Gil Rose is best known for his leadership of two high-profile Boston organizations, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), one of the major supporters of contemporary music in America, and Opera Boston, which specializes in musically outstanding performances of operatic masterpieces which have been neglected by the mainstream houses. I know I’ll be eternally grateful to him and Opera Boston for my first opportunity to see Weber’s Die Freischütz, universally regarded as a seminal work in the history of opera and a great one, but rarely performed today. Just last year there were Shostakovich’s The Nose, and Rossini’s Tancredi, and now Opera Boston’s first commission of a new opera, Zhou Long’s Madame White Snake.
John Harbison is a composer of international importance and deserves, and gets, performances and honors everywhere. But it is especially appropriate that Boston honor him, on this the occasion of his seventieth birthday, because he has given so much to the city as teacher, founder and leader of musical groups, promoter of music’s importance, encourager of young musicians, and, yes, composer. Boston’s many musical organizations, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, have turned to Harbison over the years for new pieces and been supplied with plenty that have meant a great deal to audiences here—chamber ensemble works, vocal works, symphonies. In the concert of March 20th, the formidable Boston Modern Orchestra Project, led by Gil Rose, presented in concert version Harbison’s early opera Winter’s Tale, based on the Shakespeare play. And though at the end the audience reception was very warm for all concerned, the greatest applause went to the composer.
A young man, having outsmarted a haughty woman seeking a wealthy husband for her daughter, crows in triumph: “I guess you found your hymnal page, you sock-dologizing ole man-trap!”Hard as it may be for us to imagine, this line brought the house down every time in Tom Taylor’s 1858 hit play Our American Cousin. And appropriately so: a “sockdologer” (a corruption of “doxology”), was in American slang a decisive or knockout blow. The line might be lost to all but theater historians were it not for the fact that Taylor’s play was performed at Ford’s Theatre the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and that John Wilkes Booth used the famous line as a cue for his own decisive blow.Eric Sawyer and John Shoptaw’s new opera, Our American Cousin, revisits that night and charts the intersection of real life and that of the theater.The opera offers us a play within an opera: a recreation of the performance Lincoln was attending at Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination.Taylor’s play was a popular and cleverly-made comedy/melodrama about a distant–and rich–relative from America who appears suddenly at the estate of his titled but financially troubled English relations.The plot and characters of this largely forgotten play turn out to matter in unexpected ways, and point towards the thematic heart of the work.