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Album Review

Thomas and Beulah is Amnon Wolman's most ambitious and surprising work to date. The Jewish-American gay composer put to music poems from African-American Rita Dove. Her collection by the same title has won a Pulitzer Prize. In it, she re-creates the lives of her grandparents. The racial, social, and sexual paradoxes at play, as fascinating they can be, never take center stage. The composer has cleverly worked his way around the situation by embracing them (does that registers as another paradox?). Soprano Cynthia Haymon alternates between sung melodies (modern lieder), speech-singing, and narration. Performed on a Yamaha Disklavier, pianist Ursula Oppens' score calls for conventional playing, prepared piano, live electronic treatments, and triggering Wolman's pre-recorded tape music segments and Dove's recitation of her poems. A network of elements takes place: acoustic/electronic, performed/recorded, sung/spoken, singer/author. The resulting music is larger than life, constantly shifting its point-of-view. The writing remains sober, even detached and clinical at times, but Haymon gives it breath. If some parts appear tentative ("Weathering Out"), some others, like "The Event" and "Gospel," achieve a high level of integration between innovation and artistry. The live performance of this piece included a visual dimension, as the audience, surrounding the performers, was separated into six sections alternately lit to create changing effects of intimacy (accompanied by different strategies in sound diffusion). This aspect of the work translates only very partially into the 15-minute video on disc two of this set. The enhanced part also includes the poems and essays. ~ François Couture, Rovi

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