Jon Deak’s Dire Expectations May 31, 1976

A new melodrama by Jon Deak proved to be the highlight of the New York Philharmonic Prospective Encounters concert on May 14. This work, ‘Dire Expectations,’ lasts perhaps 20 minutes and involves Eli and Cynthia. During the romantic garden scene, Cynthia explains that she can’t marry Eli because of her father the Evil Scientist. Brave Eli goes to seek out the evil man who stands between them, and Cynthia tries desperately to stop him. Despite her, Eli struggles through the stormy night, finds the secret passageway, confronts the evil man in his secret laboratory, and there meets his doom, thus bringing the romance and story to a sudden tragic end.

All of this would be fairly standard satire of pulp magazine cliches except that it is done without voices. The characters are played by instruments, who speak their lines in sliding speechlike melodies, a technique that Deak has dubbed Sprechspiele. The instruments can not make themselves completely comprehensible, but with the help of the printed libretto, I found it quite easy to follow the dialogue—easier, in fact than on many other occasions when I have tried to follow translations of foreign language operas. The bass player Michele Saxon, in the role of Eli, had particularly good diction, making good use of a wah-wah pedal to help simulate vowel sounds, and delivering the full pseudo-emotional impact of such lines as ‘Cynthia! What are you doing out on this stormy night?’ There was also plenty of just plain music for the conductor Pierre Boulez and the ensemble. There was the dinner music, during which the percussionists rattled dishes and silverware. There was the tension music, stimulated by the evil omen of the chandelier. There was a brief satire of popular music, as Eli sang to his beloved, ‘There’s an ache in my heart just for you.’ We also heard birds-in-the-garden music, storm music, murder music, and a sad epilogue, and in all cases, Deak seemed quite at home with the cliched styles he was alluding to, and able to rise above them.

Compared with American listeners, Boulez is probably not too familiar with ‘The Drunkard,’ the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, the soap operas, the monster movies, and such sources, and he sometimes did not make the satire as pointed as he might have. He did, however, keep the ensemble well balanced, and allow the plot to unfold clearly.