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Wayne Horvitz: Joe Hill: 16 Actions for Orchestra, Voices and Soloist

Wayne Horvitz’s lengthy career doesn’t conform to one specific musical genre. That’s partially why this magazine is reviewing a disc that states “File Under Classical” on the back cover. Clearly it can appeal to more than symphonic fans, and not just because Bill Frisell is the featured soloist.

The lengthy work attempts to capture the personality of 1900s labor activist Joe Hill on the eve of his execution for an alleged murder. It incorporates dialogue, vocal solos, music built on re-harmonized labor movement songs and Horvitz’s original ideas. Much of the music is texturally beautiful, with rich layers of harmonies produced by the Northwest Sinfonia; Frisell’s guitar adds to the sound whether he’s attempting to sting or sooth.

But Horvitz uses rhythmic shifts and dynamics akin to West Side Story-he admits a love of Bernstein in the liner notes-which get too bombastic, especially when he turns one of Joe Hill’s own folklike songs into something resembling a song-and-dance (“The Rebel Girl”). And while Robin Holcomb’s performance as worker Elizabeth Gurley Flynn adds perfectly to the drama, Rinde Eckert’s role as both narrator and prison guard sounds overblown and trite. Horvitz has said he didn’t intend Joe Hill to be political propaganda, but these spoken bits, written by Paul Magid, have that heavy-handed quality and stomp all over the piece’s better aspects.

Originally Published