Text overload undoes ‘Lion of Panjshir’

Friday, February 13th, 2004

Heroes are perhaps more easily commemorated in marble than in music. There's just no contest between, say, the Lincoln Memorial and Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait for narrator and orchestra. The former manages to convey the full impact of both the man and the mythology; the latter, for all its sincerity, comes off mostly as cliche. Still, Copland's work is a model of concision, structural cohesion and poetic power compared to The Lion of Panjshir (Symphony No. 2) by David Gaines, which had its premiere Wednesday night at the Peabody Institute.

Scored for narrator, wind instruments, double bass and percussion, the new work could not be more well-intentioned. It honors Ahmed Shah Massoud, much-beloved martyr to the cause of freedom for Afghanistan. Murdered by agents of Osama bin Laden just before 9/11, Massoud had battled the Soviets and then the Taliban, inspiring intense loyalty and affection beyond the Afghan borders.

Gaines, who earned his doctorate from Peabody a few years ago, decided to imitate ethnic music of Afghanistan and its region and to pack a great deal of text into the piece. Both decisions strike me as unwise. The stylistic imitation is certainly successful; the dancing second movement, propelled by colorful percussion writing, evokes Middle Eastern/Central Asian musical idioms with particular panache. But the music doesn't assert itself strongly enough on its own terms; it becomes a kind of travelogue soundtrack.

The wordy narration, delivered with calm assurance by Massoud colleague Haron Amin, now Afghanistan's ambassador to Japan, works against the music, not with it. And the text is drawn from too many different sources, veering awkwardly between first person (sometimes Massoud, sometimes reporter Sebastian Younger or other writers) and third person.

More problematic, the words are often flat, like news accounts, or dry, like civics lessons. An exception is the passage about Massoud's death. The narrator describes the scene of TV journalists (actually suicide bombers) asking Massoud what he would do if he caught Osama, and how Massoud tilted his head back and laughed - "The last thing he did." Here is the poetry, the drama that the rest of the text lacks. And the music at this point is likewise effective, dark and solemn and angry.

Throughout, Gaines demonstrates a keen affinity for orchestration. Woodwinds and brass are vividly exploited; percussion applied with as much subtlety as power. This piece, warmly received by an audience that included members of the Afghan embassy in Washington and U.N. mission in New York, certainly fulfills its mission of homage. I just wish it could have made a stronger, more distinctive artistic statement.

The Peabody Wind Ensemble had minor problems with intonation and articulation, but phrased with considerable vibrancy under conductor Harlan Parker's sensitive guidance.

He also had the student musicians negotiating quite smoothly through Snow Tracks, a song cycle from 1985 by distinguished American composer Samuel Adler. The poems by James Laughlin and others, all steeped in snowy imagery, are scored for high soprano - very high. As a result, many a word disappears into the stratosphere. But the vocal writing has an arresting edge, while the instrumental coloring is applied with great skill to thick, richly atmospheric harmonies. Alyssa Bowlby was the fearless, bright-voiced soloist.

At the program's start, Peabody grad student Matthew J. Reese led a mostly polished performance of A Plain Man's Hammer, an exercise in finely orchestrated banalities by Scottish composer Martin Dalby.