Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

On Site Opera Revisit the Drama of a Horrific New York Conflagration

The action and intrigue rise toward fever pitch and then pretty much stay there for the duration of the On Site Opera production of Morning Star, currently enjoying a run at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. With a lively, cinematic score by Ricky Ian Gordon and book by the late Bill Hoffman, it follows the emotionally charged trajectory of a first-generation New York Jewish immigrant  family impacted by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. In an era of fatal conflagrations at locked-in Wal-Marts staffed by immigrants, not to mention deadly infernos at highrise British council estates, it’s particularly timely. It also has surprisingly subtle implications concerning karmic consequences arising when the oppressed become oppressors themselves.

On March 25, 1911 a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist sweatshop at Washington Square East claimed the lives of 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, many in their teens. It was the deadliest single event on New York soil until 9/11. The public outcry for safety standards in the wake of the tragedy revolutionized building construction and fire prevention in this city and across the country as well.

The fire itself doesn’t factor into more than about five minutes of the two-act piece. There’s abundant historical context, including but not limited to insurgent women’s rights, immigrant rights and worker’s rights movements which mirror our own today. Set on the Lower East Side, there are also numerous references to both defunct and surviving landmarks that will bring a smile to anyone who’s ever lived in or knows the neighborhood.

The plot concerns a laundry list of family drama: the fire is the elephant in the room, a dead child – literally – whose absence casts a pall. Suspense builds as the fatal day approaches, with plenty of artful foreshadowing. Romantic and parent-child angst, along with possible questions of paternity and political allegiances, push the story along. The singers – in particular, Emily Pulley as the mom and Blythe Gaissert as bitter antagonist -are strong, because they have to be. Other than a couple of detours toward early 1900s vaudeville balladry, the music doesn’t have much in the way of dynamic shifts. There’s! No! Business! Like! Show! Business!

Gordon’s score bubbles and bustles with comfortably familiar tropes refined by years in the theatre. Cliffhanger moments get anxious tritones; romance gets effervescent flutes over sweet strings. The rest of the music has an anthemic sensibility and hints of Debussy in places, played with gusto by American Modern Ensemble.

The use of the space is marvelous. The natural reverb in the elegantly restored synagogue enhances the sonics, while the placement of singers everywhere, on the balconies and throughout the audience, is nothing short of psychedelic and underscores Gordon’s clever use of counterpoint. The performance repeats tonight, March 22 at 7:30 PM and on the anniversary of the fire, this Sunday, March 25 at 1 and 6 PM.

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March 22, 2018 Posted by | concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Captivating World Premiere and Two Playful, Relevant Works in Progress Wrap Up This Year’s Sounds of Arts Festival

This year’s Sounds of Arts Festival in Long Island City, staged by arts organization Multicultural Sonic Evolution, featured a variety of performances from jazz to dance to indie classical music. The final program was an auspicious trio of works in progress by Chinese-American Alicia Lieu and Japanese composer Yui Kitamura along with a world premiere commission from Mayalsian-born JunYi Chow.

The highlight of the first night was Chow’s colorful, dynamic partita The House of Smells and Noise. Inspired by a story about a boy’s experiences with Nyonya (Chinese Malaysian) culture in Lee Su Kim’s book Sarong Secrets, it was replete with tensions and dichotomies: tradition versus modernity, calm versus bustle, humor versus solemnity. Percussionist Maiko Hosoda really got a workout, beginning with a stroll around the back of the theatre, clanging her cymbals. From there she took charge of the rhythm on a variety of instruments, including the dreamy microtone-laced plink of a Malaysian kalimba.

Austere call-and response gave way to somewhat more expansive passages that bordered on carefree but never quite went there, played with care and restraint by an impressively unorthodox ensemble of violinist Michael Mandrin, cellist Jay Tilton, oboeist Kevin Chavez, flutist Chrissy Fong and harpist Margery Fitts.  The electroacoustic ending packed a subtle emotional wallop and is too good to give away.

Kitamura’s brief suite, from a forthcoming opera, was sung with expressive power in Japanese by soprano Hirona Amamiya. The text explores the struggles of the daughter of famous 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika, widely credited with much of her father’s work since art in Japan at the time was a career essentially closed to women. Asian melodies were alluded to rather than stated outright; themes ranged from a poignant waltz that recalled Belgian musette, to more sweeping, distantly angst-fueled, cinematic passages.

To close the night, a quartet of singers delivered the first part of Lieu’s comic opera Unwrapping Fortune, exploring cultural and parent-child tensions in a Chinese-Jewish New York family. Not to spoil a good and relevant plot, but a chow mein sandwich is involved. A quartet of singers – sopranos Caroline Miller and Estabaliz Martinez, baritone Brian J. Alvarado and tenor Stephen Velasquez – brought drama and sardonic humor to the narrative over pleasant, baroque-tinged melodies.

November 22, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite: A Dark Historical Comedy for Our Time

The idle classes have been embarrassing themselves in song long before the Strokes or Bon Iver ever mumbled a fractured lyric or two into their phones’ memo banks. Xavier Giannoli‘s hilariously snarky black comedy Marguerite, now showing at the Angelika and the Paris Theatre, 4 W 58th St., explores that dynamic in a Roaring 20s setting, something akin to the Coen Brothers in French.

The film draws its inspiration from Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite whose childhood success as a pianist was counterbalanced, grotesquely, by her utter ineptitude as a wannabe opera singer. Where Jenkins largely performed for her fellow one-tenth-of-one-percenters at society functions, Giannoli’s fictional Marguerite Dumont (a spot-on, beaming, sincerely delusional Catherine Frot) warbles, off-key to her special cercle, who only tolerate her since she’s the one footing the tab for lavish soirées at her château.

Enter music critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide, in a role that never gets the chance to resolve a couple of potentially tasty subplots), vaulting over the castle wall with his wingman in tow. Realizing that Marguerite is missing something upstairs and that she could be played for her money, Beaumont writes a fawning review. Spurred by this unexpected critical reaction – and then by several which are not exactly glowing – Marguerite fixates on putting on her first big public performance. Meanwhile, her long-suffering husband (a devastatingly deadpan Andre Marcot) is equally dead set against further public embarrassment, resorting to one subterfuge after another.

To further complicate matters, Beaumont hooks her up with a has-been operatic tenor ( Michel Fau, in a hilariously foulmouthed, louche performance) as a vocal coach. At this point, it looks like he and the grifters in his entourage are actually going to get Marguerite to pull together a set and get through it in front of a real audience. Even her husband grudgingly admits that she’s not as bad as she was when she first fancied herself a diva.

It’s here that Giannoli’s satire kicks into high gear. You want to root for Marguerite, the outsider who only lives for her art, mangled though it might be. But every time she tries to justify her hobby-gone-wild, she falls flat on her face. She may play the wide-eyed innocent, but underneath she’s a bored dillettante and a classist pig. Likewise, as hubby’s attempts at sabotage become more and more farcical, it becomes clear that he’s not about to sacrifice any business scheme or schmoozing to placate his increasingly erratic wife.

Giannolli, who both wrote and directed, faithfully evokes both an early 1920s Surrealist demimonde – and its hijinks – as well as a post-WWI French upper crust trying to maintain a shaken stolidity. Snide one-liners fly fast and furious in period-perfect slang (which, sadly, the English subtitles often don’t come close to capturing). The ending is sudden and unexpected, and while not foreshadowed, makes sense considering Giannoli’s worldview, although the implication that Jenkins/Marguerite wouldn’t have made such a spectacle of herself if her husband had been more attentive doesn’t hold water, at least here. Ultimately, karma is a bitch: payback is even more of one.

March 12, 2016 Posted by | classical music, Film, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cantata Profana Blend Renaissance Drama and Twentieth Century Austerity with Fun and Relevance at Symphony Space Tonight

The lights went down in the disused Roebling Avenue storefront, and then members of Cantata Profana – harpsichordist Daniel Schlosberg, theorbo player Arash Noori, clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich, violinist Jacob Ashworth, tenor Jonathan Blalock and baritone Jonathan Woody – launched into Monteverdi’s brooding kiss-off anthem, Interotte Speranze. What do you do the night before a big Symphony Space gig? Book a Williamsburg show…and pack the place. And then treat a mostly twentysomething crowd to mulled wine, Oreos and a surrealistically edgy, irresistibly fun performance that makes unexpectedly vivid connections between Renaissance vocal music and  Twentieth Century austerity. As if we need more proof that there’s a young, engaged audience that’s clamoring for serious concert music but has been priced out at the establishment venues, this is it. If the idea of pairing hauntingly resonant Webern vocal works with proto-parlor-pop and proto-opera appeals to you, Cantata Profana are reprising last night’s entertainment at Symphony Space tonight at 8 PM; tix are $25/$10 stud.

Cantata Profana are a prime example of how versatility is the new specialization, across the musical spectrum these days: it’s  the revenge of the utility player over the high-priced allstar. The ensemble – a core of singers and players surrounded by a semi-rotating cast – proved as at home with acidic Second Viennese School tonalities as with elegant medieval Italian balladry. The piece de resistance at this show is American composer George Rochberg’s Contra Morten et Tempus, with its hair-raising dynamic shifts and various quotes from Ives, Berio and other contemporaries. Another similarly bracing number on the program is Luigi Dallapiccola’s’ Due Liriche di Anacreonte, a showcase for tersely considered interplay between mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken Kelsey and among the supporting cast at well. And the juxtaposition between a partita by Renaissance Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, rising from a rather haunting, almost klezmer introduction to more easygoing Mediterranean tones, against the twelve-tone acerbity of Webern, was an example of shared ambition, an unexpectedly smooth segue.

To wind up the bill, the group employs a rather mystical diptych by Guido Caccini to set up Monteverdi’s famous early operatic piece Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, sung with appropriate drama by tenor Samuel Levine with support from Woody and scintillating sopratno Emma McNairy (whose raw power, unleashed in the small Williamsburg space, provided the night’s most adrenalizing moments). Like the rest of the earliest music on the bill, it makes an unanticipatedly good pairing alongside the serialist works – it’s hardly arioso, considering that the vocal line doesn’t really move around that much, leaving the cruel irony of the deadly duel between the knight and his crush-in-diguise all the more resonant. Especially in our era of global conflicts which are no less logically twisted.

January 22, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Object Collection Stages a Deliciously Noisy, Messy. Provocative Piece at LaMaMa

Longtime LaMaMa impresario Nicky Paraiso reminded last night’s sold-out crowd at Object Collection’s latest experimental opera, Cheap & Easy October, that the experience would be what used to be called “total theatre” back in the 80s – a description that really nailed it. With a tight, often scorchingly intense four-piece band playing behind a ratty knitted curtain of sorts and cast members scampering, leaping and chasing each other around the stage, it’s more of a concert with a cast acting out a dadaesque video of sorts than it is anything else. And what a show it is. As immersive and pummeling as composer Travis Just’s score is, it’s far less abrasive than it is enveloping: you are drawn into the heart of the cyclotron, violently thrust out or, surprisingly, cast gently into a starlit reverie. Earplugs will be handed out, hut you don’t really need them. The run at LaMaMa is coming to a close, with final performances tonight, October 17 and then tomorrow at 10 PM; tix are $18/$13 stud/srs.

The band shifts abruptly but strangely elegantly through dreampop, post-hardcore and Mogwai-esque nightmarescapes, with acidic mid-80s Sonic Youth close harmonies, furious percussive interludes that recall taiko drumming, moments of what seem to be free improvisation, and echoes of the cumulo-nimbus swirl of guitarist Taylor Levine’s quartet Dither. Violinist Andie Springer uses a lot of extended technique and nails-down-the-blackboard harmonics; she also plays bass. Explosive drummer Owen Weaver doubles on Telecaster, while keyboardist Aaron Meicht also adds the occasional trumpet flourish or joins the stomp on a couple of floor toms.

The text – drawn from Soviet revolutionary histories by Leon Trotsky and John Reed as well as conversations between writer/director Kara Feely and cast member Fulya Peker (whose butoh background informs the simmering menace she channels throughout the show) veers from lickety-split spoken word to a bizarre, falsettoey singsong. Sardonic symbolism is everywhere: there’s a zombie apocalypse subplot, a telephone gets abused, and swordplay abounds. The rest of the cast – Deborah Wallace, Daniel Allen Nelson, Tavish Miller and Avi Glickstein – take on multiple roles, some of them living, some of them presumably dead.

There’s some toying with poststructuralist japes, springboarding off the premise that if you control the conversation, you control the situation. “Do you think a revolution of words can be as profound as an actual revolution?” one of the cast poses in one of the performance’s less chaotic moments. Much of the iconography in the set is sarcastic and ultimately portends a lot of very gloomy endings: as Feely and Just see it, revolutions tend to disappoint.

No less august a personality than Robert Ashley gave this group’s work the thumbs-up. For those who need their ideas packaged neatly and cohesively, this isn’t going to work. And it raises fewer questions than it intimates – which by itself is reason to see this provocative piece, one more nuanced than its sonic cauldron might initially suggest.

October 17, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ThingNY Debuts a Blackly Amusing, Sonically Rich Reflection on Hurricane Sandy

ThingNY‘s provocative, often hilarious performance piece This Takes Place Close By debuted last night, making maximum use of the spacious, sonically rich Knockdown Center in Maspeth, a former doorframe factory recast as adventurous performance venue. Through the eyes of various witnesses to Hurricane Sandy, the multimedia work explores apathy, anomie and alienation in the wake of disaster. It raises more questions than it answers – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Is this limousine liberal self-flagellation, a vain attempt to demonstrate eleventh-hour empathy? A simpering, self-congratulatory meme for gentrifiers hell-bent on their fifteen minutes on Instagram? A welcome dose of perspective on where the hurricane falls, historically speaking, in terms of disastrous consequences? A caustic and often poignant critique of narcissism raising its ugly head at the least opportune moment? You can find out for yourself when the piece repeats, tonight, September 25 through Sunday the 27th at 8 PM; general admission is $20.

Ostensibly an opera, this is more of an avant garde theatre piece with music. The six-piece ensemble lead the audience from one set to another, creating a surround-sound atmosphere, voices and instruments leaping unexpectedly from the shadows. The live electroacoustic score – a pulsing, rather horizontal, minimalistic theme and variations – is gripping and often reaches a white-knuckle intensity, and the distance between the performers has no effect on how tightly they play it. The narratives vary from more-or-less straight-up theatre vignettes, to phone calls, harrowing personal recollections and surrealist spoken-word interludes. Other than Gelsey Bell – whose pure, translucent chorister’s soprano is the icing on the sonic cake – the rest of the ensemble do not appear to be trained singers. Yet they gamely hold themselves together through some challenging, distantly gospel-inspired four-part harmonies. Violinist Jeffrey Young‘s shivery cadenzas and the occasional creepy glissando enhance the suspense, while Bell’s keyboards and Dave Ruder’s clarinet supply more resonantly ominous ambience. Percusssionist Paul Pinto wryly doubles as roadie and emcee of sorts with his trusty penlight. Bassist Andrew Livingston distinguishes himself by playing creepy tritones while sprawled flat on his back in the rubble; meanwhile, Bell projects with undiminished power despite the presence of Livingston’s bass on top of her diaphragm.

Intentionally or not, the star of this show is multi-saxophonist Erin Rogers, whose vaudevillian portrayal of a 911 operator slowly losing it under pressure – in between bursts of hardbop soprano sax – is as chilling as it is funny. Happily, she later gets to return to give the poor, bedraggled, unappreciated woman some dignity. And playing alto, she teams with Livingston for a feast of brooding foghorn atmospherics during a portrait of a philosophical old bodega owner for whom the storm is “been there, done that.”

The characters run the gamut from enigmatic or gnomic to extremely vivid. Young gets to relish chewing the scenery as he channels a wet-behind-the-ears, clueless gentrifier kid who’s just self-aware enough to know that he ought to cover his ass while expunging any possible guilt for gettting away with his comfortable life intact. Livingston’s shoreline survivor, horror-stricken over the possible loss of his girlfriend, really drives the storm’s toll home. Bell’s baroque-tinged ghost is more nebulous, as is Pinto’s mashup of tummler and historian at the end – in a set piece that seems tacked on, as if the group had to scramble to tie things together just to get the show up and running in time. Yet even that part is grounded in history – which, if this group is to be believed, does not portend well for how we will react when the waters rise again. And they will.

September 25, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Halloween Makes an Early Appearance at Merkin Concert Hall

Last night at Merkin Concert Hall was a gleefully fun and surprisingly nuanced concert of Halloweenish orchestral works that transcended being pigeonholed as such. Sure, it was impossible not be drawn into the fun as conductor/composer Charles Coleman scrunched his face into a triumphant, “yessssss!” expression as he signaled a series of macabre, pulsing tritones from the violins as the world premiere of his symphonic poem Carmilla for String Orchestra got underway. But there was plenty of subtlety and sophistication that tends to get trampled in this kind of music: while there was an abundance of menace on the program, it never really went over the edge into grand guignol.

Anchored by heavy washes of bass and cello, the piece quickly shifted into more plaintively neoromantic territory before hitting a hypnotic, rhythmically minimalist coda that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Julia Wolfe catalog. The full orchestra followed with William Maselli‘s deliciously fun Visions of Sabbath, a mashup of classic Black Sabbath themes. How familiar the ensemble members were with the source material became obvious in an instant, from who was dealing with it like any other task, and who couldn’t resist a grin. One of the bassists and a violist in particular were having a ball with the artful interweave of motives: the signature chromatic theme that opens the band’s first album; riffs galore from Electric Funeral and War Pigs,and a playfully blustery arrangement of the verse from Iron Man, to name a few. And when they reached the point where one of the clarinets voiced a couple of Ozzy lines from The Wizard, pretty much everybody was cracking up. “This initial effort may well be expanded on in the future,” the program notes hinted. Bring it on!

The final work was Maselli’s two-act opera Draculette. It’s a highly thought out piece of music, and it was well executed. Bloodily surreal as the storyline is, there was less bombast than expected. Maselli’s main themes developed out of a cinematic progression of the utmost simplicity that rose and fell with a Moussorgsky-esque unease, punctuated by several more bittersweet interludes, a couple veering into lively, carefree Italianate operatic territory, others with a vividly anthemic art-song quality that reminded of Elvis Costello at his most ornate. Did Maselli immerse himself in a Prokofiev opera before tackling this? That wouldn’t be a surprise.

Coloratura soprano Olga Zhuravel sang the lead role, holding the center with a fang-baring luridness. High soprano Micaela Oeste got less time in the spotlight but made the most of it: one particular spine-tingling, stratospheric, chromatic phrase of hers was worth the price of admission alone. The guys – baritones Brad Cresswell and Kevin Glavin, and tenor John Bellemer – were given goofier roles and thus less opportunity to explore as much emotional terrain as the women. Which made sense considering the storyline: unsympathetic characters are easier to kill off. In the spaces between, brief solos made their way cleverly and purposefully throughout the orchestra: Tomina Parvanova’s harp, BJ Karpen’s oboe and Allyson Clare’s viola in particular were standouts. Meanwhile, a series of microphones hung overhead: if the engineers soundchecked this right, the orchestra and singers got a dandy live recording out of it.

October 5, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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?

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

A Contrarian View of Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E

From a music writer’s perspective, the question of how to approach Anthony Braxton’s recent four-disc opera, Trillium E begins with whether or not to cover it at all. Consider: it came out at the very end of last year (on the Firehouse 12 label), meaning that a large percentage if not all of its intended customers have already acquired it. It’s a massive achievement, over three hours of music, five if you count the avant garde jazz titan’s intended hourlong pre- and post-performance processionals. Innumerable, less challenging – at least in terms of sheer time – Braxton works exist which deliver his signature blend of wondrously defamiliarizing harmonies and rigorously cerebral thought. Yet Braxton is one of those artists whose cult grows every year, as another senior jazz performance class initiates a small but trustworthy percentage of the freshmen with something of a secret handshake: “Of course you know Albert Ayler..but do you know Braxton?” So in light of that consideration, a work of this magnitude from such an important composer demands some kind of examination, critical or not.

Some will take this as utter hubris, but this is an album whose zeniths are as exquisite as its nadirs are maddening. The 45-piece Tri-Centric Orchestra is the star of the show. Braxton’s close harmonies, use of microtones, melismas and minute rhythmic shifts make demands that few composers can or dare ask of performers, yet this ensemble pulls them off singlemindedly: very frequently throughout the piece, it’s as if it’s one mighty, majestic voice. The music is more horizontal than rhythmic, nebulously floating banks of sound with understatedly dramatic low/high contrasts, and throughout much of Act I, momentary, flitting motifs filtering through the murk with an intriguing, enigmatic dubwise effect similar to backward masking. The high woodwinds get more lively at the beginning of Act II, followed by long, slowly oscillating, rivetingly otherworldly tones leading into an absolutely luscious segment where Braxton explores the kind of creepily lush, jarringly rhythmic things you can do with a choir, taking a page out of Pauline Oliveros – or Jeff Lynne – both of whom were doing the same thing back in the 70s. Act III adds roughhewn string motifs and simple, vivid battering-ram percussion and a brief but chilling reprise of the creepy groupthink vocalese of Act II: the wavering, pitchy alien mantra “I am here and you are not” delivers a visceral chill.

This album is maddening because it’s an opera, pure and simple. Here’s a radical idea (something Braxton knows well) – eliminate the libretto. That’s right – 86 the vocals. That’s not to say that its rather academically worded existential philosophy isn’t worth considering, or that the sci-fi narrative’s heavy foreshadowing doesn’t maintain interest, or that it isn’t imbued with Braxton’s signature dry, ironic humor, only that there are parts where he actually seems to be mocking the art form itself. And the lyrics themselves, such as they are, hardly lend themselves to being sung. Here’s a random sample:

Bubba John Jack/Herald: I’m thinking more in the way of my own complete set of baseball cards – something more from the forties/fifties vintage series.

Zakko/Arfthro: You can’t be serious.

This also isn’t to belittle the singers, notably coloratura soprano Kamala Sankaram and mighty bass Michael Douglas Jones, who along with most of the rest of the cast do their best to bring some kind of cantabile phrasing to Braxton’s plainspoken, singsongey vocal melodies. But as the opera goes on, the singers veer in and out of voice to the point where they’re practically speaking – as perhaps they should. Consider: the bel canto style came to prominence in a language defined by its fluid, polysyllabic vowels. In general, the technique doesn’t translate well to the clipped sibilances of American English, and this opera is a prime example. Braxton has said that the style is well suited to putting his point across, and he’s just plain wrong. Since he imagines the work taking on many possible adaptations – for shadow puppet theatre, for example, an especially appealing proposition – then why not hip-hop? Or simply spoken word? Or…as a purely symphonic work. Orchestras worldwide have been doing instrumental interpretations of opera practically since it first existed, which ultimately may be the fate best suited to this perplexing, complicated, flawed yet often unearthly beautiful piece of music.

August 2, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The GVO Gets Picturesque

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s most recent concert this past Sunday featured fresh, energetic, revealing takes on a couple of familiar favorites, bookending an unexpected interlude. Led by guest conductor Pierre Vallet, the ensemble opened with Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture: lush, dreamy beauty shifting to brighter and more energetic, with pinpoint French horn flourishes and a bouncy precision. Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Op. 37, the lesser-known follow-up to the Enigma Variations, were next, sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who showed off a full soprano’s range as the suite went on, a series of cinematic, coastal and nautical settings of British Romantic poems including texts by Elgar’s wife along with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. From sweeping, craggy, windy bluster to more simple, catchy songcraft and then up with more drama – particularly the final song in the cycle, The Swimmer, considered by some to portend Robert Browning’s suicide at 39 – the orchestra gave Johnson Cano a lush backdrop for her vivid, turbulent evocation.

From seats close to the orchestra, Pictures at an Exhibition turned out to be as close to an opportunity to get inside Maurice Ravel’s mind as is physically possible. There’s literally not a bad seat at the GVO home base on 16th Street, an unexpected bonus considering that the building is now a public high school. On one hand, it was impossible not to revel in how much fun Ravel had orchestrating Moussorgsky’s creepy suite. On the other, Ravel did it justice: ultimately, this is a requiem for Moussorgsky’s painter friend Victor Hartmann. And the GVO did them both justice, particularly in the darker passages, not to mention the brief refrains that punctuate the “pictures.” Conductor Barbara Yahr likened them to an inner journey, the composer remembering his dead pal, rather than simply a chronicle of the stroll from one end of the gallery to the other. “These aren’t filler,” she reminded the crowd before the piece began, and she wasn’t kidding: by the time she took them down into the Catacombs, what began as a fanfare had become a dirge. Themes familiar to every moviegoer became profound: the Gnome bellicose yet poignant; the Old Castle brooding with a nostalgic tone, the children dancing in the Tuileries quaint and somewhat courtly. The orchestra’s attention to the astringent faux-Orientalisms in the portrait of the two Jews, Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuely, alone made the trip worthwhile. And after the off-center menace of the Catacombs, the most macabre part of the suite, the orchestra maintained that atmosphere intensely even as the classical heavy metal of Baba Yaga’s Hut kicked in. If the Catacombs is Moussorgsky facing the fact that his friend’s not coming back, as Yahr mentioned, then maybe this is the rage afterward. The coda, The Great Gate of Kiev contemplates a mechanical marvel which was actually never built, a cruel irony for this towering, majestic ending to end all endings and its epic Beethoven allusions. Through two standing ovations, the mostly sold-out house seemed as out of breath as the musicians were.

November 23, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment