Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Visionary, Sardonically Hilarious, Grimly Dystopic New Opera Looking at You Debuts in the West Village

Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera Looking at You is as funny as it is dystopic – and it’s extremely dystopic, and just as visionary. George Orwell predicted that people would become so enamored of technology that they’d willingly let it enslave them, and so far western society seems to be on the express track. The premise of this outlandish multimedia extravaganza extrapolates from that observation, and although it’s a grimly familiar story, it keeps the audience guessing, adding layer upon layer of meaning until the inevitable, crushing coda. The New York premiere was last night; the show continues at Here, 145 Sixth Ave. south of Spring, and west of the park in the middle of the block, tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 4 PM and then Sept 11-14 and 17-21 at 8:30 PM. Cover is $25

Billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, this satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit is ruthlessly spot-on, right from the first few seconds. The first of many levels of meta occurs as the audience becomes the crowd at a breathless product launch for the app to kill all other apps. See, it connects not only your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, ad nauseum, but also your phone camera, Amazon Alexa, the spycams outside your door, inside your apartment and your bathroom…and presumably every other spycam in existence. Access is universal: the miracle of face recognition technology gives you unlimited data on everyone, and vice versa. Full disclosure: as an April Fool joke several years ago, this blog published a spoof which reached the same conclusion that Sankaram and Handel do here.

The Snowden stand-in (Brandon Snook) sees where all this is leading and decided to spill the beans. His ex-girlfriend (Blythe Gaissert) isn’t convinced: her refrain, heard over and over from several voices throughout the show, is “But I’ve got nothing to hide!”A brief media circus ensues – Kristin Marting’s haunting backdrop leaves no doubt what’s behind those cold, flickering screens – followed by a long cat-and-mouse game with Homeland Security.

In a delicious stroke of irony, Gaissert’s get-out-of-jail-free card turns out to be the enterprise’s crown jewel: it erases every electronic footprint you’ve ever left (mirroring the the real-life Silicon Valley cynicism of how it’s considered bad form to give children screen time until they reach school age), This little gizmo is bestowed on Gaissert by her wide-eyed, relentlessly exuberant, boundaryless boss, played with relish by Paul An. His supporting cast – Adrienne Danrich, Eric McKeever and Mikki Sodergren, in multiple roles – are just as cluelessly dedicated to the cult of Big Data, spouting ditzy homilies about how benign it all is in perfect techno-speak.

Snook imbues the Snowden standin with a steely determination: he seems less interested in reigniting the relationship with his careerist girlfriend than simply persuading her to come over from the dark side. Beyond the acting, we get to watch their affair unravel – in reverse, via text message. An aborted clandestine meeting between Snook and a reporter brings Homeland Security in for the first time; the black-jacketed team’s interview technique stops short of torture but is eerily accurate.

Meanwhile, at many intervals throughout the narrative, Instagram photos and Facebook posts made by audience members play on several screens behind the stage. In a brief Q&A after the performance, the directorial crew explained that they promise not to show anything embarrassing they discover about those in attendance. As an incentive to share your “socials,” you get a free drink for signing into the system operating from the tablet at your table. It takes about an hour to datamine everything available on a given individual, legally, the opera company’s head spy explained. If you don’t want your mug and your stupid pix and who knows what else up onscreen for everyone to see, show up on the night of the show and pay cash like a sensible person.

Beyond the suspense involving the characters, we all know how this is going to end. It’s been said that humankind’s ability to reason is what differentiates us from animals, but in this tale it’s denial that makes us unique among the species. Although the dialogue doesn’t address it, the computer-generated alerts flashing across the many screens reinforce, over and over, how the most seemingly innocuous online or social media interaction has sinister consequences. After all, there’s no human reason involved with this dystopia’s magic algorithm. As Gaissert finally screams, contemptuously, “It’s a fucking computer!”

Trouble is, that computer was programmed by people with a very specific agenda. Big Data was not devised to exonerate anyone. It’s a snare. And as Sankaram and Handel remind, again and again, it’s working better than ever. More than anything, Looking at You reaffirms how its creators’ bleak vision is as vast and shattering as Sankaram’s five-octave vocal range.

Her original score, played by a diversely talented ensemble of keyboardist Mila Henry with saxophonists Jeff Hudgins, Ed RosenBerg, and Josh Sinton, is fantastic, from the cartoonish faux-techno of the opening scene, through ominous noir tableaux, snarky pageantry and brooding neoromantic interludes. It isn’t until the end that Sankaram draws on the Indian raga themes that she mashes up with cumbia when leading her slinky, surfy rock band Bombay Rickey. Even Kate Fry’s costumes are priceless: these true believers sport shimmery pseudo-lab outfits with circuitboards embedded in the fabric. And while the quasi-disguise that Snook wears in the next-to-last act is hardly subtle, it might be the opera’s cruellest and best joke.

September 7, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic Premiere David Lang’s Chillingly Relevant New Opera

David Lang has more contempt for a police state than he does for capital letters. That’s a lot. A sold-out audience last night were treated to the New York Philharmonic‘s world premiere of his sometimes allusively haunting, sometimes horrifyingly realistic new opera “enemy of the state” [all lowercase, as is the style throughout his catalog]. It’s easy to read Lang’s new take on the theme Beethoven followed in his lone opera, Fidelio, as a Julian Assange parable. Although with the iconic Wikileaks founder reportedly near death from mysterious causes in a British prison, he doesn’t seem to have anyone as willing amd able to spring him as the central prisoner’s wife is in Lang’s new magnum opus. It’s an important work for our time: $34 tickets are still available for tonight and tomorrow night’s 8 PM performances. You should see it.

Lang has always been an anomaly, a brilliant tunesmith in a field too often dominated by both pigheaded obscurantism and twee amateurishness. The music of this new work (Lang also wrote the lyrics) resembles the Hindustani-influenced art-rock of singer Peter Gabriel, the late 70s recordings of the rock band King Crimson at their most purposeful, and the anthemic, artsy side of 80s new wave, more than it recalls Beethoven. Strings and percussion dominate throughout. Late in the narrative, a trumpeter perched on one of the balconies will sound a particularly sardonic variation on an already cynical fanfare. The sheer gorgeousness of the vocal overlays and harmonies of singers Julie Mathevet, Eric Owens and Alan Oke offer cruelly sarcastic contrast with a relentlessly grim, profoundly philosophical narrative that quotes Arendt and Macchiavelli and coldly references Bentham on what the ideal prison should be.

How did maestro Jaap van Zweden tackle the music? Bouncing on his heels as he pulled subtle variations on Lang’s tersely expanding, cellular, Glass-ine themes from the orchestra, he validated every claim about his dedication to new music. Lang’s metrics are challenging, to say the least, and the conductor had those rhythms in his pocket. He was having as much fun as anyone can have leading an orchestra, choir and soloists through the story of a potentially averted execution (you will not find out here how it ends).

The acting is as strong as the singing. Mathevet’s tantalizingly brief flights upward are matched by a resolute presence (as in Fidelio, we are expected to believe that in costume she can pass for a boy, a real stretch). Owens is almost as imperturbable as a would-be Eichmann, just doing his job, but not 100% completely devoid of humanity. Oke, as prison honcho, exudes pure evil as coldblooded sociopath and executioner.

We never even get to see the titular Prisoner, played with depleted, almost-out-of-gas determination by Jarrett Ott, until the third movement. Nor do we ever learn why he’s behind bars – although, as the Jailer avers, he probably has powerful enemies. The difference between life behind bars and outside, as the Prisoner puts it, is that inside, you can see the bars. In this Hobbesian terror state, ruled by greed, corruption and (allusively) Instagram, the jailers are as much prisoners as those they watch over. And somebody’s always watching.

Behind the scenes, Donald Nally matched van Zweden for mastery of uncanny rhythms, leading the orange-clad prisoner choir personfiied by the many men of the Concert Chorale of New York. Elkhannah Pulitzer’s direction sets the stage aptly, with imaginative use of projections and a Guantanamo-like set. When van Zweden emerged from an unexpected entry point, he set off the lone flicker of laughter in this otherwise chillingly relevant retelling of an all-too-familiar story.;

June 7, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amy Owens and Michael Barrett Unearth Rare Treasures from the Leonard Bernstein Archive

Like all great singers, soprano Amy Owens gets asked to cover a lot of territory. In her case, that means more than just racking up the frequent flier miles: she’s as nuanced and breathtakingly powerful with soul and cabaret music as she is in the classical realm where she’s best known. Her latest album with pianist Michael Barrett, It’s Gotta Be Bad to Be Good: Songs of Leonard Bernstein is notable for plenty of reasons. Bernstein fans are going to want it because there’s previously unreleased material on it: after all these years, you’d think that the Bernstein archive would have been completely plundered.

But actually not. Barrett worked closely with Bernstein in his later years and was able to enjoy unprecedented access to the maestro’s work, including his lesser-known repertoire as a songwriter. Unssurprisingly, this material has the same vast eclecticism, unselfconscious emotion and often great wit of the rest of Bernstein’s oeuvre. The album is just out and hasn’t hit the usual online spots yet- watch this space.

If you’re wondering how the duo could pack a grand total of 26 songs onto a single cd, everything here, other than a big showstopping coda from Candide, is either a miniature or close to it, nothing beyond the three-and-a-half minutre mark and many clocking in at less than two

There’s a misterioso slink along with a sotto-voce glimmer in Barrett’s playing in the opening title track: Owens cuts loose with a little tantalizing vocalese at the end. That calm/dramatic dichotomy recurs often here, from The Madwoman of Central Park: My New Friends, to the dips and mighty operatic peaks of that big tour de force Glitter and Be Gay, from Candide.

Of the unreleased material here, there are two takes of My Baby’s Baby, a poignant, muted nenromantic waltz. And Re La Mi shifts from arresting chromaticism to Debussy-esque lustre in just over two minutes.

Three songs from Peter Pan are infused with longing, arioso angst, and Owens walking the line between propriety and romantic ache. The two edge toward phantasmagoria in the miniature Jupiter Has Seven Moons, one of the five short pieces in the irresistibly funny suite I Hate Music. That’s where Owens gets to indulge her brassy side.

The duo tackle challenging Messienic tonalities iand tricky rhythms in Little Smary. The contrasts in Dede’s Aria, from A Quiet Place, in particular, are sharp and striking. Barrett winds up the album with six of Bernstein’s Anniversaries: short instrumentals the composer accumulated and doled out to friends on special occasions, or employed as eulogies.

At a Manhattan house concert last month staged by writer Philip Howard, Owens and Barrett not only delivered electric versions of many of the album’s highlights: they may have made history. Bernstein was always having friends over to share songs, but has there ever actually been a show devoted exclusively to Bernstein songs and solo piano instrumentals anywhere in this city, at least in the last few decades?

Owens’ next East Coast appearance is on May 18 at 8 PM, singing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra.

May 2, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Profoundly Entertaining, Interactive Night of Operatic Fun at the Edge of Chinatown

At his sold-out show last night to close a weekend of performances at the Abrons Arts Center, countertenor Ju-eh hit high notes that were as disconcerting as they were spectacular. It was a profound and often profoundly funny display of awe-inspiring technique matched with witty banter and deep insight into the relationship between audience and performer. In an era where more and more, the act onstage becomes a mere backdrop for social media posturing by wannabes in the crowd, Ju-eh’s generous interaction with the audience had unusual resonance.

He made his entrance from the side of the stage with a soaring aria by Handel over a solo organ recording. Seated centerstage, his verbal sparring partner Hwarg worked a series of mixers and laptop. Although Ju-eh was wearing a skirt, he revealed in a lengthy Q&A after the show that he didn’t choose that to be genderqueer: rather, it was a historical reference to an era when pretty much everyone wore the same robe, or the same daishiki. The rest of the outfit – plain white shirt and blue thermal socks, his hair knotted with a stick – mirrored his background as a Chinese-born New York avant garde artist who’s built a career singing western opera.

He and his collaborator call this piece Living Dying Opera: he lives to sing it, but it’s also killing him sometimes. Self-doubt quickly became a persistent theme, most poignantly portrayed via a plaintive John Dowland version of an old English air. Ju-eh’s voice reached for the rafters with an imploring wail as he crouched in the corner in the darkness, holding a simple lamp, Diogenes-style. On one hand, it’s reassuring to know that someone with such prodigious talent can also be self-critical; on the other, if this guy isn’t satisfied with his achievements, how about us mere mortals?

After the show, he explained that he always wants audiences at his performances to feel loved. That assessment in many respects makes a lot of sense, in that a lot of people go to a performance to transcend, to see themselves in the music or the narrative and come out on the other side to a better place. What he didn’t address is that audiences all too often have other, similarly self-involved reasons for going out. Whether watching something on Facebook Live and texting all your ‘friends” about it confers the same status as taking a selfie at the actual show, with the performer somewhere in the background, is open to debate.

But even with all that talent and that resume, Ju-eh remains a fish out of water, even in the rarefied world of countertenors. He explained that most operatic roles written for men singing in a soprano’s range are antagonists: they’re supposed to sound evil. Ju-eh’s voice, and his style, don’t fit that mold: they’re especially robust, an endless, thick rope ladder reaching into the clouds, with a muscular vibrato to match. Although he’s working in a range usually limited to women, he doesn’t hear his own voice as female, and he shouldn’t: it’s uniquely his.

There were a lot of very amusing, sometimes coy, sometimes disarmingly down-to-earth extemporaneous moments where he and Hwarg discussed how well, or not so well, the show was progressing. There were also points where he took crowd members and put them centerstage, then continued singing from their seats. The most haunting of those moments was when he delivered a stark, aching verse and chorus of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child from the front row.

The after-show Q&A kept the audience as engaged as the performance itself did. The funniest revelation was that Ju-eh had come up with a brief interlude where he lay on the floor in order to give himself a breather rather than to add any kind of meaning. The man he’d pulled from the crowd to stand onstage – as “Mr. Mango” – confided that he’d encouraged Ju-eh to pick him because he wanted to find out if the other audience members had also been chosen randomly, or if they were shills. Over and over again, Ju-eh’s most existential questions of identity resonated more profoundly than anything else in this provocative encounter sponsored by the New York Chinese Culture Salon.

February 24, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Musical Tribute to America’s Best-Loved Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. The Notorious RBG is not the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, but her contributions to American jurisprudence arguably surpass those of any other female member and most of its men as well. With that in mind, let’s wish an equally long and influential career to Sonia Sotomayor – she and Ginsburg are needed there more than ever. Beyond RBG’s acerbity and ever-increasing value as a rare voice of reason, she’s beloved for her sense of humor. And like many jurists, she’s not averse to the spotlight, whether on or off the bench. For example, she’s performed in an opera, which makes more sense considering that her daughter-in-law is soprano Patrice Michaels.

While best known as an opera singer, Michaels is also a composer. Her suite The Long View:  A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs is the centerpiece of the album Notorious RBG in Song, streaming at Spotify. Backed by eclectic pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, Michaels traces the career of her mother-in-law through music as diverse as the cases RBG has had to hear. All the songs here are distinctly 21st century: the cellular phrasing of Philip Glass seem an obvious influence, along with jazz and the early, quasi-neoromantic Schoenberg. Michaels’ tendency here to shift between a bel canto delivery and sprechstimme also brings to mind Schoenberg’s art-songs as well as the operas of Missy Mazzoli.

Michaels’ song cycle begins with the brief, incisively insistent foreshadowing of Foresight, based on a 1943 letter from Justice William O. Douglas contemplating when the time might come to allow women to serve as clerks on the court – talk about low aspirations! Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949, an uneasily circling, spacious ballad, offers insight into how Ginsburg’s mom encouraged her aspirations while holding fast to tradition.

RBG’s father-in-law, Morris Ginsburg, gets a shout in Advice from Morris, balancing the neoromantic with hints of boogie-woogie. Michaels gives voice to RGB’s late husband, Martin D. Ginsburg in the wry lawyers-in-love anecdote On Working Together. Anita’s Story, an 80th birthday present for RBG is a much funnier narrative, colorfully illustrating a political awakening the jurist jumpstarted in one of her clerks.

The brief, Debussy-esque New York, 1961 offers insight into her daughter’s early years as a latchkey kid. The Elevator Thief is a more lighthearted, vividly imagistic picture of innocuous mischief from an era when kids had to come up with ways to entertain themselves instead of relying on their phones.

Dissenter of de Universe: Five Opinions and a Comment is a pastiche of quotable RGB statements on affirmative action, women’s and voting rights (the infamous Shelby v. Holder case), and a mouthful for Michaels to sing, but she’s game all the way through. In the suite’s scampering coda The Long View, Questions Answered, Michaels channels RBG’s tirelessness (more or less, anyway), irrepressible wit and gravitas: it’s the album’s most dramatic moment.

The album contains four more songs. Lori Laitman’s miniature Wider than the Sky is a gently pastoral setting of an Emily Dickinson poem. Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à La RBG captures a sardonic, unexpectedly acidic kitchen scenario. Stacy Garrop’s poignant aria My Dearest Ruth employs one of RBG’s husband’s final love letters. The final track is Derrick Wang’s You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, from his comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Like the other songs here, it’s a challenge to make music out of prose that, while entertaining. was hardly written to be sung. That’s where the comedy comes in; one suspects that the Notorious RBG would approve.

December 25, 2018 Posted by | Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare NYC Performance of a Centuries-Old French Epic

Music Before 1800’s monthly concerts give ambitious concertgoers a chance to hear rare works that sometimes haven’t been performed here for centuries..or maybe ever, in the hundreds of years since they were written. Most of these shows are at Corpus Christi Church at 529 W 121St St., just up the hil from the 125th St. stop on the 1 train. You can get in for as little as $10.

Has Marc Antoine Charpentier’s Christmas Pastorale, dating from around 1686, ever been performed in New York? If so, Music Before 1800 may have staged it. For serious verisimilitude, they’re bringing in French vocal and instrumental group Ensemble Correspondances to the church play it this Dec 16 at 4 PM. The ensemble – whose name means “connections” – recorded it a couple of years ago, and have a new album of Charpentier’s La Descent d’Orphee aux Enfers streaming at Spotify. It’s a good way to become acquainted with how they tackle Charpentier’s alternately lavish and spare dynamics, as well as his similarly diverse themes.

If you can get used to a Gallic group who roll their R’s, Spanish style, this album will immerse you in elegant, sometimes unexpected counterpoint, with striking yet comfortably balanced contrasts between the men’s and women’s voices. While this was not written in contemporary French, if you speak the language, the dialogue is remarkably easy to understand. While the suite’s theme may be on the hellish side, the music is anything but, with sinuous flute harmonies woven into lushly lilting strings and a thicket of viola da gamba, all imbued with the ambered, slightly astringent tone that period instruments deliver. As is the custom with digital recordings these days, the album is divided up into 26 separate tracks, many of them less than a minute long.

Soprano Caroline Weynants displays a stately but fetching, almost imploring delivery at times. As the protagonist’s journey becomes more perilous, the music grows more stark and austere, then tilts toward an epic grandeur. Breathlessly scampering nymphs, desperate shepherds, cowardly lovers, all sorts of torments and ghosts pass through the sonic frame. The way the group motor along in places, it becomes very clear that our hero and his entourage can’t wait to get the hell out. Lively operatic drama gives way to a brightly flurrying fanfare and then a moodily waltzing downward trajectory: Euridyce, show your face so this poor guy can go home! “Stay with us forever,” is the choir’s solemn response. The end is every bit as somber as the intro is buoyant.

December 9, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Perfectly Macabre Halloween Month Extravaganza at Green-Wood Cemetery

This past evening, in the the private catacombs buried away in the center of Green-Wood Cemetery, a woman’s high heels echoed over a murmur of sepulchral voices.

Those persistent footfalls belonged to an employee there. But the hushed swirl of voices weren’t coming from cemetery workers. While those sounds were on the quiet side, they were also very lively: the electricity of a sold-out crowd who’d gone deep into the realm of the dead to witness the first of three nights of the grand finale of the series called the Angel’s Share.

Drawing on classics by Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe, pianist Gregg Kallor and cellist Joshua Roman built a relentlessly turbulent ambience, less classic horror film score than mashup of postbop jazz, the Second Viennese School and a little Olympian Rick Wakeman bombast. Yet this performance of pieces from Kallor’s current work in progress, a Frankenstein opera, as well as his epic oratorio The Tell-Tale Heart were ultimately less about instrumental pyrotechnics than vocal ones. And what voices these were!

The greatest achievement of Kallor’s scores turned out to be the contrast between the stubborn unresolve of the music and the sheer anthemic catchiness of the vocal melodies. Yet with all the tension and often outright suspense between the two, they were hardly easy to sing. Emerging from (and then eventually skulking back into) the Herrmann family’s private crypt, baritone Joshua Jeremiah gave the Frankenstein monster dignity and gravitas, along with a crushing solitude that rang starkly true to Shelley’s novella. Tenor Brian Cheney, as Dr. Frankenstein, channeled intransigent denial, but his angst grew more harrowing as the dialogue with his creation grew more emotionally charged. The takeaway from Kallor’s interpretation of the story seems to be that if you create monsters, be careful lest you become one. As the suite wound up, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano also offered resolute poignancy as the doctor’s fiancee and quasi-foil.

Kallor then delivered another world premiere, solo, playing The Answer Is Yes, a dedication to Leonard Bernstein (who according to the program notes is a permanent Green-Wood resident). The title is a typically exuberant Bernstein quote from a series of Harvard lectures, and rang true as Kallor methodically shifted gears between distantly Stravinskian, balletesque leaps and bounds, saturnine lustre and a little bittersweet blues. So many other composers  inspired by Bernstein end up aping him. Kallor did nothing of the sort.

Cano then pulled out all the stops in The Tell-Tale Heart. Kallor and Roman edged closer to straight-ahead, chromatically slashing grand guignol as she gave voice to what appeared to be the entire short story. It was a dynamic tour de force that ultimately demanded every bit of available firepower and range-stretching technique. In between those extremes, she delivered furtive puzzlement, and grisly determination, and finally a knockout portrait of sheer madness. Whether modulating her soul-infused vibrato or belting with a crypt-shaking power, she put on a clinic in just about every emotion that could be evinced from this creepy character.

Without spoiling anything else, the costuming and lighting are spot-on and add immensely to the performance’s tension and suspense. Sometimes less is really more: in staging this, the crew really had to become intimate with the space.

The program repeats tomorrow and Friday, Oct 11-12 and is sold out. However, there is a wait list. In their inaugural season, this series became a huge hit with neighborhood folks, so if you are one of them, and ghoulish sounds are your thing, head up the hill to the cemetery and you might just get in.

Maybe you’ll even be able to take a refreshingly shadowy ten-minute walk back from the crypt, through the tombstones, afterward…despite this past evening’s crushing humidity, that stroll was as magical as the concert.

October 10, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Missy Mazzoli’s Grim, Grisly Great Plains Gothic Tour de Force

As a sold-out crowd filtered into the Miller Theatre Wednesday night, a strange interweave of short melodic phrases rose from the newly reopened orchestra pit, played more or less in turn by a large subset of International Contemporary Ensemble’s rotating multi-city cast. They weren’t warming up for the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s harrowing opera, Proving Up: the surreal, acidic exchange was foreshadowing in disguise. It only hinted at the ghastly narrative to come.

Royce Vavrek’s libretto, based on a Karen Russell short story, follows the misfortunes of a family of 19th century Nebraska homesteaders. The only possible hardship they don’t have to face is Indian raids: presumably the original occupants of the land to which the Zegner family hopes to claim the deed have already been murdered. A cast of seven, both the living and the dead, carry out a grim narrative, clinging to the illusion of a destiny they can manifest despite all odds against that ever happening. They’re forced to recycle things you never would. Such a sobering wake-up call, from an American dream that has historically eluded most of those who embraced it, could not be more relevant than it is now.

Mazzoli’s score mirrors the Zegners’ determination to prove to a Godot of a government inspector that they’ve fulfilled every surreal requirement to make the land their own. The melodies are elusive, often maddeningly so. Folksy themes gather momentary momentum, only to be twisted into cruel shadows of themselves. Mazzoli’s orchestration is sublimely strange and counterintuitive: a melodica and a big gong figure notably in the score alongside aching strings, spare brass, sepulchrally glittering piano and woodwinds.

The singers take similarly challenging melodies which seldom stayed in any one particular scale or mode and deliver a confidently chilling performance. John Moore gives poignancy to the family’s drunken, abusive yet fiercely populist patriarch. Soprano Talise Trevigne brings an immutably soaring strength to his wife, the family’s truest believer and possibly truest victim. As their son, riding across the lone prairie on a joke of a horse, Michael Slattery witnesses the mark of the beast on midwestern sentimentality  As a very differently imperiled brother, Sam Shapiro has to hold some contorted poses, and his ballet training doesn’t let him down. Bass Andrew Harris plays a grim reaper figure with relish. And Abgail Nims and Cree Carrico, as ghost Greek choir, channel diabolical schadenfraude. Director James Darrah’s decision to stage an exhumation in the midst of all the drama packs grand guignol wallop.

The opera’s totemic central symbol is a glass window, something every verifiable homestead needed to have. A question of provenance arises, with lethal results. As the story plays out, Mazzoli’s sinister, looming ambience is relentless. Her music has no shortage of troubling undercurrents, but this is the darkest and arguably best work she’s ever composed in a career that probably hasn’t even hit its high point yet.

Downward glissandos from both the singers and the orchestra cap off some of the night’s most emphatic crescendos, one crushing defeat after another. Solid grooves are dashed away in an endlessly daunting series of rhythmic shifts: nothing is solidly underfoot here. When the orchestra finally cuts loose with fullscale horror in the final act, the long build up to that point, through vast long-tone desolation, eerily twinkling piano, marionettish rhythmic jerks and sepulchral flickers throughout the ensemble, the takeaway is unmistakeable. We should be able to see the final results of this particular promise a mile away.

There’s one more performance tonight at the Miller, and that’s sold out. Programming here this season is characteristically diverse, from Brazilian rainforest nocturnes on Oct 9 at 6 PM, to one of the theatre’s signature composer portrait performances featuring the work and vocals of Kate Soper on the 27th at 8.

September 28, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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