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Gene Pritsker: William James's Varieties of Religious Experience (2012)

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William James's Varieties of Religious Experience is the long-awaited companion to Gene Pritsker's Varieties of Religious Experience Suite (Innova Recordings, 2010). On this album, the guitarist has almost completely re-imagined William James' 1902 book, Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, as a chamber opera. The opera describes the spiritual experiences of several individuals near the end of the 19th Century as described to James, the celebrated philosopher and brother of the writer Henry James. The philosopher presented his legendary book and series of lectures in America during the 1880s and '90s. The libretto, also written by Pritsker, is based on both the lectures and the book and, albeit in prose, it is lyrical and embellishes the music considerably, making the opera a truly intoxicating experience.

James' thesis, although all but forgotten today, was weighty and controversial, and caused a stir among the religious cognoscenti and philosophers alike in its day. Pritsker renews the lively discussion with his vivid libretto and a brilliant score, which challenges accepted norms of opera and keeps the focus on the taut storyline by eschewing a large ensemble with the myriad woodwinds and brass and percussion. Instead, he provides a diaphanous musical backdrop with a string quartet. This includes Pritsker and his reliable alter-ego, greg baker, on electric guitars. The individuals comprising this twosome are poles apart. Of the two, Pritsker plays shorter, more vocal-sounding phrases. Baker, playing mostly contrapuntally here, is forced to shorten his otherwise flowing lines, but he still articulates them with notes that are languid and dallying and spin like tops. Dan Barrett's cello is bright and clear, as is Larry Goldman's contrabass, playing both arco and pizzicato.

The voices of the characters have been chosen well. The most outstanding members of this stellar cast are the mezzo-soprano Chanda Rule , and baritone Charles Coleman. Rule plays the voice of the third religious experience, a Gospel singer who feels the presence of God like a spirit within her body. Her powerful voice is characterized by superb diction and heartfelt intonation. It is not a pure operatic voice, but Rule more than makes up for purity with the depth of her passion and often aching beauty. Coleman on the other hand, sounding like a thoroughbred operatic baritone, swirls in an oceanic depth as he channels the experience of Leo Tolstoy, a celebrated follower of the faith. The other voices are well-cast and are more than up to the task in articulation, diction and expression. True, this is a libretto of spoken and sung lines, and although the main arias are restricted to Rule and Coleman, each subsequent character is called upon to wax lyrically. That they do, with more than adequate competency.

An important addition to Pritsker's oeuvre, the album is well-produced, given the limitations of the package. For one, a printed libretto would have been appreciated; these ought to be de rigueur for operatic productions as good as this one.

Track Listing: William James's Introduction; Consciousness of a Presence; Everything Else Might Be a Dream; The Less Real of the Two; Closer To Me Than My Own Breath; William James's Genuine Perceptions of Truth; Tolstoy; William James's Conclusion.

Personnel: Chester Layman: narrator; Marc Molomot: vocals (tenor); Lynn Norris: vocals (soprano); Chanda Rule: vocals/gospel voice (mezzo-soprano); Charles Coleman: vocals (baritone); Kim Pritsker: narrator; Gene Pritsker: electric guitar; Greg Baker: electric guitar; Dan Barrett: cello; Larry Goldman: contrabass.

Record Label: Composers Concordance Records


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