Oratorio Honors Walt Whitman

'Reckoning Time' explores the poet's art and integrity through music and narrative

When playwright Alan Brody and composer Peter Child got together four years ago to talk about a possible collaboration, the discussion turned to an issue dear to both of them: the struggle of the contemporary artist to live and work with integrity.

This led to a dialogue about the poet Walt Whitman. ''We were inspired by Whitman as the highest example of integrating art and life with integrity and coherence,'' Mr. Brody says. It then occurred to the two (both faculty members at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) that they had the perfect subject for their joint effort. Thus the seeds were planted for ''Reckoning Time: A Song of Walt Whitman,'' a new dramatic oratorio commissioned and given its world premiere last Thursday in Boston by the John Oliver Chorale.

Mr. Oliver had perhaps laid the groundwork for the collaboration some three years earlier by suggesting some Whitman texts to Mr. Child for a possible work on AIDS. Oliver's continuous input throughout the collaboration strongly influenced the work's final shape, and he deftly guided the work's premiere from the podium. If sufficient funding can be obtained, last week's one-time performance may be repeated and recorded in the fall; and there are hopes to interest other performing ensembles as well.

Written for chorus, two soloists, and an orchestra of 60, the 70-minute oratorio was conceived as a concert work to be presented without theatrical artifice. It uses as a dramatic structure a dialogue between Whitman (beautifully portrayed by the expressive baritone, James Maddalena) and Whitman's longtime companion, Peter Doyle (actor Michael Ouellette, in an engaging performance).

The action in ''Reckoning Time'' takes place in the space of Whitman's final breath -- much the way people describe their entire lives flashing before them. It portrays Whitman's final moment as a profound crisis of doubt, with the poet struggling for a transcendent vision in which his life, his work, and his myth as a poet come together:

''I sang of myself.

And I sang of the earth.

And immortality.

and I promised that they were all one.

What if they're not, Pete?''

As three imaginary ships sail into Whitman's view, he struggles in deciding which one to board for his final journey. One represents his life, another the poet's work, and the third his legend. It is only when a fourth ship sails into view that Whitman's ''reckoning time'' is settled. A four-masted schooner, the vessel carries the poet's artistic progeny -- William Carlos Williams, Henry Miller, Randall Jarrell, Carl Sandburg, Maya Angelou -- a host of poets for whom Whitman's verse paved the way.

Inventive and imaginative, the oratorio is a rich, multilayered tapestry of text and music. Brody intersperses his own text, often biographical material, with Whitman's poetry and letters in an attempt to ''go beyond the usual simple setting of his work and make a piece not only on, but about Whitman.''

There is a fascinating interplay between Whitman, who sings and speaks, and Doyle, a tram-car conductor who, as the common man, only speaks (save one brilliantly effective moment in which he shyly sings ''I Saw Three Ships.'')

Throughout, the chorus goes in and out of the texture, often singing bits of Whitman's poetry as if it were his conscience. ''Time to reckon, time to choose,'' they intone. They also elaborate the action, and several members have brief solos as other tangential characters.

The work's most memorable set piece, a clever and witty criticism of Whitman that rings soundly relevant to today's contemporary artists, is a chorister's solo.

Oliver's freelance orchestra gave a first-rate performance of Child's music, which is quite accessible, with colorful orchestration, vibrant rhythms, and an expanded sense of tonality.

At times, the music is powerfully and evocatively spare, as in the orchestral accompaniment and interlude that surrounds Whitman's letter from the battlefields.

One weakness is the lack of memorable arias or choral numbers that grab the ear and the heart with the same resonance as Whitman's own texts, which seem to beg for more lyrical settings. Yet the music and narrative move with good pacing through a range of emotional moods.

One of the most poignant effects is the sound of Whitman's breathing, which frames the work. At the opening, Mr. Maddalena drags out a few labored breaths, with a long inhale, to begin the piece. After his character boards the ship at the end for his final departure, Maddalena exhales in one long expiration. It is powerful stuff.

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