Overflow crowd hears young composer's 'Purgatory'


WHAT MUSIC series director in her right mind would open her season with the premiere of a one-act opera by a 22-year-old composer who has composed not much more than a short song cycle and chooses an opera plot where a man kills both his father and his son, using the knife with which he eats?

Margaret Budd, director of the Second Presbyterian Church concert series, did just that at the church yesterday and pulled it off in style, thanks to Peabody Power. Singing and playing the compact but rich musical harmonies of student composer Mark Lanz Weiser, the 25 Peabody musicians performed with great elan and atmosphere. They justified Budd's faith in Weiser's opera, "Purgatory."

A "terribly excited" Budd and the musicians led by conductor Jed Gaylin and director Patricia Barbano had no easy task. The 28-minute opera was as tight as a kettle drum skin; a bad slip could have killed the mood.

Besides presenting an opera not for the faint of heart, Budd faced a hot and humid mid-summer-like day in the non-air conditioned Smith Hall and scheduled it weeks before many concert-goers think about classical music. In a gamble, Budd figured let's do the show early when we won't have to compete with other concerts.

The gamble paid off. Some 600 opera-goers jammed the hall to overflowing as Weiser's evocative, Neo-Romantic strains carried the tortured tale in William Butler Yeats' seven-page play about the purgatory from which an old man wants to extricate his mother but can't extricate himself. In mood most foul, Yeats was decrying the decline of modern culture and probably a lot more.

Weiser's beautiful but often grim music was at times simple, several themes needing just two notes repeated by strings to create a strong mood. Or he could use a woodblock percussion instrument for the all-important hoofbeats that told the old man his purgatory remained.

Yet Weiser's measures could be complex, interweaving with different instruments like violins and piano the motifs of the old man's childhood home, his aim to rid all of pollution, his yearning to free his mother's soul, his discovery that his own purgatory remains, his frustration that going to "a distant place" won't help.

Randal Woodfield, the local baritone and Peabody Preparatory teacher, sang the tormented old man smoothly, strongly, insanely, quietly when the mood required. He was in command throughout and his words carried well. One moment he could lament his lost boyhood, "Where are the jokes and stories of the house?" Another he could shout, "I killed that lad, he would have passed pollution on" (though he probably didn't need eight or 10 knife strokes to do the job).

Tenor Sean English sang the only other vocal role, the son, with the proper tone, spunk and surprise of a 16-year-old. After describing the opera and its themes, conductor Gaylin paced the 22-member orchestra well in the fast-changing music, from slow idyllic prelude through the plot themes in three major and several minor arias and to the concluding horrors.

Nancy Allen and David Stebbing were the non-singing ghosts of the old man's mother and father. A simple black setting containing bench, rock and tree was harsh and enough.

A Peabody graduate student in composition, Weiser aims at a career in writing music for the voice. Reminded by a friend that "your music is good but can be depressing," he has been working on an Elizabethan-inspired series of songs that are "uplifting and joyful." He composed a comic scene for a Peabody opera workshop last year. Another opera is contemplated.

Whatever, let's hear more.

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