STEPHEN DOUGLAS BURTON (born 1943): Symphony No. 2 ‘Ariel’ (1975)—Diane Curry, mezzo-soprano; Stephen Dickson, baritone; Syracuse Symphony Orchestra; Christopher Keene, conductor [Recorded in Syracuse, New York, in April 1978; Bridge Records BRIDGE 9436; 1 CD, 51:25; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
Born in California in 1943, composer Stephen Douglas Burton has devoted much of his career to writing for the human voice with intelligence, naturalness, and unabashed melodic bountifulness rare in Classical Music since the death of Richard Strauss. Frankly, it seems ridiculous that any composer should be deemed unoriginal or uninspired for daring to craft legitimate tunes, but the prevalent trends in modern music have been to value noise as the only means of unique expression. In molding his Second Symphony, commissioned in celebration of the American Bicentennial in 1976 by the National Symphony Orchestra and premièred under the baton of Antal Doráti, Mr. Burton found in the poetry of Sylvia Plath words that both stoked his genius for insightfully allying texts with music and provided extraordinary opportunities for translating his nascent Romanticism into the compositional language of the late Twentieth Century. As the composer noted in describing the Symphony, the influence of Mahler—particularly the singular tonalities and structures of the older composer’s own Second Symphony (the massive Resurrection) and Das Lied von der Erde—is unmistakable, but reminiscences of Beethoven, Schumann, Schoenberg, and Britten combine with a discernibly individual voice that Mr. Burton already wielded with astute maturity at the age of thirty-three. It seems intriguingly ironic that the first performance of the nineteen-year-old composer’s setting of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ was conducted by Hans Werner Henze, whose polyglot philosophy as a composer Mr. Burton’s music reflects to a degree.
In many ways, however, this newly-remastered reissue of Syracuse Symphony Orchestra’s 1978 studio recording of the ‘Ariel’ Symphony is as much a sad reminder of some of the greatest losses in American music as a celebration as one of America’s finest composers of large-scaled symphonic music. The Syracuse Symphony, an ensemble that often championed repertory ignored or underserved by other orchestras, fell victim to the decimating intersection of pensions with the economic downturn in the first decade of the new millennium, and the Symphony’s Musical Director at the time of this recording, conductor Christopher Keene, was struck down by AIDS in 1995, before he reached the age of forty-nine. The uncommonly gifted baritone Stephen Dickson, who sang all of the vocal selections in the première of the ‘Ariel’ Symphony and reprised his participation, in part, for the recording, was also taken by AIDS, his magnificent voice silenced in 1991. Alongside mezzo-soprano Diane Curry, this team of musicians recorded an account of Mr. Burton’s Second Symphony that is both a momentous homage to its composer and an inspiring memorial to the work of both a fine orchestra and a pair of their country’s most profoundly-missed artists.
Maestro Keene’s extensive experience in conducting opera surely contributed significantly to the measured fluidity of his pacing of this performance of the ‘Ariel’ Symphony. Though his career at the Metropolitan Opera was confined to ten performances of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci in 1971, his quarter-century tenure with New York City Opera included collaborations with many important singers, acclaimed performances of standard repertory, and premières of new works. Co-founder of Spoleto Festival USA and the Long Island Philharmonic, an early training ground for esteemed conductor Marin Alsop, Maestro Keene was also a respected presence in ballet and symphonic music. In this recording of Mr. Burton’s ‘Ariel’ Symphony, Mr. Keene exhibits an exceptional ear for aural textures and instrumental timbres. The Symphony is the sort of music that frequently teeters exhilaratingly at the edge of rhythmic catastrophe, but Maestro Keene maintains control without clipping the wings on which the performers soar through the music. Mr. Burton was frugal with motivic writing in the Symphony, but Maestro Keene conducts with close attention to the cumulative architecture of the music. His approach both clearly differentiates each of the five movements and unifies them compellingly, revealing the ways in which Mr. Burton used nuances of orchestration as well as subtle manipulations of thematic material to link the movements. Maestro Keene conducts Mr. Burton’s music as he might have paced Tosca or Moses und Aron, which is to say that he focuses on identifying the primary colors in the score and enabling the musicians to mix them imaginatively without warping the composer’s palette.
The Symphony takes its name from the composer’s setting in the first movement of Plath’s ‘Ariel,’ the centerpiece of the like-titled collection of poems published in 1965, and the lucidity of Mr. Burton’s response to the ‘dead hands, dead stringencies’ of the poet’s text is apparent from the first note that Ms. Curry sings. The ‘black amnesias of heaven’ of the poem ‘The Night Dances’ surge in the orchestra while the soloist traces the bold shapes of the composer’s melodies. Ms. Curry, whose nineteen performances at the Metropolitan Opera included rôles as diverse as the Amme in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the Innkeeper in Boris Godunov, the Mother in Lulu, and the Aunt in Jenůfa, displays a strong, burnished timbre that she deploys with absolute composure, and her diction, though sometimes imperiled as the vocal line ascends, is generally excellent. She blends her voice with the orchestra appealingly, reveling in the contrasts between the euphonious vocal lines and the more angular instrumental writing.
The second movement combines settings of Plath’s ‘Contusion’ and ‘Fever 103°,’ poems that epitomize the harsh emotional landscapes of Ariel. The bleakness of lines such as ‘The sea sucks obsessively, / One hollow the whole sea’s pivot’ and ‘My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats’ undulates entrancingly in Mr. Dickson’s singing. Sadly, Mr. Dickson was just coming into his prime at the time of his passing, his vibrant portrayal of Harlekin in Ariadne auf Naxos at the MET in the 1987 – 1988 Season signaling the emergence of a great American baritone in the tradition of Theodor Uppman. The allure of his resonantly masculine singing in Mr. Burton’s music is irresistible, and the concentration with which he thrusts himself into both music and text is fantastic. Maestro Keene keeps the orchestral environment congenial for the singers, but the vocal lines occasionally take Mr. Dickson just beyond the upper limit of his comfort zone. He sings his native language with clarity that should be a model to any singer of English and with unaffectedly poetic phrasing—greater distinction than the text sometimes merits, in fact. Mr. Burton’s music shimmers in the light of such a voice, however, and the severity of the dramatic expression is evinced with uncompromising musicality.
The rigidity of the ostinato-like conjuring of mechanical sustenance of life strikes the ears with surprising ferocity in the third movement, in which Mr. Burton’s exploration of the sickening imagery of ‘Paralytics’ avoids easy sentimentality. The simplicity with which Ms. Curry intones ‘My mind a rock, / No fingers to grip, no tongue, / My god the iron lung / That loves me, pumps / My two / Dust bags in and out’ highlights the composer’s placid, almost tedious treatment of the text, which aptly suggests the separation between the impersonal physical and the life-defining metaphysical. As in the preceding movements, Mr. Burton’s music imitates the flow of the text, in this case droning with the disjointed rhythms of Plath’s verses. The avoidance of a discernible climax in the movement is perhaps symbolic of the inexorable cycles of life: when soul and body are no longer conjoined, cessation—the physiological manifestation of musical silence—is the most perfect resolution.
The recessed brass fanfares of the fourth movement are Mr. Burton’s most obvious nod to Mahler’s Second Symphony, and Maestro Keene and the Syracuse brass players execute them sonorously. A setting of Plath’s ubiquitous ‘Daddy,’ the music breaks into an elaborate waltz when the text mentions Vienna, and the passages for xylophone and brass when the swastika is invoked with sadistic glee are disquieting. Eerie piano figurations compete with percussion in syncopated music that briefly inhabits the jazz-influenced world of Gershwin in Mr. Burton’s setting of the wonderful line ‘Every woman adores a Fascist.’ Mr. Dickson’s singing is as redolent of Tin Pan Alley as of the opera house, and the explosive vehemence of his final utterance of ‘Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through!’ is staggering. This movement could be very effective in concert on its own: in Mr. Dickson’s performance, which scrutinizes the full panoply of the music, it is a tour de force.
The epically-conceived final movement is built upon the juxtaposition of the bracing cacophony of the full orchestra with the suspension of expansive melodic arcs in the strings over uncertain music for the winds. The coldness of ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ is alleviated by the warmth of Mr. Burton’s music, the richness of Ms. Curry’s singing lending additional layers of meaning to Plath’s sparse poetry. When Mr. Dickson takes over the vocal duties, the plodding accompaniment that underpins the vocal line accentuates the music’s search for a tonal center. Mr. Dickson equals the consequence of Ms. Curry’s singing, and both soloists movingly explore what ultimately seems to be the fundamental concern of the Symphony as communicated by Plath: ‘How I would like to believe in tenderness.’ Throughout all five movements, the Symphony’s musicians play with individual and collective brilliance, and the immediacy of their performance is evidence of their respect for Maestro Keene and the music before them.
Like so many aspects of American culture, the Classical Music of the United States is an astoundingly diverse crossroads of styles, influences, and assimilations. Characteristic American ingenuity is no less prevalent in the work of native composers than in any other art or industry, but neither is total individuality. If recognition of the models that inspired Stephen Douglas Burton in the creation of his Second Symphony suggests that his score is derivative, the suggestion is deceptive. The ‘Ariel’ Symphony is not a reading of Mahler and earlier Teutonic Romantics with a Yankee accent: it is a journey through more than a century of Romantic edifices that has an unmistakably American destination. It is a score of beauty and punch, and Bridge Records and renowned writer, academic, and Arts administrator Henry Fogel, the producer of the original LP recording, are to be heartily thanked for introducing this performance to a new generation of listeners. The only possible regret is that the ravages of a disease that even Sylvia Plath’s poetry could never adequately castigate deprived Christopher Keene and Stephen Dickson of accepting the gratitude of those who hear this release.