This joint commission by the Crossing and Network for New Music is a compositional tour de force, absorbing at every turn and, indeed, the sort of work that could only come from a senior composer with great craftsmanship and complete creative fearlessness. And that’s Spratlan. Winning the 2000 Pulitzer Prize only partly brought him out of obscurity. Now retired from the Amherst College faculty, he’s finally writing sizable works for high-visibility performers.
Compared with his intense and unforgiving 1993 choral work, In Memoriam, Spratlan’s voice now seems clearer. Hesperus Is Phosphorus, whose title refers to twin deities of ancient Greek civilization who turned out to be one and the same, also feels more solidly wrought: It comes roaring out of the gate in its first moments and never flags. Though music is heterogenous in the sense that the composer will employ any means possible to illuminate any given line, everything seems to belong together, from passages of intricate vocal pointillism to the arrestingly integrated snippet of Magnificat text that begins Part II. It’s like a cloud of music built on static chords, varied by a rhythmic counterpoint, creating an overall effect so tightly written as to almost sound like an electronically rendered wall of sound.
The other extreme of Spratlan’s expressive range, elsewhere in the piece, combines rhythmic, emphatic unison and vocal writing to achieve musical ranting of the highest order. Such adventurous vocal writing might not come off without the deftly written instrumental support from a six-person ensemble, with particularly eerie effects drawn from the vibraphone.
Some of the most intriguing passages are ones when Spratlan doesn’t make sense — at least traditional sense. One of the Eagleman texts supposes that God is "off on a romantic junket with his girlfriend"and is set to music that sounds a lot like Gregorian chant. When the Virgin Mary abolishes Hell, straightforward chordal vocal writing begins to dissolve, evolving into a loosely built fugue to describe God weeping over the fact that this democratic heaven has, in fact, gone to hell.
What to make of such odd combinations of text and music? I may not always know what Spratlan is after, but in this hugely assured piece, he does. Not every composer can create non sequiturs that you want to hear again.
The powerful impression made by this music speaks to the near-perfect vocal blends that are possible with the Crossing, with instrumental matters in the extremely capable hands of Network for New Music, together led by Donald Nally. Balances weren’t always great in the sometimes tricky acoustic of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. But never did I feel that I was missing parts of the piece.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.