Gatsby Returns

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!

Gatsby Marginalized

In a recent New Yorker article about a theatrical adaptation of The Great Gatsby that involves reading the entire novel on stage, Rebecca Mead reviews the various theatrical and cinematic adaptations of the book that have been done over the years. She includes various absurd failures, but fails to mention the most successful adaptation of the piece: John Harbison’s 1999 opera, premiered at the Met late that year. Maybe she knew about the piece and left it out because the excellence of Harbison’s work would conflict with the point she was trying to make about how impossible the novel is to adapt. More likely, I fear, she simply didn’t know the piece existed. Again, to repeat a motif often found in these posts – one of the musics I love has been marginalized – in this case, pushed right out of the picture.

You can hear Gatsby on CDs that the Met is selling as part of a big 32-disc set honoring James Levine on his 40th Anniversary with the company. You have to buy the whole set, no individual items for sale just yet. Too bad the piece didn’t get included in the Levine DVD set that has also been issued – though that does include both Berg operas, Weill’s Mahagonny, and Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles. Hear Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson sing an excerpt from Gatsby here.