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Beeson: Dr. Heidegger's Fountain Of Youth, Hello Out There / Waldman, Reardon, Gabriele, Columbia Chamber Orchestra

Beeson / Reardon / Columbia Chamber Orch / Waldman
Release Date: 01/10/2012 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1312  
Composer:  Jack Beeson
Performer:  Alfred AndersonJudith ChristinCarol WilcoxGrayson Hirst,   ... 
Conductor:  Thomas MartinFrederic Waldman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber OrchestraColumbia Chamber Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Back Order: Usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEESON Dr. Heidegger’s Fountain of Youth Thomas Martin, cond; Carol Wilcox ( Rachel Lockhart ); Judith Christin ( Hannah Moody ); Grayson Hirst ( Reuben Waterford ); Robert Shiesley ( Col. Killigrew ); Alfred Anderson ( Dr. Heidegger ); Miranda Beeson ( Maid Read more class="ARIAL12">); CO ALBANY 1312 (77:26 Text and Translation)

& Hello Out There. Frederic Waldman, cond; Leyna Gabriele ( The Girl ); John Reardon ( Young Man ); Columbia CO

I approached this CD with interest: two chamber operas on one disc raises the question of the extent to which works of such brevity have the space to be truly operatic. Jack Beeson was commissioned by the National Arts Club to write an opera on an American theme. He chose a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne and, with a libretto by Sheldon Harnick, Dr. Heidegger’s Fountain of Youth was premiered at the club in 1978. Four elderly friends are invited by Dr. Heidegger to sample an elixir he has been sent from Brazil that will bring eternal youth. To prove the efficacy of the liquid, the Doctor rejuvenates a dead flower with it. The guests are duly impressed, drink the potion, and discover themselves regaining their youth. The two men are soon fighting over the two women, the vase of elixir is smashed, and their old age returns. Being Hawthorne, however, there is a deal of ambiguity over whether the elixir is really what Dr. Heidegger claims it is. Was the trick with the rose just that, a trick? Do the four people really regain their youth, or do they only think they do? This inconsistency between the natural and the supernatural is the point of the story and, while I’ve not read it, I can imagine the author handles the ideas well. However, it is one thing to play with these ideas in a reader’s mind. When presenting them as staged action, the composer and librettist either have to come off the fence or find a way to present that ambiguity visually and musically. I fear that, for me, Beeson doesn’t convincingly do either. The printed stage direction, “When he removes [the dead flower] (or the other flower, assuming the ‘magic’ to have been brought about by substitution) it is in full flower,” may be ambiguous, but the audience isn’t reading stage directions; they will see a representation of only one of two things: something really supernatural, or a trick. In the one area where Beeson could have introduced some ambiguity or even magic—the music—there is none. I read in the CD booklet that “reviewers recognized the beauty of the score” and the New York Times called the music “delightful,” but, to me, it is just so ... brown . Even the CD packaging is brown. What seems to be a lack of compositional imagination, the fact that the scene is set at some length with five old people, the timbral palette of the orchestra, and, possibly, even the reading all conspire to make the experience of listening to it just rather dull. Matters aren’t helped by Alfred Anderson, as the Doctor, who is not always focused; the other soloists are good enough, as is the orchestra. There’s no doubting the sureness with which the opera is structured, the quality of the writing for voices, which is always grateful, and the resourceful and interesting handling of the tiny orchestra (11 players).

Things brighten up in Hello Out There (1953), a two-hander (for the most part) running 35 minutes. Based on a play by William Saroyan (to the composer’s own libretto), it is about the relationship that develops between a young man, imprisoned for a rape he did not commit, and a cook in the jail. Beeson’s sense of the ebbs and flows in this relationship is telling and the music highly responsive to its twists and turns. As with Dr. Heidegger , the musical style shifts between a 12-tone idiom and sheer tonal lyricism, the latter exemplified in the section where the two sing of how they will escape to San Francisco. Unfortunately, a deus ex machina turns up in the form of the raped woman’s husband and, this being America, he shoots the young man dead. Beeson leaves the entry of the husband daringly late, at around 27 minutes in, and, inevitably, there is no time to flesh out this character. This is a great shame, as it would have been fascinating to hear Beeson shift from duet to trio; as it is, the new character is little more than a cipher. What is inexplicable is that, less than two minutes before the end, two more characters turn up (speaking roles to boot) to cart off the body accompanied by some unconvincing sound effects of a “mob.” This is, surely, dramatically unnecessary and leaves the work ending in disarray, for all that Beeson seeks a strong close in the orchestra’s final measures. Again a small orchestra (14) is deployed, and it acquits itself well; the two main singers are strong, though the second man is insufficiently differentiated vocally from the young man.

I am grateful to have found on the Internet the liner notes that accompanied the original release of the recording of Dr. Heidegger on CRI, Albany choosing not to identify in the booklet which singers sing which role, when the recordings were first issued (1979 apparently in the case of Dr. Heidegger ), or the full details of the instrumentation of either work. And it would have been helpful to indicate in the text where the tracks start in both operas. The essays on the music are good enough, but Albany’s presentation is otherwise less than its usual high standard. People seeking recordings of these works need not hesitate; others may wish to essay the clips Albany has uploaded to YouTube.

FANFARE: Jeremy Marchant
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Works on This Recording

Dr. Heidegger's Fountain of Youth by Jack Beeson
Performer:  Alfred Anderson (Bass Baritone), Judith Christin (Mezzo Soprano), Carol Wilcox (Soprano),
Grayson Hirst (Tenor), Robert Shiesley (Baritone), Miranda Beeson (Spoken Vocals)
Conductor:  Thomas Martin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Chamber Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1978 
Hello Out There by Jack Beeson
Performer:  John Reardon (Baritone), Leyna Gabriele (Soprano)
Conductor:  Frederic Waldman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Columbia Chamber Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 

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