American composer Eugene O'Brien and the 21st Century Consort (ensemble-in-residence at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum) release Algebra of Night, featuring two chamber works that reveal O'Brien’s potent harmonic palette, lucid structures and deeply considered subjects.
Algebra of Night
|Deanne Meek, mezzo-soprano, 21st Century Consort, Jeremy Black, violin, Daniel Foster, viola, Rachel Young, cello, Lisa Emenheiser, piano, Christopher Kendall, conductor
|II. Old Postcard of 42nd Street at Night
II. Old Postcard of 42nd Street at Night
|III. New York dark in August
III. New York dark in August
|IV. Burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
IV. Burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
|V. Avenue A
V. Avenue A
|VII. The Mad Scene
VII. The Mad Scene
|VIII. Of sorrow from the moonstruck darkness
VIII. Of sorrow from the moonstruck darkness
|IX. A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island
IX. A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island
|Elegy to the Spanish Republic
Elegy to the Spanish Republic
|21st Century Consort, Elizabeth Plunk, flute/piccolo, Paul Cigan, clarinet & bass clarinet, Amy McCabe, trumpet, Lee Hinkle, vibraphone, Lisa Emenheiser, piano, Alexandra Osborne, violin, Daniel Foster, viola, Rachel Young, cello, Richard Barber, double bass, Christopher Kendall, conductor
Composer Eugene O’Brien teams up with Washington D.C. based ensemble The 21st Century Consort, led by conductor Christopher Kendall, for an album of two of his ensemble compositions, Algebra of Night and Elegy to the Spanish Republic. The two pieces both take inspiration from a constellation of sources related to iconic places. Algebra of Night for voice and piano quartet sets poetry by six poets who lived in Manhattan at some point and whose work was shaped by the experience of that multi-layered metropolis. Elegy to the Spanish Republic for nine instruments is a “musical addition” to Robert Motherwell’s powerful series of paintings in response to the Spanish Civil War. In both, O’Brien displays his deft, subtle intuition for how to write music that emerges from a pre-existing context while retaining the integrity of both the music and the extra-musical source of inspiration.
Algebra of Night opens with a Fauré-inspired, impressionistic setting of Mark Strand’s “Moon.” It provides a fittingly expansive entryway to this sensuous nine part song cycle. “Old Postcard of 42nd Street,” a setting of Charles Simic’s poetry, captures the animated and sometimes mechanically detached undercurrent of life along the infamous boulevard. Edwin Denby’s “New York, dark in August, seaward,” delves deeper into Gotham’s nocturnal world, as a walking bass line in the cello and Bill Evans-esque piano voicings paint the Chelsea nightscape. The first of two instrumental interludes follows, with a title taken from a Ginsberg poem, “Burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Angular, geometric cello and piano figures spar with searing interjections in the high strings; gradually the temperature rises, culminating in a furious violin solo passage over fierce chordal accents.
Frank O’Hara’s “Avenue A” narrates a slice of life in New York’s East Village; O’Brien skillfully captures the urbane comfort of being part of a close knit community inside a massive, anonymous city with light, detached piano articulations and charmingly expressive textures in the strings. “Lullaby” reflects the straight-forward lyricism of W.H. Auden’s poem, with undulating lines in the strings providing a pad for Deanne Meek’s lush soprano. “The Mad Scene” contains some of the set’s most virtuosic music, specifically in the fleet passagework in the piano part. The work’s second interlude, “Of sorrow from the moonstruck darkness,” is a poignant, elegiac fantasy, including an embedded quote from John Dowland’s famous song “Flow my Tears.” The final song and longest in the piece returns to Frank O’Hara’s texts, specifically his “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” The title of the poem turned out to be portentous, as O’Hara would ultimately die on Fire Island in an accident. O’Brien’s text-driven setting is energized and focused on the unfolding narrative.
The violence of the subject matter is apparent in the taut opening to Elegy to the Spanish Republic, with impassioned material in the strings and charged swells in the winds and trumpet. The piano and vibraphone are often assigned the role of catalyst, triggering a cascade of passagework in the other instruments. O’Brien gradually establishes more reflective material, interspersing it in alternation with the vigorous passages before it elides into a contrasting, middle section featuring a tentative, heaving motif. He mixes light with dark, pitting marionette-like material in the strings and high winds against lurching stabs in the piano and vibes and an ominous melody in the trumpet doubled in the ensemble. This multilayered texture gives way to monolithic towering chords that alternate with a resigned melody in piccolo and trumpet, an echo of the exuberance of military music. O’Brien closes this requiem to the horrors of war with apt discretion — absent is the bravado of brass fanfares or the triumph of resonant chords. Instead we are left with the hollowness of two instruments, spread apart intervallically, intoning frayed melodic remnants.
Throughout these two works, Eugene O’Brien displays a mastery of expressive shading, capturing these nuanced texts and complex historical contexts with fitting musical grace. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of composing music that is “about” something, the wisdom to let the subject matter breathe in its own deep expressive context. The 21st Century Consort’s performances are finely tuned into this characteristic of O’Brien’s music, never stepping beyond the embedded expressivity that the music calls for at any given moment.
- Dan Lippel
Algebra of Night recorded February 22-23, 2015, Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
21st Century Consort Manager: Boyd Sarratt
Recording engineer: Mark Huffman
Producer/editor: Joseph Gascho
Post-production mixing/mastering: D. James Tagg (Stagg Sound Studio)
Mastering: Antonino d’Urzo (Opusrite Audio Productions)
Elegy to the Spanish Republic recorded October 10, 2021, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
Manager: Boyd Sarratt
Recording engineer/editing/mixing/mastering: Antonino d’Urzo (Opusrite Audio Productions)
Co-Producers: Eugene O’Brien and Christopher Kendall
Design, layout & typography: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Cover image: Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV, 1953-54. Collection Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1957 (K1957:6). Photo: Art Resource, NY. © 2023 Dedalus Foundation, Inc.; Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
The recipient of the Rome Prize of the American Academy in Rome, the Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as awards from BMI, ASCAP, and the League of Composers/International Society for Contemporary Music, Eugene O’Brien has received Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Fulbright, National Endowment for the Arts and other fellowships. He has been commissioned by the Fromm Foundation at Harvard, the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation in the Library of Congress, by Meet-The-Composer/Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, The Percussive Arts Society, and by performers and ensembles in the US, Europe and Asia. His music has been heard in concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra, the Italian Radio orchestras of Rome and Turin, the Omaha Symphony, as part of the Saint Louis Symphony Discovery series, the Louisville Orchestra New Dimensions series, and in numerous other concerts and festivals throughout this country and abroad. Recorded on the Capstone, CRI, Crystal, Golden Crest, Fontec, Indiana University and New Focus labels, his music is published by Codex Nuovo, Boosey & Hawkes, and G. Schirmer.
O’Brien studied composition with Robert Beadell, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Iannis Xenakis, John Eaton and Donald Erb. Formerly composer-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music, since 1987 he has been a member of the composition faculty in the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Bloomington, where he is now Professor of Composition Emeritus.
Founded in 1975 as the 20th Century Consort, the group became the resident ensemble for contemporary music at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 1978. In its annual series at the Hirshhorn, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and St. Mark’s Church Capitol Hill, the Consort has presented dynamically balanced concerts frequently related to the museums’ exhibitions, focusing on the music of a diverse array of living composers, including world premieres, along with 20th century classics. In 1990, the Consort was awarded the Smithsonian Institution’s Smithson Medal in honor of their long, successful association, now approaching 50 years.
At the change of millennium, the Consort updated its name to the 21st Century Consort to reflect its forward progression in the field of new music. In the 2006-2007 season, the Consort launched its partnership with the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). The Consort served as the New Music ensemble-in-residence at the Museum’s newly renovated Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium. With the 2022-2023 season, the Consort has returned to its residency at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Under the direction of its founder and conductor, Christopher Kendall, the 21st Century Consort’s artists include principal players from the National Symphony Orchestra, along with other prominent chamber musicians from Washington, D.C. and beyond. The ensemble’s recordings can be heard on the New Focus, Bridge, Innova, Delos, Nonesuch, Centaur, ASV, CRI, Smithsonian Collection and other labels.
A native of the Pacific Northwest, Deanne Meek began her career as a mezzo-soprano soloist with the New York City Opera, and has since sung in many of the great opera houses of the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, The Dallas Opera, Washington Opera, English National Opera (London), Teatro Real (Madrid), Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels), Opéra de Lyon, Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires), Théâtre du Châtelet (Paris), Gran Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona) and the Teatro alla Scala (Milan).
Ms. Meek made her European debut as Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Dublin, Ireland, followed by performances throughout the United Kingdom in roles such as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, Meg Page in Falstaff and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (Opera North), Ruggiero in Alcina (ENO), and the title role in La Cenerentola with Grange Park Opera. Her frequent collaborations with esteemed stage directors such as Sir David MacVicar, Robert Wilson, Krsysztof Warlikowski and Robert Carson have featured her in such roles as Hermia in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dorabella in Così fan tutte, Ines in Il Trovatore and other roles performed in opera houses throughout Europe. She also champions contemporary works, creating the role of Ma Joad in Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath with Minnesota Opera and performing roles such as Jo March in Little Women, Mrs. DeRocher in Dead Man Walking and Older Woman in Jonathan Dove’s Flight.
Highlights of Ms. Meek’s active concert engagements include appearances with the Seattle, Jacksonville, Alabama, American, Jerusalem and Luxembourg symphony orchestras, with frequent appearances with the 21sts Century Consort in Washington, D.C. She enjoys performing the vocal chamber music and recital repertoire, and can be heard on the New Focus, Albany, PS Classics, Opus Arte, Virgin Classics and Telarc labels.
Ms. Meek has taught at Long Island University, Seattle University, the University of Washington, and Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, while also maintaining a private teaching studio both in person and online.
Along with his ongoing work as founder and conductor of the 21st Century Consort, and prior to his appointment as Dean and Professor of Conducting at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance from 2005-2015, Christopher Kendall had served as Director of the School of Music at the University of Maryland since 1996. Previously he was Director of the Music Division of the Boston University School of the Arts, and Music Director of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. He assumed the Boston post following a five-year term as Associate Conductor of the Seattle Symphony, where he led that orchestra in annual subscription concerts along with education, chamber orchestra and new music concerts. Kendall is also the founder and former lutenist of the Folger Consort, early-music ensemble-in-residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The group has performed extensively in Washington, D.C. and has toured and broadcast nationally and internationally. Kendall has guest conducted widely in North America in concerts of repertoire from the 18th through the 21st centuries.
Eugene O'Brien is a USAmerican composer of some standing, having been part of the teaching team at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music since 1987 - so it does not surprise that he
is now a professor emeritus.
In the compositions presented here, he takes inspiration from 9 poems (for the cycle Algebra of Night) and paintings of Robert Motherwell (for Elegy to the Spanish Republic). The question - as always - arises, would the pieces stand without this explanation, is the inspiration a requirement, or only 'sufficient' (look it up in a Maths book, if you want to see the original definition), i.e. would the music not exist without the outside sources (necessary), or is this just a gimmick that does not really define the work (sufficient).
Algebra of Night consists of 9 relatively short pieces, all based on poems written by authors who resided in Manhattan at some point in time. All but two are soprano vocals of Deanne Meek linked with a piano quartet sub-set of the 21st Century Consort. My first impression was that of an opera setting with restricted accompaniment. But these are actually songs in a cycle. As always, I find the singing of poetry a bit tedious; you would need to have the libretto at hand to understand everything - which makes it difficult to follow the artist's intention of conveying the atmosphere of the poems through music. In addition, the grouping around Manhattan-based poets, though mainly referring to the city, seems a bit academic. The two instrumental pieces, as not having poetry, obviously, have titles taken from Ginsberg's work - I am not quite sure whether this information actually adds anything, apart from maybe not being able to form Ginsberg's poetry into music. But why then refer to it? But let's talk about the music. In contrast to the name of the ensemble, this - to me - sounds very little contemporary (as in the 21st century), and much more turn-of-the-century, i.e. 19th to 20th century. The music has more likeness to work by Poulenc, Debussy, and Faure, maybe even than anything 'contemporary'. Is this a sign of getting fed up with modern-day audio abstractions, one of wanting to
return to quasi-romantic composition styles? Or is it just an element of individual style?
Elegy is different in style, but not so much in compositorial approach. Again, the music reminds us more of the early 20th century than anything in the 21st, which is a statement as such, not one of quality. Compared with Algebra, the ensemble is much larger, and the music evokes a sense of military and battle, an appropriate atmosphere seeing the inspiration it came from and the instruments used, with wind and brass (and a vibraphone) replacing the strings from 'Algebra'. It moves between aggressive and melancholic parts - maybe as the cycle of paintings, it refers to depicting different scenes. But we do not know any further, so it is difficult to tell, and perhaps also futile - the music should speak for itself. It does much better here than in 'Algebra' as there is no words to distract from the musical essence. To wrap up, I liked the neo-modern musical approach, apart from which
this release is certainly something for lovers of modern opera (albeit not an opera ...).
— RSW, 9.12.2023
Music can transport listeners both to outward destinations (figuratively) and to inner ones (literally). Composers who seek to connect effectively with audiences may draw inspiration directly from geographic locations or may be inspired at second hand, by basing their works on others’ experiences of specific places – as Eugene O’Brien (born 1945) does in Algebra of Night (2015) and Elegy to the Spanish Republic (2021), which are paired on a new CD from New Focus Recordings. The first of these pieces is a nine-part song cycle for mezzo-soprano (Deanne Meek) and piano quartet, based on the works of six poets who were inspired by Manhattan – the central and best-known borough of New York City, and the place to which most people refer when they simply say “New York.” O’Brien’s settings are highly varied, reflecting in this way the many aspects that he and his poetic inspirers see in Manhattan itself. Thus, for example, the opening Moon, which is expressive and Impressionistic, is followed immediately by the percussion-inflected, rhythmically varied Old Postcard of 42nd Street at Night. Throughout the cycle, O’Brien produces contrasts of this sort between the quiet and comparatively calm and the energetic and intense. The contrasts are especially direct and effective in the instrumental material – unexpectedly and rather oddly, this song cycle is at its best not in the sung material but in the accompaniments to the songs and in the work’s two instrumental interludes. In those, O’Brien uses poetry for movement titles, in the absence of verbiage. Thus, Burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night is a strongly accented and insistent section, whose title comes from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, while Of sorrow from the moonstruck darkness, which is emotive and quietly expressive, quotes from John Dowland’s Flow my tears. Other pieces range from the rather straightforwardly lyrical Lullaby to the piano-focused and frenetic The Mad Scene. O’Brien’s work is not exactly a travelogue but more of an impression of others’ impressions of a specific place. Elegy to the Spanish Republic, for nine instruments, is even more rarefied: it is O’Brien’s response to Robert Motherwell’s paintings created as the artist’s response to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Some of the tone painting here is clear – the opening instrumental violence, for example – and some is clearly designed for emotional balance in a somewhat obvious attempt to portray the horrific impact of war. For those familiar with both the place and the time to which this work refers – and especially those who know Motherwell’s art – the piece will speak meaningfully; but to those not well-versed in the topic, its referents will seem rather prosaic. Likewise, some personal familiarity with Manhattan will go a long way toward producing audience engagement with Algebra of Night.