George Quincy is from Oklahoma
and is of Choctaw heritage. He studied at the Juilliard School,
and subsequently taught there. He was Musical Advisor
to Martha Graham and has composed, orchestrated and conducted
music for theatre, dance, film, opera, television and concert.
Choctaw Diaries is a pleasant, if overlong,
suite for native flute and small ensemble. According to the
notes it “evokes a Native American landscape of spirit, the
dawn of a day from another time, meshing with my own Oklahoma
childhood recollections. It recalls the prairie, the canyon,
the expanse of sky. The voice of the native flute calls for
these experiences to be eternal.” It is attractive in its
sound-world, the native flute, with its own tuning, standing
in relief against the western tuning of the ensemble. The
first movement, Awakening to Spirit opens with the
most gorgeous, and delicate, string writing, over which the
flute sings a long song. It’s a lovely achievement. The second
movement - That We May Touch the Earth – is a scherzo–like
movement, but in a medium tempo, and because of this the music
never takes fire. The third movement – Beauty Comes to
the Eye – is another slow movement starting with a trumpet
solo, then the flute joins in, over a string accompaniment.
The quick finale – Journey to My Truth – returns to
the kind of music heard in the second movement.
This music is very Coplandesque - if you ignore the flute - easy on
the ear, nicely orchestrated and very pleasant. But it’s all
the same. The music never varies and it doesn’t seem to have
a specific musical, as opposed to philosophical, purpose.
In the two parts (one each side of the Diaries) of Quincy’s
Pocahontas, at the Court of King James I, written to
a libretto by the composer’s wife, Thayer Burch, we see the
eponymous heroine at Court. The work begins with a very beautiful
prelude, much of which could have come out of almost any of
Gustav Holst’s earlier works - such as Savitri. There’s
Poulenc and Falla in the harpsichord writing, string glissandi,
then the singing begins. Roberta Gumble (singing a Lady at
Court in part 1) has a voice which isn’t under control. Her
wobble is too much, for it clouds the vocal line and the ear
tires of such sound quite quickly. Marshall Cod’s counter-tenor
- I assume he’s a counter-tenor, and there’s nothing in the
notes to tell me otherwise - is fine but it’s hard to discern
which singer is singing unless you follow the libretto. As
they wait for the entrance of Pocahontas the King and the
Lady speculate on “That putrid tobacco, that dreaded devil’s
plant…” I lit another cigarette at this point. Then there’s
speculation on Pocahontas’s husband, followed by discussion
about “…her entourage. Heathens all, Quite glorious in their
The second part has our heroine in duet with the King.
One of the things which makes opera, or whatever this work is, work
is that it has to have clearly drawn characters – think of
Tosca, Peter Grimes, Figaro – and good
tunes – almost any stage-work by Haydn and Mozart, most of
Britten and Tippett, Ned Rorem – which are developed and carry
the argument forwards. Arioso as well as recitative. What
I feel we have here is a piece which doesn’t really work.
It’s not dramatic, it contains too much that is irrelevant
– the tobacco chat in the first part – and the small ensemble
of string quartet, bass, flute, oboe, rain stick (over-used)
and harpsichord simply doesn’t have sufficient colour to make
the music interesting.
Certainly, Choctaw Diaries makes me want to hear more of Quincy’s
work but Pocahontas leaves me cold, not least for the
singing of Roberta Gumble, and the fact that the two voices
used are so similar in timbre that you’ve no idea who is singing
what. Why didn’t Quincy use a tenor instead of a counter-tenor?
The instrumentalists are excellent, the small band in the
opera (for want of a better word) sounds to be having a good
time with the limited material given to it, and the Bronx
Ensemble accompany the native flute well.
The recording is excellent and the full libretto is printed in the
booklet but there’s only notes about the composer and the
pieces, nothing about the soloists. I’m sorry to have to say
that I shan’t be reaching for this CD again, in an hurry.