Marc Blitzstein, The Cradle Will Rock
Opera Saratoga, John Mauceri (cond.), Lawrence Edelson (dir.)
Bridge Records (Bridge 9511 A/B)
Released Sept. 14, 2018
Kyle Gann, Hyperchromatica
Kyle Gann, composer and disklavier
Other Minds OM 1025-2
I'm generally not a fan of year-end summaries, 10-best lists, or final exams. Nevertheless, I can't resist bringing up two recordings that came out in 2018 that meant a lot to me: one which I reviewed in this column, and one which I didn't. One (available here, previously reviewed here) brought microtonal music into the mainstream, or at least proved that it could be more than a detour; the other (available here) gave us a fresh look at the opera/stage musical that precipitated one of the most interesting and exciting episodes in American theater history.
I won't go into detail about that episode, however. I'll leave that to the composer himself. Yes, this 2018 recording of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle will Rock features a 14-minute explanation, by Blitzstein himself, of events leading up to its premiere performance and details of what happened that night, a performance sui generis. No paraphrase of mine can compete with his account of the government's funding and subsequent attempted shutdown of the production. Also, there's a Tim Robbins film (1991's The Cradle Will Rock) that does a fair job of recounting—even as it inevitably fictionalizes—the whole mess. There's not much of the opera in the film, and it's certainly no substitute for Blitzstein's own account, but it fleshes out characters who really were involved, including Nelson Rockefeller, Orson Welles, and John Houseman.
With such an exciting background, Cradle probably would have survived even if the music and libretto were not top-notch, which they most certainly are. If the work has a weakness, it may be Blitzstein's naming of characters—Mister Mister, the Reverend Salvation, Dr. Specialist, and so forth. But, since these characters are participants in an allegory (a markedly left-wing story of the union activity in Steeltown, USA, which functions as an allegory for capitalism's inducement to universal self-prostitution), a naive approach to character naming is almost obligatory (think Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress), perhaps because it illuminates the system of symbols at work.
With this new recording, Bridge Records has furnished us with a lively look at Blitzstein’s best-known stage composition. It's a welcomed successor to the 1985 recording—released in 1999—which I like because the lyrics are understandable down to the word, even if it sounds a little like a concert performance. And the 1999 release has a recording of John Houseman, that production's director, recounting his version of opening night in 1937. But this year's Bridge recording documents live performances by Opera Saratoga under the direction of John Mauceri, one that incorporates Blitzstein's original orchestration—in the instrumentation that would have obtained, had events beyond his control necessitated his playing the entire show by himself on opening night, from center stage, on a rented piano (in its defense, the 1985 recording imitates the original performance, at least insofar as it opts for a solo piano instead of an orchestra for its instrumentation).
But there's no comparison between the two. This full-orchestra performance is worlds better. Listen to the 1985 recording of the ensemble piece from Act I, "The Freedom of the Press": with the solo piano accompaniment, it's exciting and fun. Then listen to the new Mauceri recording, and it's as if you're listening to a different work; it's edge-of-your-seat material, every note. And the expertly executed musical accompaniment supports an excellent cast. The stars of the 1985 recording were good, and the new cast is every bit as good—in some cases, better. I find 2018's Mr. Mister (Matt Boehler) more despicable than his counterpart from 35 years ago, and I like Ginger Costa Jackson's Moll even better than Patti LuPone's from 1985, chiefly because she applies more of her acting talents to her singing than LuPone did, at least if the recordings are anything to go by.
Even if you can take in every word while you're listening, it's challenging to keep up when lines are tossed back and forth at lightning speed between several characters. So the kicker for this new recording is the booklet. No essays (but who needs any when you have Blitzstein himself telling you about the show?), but—except for the credits—the complete libretto. That's a luxury that the good folks at Bridge Records weren't obliged to provide, but I sure appreciate it.
Enough about the recording not previously reviewed. The other, Kyle Gann’s 17-movement microtonal three-disklavier magnum opus of a piano cycle, resurfaces here at year’s end because it wears unbelievably well. Even after repeated listens, the individual movements retain their freshness—a clear testimony to Gann's impeccable musical sensibilities. This is 150+ minutes of new sounds that iTunes tells me I've listened to 27 times (it doesn't know about the times I listened to a borrowed copy of the CD), and it has stayed new, right up to today.
Today I confined myself (mostly) to listening to the movements that seem the most technically motivated: "Pulsars," with its exploration of the polyrhythms generated by difference tones, "Orbital Resonance," which translates that exploration to the metric realm, and Gann's tribute to Julius Eastman, "The Lessing is Miracle," which brings the composer's peculiar lyricism into the same frame as his polyrhythmic interests.
And they hold up remarkably well. They're so good and so blasted fun and interesting that it seems condescending to use the phrase "they hold up." In fact, it's difficult to find terms of approbation that don't sound condescending or implicitly qualified, as if I were saying "this collection is really great—for microtonal music," or "this is new music that stretches our listening capabilities, but it doesn't hurt a bit." I guess I should be satisfied with saying that this is the funnest new music I've heard in a long time.
The three computer-actuated acoustic pianos aren't going to be offended, I'm pretty sure. I hope the composer understands my predicament. Maybe it'll help to say that I'm buying another copy against the day I wear this one out. Happy new year, everyone.
2018 YEAR IN REVIEW
Friday, December 28
- The Year in Comedy by Chief Comedy Critic Kevin Beane
- Danielle Georgiou's Sixth Position: A Year of Movement
Saturday, December 29
- The Year in Dance by Chief Dance Critic Cheryl Callon
- The Year in New Dance Works by Katie Dravenstott
- The Year in Dance by Emily Sese
Sunday, December 30
- The Year in Music and Opera by Chief Music and Opera Critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
- The Year in Music and Opera by J. Robin Coffelt
- The Year in Music and Opera by Wayne Lee Gay
Monday, December 31
- The Year in Performing Arts Books by Cathy Ritchie
- The Year in Classical Music Recordings by Andrew Anderson
- The Year in Theatrical Recordings by Jay Gardner
- The Year in Film by Bart Weiss
- The Year in Performing Arts News by Mark Lowry
Tuesday, January 1
- The Year in Theater by Frank Garrett
- The Year in Theater by Jan Farrington
- The Year in Theater by Janice L. Franklin
- The Year in Theater by Martha Heimberg
- The Year in Theater by Jill Sweeney
- The Year in Theater by Teresa Marrero
Wednesday, January 2
- The Year in Theater by Mark Lowry
Thursday, January 3
- A challenge for our readers
Friday, January 4
- Looking ahead to 2019