Judging from what you can hear on the trailer, you won’t be going to the upcoming film of The Great Gatsby for the music. Seekers of a musical Gatsby should be getting their tickets for the Boston premiere of John Harbison’s opera on the subject, being given by Emmanuel Music in a concert version featuring the the full orchestration.* This will take place at Jordan Hall on Sunday, May 12.
A few days before the Boston performance you can preview some of the music from the opera in a May 7 Carnegie Hall concert by the Albany Symphony, with David Alan Miller conducting. The program will include a suite from Harbison’s work, alongside music by Gershwin and Morton Gould. This is part of Carnegie’s Spring for Music festival of orchestral concerts.
It is nearly inexplicable to me that Harbison’s opera was not more universally praised on its first appearance. I say “nearly” because the tempi of conductor James Levine did make the piece lose momentum at moments, leading critics to interpret a performance flaw as a compositional one. There was certainly plenty of praise for the piece, as the quotes on G. Schirmer’s web page confirm. But apart from Bernard Holland’s despicably condescending take, most of the reviews mix admiration with niggling at details, or vague reservations. Alex Ross didn’t care of the setting of Gatsby’s first entrance, with a long note on the first word of “I’m Gatsby.” What did he want, a long note on the first syllable of “Gatsby”? You’d have something akin to the current fad of goat vocalism on YouTube. Mark Swed remarks that “Harbison may have solved too many problems.” He would prefer that the piece have unsolved problems? It’s hard to know what that means, given that Swed goes on to describe how the composer succeeds in creating a dramatic narrative. I was amused to read how Holland and Swed had precisely opposite opinions on the staging and design of the production.
Listening to the piece again on the recording issued by the Met as part of a James Levine 40th anniversary CD collection, one thing that struck me, besides Levine’s tendency to drag the pacing at moments, was how poorly the chorus sounds, singing the synthetic 20’s pop songs with an unpleasantly and totally inappropriate heavy vibrato. (I’m sure Emmanuel won’t have that problem.) Still, the performances by the all-star cast (Upshaw, Hadley, Hunt-Lieberson, Graham) make up for these deficiencies. It’s good to have the recording because repeated listenings confirm that the piece is musically substantive in a way that few post-war operas are. There is a real composer at work here, folks – maybe the problem with the reception of the piece is that listeners to contemporary opera aren’t accustomed to that.
* In an earlier version of this post, I had assumed that the chamber orchestra version (prepared for a production in San Francisco) was being done. Apologies to Emmanuel Music for the error!