The Curse of the Coventries, Draft Two: Notes on Alcott Music
for Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, May 2007
The piece was meant simply as a souvenir for orchestra of my opera Little Women. But Alcott Music’s story has been surprisingly difficult. In 1998, Sylvia Alimena, the conductor whose commission of my first orchestral score began my career, requested the suite; Little Women had been given its world première by Houston Grand Opera that March, and so I prepared a version for performance in the spring of 1999. In four movements, for the opera’s original orchestration (wind quintet, percussion, harp and strings,) Alcott Portraits was twenty-five minutes long. It was beautifully played, graciously received—and after its premiere, I asked my publisher to remove it from the catalogue. I didn’t think it worked, and I didn’t know why.
Eight years passed. Little Women appeared in over forty national and international engagements, and I completed, among smaller pieces, a second opera and my first concerto. Then Sylvia asked that I revisit Alcott Portraits, to include it on an all-Adamo CD that would place at its center Late Victorians, the first piece we did together.
Rereading the piece, I realized that it had been too early in 1999 to rethink the music apart from my libretto. For example, I love the opera’s final scene, but music that worked conclusively onstage sounded anticlimactic in concert. And the piece’s orchestral reticence worked against it outside the theatre. I’d been happy with how underwritten Little Women’s instrumental part was: at its best, I hope the score gives the illusion that voice generates the orchestra’s every timbre and chord. But in the concert hall, the orchestra is the only voice you have. I’d been trying to make an orchestral piece out of an anti-orchestral opera.
Recognizing the problems gets you halfway to the solutions. I cut one entire movement of Alcott Portraits, and omitted from those remaining the twelve-tone music from which I’d made the opera’s recitative: divorced from large-scale design, the non-tonal sections seemed non sequitur. Why had I ignored, in the first draft, the opening moments of the opera? That dreamy prelude, coalescing into Jo’s first important theme, makes an ideal introduction to the suite. Most importantly, I reduced the orchestration to percussion, celesta, harp, and strings. Now voice and orchestra were timbrally one: and compressing the kinetic orchestra gave the string-writing in particular a satisfying virtuosity.
The first movement of the new Alcott Music leads, through a dreamscape of whole tones, to a statement of Jo’s major aria, “Perfect as we are,” in which Jo’s long-lined appreciation of her family’s love is interrupted by madcap digressions as she sketches out her newest potboiling story. Meg’s answering aria, “Things change, Jo,” wistful and exalted, forms the centerpiece of the second slow movement. And, in “Alma and Gideon,” the girls’ parents’ wedding music, accelerated and rescored, brings the suite to a gala finale.
Alcott Music, dedicated to Sylvia Alimena, is scored for chimes, glockenspiel, small ratchet, snare drum, small suspended cymbal, small tam-tam, timpani, vibraphone, harp, piano, celesta, and strings. Duration, twenty minutes.