Opening Nights: Smokestack Arias

A new song cycle remembers the Wobblies.

Seattle composer Wayne Horvitz's latest musical tribute to America's labor movement is much more intimate than his 2004 Joe Hill, written for multiple singers and chamber orchestra. Smokestack Arias, premiered last weekend in the black-box Eulalie Scandiuzzi space at ACT, tells in song-cycle form (soprano plus piano) of the 1916 Everett Massacre in which Seattle union members from the IWW (aka "Wobblies"), arriving in support of striking mill workers, were fatally met by police gunfire. Horvitz's storytelling strategy is dreamy reminiscence and reflection rather than you-are-there depiction, made even dreamier by spacy electronic sound collages used as scene-change interludes. Robin Holcomb's texts take the imagined point of view not of the men involved, but of the women at home affected by the tragedy: wives, sisters, daughters, a sheriff's wife, a newspaperman's wife.

Practically all the literature on Horvitz refers to him as a "jazz" musician, but seldom has a label been more reductive; his music is as stylistically wide-ranging as it is deeply personal. In this case, his 16 gentle Arias are in the American art-song tradition (Barber, Rorem, a dash of Thomson), incorporating rare hints of period music: blues, hymns, protest anthems. Almost none of the score is up-tempo; the songs flow along in a range from slow to moderately slow. Maria Mannisto's lovely and pure soprano makes it all touching and absorbing, and her diction is masterful—listening to her, you don't miss a syllable. Dayna Hanson has staged the piece very discreetly; Mannisto shares the space with first-rate pianist Cristina Valdez and just a few evocative props: a pile of sawdust, a dish of red water, a box of bullets.

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