Joel Flegler reviews "Soul of a Nation"

Joel Flegler reviews "Soul of a Nation"

At a time when presidential matters seem continually to dominate the news headlines, it is salutary to look back at previous incumbents of the American Presidency who are considered to be game-changers. Composer Victoria Bond has stepped up to the plate with this fascinating concept: In conjunction with librettist Myles Lee, MD, she has produced a set of four works, all with narrator and each spotlighting a solo instrument, to honor four presidents who played decisive roles in American history. Jefferson (Soul of a Nation) embodied the soul of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. Franklin Roosevelt (The Indispensable Man) saved our Republic and the free world from despotism in World War II. Theodore Roosevelt (The Crowded Hours) enabled us to become a world power. George Washington (Pater Patriae), despite fighting more battles lost than won, made independence possible.

To be clear, these four pieces are not political portraits. As Dr. Lee puts it, “Each piece focuses on a single aspect of each man’s character (Washington’s moral clarity manifested by his prescience and, on two occasions, the renunciation of great power; Jefferson as a reluctant warrior; Theodore Roosevelt’s exuberant, ultimately self-destructive drive; and Franklin Roosevelt’s indomitable courage) to illustrate not just their accomplishments but the inner turmoil and conflict each man faced on his journey to immortality.”

Victoria Bond is director of Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival in New York (which she founded in 1998) and frequently lectures at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. She is a conductor as well as a hugely talented, sensitive composer. It is difficult to imagine tighter performances than these; the recording, too, is top drawer.

The first piece, Soul of a Nation, A Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, takes its title from positing that independence, religious freedom, and education are indeed constituents of the soul of a nation. The music is tender, a sighing phrase providing a thread throughout. The solo violin of the beautifully sweet-toned Frank Almond acts as the perfect foil for narrator Henry Fogel, recently retired dean of the Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. There is a sense of yearning to the violin lines; Almond’s expressivity comes into his own in the brief cadenza before the frenziedly determined moto perpetuo passage that transforms that sighing gesture. Over the space of some 20 minutes, a huge emotional journey is traversed. Fogel delivers the text with authority; the violin seems to translate the words and sentiments into a soliloquy of its own. Fabulous!

The second president to be honored here is Franklin Roosevelt in The Indispensible Man. In this piece, a clarinet is the instrumental protagonist. The sense of joy at the opening, with the jazz-inflected dotted rhythms veering sometimes towards big band territory and sometimes threatening to head into Ives’s thickets, is completely distinct from Jefferson’s piece. Clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, who has come my way a couple of times before in Fanfare, is clearly blessed with a perfect technique, so confident is his delivery. The narrator, opera singer David Holloway, delivers the text with inspirational uplift. Franklin Roosevelt’s personal battle against polio became a metaphor for his battles against the Great Depression and the threats to the free world posed by Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. The title refers to his statement that “there is no indispensable man,” and yet he became one. The invocation of jazz here is brilliantly done; a special word of praise is in order for the accuracy of the trombones of the Chicago College of Performing Arts Wind Ensemble.

On, now, to Theodore Roosevelt in The Crowded Hours, wherein narrator Ray Frewen is joined by trumpeter Mark Ridenour. Optimism characterized him until he faced the death of his son Quentin in World War I. There is a Stravinskian circus tinge to some of the writing, which is delightfully deft. Chicago-based actor and director Ray Frewen has just the right lilt in his voice to convey the positivity portrayed here; trumpeter Mark Ridenour is a clarion-clear co-soloist. What characterizes Bond’s music is its sonic clarity: She knows exactly what she wants to say, and has the ability to create that sound. As the music becomes more conflicted, one senses Roosevelt’s anguish about his loss; that Stravinskian edge is blunted, fragmented, and deconstructed. All credit to Ridenour for his confidence in the final flourish.

Finally, there comes Pater Patriae and Washington. Bond pays tribute to that president’s courage and moral clarity, foregrounding the flute (the brilliant Gabriela Vargas) as a solo instrument. Tunes such as Yankee Doodle surface before the music thins to a thread. Narrator Adrian Dunn, a pupil of David Holloway’s (Dunn has also composed a hip-hop opera, HOPERA) has a fairly light voice, enabling contrasts between the narrators’ voice types. There was also an element to Washington of the reluctant hero, and indeed the music does repeatedly interiorize a reduction in lines, giving the music a pensive quality. The close has an element of enigma about it, as if to usher in another portrait that is yet to come.

Four beautifully contrasted pieces, then, with four contrasted narrators and four equally brilliant soloists. A previous all-Bond disc on Albany was well received in these pages in Fanfare 33:5. Soul of a Nation takes things to an altogether different level in the sheer scope of its ambition. That ambition is a testament to Bond’s remarkable depth and versatility. The primary impression left is of a composer of dignity who has all the elements at her disposal to realize her visions.