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30.7.09

Paul Moravec, Full of Noises

Ionarts is in Colorado this week, for our first, long overdue visit to the Central City Opera summer festival (more about that to come). Fortunately, we managed to escape, just in the nick of time, the first real heat of this unusually temperate Washington summer, bringing Master Ionarts and Miss Ionarts to see America's big mountains -- well, what can be seen of them under some rather uncharacteristic rain and cold fronts. Yesterday was given over to a trip out Canyon Boulevard from Boulder for walks and (careful) rock climbing along Boulder Creek, as well as a visit with an old friend from our student of entomology days back in Michigan, who showed us her bug collection. The behind-the-scenes tour included boxes and boxes of bees, touching a live hissing cockroach, looking at live black widow spiders in a jar, and a sampling of the 11,000 grasshoppers!

available at Amazon
P. Moravec, Tempest Fantasy (inter alia), Trio Solisti, D. Krakauer

(re-released on March 27, 2007)
Naxos 8.559323
After Colorado, we will make our annual pilgrimage to Santa Fe Opera, where one of the main events is the world premiere production of Paul Moravec's new opera, The Letter. It may seem overkill to return to this Naxos CD, the now very available and affordable reference recording of the work that won Moravec the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, Tempest Fantasy. Jens and I both reviewed the piece's Washington premiere in 2006, and Jens has even written about the CD. The pieces recorded on it, however, fill out the picture of Moravec's compositional style gleaned from some recent study of the piano-vocal score of The Letter. The strengths of his instrumental pieces -- The Letter is Moravec's first attempt at opera -- are an animated, even frenetic rhythmic vitality (a benefit of having lived after the Minimalist revolution) and a willingness to embrace the triad. The style is not really tonal, although there is a sense at times of a key center, but while there are many triads they are not generally related to one another in conventionally tonal ways.

Sometimes Moravec indulges in truly syrupy, jazz-influenced harmonies -- there are moments in the fourth-movement Sweet Airs of the Tempest Fantasy (related by the composer to Caliban's "The isle is full of noises" speech) that one could easily mistake for Bernstein or Broadway. "Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not," indeed. The same is true of Mood Swings, the 1999 piano trio also on this disc, where the other typical element of Moravec's style, a sort of wrong-note pandiatonicism, is kept to a minimum. The key center of E minor is central to The Letter, as it opens and concludes in that area, but with plenty of obscuring notes, as in the confrontation of B-flat minor and E minor that runs through the end of the score, all the way to the final measures. That is why, although that E minor triad keeps returning at the end of scenes, Moravec mostly does not indicate a key signature. An E minor key signature appears in the seventh interlude, leading into Leslie's big aria in Scene 8, only to be canceled out as Leslie is stirred from her reverie by a knock at the door.

Conventional tonality also makes an appearance when Leslie tries to make her lover, Geoff Hammond, think back to the first night they fell in love, dancing together at a club in Singapore. The feeling of nostalgia is signaled by a swath of music notated in an E major key signature in the fourth scene. As Geoff comes out of the memory, remembering that he is trying to break up with Leslie, the key signature is again canceled out. The obvious influence for this use of chromaticism, both melodically and harmonically, is Wagner, who seems to be a model for Moravec in writing his first opera, although the length of The Letter, a taut ninety minutes, is hardly Wagnerian. It is probably not a coincidence that the famous Tristan chord (spelled F-A-flat-C-flat-E-flat) plays a part in Hammond's signature "I've loved you, ever, ever" music, which returns like an erotic tattoo throughout the opera. Planing triads sometimes recall Debussy, and there are some hair-raising extended-harmony chords, such as at the end of the third interlude, that shimmer like Messiaen's purple-orange prismatic sonorities. Slithering, chromatic melodies, also redolent of Wagner, even introduce the remembered meeting of Hammond and Leslie in the fourth scene. More to come after the first actual hearing of the opera next week.