‘Anthracite Fields’ brings the coal miner’s tale to Los Angeles

Coal is something most people think about very little nowadays, but it used to be central to “modern” life and technology.  Employing hundreds of thousands of American and immigrant workers in the 19th and early twentieth centuries, these “black diamonds” are entwined with our history not only as a fuel source, but as the fuel source that for so long drove commerce, transportation and innovation.

Composer Julia Wolfe. Photo by Peter Serling
Composer Julia Wolfe. Photo by Peter Serling

What composer Julia Wolfe knows that most people don’t is the true cost behind all that history: the thousands of lives, the unnecessary health problems, the loss of families and the cultural connections sacrificed for this progress.  Growing up in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania, Wolfe was keenly aware of the nearby mining facilities, even so many years after their peak activity. It is this personal connection, compounded by her early and abiding interest in social justice, that shines through, and has garnered such intense praise and high-profile recognition for Anthracite Fields, a contemporary oratorio that has won both a Pulitzer and a Grammy nomination in the last year.  On Sunday, March 6, the work received its West Coast premiere at Disney Hall, performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and members of Bang on a Can All-Stars.  It was quite an evening.

The first half of the program, as maestro Grant Gershon explained at the start, was a sort of complementary prelude devised to set the stage, drawing from the Sacred Harp anthology (1844) and American spirituals.  The Harp selections were, unfortunately, a little bland, although expertly executed.  Even as a simple tale-telling mechanism, the arrangements seemed a bit too simplistic for an ensemble with this much to offer.  The exception was “Wayfaring Stranger” which opened with baritone Scott Graff‘s simple declaration of the main tune, and rocked the house with genre-defying soprano Kristen Toedtman‘s soulful outcry, a solo full of emotions laid so bare that it almost seemed we were intruding. The choir followed suit, wailing the familiar tune and imbuing it with new urgency. Few ensembles are so tight that they move together this well, even through stylistic flipped entrances and impossibly lugubrious final statements.

The last piece in this set, Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “Wade in the Water”, was as moving as it could be, considering it was hampered by the key: soprano Zanaida Robles, fully proven elsewhere as a knockout vocal artist, did what she could in the low-pitched range she was given.  But we didn’t start to hear either the ringing tones of her voice or the song’s compelling story until the last fourth or so of the piece, when the tessitura shifted higher.  It was a good glimpse, but not the blazing finale it could have been.

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Artistic Director Grant Gershon conducting the West Coast premeire of Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 6, 2016. Photo by Patrick Brown.

Anthracite Fields, however, made up for this in spades.  This groundbreaking work is illuminating and engaging. It’s also likely to prove durable, a piece that will keep listeners thinking long after the last chord. The multimedia elements were nicely echoed in the stage setup and costuming, with the choir in concert black, and instrumentalists in white. A tall screen was pinned to a frame that matched the upper levels of the hall, with a flowing expanse of white sheeting falling down like a well-cut gown.  This was the surface for the carefully curated projections designed by Jeff Sugg, which were so well connected to the music that they took on equal importance to the experience as the score.  In fact, it is hard to imagine this work without the visuals.

As the oratorio begins, the “music” is amelodic and deliberately ambient, creating an aural fog of atmospheric sound.  Singers augmented the instrument-driven ether by phonating in turns and small groups, quietly humming through cupped hands, creating the effect of bees buzzing, or vibrations on the wind.  A sudden and thrilling burst of frenetic noise, and then the drone again, with the sound of the cello, lowing against the blanket of sound. This section was an impressive achievement in auditory storytelling, expressing and painting an astonishingly clear picture of desperate loneliness and isolation, repeatedly peppered with horrifying outbursts.  It’s easy to imagine this as aspects of the miner’s life: the ongoingness, the repetition, and then the horror of a cave-in or other accident.  Before we realized it, we were in the middle of the story.

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Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Anthracite Fields is named for Anthracite, a much sought after, super efficient, clean-burning coal, which, after its discovery in America in 1790, spurred a vast mining industry and fueled the industrial revolution that built our modern world. Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

On the screen before us, we saw images of tired, weather-beaten men, proud and strong, but often missing teeth and showing other signs of wear. The draped screen somehow enhanced the black-and-white stock footage, giving imperfections a more hospitable playground than flat white or silver. Diagrams showed something of the mining process: how shafts shoot down through “layer upon layer” of geological strata, as that phrase is sung over and over.  Although drawn in relatively simple stripes and almost cartoonish outlines, the visual nudge to think more realistically about the actual depths of the mines symbolized is mind-boggling:  these folks were traveling deep into the earth, further down than most of us can functionally imagine.

Much of the libretto is broken up into bite-sized chunks and tossed through the choir, e.g. “Heat. Pressure. Time.” creating an effect that is dramatic because it is oppressive and unrelenting, then releasing into a limpid pool of airy, lyrical singing.  This sense of duality is set into the parts, the text and even the very structure of the work, contrasting a litany of names of fallen miners and a shocking description of the “Breaker Boys” (children tasked with breaking up larger chunks of coal) and the risk built into their jobs, with a girl’s account of the many flowers grown throughout the community.

The composer melds different styles within the work, and is known for bringing rock influences into a classical construct.  This collaboration between largely classical chorus and diverse instrumentalists, highlighted the stylistic divide between finely-honed choir and the more raw, but no less effective, vocal performances by two of the instrumentalists.  The Bang on a Can folks’ artless, honest sentiment brought the emotions not just into the spotlight not just to the fore, but right up in our faces.  Whether the audience thought these performers should be singing or not (and we heard several discussions as folks milled around after the concert) was not the point, and detractors are missing out on the magic of such musical fusion.  The colors were rich and tales truthfully expressed, deserving kudos for sheer audacity as well as real talent. Ashley Bathgate, the cellist and lead singer on “Breaker Boys”, served up her waifish solo with great charm in its raw cheekiness.  Guitarist Mark Stewart sang with a sound impassioned and bewitching, a bit reminiscent of Neil Young.

The thirty-two members of LAMC stretched their style boundaries as well, even beyond extended vocal techniques and stunt scoring.  One section driven by a rock beat challenged the Chorale to sing like children, almost ala Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”, and they pulled it off pretty well.  Moments of whistling (not even an option for many vocalists), were performed with impressive accuracy and aplomb. Each element seemed to have a specific, often convention-defying purpose, yet played well within our concert-going expectations.  The work is an exuberant and meaningful reorganization of what an oratorio “should be”, changing the language and the way the story is expressed.  But it left us with something to hold onto, so the experience was very satisfying.

The final movement was a reminder of how many ways we need energy to enjoy the advantages of our daily lives, as well as the blissful nonchalance of the advertising campaigns and publicity machines behind the coal industry.  The lack of thought we tend to give before we push the button on the toaster, flip a switch or read an ad, has left us disconnected from those who have made it all happen.  There are elements of preachiness in Anthracite Fields, but they lie in the message’s vigor rather than venom.  In the end, this visceral and engaging work could change you.

Next up for LAMC: Alexander’s Feast: A Hidden Handel Oratorio, April 16-17

Featured image (top):  Piotr Ciuchta / FreeImages

Julia Wolfe: Anthracite Fields (2015)

Bang on a Can All-Stars (Artist), Choir of Trinity Wall Street (Artist, Orchestra), Julia Wolfe (Composer), Julian Wachner (Conductor) 


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