The Thirteen premieres a haunting, heartening fable with “Outer Edge of Youth”

Sat May 14, 2022 at 3:39 pm
By Andrew Lindemann Malone

The Thirteen gave the world premiere of Scott Ordway’s The Outer Edge of Youth Friday night at Episcopal High School Chapel in Alexandria.

Two boys, on the cusp of maturity, play in a forest. No Minecraft or YouTube for these lads; they observe the natural world around them so closely that a chorus of birds decides to engage them in discussions on the nature of love, gratitude, and compassion.

Such is the scenario of Scott Ordway’s hypnotic, haunting fable The Outer Edge of Youth, which received its world premiere from The Thirteeen under music director Matthew Robertson Friday night at the Episcopal High School Chapel in Alexandria.

Ordway describes the work as a “choral opera,” suitable for performance  in full stage garb, as an oratorio, or somewhere in between. In this case function follows form: The Outer Edge of Youth has both the solemnity and wonder of an oratorio (a completely secular one in this case) and the heightened emotion wrung from the enhanced reality in which opera specializes.

Ordway wrote the text, so the narrative unfolds naturally, and Ordway sets the words clearly enough, so the listener can understand them without recourse to a libretto.

Not much happens in terms of narrative; more time is spent on their implications. The boys, Sebastian and Nicholas, see two foxes pairing off and ask the birds why creatures love each other. Nicholas sees a dream-vision of snow in an apple orchard and wonders to whom he could address his thanks for the gift of such beauty.

Finally, the birds decide to show the boys a bear whose leg has been broken in a trap, to teach them about compassion. After much despair, Sebastian accepts the birds’ lesson that they can do nothing to help it, but Nicholas rejects the whole endeavor and asks to become a bird rather than grow accustomed to human hardness. The birds accept Nicholas, who sheds his human form, leaving Sebastian to celebrate and lament the transfiguration of his fast friend.

The text casts its protagonists’ philosophical quandries in mature, slightly stilted language, setting it at a further remove from our quotidian world. Most of the time Ordway pulls it off, but some clunky lines sneak in, like one boy wondering “What force is strong enough to bind these/souls up tight for all the long expanse of life?”

Fortunately, the music helps to cover such occasional infelicities. Ordway builds his harmonies with lots of open intervals and modal-sounding dissonances, appropriate for a work filled with questioning and contemplation. He also understands how to shift harmonies just slightly for dramatic effect, as in the birds’ repetition of the question “Do we fly in circles?”, where increasing dissonance communicates creeping doubt. (You can hear that effect at the end of “Litany of the Birds” here.)

Yet the forward momentum of the story ensures that nothing feels static; rather, the music shimmers, soars, and settles along with the characters’ declarations and discussions. At moments of broader understanding, Ordway allows a pure major chord to shine through, as when the birds tell the boys “Now you have seen love/One day you’ll know love,” creating an ecstatic catharsis. 

On the rare occasions in the story where its contemplativeness is disturbed, Ordway allow vocal lines to compete and obscure each other, as in the birds’ shattering remonstration “Be still now!” to end the boys’ exclamations of sorrow.

Three cellos and a double bass counterbalance the often-ethereal vocal textures, and their rich low tones often feel like something straight from the forest floor.

On Friday, sopranos Amy Broadbent and Emily Marvosh played the two boys, dressed in appropriate attire and moving about the chapel to explore, making it seem natural as they navigated their challenging music. In the closing sections of the work, where each has a solo section lamenting the decision one makes to separate from the other, Broadbent and Marvosh sounded both natural and heightened in their emotions, and in beautiful voice as well.

The chorus navigated the tricky harmonies with a warm, shining precision, never making a dull noise, always sounding alive and responsive to the text, whether representing the birds as a whole group or acting as narrators in duets. The string ensemble made a firm foundation for the other musicians.

With its demands on performers and its dreamlike atmosphere, The Outer Edge of Youth could easily fall flat in performance due to lack of concentration or commitment. The Thirteen and music director Robertson made sure quite that never happened, giving this tricky yet intriguing work a most successful premiere.

The Thirteen will repeat “The Outer Edge of Youth” 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Live! at 10th and G in downtown DC, and 5 p.m. Sunday at the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda.

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