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Eurydice and Mary, at the Height of Sorrow

by Allan Kozinn, The New York Times.

After its debut at the Bang on a Can marathon in 2008, Signal, the new-music orchestra conducted by Brad Lubman, built its reputation mainly with the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. But this year Mr. Lubman has been expanding the ensemble’s diet. Last month the group devoted a concert to the idiosyncratic music of Helmut Lachenmann. And at Merkin Concert Hall on Thursday evening Mr. Lubman led Harrison Birtwistle’s “Corridor,” a musically and psychologically thorny piece that focuses on one particularly fraught moment in the Orpheus legend, and a new work by Nico Muhly.

Composers have always been drawn to the Orpheus story, but Mr. Birtwistle seems unusually fond of dissecting it. In his 1984 opera, “The Mask of Orpheus,” he used four singers in the two central roles “” two for Orpheus (the man and the myth) and two for Eurydice (the woman and the myth). In “The Corridor” (2008), Mr. Birtwistle and his librettist, David Harsent, focus solely on Orpheus’ botched rescue of Eurydice from Hades. Just as she is about to cross from death to life, Orpheus turns to look at her, thereby losing her irrevocably.

What interested Mr. Birtwistle was not so much the loss of Eurydice as the shock of it: in this 40-minute scene, Orpheus and Eurydice, separately and together, revisit Orpheus’ fatal turn over and over, exploring pain, anger, surprise and perplexity before getting down to the sort of discussion that any contemporary couple might have: Orpheus offers several explanations of how he came to make such a tragic error, and Eurydice, with some acerbity, expresses disbelief at his carelessness.

Mr. Birtwistle’s score describes this emotional minefield vividly. Its style changes constantly: the vocal writing is often angular and tense, occasionally lyrical and sometimes spoken, and the instrumental scoring “” for violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet and harp “” mirrors, punctuates and comments on it.

Mr. Muhly, commissioned to write a short work to precede “The Corridor,” for the same ensemble and singers, produced an exquisitely eclectic setting of the Stabat Mater, a hymn that describes Mary’s sorrow as she stands at the foot of the cross. Using an English paraphrase by Craig Lucas, Mr. Muhly seemed to push his vocal writing through musical history, beginning with what sounded like a neo-medieval vocal setting and expanding toward counterpoint, Romantic drama and a declamatory style that evoked Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” period. The colorful, tactile instrumental writing added to the work’s stylistically free-spirited quality.

Rachel Calloway, the soprano, sang with considerable depth of expression and very little vibrato, and gave superb accounts of both works. Jeffrey Gavett’s tenor was attractive but underpowered, though he began to put some muscle behind his singing near the end of the Birtwistle.

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