Steven Mackey: Dreamhouse

Gil Rose / Boston Modern Orchestra Project

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Steven Mackey: Dreamhouse Review

by Stephen Eddins

American composer Steven Mackey's Dreamhouse defies easy definition. It grew out of a commission from the 2003 Holland Festival that specified a work featuring electric guitars, and Dreamhouse includes a quartet of them, but it's also scored for orchestra, a vocal quartet "that must have the technique of a Hilliard Ensemble as well as that of a Manhattan Transfer," and a singer/actor with a range from bass to countertenor, specifically, Rinde Eckert, who, along with the composer, wrote the text. The piece doesn't have a traditional narrative arc, but its texts all have to do with the idea of creating a house "where you can live, where you'll be safe." Some of the harmony, text-setting, and orchestration can be traced to models like Steve Reich's The Desert Music and numerous pieces by Louis Andriessen, but there are references to a variety of traditions ranging from Renaissance polyphony to American rock, and Mackey brings an Ivesian mentality to the material that fractures and recombines it in kaleidoscopic, frequently disturbing ways. The 50-minute piece ends, though, with a lovely, memorably lyrical setting of the words "I'll build you a dreamhouse where you can live, where you'll be safe" that's repeated often enough in the ecstatic final movement that listeners are practically guaranteed to go away from the performance humming it. Dreamhouse is a substantial work, one that pulls together many of the elements of Mackey's career with a satisfying, emotionally resonant cohesion. The performing forces give it a terrific outing in this premiere recording. Rinde Eckert has the kind of vocal and dramatic versatility required of avant-garde works like Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for Mad King, but he can also produce a conventionally lyrical bel canto sound as a tenor and a countertenor; his account of the part is simply dazzling. Quartet Synergy Vocals is hardly less spectacular in its virtuosity and commitment. Catch Electric Guitar Quartet perhaps doesn't have the central role that the commissioners envisioned, but the playing adds huge energy to the performance. Gil Rose, who also conducted the premiere, holds the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and all the forces together in thrilling account of the score. The sound is richly detailed, clean, and expansive. Strongly recommended for fans of boundary- and genre-crossing new music.

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