Boston Modern Orchestra Project / Andrew Clark

Dominick Argento: Jonah and the Whale

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In his notes for this premiere recording of Jonah and the Whale, his first full-length oratorio, Dominick Argento wrote, "I like to play with macaronic things," meaning works that include a variety of disparate entities. In this piece, even more than is usual for him, he gives play to a wild assortment of elements. The text, which the composer assembled, is written in three languages, English, Latin, and Greek, and includes a Medieval mystery play, biblical texts, sections of the Christian liturgy, and English sea shanties. The musical styles are just as diverse, including the use of serialism, a Protestant hymn, an English whaling tune, and a harmonic and melodic language reminiscent of Benjamin Britten. The pertinent question is whether or not this amalgamation of so many unrelated elements works in bringing depth and meaningful musical expression to the familiar story. An obvious comparison can be drawn with Britten's similarly eclectic Noye's Fludde, but where the Britten is apt in all its details and surprisingly powerful in its cumulative impact, this work (with a few lovely exceptions, such as the choral description of God's gift to Jonah of the little vine, and the choral backing to God's aria of rebuke), too often seems random, without a focused musical or dramatic core to make the audience care about the characters. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Providence Singers, conducted by Andrew Clark, deliver a committed, polished reading that makes as strong a case as possible for the work. The soloists, narrator Thomas Oakes, tenor Daniel Norman, and bass Daniel Cole likewise turn in capable, admirable performances. BMOP's sound is clean and vividly present.

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