Apotheosis of the American worker

Special to The Times

Having unveiled Richard Felciano's "An American Decameron" last season, Southwest Chamber Music is quickly turning it into a calling card.

The ensemble recently recorded this hourlong song cycle, and they will be taking it on tour to Washington, D.C., and Vienna in March. A small gathering heard the piece at the Colburn School's Zipper Hall on Tuesday night, with six of the eight participants from the recording in place. The dark-hued soprano of Kathleen Roland sang and, at times, declaimed the text.

Now that the piece has emerged from the Sept. 11 shroud that must have hovered over its premiere, one can approach it on its own terms -- a treatment of Studs Terkel's mosaic of interviews with ordinary Americans in his books "Working" and "Coming of Age." Felciano turns passages from 10 of the interviews into concert arias, chopping up lines, repeating words and backing his soprano with manipulations of a sextet led by Jeff von der Schmidt.

Some sections are more successful than others, particularly in the center of the work where a solo violin perfectly conveys the loneliness of "No Place to Go" -- and you can picture the fashion model in "The Same Smile, the Same Open Eyes" going delectably mad as she is forced to repeat words like "sexy" and "pert" obsessively. Yet while Terkel's expansive panorama of American working life does justify a piece of enormous length, Felciano's own powers of invention start to flag toward the close.

For starters, Von der Schmidt chose two "genesis" works -- the tumbling, disconnected events of Dorrance Stalvey's "Exordium-Genesis-Dawn" and Anne LeBaron's octet "Telluris Theoria Sacra," whose third movement was enlivened by touches of whimsical 1920s jazz.

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