The capacity crowd at Jordan Hall Friday night knew they were gathered for an Event. For only the second time, and probably the last time in his lifetime, composer David Del Tredici heard his complete Child Alice, the hugest and most elaborate of his many settings from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Thanks to the generosity of the Recording Industry’s Music Performance Trust Fund, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s superb show with soprano Courtenay Budd under the direction of Gil Rose was free.
Del Tredici’s relationship with Carroll’s writings parallels the relationship between the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and the Liddell sisters, particularly Alice Pleasance Liddell, who became his muse when she was but six, and later the dedicatee of his stories. Thus one might even say that Del Tredici’s work is an obsession about an obsession, with even more layers added for both artists’ use of these materials in exploring processes of becoming—in Carroll’s case the unenthusiastic procession from childhood to adulthood, in Del Tredici’s case the change he embraced from an atonal to a tonal harmonic idiom.
Be all that as it may, from Pop-Pourri and An Alice Symphony in 1969 through the 1995 opera Dum Dee Tweedle, and despite a wide range of compositions with other inspirations, few composers have been as tightly associated with a single literary source. Del Tredici penned the bulk of these works between 1969 and 1981, during which time he wrote practically nothing else. After the enormous success of Final Alice in 1976 (we remember well its performance by the BSO in 1978), which set several scenes from the books (principally the trial scene at the end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), Del Tredici commenced on the four large works that coalesced into Child Alice; these took the introductory poems to Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass for their texts. The first, In Memory of a Summer Day, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize. All four sections were sketched between 1977 and 1979, with the orchestration occupying the following two years. Quaint Events, Happy Voices and All in the Golden Afternoon premiered separately, with the entire shebang receiving only one performance, in 1986.
Like many, maybe most, neo-tonal composers (that is, composers who, like George Rochberg and Easley Blackwood, have repented of earlier atonality, rather than never having embraced it), Del Tredici’s compositional processes are richly complex. His orchestra is huge—we’ve never seen more instruments on the Jordan Hall stage, including a siren and wind machine—and his goal is to squeeze as much expression as possible from a few relatively simple tunes (not quite that simple, as there are often stray non-diatonic elements to them—“I torture tonality” is how he put it in his pre-concert onstage interview with Robert Kirzinger). Over the course of a ten-to-fifteen (or even twenty) minute Beethoven symphony movement, or even, in the case of the Fifth, a half-hour symphony, one can easily fit such a concept into one’s frame of reference. Think, however, of the second movement of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, double or triple it, and you have a better idea of the scope of Del Tredici’s ambitions. Add to that a strong predilection for piling one climax on top of another, and one can conclude, Mick Jagger to the contrary notwithstanding, that too much can indeed be too much. Del Tredici has indeed cranked it up to 13 for Child Alice.
Within this expansive framework, the actual structure of the component parts is quite intelligible. Part I of Child Alice, which runs over an hour, is based on an ABA structure in which the outer sections are settings of the Wonderland poem, the first mostly bright and clear as if from Alice’s point of view, the other darker and richer, reflecting Carroll speaking across the gulf of years that separate not only them as child and adult, but the summer afternoon giving rise to the story (1856) and the publication of Carroll’s book apotheosizing it nine years later; Del Tredici refers to this as the mood of “rapture and regret,” for which he even devised a motto chord. In between comes a crazy, Mad Hatter march (with much else interpolated) based on the single melody. The composer richly deserved the Pulitzer for this tour de force. Part II, which follows a “composed” intermission (Part I ends with a short phrase that becomes the beginning of Part II) consists of the other three “movements,” which in a large sense parallel the structure of Part I, with a lively and relatively straightforward vocal movement, based on the child’s sense of the applicable poem (in this case the one from Looking Glass), a massive orchestral interlude, and a deeper, more rapturous version of the poem at the end. In Part II the orchestral interlude is Happy Voices, which Del Tredici took in punning fashion and created a raucous fugue followed by a “quodlibet” of all the tunes from the piece. It would be fatuous to attempt anything like a detailed description of the music to this two-and-a-quarter-hour work; there are links below to where you can hear various recordings of each of the sections, along with the composer’s elaborate notes on them.
Getting down to the particulars of the Friday performance, it must first be pointed out that in all his vocal-orchestral Alice settings, Del Tredici had to come to grips with the fact that his orchestral and vocal forces were wildly out of balance; so, even though in many places he has sensitively scored the music to allow the soprano to be heard, he wisely chose to specify that the singer be amplified. Budd, who has worked with Del Tredici for many years has a special affinity for his music. Her lovely timbre and excellent intonation, when given the chance, reveal a flair for dramatic contrasts, though to be honest, except in Quaint Events there isn’t a whole lot of variation in tone within her particular settings—little distinction exists between the darker hues needed for the “adult” renditions of the poems and the quite similar ones for the “child”. There are several cadenzas written in, which were uniformly lovely and silkily sung. Even with the benefits of amplification, though, it was impossible to distinguish most of the words without closely following them in the program book, and as you will realize if you listen to the recorded performances with the words in front of you, even with big names like Phyllis Bryn-Julson it’s easy to get lost in Del Tredici’s convoluted prosody.
The orchestral performances were superb. Like most Americans composers, Del Tredici’s orchestrations are “black in the brass,” and his writing for them is brilliant; the fugue represents a kind of apotheosis of American “big band” writing, sort of Stan Kenton-meets-Elmer Bernstein-meets Kurt Weill. In the relatively few sections in which the woodwinds get to come out of the shadows of the brasses, they sounded wonderful. In rather substantial parts, harpists Amanda Romano Foreman and Krysten Keches were evocative and sonorous, and the vast percussion section was flawless. And over all this, Rose’s direction was solid, attentive, and impeccably coherent. While no composer should have grounds for dissatisfaction with one of Rose’s performances, his is not the most nuanced of podium personalities, so occasionally we were left wishing he could get more dynamic variation—that is, at the lower end of the decibel meter. He does, though, deserve high credit for bringing this massive undertaking off with no discernible hitches.
As promised, here are links to recorded performances (all different) of the various components of Child Alice on Del Tredici’s website. Note that since these were free-standing performances, he has composed extended conclusions for some of them that don’t appear in the full rendition. One’s reconstruction of the whole from these pieces, therefore, will be approximate; we look forward to BMOP’s release of the integral whole. During the grueling week when the BMOP performers had been preparing for the live concert, they also recorded Child Alice for eventual release through a Kickstarter campaign.
Related interview here.
In Memory of a Summer Day (Bryn-Julson/SLSO/Slatkin)
Quaint Events (Shelton/Buffalo Phil/Rudel)
Happy Voices (LA Phil/Tilson Thomas)
All in the Golden Afternoon (Valente/Phila/Ormandy)
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.