New York and Washington aren’t far apart as the opera audience travels — plenty of Washingtonians are frequent attendees at the Metropolitan Opera — but they seem to be separated by quite a distance when it comes to new music. The Kennedy Center’s Direct Current, its new two-week “celebration of contemporary culture,” has been spotlighting this by bringing down some of the things this city doesn’t usually hear — not, at least, since the demise of the Atlas’s fine new-music series a couple of years ago. So far, it’s given us So Percussion and Philip Glass and, on Tuesday night, the Bang on a Can All-Stars performing “Anthracite Fields,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio by Julia Wolfe, which had its premiere in Philadelphia in 2014 but only now made it to Washington.
“Anthracite Fields” is a thoughtful docu-oratorio that is ripe fodder for prize-giving, like the serious biopic taking the Oscar over rom-com contenders. Its subject is the coal country of Pennsylvania and the lives of the people who lived there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — from the names of miners who were injured, taken from the historic register and intoned by the chorus in the first of the work’s five movements, to the names of the flowers in their families’ gardens, as remembered by a miner’s daughter quoted in the fourth movement.
It’s also musically accomplished. Wolfe, a member of the composers’ triumvirate Bang on a Can, writes intensely and thoughtfully. Each movement stands alone, from the whistling opening, like wind from the past, yielding to the keening drone of the names in the first movement, punctuated by the repeated punch of “John . . . John . . . ,” to the jingly syncopation of the second movement, about the children who worked in the mines until their fingers bled. A flickering film by Jeff Suggs, with archival footage of miners and mines and towns and names and flowers, creates a visual continuity and sets the tone of the work as a piece steeped in history.
Wolfe has been writing for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, an eclectic sextet that includes percussion and electric guitar, since the ensemble was established as Bang on a Can’s performing arm in 1992, and she knows how to make the most of the group’s individual talents, which in the case of the polymathic guitarist Mark Stewart include instrument construction (a kind of harp made out of a bicycle wheel was featured) and singing (the group’s cellist, Ashley Bathgate, also had a vocal solo).
The result was a distinctive dream world, shot through with the words of the finely tuned Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and conducted with large gestures by Julian Wachner. Yet like a dream, it was also slightly distant. All the components were finally polished and smartly put together, but it didn’t, for me, quite lift off the page: something to be esteemed more than loved.