Subtitled Arias, Interludes and Postlude from the opera “The
Handmaid's Tale” the Offred Suite is a substantial
piece for voice and orchestra. It draws on material from Ruders'
first opera, completed in 1998. These arias are sung by the
opera's main protagonist whose name is unknown and who is referred
to as the Handmaid of-Fred. Fred is the Commander of
the fundamentalist dictatorship ruling over the remains of the
United States known as Gilead. Due to nuclear radiation most
couples have become infertile and the Handmaid acts as a surrogate
mother for them. She is meant to bear the Commander's children.
Contemplating suicide she eventually tries to escape to Canada
although her ultimate fate is unknown at the end of the opera.
She nevertheless records her story on tape. This taped memoir,
or fragments of it, discovered two hundred years further in
the future, provides the text for the Offred Suite. This
records the Handmaid's story in what amounts to a short synopsis.
The suite is actually conceived as a large-scale scena
and the music flows continuously. The first song opens with
the very beginning of the opera. The story is told in a hesitant,
fragmentary way. The second aria What was that? is somewhat
more agitated. She spots a cod-Latin inscription roughly meaning
“Don't let the bastards grind you down”) probably
written by one of her predecessors. She will only learn its
meaning later. The next song, and by far the longest, Ev'ry
Moon I watch for blood, finds Offred after her monthly insemination
and check-up by the doctor, lamenting that she is not pregnant.
If she is not able to conceive a child, she will be sent to
one of the abandoned nuclear plants which corresponds to a death
sentence. This is followed by a somewhat longer and more aggressive
interlude ending with a brief distorted echo of Amazing Grace.
It leads into a lighter song that is eventually crushed by another
mighty interlude leading into the unaccompanied final aria “Whether
this is my end or a new beginning … And so I step into
the darkness or else the light”. These ambiguous words
seem to reflect the Handmaid's unsettled fate. This superb piece
of music is capped by the turbulent Postlude that ends the opera
with what Malcolm MacDonald aptly describes as “a final
sequence of quiet, dissonant chords like a distorted Amen”.
Susanna Phillips sings wonderfully throughout this magnificent
piece. It has definitely whetted my appetite to hear the opera
which is available on CD from DaCapo: see reviews of this release,
and the UK
Tundra was commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius.
Other commissioned composers included Einar Englund (Ciacona),
Thea Musgrave (Song of the Enchanter), Joji Yuasa (The
Midnight Sun), Erkki-Sven Tüür (Searching for
Roots), Tobias Picker (Séance), Wilfred Josephs
(In the North) and Marius Constant (Hämeenlinna).
These were first performed in 1990 and recorded in 1991 for
release on an Ondine CD (ODE767-2) that may still be available.
Another recording of Tundra is also available on Chandos
CHAN 9179. This is a short atmospheric work suggesting a static
surface teeming with unseen life below.
Ruders' Symphony No.3 “Dreamcatcher” draws
on the very fine Serenade on the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean
(2004) for accordion and string quartet, the seventh movement
of which bears the title of Dream Catcher. Incidentally
this attractive work is available on Bridge 9336 which has been
here. The symphony is in two large movements played without
a break. The first movement opens with a powerful flourish that
functions as a call-to-arms but the rest of the movement is
predominantly slow and mostly scored for strings. The music,
however, is rather tense and builds-up to stringent, though
short-lived outbursts. The music then bridges into the second
movement, a long Scherzo that nothing seems able to stop. Even
shorter episodes do not halt the music. It keeps rushing on
until it reaches a point of final exhaustion where the music
from the first movement is recalled until the music winds down
into stillness … “except that the final quiet sonority,
conjured out of a Lion's Roar, a Chinese cymbal played with
a bow, sul ponticello double basses, immensely low brass
and bass clarinet, is as weird and unsettling a sound as any
we have heard in the entire work” (Malcolm MacDonald).
Indeed the very last sound we hear provides a magical conclusion
to a rather complex work which the composer rather enigmatically
describes as “a symphonic journey with a less-than-happy
ending, open to all sorts of individual, metaphorical interpretations”.
Nevertheless, what comes clearly through this mightily imposing
work is Ruders' orchestral mastery. He is always likely to surprise
the attentive listener with some unexpected twist or turn. This
is the sort of work that definitely repays repeated hearings.
This release is already Volume 8 in Bridge's Ruders edition
and it certainly does not pale when compared to its predecessors.
The performances are uniformly excellent and the recorded sound
just superb. Full marks to Malcolm MacDonald for his excellent
and detailed notes from which I have unashamedly quoted. They
form another asset to this most desirable release.