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'The Construction of Boston,' Caught On Disc
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'The Construction of Boston,' Caught On Disc


New York and Boston have been rival cities in sports and the arts for as long as anyone can remember. It's hard to find anything in which they share a spirit of mutual admiration and collaboration. But there is something: Scott Wheeler's opera, "The Construction of Boston," which is now on CD. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz, a transplanted New Yorker who lives in Boston, has a review.

(Soundbite of music)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: In 1962, the New York poet, Kenneth Koch, wrote a hymn to Boston in a poetic theater piece called "The Construction of Boston," in which three of his avant-garde artist friends - Robert Rauschenberg, Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely - became god-like figures who build the city of Boston. The legendary choreographer, Merce Cunningham, directed the first and only performance, and the three artists actually played themselves. Seventeen years later, Boston composer Scott Wheeler wrote a one-act opera based on Koch's fanciful play.

(Soundbite of opera singers in the opera "The Construction of Boston")

SCHWARTZ: I first encountered "The Construction of Boston" in a converted firehouse in Charlestown, Massachusetts, where eleven singers were accompanied by an orchestra of two. I was captivated, but I had to wait years to experience the full conception. In 2002, the century-old chorale society, Boston Cecilia, under its current music director, Donald Teeters, gave what I thought was close to an ideal realization. That live performance has now been released on CD, and I've been enjoying it as much as I enjoyed the concert itself.

Wheeler, a student of the late Virgil Thompson, has composed an eclectic, colorful and tuneful score filled with waltzes, marches, chants, (unintelligible) counterpoint and barbershop quartets, the perfect embodiment of Koch's playful rhymes and loving tributes to Boston and to his friends, all the more touching now that the poet and all three artists are no longer living.

In the opera, Rauschenberg, whose famous combines incorporated found objects on the canvass surface, is the figure who brings to the city a multi-ethnic variety of people and complicated weather.

(Soundbite of opera singers in the opera "The Construction of Boston")

SCHWARTZ: Rauschenberg realizes that the people have no way to get out of the weather or back into it. So Jean Tinguely, who's kinetic art - complex mechanical objects that sometimes notoriously self-destructed - becomes the bringer of buildings. Not every part of Boston welcomes these changes. Back Bay, for example, doesn't like being filled in and weighed down by heavy buildings. But the chorus tells Back Bay not to complain. It's wonderful to be a part of an existent urban heart.

But there's still something missing - beauty. That's where Niki de Saint-Phalle comes in. In the early '60s, she had just made a splash with her shooting paintings in which she covered cans of paint with plaster and shot them with pistols, splashing the paint onto various surfaces. And so de Saint-Phalle becomes the bringer of beauty and color to Boston. There was universal celebration, and finally, the citizens of Boston are sung to sleep.

(Soundbite of opera singers in the opera "The Construction of Boston")

SCHWARTZ: "The Construction of Boston" is a generous tribute to the Athens of America from the Big Apple. But in its rich frame of musical references, in its jokes and in its tenderness, it's really about the vitality of the urban heart, what makes all cities such a life force. I think anyone who loves cities will be charmed by this inventive and moving work.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed Scott Wheeler's "The Construction of Boston" on the Naxos Label.

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