orchestral players face challenges in adapting their performances to the varying styles of Mr. Gordon’s music, it could be said that the singers who perform Rappahannock County endure tasks that might almost be described as schizophrenic, with each singer portraying multiple characters.  For instance, baritone Mark Walters portrays the Reverend Zachariah Springer, an unnamed newspaper editor, cartographer Jed Hotchkiss, ‘forgotten soldier’ John Smith (even the name suggests anonymity), deserter Elias Leggett (making use of the surname of a storied Virginia family), and a member of the family of exiled Virginian Susan Johnson.  In addition to highlighting the dramatic opportunities offered to each vocal soloist, this illustrates the ambiguities of Rappahannock County’s rôle in the Civil War.  The name of the county—and the river that forms its northern boundary—is believed to have been derived from an Algonquian word meaning ‘place where the tide ebbs and flows.’  This is also an apt description of Rappahannock County’s involvement in the Civil War.  Though the Mason-Dixon Line that symbolically separates North from South extends along the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line, well north of Rappahannock County, the presence of Washington, D.C. on the northern bank of the Potomac (but south of the Mason-Dixon Line) and the fact that Maryland remained loyal to the United States extended Federal influence into northern Virginia, pushing the practical barrier between Union and Confederate territories to the Rappahannock River.  Controlling the Rappahannock was considered crucial by both the Union and the Confederate armies, and one of the most significant engagements of the War occurred along the banks of the Rappahannock in December 1862, when Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia faced Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac southeast of Rappahannock County at Fredericksburg.  Both librettist and composer infuse Rappahannock County with an omnipresent sense of this blurring of the human and geographical distinctions between friend and foe, expressed with great poignancy by the way in which the vocal soloists portray hosts of vastly disparate characters.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this recording of the première production of Rappahannock County is the consistent excellence of the cast of vocalists, each member of which faces difficulties of dramatic expression, textural delivery, and musical technique.  Though composed in a style that mostly avoids the histrionics of ‘traditional’ opera, Mr. Gordon’s score nonetheless presents challenges to each of the soloists, and there are few performances of new music in which the vocal demands are met with the level of achievement heard in this performance.  Baritone Mark Walters, an accomplished performer of contemporary music, excels in each of his rôles, launching the performance with a ringing account of the ‘sermon’ of Reverend Zachariah Springer.  Mr. Walters possesses the sort of burly but beautiful voice that would be heard with great pleasure in a rôle like Britten’s Billy Budd, and he sings with poise and stirring vigor throughout this performance.  He is seconded by Philadelphia-born baritone Kevin Moreno, whose singing of ‘boy slave’ Reuben Lark’s ‘Being small ain’t all that bad’ is charmingly unaffected.  Mr. Moreno is an impressive young singer who, based upon his eloquent singing in this performance, seems on his way to becoming one of America’s finest baritones.

To mezzo-soprano Faith Sherman fall several of the score’s trickiest numbers, and she shines in every scene in which she appears.  Especially piquant is her singing of ‘I Listen,’ the song of a Confederate spy who pursues enemy intelligence under the guise of a goodly old baker of pies.  [Thoughts of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd are inevitable, and Mr. Gordon is too astute an artist to fail to grant his pie-baking deviant a streak of dark humor.]  Soprano Aundi Marie Moore also displays a voice of great quality and superb dramatic sensibilities, her account of Lily Quinn’s ‘All I Ever Known,’ in which the recently-freed slave expresses her uncertainty about the promise of freedom after having lived all her life on her owners’ plantation and having felt part of her owners’ extended family, is profoundly touching.

Tenor Matthew Tuell’s assignments in Rappahannock County run the gamut from jaded embalmer Silas MacDuffie—a cousin of the similarly disenfranchised Monsieur Thénardier in Les Misérables, who in Hugo’s novel eventually becomes a slave trader in Antebellum America—to Travis Bledsoe, the homesick Louisiana private whose letter to his mother expresses his fascination with snow amid all the privations of battle.  Mr. Tuell possesses a lovely, plangent voice, which he uses with great care for placement of tone in order to preserve clarity of diction even in the upper register.  His singing is accomplished with an audibly assured technique, free from artifice, and there is an exciting edge to the timbre that allows him to mostly avoid forcing the voice even on his highest notes.  Dramatically, Mr. Tuell’s adaptability and directness complement those of his castmates, and all five soloists contribute to an unusual but very effective ensemble.  Equally effective, though she does not appear in Rappahannock County, is mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, whose gorgeous performance of Mr. Gordon’s song cycle Late Afternoon, accompanied by the composer, is included by NAXOS on the recording’s second disc.

Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War, first shown on PBS in 1990, spurred interest in the American Civil War on an unprecedented scale, and Mr. Burns’s film was memorable for its focus not merely on the well-documented atrocities of the War but also on the complex politics, crises of faith and fraternity, and family strife that both led to and resulted from the conflict: in short, the film traced the narrative of the Civil War largely untouched by history books.  Mark Campbell’s and Ricky Ian Gordon’s Rappahannock County pursues this narrative to an even greater extent: with the actual combat of the Civil War almost fading into the distance, Rappahannock County reveals the War as an inherently duplicitous failure and triumph of humanity.  Beyond the casualty figures and details of battlefield strategies recounted in books, the Civil War was a cataclysm in ordinary life, a time of deprivation and depravity, of mothers burying sons, of wives longing for news of their husbands, of boys denied manhood by bullets and bayonets.  Mr. Campbell and Mr. Gordon have created a depiction of this milestone in the history of the United States that is not one of generals on horseback, deafening cannonades, and grandiose ideals of succession or Reconstruction: performed with honesty and impeccable musicality and recorded by NAXOS with presence and imagination, Rappahannock County proves a moving portrait of the wondrous pragmatism of America in some of her darkest hours and, in its unmistakable faith in the most basic will to endure, of the essence of the Old Dominion.