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Musical tribute to a betrayed hero. `Estrella,' new Peter Child cantata, tells story of a Nicaraguan martyr

``Do you sleep?'' the Warrior asks. The mother replies: ``I dream.''

Thus ends the text of Peter Child's monumental new cantata, ``Estrella - The Assassination of Augusto C'esar Sandino,'' which received its world premi`ere recently in a performance by Boston's Cantata Singers, conducted by David Hoose.

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``Estrella'' is the middle of a trilogy of socially significant commissions by the Cantata Singers. The first, John Harbison's ``The Flight Into Egypt,'' won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Donald Sur's ``Slavery Documents'' is yet to come.

``Estrella,'' sandwiched in the program between Bach cantatas on themes of the hungry and suffering peoples of the world, grew out of Mr. Child's fury at a 1985 decision by the United States Congress to resume funding of the Nicaraguan contras. The piece is an intense and often startling work that tells of the guerrilla war led by Sandino, a Nicaraguan nationalist who opposed the US-supported government there in the 1920s and '30s, against US marines. After the conflict, Sandino was enticed to lay down his arms and then assassinated by the Nicaraguan National Guard in 1934. If the cantata is a statement of anguish, it is also one of consolation: that Sandino's heroism (symbolized by a star) lives on, as do dreams of a better tomorrow.

Child, interviewed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he teaches, said that he had ``the parallels with Bach at the back of my mind from the very beginning. ... The struggle of a small nation to secure independence in opposition to a monstrous, greedy, dominant nation is parallel to struggles in Bach's cantatas between good and evil, redemption and sacrifice. I felt these issues - the liberation of deprived people - should be dominant issues that we deal with, as religious issues were dealt with in Bach.''

Child had already discovered and been moved by poetry from Nicaragua when the opportunity to compose ``Estrella'' arose, and the hot-blooded Latino lyricism of poems he chose by Nicaraguans Ernesto Cardenal and Pablo Antonio Cuadra and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda make natural vehicles for Child's musical evocation of suffering and consolation.

``Estrella'' is scored for flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets and trombones, a piano, percussion, and strings. Mezzo-soprano and baritone solos are intertwined with choral passages, which are dominated by a dense four-part contrapuntal style. The work is set on a grand scale, with climactic episodes, and is continually gripping. Yet the cantata is also a personal odyssey, and ultimately reveals much that is intimate and human.

It opens darkly, the choral writing thick with suspense; but forces are gradually pared down, culminating in a stark recitative accompanied by only four instruments to highlight the loneliness of the human voice. When the larger forces return for the finale, it is as if to transcend that loneliness, to set a star musically in the sky to provide comfort and illumination. Child employs a ``chorale'' melody adapted from the Mexican revolutionary love song ``La Adelita'' as leitmotif.

Mezzo-soprano Gloria Raymond gave an expressive performance that was also a model of fluency and clarity. Baritone John Osborn was powerful, too, especially in the recitative telling of the assassination. The chorus was in top form; it was especially moving when accompanying Raymond very softly. David Hoose drew a sensitive performance from the orchestra, with notable solos from oboist Peggy Pearson and cellist Leslie Svilokos.

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Child's work is of universal and timeless importance in both musical and human terms. It deserves to become a permanent part of the concert repertory.

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