JOHN HARBISON: The Great Gatsby Suite; Darkbloom; Closer to My Own Life – Mary Mackenzie, sop. (Life)/ Albany Sym. Orch./ David Alan Miller – Albany TROY1545, 49:23 [3/1/15] *****:
Harbison’s complete opera on Gatsby was a success at the Met in 1999, and this 1998 suite (re-written in 2007) concentrates on some of the instrumental music of the opera. Harbison is a fine librettist and to help set the musical situation for Daisy and her friends he used a lot of 1920s-sounding original music and orchestrations, some of which are heard here. The late Jerry Hadley was Gatsby and Dawn Upshaw was Daisy, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson also in the opera. Harbison reports that their voices and personalities shaped the music of the suite.
Harbison has a quite unique sound of his own, using a sort of chromatic tonality, except in the ‘20s-sounding music, which is great to hear. The suite is in two movements, marked Allegro Moderato and Frenetico.
Before The Great Gatsby, Harbison had another opera project which he discontinued. He collected strands of the music and created this “Overture for an imagined opera” in 2004, Darkbloom. Vivian Darkbloom is a secondary character in the American novel on which he based the opera, but he felt the name served as an emblem for the complex tragi-comic story of the opera. He says he is as reluctant as any artist to part with such good material, and he hopes this music is expressive on its own terms.
The third work on this disc is four songs for soprano and orchestra, using little stories by Alice Munro which she said were closer to her own life than stories she had written previously. The four titles are: Home, Lying under the apple tree, What do you want to know for? and Messenger. I usually don’t care for songs such as these, but the unusual nature of them being more than the usual fiction, the fact they’re not poetry, and they are in English, appealed to me. The third one is about a lump her doctor found which may or may not be serious, and is emotionally presented. Also, the soloist, Mary Mackenzie, is excellent, as is the orchestral backing Harbison gives her.