Michael Cameron
February 27, 2009

These two orchestral works by Charles Fussell are new to me, as is his music in general. Wilde, Symphony for Baritone and Orchestra, was runner-up for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, a surprise not because of its merits or lack thereof, but because the style is not typical of most contenders from that era. Since the track record of Pulitzer decisions is decidedly mixed, runner-up status is considered a badge of honor among some new music aficionados.

The disc’s two works suggest a synthesis of mid-20th-century American harmonic materials with 19th-century European formal constructions. Fussell alludes to the three-movement work as a symphony that wants to be an opera, with a text by Will Graham that fuses snippets of Oscar Wilde’s writing with Graham’s original material. Since the libretto is essentially a monologue in the form of a letter from Wilde to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, the decision by the composer to forgo the trappings of a theatrical setting in favor of a symphonic one seems both wise and practical. Though Wilde is the inspiration, this is an unmistakably American work, with hints of influence from Fussell’s friend and mentor Virgil Thompson, as well as Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. Its chief asset is a disciplined, continuous development of signature melodic fragments. The orchestration is largely by the book, and the modest demands placed on the voice are well calculated to mirror the spoken word.

The language is largely tonal, and the composer occasionally weaves vernacular references into the symphonic fabric, most successfully in the form of a nostalic English music-hall dance band in part 1: “London (1895).” Less convincing is the waltz tune in part II: “In the South (1897-98),” in which at one point is distorted by melodic string tremolandos. Part III: “Paris (1900)” begins promisingly and sustains a sober elegiac mood with muted, dark colors and gentle dissonances. The final bars sound oddly truncated and leave the listener with the sensation of work interrupted rather than concluded. Sanford Sylvan sings with warmth and conviction.

The disc opener is High Bridge Prelude, a purely orchestral work also sown from literary roots. The opening fanfares eschew the triumphal spirit standard in many overtures, not surprising, given the turbulent life of poet Hart Crane, the composer’s subject. The lyrical brass and wind choruses are effectively somber, but the transitions in mood are sometimes clumsily executed. Though not particularly dissonant, the mood is predominantly sour, even when the texture percolates and buzzes. The final pages are the most moving, with tragic undertones that perhaps reference the writer’s suicide. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose performs well for the most part, although there are passages that sound under-rehearsed, including tempo changes, shifts between mass orchestral and chamber sounds, and bits of upper string tuning problems.

While I have mixed feelings about Fussell’s music, I enjoyed it enough to want to hear more. This offering from Boston Modern’s label seems a bit stingy, clocking in at a mere 45 minutes. The sound is close and somewhat below the standards of some of the larger labels, but overall, balances are clean and accurate.