The fifth volume in this Stefan Wolpe series is as intriguing for what is heard as for what, necessarily for the time being, remains unseen.
The two major works are very visually oriented, albeit from wildly different points of view.
The allegorical tale, Lazy Andy Ant, most certainly needs to find its way to an animation studio in order for Helen Fletcher’s text to be brought more fully to its cautionary life. If the album’s cover is any example, the result could be a welcome addition to the likes of Peter and the Wolf for youngsters of all ages.
Here, Patrick Mason as the narrator is ever-engaging and marvel of diction all the while accompanied by the twin talents of Quattro Mani (pianists Susan Grace and Alice Rybak are at one with each other in terms of texture, touch and tone). Wolpe’s soundscape is more than functional, slyly adding dissonance at the mention of “work” and crafting the four songs with obvious skill and understanding. Yet when the music stops—even as the narrative continues—the overall effect is weakened, somewhat like a full colour production suddenly slipping into “just” black-and-white.
Young Zac Garcia is an engaging Andy Ant (notably his variations of “tra la la la la la la”) and ought to have a bright career in Music Theatre. Wendy Buzby provides a wonderful characterization of The Judge (who must be obeyed or “out!”). In the brief role as Anteater, Mathew Whitmore salivates for his insect buffet with ease, making the ear wish for further helpings.
In a much darker vein is Wolpe’s three-movement Suite for Marthe Krueger. The pianists dig deep into the score, producing many moments of finely contoured lines (notably in “Women,” where an abundance of personality traits are jammed into its brief span), and readily sail through the tinges of jazz and echoes of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Yet too much of the drama of Krueger’s choreography can only be guessed at; the music on its own has moments of stagnation (especially in the emotionally charged “Remembrance”) because the composer knew the subtext behind every bar. Sadly, the original scenario is lost.
The remaining collection of songs shifts venue, artists and form and provides the most satisfying tracks on the disc. Baritone Matt Boehler is an artist of impeccable skill. His command of all ranges (“Die Reichen”) and wonderfully intimate delivery (“An Dich,” which gains its powerful ending as the voice is left, lovingly, alone) magically combine (further added by an unfailing sense of rhythm, shared equally by pianist Ursula Oppens) to make Wolpe’s setting of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain!” the best of the vocal bunch.
Not far behind are the further contributions from Oppens (who instinctively knows when to lead or support and has an ear for balance that makes the engineers’ job far less onerous than usual) and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb. Loeb’s clean, clear and appropriately deliberate approach makes “The Angel” take dreamy flight; she convincingly crafts every aspect of the incredibly idealistic texts of the Songs of the Jewish Pioneers (the unintentional return of the ants gives a certain unity even as the frequent exaltation of “the ears of corn” strikes a curious bell with a recent, disturbing documentary—cross-reference below).
What fun to finish off with To a New Theatre (Boehler now endearingly madcap) with Winthrop Palmer’s whimsical lines (“The rose waltzes a polka”) meeting their musical match in Wolpe’s equally zesty sense of humour. JWR