One can only imagine how young composer Alannah Marie must have felt as her opera, Pacific Pleasures, with a libretto by Jorge Balça, premiered not on its own stage, but on a stage temporally shared with Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, for which it acts as a prequel. Bernstein, as many of you will know, is perhaps best known for West Side Story. Don’t get me wrong, Alannah is a seasoned composer, as one glance at her website will reveal; an impressive list of works accompany an equally impressive record of achievements by the aspiring academic. Alannah is no stranger to the spotlight, even from a distance. But it is, I would venture, the first time she has been immanently placed next to someone who, it is perhaps fair to say, garnered the lion’s share of audience attention prior to the performance.
This is not the first performance of Alannah’s I have been to. I have been lucky enough to be present at several concerts in which her music has been performed. I therefore know her work relatively well, and can say with assurance that she is a composer of high intelligence, with a keen ear for experimentation, novelty, and playfulness. Bernstein, a composer of equal talent but diverging taste, is best known for the pomp and glamour which are demonstrated by the vast majority of his music. He is a composer who has attracted the interest of musical specialists and theatregoers alike.
I am trying to get around to saying that the thing which attracted me the most to this performance, and which made me want to travel to London to see it, was this contrast. The experimental music of Alannah Marie, coupled with the well-known melodies of Leonard Bernstein. I not only wanted to see how the work of the former would be received by an audience potentially more enamoured to the latter, but also to experience the effect of the contrast.
The result, I would venture, was a triumph.
I was intrigured to see that the organisers had decided to premiere Pacific Pleasures first. This makes sense given that it acts as a prequel, but a cynic might argue that this was designed to keep the audience around for the second half (not, of course, a comment on Alannah!) The result was something that the organisers may not have foreseen.
Alannah’s piece was the more interesting of the two. Am I going to receive bafflement for this statement? Surely not from anybody who was there. For those who turned out to see the Bernstein, Alannah’s incredible sonic landscapes must have been a revelation. It is perhaps fair to say that they at times seem almost too outlandish for the words they accompany (POP…coooorn), but this is all down to the genius of the artistry. The young composer’s music always manages to make the mundane fantastic, and with the comedic, even ridiculous, certainly caracaturised scene of the cinema date and popcorn clumsiness, we are dragged sonically into a world where all of this is completely serious, where the performers tread new ground together. And isn’t this right? Isn’t this what puberty is like? The confrontation of the other, only that other is yourself. Boyish bravado about sex; the reality of a terror to even brush against her. It’s alien, it’s exciting, it’s fresh, and Alannah’s music shines here. One is forced to scrutinise the everyday; Alannah will not allow anything to go unmissed. Each syllable is accorded the importance of each note, and nothing outstrips the other. If Gertrude Stein were a composer…
The accompanying contrast between the two pieces therefore causes Alannah’s composition to entirely reframe, even rewrite, the Bernstein. Never before will it have been received like this. Of its own accord, it stands up incredibly as a bombastic, theatrical piece concerning infidelity, the American Dream, the violence of maleness, alcoholism, wrapped tightly in the clicking fingers and leather jackets (alright, blue blazers) of a bygone age. When placed next to Alannah’s piece, Bernstein’s drags us back into the ‘past’, into the mundane, into family life, into all those broken promises of our teenage years, into the boredom created by one night’s passion which led to a lifetime’s mistakes.
Only, this isn’t the past anymore. This isn’t an idyllic 1950s where marriage breakdowns can be solved by musical numbers. This is the future. Our teenage heroes have entered a depressed adulthood, and Bernstein’s music has been forced to represent this future as perhaps more psychical than anything else. Certainly, as I have intimated, the music is reconstituted. What was once alien is now mundane; what was once exciting is now boring; what was once starkly experimental is now nothing more than a spectacle, a spectacle made conscious of itself. Yes, Bernstein’s music is positively dull by comparison to Alannah’s, unless you are of a certain mindset – but this is a boon for this performance, as this boredom accentuates the story. The music of the past, as it can only be now, has come to represent the boredom of the future, and our inability to really move forward.
Stage Director: Jorge Balça
Musical Director: Karin Hendrickson
Designer: Isobel Harcourt
Cast: Rebecca Cuddy
More information about the opera Pacific Pleasures can be found here.
Author Details: Barry Jon Hinchcliffe; Barry is a music critic and freelance journalist, currently based in Chesterfield.