Ted Hearne's Katrina Ballads, scored for five singers and eleven instrumentalists, uses prose fragments from the public record in the days following Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans. It's a brilliant concept that Hearne executes with sensitivity and brash indignation. The work was premiered in Charleston, SC, at the 2007 Piccolo Spoleto Festival and was the 2009 winner of the prestigious Gaudeamus International Composers Award. The songs and interludes are strongly jazz influenced and many have a driving rock beat. The musical core of the piece is Hearne's devastating setting of quotes by two members of the Bush family. George W. Bush's infamous pronouncement, "Brownie you're doin' a heck of a job," is a dazzling improvised-sounding vocal jazz solo performed by Hearne himself, in which the single phrase is fragmented and repeated maniacally for almost three minutes. The second is Barbara Bush's observations on the hurricane's refugees housed in Houston's Astrodome; she finds it "sort of scary" that they want to remain in Texas but concludes "this is working out very well for them." Hearne sets it as a bitterly ironic torch song, bluesy, and seductive. The moments when the solos blossom out into vocal ensembles are hugely effective. The interludes, mostly instrumental but some with voices, are fiercely or eerily evocative and the first, featuring horn player Nathan Koci, is simply gorgeous. In some of the songs, though, such as Anderson Cooper's confrontational interview with Senator Mary Landrieu, Kanye West's angry speech that concludes "George Bush doesn't care about black people," and a painfully vivid recollection of the tragedy by an 18-year-old survivor, the urgency of the words carries the listener along, but Hearne's settings for the most part tend to ramble and lack the musical distinctiveness that the texts demand. The work's cumulative power is impressive, but a more nuanced and musically focused setting of those texts could have made it overwhelming. The piece receives a terrific performance by the soloists and ensemble, led by the composer. The singers are all splendid, bringing a ferocious intensity and depth of feeling to the songs. The sound is clean and present, with excellent ambience. Katrina Ballads is an important and maybe even seminal work that deserves the attention of anyone interested in developments on the new music scene.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins