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Mark GREY (b. 1967)
Enemy Slayer – A Navajo Oratorio (2007) [68:43]
Scott Hendricks (baritone)
Phoenix Symphony Chorus/Gregory Gentry
Phoenix Symphony Orchestra/Michael Christie
rec. live 7, 9 February 2008, Symphony Hall, Phoenix, Arizona USA (world première) DDD
NAXOS 8.559604 [68:43] 
Experience Classicsonline


I have a more than musical reason for taking an interest in this work, and in music of a Native American origin. My daughter is descended, through her mother’s family, from the Cherokee Nation. Their branch of the Nation no longer exists, and thus their way of life is lost to us. For these reasons
I welcome any work of art which celebrates the Native American or is conceived by a Native American. Here was a chance for Naxos to give us a recording of Louis Ballard’s magnificent Suite for orchestra, Incident at Wounded Knee (1974). It deserves a wider audience than it has so far achieved. But I digress. 

Enemy Slayer is the first oratorio based on the creation story of the Navajo. The story concerns the twins Monster Slayer and Child Born for Water who (as Marley Shebala’s notes tell us) went to war against the monsters who threatened their people. After destroying all the monsters the twins returned home but started having nightmares, smelling the blood of the monsters and screaming in horror. They wanted to be alone, lost their appetites, became depressed, angry, violent, and thought of suicide. Today we would say that they were suffering post–traumatic stress disorder. Thus the Navajo people created the Anaa’jí (Enemy Way), one of the most sacred of the Navajo ceremonies and one which is still in use to cleanse and heal warriors returning from today’s wars. 

Composer Grey, his librettist Laura Tohe (an award winning Navajo poet) and photographer Deborah O’Grady said that they wanted this work to be a bridge between the Navajo and non–Navajo worlds. To this end Tohe’s libretto is based on the idea of the Anaa’jí – to quote it would be sacrilegious – and, according to the notes (on which I have drawn very closely at times), she gave shape to Grey’s visionary concept. In Enemy Slayer we follow the trials and tribulations of Seeker, a man suffering battle fatigue. He goes through the vicissitudes suffered by the twins, and sings of his feelings; the chorus, variously representing his parents, grandparents, ancestors and the Holy Ones respond to his dilemma. 

When he wrote the work Grey was composer in residence for the Phoenix Symphony and the organisation obviously wanted to give their man the best they could offer for what could possibly be his magnum opus. So what did Grey deliver? This almost 70 minute oratorio is written in a very conventional voice, there’s nothing here which would scare the horses, and there’s no real high point which stands head and shoulders above the rest. There are also some very obvious and embarrassingly twee sections, such as the sound of battle at the end of the third (of five) sections. The material is generally unmemorable, and far too slight to sustain 70 minutes of music, and although the work has pretensions to be Epic, it simply fails to satisfy in such a way. Most importantly, there is no feeling of Native Americana! Only the words give it the cachet of being married to the great Navajo tradition. The scoring is brilliant, and well thought out. It’s very colourful and direct – the language is easy on the ear – but that simply isn’t enough for the concept. 

I know that composer and librettist wrote this piece with the best of intentions, but good intentions aren’t enough when creating a work of art which is meant to be as all-consuming as the subject matter so obviously is. With such a small-scale musical outlook, a work of half the duration would have been better but the stumbling block would always be the overly conventional idiom and musical outlook. A story of this magnitude needs, nay craves, a big and sturdy voice to do it justice. Just think of what Charles Ives or Henry Brant might have made of it. What we have here is just so much note-spinning without much substance. Nowhere do I find this music to be relevant to, nor is it worthy of, the subject matter. I am saddened to find this work a failure in purely musical terms for I expected much. 

A big stumbling block in the performance is the baritone Scott Hendricks who employs a very wide vibrato, which verges on uncontrolled wobble. Quite often I was unsure as to what note he was singing, and his loud declamations quickly grate on the ear. Listen to him at 9:30 in the final section – the line is badly distorted by his vibrato and he makes a very unpleasant sound. Not the kind of singing I welcome in the concert hall, let alone when listening to something at home. Apart from the soloist the performance seems totally committed and the recording is excellent, but there isn’t anything in this music which engages me.

Bob Briggs

Further material about this work can be found at:
Opera today.com
Markgreymusic.com

 
 


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