Written 85 years ago, Four Saints is still a delightful challenge
by Larry Murray
When it comes to opera, sometimes we get lucky. Rarely heard gems don’t surface very often, and so it is with Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts. So a little advance applause to The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), which is taking this on. BMOP is the nation’s premier orchestra dedicated exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording new orchestral music. It will present a one-night only concert performance of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts (1928). An abstruse modernist opera sans plot or formal structure, Four Saints is the perfect way for the unflagging BMOP orchestra to kick-start the new season.
This opera is so bracing that the Metropolitan Opera could not resist taking it on. Sort of. It’s Met premiere in 1973 was at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre and not in the Opera House itself. They called it the Mini-Met. And they have not touched it since. Unlike the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb who has reservations about the work, “We’re psyched to be taking on this iconic modernist work,” says Gil Rose, Artistic Director/Conductor of BMOP. “Four Saints is ebullient, grand and unusual! It’s exactly what BMOP feeds off of.” The music is a potpourri of tempo changes and sounds oscillating from waltzes and tangos to folk dances and marches all coupled with a witty libretto. “First time listeners will be taken aback by its outlandishness but, somehow it all resonates in the end.”
Written 85 years ago, Four Saints is still fresh and original today. Known as a landmark of American modernism, it changed the course of American opera. The combination of Thomson (1896-1989), a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, and Stein (1874-1946), an imaginative and influential writer, was rare in the history of early 20th century modernism. The first of the two Thomson-Stein operas, Four Saints marks a landmark in the history of American musical theater.
“It was early in 1972 that Gertrude Stein and I conceived the idea of writing an opera together,” says Thomson. “Naturally, the theme had to be one that interested us both. ‘Something’ from the lives of the saints’ was my proposal; that it should take place in Spain was hers. She then chose (and I agreed) two Spanish saints, Teresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola. The fact that these two, historically, never knew each other did not seem to either of us an inconvenience.”
This is the Thomson opera to the Gertrude Stein libretto. It had its first staged presentation in 1934, and Virgil Thomson was suddenly a famous man. “Four Saints in Three Acts” was wonderful camp then, and is wonderful camp now, and the campiest thing about it is its harmonic language. The Bartóks and Prokofievs and Hindemiths and Coplands of the day showed their modernism through a screen of dissonance. That was the accepted avant-garde style. Along came Mr. Thomson, who decided to be avant-garde in reverse. He composed a white-key opera out of Satie; an American hymn-tune, folk-song opera with more plagal cadences than can be found in a church in a year of Sundays; an opera with hardly a dissonance. And yet it was “modern.”- Harold C. Schonberg in The NY Times
Considered to be the first opera in the United States to boast a singing roster of exclusively African American talent, Four Saints premiered in 1934 in Connecticut. The New York Times observed, “To be sure, the spirit of inspired madness animates the whole piece… ‘But does it make sense?’ the serious minded will ask. It does not – to the too serious minded. But neither do ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and other creations of fantasy.”
Led by conductor Gil Rose, BMOP will be joined by Sarah Pelletier (soprano, St. Teresa I), Gigi Mitchell-Velasco (contralto, St. Teresa I), Deborah Selig (soprano, St. Settlement), Aaron Engebreth (baritone, St. Ignatius), Charles Blandy (tenor, St. Chavez), Tom McNichols (bass, Compere), and Lynn Torgove (mezzo-soprano, Commere).
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) is widely recognized as the leading orchestra in the United States dedicated exclusively to performing new music, and its signature record label, BMOP/sound, is the nation’s foremost label launched by an orchestra and solely devoted to new music recordings. Founded in 1996 by Artistic Director Gil Rose, BMOP affirms its mission to illuminate the connections that exist naturally between contemporary music and contemporary society by reuniting composers and audiences in a shared concert experience.
In its first 12 seasons, BMOP established a track record that includes more than 80 performances, over 70 world premieres (including 30 commissioned works), two Opera Unlimited festivals with Opera Boston, the inaugural Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music with the ICA/Boston, and 32 commercial recordings, including 12 CDs from BMOP/sound.
In March 2008, BMOP launched its signature record label, BMOP/sound, with the release of John Harbison’s ballet Ulysses. Its composer-centric releases focus on orchestral works that are otherwise unavailable in recorded form. The response to the label was immediate and celebratory; its five inaugural releases appeared on the “Best of 2008” lists of the New York Times, Boston Globe, National Public Radio, Downbeat, and American Record Guide, among others. BMOP/sound is the recipient of five Grammy Award nominations: in 2009 for Charles Fussell: Wilde (Best Classical Vocal Performance); in 2010 for Derek Bermel: Voices (Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra); and three nominations in 2011 for its recording of Steven Mackey: Dreamhouse (Best Engineered Classical Album, Best Classical Album, and Best Orchestral Performance). The New York Times has proclaimed, “BMOP/sound is an example of everything done right.” Additional BMOP recordings are available from Albany, Arsis, Cantaloupe, Centaur, Chandos, ECM, Innova, Naxos, New World, and Oxingale.
In Boston, BMOP performs at Boston’s Jordan Hall and Symphony Hall, and the orchestra has also performed in New York at Miller Theater, the Winter Garden, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, and The Lyceum in Brooklyn. A perennial winner of the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming of Orchestral Music and 2006 winner of the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music, BMOP has appeared at the Bank of America Celebrity Series (Boston, MA), Tanglewood, the Boston Cyberarts Festival, the Festival of New American Music (Sacramento, CA), and Music on the Edge (Pittsburgh, PA). In April 2008, BMOP headlined the 10th Annual MATA Festival in New York.
BMOP’s greatest strength is the artistic distinction of its musicians and performances. Each season, Gil Rose, recipient of Columbia University’s prestigious Ditson Conductor’s Award as well as an ASCAP Concert Music award for his extraordinary contribution to new music, gathers together an outstanding orchestra of dynamic and talented young performers, and presents some of the world’s top vocal and instrumental soloists. The Boston Globe claims, “Gil Rose is some kind of genius; his concerts are wildly entertaining, intellectually rigorous, and meaningful.” Of BMOP performances, the New York Times says: “Mr. Rose and his team filled the music with rich, decisive ensemble colors and magnificent solos. These musicians were rapturous—superb instrumentalists at work and play. http://www.bmop.org