Goldenthal A Vietnam Oratorio
A pupil of John Corigliano and Aaron Copland, Brooklyn-born Elliot Goldenthal (b. 1954) is perhaps best-known for his highly imaginative, often stunningly effective film music (recent blockbuster projects have included Batman Forever, Interview with the Vampire and Heat). Goldenthal has, however, composed fluently in many other fields. Notable achievements include the theatrical-oratorio Juan Darien, A Carnival Mass, the musicals The Transposed Heads and Liberty’s Taken, Shadow Play Scherzo for orchestra, the song-cycle Los Heraldos Negros, as well as copious incidental music for the theatre.
Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio was commissioned by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The first of its three movements, a large-scale “Offertorium” which the composer has likened to a slowly unfolding passion play, weaves Buddhist and Catholic texts around two more extended settings: the first comprises a statement left by Nat Chi Mai, a student activist who torched herself to death in protest against the war (“I wish to use my body as a torch to dissipate the darkness, to waken love among men and to bring peace to Vietnam”); the second is a poem by the Vietnam veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa entitled You and I Are Disappearing, which describes the horror of seeing a young girl’s burning body. Fire and self-sacrifice are the twin metaphors here (according to the composer the latter theme’s strong parallels with the Stabat mater unlocked the key to his selection of texts), whereas in the succeeding Scherzo it is paper. This feverish dance of death (which bears the subtitle giang co or “tug-of-war”) utilizes a far-ranging assortment of documents – from Virgil, Tacitus and Cicero to terms used in the Vietnam conflict – all designed to illustrate the folly of war. By contrast, the concluding “Hymn” breathes a more conciliatory, though never entirely comforting air. This time the theme is water. The movement’s centrepiece – an affecting setting of a poem (again by Yusef Komunyakaa) describing the plight of the boat-people – is framed by words taken from the Book of Jeremiah (“... a vast company, they come home, weeping as they come, but I shall comfort them and be their escort, and I shall lead them by streams of water; their path will be smooth, they will not stumble. They will not fall.”).
The imaginative flair and extraordinary assurance with which Goldenthal deploys his vast forces will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard his work for the cinema. The manner of the whole is unashamedly rhetorical, the mood by turns anguished, compassionate and memorably serene. Stylistic echoes are legion – Mahler (and the Tenth Symphony in particular – try from 3'39'' into the “Hymn”), Shostakovich (the orchestral introduction to the Scherzo, for example), Bloch, Britten, Corigliano – yet Goldenthal’s own brand of bittersweet lyricism and irresistible orchestral physicality are everywhere in evidence.
Suffice to say, the performance is all one could wish. Choral focus could be sharper; otherwise, the sound is spectacular. Fire Water Paper will, perhaps almost inevitably, find a greater market on the other side of the Atlantic, but it remains an admirably ambitious, heartfelt creation which all admirers of this talented, versatile figure will rightly want to investigate.'