The Free-Reed Review
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CD Review: David Del Tredici
An Alice Symphony
For Amplified Soprano, Folk Group and Orchestra
total time: 38:21
label: CRI CD 688
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Oliver Knussen, conductor
It was Alice Pleasance Liddell that started it... She was the real Alice, the little blonde girl that inspired the White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, Duchess and other characters that populate that curious universe behind the looking glass. Had she not pulled ever-so-hard on the coattails of the Rev. Charles L. Dodgson, a Victorian clergyman and mathematician, begging him to write down some of the nonsensical stories he improvised for her and her sisters, we might never have had the wonderful, witty and almost surreal works that he published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.
By whatever name we remember him, his unique works have fascinated generations of readers and provided inspiration for subsequent artists and musicians. Few of these aesthetically tempered individuals seem as perennially taken with Alice and her adventures as the subject-composer of this compact disk review: David Del Tredici. It would not be amiss to say that at least three decades of his career have been spent totally immersed in the Carroll opus. At first, such a narrow catalogue might seem to offer only a limited opportunity for creativity, but he has not found it confining or lacking. Del Tredici's approach to his subject has varied considerably over the years; some of his works, such as the one on this CD, An Alice Symphony, deal directly with the material while others only bear a tangential relationship.
This full-scale composition consists of four movements, each of which centers around a poem culled from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. To provide contrasting lyrics in one section, Del Tredici also incorporated verses from "Speak Gently," the Victorian inspiration for Carroll's parody, "Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy." He used additional segments of recited text from Alice. These serve to parenthetically separate sections and movements, setting the stage for the music. The composition dates from 1969, placing it among the earlier Alice works, but the composer made subsequent revisions to it in 1979.
Musically, this is a complex and tumultuous work, seasoned with the composer's and, in a derivative fashion, Lewis Carroll's sense of humor. Del Tredici wrote it for soprano and two contrasting groups of instruments: a symphony orchestra and a "folk" ensemble consisting of a pair of saxophones, a mandolin, tenor banjo and accordion (in this recording played by Kathyrn Matasy). In the opening movement, "Speak Roughly / Speak Gently," these groups play in juxtaposition, alternating with the lyrics, one of which advocates abuse, the other urging mildness in dealing with children. The soprano must bark or yodel the words of the first poem to a loud, violently percussive accompaniment (including an intermittent police siren), which contrasts markedly with her quiet, almost simpering vocalizations of the second. The sets of lyrics are intermingled in such a fashion that the musicians and singer must leap back and forth between the two dissimilar styles. This kind of contrast is a favorite Del Tredici device, and in one fashion or another it permeates this work.
The basis for his second movement is the humorous poem "The Lobster Quadrille," an extract of the Mock Turtle's tale. Here the composer alternates episodes of dance-like rhythms with sung, metered stanzas, ending the movement by finally weaving the two into a single form. Another interesting compositional device he uses in "Who Stole the Tarts?" is to simultaneously increase and decrease the speed of alternating lines of the poem until it seems to surpasses the ability of the performers to maintain it. Finally, we are treated to a rare appearance of the Theramin, an early electronic instrument, in "'Tis the Voice of the Sluggard," the third movement.
This work is well-crafted and flows from movement to movement without a hitch. The composer displays his ability to convey wry humor, not only that of the literary source, but his own as well. David Del Tredici has no qualms about giving Lewis Carroll and his works an occasional prod in the ribs. His compositional techniques are also very good at conveying the mad-as-a-hatter quality of the nonsense verses he chose to set here. The one thing I find curiously lacking in his Symphony is the poise and subtlety with which Lewis Carroll approached his work. In spite of the eccentric and violent qualities of the Victorian Alice's characters, Carroll wrote about them with a precise and circumspect delicacy. The tension he creates between characterization and style is one of the devices that gives the literary work its novel flavor. That subtle and very attractive aspect of the original is lacking in this musical Alice.
Most of this Symphony is a real tour de force, making heavy demands upon the performers, especially on the singer. On this recording, soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson deserves special applause for her "tossing off" the tremendously difficult vocal part with apparent ease. It requires an unusually low range for a soprano, a lightening fast larynx and the ability to sing the most unusual and difficult intervals rapidly and accurately. Without a doubt, many a Rossini cavatina would have been a breeze in comparison! Fans of free-reed instruments will catch only occasional glimpses of the accordion as it breaks through the instrumental texture. Unamplified, it produces a level of sound not much louder than a harpsichord and is easily buried within the total mass of sound.
However, Del Tredici thankfully did write a few accordion solos within the piece. During The Lobster Quadrille the instrument shines out brilliantly, unclouded by the rest of the orchestra and the accordion sparkles with humor. It plays what seems to me to be a take-off on the theme from the nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice: E D C! The theme appears in diatonic parallel sixths which are played VERY slowly and haltingly, as if by a child, while the left hand punches out some tonally-unrelated staccato chord outbursts.
One negative aspect of the recording, was the sudden dropping out of low-level sound, even though this may have been the composer's design. Several times I found it necessary to increase the volume of my CD player in order to hear, only to leap for it a few moments later when the musical cannonade began. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra proves pliant and responsive to the baton of conductor Oliver Knussen. This 1991 live recording marks the first full performance of the work. Prior to this, several partial performances, with and without singer, were authorized by the composer.
One side of the folded CD insert is a mini-libretto, containing the sung text from Alice as well as a series of photos of the barefoot and smiling composer taken with brightly painted paper maché characters from her adventures in Wonderland. The other side offers heaps of information about the work, the composer and related peripheral facts. It is precisely the kind of booklet I like best.
To whom would this recording appeal? For fans of David Del Tredici's music, it would undoubtedly be a requisite acquisition. Those unfamiliar with his compositions but who appreciate new music and contemporary composers would probably also find it an interesting addition to their record collection. Personally, there are parts of An Alice Symphony I like very much, but it does not excite the passion in me that earlier music does. This observation is not a judgment on the artistic merit of the work, but my personal bias toward the tonality and traditional harmony of historical periods. Nevertheless, I appreciate Del Tredici's work; its vitality and humor have helped to keep my mind and heart open. Without new and varied experiences I find my personal creativity stagnates and life quickly loses any sense of adventure. Along with Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher and contemporary of Lewis Carroll, I must agree that, "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance... that principle is contempt prior to investigation."
Comments by the Performer:
Dear Henry and Greg,
Oh boy. You realize that the performance (from which the recording was made) happened in the summer of 1991, so you are asking me to remember a single concert from nearly 9 years and probably 500+ other concerts ago??? I'm afraid my recollections aren't exactly vivid!
Well, I'll try to blow off the fog that shrouds my long-term memory, but I really don't remember a whole lot about the piece. I didn't keep a copy of my part, either, but I did listen to the CD recently.
This is what I do remember:
The "folk group" and the soloist had several rehearsals alone, and only 2 or at most three rehearsals with the entire orchestra. I'm pretty sure that the folk group only played when the rest of the orchestra didn't, and vice versa, functioning somewhat like a baroque "concertino" to the main orchestra's "ripieno."
The accordion part wasn't particularly difficult, but it was exposed and rhythmically tricky. (I have played another "Alice" piece—either Vintage Alice or Final Alice , and the accordion part was considerably more difficult). There were places where the saxophone and plucked- instrument players, who were less experienced in conducted situations, had quite a time sorting things out.
In the Lobster Quadrille, the accordion had a little boom-chick-chick thing in the left hand which I seem to recall never being a straightfoward 3/4 - - perhaps superimposed on another meter, or just displaced metrically? Without looking at the score I can't be sure, but it was a quirky little thing.
In another movement, the accordion had a snippet of "God Save The Queen" which kept emerging out of the tutti texture in (I think) different metric guises.
That's about all I can really remember. I hope this was somewhat useful.
Good luck with the review.
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