Happily composer Douglas Knehans recently sent me a few more CDs of his music to explore. One of these, a recent one which is garnering my appreciative attention is Backwards from Winter (ablaze records ar00054). It is appropriately described on the cover as an "operatic monodrama" for soprano (Judith Weusten), electric cello (Antonis Pratsinakis) and surround electronics (Knehans himself). There is a video that goes with the music in performance that I have not seen as yet but for the purposes of strictly aural enjoyment there is plenty to appreciate without it. The work stands out regardless.
The press sheet tags this music as reminiscent of Janacek and Mahler. I do not find anything to quibble about in that assertion, yet Backwards from Winter maintains an original stance even if the mood-character of the work has a lineage one might trace to those wonderful composers.
The libretto by Juanita Rockwell starts with the despair of winter and a lost romantic relationship. As the title suggests the women reflects on the relationship via a backwards chronology through the seasons, each with its poignant memorieWhat impresses me the most about this work and its fine performance is the highly inventive melodic-harmonic mood spinning, nicely fabricated out of the relatively simple means of soprano, electric cello and Knehans's electronics which have well orchestrated synth qualities as well as an organ-keyboard provenance in nice ways.
Judith Weusten gives us a beautiful performance of the highly idiomatic and dramatically substantial soprano role. Antonus Pratsinakis brings to us a finely atmospheric presence as cellist and second vocalist on occasion. Knehans shows himself to be a gifted writer of operatic fare that simultaneously partakes in the intimacy of lieder, for this is a sort of Winterreise and a sort of 21st century Kindertotenlieder with a moody view and a modern advanced tonal palette.
The music flows from season-to-season and its memories with a sort of eloquent musical syntax that feels right and keeps getting better with every hearing.
I do not hesitate to recommend this one highly. It is music that stands out in outstanding ways. The performances set a benchmark standard that doubtless will remain the high bar for this work for a long time to come.