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American Classics - Wheeler: Wasting The Night / Sharp, Phillips, Kaiser, River, Berman

Wheeler,Scott / Phillips / River / Kaiser / Sharp
Release Date: 11/16/2010 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559658   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Scott Wheeler
Performer:  Donald BermanWilliam SharpSusanna PhillipsJoseph Kaiser,   ... 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 12 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WHEELER Serenata. 1,5 Sunday Songs 2,5. Heaven and Earth. 3,5 Singing to Sleep. 4,5 Litany. 1,5 Wasting the Night 2,5. Mozart, 1935. 1,5 Turning Back 4,5 Read more class="SUPER12">1 Wiilliam Sharp (bar); 2 Susanna Phillips (sop); 3 Joseph Kaiser (ten); 4 Krista River (mez); 5 Donald Berman (pn) NAXOS 8.559658 (72:07)

Scott Wheeler (b.1952) has established a firm reputation as one of the leading composers of his generation for the lyric stage. I reviewed his chamber opera The Construction of Boston in Fanfare 32:4, and loved its play of deft musical wit. This disc features a recital of the composer’s songs, both individual and in cycles, and it covers a range from 1984 to 2007. One pleasure is that while Wheeler never literally repeats himself, he’s clearly been his own mature creative persona from the get-go, and there’s remarkable pleasure and consistency throughout the program.

I think it would be wearying to do detailed exegesis, so instead, let me comment on what I feel are a few of Wheeler’s salient strengths, even if as a result I don’t mention every piece.

Wheeler studied with Virgil Thomson, and that master’s influence is evident in his student’s lightness of touch, and above all, the clear setting of texts. Naxos doesn’t provide a libretto (nor does it list a Web site to find it, which has been the procedure in the past), but for once I won’t grouse, because the combination of Wheeler’s art with the remarkable diction of all his singers makes such superfluous (though I have to give special credit to William Sharp, whose English enunciation projects at a level of comprehensibility I’ve rarely encountered). When you hear a Wheeler song, you hear the words and music in a balanced duet throughout.

The composer also has a distinct lightness of touch. When I say “light,” I don’t mean “lite.” There is the clarity and brilliance that we associate with the word as a noun. Another way of saying this is to say the music has “grace.” And there once again multiple meanings suggest themselves: not only elegance, but the sort of unexpected gift one receives from higher realms. Wheeler writes in his notes that he has always been drawn to the Great American Songbook as a point of reference, and these songs show that he can combine a directness and accessibility we associate with Broadway, with the seriousness of purpose and depth of feeling more closely allied to art song. The conclusion of his 1993 Mark Van Doren cycle Serenata , “Love Me a Little,” has a breeziness that I associate with Sondheim. Likewise his Dickinson setting “Keeping the Sabbath” from the 1999 Sunday Songs is joyfully effervescent. His setting of Blake’s “The Little Vagabond” from the 2007 Heaven and Earth asserts the good-hearted drunken humor of its protagonist with an insistent little lick that speaks volumes … without speaking volumes.

This also suggests that Wheeler knows when to interpret and when to get out of the way. His Billy Collins song Litany (2006) takes a frankly hilarious text (that pushes lovesong metaphor to its logical absurdity) and lets the laughter emerge from the deadpan way the music frames the poem. And yes, he can be serious. The conclusion of his cycle Turning Back (2007) embodies the voice of Eurydice, who’s frankly disgusted with Orpheus for looking back, and actually takes this potentially comic take and turns it instead into a truly dramatic scena.

Wheeler’s piano writing is ingenious; many times he creates an accompaniment by piecing together a mosaic of tight little rhythmic motives that self-assemble into a burblingly supportive piano part. His language is largely tonal but never derivative. The sound is utterly American, precise, mercurial, economic.

The performances by all are outstanding, and I can only imagine the composer is thrilled. Wheeler has been making a serious name for himself in American opera, and his stage experience (how to “deliver” a song) is evident here. I look forward to many future decades of his art.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Serenata by Scott Wheeler
Performer:  Donald Berman (Piano), William Sharp (Baritone)
Written: 1993 
Sunday Songs by Scott Wheeler
Performer:  Donald Berman (Piano), Susanna Phillips (Soprano)
Written: 1999 
Heaven and Earth by Scott Wheeler
Performer:  Donald Berman (Piano), Joseph Kaiser (Tenor)
Written: 2007 
Singing To Sleep: To Say to Go to Sleep by Scott Wheeler
Performer:  Donald Berman (Piano), Krista River (Mezzo Soprano)
Written: 1984 
Singing To Sleep: Lullaby by Scott Wheeler
Performer:  Krista River (Mezzo Soprano), Donald Berman (Piano)
Written: 1984 
Wasting the Night by Scott Wheeler
Performer:  Donald Berman (Piano), Susanna Phillips (Soprano)
Written: 1990 
Mozart, 1935 by Scott Wheeler
Performer:  Donald Berman (Piano), William Sharp (Baritone)
Written: 1997 
Litany by Scott Wheeler
Performer:  Donald Berman (Piano), William Sharp (Baritone)
Written: 2006 
Turning Back by Scott Wheeler
Performer:  Donald Berman (Piano), Krista River (Mezzo Soprano)
Written: 2007 

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