John Ashbery and Charles Wuorinen at Guggenheim

(photo by Rachel Papo from NYTimes)

I guess the Brokeback Mountain opera (to be made by composer Charles Wuorinen) is on hold for the moment (hopefully, it’ll still happen eventually). But mainly over curiosity over the Brokeback-composer-to-be, I went to the Guggenheim recently for a Works & Process event celebrating Wuorinen’s 70th birthday.

The first part of the program consisted of Sean Curran Dance Company dancing to Wuorinen’s The Mission of Virgil, a deeply tense, dramatic piece for two pianos that took as its inspiration Dante’s Inferno. The dancers appropriately thrashed about in frenzy, crawled around the floor looking animalistic and like creatures from a netherworld, and stomped in unison evoking Satanic wrath — all with immense expressiveness and very good precision of form.

But of course I’ve seen dance performed to classical or modern music before. I was most interested in the second part of the program — Ashberyana — in which Wuorinin had set to operatic music (baritone with four stringed instruments, a piano and trombone) four John Ashbery poems from the poet’s book Wakefulness.

I don’t know that much about music (yet; am learning through Tchaikovsky!) but from what I’ve heard thus far (John Adams, Wuorinen), modern opera music is so harsh, so severe, to me, and it all seems so low-keyed and monotone. With Adams’s Doctor Atomic, that made sense given the intellectually dense, emotionally heavy nature of the story, but the set of poems Wuorinen chose of Ashbery’s seemed not so much so, but instead, by turns humorous, playful with words and logic, dreamy, surreal, rhythmic. And yet it seemed the intensity of the music — violins sounding like slashes of a knife, the cello a blow to the head, and the baritone’s voice so virile, powerful, menacing, almost as if he were threatening with each word — didn’t ideally mesh with the poems.

I don’t know… judge for yourself if you like: go here to read at least one of the poems in the piece (“Dear Sir or Madam”) — scroll down; and go here to hear the poems set to music and song.

I wonder if a Brokeback opera will / would sound similarly furious and damning.

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