> Opera and Oratorio
August 4, 1964
Mahajan, Jepson; Rideout, Gilfry; Dallas Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, van Zweden. English text. DSOL-4
When Peter Sellars constructed a highly unusual libretto for the 2005 John Adams opera Doctor Atomic out of primary sources — scientific manuals, minutes of meetings, diaries, poetry — it was an open question whether this method would prove influential. The answer came in 2008, when Gene Scheer put together the text for Steven Stucky's oratorio August 4, 1964. Scheer tells two stories in the seventy-two-minute, twelve-movement piece. The date refers both to a military and public-relations disaster for the U.S. in the gulf of Tonkin and to the gruesome discovery of the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers in Mississippi. Scheer has taken transcriptions of meetings and telephone recordings at the White House, combined them with a poem by Stephen Spender and added some of his own text to illustrate the decisions facing president Lyndon Johnson on that day. (The work was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony in commemoration of the centennial of Johnson's birth in 1908.) The performing forces are similar to those of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with the addition of extra percussion and a harp. The soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists portray the mothers of James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, two of the murder victims. The chorus sings the text of a letter written by the third victim, Michael Schwerner, as his application to work for the CORE program. The tenor soloist portrays Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and the baritone soloist portrays LBJ.
The obvious model is Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time, another work in which a specific set of circumstances is juxtaposed with timeless concerns. Stucky unifies his score with the lamenting interval of the minor third (aligning the civil-rights struggle with hints of spirituals), with a piercing and anguished half-step appoggiatura, and with a memorable melody for the recurring text "It was the saddest moment of my life." The primary conflict is set up in the first movement, as Johnson's administration, caught up in Vietnam, receives word of the discovery of the bodies. A large, wrenching elegy for orchestra alone comes halfway through the work, where it feels just a bit too early for the structure of the text. Insistent woodwind arpeggios bound to a metronomic wood block send the music too close to Adams territory at one point, but Stucky has also written some bristly battle music that avoids any hint of film scores. The one disappointment is the choral writing; as so many composers do, Stucky loses his individual compositional voice when faced with writing big choral passages for a big occasion.
Indira Mahajan and Kristine Jepson, as the two mothers, are singers one would like to hear again and again. It seems at first, with Mahajan's solo at the outset of the work, that she and Stucky have not solved the problem of making sung English text intelligible, but this turns out not to be the case. Vale Rideout has the thankless task of bustling around as the trigger-happy McNamara (a predilection McNamara, of course, later repudiated), but Rideout does a good job of it. The most intriguing aspect of the oratorio is the way Stucky, Scheer and baritone Rod Gilfry have together produced a rounded portrait of Johnson. There is a real sense of the constrictions felt by Johnson, duty-bound by the position he holds as he valiantly tries to push his Poverty Bill through Congress. As he muses on the words of historians and on his own sense of the historical moment over a wandering harp accompaniment, and as he addresses his nation about the bombing in Vietnam against slashing parallel major chords in the orchestra, there is more than a hint of Britten's Captain Vere in Billy Budd. One of the unexpected directions taken by opera and oratorio in the past generation has been the way music is starting to provide a useful platform for the contemplation of recent history.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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