Classical Music Review: New Releases

Paul Bowles · Music. Pastorela: First Suite; Suite For Small Orchestra; Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra; The Wind Remains; Secret Woods: A Suite of Six Songs. Eos Orchestra; Jonathan Sheffer, cond. Catalyst/BMG 68409-2 (69’52).

I first heard Paul Bowles’ lively music on the radio, and then found his "Night Waltz" on an old Columbia album of piano works by various composers played by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. Years later, I read about New York’s Eos Orchestra giving a Bowles festival at their first concerts in 1995 – the music hadn’t been heard in over four decades – and I finally caught them live at the Guggenheim this October. The composer, who died November 18 and would have been 90 on December 30, was also a fiction writer who served as a sort of spiritual godfather to the Beats. And everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Mick Jagger went to see him in Tangier, Morocco, where he’d lived since 1947. He was also a staff critic at the New York Herald Tribune when Virgil Thomson ran its classical department.

Bowles’ music and his literary works – his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky became a not quite successful 1990 Bertolucci film with John Malkovich – are usual considered polar opposites, the music "light," the writing "dark." Yes, the music is often witty, and yes, the stories that stick most in the mind are "dark" – the castration of the Berber boy in "The Delicate Prey" is hardly an upper. But there’s a link between them and that link is Bowles’ complete mastery of style – every note and word is telling.

Eos’ five-work CD Paul Bowles: Music has style to burn. This is unpretentious yet sophisticated music that has a French exactitude of tone. Unlike German music it doesn’t strive to impress or want to beat you into aesthetic submission. The six-song suite "Secret Words," orchestrated from the original voice-piano version by founder-conductor-artistic director Jonathan Sheffer, is sung here by baritone Kurt Ollmann (he did part of the AIDS Quilt Songbook) who makes it sound spontaneous, even artless.

The 1947 "Pastorela: First Suite," which Bowles wrote for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, sounds just as natural. It’s also a lot snappier than his teacher Aaron Copeland’s piece based on Mexican material, "El Salon Mexico" (1933-36). "The Wind Remains" (1941-42) is a theatre piece by Garcia Lorca which Bowles has set as a zarzuela, a Spanish hybrid similar to a comic opera or musical. Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer and tenor Carl Halvorson are touching and funny, the orchestra richly colored. The transparently scored "Suite for Small Orchestra" (1932-33) sounds like a French version of Schönberg – delicate, warmly emotional, and definitely personal Copeland’s 1930 "Piano Variations" which Bowles heard being composed seems behind it, too). But "The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra" (1946-47), though expertly played by Alan Feinberg and Leslie Stifelman, comes off as commercial in the worst way. Composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ essay in Eos’ book on Bowles hits the nail on the head: "The result [here] ... is a surrealism where fragments are stirred into a new relationship, but where each fragment is still glaringly what it was, recalling former juxtapositions."

It’s too bad that Eos hasn’t recorded any of the incidental music that Bowles was famous for in his time – scores for plays or productions by Orson Welles, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams, including The Glass Menagerie (1944) and Summer and Smoke (1948) – because he clearly had dramatic gifts. You could even say that the forms he worked in – songs, plays, jazz, blues – were a kind of closet he lived in or a mask he wore in much the same way that Stravinsky did. Still, a gay sensibility seems to have permeated his work. The Bowles who reveals himself in an interview with fellow composer Phillip Ramey sometimes sounds like a cross between Andy Warhol and Quentin Crisp. Asked how audiences might respond to his music today, he remarks, "I suppose the best that they could think about it is that it has charm. That’s already saying a lot."

Indeed it is.

-Michael McDonagh

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