Stephen Paulus: The Five Senses-Windows of the Mind

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Sequenza 21
November 7, 2005

Admit it: You giggled when someone who certainly was no James Earl Jones whined out Peter and the Wolf or Copland's A Lincoln Portrait with your local community orchestra. Even worse was the suffering through the uppity soprano who mangled Pierrot Lunaire while you were in music school. And don't even get me started on the past-Weillian spoken chorus work in Blitzstein's Regina.

Face it, accompanied narration is hokey. And Sprechstimme, when done correctly, can be a transcendent experience, but in the wrong hands it will freely do the bidding of the forces of the evil.

So, when I leafed through the liner notes of the new Stephen Paulus album, The Five Senses-Windows of the Mind, and realized that I was in for a half an hour of such orchestrated commentary, I did my best to approach the recording with an open mind and ear. What I emerged with was an enjoyably light, if not ephemeral, experience with a piece that is most certainly a crowd pleaser when performed live.

Written for narrator Janet Bookspan (noted for a number of spoken word recordings and appearances as commentator on PBS's Live from Lincoln Center), The Five Senses- Windows of the Mind sets an expansive cycle of 14 poems by Joan Vail Thorn (librettist, playwright, and frequent Paulus collaborator), to a rich score steeped in the American idiom. Exploring, as the title suggests, the five- and possibly six-senses, these pieces range from fairy tale to pontification, from mock-Elizabethian love poem to stream of conciousness meandering.

All the individual elements of this recording, examined for their own merits, are pretty, entertaining, and unremarkable. Ms. Bookspan has a warm inviting voice that brings to mind a gentle teacher imparting knowledge to a circle of rapt grammar-schoolers. Her graceful, deep tenor, layered against the masterful and clean accompaniment of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the baton of Gil rose, carries us through the work, enlightening us when the text does not engage, and lulling us when the music wanders.

Ms. Vail Thorn's poems are worthy encapsulations of the senses and their respective organs, effectively taking us on a journey through the body on both a symbolic and representative level.

-Sequenza 21 magazine