By Aaron Keebaugh, March 6, 2015
Disastrous winters live long in historical memory. For example, there is the blizzard that hit the Great Plains in January of 1888, which caught many who lived in the Midwestern territories unawares. Known as the Children’s Blizzard, the storm trapped students and teachers in their one-room schoolhouses where they remained for days. Many who ventured out into the storm succumbed to frostbite. Others froze to death. In conservative estimates, several hundred people died.
The events of that fateful storm are memorialized in Paul Moravec’s stunning oratorio Blizzard Voices, which Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project performed Thursday night at Jordan Hall in its Boston premiere.
The libretto, based on survivors’ accounts compiled by poet Ted Kooser, tells a hellish tale of death: a boy, Billy, died wrapped in a blanket next to his brother while stuck in a snow drift; twelve-year-old Peter Poggensee, nine-year-old Otto Rosberg, and his six-year-old sister Hattie all died huddled next to their teacher, who survived; and the corpse of a man, caught in a barbed wire fence, was found buried in an icy crypt of densely packed snow.
Moravec’s darkly tonal music captured these stories in powerful dramatic detail in this expansive, 70-minute work. The Prologue was haunting in its bare orchestral textures and wordless chorus. The blizzard scene was terrifying, the music a dense swirl of thick, thorny dissonances. Some of the writing involved colorful effects, such as bubbling orchestral rhythms and the chatter of the chorus to symbolize a telegraph machine. Other sections glowed with intensity. “Light the fire,” Moravec’s setting of a traditional verse on the death of children, rang with poignant sorrow.
The performance featured excellent singing from the New England Conservatory Concert Choir, under the direction of Erica J. Washburn. The singers’ diction was clear and their blend full and symphonic to match the music’s edge-of-the-seat drama.
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