`Child Alice': fantasy tale turned symphonic event

For the past 14 years, David Del Tredici has devoted his compositional efforts to the words of the Rev. Charles L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), his ``Alice in Wonderland,'' and the world of the fantasy tale's real-life model, young Alice Pleasance Liddell. Del Tredici's most recent event in this ``Alice'' phase is the world premi`ere performance of ``Child Alice'' by the American Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall last Sunday afternoon. It was the first time that the four independently premi`ered works -- ``In Memory of a Summer Day,'' ``Quaint Events,'' ``Happy Voices,'' and ``All in the Golden Afternoon'' -- were performed as a unit. And yet, this was not the first important ``Alice'' milestone.

``Final Alice,'' a bicentennial commission, had been played by the six major American orchestras and digitally recorded by the Chicago Symphony in a dazzling performance led by Sir Georg Solti, featuring soprano Barbara Hendricks (on London LDR-71018 -- fully worthy of CD release at London's earliest convenience, please!).

``In Memory of a Summer Day'' won Del Tredici a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. It was recorded by the Saint Louis Symphony and soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, under the direction of Leonard Slatkin (Nonesuch digital 79043, CD -- 79043-2).

Independently, each section of ``Child Alice'' makes for an enjoy able encounter. Del Tredici is a gifted sound painter with a consistent, albeit eruptive, view of orchestration. A jaunty march will inexorably distort into a clanging maelstrom of percussive noise; a simple, floated tune will transmogrify into nightmarish pandemonium.

Unfortunately, when all four pieces are played as one arching mega-Mahler symphonic event, the similarities of the music become, finally, oppressive. Del Tredici writes evocative, lush, ultra-post-romantic music to create his disembodied mood world. An episode begins in pristine innocence, builds to a huge climax, then veers off into frenetic asides of often explosive and even terrifying intensity before disintegrating in a heap of musical fragments. Heard once, even twice, it can be stunning; the fourth time it becomes merely tedious.

Sad to say, the American Symphony Orchestra sounded underrehearsed. To perform this sort of tricky music well, this event should have been treated as two concerts for adequate rehearsal time.

Furthermore, music director John Mauceri was not the right conductor for this whimsical a work. There is a tremendous amount of musical borrowing -- a veritable ``Who's Who'' of Del Tredici's favorite composers, all deftly distilled through his own artistic profile. It adds to the wit and panache of the music. But Mr. Mauceri tended to play it all with a desperate lack of humor. This poker-faced forging-ahead -- along with a tendency to let his ensemble play everything too loudly -- lent an air of tedium to the proceedings.

Happily, lyric coloratura Tracy Dahl was given most of the high-lying music, which she sang effortlessly. But neither her nor Dawn Upshaw's diction could be understood, even with intense amplification. Victoria Livengood was more intelligible, but the score lay too high for her. Nevertheless, having three singers share what was originally written for one, added a commendable variety to a vocal part that could otherwise have tended to sound monochromatic.

The irony of ``Child Alice'' is that the whole is weaker than any one of its four parts: There is not enough true variety in the music to survive a 2-hour concert. What saves him in any of his independent sections -- even the hour-long ``Summer Day'' -- is his ability to take an idea and obsessively, deliriously, exploit it. This process involves risk-taking, and even occasional failure, but when it works, there is a freshness and exuberance that sets Del Tredici apart from so much that is drab in music today.

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