Last night at the Library of Congress composer Ralph Shapey presented the premiere of his "Song of Songs, No. 1," the first part of a trilogy that, in his words, is to be a "whole, single entity of passionate love." Judging from this opening chapter of the work, which was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Shapey's view of passion would seem to be considerably different from that of some of us in the audience.
Not that the music, which is written for soprano, chamber ensemble and tape, is uninteresting. Out of an angular, leaping line. Shapey generates complex textures, which build to a climax over a repeating percussion sequence. The fractured, cubistic quality of his writing is cleverly softened by the insertion of four-note turn borrowed from opera's romantic style.
Shapey uses the Biblical Song of Solomon as his text. It is difficult, however, to connect Shapey's language with love. Neither the sounds he chooses nor his less than felicitous setting of the words themselves nor the melodic elaboration aroused this listener to any feelings related to that subject. There was, however, one passage of dark timbres that powerfully touched upon the text's idea of love being as strong as death.
Under Shapey's direction The Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago performed with suburb clarity and vitality in his work and Schoenberg's fertile "Suite, Op. 29" and Shulamit Ran's slick and empty "Double Vision."