Surrounded by Sopranos Singing of Flowers

We saw Anthracite Fields on Saturday. Composed by Julia Wolfe, performed by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Parts of it were remarkably good, parts of it were interesting, parts of it were goofy. Five movements in sixty-five minutes, a chorus of more than one hundred voices, and an eclectic orchestra: Cello, double-bass, percussion, guitar, and one guy playing clarinets of all sizes, from soprano to bass. Several people doubled on spinning, clicking bicycle wheels. The pianist was, at least visually, a Tiger Mom fantasy. Perfectly made up, and wearing a simple floor-length gown of whitest satin. The fantasy collapsed when she played–at times she was drumming her fists on the keyboard like a furious two-year-old, or slapping at the keys like she was playing a bongo.

The experience was intended to be immersive. We were led to our seats by someone toting a miner’s lantern. Behind the orchestra was a large screen, and images played on it throughout the piece: miners’ faces, simple graphics on how coal is formed, and the visual equivalent of white noise.

The chorus was choreographed. Some of which worked, and some which didn’t. In general, moving their feet worked, and moving anything else looked goofy. When the men marched forward to the edge of the audience, it had a powerful effect. When various folks waved a hand in the air, it looked somewhat desperate.

For me, the most thrilling moments were in the fourth movement, when the women’s chorus spread out among the audience. The music involved a long list of flowers that were grown in the mining towns. The women chanted the flower names. We were surrounded by sopranos singing of flowers, and the altos were off in the distance, their flowers floating in from far away.

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