STEVEN STUCKY: August 4, 1964 – Indira Mahajan (Mrs. Chaney)/ Kristine Jepson (Mrs. Goodman)/ Vale Rideout (Robert McNamara)/ Rod Gilfry (Lyndon Baines Johnson)/ Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Jaap Van Zweden, conductor – DSO Live DSOL-4 [Distr. by Naxos] (6/26/12) ***:
8/4/1964 was a strange and rather stressful day for President Lyndon Baines Johnson. On that day, in two disparate but completely politically congruous realms, domestic and foreign policy, momentous events took place. After the June 1964 civil rights slaying of three young workers outside of Longdale, Mississippi, one black who was a Freedom Movement worker from nearby Meridian, and two white anthropology students from New York’s Congress of Racial Equality, a massive FBI search was maintained in the surrounding areas until, at last, the bodies were discovered. Johnson himself was the impetus behind the investigation, and seven weeks later, on yes, you guessed it, the grisly tragedy manifested itself in terms of visible human remains. Those of you that have seen Mississippi Burning know the story very well.
But this day was checkered on foreign fronts as well. After the USS Maddox reported that it was under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats, which it said it had survived with the assistance of another U.S. boat, it reported again that the ships had returned. But the captain was unsure as to what was really happening because he said he might have misread the radar, and wired Honolulu which relayed this to Washington. In fact, he sent a number of such messages, the last of which Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided to completely ignore, and Johnson went on national television telling America we were going to retaliate. We did, and several days later the bombing began, as did the long national tragedy of the Vietnam War. [One of the many “false flags” which have launched wars both for this country and others…Ed.]
I am not sure that Stucky hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew—this is a lot of emotional angst to squeeze into a work that isn’t really defined as to form. It’s not an opera, not an oratorio or cantata, but has elements of each. There is a cast of four—Johnson, McNamara, and two of the mothers of the slain civil rights kids, plus chorus. Personally I think the piece would work better as an opera—there are no moments of such beauty that they ingrain themselves into the memory, yet the cumulative effect of the whole is not without power. This sort of thing works best in an opera, where we can see the emotions of the characters—without the visuals it’s a little harder to adjust to the story, even though Stucky has a remarkable ability to write vocal lines that are clear and understandable, reducing the need to libretto-gaze along the way. Musically no one should have any trouble with this, written in a very accessible style.
The sound is very good, recorded at quite a low level, and the singers are all fine. The DSO plays with a lot of character and strength, the high brass especially notable. This is a Dallas Symphony label production, and the project is worthwhile. I am not sure how inclined I am for repeated hearings in this difficult work, as the subject matter is a little obscure and not as flagrant as say, Nixon in China. But many will find it rewarding.
An excellent DG debut!