Dallas — The Dust Bowl. It continues to be one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history. Precipitated by unusual weather patterns and unsustainable farming practices (largely as a result of Manifest Destiny’s push for westward expansion), the ecological and agricultural fallout in the Depression-era Southern Plains left millions displaced and thousands of people and livestock killed. Yet, it is a facet of history that, particularly in this region, is seldom given credence.
The Verdigris Ensemble’s latest offering, the world premiere of Dust Bowl, presented in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, told the story of this national tragedy using primary materials sourced from diaries, newspaper articles, and oral accounts from survivors. As a result, Ron Witzke’s libretto was honest and raw, and, set to an original score by Anthony J. Maglione, culminated in a dynamic narrative with great effect.
Presented in the Winspear Opera House’s Hamon Hall, Dust Bowl showed itself to be the most theatrical concept to be endeavored by this group in its three-year existence. Artistic director Sam Brukhman made convincing use of the space, setting choreographed movements and blocking upon a bed of sand, with artful projections by Camron and Courtney Ware, cast against three walls.
Maglione’s score moved much like an oratorio, structuring the narrative across three distinct “parts,” each with its own emotive intent and musical texture. The score combined classical choral sensibilities with bluegrass accompaniment and arrangements, and innovative vocal techniques.
The Feb. 29 performance, the third in a four-night run, was a lovely display. The development of character and narrative was the most involved I have seen from the 16-member choir. Consequently, the pace of the production was engaging.
The group weaved seamlessly through taut dissonances to rich, harmonically warm movements. In one piece, the choir layered the individual pitches found in the overtone series associated with the Sterling Model M siren, which was the alarm used to warn citizens of approaching storms in the 1920s and 30s. In another, the lower voices faced upstage and engaged in throat-singing, producing an ethereal blend of bent pitches — dark and resonant — over which the higher voices laid a haunting melody.
The larger ensemble movements were accented by solid solos, arias and recitatives ranging in style from classical to contemporary. Mezzo-soprano Katrina Burggraf gave a compelling read of Caroline Henderson’s words set to an endearingly somber melody. Henderson was a schoolteacher and author in the Oklahoma panhandle during the Dust Bowl. Bass Charlie Moore was a jaunty Tex Thornton, a real-life charlatan who believed he could bring rain by launching explosives into the sky.
While there were bits of choral brilliance, there were also a few moments of unbalance, mostly due to the staging. Because of the space, some colors of the ensemble felt more accessible than others, depending on which side of the three-sided stage they were on. The accompanying five-piece band was tight and, for the most part, well-tempered. At times, it seemed that the piano overpowered the texture, but the effect of Maglione’s score consistently came through clearly.
Dust Bowl is a daring venture into a dark corner of the region’s history. What it does so skillfully is depict the human pathos associated with the disaster. Given the growing emphasis on environmental ethics in the current socio-political climate, it is a story that is well-worth hearing, and this is just the group to tell it. I would be interested, though, to see how future productions of this work endeavor to draw clearer connections to the present, on any front — be it environmental, social, economic, or political.