Harry Rolnick wrote in Concerto.net:
BargeMusic Concert, NYC | January 2019
Mr. Peskanov started the evening with Scott Wheeler’s Whispered Sarabande, a solo set of dark melodies, going from the Cimmerian depths of the instrument to the highest note. No embellishments, no syncretic quotes, with nothing but the grace which its title evoked.
George Grella wrote in New York Classical Review
BargeMusic Concert, NYC | January 2019
The music was succinct and stylish, played with wit. Brief wisps of sarabande form came through, like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This was intriguing and coalesced into a brief moment of almost-Bach that was warm and lovely.
THE SINGING TURK
November 2018 in Jordan Hall Boston
Lloyd Schwartz | ARTery
“The recital by violinist Gil Shaham and the elegant pianist Akira Eguchi included a delicious performance of Boston composer Scott Wheeler’s infectious “The Singing Turk” sonata, which uses so-called “Turkish” themes from Italian opera.”
200 DREAMS FROM CAPTIVITY
200 Dreams of Captivity at the
Shalin-Liu Performance Center
Scott Wheeler at the
Shalin-Liu Performance Center
Winnipeg Free Press | January 10, 2014
MCO takes trip to Asia in charming program of contemporary works
200 Dreams of Captivity, composed by Scott Wheeler, is an orchestral song cycle for baritone and obbligato cello based on evocative poetry by Wang Dan, (mostly) written while imprisoned for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The seven poems reflect on memory and friendship, with the Hamilton‐born Nyby's expressive delivery lending operatic gravitas.
Read the entire article (PDF).
Boston Orange | March 25, 2014
200 Dreams of Captivity at the Shalin-Liu Performance Center
WorldJournal.com | March 26, 2014
200 Dreams of Captivity
The Boston Musical Intelligencer | March 26, 2014
Wheeler & Chen Yi Keep Company with Beethoven
JABBERWOCKYBoston Musical Intelligencer | May 13, 2013
Cantilena: Performing for Love
Commissioned Boston composer Scott Wheeler wrote, “It was Allegra’s inspired suggestion that the accompaniment be for two cellos, whose bows could suggest ‘verbal swords’ and whose sound could provide a richness and a transparency that would beautifully set off the women’s voices.” What Allegra suggested Wheeler delivered. His setting of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” also impressed upon the words a rare depth of musical instinct and understanding, at once fast-moving and inviting. The snappy accents of “Bandersnatch!” was just one fun play of sound and word. Cellists Jacqueline Ludwig and Brent Selby provided further that “richness” suggested for the accompaniment. Cantilena commissioned the work in honor of the long-time member who passed away last spring.
PORTRAITS AND TRIBUTES
The New York Times | January 4, 2013
Letting the Piano Find Its Inner Harp Olga Vinokur in Recital at Bargemusic
Three selections from Scott Wheeler’s ever-expanding series “Portraits and Tributes” recalled Virgil Thomson’s elegant solo-piano portraits. These were the first performances of Mr. Wheeler’s “Island Lullaby” and his “Firefly Lullaby,” which has uneven, twinkling rhythms that are both unpredictable and serene. The two lullabies framed the “Cookie Galop With Waltz,” whose dotted rhythms start exuberant and then turn softly elegiac.
American Record Guide
“Wheeler can be witty, but he avoids the merely clever; the portraits have real heart to them.”
American Record Guide
“Lovers of down-to-earth, intelligent American piano writing should check out this release.”
The Art Music Lounge | June 13, 2016
Scott Wheeler’s Kaleidoscopic Piano Vignettes
No question about it, this is a surprising and delightful album, one that you will particularly enjoy on a Sunday morning. Berman’s playing is warm and inviting, which enhances the appeal of these fine short works.
EMBRACED BY VELVET NIGHT
Photo by Susan Wilson
Wheeler’s “Embraced by Velvet Night,” which also received its premiere on Friday, offers by contrast an ethereal and gently melancholic tone, in part mirroring Wheeler’s chosen text, a poem by the philanthropist Shalin Liu, of recent Rockport fame. The choral writing seems to drift on unseen winds, and angular stratospheric piano lines suggest the “glittering stardust” mentioned in Liu’s text. Under Teeters’s direction, the chorus gave both works spirited and accomplished performances.
Boston Musical Intelligencer
The first new piece might best be described as a kind of motet — though with a secular text, a poem by Shalin Liu, which is nonetheless a consideration of death in compact yet wide-ranging images calling for a seriousness of musical purpose. Performed early in the program, it was happily repeated to open the second half, giving a welcome opportunity to come to grips with the non-linear musical setting. Wheeler begins with two individual words — each of which takes up an entire line toward the end of the poem (“Slowly” … “Faraway”) uttered softly in the lower registers of the chorus as a ruminative ostinato before the sopranos enter with the beginning of the poem (“Immediate and present death…”). The intertwining contrapuntal lines made it something of a challenge, at first hearing, to connect the music with the poem. A somewhat crisper enunciation of the consonants in the texts would have helped, too. During the first performance, I felt myself rather at sea with regard to the poem until the climactic moment about midway when the full chorus came together for the expression of “Crashing waves…”For this reason the second performance was especially welcome, because it allowed the listener to approach the piece prepared to take in the oblique opening and recognize the darkly expressive music as it was matched to the poem.
The new pieces are the gorgeously elegiac choral setting of poem by Shalin Liu, Embraced by Velvet Night (happily repeated after intermission).
WHISKERS AND RHYMES
Wheeler’s 1991 work “Whiskers and Rhymes,” originally written for children’s chorus, features more exuberant settings of children’s poems by Arnold Lobel and Jack Prelutsky. Percussion, piano, and violin contribute festively to the mix.
Boston Musical Intelligencer
To lead into intermission, the ladies of the chorus performed an award-winning score for treble voices, a truly delicious setting of nonsense poems for children by Arnold Lobel and Jack Prelutsky for treble voices, with violin, piano four-hands, and three percussionists. The splendid instrumentalists were violinist Sharan Leventhal, pianists Barbara Bruns and Carolyn Day Skelton, and percussionists Frank Epstein, William Bruns, and Keith Glavash. Three solo passages were sung by chorus members Wendy Silverberg, J. Genevieve Hendrey, and Sarah Matthews. The piece, Whiskers and Rhymes, was written for and dedicated to Marie Stultz and the Treble Chorus of New England, for which she was founder and artistic director for 28 years. In 1992 it received the grand prize in the Composers Guild Composition Contest. One is not surprised upon hearing the score, rhythmically and sonically inventive, alive with wit and tunefulness; it is a superb composition for young treble voices. Marie Stultz was present to hear it again and told me at intermission how rapturously it had been received at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, when the Treble Chorus of New England performed it there on a tour 20 years ago. The reception was just as warm and fervent in this performance, though, truth to tell, the sonorities of young treble voices (voci bianchi, or “white voices,” as they are called in Italy) would probably project more directly than the mature women’s voices heard on this occasion. Nonetheless, Whiskers and Rhymes is a thoroughly delightful work; I hope the directors of youth choruses are able to find out about it and give it a spin.
AT HOME IN STATEN ISLAND
by Stephen Eddins
Five Borough Songbook is a project of the Five Boroughs Music Festival, a collective of musicians whose goal is to bring topnotch musical performances to parts of the city whose audiences aren't likely to have access to conventional Manhattan concert experiences. In 2011, the festival commissioned 20 New York-area composers to write songs about the city, and the result is an attractive assortment of vocal pieces. Pianists Thomas Bagwell and Jocelyn Dueck and violinist Harumi Rhodes artfully negotiate the varied accompaniments. The soloists include sopranos Mireille Asselin and Martha Guth, mezzo-sopranos Meg Bragle and Blythe Gaissert, tenors Javier Abreu and Keith Jameson, and baritones Jesse Blumberg, Scott Dispensa, David McFerrin, and David Adam Moore. They perform with polish, complete investment in the music, and disarming youthful energy. … highlights include Scott Wheeler's lovely, distinctive setting of Charles MacKay's At Home in Staten Island, for soprano and violin, which has the unmannered, memorable melodic directness of an Appalachian ballad.
Taminophile | Sunday, April 8, 2012
A bel canto bear in a verismo world
City of Orgies, Walks and Joys!
Review of Five Borough Songbook
“Of these my favorite is Scott Wheeler's "At Home in Staten Island," a setting of an 1869 poem by British poet Charles Mackay for soprano and viola. The poet seeks to convince his love that they have found a paradise on Staten Island--no, really--but his love argues nothing compares to the homeland they'd left. The song is strophic, with a charming melody that reminds me of a lute song (although the liner notes make reference to Victorian parlor songs), while the viola part is a series of increasingly complex variations. This song is sung beautifully by Miss Guth, with Miss Rhodes on viola.”
DON TEETERS' FAREWELL
Classical Scene.com | May 6, 2012
Teeters in Farewell Stimulating as Always
by Steven Ledbetter
The Boston Cecilia concert on May 4th at the First Church in Cambridge was far more than the closing concert of the current season. It also marked the farewell of conductor Donald Teeters after 44 years of leading this ensemble (founded in 1876), second only to the Handel and Haydn Society in longevity among Boston’s musical groups. For the last 30 years, Teeters has made a regular practice of offering uncut performances (with an orchestra of period instruments) of the oratorios of Handel, one of the richest and most extensive bodies of music ever written, yet one which most audiences know only to a minuscule degree.
Surely no one would have been disappointed or surprised if he had chosen to end his decades-long term with Boston Cecilia with one of those great and underperformed works that he has opened up to Boston audiences over the years. But in fact he went in an entirely different direction, a program of choral music by contemporary composers with Boston connections, which not only provided a wonderfully stimulating buffet of little-known music (including two premieres of works written specifically for the evening by composer-in-residence Scott Wheeler) but also showed off the impressive musicality of his chorus in these challenging compositions.
With the assistance of Wheeler, who suggested several items on the program, and recalling one favorite work that the Cecilia has performed on two previous occasions, Teeters chose for the composers long-time area residents like Arthur Berger, Donald Martino, and Wheeler himself , as well as two composers who studied here, Andrew Rindfleisch and Tom Cipullo.
This leaves the three works that I have left for last, because they comprised a good half of the program: two premieres and a marvelous older work by Scott Wheeler. The three works are all very different from one another, so that having such a preponderance of the work of one composer did not overbalance the character of the evening.
The final work on the program was another Scott Wheeler premiere. The title New Love Song Waltzes is promising on the face of it, evoking as it does two of the best-loved works of Brahms, the light-hearted Liebeslieder waltzes of Opus 52 and the somewhat more “experienced” waltzes of the second set, Opus 65. Brahms chose poetry of relative non-entities (except for Goethe, who in the very last song of Opus 65 calls upon the Muses — and Art — to console hearts wounded by Cupid. But Wheeler has selected four texts by Donne and Shakespeare in alternation, texts of more literary quality. The Shakespeare texts are both songs (“Take, oh take those lips away” and “It was a lover and his lass”); the Donne poems are far less familiar. And though the very effective four-hands piano accompaniment is clearly an homage to Brahms, the settings (as Wheeler noted in the program) are not quite waltzes in the same sense, but rather more clearly inspired by Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, a show in which every number employs different versions of triple time. The variety of mood in these four songs is striking and congenial, the setting of the words lively and graceful. The audience responded warmly both to this very effective new choral work, which deserves an active future, and also, especially, to conductor Donald Teeters for a marvelous capstone to his long and distinguished career with the Boston Cecilia.
Boston Phoenix | May 8, 2012
By Lloyd Schwartz
Donald Teeters's Farewell
The Boston Cecilia ended its 136th season on a note of understated nostalgia. This marked the last Cecilia concert under the direction of Donald Teeters, who has been leading the group since 1968. Over those 44 years, his signature devotion to British music included inspired performances of Britten and Holst and a record number of Handel oratorios, many unfamiliar to Boston. This final concert was also something of a testament to Cecilia composer-in-residence Scott Wheeler (director of Dinosaur Annex), with two premieres and an old favorite (the charming Whiskers and Rhymes, from 1992, with its children’s rhymes and Spanish dance rhythms with elegant percussion accompaniment).
The new pieces are the gorgeously elegiac choral setting of poem by Shalin Liu, Embraced by Velvet Night (happily repeated after intermission), and New LoveSong Waltzes (commissioned by Boston Cecilia for this occasion), lilting and tender settings of Donne and Shakespeare (my favorite, the urgent “Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away”). The well-blended chorus, pianists Barbara Bruns (Teeters’s longtime assistant) and Carolyn Day Skelton, superb violinist Sharan Leventhal, and percussionist Frank Epstein all rose to the sweet bittersweetness of the occasion. A prolonged and loving standing ovation followed, and not for this concert alone.
NEW LOVE SONG WALTZES
Boston | GLOBE |
MAY 07, 2012
By Jeremy Eichler
In a way that seemed emblematic of his open and inquisitive musicianship, [Donald] Teeters chose to end his tenure not with a victory lap through the Baroque repertoire for which he was best known, but by reaching for music of the present, with a program of mostly new and recent works, anchored by two new pieces by Scott Wheeler, the chorus’s composer in residence.
Wheeler and the Boston Cecilia have enjoyed a fruitful relationship dating back to 2007, when the chorus performed and recorded the composer’s dramatic cantata “The Construction of Boston.” Friday’s program ended with the first performance of Wheeler’s “New Love Song Waltzes.”
Beyond the nod to Brahms suggested by the work’s title, Wheeler says in a program note that he was aiming for “music of celebration, for fun, almost a pop music piece for chorus,” and he has clearly achieved that goal in these four energetic settings of love poetry by Donne and Shakespeare. The first movement, titled “The Dream,” is appropriately elusive music, its textures, Wheeler writes, inspired by both the habanera dance rhythm and the complex, metallically glistening sounds of a gamelan orchestra. “Take, oh Take Those Lips Away” is an alert, elegant, and rhythmically catchy setting. For a setting of Donne’s “The Ecstasy,” Wheeler thickens his harmonies and the choral writing turns more sumptuous, floating above a rippling accompaniment for piano duet. The concluding setting, “It Was a Lover and His Lass,” is joyful and exuberant in character, with a vigorous leaping piano line spurring on the chorus from below.
APHRODITE AND ATHENA
Icareifyoulisten.com | March 27, 2015
By Lauren Alfano
"The songs in Wheeler's cycle Letters to Isabella are masterfully varied in their construction to capture the essence of each writer's personality in music.
Letters to Isabella | October 25, 2011
By Steven Ledbetter
Mrs. Gardner as Aphrodite and Athena
I was completely unfamiliar with The Mirror Visions Ensemble, but the fascinating program offered at the Longy School’s Pickman Hall on October 21 has definitely put them on my radar. The ensemble, under artistic director Tobé Malawista, consists of three singers (Vira Slywotzky, soprano; Scott Murphree, tenor; and Jesse Blumberg, baritone) and pianist Alan Darling. As a chamber ensemble dominated by voices, it assembles programs that emphasize the interaction of words and music, including pieces from many periods (covering the 17th to the 21st centuries on Friday), many musical styles, and new pieces especially commissioned, three of which were performed in this program. The singers all stayed on stage throughout the program, allowing them to move swiftly between songs and groups. All three have attractive voices and expressive stage presence, whether singing alone or in well-matched ensemble.
Malawista planned the program around a noted Bostonian figure, Isabella Stewart Gardner, creator of the wondrous museum on the Fenway and one of the most colorful figures in the social and artistic life of Boston around the turn of the last century. A great deal of research went into the planning, first choosing music in categories that celebrated Mrs. Gardner’s passions and interests, and then in choosing three wonderful letters to her to be set to music by Scott Wheeler.
The name of the program, “Aphrodite & Athena,” seemed rather grandiose until it was revealed that the phrase had been applied to Mrs. Gardner herself by a cousin in a letter to this energetic woman who seemed to be everywhere: “You must have a double, one devoted to society, music, admiration, and pearls, and the other sterner sister given to labor and duty; a kind of Aphrodite with a lining of Athene.” To that end, the program was shaped with groups of songs (variously for one, two, or three voices) representing the “Athena” side of her, especially in Incominciam!, an extended new setting by Christopher Berg of a passage from Dante; then the first of two “Venetian Sojourns” celebrating her favorite city; a group of diverse songs involving love and therefore obviously suggesting Aphrodite; Scott Wheeler’s Letters to Isabella, a group suggesting her love for solitude (a very different person than the one normally presented in the society columns of her day); a second “Venetian Sojourn”; and a group entitled “The Crown of Life,” reflecting her sense of fulfillment in a life lived as she chose to live it.
Personal letters between people who know one another well often tell us something about both the sender and the recipient. Scott Wheeler’s Letters to Isabella sets texts of great charm by three very good friends of Mrs. Gardner, writers who are also real writers. He was originally presented with a selection of three possibilities but decided that he wanted to read the letters himself to see if there were anything that struck him as better possibilities — and he ended up choosing the three that he had first been shown. Henry James is represented by an utterly characteristic Jamesian missive in which he arranges to meet her at her arrival in England. In essence the message is, “I’ll meet the 2:30 boat from Calais at Dover,” but he turned it into a lengthy and lightly flirtatious paragraph of balanced phrases and complex clauses. The second letter is in French, from the poet and novelist Paul Bourget (whose poem Musique is sung elsewhere in the program in Debussy’s setting). Bourget wishes her a farewell (in a macaronic epistle) if he is unable to see her in this land “des elevators, des fast trains, des hands up, des smash up, des pet alligators”! The final letter is from her closest friend in Japan, Kakuzo Okakura, who actually wrote his letter, charmingly, to her cat.
The songs are set for tenor, soprano, and baritone respectively. There is a special art of setting prose texts in a song. The composer rarely writes tunes that are meant to be memorable and self-sufficient in themselves, because the form of the text rarely allows for a shaping of balanced phrases. Instead, the natural rhythm of the language as spoken tends to suggest the nature of the vocal line—almost always syllabic and very flexible, though occasionally stretched out or heightened for some kind of emphasis. Scott Wheeler is very much at home in this kind of writing; the songs have a natural flow as if James or Bourget or Okakura might be thinking of musical phrases themselves. And I have little doubt that a second and third hearing would bring out the inherent melody that is tricky to grasp in a first encounter, precisely because it is novel and because the listener is also caught up with the surprise of the words. Following the three “letter” songs, the ensemble performed Wheeler’s setting of a poem by Okakura, The Stairway of Jade, inspired by a staircase at Fenway Court. This is more traditionally “songlike,” with short poetic lines of just two or three beats per line. The composer noted that “it is a hymn to nature, to architecture, and to Mrs. Gardner herself.” The intertwining voices provide a lovely, gently romantic close to the cycle of letters that preceded them.
Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris
October 15, 2011
A mysterious concert is scheduled for Saturday October 15 at Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris. The title is Greek, “Aphrodite and Athena,” given by the little known American ensemble Mirror Visions, featuring two North American composers unknown here, Scott Wheeler (b. 1952) and Christopher Berg (b. 1949). The theme is almost eccentric: to pay homage to Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), a great art collector and founder of the museum that bears her name, in Boston, of whom her cousin said that she had “a double, one devoted to society, music, admiration and pearls, and the other sterner sister given to labor and duty; a kind of Aphrodite with a lining of Athena.”
Read the entire article in English / French.
L’actu en arias
Le Monde | November 12, 2011
En s’inspirant d’événements récents, defaits divers ou de «people», compositeurs et librettistes espèrent séduire. Mais un bon sujet ne suffit pas à faire un bon opéra
Read the entire article in French.
WASTING THE NIGHT: SONGS
Opera News | 1/31/2012
The Naxos CD Wasting the Night: Songs of Scott Wheeler was listed among the Best of the Year for 2011.
Renaud Machart | July 30, 2011
Scott Wheeler (born in 1952), author of The Construction of Boston, an interesting opera also release by Naxos in its "American Classics" series, is the author of a beautiful corpus of works for voice and piano on texts of poetic stature (Emily Dickinson, Edna St Vincent Millay, Rilke, Blake) interpreted with style by a formidable group of singers, including the excellent American baritone William Sharp and the Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser.
Read the entire review in English / French.
Thoroughly modern yet heart warming songs expressively and beautifully sung
The music of Scott Wheeler is rich in just those qualities which we admire in ourselves and adore in others. It is warm, earnestly and ardently tonal, with an elusive lyrical quality that makes it classical music for sure. It has the power to be sinister, as in two Emily Dickinson songs, or to rage as in four Blake songs which seethe with raw appetite.
Wheeler’s range is wide: “Litany” is a sweet love song, or the flowering of first love, the detail overlaid on a hymnal-like passacaglia-like foundation. “Mozart, 1935”, to a poem by Wallace Stevens, is a priceless gem, a young man’s paean to his own passing youth. In the four songs of Turning Back, Krista River catches the poetry of HD (Hilda Doolittle) in the full flight of its emotional ecstasy.
The title track is 12 minutes of continuous emotional sharing through five Edna St Vincent Milay poems rent with “yearning and cynicism”, set to music that kneads Wheeler’s all-American musical heritage, starting with the great American songbook, into his repertoire of intimate musical textures and fabrics. Impressively, despite all the echoes and reminiscences of other composers and musics that seem to catch his ear, there is not one bar that is not uniquely his.
With pianist Donald Berman and crew giving fully of themselves, there is never a doubt that this music is the real thing, genuine in feeling and personal in its singing. Each of the singers bends completely with the music and still makes it their heart, rich with love, pain and care. The sound is close up and luxurious, pleasantly hinting at claustrophobia in its audiophile effect.
Fanfare | Friday, 11 March 2011
Classical Reviews - Composers & Works
Written by Robert Carl
Scott Wheeler (b.1952) has established a firm reputation as one of the leading composers of his generation for the lyric stage. I reviewed his chamber opera The Construction of Boston in Fanfare 32:4, and loved its play of deft musical wit. This disc features a recital of the composer’s songs, both individual and in cycles, and it covers a range from 1984 to 2007. One pleasure is that while Wheeler never literally repeats himself, he’s clearly been his own mature creative persona from the get-go, and there’s remarkable pleasure and consistency throughout the program.
I think it would be wearying to do detailed exegesis, so instead, let me comment on what I feel are a few of Wheeler’s salient strengths, even if as a result I don’t mention every piece.
Wheeler studied with Virgil Thomson, and that master’s influence is evident in his student’s lightness of touch, and above all, the clear setting of texts. Naxos doesn’t provide a libretto (nor does it list a Web site to find it, which has been the procedure in the past), but for once I won’t grouse, because the combination of Wheeler’s art with the remarkable diction of all his singers makes such superfluous (though I have to give special credit to William Sharp, whose English enunciation projects at a level of comprehensibility I’ve rarely encountered). When you hear a Wheeler song, you hear the words and music in a balanced duet throughout.
The composer also has a distinct lightness of touch. When I say “light,” I don’t mean “lite.” There is the clarity and brilliance that we associate with the word as a noun. Another way of saying this is to say the music has “grace.” And there once again multiple meanings suggest themselves: not only elegance, but the sort of unexpected gift one receives from higher realms. Wheeler writes in his notes that he has always been drawn to the Great American Songbook as a point of reference, and these songs show that he can combine a directness and accessibility we associate with Broadway, with the seriousness of purpose and depth of feeling more closely allied to art song. The conclusion of his 1993 Mark Van Doren cycle Serenata , “Love Me a Little,” has a breeziness that I associate with Sondheim. Likewise his Dickinson setting “Keeping the Sabbath” from the 1999 Sunday Songs is joyfully effervescent. His setting of Blake’s “The Little Vagabond” from the 2007 Heaven and Earth asserts the good-hearted drunken humor of its protagonist with an insistent little lick that speaks volumes … without speaking volumes.
This also suggests that Wheeler knows when to interpret and when to get out of the way. His Billy Collins song Litany (2006) takes a frankly hilarious text (that pushes lovesong metaphor to its logical absurdity) and lets the laughter emerge from the deadpan way the music frames the poem. And yes, he can be serious. The conclusion of his cycle Turning Back (2007) embodies the voice of Eurydice, who’s frankly disgusted with Orpheus for looking back, and actually takes this potentially comic take and turns it instead into a truly dramatic scena.
Wheeler’s piano writing is ingenious; many times he creates an accompaniment by piecing together a mosaic of tight little rhythmic motives that self-assemble into a burblingly supportive piano part. His language is largely tonal but never derivative. The sound is utterly American, precise, mercurial, economic.
The performances by all are outstanding, and I can only imagine the composer is thrilled. Wheeler has been making a serious name for himself in American opera, and his stage experience (how to “deliver” a song) is evident here. I look forward to many future decades of his art.
Opera News | March 2011
A recent addition to the Naxos label's American Classics song series is a disc featuring the works of Scott Wheeler. Single songs as well as cycles spanning the years 1984 to 2007 are potently voiced by William Sharp, Susanna Phillips, Joseph Kaiser and Krista River, accompanied by the excellent pianist Donald Berman.
Wheeler's economical, attractive compositional style is a result of his early fascination with jazz and the Great American Songbook, as well as a course of study with Virgil Thomson, who insisted on naturalness and clarity of text-setting. The four singers featured here handle the words — in both their English and American flavors — with varying degrees of success. Baritone William Sharp sets the bar high in his opening set, the 1993 song cycle Serenata. Mark Van Doren's poems have a spare, almost brittle quality, yet Wheeler's settings enable Sharp to flesh out masterful, imaginative characterizations. Initially pompous, the narrator of "If I Had a Wife" moves through wistful longing to a final shrug. (Wheeler's songs often end abruptly in irony or quizzical incertitude.) Sharp expresses the painful sensuality of "Her Hand in My Hand" and "Desire Like This," and his natural, everyday pronunciation (especially in the Sondheim-esque "Love Me Little") brings immediacy to every line. Sharp also makes the most of the single songs "Litany," a setting of Billy Collins's hilarious parody poem (flying off from "You are the bread and the knife/ the crystal goblet and the wine" into metaphoric ridiculousness) and Wallace Stevens's "Mozart, 1935," a multi-layered work in which Mozart and Kurt Weill collide.
Like Sharp, soprano Susanna Phillips couples gorgeous vocalism with richly imaginative interpretations. Sunday Songs, setting poems by Emily Dickinson, include "Oriole" (Messiaen's influence is felt in the birdsong from both piano and voice) and "Keeping the Sabbath," in which vocal scat and gleeful twittering enhance the poem's irreverent feel. Phillips is also the right singer for the sophisticated cycle Wasting the Night, treating poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay; the lazy sensuality of "Recuerdo" and the folksong-influenced "Betrothal" are especially appealing.
Mezzo-soprano Krista River's diction is not so pristine as that of her colleagues, especially in the spare, beautiful "To Say to Go to Sleep" and "Lullaby." Listeners will want to read the poems, which are not available in Naxos's online supplement but easy enough to find elsewhere on the Web. River's voice has a lovely, soprano-ish clarity and golden color, heard to better effect in the cycle Turning Back (which she sang at its premiere in 2007), setting four poems by H. D. (Hilda Doolittle). Modern reimaginings of classical female figures include a questioning Sappho, a cynical Circe, a potent Lethe (in another lullaby) and an irate Eurydice, who questions the motives of her rescuer Orpheus.
Tenor Joseph Kaiser is a less compelling and imaginative storyteller, but he handles the Britten-esque cycle Heaven and Earth handsomely.
MusicWeb-International.com | February 11, 2011
According to Scott Wheeler, his song-writing was inspired by Cole Porter and rock and pop music of the 1960s and 1970s - but that should not discourage the inquisitive music fan from considering this CD. Naxos may be stretching meanings a little to release it in their American Classics range, especially given that three of the eight items are less than five years old, but there is much of quality here.
Wheeler was taught song-setting privately by Virgil Thomson, whose method Wheeler describes in the notes as "focusing on vocal range, groupings of syllables, and placement of vowels." The benefits of Thomson's wisdom are highly apparent throughout this disc: apart from Litany, Wheeler's music is imaginative, varied, pungent, lyrical; yet communication remains paramount and as a testimony to the not-always-deserving poetry, every word can be clearly understood.
Clarity is enhanced by two further factors: firstly, the recording is high-quality and well-balanced. Secondly, Donald Berman is the constant pianist. He is immensely experienced in this kind of repertoire, and is undaunted by the difficulty of much of the music.
Soprano Susanna Phillips has a clear, attractive voice and great interpretive ability. She is outstanding in both sets she performs. The first of these are the two Sunday Songs, both settings of Emily Dickinson. Phillips also performs Wasting the Night, five poignant poems about love and time by Edna St Vincent Millay. This is some of the best poetry on the disc.
Singing To Sleep is a group of three lullabies, of which only two are included on the CD. These are fine songs, beautifully sung by mezzo Krista River. But why on earth only two? The third song could surely have been squeezed on - if it was particularly lengthy, then it could have taken the place of the aptly-named Litany, which feels quite a lot longer than its three and a half minutes, with its repetitive, uninspiring piano accompaniment to Billy Collins's dire humour, along the lines of Sondheim meets Flanders & Swann, and unendearingly delivered by baritone William Sharp.
Sharp also sings Mozart 1935, Wheeler's setting of a rather arch poem by Wallace Stevens. Sharp is an acquired taste; as technically good as his voice is, whatever he sings he tends to sound like he is performing Sondheim. So it was with Litany, and so it is also with this song, although in his notes Wheeler indicates that he meant to suggest Kurt Weill. It's Hollywood, either way. The largest dose of Sharp comes with Serenata. which opens the disc. This is both longer and a little more interesting than Mozart, certainly as far as the music goes. The poems are by Mark Van Doren, and may be a little too pretentious for many palates.
Joseph Kaiser has a much more expressive voice. He sings Heaven and Earth, a cycle of four settings of William Blake, to great effect. And Wheeler's music captures the strangeness of Blake's ideas.
The CD ends with Turning Back, four poems by Hilda Doolittle. Wheeler dedicated these to Krista River, who premièred them and performs them here. Her voice is quite similar to Susanna Phillips's, which is a compliment. Musically, this cycle is another highlight of the disc, and it is a pity that the texts are "not available" for these particular songs - presumably for copyright reasons.
The Classical Review | January 26, 2011
Heaven and Earth; Litany; Mozart, 1935; Serenata; Singing to Sleep (excerpts);
Sunday Songs; Turning Back; Wasting the Night
By Michael Quinn
Heaven and Earth; Litany; Mozart, 1935; Serenata; Singing to Sleep (excerpts); Sunday Songs; Turning Back; Wasting the Night
Joseph Kaiser (tenor); William Sharp (baritone), Susanna Phillips (soprano),
Krista River (mezzo-soprano); Donald Berman (piano).
Naxos American Classics 8.559658
Scott Wheeler’s second disc on Naxos arrives nearly three years after the label released his first opera, The Construction of Boston, and a full seven years after the only other recording of his music – Shadow Bands, a collection of pieces for strings and piano on Newport Classic – to confirm the Washington, DC-born composer’s sweetly expressive, intelligently sympathetic, and adroitly nimble facility for setting texts.
Wasting the Night is a compendium of 24 piano-accompanied songs composed between 1984 and 2007 and collected into eight pieces. It takes its title from a 1990 cycle setting five texts by the poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay that insightfully muse upon the capacity to “waste the night in wanting”. Originally presented in concert as cabaret songs (largely in the American manner of Blossom Dearie and Mabel Mercer), here, in poised performances by soprano Susanna Phillips, they describe the brittleness of yearning buffeted by world-weary cynicism with a becoming economy of gesture and telling sense of empathy.
Phillips is equally at home in Sunday Songs, two gently agitated settings of Emily Dickinson composed in 2006 for Renée Fleming. With more ethereal concerns in mind, their engagement with the chiaroscuro contrasts of the divine and the commonplace find haunting echo in the following year’s Heaven and Earth. Here, five poems by William Blake, evocatively delivered by tenor Joseph Kaiser, collide the imagined tenderness of Heaven with the brute violence of the world as lived, Wheeler’s piano line providing a scathingly sour commentary on the faux bravura of ‘The Little Vagabond’, haunting the poverty of ‘Holy Thursday’, and pointedly punctuating Blake’s Old Testament fervor in ‘Oh, For a Voice Like Thunder’.
The three pieces for baritone offer the most uncomplicatedly pleasurable experiences on the disc. Litany is a textbook-perfect display of deadpan humor, Billy Cotton’s deliciously straight-faced poem treated with finger-tip delicacy by Wheeler and tongue-in-cheek resourcefulness by William Sharp.
Sharp is no less enticing in what Wheeler describes as the “lover’s serenade” of Serenata. A 1993 setting of five poems by Mark Van Doren, it boasts exquisitely redolent instrumental accompaniment and fancy-free poetry in vocal lines that approvingly call to mind Oscar Hammerstein II’s winning way with the vernacular.
By contrast, 1997’s Wallace Stevens-setting, Mozart, 1935, evokes a markedly different cabaret context: 1930s’ Berlin. Quoting Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor (No. 3, K. 397) and the second movement of the A major Piano Concerto (No. 23, K. 488) it also bears the obvious imprint of Kurt Weill and benefits from the poignant undercurrents in Sharp’s fervent delivery.
Wheeler displays both deft sensitivity and absorbing acuity in Turning Back – four poems by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) that cast a sharp contemporary light on figures drawn from classical literature – and an enchanting, filigree-delicate touch and tone in two lullabies from Singing to Sleep; all of which mezzo Krista River dispatches with consummate ease and eloquence.
Accompanying at the piano throughout is Donald Berman in one marvelously subtle performance after another, gracefully reciprocating the contrasting styles of the four singers while responding to the emotional ebb and flow of the material with perfectly pitched nuance and knowingness.
The composer provides his own notes for the booklet. Texts are not provided, but can be downloaded from the Naxos website.
Expressive Tangos from Chamber Orchestra of Boston
February 22, 2011
by Steven Ledbetter
Scott Wheeler’s Touch and Go was recomposed for this program from an earlier piano trio version. It is a brief, marvelously light-textured score making what the composer calls “a line drawing of a tango,” using frequent pizzicatos to give it a bounce that evidently suggested the title.
Read the entire article online.
Jeremy Eichler's Classical Music Picks (Best of the Year)
December 26, 2010
SEA CHANGE: Opening weekend at Shalin Liu Performance Center including Scott Wheeler’s “Granite Coast,’’ Rockport Chamber Music Festival.
December 1, 2010
The entire program, called "Virtuosity's Velocity," was a mixture of the wet (Ross Lee Finney's nostalgic 1971 Landscapes Remembered) and the martini dry (Arthur Berger's 1956 Chamber Music for 13 Players), Scott Wheeler's stealthy, erotically noirish City of Shadows (2007) being a dirtier martini with a neat bourbon chaser.
Vigorous BMOP romps through Adams symphonies and more
Boston Globe | November 15, 2010
BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT
Gil Rose, conductor
At: Jordan Hall, Saturday
More engaging was local composer Scott Wheeler’s 2007 “City of Shadows,’’ with its slightly noirish atmosphere. It embraces urban vitality, opening with quick figures in the bass of the piano and pizzicato strings. Languid melodies rise and fade amid sharp brass interjections. A nostalgic middle section, highlighting the winds, seems to grow organically back to full speed. A final, unsettling episode for strings brings this terrific and inventive piece to a close.
Capturing the attention of eyes and ears, Gramercy Trio brought its "Sound and Motion" project to Gardiner Theater at Trinity Pawling (N.Y.) School last Friday, with barefooted Zoe Dance in tow, or was it toes? This was the dance debut for the Pawling Concert Series, and I certainly got a kick out of the five pieces commissioned for Gramercy Trio, performed with and without Zoe Dance.
The repetition of compositions never heard before was helpful, giving everyone a second take on the music, and a different experience altogether when played with the three dancers. In one instance, Zoe did the dancing first without music, then again with Gramercy joining them.
Violinist Sharan Leventhal explained at length how much she enjoyed manipulating the time space continuum, separating and combining art forms. Joining her were cellist Jonathan Miller and pianist Randall Hodgkinson. Lithe and leggy Callie Chapman is artistic director of Zoe Dance, choreographing with Sarah Turner and Ivan Korn. They combined to modernize the traditional with amazing freshness and aplomb. …
Dressy high heels didn't interfere with the dancers' fancy footwork in their comic skit "Touch and Go -- Tango for Three," by Scott Wheeler (b. 1952).
Boston Globe (Harlow Robinson)
Wheeler describes his “Touch and Go’’ as “a line drawing of tango.’’ It deconstructs the tango into fragmentary exclamations on plucked strings and short violin phrases."
Elizabeth Larson was superb in the Trio no. 2 by Scott Wheeler (b. 1952), playing drawn-out harmonics beautifully. Pincombe’s powerful slapping pizzicatos were effective in the second movement, and he and Larson delivered a terrific rendition of a violin-cello duo section filled with harmonics.
Chamber Music Magazine (Kyle Gann)
Scott Wheeler’s music seems exactly like him: quiet, precise, cautious, articulate. It feels like mercurial music, but the feeling is deceptive, because it really doesn’t flit from one idea to another. He can write scherzos as weightless as Berlioz’s Queen Mab, but with an intensity of focus that the volatile Berlioz wouldn’t have understood. A second idea in one of Wheeler’s chamber music movements is hinted at long before it takes center stage. His music husbands its resources with a remarkable effortlessness. You expect it to lead to a grand statement, but sometime before the double bar you realize, in retrospect, that the tentative introductory comments were in fact the gist of the matter. It is an observation whispered to you at a cocktail party, a casual interaction that turned out more significant than you suspected at the time. It is music of elegant understatement.
Boston Globe (Jeremy Eichler)
The composer has penned his share of chamber works, many of them quietly haunting, and serious orchestral scores (the chamber symphony "City of Shadows" will receive its American premiere this fall at Indiana University, Bloomington). But Wheeler is the first to admit that his heart, and his most distinctive talent, lies in writing for the stage.
Boston Phoenix (Lloyd Schwartz)
Wheeler is not large-scaled and cosmic in the tradition of Mahler. He’s rather a disciple of Virgil Thomson (literally) and even Stephen Sondheim -- his works are appealingly modest, witty, elegant, and tuneful. Very American, spiked with a splash of French vermouth and a lemon twist.
Fanfare Magazine (Robert Carl)
Scott Wheeler is a Boston-based composer with a multi-faceted musical career. Along with his composition, he is the director of the Dinosaur Annex new music ensemble, one of the longest-running and most successful groups in the region, where he is not just the guiding spirit and administrator, but conductor. As a curator of new music with his ensemble, he’s been a consistent advocate of the music of Virgil Thomson and Ralph Shapey, an unlikely pair if there ever were one. And his own music shows that he is no slavish follower of conservative fashion, but a distinctive voice of true integrity.
Wheeler’s music is alert and bumptious. A piece often starts out with a slight jolt, a tiny motivic fragment that shivers with rhythmic energy, and usually has a kernel of harmonic progression which can be spun out over time. It dances on little cat feet, and its humor is sly. But over time something darker can emerge.BMint November 30, 2010
"The first movement’s opening dialogue between the instruments was flawless in conception and interpretation; the “Bumptious Waltz” was, well, bumptious, and the atmospheric opening of the fourth movement was simply magical."
Individual works in review:
BMint November 30, 2010
"The first movement’s opening dialogue between the instruments was flawless in conception and interpretation; the “Bumptious Waltz” was, well, bumptious, and the atmospheric opening of the fourth movement was simply magical."
Triangle of Mu Phi Epsilon
Sherry Kloss, Epsilon Upsilon, Muncie Alumni
Review of New Lullaby CD by Aaron Larget-Caplan
In “Nachtlied,” Scott Wheeler spins an enchanting melody with cross rhythms, punctuations of harmony, and use of rhythmic space to create silences, transporting the listener to restful peacefulness.
This review appeared originally in the Triangle of Mu Phi Epsilon, Volume 104, Issue 3, page 9, Fall 2010
New Lullaby • Aaron Larget-Caplan (gtr) • Six String Sound & Pieces by Job, Feist, Trester, Wheeler, Siegfried, Small, Stolz, Cooman, McDonald, Vayo, Leisner, Schwartz, Vigil. 888-01
…The more elaborate works are carefully positioned in this recital so that they counterpoint the more conventional calls to sleep. Of these, Scott Wheeler’s Nachtlied and Kevin Siegfried’s Cradle Song particularly appeal: fresh and tender songs without words. …
…a remarkably successful, imaginative release. Aaron Larget-Caplan’s playing catches every nuance of the music, making the most of a deliberately restricted palette of colors and textures. The recorded sound of the guitar is excellent, striking a perfect balance: intimate, but giving the instrument some space so that the disc doesn’t become oppressive. – Jeremy Marchant
This article originally appeared in Issue 34:3 (Jan/Feb 2011) of Fanfare Magazine.
New York Times – James R. Oestreich
Mr. Wheeler’s work received a fine performance from Mr. Deveau; Bayla Keyes, the violinist; and Michael Reynolds, the cellist. Mr. Wheeler pretty much avoided unified trio writing until the finale, sometimes letting the string players interact but generally keeping the piano on a different plane. Instead, he turned the occasion into an inventive intellectual exercise, full of allusions and references that would mostly escape the casual listener.
Each of the three movements begins with a musical “spelling” of the name Shalin Liu, assigning notes for letters. Ms. Liu, who was born in Taiwan, was the lead donor in the $20 million campaign for the center, using family money earned in high-technology enterprises. In the work’s first movement, “Coastline With Figures,” the strings play wavelike, rocking figures as the piano roams through a vaguely pentatonic-sounding melody in octaves that also “spells” the names of friends of Ms. Liu’s.
The second movement, “Summer Star,” incorporates a Chinese melody beloved by Ms. Liu, and the violinist seems to be riffing on the Sea Interludes from Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes.” The finale, “Celebration by the Water,” “spells” yet another name, that of Mr. Deveau, and as the pianist slams a granitic curtain down on the work, the strings continue with a little screeching coda evoking seagulls, in this case recalling the ones that had flown by the window just moments before. Mr. Wheeler could hardly have planned it better.
Boston Globe – Jeremy Eichler
In conceiving the opening set of concerts, artistic director David Deveau aimed for maximum sonic range. On Thursday night, Deveau and two colleagues gave the premiere of Scott Wheeler’s attractive, jaggedly lyrical Piano Trio No. 4, “Granite Coast,’’ and Bruce Hangen led a small chamber orchestra, whose ranks included members of the BSO and the Borromeo Quartet, in Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll’’ and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.’’
Boston Phoenix – Lloyd Schwartz
Then, what could be more appropriate than a newly commissioned work by an American composer with local roots? In this case, it was Scott Wheeler's new piano trio, Granite Coast. There were evocations of wind, water, and gulls, plus a Chinese folk song to honor the new building's generous donor, Shalin Liu, with references to Deveau, Liu, friends' names, and Schubert's B-flat Trio (a recording of which, with Deveau, is a fond memory of Wheeler's) all woven into the thematic material. Perfect for the occasion, though I think this piece will continue to have a life long after the occasion and the musical numerology are forgotten.
Boston Herald – Keith Powers
Artistic director David Deveau was determined to show off the capabilities of the center and programmed two outsized pieces - Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” - as well as a world premiere, “Granite Coast,” a piano trio by Scott Wheeler.
The musical highlight was clearly Wheeler’s elegant trio. In three movements,alternately giving the dominant role to each of the instruments, “Granite Coast” celebrated the spirit of the evening without sacrificing substance.
The performers were Deveau, sitting at the festival’s new Steinway, and longtime associates Bayla Keyes (violin) and Michael Reynolds (cello). “Granite Coast” has obvious elements that captured the setting. A barcarolle - a gently rocking, wavelike rhythm - underlies much of the music, and imaginary bird sounds flit through. A distinctly eastern melody wafts through the second movement. There were some intonation problems. Keyes is not afraid to take risks in the energy of the moment. But the sound was seductive, especially crisp from the piano, and voluptuously warm when Reynolds explored the lowest ranges of the cello.
Boston Musical Intelligencer – Vance R. Koven
After the (relatively) large ensemble demonstrated the hall’s capacity to differentiate and blend sonorities, the first half of the program concluded with the type of chamber ensemble for which the Rockport Chamber Music Festival has made its reputation, in Scott Wheeler’s piano trio, whose title and creation give witness to the occasion. Full disclosure: Mr. Wheeler and your correspondent are long-time friends and colleagues. Having said this, candor requires that we declare “Granite Coast” one of his strongest scores. As is his wont, the composer has structured the work around a bit of technical trickery, in this case the musical spelling of the names of Ms. Liu and Mr. Deveau. This resulted in a motif he described as fanfare, characterized by a descending major third and a following major second, snapping back. Another feature was a figure of a descending and ascending fourth, often in a dotted rhythm. From these, Wheeler spun a compelling developmental structure to the first movement. The work’s title gives the idea of where Wheeler is going with this, and the stony rendering of the fanfare in piano octaves is brought forward in extended dry pizzicato passages for the strings. The slow movement is slow in pulse, but not gentle, and it makes many references to Chinese pentatonicism and sonorities of traditional Chinese instruments, in tribute to Ms. Liu. The finale returns to the melodic ideas of the first movement and develops them with reference to Rockport’s aqueous environment, in rhythmically vital ways, notably with a rocking motion in the lower piano range while the strings float about in choppy waters, with the occasional suggestion of a sea shanty. It all comes to an end with a wonderful imitation of seagulls. Wheeler is ever willing to let the circumstances of an occasion suggest the ideas for a work, but at his best, as he was here, he seizes these ideas and makes of them an abstract composition of enduring value.
Cape Ann Beacon -- Keith Powers
The highlight for this listener, discounting all the hoopla and genuine emotion accompanying the proceedings, was without a doubt Scott Wheeler’s “Granite Coast,” commissioned for the opening of the hall.
Wheeler strove to create a work that would capture the ceremonial nature of the event, and still be worthy of repeat performances. Here’s hoping that this elegant piano trio gets more presentations on this stage, so that listeners can adequately glean its subtle interplay of the three instruments.
There are many works that sound like they could be just as easily rendered by alternate instrumentation: a symphony that seems like musical material for a quartet, or a piano sonata with enough ideas for a concerto. “Granite Coast” is a piano trio, at its core, pure but hardly simple. It could not be anything else, and that is meant as a true compliment.
City of Shadows: Chamber Symphony for 14 players (2006)
Musical America (Paul Moor): Nagano took over for the closing world premiere of "City of Shadows," a sonic portrait of a great city. Most impressively for me, Wheeler's music virtually effervesces with rhythmic vitality. In Ulrich Pollmann's review for the daily "Tagesspiegel," he wrote this vivid observation: "Like industrious ants, [the musicians] transport the little tone cells here and there."
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2001)
The second half of the concert was devoted to the premiere of Scott Wheeler’s absorbing Violin Concerto, which was written for the Toledo Symphony and for soloist Sharan Leventhal. This work features a truly inventive sense of color, with mandolin, harpsichord, and marimba suggesting baroque throwbacks and a sense of pacing that works in several time frames at once. The solo part is the guiding conscience of the piece, threading its way almost ceaselessly through its three movements and nearly half-hour length. By turns wistful and searching, it also is more than a ‘‘lark ascending’’ against an atonal backdrop, but interacts seamlessly with the orchestra, creating a stream of motives whose logic is understandable on first hearing.
The diminutive Leventhal clearly has the full measure of the work. One of the finest soloists to perform with the orchestra this year, she was a commanding presence from the opening page, shifting articulations nimbly, marking mood shifts with dancelike gestures, and never producing less than a lovely sound, especially in the upper registers, where her tone was warm, singing, and quietly intense.
The Wheeler Violin Concerto is a major work in every sense of the word, and it can only be hoped that Toledo audiences will have more chances to hear and absorb it.
The Construction of Boston (1988)
“a delightful one-act allegory on, well, the building of the city of Boston. As is the case with many recent American operas, it is stylistically eclectic, but there is no feeling of pastiche, and the composer’s musical personality is evident throughout.”
New Music Connoisseur (Carlton Wilkinson)
The musical style is both post-minimalist in orchestration and rhythm and post-modern in its appropriation of styles. Wheeler's opera churns with a rhythmic and polyrhythmic vitality, sliding through unexpected shifts of triad-based harmonies, reminiscent of John Adams' best work. The childlike tone of the libretto, glorifying the world's "best city" and its geographical location, also has the decidedly modernist tone of Glass' and Adams' operas, clean dramatic lines and lots of space in the detail, letting the viewer fill in meaning--the stylized purity of a Soviet propaganda poster.
The music is at its best in the complex polyrhythms of the overture and the opera's second half as first Tinguely and then Saint-Phalle do their work and the city (and the opera) achieves its heavenly apex.
Fanfare Magazine (Robert Carl)
The Construction of Boston is Wheeler’s first major music-theater piece, commenced in 1989, though it didn’t reach its final full operatic incarnation until 2002. Wheeler is one of the freshest American voices I know writing for the lyric stage. He studied with Virgil Thomson, and gained from him a taste for two essential virtues: clarity and wit. Both are on ample display in this work … it’s sly and very funny; I found myself repeatedly guffawing.
At times we feel we’re in a sort of demented Handel oratorio, at others the music picks up the harmonic vocabulary and rhythmic energy of a John Adams opera. Stravinsky is always hovering in the wings, but isn’t an overbearing presence. I have a particular fondness for the sequence where Tinguely creates the Back Bay neighborhood via landfill, and Back Bay sings a sweet lament for what is lost, and the pain of all the buildings now bearing down on her.
The Absolute Sound (Wayne Garcia)
In addition to Thomson, whom Wheeler occasionally quotes, the eclectic music flashes reminders of Messiaen, Weill, Gilbert and Sullivan-even Gregorian chant. Still, the composer has created a unified and original score of shimmering transparency, well-structured drama, and moments of remarkable, often unexpected beauty. A plucked banjo sets the tone in the Overture. The Prologue is an extended dialogue for tenor and piano, and the small cast of soloists, orchestra, and chorus does a first-rate job conveying the sense of an awakening city.
Boston Phoenix (Lloyd Schwartz)
Donald Teeters and the Boston Cecilia have returned Scott Wheeler’s enchanting, genre-bending The Construction of Boston to local circulation. This is the fourth time Boston has had the chance to hear Wheeler’s ebullient setting of the late Kenneth Koch’s 1962 poem/theaterpiece, which was written for and performed once by New York artists Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely, and Niki de Saint-Phalle. (They also happen to be its main characters.) The John Oliver Chorale performed the premiere in 1989 as an unstaged cantata. A year later, Ron Jenkins and the Charlestown Working Theater staged it as an opera, with a new prologue written for the occasion by Koch but with only two instrumentalists. In 2002, Boston Conservatory staged it with a full orchestra, with a single player for each string part. This latest version, at Jordan Hall, was back in concert form but with the strings doubled. I wasn’t at the premiere, but Teeters and his classy cast and players offered the first truly satisfying performance I’ve heard — and it was being recorded by Naxos.
Trying to categorize Wheeler’s piece reminds me of Polonius’s list of generic compounds. I’d call it “pastoral-comical-ecstatical,” since it’s actually about how a place becomes a city. It’s Koch’s celebration of people, architecture, and art. His three artists are more like gods than people, transforming what they touch. Following in the operatic footsteps of Virgil Thomson, Wheeler’s teacher, Construction has no conventional plot. But it has a magical score full of piquant harmony, syncopated rhythms, and delectable tunes. Wheeler is a wonderful word setter, and you wouldn’t want to miss a syllable of Koch’s witty and touching text: “It’s wonderful to be a part/Of an existent urban heart/Where on hot summer days/The heat sings its own praise,” or “I put features on the face/That is much too solemn;/I give Corinthian grace/To the Doric column.”
Unlike those contemporary composers whose brilliant orchestrations hide weak vocal writing, Wheeler makes you want to listen to the singing voices. Especially when the singers are mezzo-soprano Krista River as the Spirit of Boston, tenor Charles Blandy as Beacon Hill, contralto Elizabeth Anker as Back Bay, baritone Christòphoren Namura as Rauschenberg, tenor William Hite as Tinguely, soprano Sharla Nafziger as St. Phalle, and baritone Marcus DeLoach as the Storm. By playing their parts straight, they caught both the jokes and the underlying seriousness. The final elegiac chorus (“Now, citizens, sunset cover you”) ravished the ear and the heart.
Boston Globe (Matthew Guerrieri)
'Construction of Boston' is a love note to the city
Scott Wheeler's one-act opera "The Construction of Boston," in which the city emerges from primordial verdancy while Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and even the opera itself comment, cries out for an extravagant, Jacobean staging. The Boston Cecilia adopted the next best strategy on Sunday, appealing to the audience's imagination with a concert performance (recorded for future release on the Naxos label).
The text, by Kenneth Koch, was originally a 1962 theater piece for three New York artist friends: Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely, and Niki de Saint-Phalle, who appeared in the play's one and only performance as godlike figures who surrealistically conjure the Hub out of thin air.
Wheeler's adaptation, premiered in 1989, is a tribute to his teacher, Virgil Thomson. While Wheeler's warm, tonal harmonies echo Thomson's own neoclassical Americana, he deploys unexpected instrumental colors -- a twanging banjo, a chirping, fife-like piccolo -- with modernist verve. Like Thomson, he sets words with unfailing clarity.
Washington Post (Tim Page )
'Democracy': A Big Yes Vote
Wheeler's score is a fine one… If I generally find Wheeler's music more often clever than funny, there remain long, inspired passages of radiance (especially the finale to Act 1, which is beautifully balanced, musically and dramatically, and sends the spectator out to intermission glowing). Best of all, he writes skillfully and idiomatically for the human voice -- even in the opera's most strenuously modernist moments, Wheeler never asks his singers to leap around the staff like so many mountain goats negotiating impossible terrain -- and his orchestration is inevitably supple, colorful and assured. This is Wheeler's first full-length opera: I hope there will be many more.
Anne Manson coaxed a marvelously detailed and fluent performance from the Youth Orchestra of the Americas and the George Washington University Chamber Choir: She was the sure axis around which everyone, onstage and off, revolved. Amanda Squitieri made a fierce, sweet, delightfully feisty Esther Dudley, while Keri Alkema brought tonal opulence and a heartfelt, wounded dignity to the role of Madeleine Lee. Jessica Swink chirped amusingly and stratospherically as the scatterbrained Essy Baker. Lee Poulis captured the starchy, spurious "dignity" of Sen. Raitcliffe while Matthew Wolff managed to inspire human sympathy for the slithering, crooning Rev. Hazard. Christina Martos was a suitably grand, suitably off-in-the-background first lady to President Grant.
Three older singers, all Washington National Opera regulars, rounded out the cast. William Parcher huffed and puffed appropriately as Grant (although he looked rather like an even more sullied political figure from the era, William Marcy "Boss" Tweed). Kyle Engler was a delightfully imperious Lydia Dudley, who suffers fools (and foolishness) not at all; she carried herself with the half-amused, half-shocked sensibility of somebody who is always the wisest person in any room. Finally, Robert Baker -- with 250 or more WNO appearances behind him -- finally got a leading role as Baron Jacobi, and did he ever run with it! He combined brassy, foppish grandiloquence with welling, understated tenderness: his distinctive, clarion high tenor voice occasionally called the late Peter Pears to mind. It is impossible to imagine the role better cast.
Director and designer John Pascoe came through with the best work I've seen from him -- he kept the multiple layers of dramatic action in "Democracy" both separate and intertwined, and provided stately, handsome vistas before which they could unfold. He would seem to be a student of Adams's biography; in the background of the funeral scene in Act 1, an extra assumed the noble, affectless profile of the ambiguous figure, designed by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, that now serves as the monument for Henry and Marion "Clover" Adams in Rock Creek Cemetery.
With the exception of a single scene in "The Ballad of Baby Doe" by Douglas Moore and John Latouche (which takes place at the Willard Hotel!) our town has never been so deftly captured in an opera.
Boston Phoenix (Lloyd Schwartz)
Not all black and white
Scott Wheeler’s Democracy premieres in Washington
Some contemporary composers won’t write an opera because it’s too hard to get a new opera produced. But composer Scott Wheeler, director of Dinosaur Annex, one of Boston’s premier contemporary-music groups, has had unusual success in this respect. His witty, inventive one-act stage fantasy from 1988, The Construction of Boston, using a poem by the late Kenneth Koch as text, has had two Boston productions (one passable, one not). A native of Washington, DC, Wheeler has recently had the good fortune of a commission from Plácido Domingo’s Washington National Opera for his latest operatic work, the ambitious full-length Democracy: An American Comedy, which uses as a libretto senior playwright Romulus Linney’s 1968 dramatization of two novels by Henry Adams, Esther and Democracy, along with information about post–Civil War political scandals in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant.
Wheeler is a disciple of Virgil Thomson, so it’s not surprising that both of his operatic works should share elements with Thomson’s masterpieces, Four Saints in Three Acts and his Susan B. Anthony opera, The Mother of Us All, both difficult but inspired collaborations with Gertrude Stein. Wheeler’s musical language is essentially tonal and tuneful. The score is infiltrated with suggestions of hymn tunes and parlor ballads, marches and dances. And as in Thomson, historical settings are cross-fertilized with modernist theater devices. Like Four Saints, Democracy uses a "compère," a narrator who addresses the audience. Here, it’s the witty Baron Jacobi, the not-very-closeted Bulgarian ambassador (campy tenor Robert Baker), who alienates the political powers-that-be because he has too much on them and isn’t exactly reticent about his contempt. This opera, he tells us, is the story of "how I lost my job."
Washington Opera didn’t stint on some production values. There wasn’t much set to speak of, but director and set designer John Pascoe’s sumptuous costumes — white ball gowns and black tuxedos, with Mrs. Lee the only character wearing a different color, green — and Jeff Bruckerhoff’s punchy dramatic lighting were among the stars of the show. Pascoe kept the action fluid (I especially liked the way he staged Wheeler’s cinematic alternations between two parallel love scenes on the two halves of the stage). Anne Manson, with snap and an ear for Wheeler’s variety of orchestral color, led the accomplished Youth Orchestra of America and the George Washington University Chamber Choir.
Wheeler is a brilliant and energetic orchestrator…The two most gratifying musical events are the central duets for the two heroines, one in each act.
New York Times (Bernard Holland)
Politics as Usual, With U. S. Grant in Good Voice
Politics in the past few months have generated feelings of exultation and horror but not much comedy. Even "Democracy," Scott Wheeler's new work for the Washington National Opera got most of its laughs on Saturday night through gritted teeth.
Beneath the singing, a lot is going on. The instrumental language bypasses a previous generation of atonality and revolution and takes as its starting point the Stravinsky of about 1920. There is plenty of wind- and brass-driven sound, some pounding of timpani, and harmonies that treat old ways of tonality with ambiguity while never letting us forget them.
Most interesting are the varied phrase lengths and sudden shifts of rhythm and meter. They keep the ear interested. The George Washington University Chamber Choir sang with spot-on confidence. Anne Manson faced a big job conducting such music with such forces, and one could only admire her work.
"Democracy" is very well done. Keri Alkema (Madeleine) and Amanda Squitieri (Esther) are excellent female leads, both with promising voices. Lee Poulis (Senator Raitcliffe) and Matthew Wolff (the Rev. Hazard) are just as strong. William Parcher and Christina Martos play the Grants, with Kyle Engler and Jessica Swink in the other parts. The production by John Pascoe is simple and elegant, with costumes to match; the split-screen courting scenes work nicely. Jeff Bruckerhoff's lighting offers striking use of shadow and brightness. New American operas are not often treated to all these good things, but "Democracy" deserves them.
Baltimore Sun (Tim Smith)
The curtain rises on a new 'Democracy'
“Believe in our God. Believe in our country." Those aren't the only words from Scott Wheeler's new opera Democracy: An American Comedy, with a contemporary ring.
Although set during the days when Ulysses S. Grant was president, this work, about ambition, corruption, hypocrisy and religious zeal in the nation's capital, has one foot very much in our own time. (There's even a reference to voting irregularities.)
That often biting resonance turned out to be the most effective element in the premiere performance Friday night at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.
Wheeler's orchestration, with its Stravinsky-ish rhythmic snap and tightly meshed woodwinds that bubble up a la Benjamin Britten, is often striking.
Crazy Weather (2010) (revised version of Wakefield Doubles) (2004)
Boston Globe (David Weininger)
Ensemble premieres an impressive piece
Scott Wheeler had originally planned to call his new work for string orchestra "Crazy Weather," the title of a poem by John Ashbery. Though he eventually changed the title to "Wakefield Doubles" -- in part to reflect the hometown of the New England String Ensemble, who gave the piece its premiere this weekend -- the original title would have been apt, with or without the literary reference.
Wheeler's impressive piece is a constantly shifting prism of sounds and textures, thriving on quick changes of mood and an extensive array of colors. The resemblance to the New England climate could not have been plainer. Wheeler, who teaches at Emerson and directs the new-music group Dinosaur Annex, cast the piece for two separate ensembles and had them play strongly dissimilar music simultaneously, creating interesting tensions. The piece opens with a loud thwack from the double basses; then one group plays a series of angular lines that orbit away from and back to a single note, while the second offers dusty clouds of seemingly unrelated harmonics. In the third movement, busy moto perpetuo runs in the violins are interrupted by some eerie quarter-tone slides in the cellos. It was a lot to take in as a whole, but as a series of snapshots it was striking. The ensemble's players tackled this difficult work with zeal and brought it off splendidly.
Boston Phoenix (Lloyd Schwartz)
A New Piece far more inventive than Nyman’s was one of the highlights of Susan Davenny Wyner’s latest New England String Ensemble concert. This was the premiere of Boston composer and Dinosaur Annex music director Scott Wheeler’s Wakefield Doubles, which followed a scintillating Bach Fourth Brandenburg Concerto (with stellar flutists Chris Krueger and Wendy Rolfe, violin virtuoso Arturo Delmoni, and composer/pianist Yehudi Wyner on the harpsichord). In Baroque fashion, Wheeler used two chamber orchestras (hence the "doubles" of the title), and the three contrasting movements, beginning with a snap of the bass strings, always had simultaneously contrasting elements — long notes versus short notes, pizzicatos versus legatos, high notes versus low notes between the two orchestras. Things happened. Something always engaged or seduced the ear. In fact, Wheeler’s original working title, Crazy Weather (the title of a John Ashbery poem), conveys Wheeler’s lively spirit better than the more formalist (and harder to remember) Wakefield Doubles.
The Boston Phoenix (Lloyd Schwartz)
The timely highlight of Gil Rose’s latest BMOP (Boston Modern Orchestra Project) concert, “Strings Attached,” was a new/old piece (2004, revised 2009) for two string orchestras by Scott Wheeler now called Crazy Weather — the new title taken from a John Ashbery poem that begins, “It’s this crazy weather we’ve been having.” Thunderous snaps of antiphonal bass strings set off pizzicato raindrops that turn into Allegro sheets of musical rain. Of course, it’s an emotional landscape, as the exquisite Adagio makes even clearer. Slowly overlapping high violins create pungent harmonies, with delicate pizzicato punctuation. And in the “Steadily driving” third movement, the contrast — or argument — between flowing legato and slashing staccato becomes more intense and syncopated, until finally the storm is over and all the tension just dribbles away.
Boston Globe (Matthew Guerreri)
Scott Wheeler’s “Crazy Weather’’ (revised from his 2004 “Wakefield Doubles’’) showed more immediate individuality, leaning on its composer’s lapidary imagination. Each of its three movements opened with a vivid sonic image - basses snapping at boiling counterpoint, a snow-blind, high chorale - before wandering into diffuse mazes, then making an escape to another striking idea: an intermittent aurora of harmonics in the opening, a witty spill of pizzicato at the close.
The Boston Musical Intelligencer (Peter Van Zandt Lane)
…Other highlights were Scott Wheeler’s Crazy Weather, Stephen Hartke’s Alvorada, Three Madrigals, Betty Olivero’s Neharót, Neharót, and the winner of the BMOP/NEC student competition Stained Glass by Nathan Ball.
The most effective moments of Crazy Weather came in the more freely composed Adagio, as the music slowly and mysteriously gained a sense of motion from its suspended, frozen beginning. The third movement, Steadily Driving, built a more visceral and satisfying movement off of the materials introduced in the first. Crazy Weather concluded with an extremely effective hocketing of string harmonics.
Dragon Mountain (1992)
Boston Phoenix (Lloyd Schwartz)
Dragon Mountain, a three-movement gem made up of the ‘leftovers’ from a children’s opera called The Little Dragon, incorporates Celtic folk elements of mysterious eloquence.
WordWorks_News@yahoogroups.com (Karren Alenier)
Topping the bill were two significant contemporary works Scott Wheeler's chamber music composition "Dragon Mountain" and Maurice Saylor's song cycle "Alta Quies." Wheeler, who now lives in Boston, conducted the able chamber ensemble of June Huang on violin, Betty Hauck on viola, Jodi Beder on cello, and Carl Banner on piano. The piece, although Celtic in inspiration, evokes the magic of Asian dragons. The lyric music is also full of surprises that keeps the mind bright with eagerness to know where the composer will take the ear.
The Washington Post (Andrew Lindemann Malone)
Washington-born Scott Wheeler conducted a piano quartet in a performance of his "Dragon Mountain," an appealing mix of pastoral Celtic influences and nervous, tight oscillations.
Fanfare Magazine (Robert Carl)
It’s in the string trio Shadow Bands (1991) and the piano quartet Dragon Mountain (1992/93) that something new begins to emerge. The trio opens in the way described above, but greater harmonic variety, formal continuity, and expressive intensity color its course. It grows effortlessly but relentlessly. The quartet adds yet another element to the mix; up to this point Wheeler’s textures have been lean and brittle, but in this
work they become far more luxuriant, driven by longer lines and moto perpetuo accompaniments. The composer notes that the music was inspired by Celtic sources, and the influence, while subtle, is real. It paradoxically roots the music so it can take flight.
The Palace at 4AM (2005)
New York Times (Allan Kozinn)
… “The Palace at 4 a.m.” (2005), a Scott Wheeler piece based on three sections of the William Maxwell book “So Long, See You Tomorrow.” In the first and last the narrator meditates on his mother’s death and his father’s aimlessness. In between he remembers a new house built by his remarried father. Mr. Wheeler’s vocal writing is constricted and declamatory at first, but it expands and brightens through the three movements, as do the ensemble timbres.
MusicalAmerica.com (Paul Moor)
“An American Composer Discovered in Berlin”
Wheeler himself conducted his programmatic piano quartet "Dragon Mountain," as well as the concert aria "The Palace at 4 A.M," performed by outstanding baritone soloist William Sharp, whose crystalline diction was rewarding as his sumptuous voice. Wheeler shows not only musical discrimination but also excellent literary taste; for "The Palace" he set a limpidly lyrical prose excerpt from William Maxwell's insufficiently appreciated mini-masterpiece "So Long, See You Tomorrow." As precedent for that work, Wheeler credited "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," which the Metropolitan Opera soprano Eleanor Steber years ago had the gumption to commission from Samuel Barber, who instead of conventional poetry chose a poetically nostalgic prose reminiscence by James Agee that had appeared in the "Partisan Review."
Washington Post (Gail Wein)
Baritone William Sharp's perfect diction and lyrical yet reserved dramatics made him the storyteller of Scott Wheeler's world premiere, "The Palace at 4 A.M.," based on texts from a William Maxwell novel. Tom Jones's percussion in the mixed ensemble added particular interest, depicting carpenters in the text with a hammer against a wood block.
Shadow Bands (1990)
Fanfare Magazine (Robert Carl)
It’s in the string trio Shadow Bands (1991) and the piano quartet Dragon Mountain (1992/93) that something new begins to emerge. The trio opens in the way described above, but greater harmonic variety, formal continuity, and expressive intensity color its course. It grows effortlessly but relentlessly.
Sleeping on a Wire (1997)
Boston Globe (Richard Buell)
The virtue of Scott Wheeler’s violin duo Sleeping on a Wire (the title ‘might refer obliquely to the inner life of birds,’ says the composer), was that you couldn’t miss anything that was in it, so plain and terse and ingratiating was its manner.
Fanfare Magazine (Robert Carl)
Wheeler’s neoclassic roots are most on display in the 1985 Violin Sonata, the earliest work on the program. Infectious, expertly crafted, and rhythmically ingratiating, it’s brimming with play.
Spirit Geometry (2010)
The Boston Musical Intelligencer (Vance R. Koven)
… it always piques interest to hear a new one from a top-tier composer. In this case it was the première of Scott Wheeler’s Spirit Geometry…
The cello part in the prologue is entirely in harmonics; in the succeeding scherzo the cello plays entirely pizzicato. In general, the sonata explores different ranges and performance modes, without at all appearing as a technical exercise. The opening theme, recalled in the third movement, apparently reminded Mr. Gordon of the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, but this listener heard in its spacious fourths and fifths more of an undulating theremin. The “sweet breezes” of the second movement (its title) come mostly from the piano in florid passagework that gradually, together with the ever-pizzicato cello, hardened and whipped up quite a gale by the end. The third movement is passionate and stretches to the extremes of register; the finale takes a long-breathed lyrical tune and intensifies it developmentally and rhythmically. One’s overall impression is that this is a very strong work that will survive and reward repeated hearing—we hope for a recording in the not-distant future. The performance by Gordon and Hodgkinson was admirable, and will only strengthen with further performance.
Boston Globe (David Perkins)
How delightful that all this intellectual apparatus and dark allusion evaporates in the actual performance, and what we hear is a sparkling, inventive, and well-wrought piece, in four movements, that deserves to be heard often. Wheeler is not only a prolific composer, with numerous commissions, he has taught and conducted a lot of musical theater at Emerson College, where he is an associate professor of music. His experience in music that reaches out and holds an audience may help explain the success of “Spirit Geometry,’’ which is engaging from the first to last bar. It is full of what the French call “esprit,’’ or playful intelligence. It’s a sly joke that the final movement is a passacaglia, a set of variations with a descending bass line. A very Pascalian passacaglia. Wheeler’s one-time mentor, the late Virgil Thomson, must be smiling at that.
The first three movements explore different capacities of the cello. The first movement, Prelude, played entirely in harmonics, begins with a thin, brittle solo line that suggested Pascal’s own famous sense of cosmic isolation. (Someone near me noted that it echoes the opening of the “Quartet for the End of Time,’’ by Olivier Messiaen, another of Wheeler’s teachers. At intermission, Wheeler confessed any debt was unconscious.) The second movement, “Sweet Breezes,’’ is all pizzicato and the piano accompaniment draws on pieces of an aria from Lully’s opera “Alceste.’’ The third, “Orders and Diversions,’’ is mostly furious passagework.
The final “De Profundis’’ is a 10-minute masterpiece that only gains in seriousness and depth (like many moments in Bach) from having a light texture and an underlying sense of movement.
What about “Pascal’s Triangle’’? Time signatures change to reflect this arithmetic, but, as Wheeler noted in an intermission chat with me, the basic unit is always an eighth note, so the bar-lines are hardly perceptible and he could “move things around’’ as he wished. In other words, the formula was a starting point for some play, not a serious structural device.
Wheeler’s harmonic progressions are straightforward; the magic comes in the short, startling rhythmic gestures and pleasant melodic ideas, the skillful use of the cello as a singing voice, and the coordination and contrast of the two instruments. Cellist Joshua Gordon and pianist Randall Hodgkinson played with great skill and easy give-and-take.
Trio #2: Camera Dances (1996/1999)
Fanfare Magazine (Robert Carl)
Finally, the piano trio Camera Dances (which gives the album its title) from 1996-99 reaches a balance between these competing tendencies. Its four movements are exceedingly concise (yet never seeming too short). But while perhaps a little more tightly "framed" than the two preceding works, it has the greatest sense of mystery, and suggests larger vistas. Its opening is almost sinister, a motive like a nagging doubt, or the sense of something important that one’s forgotten---yet must remember. Over time its mood
becomes sunnier, but the resultant beauties seem hard-won, and always fragile, placed in relief by the ambiguous context created in the opening.
Boston Phoenix (Lloyd Schwartz)
The trio opened its program with Scott Wheeler's Trio No. 2, "Camera Dances" (1996-9), a four-movement study in spare textures and competing styles of rhythmic propulsion. The work begins with bursts of Stravinskyan abrasiveness, upon which short piano melodies emerged, followed by energetic violin and cello lines. The slow third movement begins with quasi-medieval harmonies in the strings and a gently rippling, almost Minimalist piano line. Throughout the piece, in fact, Mr. Wheeler draws on Minimalist techniques, using repeated fragments of angular melodies, mostly as an underpinning. But one would hardly think of this as a Minimalist score.
Boston Globe (Richard Dyer)
Wheeler knew he would be sharing the program with the Ravel, so in a way his new piece couldn’t help being a response to it. Wheeler’s is a much shorter and more transparent work, in three movements (Toccata, Scherzo, and Lied, or Song), rather than Ravel’s four; like all of Wheeler’s music, it is deliberately unpretentious. (In a conversation before the performance, Wheeler compared his piece to three bagatelles on the subject of the traditional piano trio.) The first two movements are lively, ingenious and attractive, and the Lied moves the piece into another and eloquent dimension of feeling. And there turned out to be affinities between the Lied and the glowing unspooling of slow movement of the Ravel. Wheeler, like Ravel, seems fascinated by unisons, which aren’t really unisons, because of the differences in timbre and range among violin, cello and piano -- and even more fascinated by what happens when one instrument or another takes flight into its own world of commentary and emotion.
Winter Hills (1987)
Boston Globe (Richard Buell)
Scott Wheeler’s piano trio Winter Hills was yet another piece in his charming, nothing-to-hide manner, though anything but a throwaway: Its processes were clear, its sonorities keen and cool.
Flow Chart (1993)
Boston Phoenix (Lloyd Schwartz)
There was a piano solo, Flow Chart – “the kind of music I like to play,” Wheeler said, naming Haydn, Bach, Schubert, and jazz as influences; it was played generously by its dedicatee, Donald Berman, whom Wheeler called ‘luxury casting.’
Heaven and Earth (2007)
New York Times (Allan Kozinn)
He closed the program with the premiere of Scott Wheeler’s “Heaven and Earth: Four Songs on Texts of William Blake.” Mr. Wheeler’s vocal writing responds nimbly to Blake’s quirky, evocative poetry. And Mr. Pittas and his pianist, Carrie-Ann Matheson, made these settings into miniature dramas.
New York Sun (Fred Kirshnit)
The songs are highly inventive and the structure of the cycle as a whole leads to a dramatic impact. The vocal lines of the first three songs are written in an expanded tonality, but there is definitely a gravitational pull toward a tonal center. The piano part is quite a bit more peripatetic, with some rather adventurous leaps along the way. All four songs are set to texts of William Blake, so the wording is musical in and of itself. What is most noticeable on a first hearing is the breaking apart of that comfortable tonality in the final song, "O for a Voice like Thunder." Here the singer's task is more difficult, as he must cross some treacherous chasms between notes. The loss of a central tonic leads to quite a frightening experience of memorable power. This performance whetted my appetite for that future operatic effort.
Of course, it helped immeasurably that the songs were so ably sung by Mr. Pittas, who is currently singing Macduff in Verdi's "Macbeth" at the Met. He has a huge voice and exhibits an iron control over it. When he intoned notes that might have seemed wrong, as he did in the second song, "The Little Vagabond," he had already demonstrated enough chops for the audience to realize that these were the pitches thrown at him by Mr. Wheeler, not lapses of intonation. Carrie-Ann Matheson handled the keyboard part with aplomb.
Wasting the Night (1990)
Boston Phoenix (Lloyd Schwartz)
Soprano Nancy Armstrong was the perfect advocate for the Millay, singing these nostalgic and cynical love songs with wry understanding, dead-on pitch, and diction you could take dictation from. I loved her refusal to sink into coyness in the famous ‘Recuerdo’ (‘We were very tired, we were very merry --/ We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry”). Anthony Tommasini -- pianist, Virgil Thomson biographer, NY Times critic (formerly of the Boston Globe) -- was her sympathetic and glistening accompanist and partner.
The Gold Standard (1999)
Boston Globe (Jeremy Eichler)
The BMOP program opened with Scott Wheeler's delightful and witty "Gold Standard," with its two Buddhist monks (here, tenor Charles Blandy and baritone David Kravitz) parsing monetary policy en route to more profound truths.
"The Gold Standard" (Scott Wheeler, 2000) was a tiny, drama-free opera in which a (baritone) Buddhist monk attempted to explain American currency to a (tenor) colleague impervious to hypothetical illustration. Fortunately, we happened to be escorted to the ICA by a young man—we'll call him A.B.D. McHarvardpants—who remarked that it was odd to see such characters as economic naïfs, for as we all know from reading Marxist-leaning historian Jacques Gernet, Chinese Buddhist monastic treasuries functioned as primitive banks, lending out their vast stores of cash to the laity on collateral.
We—both Bostonist and A.B.D. McHarvardpants—were nonetheless charmed.
Boston Globe (Jeremy Eichler)
Two monks wander into a mountain shrine in China. They sit down to rest and begin discussing, naturally, American monetary policy - specifically, the meaning of the gold standard. They can't quite grasp it, but they review all the details, including the various denominations of a dollar and what it means for a currency to have value.
Sound like a curious topic for a mini-opera? Not in the hands of composer Scott Wheeler, who created a setting for two sopranos of this scene from "The Gold Standard" by the poet Kenneth Koch. The vocal lines are gleaming and utterly natural in their contours. A small chamber ensemble delicately tracks the affair, and within a concise eight minutes, the piece moves from charming absurdity to deeply felt meditation. The music brims with wit, freshness of voice, careful craftsmanship, and, in the end, an open-hearted beauty. It is, in other words, typical Scott Wheeler.
Baba Yaga and the Black Sunflower (play by Carol Korty)
Boston Globe (Larson)
The fine script and lyrics by director Carol Korty mesh tightly with vivid music by Scott Wheeler… Wheeler’s music, developed from improvisations on Lithuanian and Russian folk tunes, was spare but always colorful. The orchestra of two -- a clarinetist doubling on bass clarinet and a violinist doubling on mandolin -- was joined by cast members playing percussion. The mandolin accompanied the folksy twangs of Baba Yaga and her hut, creating a pungent Peking-opera sort of sound. A scolding trio for three villagers boasted stark, homegrown harmony like Russian hymn-singing. Maryushka’s lullaby over a violin drone managed to be tender even as the witch’s commands, ‘Louder, louder!’ caused her to deliver the last verse in a hefty yell… The play is completely charming and provides plenty of real ideas for kids to wrap their minds around. We hope it will be produced often and everywhere.