Wayne Horvitz / Christian Knapp

Horvitz: Joe Hill, 16 Actions for Orchestra, Voices and Soloist

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Joe Hill, a Swedish emigrant, was framed on a murder charge because of his activism with International Workers of the World (IWW) and executed in Salt Lake City in 1914. He wrote many of the songs the IWW workers sang and was treated as a martyr for the cause of labor in the early twentieth century. It's hard to categorize Wayne Horvitz's Joe Hill: 16 Actions for orchestra, voices, and soloist, but it's an extraordinary work. When he was talking about his idea for the piece with guitarist Bill Frisell, Horvitz said that as much he loved the distinctly American sound of Copland and Ives, their vocal music, written for singers trained in the European bel canto style, just didn't seem to be an authentic expression of the American spirit. Horvitz puts his convictions to work in this hugely ambitious 75-minute piece with a splendid text by Paul Magid. It's structured something like a cantata, with soloists taking the parts of a narrator and of Joe Hill, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and other characters in Hill's life, sometimes singing, sometimes speaking. The vocal parts are written for folk-style voices, and they fit well with Horvitz's Americana sound, which is tinged with Copland, Gershwin, jazz, blues, and Appalachian folk. He incorporates hymns, folk songs, and songs by Hill himself, folded seamlessly into the larger fabric of the piece. Horvitz has the compositional techniques of the second half of the twentieth century under his belt, so in spite of its folksy sound, it's a highly sophisticated piece. The orchestral part is significant; far from being just an accompaniment to the singers, it provides a strong, colorful commentary on the dramatic situations. It also prominently features an improvised electric guitar part, played imaginatively here by Frisell. Rinde Eckert, Danny Barnes, and Robin Holcomb sing beautifully, soulfully, and are convincing as actors in the spoken parts. Christian Knapp leads the Northwest Sinfonia in a polished and passionate performance. Joe Hill is a powerful and moving work that deserves to be widely heard. Highly recommended.

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