Mark ADAMO (b. 1962)
Late Victorians (1994) [28:07]
Regina Coeli (2007) [7:55]
Overture to Lysistrata (2005) [4:00]
Alcott Music (1999 rev. 2007) [16:25]
Andrew Sullivan (narrator); Emily Pulley (soprano); Dotian Levalier (harp)
Eclipse Chamber Orchestra/Sylvia Alimena
rec. George Washington Masonic Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia, USA, 21 May 2007 (Late Victorians); 21 October 2007 (remainder)
NAXOS 8.559258 [56:48]
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 of it.


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 musical grounds.


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.


Nick Barnard


Not a disc that gave me much pleasure for all its undoubted merits … see Full Review