LOS ANGELES — Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs are pristine and painful, witty and wicked, forbidding and seductive. The mild-mannered Bryce Dessner is not the first composer I would have thought of to set them to music.
Mr. Dessner — whose hourlong meditation on Mapplethorpe, “Triptych (Eyes of One on Another),” had its premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall here on Tuesday before touring worldwide — achieved fame as a member of the rock band the National, and has sought a parallel career in the concert hall.
Mellow and unobtrusive, with a heavy debt to Minimalism and its rock-infused progeny, his music is at its best when he’s his own softly suggestive electric guitar soloist. And on a small scale — a bright, vivid set of “Murder Ballades” (2013); the gentle percussion solo “Tromp Miniature” (2014) — his work can be charming. Longer pieces, though conscientiously constructed, tend to go prettily nowhere. (The New York Philharmonic will play “Wires” in November.)
Mr. Dessner was a teenager in Cincinnati in 1990 when a Mapplethorpe exhibition that traveled there, “The Perfect Moment,” became caught up in a classic culture-war conflagration over censorship and government support for the arts. The city’s Contemporary Arts Center and its director faced obscenity charges; they were acquitted in a trial viewed as a victory for free speech.
“The Perfect Moment” drew from three Mapplethorpe portfolios: “X” (images of gay S&M activity), “Y” (flower studies) and “Z” (nude portraits of black men). This tripartite structure in turn suggested a form for “Triptych,” which very loosely moves from a mythologizing overture (“it was said he had face of a god / yet some saw a demon with rope shoes”) to reflections on the obscenity trial and issues of race in his work.
The elliptical libretto, by Korde Arrington Tuttle, draws on texts by the poet Essex Hemphill, who argued that Mapplethorpe continued a long tradition of objectifying black bodies, and by Patti Smith, whose book “Just Kids” is a memoir of her friendship with the artist. The language is stylized and extravagantly poetic, matching the photographs’ explicit sexual content while meeting their cool elegance with punk Romanticism (“worship the almighty / target practice / tells me to flex / tighten my torso”).
These texts, while occasionally overwrought, do evoke the brew of objectification, glorification, aggression, submission, risk and reward in Mapplethorpe’s photographs, particularly those of black men. The words are not always easy on the artist; they draw an uncomfortable parallel between different meanings of “shooting” someone, and, in one section constructed as a dialogue, suggest Mapplethorpe exploited his models.
It’s heady, ambitious stuff. But Mr. Dessner, perhaps treading cautiously as a white composer in a potential racial minefield, keeps the music — performed by 10 vocalists and 10 instrumentalists — resolutely lukewarm.
He mines the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth for close harmonies, undergirding their singing with a wan wash of strings, the barest touch of propulsion. (The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Group was conducted by Sara Jobin.) The tenor Isaiah Robinson, a featured soloist, made soulful wails; his voice was richer, the emotion in it both plainer and more complex, than that of mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, his female counterpart.
There was little sense of this blandly brooding, affectlessly luminous score shifting as the libretto did, leaving the words — only a handful of which were audible, with murky amplification partly to blame — adrift. The music can’t match the words’ nuanced portrayal of Mapplethorpe’s vision and personality, reducing the work’s impact to dreary sanctification. (I could have done without the facile queer utopianism of the finale: “Every time we kiss / we confirm the new world coming.”)
A slideshow of Mapplethorpe’s images was projected on a screen above the ensemble during the performance, and a young black actor moved slowly around the stage. These are perhaps suggestions of the fuller production of “Triptych” (directed by Kaneza Schaal, who replaced the originally announced Daniel Fish) that will have its premiere on March 15 in Ann Arbor, Mich., and travel to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June. A fleshed-out production may well enliven the piece. But if the music isn’t propelling the drama, visuals will ultimately always be window dressing.
I know critics aren’t supposed to review performances that existed only in our imaginations. But on the drive home from Disney Hall, my mind kept wandering to what the composer Georg Friedrich Haas might have done with this material. Known for plunging his players and audiences alike into long, disconcerting stretches of total darkness, Mr. Haas is gifted at sonic evocations of control, oppression and extremity; his work shares the classicism of Mapplethorpe’s work, and its brutality.
These indelible photographs deserve better music than Mr. Dessner’s thin, earnest worship.
Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)
Performed on Tuesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; laphil.com.
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