Having just read Jeff Dunn’s review of Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation on San Francisco Classical Voice (after having written my own review for Examiner.com and then followed up with a post on this site about the need to see the text of Gertrude Stein while listening to it), I realize that Virgil Thomson’s music has very strong staying power. Granted, I have always really enjoyed his score. I used to have the vinyl recording of Thomson’s own abridged version of the full score (which was actually the version performed at this “opera installation”); and, given the limitations of that physical medium, I probably came close to wearing through the grooves until both sides were unplayable. Now I have the whole enchilada (so to speak), recorded under the musical direction of Joel Thome; and I do not have to worry about wearing out the two CDs (although the jewel case was in pretty bad shape from the time it was purchased).
I think that the staying power of the music has a lot to do with its simplicity. In many ways both melodies and harmonies are about one level more sophisticated than most nursery rhymes. (For that matter the “all good children go to heaven” text amounts to a sort of nursery rhyme, even if it is a bit less traditional.) As a result the music roots itself in the cerebral cortex and defies displacement by later input. In my case the music was in my head after I left the Merola Grand Finale and again this morning when I was preparing to write about Yuri Liberzon’s recital in the Old First Concerts series. Granted, the Merola ceremonies seemed a bit paler than those of previous seasons; but Liberzon collaborated with a flutist (Meerenai Shim) for a really stunning suite of tangos by Ástor Piazzolla. By all rights those tangos should have given Thomson’s music a run for its money; but Thomson’s Saints had the advantage of strong memory support, while I was hearing the Piazzolla for the first time.
Tomorrow I plan to hear ZOFO do their four-hand performance of Igor Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring. I have been listening to that music for about a decade before my first exposure to Four Saints. I even have a copy of the orchestral score that is almost too worn to be handled any more. That may be just the listening experience to reestablish some cognitive balance!