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Anne Midgette
The Washington Post, December 2010

Adamo, Late Victorians. Sylvia Alimena, Eclipse Chamber Orchestra [Naxos]. Mark Adamo used to write reviews for the Washington Post when he was on his way up to become the acclaimed composer of “Little Women” (out this year on DVD) and other operas. “Late Victorians,” written in 1994 (but revised in 2007), is a moving collage of texts and music about the AIDS crisis.

Uncle Dave Lewis, December 2010

Composer Mark Adamo is best known for his work as an opera composer, and by the release date of Naxos’ Mark Adamo: Late Victorians, he has composed two of them: Little Women(1998) and Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess (2005). Operas take a long time to compose and are expensive to record well, and when you devote a lot of time to a single, focused work it can be hard to accumulate the little things you need in order to produce a single CD that affords listeners a sample of what you can do. The title work, Late Victorians (1994, but heard in a revised version), is one of those comparatively little things, a symphonic cantata with a text cobbled together from an essay included in Richard Rodriguez’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Days of Obligation—a book here Rodriguez controversially came out as gay—and select poems of Emily Dickinson. The Rodriguez text concerns late Victorian houses in San Francisco, lately rehabbed, but then left vacant as their owners struggled and died with the AIDS virus. Unable to set the long, fully narrative Rodrigueztext, Adamo decided to assign some passages from it to a narrator; here read by actor/author Andrew Sullivan, and to alternate them with Dickinson’s poems as sung by a soprano, that part taken here by Emily Pulley. Although it deals with AIDS, Late Victorians is neither anguished nor angry; it is quite low key and requires some amount of patience owing to the lengthy cadenzas awarded to solo instruments in the orchestra. Late Victoriansis certainly not a typical cantata as the presence of words is not continuous and the dialogue-like exchange between the speaker and singer is highly unconventional. When the soprano first comes in, you almost want to laugh, but ultimately it sounds natural and you grow used to it. The total output of the music and words, however, is very effective: this piece captures the feeling of empty ambiguity analogous to a scenario such as “I had a friend, and he died. I didn’t find out about it until 18 months later…” This is a condition not imposed by the disease, but arises as an external circumstance of it. This has affected countless survivors of AIDS victims whether gay or straight, and Adamo has found the right voice for the situation in Late Victorians.

Apart from Regina Coeli, a single movement from Adamo’s Concerto for harp and orchestrafeaturing soloist Dotian Levalier (2006), the rest of the music consists of “bleeding chunks” from Adamo’s operas; the Overture to Lysistrata and a concert suite drawn in 2007 fromLittle Women entitled Alcott Music. It is in the latter that one can most readily understand what is so immediate and likable about Adamo’s operatic work; it captures the nineteenth-century milieu of Louisa May Alcott without the built-in sentimentality associated with the era and is stated in a completely contemporary neo-Romantic idiom. Regina Coeli—and presumably the concerto to which it is related—seems like a nice addition to the all too slim repertoire of concertos for the harp; however, it isn’t as strong as the other instrumental music here, being a little reminiscent of Ned Rorem’s concerted works, though it is admittedly more studiously wrought and tasteful than Rorem typically is outside of his song literature and piano music.

Sylvia Alimena and the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra plays Adamo’s music with considerable warmth and the right interpretive idiom; they sound much more confident and assured onLate Victorians than they do on their recording of overtures of Florian Leopold Gassmann, issued by Naxos in the same calendar month. Since serious awareness of gay classical composers began to be recognized in the 1990s, a sort of potted and slightly condescending patina of preconceived notions has grown up around what a gay composer does and is. Such notions include a tendency toward unfashionably tonal and neo-Romantic harmonic language, a preference toward vocal music or music written for the stage and a seeming over-concern for issues impacting the gay community, including AIDS; though on the other hand, one wonders how you would be expected to ignore it? Adamo’s Late Victorians isn’t likely to dispel such preconceived notions, but for music that can be placed roughly within those parameters this is certainly top drawer and deserves a wider hearing well beyond the confines of the gay community.

Arlo McKinnon
Opera News, May 2010

In the early 1990s, when composer Mark Adamo was living in San Francisco, he volunteered in an ad hoc hospice for victims of the AIDS epidemic. The intensity of this experience inflicted Adamo, then working on a proposed song cycle for mezzo-soprano, with a temporary writer’s block. When he ultimately regained his compositional voice, the work he created was Late Victorians, a 1994 setting for soprano and orchestra; the text is derived from a 1990 essay of the same title by Richard Rodriguez, interspersed with poems by Emily Dickinson. The Rodriguez essay depicts the tragic impact of AIDS on the San Francisco gay community. Its title refers to the houses in which many of the early victims of the epidemic lived, houses emptied by the ravages of AIDS. Adamo subsequently revised Late Victorians in 2007.

Adamo has set most of the Rodriguez text for his piece’s narrator, saving the lines from Dickinson primarily for the soprano. The text explores the experience of the epidemic through its author’s friendship with a man named Cesar. We see Cesar as he was while still healthy and through the reactions of his friends and family to his death; in flashback, we see the unusual combination of people who came to Cesar’s side in his hours of crisis and how they ministered to his needs. The Dickinson poems provide commentary against these narrations, much as the solo arias do in Bach’s Passion settings. There are also brief instrumental interludes amid the cycle’s four movements. Quite poignantly, Adamo has included three instrumental cadenzas, and, in a mournful spin-off of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, he has the soloists leave the stage after their performance, thus providing further reference to the loss of those who died of AIDS.

Adamo writes in a tonal, lyrical voice. His emotional utterance is quite direct. He manages to convey the pain of loss and the outrage of circumstance without lapsing into the maudlin or hyper-tragic, a very tricky balancing act when working with a subject its composer clearly feels so personally. The most moving part of the work is its final movement, in which the hospice experience is recalled. Here Adamo captures the nobility of quiet heroism.

Dickinson’s elusive economy of words has proved a stumbling block for many a composer. The poems are perfect in their concision, creating a challenge for those who would attempt musically complex settings. This poet more than most seems to prove Ned Rorem’s long-held dictum that a composer ought not to insert repeats of text unless the poet also has done so. And in fact, Adamo’s treatment of these poems—in places rife with textual repetition—tends to weaken the effect of the words. His setting of Dickinson is at its most powerful in Movement III, wherein his added repetitions are fewest.

Late Victorians…focused on the AIDS epidemic, this work will provide solace to all who have experienced the loss of loved ones to disease. The performances of soprano Emily Pulley, narrator Andrew Sullivan and the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Sylvia Alimena are fully in the spirit of Adamo’s vision…

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, May 2010

“A central image was the Victorian house: those ‘painted lady’ Victorians that waves of San Franciscans had reclaimed, had refurbished, and were now leaving empty as AIDS swept the city. The once-haunted houses were becoming haunted once again.” So writes Mark Adamo in his program notes to his cantata/melodrama Late Victorians. They are nearly as expressive as the music to which he has set verse by Emily Dickinson and with which he has underscored sections of Richard Rodriguez’s memoir of the same name, describing the ravages of AIDS in San Francisco in the late 1980s. Divided into four parts, Late Victorians presents its story in the most personal of terms: the house painter who never returns to finish his work; the witty, worldly South American who is given a year to live; the funerals and the accumulating roll call of the dying; the acts of love that soften the victims’ decline into death. Each is amplified by a setting of verses by Dickinson. Adamo’s style recalls, in ways, those of Barber and of Adamo’s partner, John Corigliano, who has, of course, created in his Symphony No. 1 a very different memorial to those who were lost to this epidemic. Between scenes, Adamo places orchestral interludes with cadenzas played by soloists who, as in Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, leave the stage when finished. It is a dignified service of remembrance, a meditation on loss, a song of praise for “the saints of this city” who care for the sick and dying, and a gentle self-referential scolding for those who sit by unmoved to act. The cumulative effect is poignant and unsettling.

Regina Coeli is the perfect work to complement, even complete, Late Victorians. The slow movement of Adamo’s concerto for harp and orchestra, Four Angels, it acts here as a plea for intercession. Originally written for the National Symphony Orchestra at the instigation of Leonard Slatkin, this is a new arrangement for chamber orchestra, strings and harp only. One must assume that most of the orchestra played the premiere of the original, as the membership of the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra consists of musicians from the NSO. They and Dotian Levalier, the NSO’s solo harpist for whom the work was written, play the new version gracefully.

The rest of the program is drawn from more familiar territory, Adamo’s two highly successful operas. Little Women was the first of these, premiered in 1998, and the first version of the suite Alcott Music was written a year later, only to be withdrawn soon after its premiere. Adamo discusses the difficulties in his notes, including the problems in transferring music that was essentially vocal—Adamo purposely minimizes the instrumental in his opera—into instrumental music. Each movement is a collage of impressions drawn from themes associated with the character named, the textures often diaphanous, the mood primarily reflective for Jo and Meg and gently celebratory for Alma and Gideon’s wedding music. It is attractive and easily approached, and repeated acquaintance brings even greater appreciation. First impressions that it was a little thin have given way to appreciation of its delicacy. I fear, though, that greater familiarity has not brought larger regard for the overture written for the 2006 New York City Opera production of Lysistrata. The premiere at Houston Grand Opera the previous year had no overture and did not seem to need one. Inspired by Bernstein’s Candide Overture, this is an attempt by Adamo to write a “comparably ebullient opening.” It is a lovely but rather fragmented affair that never builds momentum as it does in Bernstein’s incomparable curtain-raiser. Only in the last minute or so, in the calypso section taken from the act I finale, do things take off; alas, too late.

Yet that is only four minutes out of nearly an hour, and a bit of an anomaly in this program anyway. There is much to savor here, much to reflect upon. It leaves one eager to see where Adamo’s creativity will take him next. Throughout the program, the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra is superlative; its director, NSO horn player Sylvia Alimena, is ever sensitive to Adamo’s subtly and lyricism. Emily Pulley and Andrew Sullivan perform their parts with distinction. Naxos prices make exploration of these moving works an inexpensive experiment. Give it a try.

Lawrence A Johnson
Gramophone, April 2010

Adamo is one of America’s most gifted composers and he is well served here

The Jamesian title of the major work on this disc refers to an essay by Richard Rodriguez referencing the many Victorian houses in San Francisco that stood empty in the early years of the Aids epidemic due to the deaths of their inhabitants. In the notes, Mark Adamo refers to the emotional toll as well as the creative difficulties he faced arriving at a workable solution to setting Rodriguez’s words. Ultimately he decided to have Rodriguez’s texts spoken by a narrator, interwoven with sung excerpts of thematically relevant poetry of Emily Dickinson. The poignancy of the music is further enhanced by a device taken from Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, with members of the chamber orchestra individually leaving the stage, hear a more sombre and tragic effect than with Haydn.

Late Victorians is cast in Adamo’s most expressive and elegiac style, almost Coplandesque in the sense of American lyric melancholy. I’m not sure the moments of conversational interplay between narrator and singer work effectively, though the setting of “Is Heaven a physician” has a heartfelt simplicity with a strong resemblance to the opening of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto—in fact, it leads into a bridging clarinet cadenza. There is an equally moving linking horn cadenza as well.

In the second movement, Adamo’s artful writing of “Crumbling is not an instant’s act” is about as skillful a musical setting of a difficult Dickinson stanza as one will ever hear. Indeed, throughout the music is unfailingly sensitive in the Barber and Copland tradition. While deeply felt and emotional, Late Victorians is not overwrought and avoids the melodramatic, rage-at-an-uncaring-society tropes, the understatement culminating in a stoic acceptance and noble expression that is quite affecting. Emily Pulley is a sensitive and radiant soprano in this work and Andrew Sullivan provides crisply articulated narration, with fine playing by the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra directed by Sylvia Alimena.

Like many at the 2005 Houston premiere of Lysistrata, I had a mixed reaction to Adamo’s second opera. Inspired by Bernstein’s Candide curtain-raiser, Adamo’s Overture to Lysistrata shares the rambunctious scoring but not the thematic indebility, surprising from a composer who usually seems to have little problem coming up with a tune.

Likewise, Adamo’s Alcott Music is a triptych of character portraits from his acclaimed first opera, Little Women. Here the composer has drastically revamped the score, eliminating one movement. The result is an attractive suite for chamber orchestra and a tighter and more effective work, gratefully scored for string orchestra and harp. Regina coeli is the rearranged slow movement of Adamo’s harp concerto Four Angels and the lovely meditation makes one want to hear the complete work.

Mark Adamo is one of our most gifted and successful young composers and, in its varied way, this programme provides a worthy sampler of vocal and orchestral music from a composer best known for his opera. Performances are excellent, and Late Victorians and the revised Alcott Music may well earn a place in the repertory.

Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, March 2010

Late Victorians, for narrator, soprano, and orchestra, is a setting of an essay Robert Rodriguez wrote for Harper’s in 1990, in the first years of the spread of AIDS in San Francisco; the soprano sings four Emily Dickinson poems, commenting on the essay…Regina Coeli is the slow movement of Four Angels, Adamo’s Harp Concerto, arranged for strings and harp. It is a meditative movement with moments of lyrical intensity and some lovely, unexpected tonal shifts. The Overture to Lysistrata is Adamo’s attempt to write an ebullient opening comparable to Bernstein’s overture to Candide, as stated in the liner notes. It is pleasant and cheerful, dramatic and a little saucy…Alcott Music is an orchestral suite taken from Adamo’s opera Little Women…It has been performed about 60 times since its premiere in 1998…The sonics are decent and the playing more than capable

Joseph Dalton
My Big Gay Ears, January 2010

Mark Adamo’s “Late Victorians” comes from the large body of musical works that somehow or other address AIDS. Composers—primarily if not exclusively gay composers—have been grappling with the subject for 25 years now. According to my research for the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, the first work in the genre was “Inquiries of Hope: Ten Poems of Kirby Congdon” (1984) by the late Louis Weingarden. The list continues to grow, as Ricky Ian Gordon has just released a CD of “Green Sneakers” (2007) a response to his partner’s death. The most famous of them all, at least in the classical realm, is probably John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 “Of Rage and Remembrance.”

Adamo, who happens to be Corigliano’s partner, wrote “Late Victorians” in 1994 and revised it in 2007, presumably in advance of this new Naxos recording, made that same year by the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, a Washington DC-based group conducted by Sylvia Alimena. There’s beautiful music here and it receives a handsome performance, with narration by political commentator Andrew Sullivan and singing by soprano Emily Pulley. There’s a certain lonely isolation to the gentle orchestral writing and the “Late Victorian” idea suggests those colorful row houses, the “painted ladies,” unique to San Francisco, where the plague hit so hard…Sullivan’s narration, drawn from a 1990 essay by Richard Rodriguez for “Harpers,” is interwoven with the singing of Pulley who intones poetry of Emily Dickenson, except when she’s echoing Rodriguez’s words.

Early in the piece, Sullivan’s gentle voice quietly ruminates on single men living alone in urban apartments. But then the full-voiced Pulley swoops down in dialogue. The disparity brought to mind sickly little Prior Walter alone in his bedroom in “Angels in America” when the massive female angel bursts through the ceiling above him. Yet the angel had something to say and the characters wrestled, literally and figuratively. In this piece, the two characters, if they can be called that, often just commiserate. If the idea is to form a bridge between historical eras, their languages are too similar.

A bit of hope and consolation comes in the final minutes (one of many occasions on this disc that bring to mind the music of Leonard Bernstein). It’s not that I think a piece about AIDS needs to be uplifting or have any other emotional goal. A vivid depiction of the darkest era can be enough. It’s just that the juxtaposition of spoken male voice and operatic soprano is so extreme that it seems to call out for some metaphorical purpose and even after repeated listenings it’s not clear what that is.

The rest of the disc presents a series of short, attractive pieces for orchestra. The best of them is “Regina Coeli,” an excerpt from Adamo’s 2006 harp concerto titled “Four Angels.” With the movement’s positioning on the disc right after “Late Victorians,” it serves as an eloquent, rather somber kind of postlude. But it would have been nice to have the whole concerto in order to hear where else Adamo takes it, especially since the harp writing in this single movement, played by Dotian Levalier (principal of the National Symphony), is so subdued.

In the four-minute Overture to Adamo’s 2005 opera “Lysistrata,” there’s a general feeling of adventure with lots of snatches of tunes that presumably appear in the opera. It rattles on a bit, but provides some of the only genuinely lively music on the disc, especially in the final bars, which are infused with bongos and some metallic percussion and even more obvious references to Bernstein. (In Adamo’s notes, he does credit Lenny’s Overture to “Candide” as an inspiration.)

Finally, “Alcott Music” is a 16-minute suite from Adamo’s first opera, the knock-out success “Little Women” (1998). The three movements are “Jo,” “Meg” and “Alma and Gideon.” This piece, too, was revised for the recording from an earlier incarnation titled “Alcott Portraits.” Adamo rightly calls it a souvenir from the opera, but in his notes he also points to the opera’s “orchestral reticence.” And that’s a fair assessment of this suite. It’s sweet and heartfelt, maybe a tad nostalgic…it could fit nicely beside some more vigorous pieces on an orchestral program and be a balm to audiences frightened of anything contemporary. But coming at the end of this already quite soothing disc…, January 2010

ADAMO, M.: Late Victorians / Alcott Music / Regina Coeli (Pulley, Sullivan, Levalier, Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, Alimena) 8.559258
LOKUMBE, H.: Dear Mrs. Parks (Chandler-Eteme, Steele, Deas, Rackham Symphony Choir, Brazeal Dennard Chorale, Detroit Symphony, Wilkins) 8.559668

It is possible to admire and like the impulse behind creation of a piece of music without necessary admiring or liking the result. It is also possible to admire and like both the intention and the work, without necessarily wanting to live with the piece over time. That is the situation with Mark Adamo’s Late Victorians and Hannibal Lokumbe’s Dear Mrs. Parks. Adamo’s half-hour work is a tribute to AIDS victims, written in 1994 and revised in 2007. There continues to be much hand-wringing about AIDS and many acknowledgments of those it has affected, especially in the artistic and homosexual communities that have been hit hardest by the disease. But after a while—with ways to prevent transmission of AIDS now well known and the unending drumbeat of requests (if not demands) for sympathy (and money)—the whole “tribute” field starts to seem a little overdone. Adamo’s work is well crafted and cleverly titled: the name refers to Victorian houses in San Francisco, whose large gay community was hit especially hard by AIDS; the title was originally that of a magazine article that partly inspired Adamo’s work. Other inspirations for Late Victorians were the poetry of Emily Dickinson as reinterpreted by Camille Paglia, and the device from Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony in which orchestra members walked offstage in the finale. Adamo, best known as an opera composer, weaves these influences together skillfully: words from the magazine piece are spoken; four Dickinson poems are sung; and the works’ four movements are tied to each other with solo cadenzas by musicians who then leave the stage (an effect missing in the recording, of course). But does the work…well, work? Certainly the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra under Sylvia Alimena plays it well—this is an outstanding group in any music. But the cleverness of the concept tends to overwhelm the emotions underlying it, drawing attention more to structure and form than to the “tribute” elements that Adamo says are his main point. Furthermore, there is nothing really new in noting—however thoughtfully—that AIDS has claimed many young and worthwhile (and potentially worthwhile) lives. Listeners may not have heard Late Victorians before—this is its first recording—but they have heard its sentiments before, often, and that fact tends to vitiate the effectiveness of the piece.

The shorter works on the Adamo CD are less fraught and more effective in their own ways. Regina Coeli is the slow movement from Adamo’s 2007 harp concerto, “Four Angels,” here rescored for strings alone. It is a piece of subtlety and grace. Overture to “Lysistrata” (2006) is short, bright, bouncy and very much in the spirit of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture, which Adamo cites as a source. Alcott Music, from the opera Little Women, is Adamo’s revision of his Alcott Portraits of 1999, which he composed for the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra. Although it is imbued with themes from the opera, the three-movement suite stands on its own as a character piece whose emotions range from dreamy and wistful to excited and exuberant.

Hannibal Lokumbe’s Dear Mrs. Parks is a “tribute” piece in the same line as Adamo’s Late Victorians, but in even more extended form: it runs an hour and features large orchestra plus solo and choral voices. In 10 movements whose length varies from one minute to 13, the work—essentially an oratorio—pays tribute to civil rights icon Rosa Parks through imaginary letters written to her. This 2005 undertaking, for which Lokumbe (born Marvin Peterson) wrote both words and music, is as well-meaning as can be. The imaginary letters come from a black civil-rights activist, a white civil-rights pioneer killed by the Ku Klux Klan, and a young black man whose generation has received the benefits of the struggle. There is also a child soprano who represents innocence and hope, an obvious bit of typecasting that points to one of the work’s weaknesses. Obviousness abounds here—in the words of the tributes; the musical mixture of blues, jazz, gospel and African music; and the tremendous adulation heaped on Rosa Parks. Such adulation, although unsurprising, is singularly inappropriate for a woman who has led for decades by her modesty and self-effacement—she has always said she refused to give up her bus seat when told to do so simply because she was tired, not because she was acting in the service of a grand cause. The cause was grand, and it was perhaps inevitable that it would adopt her as one of its leading symbols; but year after year, it has been Parks’ quiet fortitude that has been most impressive—more so than this extended piece of hagiography. The music here is mostly well crafted…and the performers bring enthusiasm and skill to the project…

Mark Adamo, January 2010

Andrew Sullivan narrates and Emily Pulley sings Late Victorians, my first orchestral piece, alongside three other works—in Eclipse Chamber Orchestra’s radiant readings—on this Naxos release released November 17th. David Denton reviews the disk; Andrew and a reader of his blog The Daily Dish discuss it here and here; and I offer a bit of backstory on this podcast.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, January 2010

This is a superbly produced disc of world premiere recordings. The Naxos engineering is exemplary and the playing by the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra is technically above reproach and musically dedicated. This reflects an association with the composer going back over a decade. I just wish that I enjoyed the music more.

The main work here is composer Mark Adamo’s tribute to AIDS sufferers from San Francisco. The Late Victorians of the title refers to the brightly painted houses that this community (in part) lived in. The work has an unusual structure being written in four movements linked by instrumental cadenzas/meditations. Each movement in turn consists of an amalgam of spoken text, sung responses to the spoken text, and sung settings of Emily Dickinson poems. The spoken role is that of a narrator witnessing the tragedy of AIDS unfurl around him. The soprano, when in dialogue with the narrator seems to be the voice of the departed, commenting and elaborating on the narrator’s observations. The Dickinson texts are a separate parallel commentary on the text and tend to be set towards the end of each movement. Mark Adamo is not a composer whose work I have heard before. The sincerity of this work is never in doubt. He likens it to a series of meditations in the style of the Stations of the Cross. An interesting thought is that—although never stated in his liner-note—I suspect Catholicism is an important element in Adamo’s life or at very least he has an interest in the ritual and symbolism of it.

The use of a narrator in any musical work is always problematic. I find the text here portentous and its delivery doubly so. The music written to accompany the narrations does not strike me as particularly original. I must stress that his work is unfamiliar to me so I have not had time to absorb his musical characteristics. By far the best passages are the Dickinson settings and the solo instrumental episodes that follow. Apparently the players of these cadenzas are directed to leave the stage after their solo is done. Adamo explains that the inspiration for this moment of musical theatre is Haydn’s Farewell Symphony but the image of departure here is more tragically permanent. The playing of the uncredited soloists in these passages is for me the highlight of the disc with a particularly stunning horn solo. My other problem is the lack of emotional differentiation through the four movements of this twenty-eight minute work. Another work to be written as an ‘AIDS Requiem’ is John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Of Rage and Remembrance’. I do not consider that the symphony to be masterpiece that some do but I do think that Corigliano manages to encompass a far greater emotional range in that work than Adamo does here. One is on contentious and sensitive ground here so I do not wish to labour the point. Simply put, this is not a piece to which I would return on purely musical grounds.

Given the relatively short playing time of the disc I wonder why the complete Four Angels—Concerto for Harp was not included. Instead we get the slow movement alone—Regina Coeli. I see that Adamo notes this is rescored for strings alone on this recording—perhaps the orchestration of the whole work is outside the remit of the excellent Eclipse Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra, by the way, are drawn from the National Symphony Orchestra Washington, as is the harp soloist and their conductor Sylvia Alimena who is the NSO’s second horn. Harpist Dotian Levalier makes a gloriously sonorous and rich sound on her harp aided by the excellent recording. Again, I’m struggling to hear great musical individuality that goes beyond clear compositional facility. Likewise the Overture to Lysistrata that follows. Adamo likens this to a latter day Candide Overture but I hear little of the sparkle and wit of that piece. Adamo does not embrace either the minimalism of an Adams or the post-modern rock idiom of a Daugherty. It is essentially tonal music with a lyrical centre reflecting his involvement in opera. One can hear in the three movements of the Alcott Music which completes the disc the influence of the voice. He describes them neatly as “a souvenir for orchestra of my opera Little Women”. Not having heard the originating work it is hard know to what degree of re-composition the music has been subjected. No matter, these three movements work well in their own right. Again confident and exemplary playing from the orchestra means that the music is presented to maximum effect. I suspect this is a disc which will grow in stature as one becomes more familiar with the compositional processes at work…

David Hurwitz, January 2010

There is some fine music on this disc, but like many collections of contemporary works the results overall are mixed. The best extended piece is Alcott Music, a suite arranged from Adamo’s opera Little Women (available on Ondine), atmospherically scored for strings, celesta, harp, and percussion. Although mostly gentle and delicate, the work’s thematic content is substantial enough to sustain the listener’s interest, and its timbres really are just plain lovely. The same observation applies to Regina coeli for harp and strings, the middle movement of the composer’s Harp Concerto. It whets the appetite to hear the complete work—we certainly could use another good harp concerto in the repertoire. The perky overture to Lysistrata seems a trifle thin; it cries out for a memorable tune, and when one finally arrives the piece is over—but it does leave you wanting to hear more which, after all, is one of main jobs of an overture.

This brings us to Late Victorians, which consists of sensitive settings of some Emily Dickinson poems for soprano and chamber ensemble interlaced with spoken text drawn from a Richard Rodriguez (of “News Hour” fame) essay about the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in the 1980s. The piece doesn’t work well at all. In the first place, Rodriguez’s allusive and self-indulgent prose seems especially ungainly next to Dickinson’s laconic but razor-sharp poetic diction. Speaker Andrew Sullivan, as is so often the case when narration intrudes, is placed far too prominently in the mix; the music seems almost an afterthought. Nor, to be frank, is Rodriguez’s essay particularly compelling on its own, despite the obvious care that Adamo has taken to frame it. The end result is frustrating, like trying to hear a good piece of music on the radio while someone next to you is talking too loudly.

Finally, and this is strictly a personal observation, I am sick and tired of the politics of victimization as expressed in contemporary art music. Every group in our society has some legitimate sources of grievance or suffering, and the way that the performing arts industry seizes on them strikes me as exploitative and opportunistic. The worst recent case of this phenomenon was the flurry of atrocious 9/11 tributes, most notoriously John Adams’ grotesque, award-winning piece On the Transmigration of Souls. I am not questioning Adamo’s sincerity here, only his taste, and the culture that encourages the production of such pieces. I was just diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; my younger sister has a more severe case of the same disease and is effectively wheelchair-bound. I don’t want to hear a cantata about it. I lived in the Bay Area during the 1980s, and in 1989 my best friend died of AIDS. He was a superb classical musician and scholar. I loved him and I miss him terribly. He didn’t ask for a musical tribute, and he would not have chosen this one, however well-intentioned. So what’s next, the Swine Flu Oratorio? The Restless Leg Syndrome Requiem?

The performances by the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra under Sylvia Alimena are excellent. They know Adamo’s music and have worked with him extensively, and we may safely assume that they give him exactly what he wants. Soprano Emily Pulley sings the Dickinson poems very well, even if she tends to be overshadowed by the too-loud narration. For the purely instrumental works, I can recommend this disc without hesitation, and I won’t lower the rating as a result of my conceptual problems with Late Victorians. You will know if you’re interested in hearing it, though I can’t help but feel sad that we weren’t given the complete Harp Concerto instead.

Jennifer Hambrick
Classical 101 FM, December 2009

Anger, fear, sorrow well up in the individual and collective heart, but so does their bold yet quiet sister, hope. And art awakens to carry these emotions, like messages in bottles, out into the sea of human consciousness. Classical music has made any number of tributes to those who have suffered from this insufferable disease. New York flutist Don Hulbert has started a list of classical compositions that reflect the HIV/AIDS experience and humanity’s attempts to come to terms with it. The music on this list embraces all genres, from symphonies for large orchestras to the most intimate art songs. Some of the composers on the list have succumbed to AIDS, but others, HIV-positive or not, live on.

Hulbert’s list does not include Mark Adamo’s Late Victorians, a work of uncertain genre whose text (a pastiche created from Richard Rodriguez’s Harper’s Magazine essay “Late Victorians” and poems by Emily Dickinson) is a mini-drama of San Francisco life in the age of AIDS. Naxos has recently released the world-premiere recording of this work in a performance by soprano Emily Pulley and journalist and blogger Andrew Sullivan in the narrator’s role, with the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra under Sylvia Alimena. Adamo’s Late Victorians came about after what the composer describes as a tortuous creative process, one which began happily enough with a commission, then rode rapidly into blank slate territory. “I could not write,” Adamo begins the notes that accompany the world-premiere recording of Late Victorians. “I had been asked to write: the project was to be a set of songs for mezzo-soprano. But I could not write.”

The thrilling terror of filling that blank slate hadn’t stayed Adamo’s hand; it was something altogether more somber. “We—I and thirty other people from my church, an ad-hoc hospice—had just buried Bob, a man we hardly knew until he fell ill with AIDS,” Adamo continued. “And Don, whom I had just directed in an opera, was failing. The things that seemed unacceptable to me were how ordinary this was all becoming.”

Adamo had read Richard Rodriguez’s 1990 essay “Late Victorians,” a piece Adamo describes as ”a memoir of San Francisco in the first years of the plague.” The essay haunted him. “I carried that essay with me everywhere the winter of 1992. But I couldn’t set it. It was too long: too much. I didn’t want to write this experience. I didn’t recall choosing to witness it. I needed to write this song cycle, and I could not.”

The work that was to be a song cycle for mezzo-soprano ended up a music drama for orchestra, narrator (who speaks sections of Rodriguez’s essay) and soprano (who sings Dickinson’s poetry). The form of Late Victorians unfolds in four seactions, each a day-in-the-life vignette, which the narrator declaims against an orchestral backdrop. The soprano role is a sort of poetic Doppelgänger of the narrator, her language the exalted yet still painfully truthful poetry of Emily Dickinson. The vignettes themselves convey emptiness (“The painter left one afternoon, saying he would return the next day, leaving behind his tubes, his brushes, his sponges and rags. He never returned;”) gallows humor (“If he’s lucky, he’s got a year, a doctor told me. If not, he’s got two;”) grief (“I stood aloof at Cesar’s memorial service: the kind of party he would enjoy, everybody said;”) and, finally, hope—not hope that people will stop dying of AIDS, but that others will be there to care for them as and when they do (“Sometimes no family came. Or parents came but left without reconciliation, some preferring to say cancer. But others came. Nurses, nuns, the couple from next door. They washed his dishes, they walked his dog.”) In Adamo’s hands, the social dissonance of the painter who never returned to finish the job is at once beautiful and full of a certain sweetly bereft questioning:

And here’s what hope sounds like, as neighbors and friends of the dying step in to make his journey to the grave less lonely, even if no less difficult:

In other words, Late Victorians unfolds how living with AIDS—or living without AIDS, for that matter—unfolds: moment by moment, in a process that moves in one and only one direction. To Adamo, the form of the finished piece is like the Stations of the Cross. “In the Catholic churches I knew growing up, you will often find twelve friezes, or sculptures, representing Christ’s journey to Calvary and, beyond, to transformation,” Adamo writes. “During Lent, the faithful walk from frieze to frieze; meditate upon the image; and move on. The images themselves are static…It is the pilgrim who is dynamic, making the journey from image to image, walking the walk.”

The walk of the AIDS sufferer is different in the details from that of one who does not bear this cross. Adamo’s Late Victorians is a powerful a reminder of the ravages of AIDS, and it no less powerfully calls upon us to admit, as did John Donne, that anyone’s death diminishes us, because we are involved with humankind.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2009

It was the death of an acquaintance and the impending demise of a friend from AIDS that prompted Mark Adamo to awaken our consciences with Late Victorians. It is a ‘musical happening’ in four sections with an accompanied narration telling the story of the tragedy that hit the gay community in San Francisco, punctuated by songs to poems of Emily Dickinson. It all seems such highly attractive music until you emerge yourself in the meaning behind the words, its substantial length calling for brilliant solo cadenzas from members of the orchestra where Adamo moves closer to ones concept of 21st century sounds, the ending becoming a short orchestral elegy. Born in 1962, Adamo is one of the most exciting opera composers presently working in the States, always writing in a purely melodic style, Regina Coeli—the slow movement from a Harp Concerto on religious themes—reinforcing Adamo’s ability to bring something new to well-trodden paths. Alcott Music pictures four characters in his opera, Little Women, their length more substantial than cameos, though they emerge as thumbnail portraits.The composer comments that for his overture to the opera, Lysistrata, he wanted to write something comparable to Bernstein’s overture to Candide. He almost succeeded. These are all world premiere recordings, the performances coming from the orchestra created by principals of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington and is obviously a top-drawer outfit who serve the music well. Sylvia Alimena conducts; Emily Pulley is the sweet-voiced soprano; Andrew Sullivan an effective narrator and Dotian Levalier the solo harpist. It is all wrapped up in outstanding sound. Hugely recommended.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group