'Wonderland' led composer through looking glass preview
Soprano Hila Plitmann will sing the role of Alice in "Final Alice," composed by David Del Tredici and based on the last two chapters of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."
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American composer David Del Tredici risked his career in the late 1960s when he began to move toward tonality, the common musical language of classical music for most of the past 400 years. After all, tonality had been pushed to the side in the mid-20th century as academic 12-tone and post-modern music dominated. But Mr. Del Tredici, who was only in his 20s at the time, didn't set out to start a counter-revolution. He felt the subject of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" stories pulled him to tonality.
"I resisted going tonal," says the composer. "I thought it was old and I would be made fun of. But I felt that the text demanded it. Its wit and whimsy and its Victorian charm I didn't think could be set any other way."
As Mr. Del Tredici started to traverse the fantastical world of Carroll (the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832-98), he slowly began to shift from 12-tone music to the lush tonal style that occasionally recalled the Romantic sound of the 19th century.
"I did it very gradually," he said. "My first 'Alice' work -- 'Jabberwocky' (from 'Pop-Pourri' of 1968) -- was atonal. It was a monster and it could be atonal, but there was a chorale in it; I was using found tonal objects."
- With: Leonard Slatkin, conductor; Hila Plitmann, soprano; David Conrad, narrator
- Program: 'Peter and the Wolf' and 'Final Alice'
- When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday
- Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
- Tickets: Start at $12; 412-392-4900.
"An Alice Symphony" (1969) cast tonality "like a visitor from another planet." "Vintage Alice" (1972) went further -- it is tonal, but with different keys competing with each other. It was only in "Final Alice" (1976), which the Pittsburgh Symphony will perform in its rare full version this weekend, that Mr. Del Tredici took his biggest step. Written for soprano-narrator, folk group and orchestra, he felt "it had to be really Romantic and tonal."
It was "Final Alice" that really jolted the orchestral community in the United States. No less than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered it in 1976.
Leonard Slatkin, the Pittsburgh Symphony's principal guest conductor, was at the premiere, and explains it with a paradox: "It was not like anything we had ever heard, but it was like everything we had ever heard.
"It is an entertaining work that is meant to pull the audience in. It is a cerebral experience, but it is entertainment." He has written that it "was one of the most significant events to grace a concert hall in the second half of the 20th century."
The composer called the work "Final Alice" more because he thought it would be his last "Alice" work than because it focused on the last chapters of "Alice in Wonderland." While he was attracted to the "unique wealth of material" in the "Alice" saga, Mr. Del Tredici never expected to be preoccupied with it for nearly two decades.
"I didn't think I would write all these 'Alice' pieces, but I kept being brought back," he says with a gentle laugh. "One of the things I like about Alice was that there is this underworld of references Carroll was using based on some Victorian ditty that someone in that era must have known."
These poem-parodies play a central role in the multi-movement "Final Alice" that Mr. Del Tredici calls an "opera, written in concert form" because of how it expresses Carroll's work dramatically. Two of the five poems set here are not Carroll's, but texts from the Victorian era. They help to frame Carroll's text, in particular the famous trial scene.
Here, Mr. Del Tredici sought to re-create in music the absurdity of the scene: a theremin slides its eerie pitch when Alice grows, a fugue represents the debating jury, an out-of-sync orchestra (with strange folk ensemble of accordion, banjo, mandolin and saxophone and the soprano singing through a bull-horn) represents the din as the trial dissolves.
But beneath this fantastical tale, Mr. Del Tredici implies a darker subject -- Carroll's alleged erotic obsession with the preteen Alice Pleasance Liddell, the real-life inspiration of the "Wonderland" books.
To this the composer adds, "There is a lot of smoke there. It was a Lolita thing and his only way of access was to charm them." To capture this, Mr. Del Tredici wrote music that is "full of yearning, what Carroll must have felt."
"I wished to bring that love story closer to the surface. Not so much as to disturb the amusing, eccentric, sometimes terrifying story as it goes on [but] to add what one might call the human dimension of the man," writes Mr. Del Tredici in program notes.
The last aria of "Final Alice" is a setting of the famous Acrostic Song, the epilogue poem of "Through the Looking Glass." "It is the clearest expression of Lewis Carroll's tender affection for his Alice," writes the composer. As they play, the members of the orchestra whispers the initial letter of each line that spell the name of Alice Pleasance Liddell.
What followed after that song ended the work in its premiere in Chicago was an "ovation I hadn't seen for a composer at that time," says Mr. Slatkin.
"The revolutionary premise was simple: Could a composer write a work that sent us hurtling harmonically back in time and also seem contemporary? The answer was a resounding yes."
First Published May 5, 2011 12:00 am