Sleeper’s “Xenia” receives worthy premiere alongside showpieces by Bartok and Rimsky

By Alan Becker

Rodin's "The Metamorphosis of Ovid" (c.1886).

Rodin's "The Metamorphosis of Ovid" (c.1886)

The University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra played to a capacity crowd Saturday evening at Gusman Concert Hall, presenting two sonic blockbusters and the premiere of a new composition by its conductor, Thomas Sleeper.

The Frost Symphony was originally founded in 1926, and has had a distinguished history, with Sleeper responsible for some creative and challenging programs during his tenure.

Sleeper’s new song-cycle Xenia takes its texts from a novel by Australian-born author Jane Alison.  Ms. Alison, who has taught creative writing at the university, has fashioned her novel The Love Artist on the poet Ovid’s life in exile and his encounter with Xenia in the first century A.D. The substantial cycle consists of six parts that explore salient moments from the novel.

The vocal part follows much in the footsteps of Berg using a form of sprechstimme or speech-song. Tenor John Duykers coped reasonably well with the difficult part, with intonation blending nicely when his pitch is taken over by solo instruments.  The Bergian expressionistic lushness pervades the orchestral writing, which is colorful and imaginative. There is also much use of a battery of percussion to hammer home specific points of the text.

Zoe Zeniodi, a Frost doctoral candidate in conducting, handled Sleeper’s complex score mostly with surety and effectiveness, though further rehearsals might have helped balances, with Duykers occasionally covered up by the thick textures of the orchestra.

Zoe Zeniodi

Zeniodi’s conductorial skills came more fully to the fore in Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeous symphonic suite Scheherazade. Here in all its technicolor glory was a performance that held little back. Sinbad’s ship moved along on some pretty substantial waves, the Young Prince and Princess emoted with unbridled passion, and the ship was dashed to pieces on a rock with the force of a tsunami. The many solo instruments played their parts with sumptuous radiance and, strings and brass dug in with full abandon. There were a few bloopers and some tentative chords in the winds, but they did not much matter within the greater success of this performance.

Sleeper took to the podium for the opener, Bela Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin.

The scenario of the lurid one-act ballet depicts three vagrants forcing a girl to tempt men inside their room so that they can be robbed and, in the case of the title Mandarin, suffocated, stabbed, and hung on a lamp hook. Even the latter does not kill him until the girl gives herself freely to the eerily glowing Mandarin. With longing quenched, his wounds finally begin to bleed and he dies. Hardly a pleasant tale. The ballet was banned after its premiere in 1926, but has become one of the composer’s best known works as a concert suite.

If Bartok’s Mandarin is hardly a crowd pleaser, it does fit into the modern sensibility with its dingy urban setting, dissonance, and savage brutality. Sleeper and his orchestra rose to the occasion in a performance that was exciting, appropriately vulgar, and extremely well executed. The live acoustics of Gusman Hall put all of the sounds directly in your face, and the scenario came to life with all the thrust and power and unrelenting power built into this great score.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Sleeper’s “Xenia” receives worthy premiere alongside showpieces by Bartok and Rimsky”

  1. Posted Feb 22, 2010 at 11:01 pm by Thomas Sleeper

    I could not have had more sensitive collaborators than John Duykers and Zoe Zeniodi.
    Duykers simply became the drama and expressed the text with a sincerity that made all real – spontaneous and alive from his first word… Zeniodi and the FSO painting sensitive psychological counterpoint around John’s story – truly a powerful collaboration between them all.

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