This is a superbly produced disc of world premiere recordings.
The Naxos engineering is exemplary and the playing by the Eclipse
Chamber Orchestra is technically above reproach and musically
dedicated. This reflects an association with the composer going
back over a decade. I just wish that I enjoyed the music more.
The main work here is composer Mark Adamo’s tribute
to AIDS sufferers from San Francisco. The Late Victorians
of the title refers to the brightly painted houses that this
community (in part) lived in. The work has an unusual structure
being written in four movements linked by instrumental cadenzas/meditations.
Each movement in turn consists of an amalgam of spoken text,
sung responses to the spoken text, and sung settings of Emily
Dickinson poems. The spoken role is that of a narrator witnessing
the tragedy of AIDS unfurl around him. The soprano, when in
dialogue with the narrator seems to be the voice of the departed,
commenting and elaborating on the narrator’s observations. The
Dickinson texts are a separate parallel commentary on the text
and tend to be set towards the end of each movement. Mark Adamo
is not a composer whose work I have heard before. The sincerity
of this work is never in doubt. He likens it to a series of
meditations in the style of the Stations of the Cross. An interesting
thought is that - although never stated in his liner-note -
I suspect Catholicism is an important element in Adamo’s life
or at very least he has an interest in the ritual and symbolism
The use of a narrator in any musical work is always problematic.
I find the text here portentous and its delivery doubly so.
The music written to accompany the narrations does not strike
me as particularly original. I must stress that his work is
unfamiliar to me so I have not had time to absorb his musical
characteristics. By far the best passages are the Dickinson
settings and the solo instrumental episodes that follow. Apparently
the players of these cadenzas are directed to leave the stage
after their solo is done. Adamo explains that the inspiration
for this moment of musical theatre is Haydn’s Farewell Symphony
but the image of departure here is more tragically permanent.
The playing of the uncredited soloists in these passages is
for me the highlight of the disc with a particularly stunning
horn solo. My other problem is the lack of emotional differentiation
through the four movements of this twenty-eight minute work.
Another work to be written as an ‘AIDS Requiem’ is John Corigliano’s
Symphony No. 1 ‘Of Rage and Remembrance’. I do not consider
that the symphony to be masterpiece that some do but I do think
that Corigliano manages to encompass a far greater emotional
range in that work than Adamo does here. One is on contentious
and sensitive ground here so I do not wish to labour the point.
Simply put, this is not a piece to which I would return on purely
Given the relatively short playing time of the disc I wonder
why the complete Four Angels – Concerto for Harp was
not included. Instead we get the slow movement alone – Regina
Coeli. I see that Adamo notes this is rescored for strings
alone on this recording – perhaps the orchestration of the whole
work is outside the remit of the excellent Eclipse Chamber Orchestra.
The orchestra, by the way, are drawn from the National Symphony
Orchestra Washington, as is the harp soloist and their conductor
Sylvia Alimena who is the NSO’s second horn. Harpist Dotian
Levalier makes a gloriously sonorous and rich sound on her harp
aided by the excellent recording. Again, I’m struggling to hear
great musical individuality that goes beyond clear compositional
facility. Likewise the Overture to Lysistrata that follows.
Adamo likens this to a latter day Candide Overture but
I hear little of the sparkle and wit of that piece. Adamo does
not embrace either the minimalism of an Adams or the post-modern
rock idiom of a Daugherty. It is essentially tonal music with
a lyrical centre reflecting his involvement in opera. One can
hear in the three movements of the Alcott Music which
completes the disc the influence of the voice. He describes
them neatly as “a souvenir for orchestra of my opera Little
Women”. Not having heard the originating work it is hard
know to what degree of re-composition the music has been subjected.
No matter, these three movements work well in their own right.
Again confident and exemplary playing from the orchestra means
that the music is presented to maximum effect. I suspect this
is a disc which will grow in stature as one becomes more familiar
with the compositional processes at work. For the moment I would
have to put my hand up and say – my failing I’m sure – not a
disc that gave me much pleasure for all its undoubted merits.