Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Holocaust Story with a Happy Ending?

It’s a story straight out of Hollywood, except that it’s true. Jaap Polak survived the Nazi death camps with his wife and his girlfriend – barely. Tuesday night at the Jewish Theological Seminary auditorium, their improbable story was brought to life in chilling detail in a semi-staged performance of the new opera Steal a Pencil for Me, with music by Gerald Cohen and book by Deborah Brevoort. The narrative, vividly portrayed via both music and dialogue, is rich with cruel irony and grim humor but also the irrepressible joie de vivre that kept Polak, his wife Manja and girlfriend Ina alive despite staggering odds against them. It has a happy ending, which at this performance moved several audience members to tears.

Jaap Polak, now 100, and his wife Ina, now 90, reside in Scarsdale, and attend the congregation where Cohen is cantor, a connection that springboarded the opera. Both husband and wife were in the audience, and remain sharp as a whistle. Two years from now, they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. That such a thing would be possible considering that the former Amsterdam residents were kidnapped by the Nazis, first sent to the Westerbork transit camp and then on to Bergen-Belsen in 1944 defies the imagination. Beth Greenberg’s stage direction was understated and fit the material – one doesn’t expect dancing in a piece about the Holocaust. Baritone Robert Balonek was fervent and winningly steadfast in his portrayal of the irrepressible Jaap. Soprano Ilana Davidson radiated hope against hope that transcended the aptly drab costuming (everyone has a yellow Star of David pinned to their coats). Among the supporting cast, soprano Cherry Duke brought a sardonic edge to her role as semi-reliable interlocutor, passing furtive love notes between Jaap and Ina.

Cohen’s music follows a natural, conversational rhythm, and because of that, must be murderously difficult to play. Perhaps with a nod to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, the ensemble Cohen pulled together – clarinetist Vasko Dukovski, cellist Chris Finckel, violinist Sasha Margolis and pianist Lynn Baker – rose to the occasion, nimbly conducted by Ari Pelto. The vocal melodies are not particularly cantabile, which makes sense considering the overwhelming sense of impending doom that settles in with the opening scene in Amsterdam, a party that quickly goes to hell when the Nazis show up and abduct Ina’s boyfriend Rudi (portrayed by baritone Nils Neubert as a comforting figure who recurs to Ina in surreal, dreamlike interludes) and take him off to be murdered. For the most part, Cohen eschews fullscale horror in favor of a bleakly monochromatic, relentless unease, waiting until the cast arrives at Belsen to let the strings rise with a Bernard Herrmann-esque, shivery terror. Cohen’s cantorial background informs and enriches the larger-scale choral segments, notably a mesmerizingly hypnotic, intricately contrapuntal crescendo toward the end which interpolates a triumphant Passover theme within murky, brooding, enveloping sonics. His characterization of the Nazis works mechanical, coldly monotonous circular motives: the banality of evil captured in sound.

Brevoort powerfully evokes the sheer surrealism and the increasing sense of dehumanization and despair that befalls the cast, but also moments where humanity emerges triumphant when least expected. Lisette, who at first betrays the burgeoning affair between the two lovebirds, has a change of heart and becomes their ally again, enabling Ina, who’s been given a menial job in the commandant’s office, to steal a pencil for Jaap so that he can continue to write her clandestine letters. The affair between them unwinds with not a little suspense, especially since Jaap’s wife and Ina’s father are both in the camp and prove to be a considerable impediment. In particular, the character of Manja is underwritten. The implication that she was a shrew with a wandering eye doesn’t go very far, and the reality – as Jaap Polak emphasized in a brief address to the audience afterward – is that she was the unsung heroine of this twisted adventure, nursing him back to health from a near-fatal bout of typhoid fever and then handing him off to Ina to live happily ever after. She deserves better. Somewhere there’s a circus rock band who ought to do the song “I Lost My Husband to a Rich Younger Woman in a Nazi Death Camp.”

As far as getting the message of this piece across, it would work better as a musical than an opera, which is not to say that Cohen should rewrite it as Springtime for Hitler. As it is now, the lyrics are likely more easily understood by regular operagoers than by general audiences: all too often, a particular nuanced moment, a shift in the plotline or even a punchline get lost in arioso vocal pyrotechnics. Considering the talent of the cast onstage, it’s a good gamble that they’d be equally capable of rendering the story in a more musically accessible, less stylized manner. Those who buy into the argument that in the age of microphones and vocal individualism, the bel canto style of singing has reached the end of the line, will probably agree with that statement. Those who don’t probably won’t. And it’s an argument that’s probably academic, anyway, since where this is ultimately bound is most likely the big screen. Steven Spielberg, are you out there?

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May 2, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wadada Leo Smith’s Transcendent Opening Night at Roulette

Wadada Leo Smith isn’t always in a dead serious mood. After his spine-tingling show last night at Roulette, the New York debut of material from his 2012 magnum opus Ten Freedom Summers (rated best album of the year here), the trumpeter/composer treated the audience to a brief Q&A. Smith winkingly related that when a representative from Chamber Music America was scheduled to pay him a visit to finalize a deal for a single commission, he’d made sure to leave “Scores all over the house, on the floor, on…what’s that thing you put on top of the record player?” Three hours later, the CMA rep left, overwhelmed, and Smith had a deal in hand for several additional works.

Smith also explained that he and Emmett Till were both thirteen years old when Till was murdered. Smith was then living in Leland, Mississippi, about 250 miles from the crime scene. “It was kind of a time of fear,” he averred. Ten Freedom Summers traces the history of the civil rights movement through key moments like that – “One that might have something to do with what you call change,” Smith hinted caustically. The idea for the suite, Smith explained, was jumpstarted by his association with August Wilson (Smith’s trumpet was featured in the debut of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). Opening the first night of Smith’s three-night stand that continues here through Friday, Smith’s long-running Golden Quartet was bolstered by the austere, often plaintive strings of Pacifica Red Coral. On one hand, given the gravitas and sheer heft of the suite (a four-cd set recorded mostly during a marathon seventeen-hour session), it was surprising that the show wasn’t completely sold out. Then again, there have been other major moments in jazz – at Massey Hall, for one – that weren’t sold out. When word gets out about how powerful, and intense, and matter-of-factly transcendent this one was, the sets tonight and tomorrow night, both at 8 PM, certainly will be. As of this moment (wee hours of May 2), there are still tickets available.

Smith’s music is grounded in the core values of the blues: economy of notes, a narrative arc and multiple levels of meaning. Even while the ensembles onstage in more than one instance were reinventing the material, it was with a thousand yard stare and a white-knuckle intensity, a common sense of purpose that never wavered. Had Smith schooled them beforehand about the topics the works were written to address? No, Smith told one interested concertgoer. The players simply felt the music. Characteristically, Smith chose his spots judiciously, intently bent over his horn, more inclined to brief resonant accents or tantalizing, allusive hints of chromatic menace than rapidfire cadenzas. Drummer Pheeroan AkLaff shadowed him early on, making rich, emphatic, sometimes portentously ornate, sometimes murderous use of his cymbals and toms. Bassist John Lindberg alternated between tersely incisive accents, stark bowed lines, and a moodily hypnotic blues/gospel groove in the long, increasingly agitated vamp illustrating the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

Pianist Anthony Davis, though he played with a similarly characteristic minimalism, might be the key to the entire unit, maximizing his presence with a glimmering, eerie upper-register resonance balanced by a murkily ominous lefthand. The strings – Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian on violins, Andrew Macintosh on viola and Ashley Walters on cello – ramped up the intensity and suspense with anxious close harmonies that often fueled a sense of pleading or despair, other times exchanging deftly flitting harmonics or tensely swooping motives. Concert harpist Alison Bjorkedal punctuated the apprehensive opacity with an incisive steadiness, occasionally in tandem with the bass. Interestingly, Smith chose to open his stand by including the suite’s two quietest segments: an airily ghostly tone poem depicting the Washington, DC Vietnam War memorial wall, and what turned out to be an absolutely chilling, morose take of Black Church, an acidic piece for strings that might possibly be meant to evoke the horror in the wake of a church bombing.

Smith explained afterward that his portrait of Emmett Till – which hauntingly recycles a riff from Black Church – drew from how the blues can convey a feeling of simultaneous joy and anguish. The rich, briefly majestic portayal of a fearless young man quickly gave way to a corrosive, frantic string interchange and then a somber, elegaic mood, almost rubato but never left to collapse into chaos. The two ensembles wound up the show with an expansive, revealingly bare-bones version of the final track on the album’s first cd, a dignified, allusively neoromantic depiction of John F. Kennedy’s final ride in a horse-drawn hearse. If just that idea alone doesn’t get you out to the shows tonight or tomorrow night, you obviously have no need for transcendence.

May 2, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment