Musical America

Anthracite Fields, as Performed by the Experts

It’s heartening to see a fine work like Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer prize-winning Anthracite Fields slowly but surely make its way into the repertoire. It’s also rare to hear new music that offers social comment without ramming it down anyone’s throats while successfully integrating aspects of folk, rock, and contemporary classical in such an effective and unselfconscious way.

Wolfe (Musical America’s 2019 Composer of the Year) was originally commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia to create an original work for itself and new music powerhouse Bang on a Can All-Stars, of which Wolfe is a founding member. The result was Anthracite Fields, an hour-long oratorio reflecting on the lives and legacy of the coal mining communities of Pennsylvania, a subject close to the heart of the composer who grew up down the road from a region that was once a vital hub for industrial America.

Towns like Scranton were built (literally) on anthracite, known as the diamond of coals thanks to its purity and clean-burning properties. The hard-working mining towns were packed with immigrants, many, like the Welsh, the Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans, bringing skills honed in the pits and factories of their homelands. Big on community, these people learned to be strong in the face of the disasters that regularly blighted the industry. “But it is dirty – it’s a dirty business,” said Wolfe in a talk before the Dec. 1 concert in Zankel Hall. She was keen to put any notion of heroic sacrifice into proper perspective.

The texts for the five-movement work were put together by Wolfe, a student of social sciences and labor relations from her college days. Going into the communities to “listen, without preconceptions,” her interviews formed the backbone of the libretto, along with children’s street rhymes, a contemporary mining accident index, a speech by the head of the United Mine Workers of America, and a 1900 advertising campaign for the new, cleaner coal-powered railroad. It’s eclectic stuff, informative, moving, sharp and sassy all at once.

The music, which only came after months of research on the words, uses a modest ensemble of six players – cello, bass, electric guitar (doubling acoustic guitar), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), piano (doubling keyboards), and percussion, which includes a drumkit, gong, glockenspiel and four “bicycle wheel harps” that create a suitably musical racket when spun.

Wolfe’s superpower appears to be making six sound like sixty whenever she needs to pack a punch. The six BOAC Allstars—Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Mark Stewart (guitar), both of whom also sing, Robert Black (bass), Vicky Chow (piano), and David Cossin (percussion)—are old hands at the work and recorded it back in 2015. The 24-strong chorus for this concert was the magnificent Choir of Trinity Wall Street, all conducted by Julian Wachner, all also on the CD. Needless to say, the performance bore an unmistakable stamp of authority.

The crucial third element to any performance of  Anthracite Fields is scenographic, with video projected above and behind the performers as well as stage lighting for atmosphere. Jeff Sugg, a sensitive creator whose theatrical experience has taught him to understand that visuals must never upstage the performers, has created a haunting backdrop blending found imagery with historical photos from, among others, the work of the great American sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine.

The performance, in front of a packed house, was engrossing from start to finish. Emerging from the depths of the ensemble a bit like a 21st-century version of Wagner’s ascent from Nibelheim, the music of the first movement, “Foundation,” underpins the chorus as it intones the names of miners, all of whom lost their lives in pursuit of the coal. Wolfe sets only those who have monosyllabic first and second names and whose first name is John, yet it’s a depressingly endless procession. Simple harmonies versus complex counterpoint is the order of the day, while Suggs complements the music with the faces of coalmen, many of whom appeared distressingly young.

If the long first section is a slow burn, combining a sophisticated minimalism with powerful blocks of sound, the second movement is all riotous fire and energy. “Breaker Boys” mixes children’s rhymes with the words of a worker whose job it was to separate impurities from the coal by hand as it passed by on a moving production belt. It was a cruel and dangerous practice, and Wolfe doesn’t shy from the horror, while depicting the essential recklessness of the boys thus employed. Clarinet licks, foot-stomping guitar, and a battery of percussion add to the wildness of a movement that feels both musically timeless and yet rooted in folk traditions.

“Speech” pulls us back to the reality of the pits. John L. Lewis’s words, especially as powerfully sung by the Choir and guitarist Stewart, build to a crescendo over march rhythms that carry dual echoes of protests and funerals. The relief of “Flowers,” a radiant litany of floral names representing the efforts of miners’ wives to bring some color into their dark lives (and sung by female voices), found Suggs projecting an array of flamboyant blooms while flooding the hall a brilliant magenta.

The modernist finale juxtaposes a catalogue of our daily tasks, for all of which we still rely on the electricity generated from coal, with a period advertising jingle about Phoebe Snow, whose “gown stays white from morn till night, on the road to Anthracite.” As the chorus sings blithely of the joys of smut-free travel, the faces of the young Americans whose lives were sacrificed to keep Phoebe’s apparel spotless made for chilling viewing and brought the work to its powerful conclusion.

Although there’s a perfectly good recording, the unique scenographic element and the raw energy of the performers made this a compelling concert experience, while both confirming Anthracite Fields as a modern classic and Wolfe as a one of America’s most important artists.