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Anthony Brandt: The Birth Of Something, Etc / Karol Bennett, Enso String Quartet, Et Al

Release Date: 10/13/2009 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1144   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Anthony Brandt
Performer:  Michael ChioldiKarol BennettBlake WilkinsBrian Connelly,   ... 
Conductor:  Jonathan Shames
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Maia Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRANDT The Birth of Something. 1 The Dragon and the Undying. 2 Slumber Song. 2 Creeley Songs 3 Karol Bennett (sop); 1,2,3 Michael Chioldi (bar); 1 Jonathan Shames, cond; 1 Maia Str Qrt; Read more class="SUPER12">1 Blake Wilkins (perc); 1 Ens? Str Qrt; 2 Brian Connelly (pn) 3 ALBANY TROY 1144 (58:51 Text and Translation)

Anthony Brandt (b. 1961) has a strongly Romantic temperament. His music is drenched in harmonies and gestures from the previous fin de siècle , and I hear strong echoes of early Berg, Schoenberg (especially Verklärte Nacht ), Ravel, Debussy, even Zemlinsky. The music doesn’t move so close to the source, though, that it feels like plagiarism or pastiche (except when such is deliberately intended, as in the beginning of the chamber opera on this program). The two songs on poems of WW I anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon ( The Dragon and the Undying and Slumber Song , both 2004) catch this spirit admirably. The Creeley Songs , on texts of poet Robert Creeley, are similarly tonal and intense, though Brandt responds to their greater concision by similarly streamlining his own harmonies, to good effect.

The major event of the disc, though, is the 2005 chamber opera The Birth of Something. The work is in five acts, but only a bit over a half hour long. It falls into a tradition that might be called the “domestic surrealist music drama.” There are actually a number of American antecedents: Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts and Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco for full-length; Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti , Barber’s A Hand of Bridge for more compact (the latter two have less surreal elements, though they do still probe the world of psychology, dream, and fantasy). And, of course, there are earlier instances from Expressionist practice, such as Schoenberg’s Das Glückliche Hand and Hindemith’s Hin und Zurück . All this is simply to help the reader situate the piece, as—while there are precedents for this sort of thing—there aren’t an enormous number either.

Brandt collaborated with playwright Will Eno, who has written a text that is deadpan, schematic, ironic. There are two characters, Man and Woman. They seem to be aware they are in an opera, but don’t know who they are or what their roles are. They have a child, but they can’t determine its gender. There’s a conversation with a doctor at a moment of existential crisis. Later on, things seem to have worked out for them, but the man is so dissatisfied with his lack of accomplishment he kills himself (with an obviously toy knife and a jet of blood embodied in a red ribbon). The woman then dies of love. They both proclaim the end, and reassure us that at least it was “pretend”—wasn’t it?

Keeping with the idea of “life as opera as life as . . .” Brandt works in a number of musical references to repertoire works, and suggests many of the standard tropes of the medium (mad scene, death scene). His writing for the little troupe of two singers, string quartet, and percussion is expert and pithy, but in the end the work feels to me like a miscalculation. I can’t feel a real intersection between Eno’s libretto, which is deliberately spare and flat in the style of his mentor Edward Albee, and Brandt’s musical language, which is saturated late Romanticism. Of course, one could claim that the conflict between these two leads to an even higher, “meta” level of irony, but if so, for me at least it doesn’t enhance the experience. Whatever might be primal and heartbreaking beneath the distancing surface doesn’t emerge with the music’s help. Instead, the whole thing feels more like an elaborate deconstruction of operatic conventions, and not much else. I feel the musical language needs to be radically different to interact fruitfully with the text. As it stands, I don’t really care if the characters live or die, and the music doesn’t seem to either.

I knew Karol Bennett’s work in the 1980s and 1990s, when she was a reigning diva of the Boston new-music scene (indeed, she was something of the house soprano for a new music group I co-directed, though we were hardly the only beneficiaries of her artistry). I haven’t been in touch for many years, as she met Brandt, married, and joined him in Houston, where he currently teaches at Rice. I am happy to report that her instrument has only grown with experience. She has fantastic enunciation and intonation. Her voice is pure, focused, and dramatically dead on. All the other performers execute their charges to the full; my only complaint is that baritone Michael Chioldi’s voice is somewhat “boomy” with vibrato, and seems not the best suited to the intimacy of this medium.

Brandt takes very postmodernist stances in his music, and in his comments in Richard Dyer’s literate and informative booklet notes, he states that while nothing truly new can be invented nowadays, the way one assembles historical elements can be fresh and personal. I’m not so sure. Perhaps naively, I feel we’re poised on the edge of a new era of musical creation. It won’t “clear the decks” like modernism, and it will be tied in some way to more traditional practice, but I also think it will not sound like collage, a perpetual remix. Brandt’s approach is not reactionary, but it is conservative in that it tends to downplay the possibility of the truly new. Big topics here, I know; at least this piece stimulates such speculation.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

The Birth of Something by Anthony Brandt
Performer:  Michael Chioldi (Baritone), Karol Bennett (Soprano), Blake Wilkins (Percussion)
Conductor:  Jonathan Shames
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Maia Quartet
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
The Dragon and the Undying by Anthony Brandt
Performer:  Karol Bennett (Soprano), Brian Connelly (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Slumber-Song by Anthony Brandt
Performer:  Karol Bennett (Soprano), Brian Connelly (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Creeley Songs by Anthony Brandt
Performer:  Karol Bennett (Soprano), Brian Connelly (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 

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