Thursday, February 19, 2015
As a long-time West Sider, I've happily traipsed through the bowels of Brooklyn for my last few posts in pursuit of the most happening events in classical music, theater and opera. But sometimes, as L. Frank Baum and Judy remind us, there is truly no place like home. Last Wednesday and Thursday, I experienced two of the greatest recitals I have ever had the pleasure of hearing in my own backyard Halls -- that would be Mathew Polenzani at Alice Tully and Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie. Both artists have graced the world's most prestigious opera stages in roles ranging from ingénues to English queens, from love-sick juveniles to Emperors of Rome. But in a recital, the singer is laid bare. Sets, costumes and lights are kept to a bare minimum; no orchestra or choreography or other players will help to heighten a character's inner life: there is only the singer and accompaniment. I've seen the most seasoned opera star fall flat simply because there is no support, nothing to lean on, no "character" to hide behind. But when a solo artist is confident, when the music soars from the soul of one person to the heart of the audience, there is simply no musical experience comparable -- as in the everyday world, intimacy is what feeds us, is what brings meaning to life. From Evanston, Illinois, Polenzani has performed the most challenging tenor roles in houses all over the world, but this was the first time I've seen him in recital. Walking on stage in an impeccable dark grey suit, , Polenzani and his pianist, the legendary Julius Drake took their places. He opened with one of Beethoven's most famous songs, "Adelaide," and he had me at the first phrase, Einsam wandelt dein Freund im Frühlingsgarten, as his clarion, vital, sumptuous tenor gently caressed the gorgeous music. His voice easily filled the hall, echoing through the rafters, but seemed completely effortless, as if he were singing in my living room, his voice needing to fly, needing to be heard. This was also the first time I've heard the British accompanist and chamber musician Drake perform live (though he plays on probably half of my classical CD collection). He seemed to be playing a magic trick with the Steinway Grand -- turning it into a fortepiano, the kind of instrument Beethoven himself played. I don't know quite how he did it; it wasn't just a matter of playing softly or less sustained but somehow the entire tone of a modern piano was brought down to an 18th Century scale. After the Beethoven, Polenzani segued into eight songs by Liszt with Drake now offering virtuosic Listzian pyrotechnics. I foolishly thought that I had heard the full bloom of Polenzani's sound with the Beethoven but I was wrong. His voice opened up even further. It was in this cycle I realized the depth of his emotional commitment as each song took on a completely different sense of character and emotional journey, from a man in the glow of youth appreciating the sound of the lark to a soul in despair, experiencing the death of all hope. Technically the transitions from his lowest notes to the highest were as smooth and as subtle as they were dazzling; when he gently held a pianissimo note and sweetly guided it down step-wards, I held my breath. The German language has never sounded as lovely. I have read that Liszt's songs, works that I'm not as familiar with as I intend to be in the future, are the bridge to the art songs of the great Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. I think it's a tribute to an artist to make the listener need to explore more of the repertoire just experienced. After the intermission, Polenzani and Drake again enchanted in spirited songs by Satie and Ravel but the true revelation of the evening, the highlight of the recital composed of highlight after highlight was Polenzani's transcendent performance of Barber's monumental Hermit Songs. I have loved this song cycle for years but it wasn't until I heard him sing them, that I was finally convinced these songs, though originally premiered by Leontyne Price, truly belong to a tenor. What convinced me was the unmatched pathos in Polenzani's voice and the glorious colors he used. Recently I admit I've been partial to a darker tenor sound, the sound of a Jonas Kaufmann or Charles Castronovo. But hearing Polenzani, I remembered why I originally loved that pure, golden tenor sound. Plus, as strange as it seems, some Americans who can sing beautifully in German, French, Spanish and even Russian, cannot sing at all in their native language; for some reason, unknown to me, they insist on fake extended vowels and annoying guttural consonants. This is definitely not the case here. Polenzani sung beautifully in English, and I could feel the audience being drawn further into the recital experience by not having to read along with the translations. Despite finding unexpected glories in all of the Hermit Songs, Polenzani brought a particular ardor and insight to the final piece in the cycle, "The Desire For Hermitage -- the brilliant climax to an unforgettable evening. Bravo, tenore! Great artists still have plenty to impart long after their peak years (just look at the Matisse cutouts so recently at MoMa). But there is nothing as exciting at seeing a world-class artist, maybe the best in the world, at the height of her career. Such was the case with the incandescent Joyce DiDonato. Oh yes. Instead of performing in the vast Stern Auditorium at Carnegie, which she sold out only a few weeks ago, on Thursday evening she was a "guest star" at the Brentano String Quartet concert in the 599-seat Zankel Hall. (All this while preparing La Donna del Lago at the Met.) The Brentano Quartet dazzled the audience in the first half of the program with a scholarly Charpentier interpretation and a definitive Debussy String Quartet in G Minor. After the break, DiDonato appeared in a stunning black-and-white outfit, the standing-room-only audience, which I have to assume was really there to hear her, embraced her with open arms. She then introduced three songs that had been created by the Lullaby Project; created by the Weill Music Institute, the Project visits women show are dwelling in New York City hospitals, homeless shelters, and at Rikers Island and invites them to write personal lullabies for their children in collaboration with professional artists. The songs, "Hopes and Dreams for My Children (Elsa Negron with Matt Aronoff) "Dream Big" (Shaylor Canteen with Thomas Cabaniss) and "Peace" (Tamilles Fernandes with Deidre Rodman Struck) were mesmerizing. The conviction DiDonato brought to these heartfelt compositions was another tribute to her artistry. Not only can she sing convincingly in any language she choices, but her diction and sensitivity to vernacular lyrics (Will you play soccer just like your daddy does/Am I squishing you when I sleep at night?) lifted the compositions to that rarified world of art song. Similar to the Polenzani recital, she saved the best for last: the premiere of American composer Jake Heggie's monumental "Camille Claude: Into the Fire," a glorious if heart-wrenching new composition, with words by his longtime collaborator, Gene Scheer, As Strauss's "Rosenkavalier" reveled in the waltzes and the schlag of Vienna, as Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" danced to the waltzes and "perpetual sunsets" of Scandinavia, "Into the Fire," suggested by sculptures of Claudel, is filled with sad, heartfelt and at times disturbing waltzes consumed with the passions and longing of rejected lovers, music that could have been heard on the streets and café's of Rodin's Paris. The piece begins with a shimmering high A, at which point the string quartet seemed to be tuning up or metaphorically preparing for life as the first gorgeous waltz emerged, slowly at first, but then with more and more rhythmic, intense ferocity before it broke down again, just as DiDonato entered softly but gloriously with the opening line, "Last night I went to sleep completely naked, which seemed somehow to encompass Claudel's entire life. The warmth and profundity of DiDonato's buttery lower register was gloriously explored in the second song, "La Valse" while her subtle soft notes were on display in "Shakuntala," the most rhythmic of pieces. The composition moved from strength to strength as Claudel sank deeper and deeper, musically and verbally, into despair, finally ending up with the Epilogue, 16 years into her confinement at the Montdevergues Asylum. The solo violin (the astonishing Mark Steinberg) seemed to portray a friend who came to visit, talking to Claudel. DiDonato sang, "Thank you for remembering me", and her pianissimo was radiant. The entire quartet picked up the valse triste as DiDonato ended with another almost unbearable, "Thank you for remembering me." And silence. There was nothing more to say, or hear.
Nice Jewish Music When American song writer Jerome Kern announced he was going to write a show based on Marco Polo, an enthusiastic reporter asked, “Mr. Kern, your new musical is based on an Italian who crossed the Alps and then the Leviathan desert, got to Mongolia, then China and finally returned home to Italy. For heaven’s sake, what type of music will you compose?” Kern answered without missing a beat, “Nice Jewish Music.” (Oh, I hope that’s true.) Last Monday, I went to my favorite venue in the city, SubCulture (160 seats-the friendliest staff and a bar that actually closes during the performances) to see CONTACT! a Co-Presentation of 92nd Street Y and the New York Philharmonic, the seminal series dedicating to performing new music. This concert was called New Music from Israel, and yes it was “nice Jewish music!” Substituting for an indisposed Lisa Batiashvili was the erudite Yotam Haber, a composer I deeply admire, Israeli or not. In fact, I knew the music of all four of the composers but had never once thought of three of them as particularly Israeli, although somewhere in my mind I guess I knew they were all born there. As Haber took pains to explain in his welcome speech, Israel today is a melting pot; what it means to be Israeli is completely different than what I meant forty years ago. He joked that what was being presented was a Me'orav yerushalmi, or Jerusalem Mix, a grilled mix of meats that is often served before a meal. He talked about the dilemma of writing “nationalistic” music. Before the twentieth century most classical music did indeed have a nationalistic sound, perhaps not because of a composer’s personal politics but simply because traveling to other parts of Europe, let alone the world, was exceedingly difficult, and for geographical reasons composers were mostly exposed to music of their compatriots. A national sound developed almost by default. In today’s world of instant down-loads from iTunes, or actually ever since air travel became the norm, the nationalist sound of various regions became diffuse; a composer almost has to consciously decide to write music that would be deemed nationalistic. The first composer presented Joseph Bardanashvili was born in Georgia in 1948 and didn’t move to Israel until 1995. Since then he has been one of the countries most performed composers and it’s easy to see why judging from the movement selected from his String Quartet No. 1, Quasi danza macabre. As the music began, I felt it couldn’t be less Israeli if it tried. The danza kicked off with a riotous tango, the rhythms directly from Argentina but the harmonies directly from Bardanashvili’s fertile imagination. It was as if Astor Piazolla, suddenly inspired, discovered Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky. The syncopations, the disjointed rhythms and the delicious harmonies made for a perfect opening. But suddenly as the first section dissolved into the second by way of an astounding cello cadenza (played by the Nathan Vickery,) we high-tailed it out of Argentina, and via El Al landed directly at Ben Gurion Airport. The music turned decidedly modal, with the aching and longings of a wandering Jew, and we were smack in the Old City of Jerusalem. The cello and occasionally the viola kept the incessant beat with a macabre pedal tone as the two violins danced high above with shimmering, but steely harmonics. The main theme returned at the end and the piece came to a rousing climax with a reprise of the infectious tango, the perfect way to open this me'orav yerushalmi. Next up was Haber’s own piece, and though I adore Haber’s minimalist style with his post-Adams tunefulness and post-Glass syncopations this piece, Estro Poetico-armonico II was a dense concentration of sounds and pitches far removed from anything I’ve heard of his before. Suggested by the story of Benedetto Marcello, a Venetian contemporary of J.S. Bach’s who hid in the Synagogue transcribing the ancient melodies, Haber took snippets of these tunes and compressed them into musical atoms. This piece was an interesting contradiction: the densest musically as well as the sparest. I loved how the “tunes” seemed to surface through the lowest notes of the bass clarinet (Lino Gomez) and then swirl into the modular trillings’ of the violins. Shulamit Ran, the second woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for music was perhaps the most well-known of the quartet although her piece, Mirage for five players seemed to me a minor work from a great composer. I was most looking forward to hearing the piece by Avner Dorman, the composer I would have mentioned if someone asked me to name and Israeli composer. I was lucky enough to hear his outrageous piece at the NY Phil, Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! in 2009 featuring the now (sadly) disbanded Perca-duo, one of the most sensational performance of a new piece I’ve ever heard. Dorman did not let me down with his, aptly titled, Jerusalem Mix. Blasting off with the rhythms of New York with more than a touch of Bernstein and Gershwin, the syncopated phrases engulfed the audience and took us on a virtually tour of the night-life of New York City. But then just as suddenly as in the Bardanashvili, we were in Tel Aviv with Marc Nuccio on the clarinet and Sherry Sylar, oboe, inviting us to a Jewish Wedding. Of course, with Dorman, this is no let’s-all-improvise-on-D-minor-and-dance-a-hora-type music, but a deeply contrapuntal excursion into the vernacular. All through the evening I kept trying to hear any sort of unifying sound that would link these three disparate composers. It seems that in all of the pieces, surrounded by vibrant rhythms of dance and exotic colors was an aura of sadness, loneliness and desperation. I wonder if that’s the “nice Jewish music.” And a postscript: Before the CONTACT! concert, I went to the York Theater on Lexington (which is completely unmarked, can they please fix that?) for a staged reading of an operatic version The Sleeping Beauty. The composer, Benjamin Wenzelberg, age 15, has been working on the opera since he was 11. He won the 2014 BMI Student Composer Award and a 2015 National Young Arts Foundation Merit winner. He sings in the Met Children’s chorus, was a composer at Tangelwood last summer, studies composition and conducting at Juilliard and I saw him as Miles in the NYCO production of The Turn of the Screw. I never use the “G” word, but if I did, I would burden Wenzelberg with it. So how was the opera? Wonderful. This was a true opera full of recitatives, choruses and arias that define and delineate character but most importantly it is music driven, not surprising for a young composer who grew up singing at the Met, but still. Plus Wenzelberg enlisted his “friends,” to perform, nice to have friends like the legendary Soprano Lauren Flanigan who was at the top of her game. Watch out for this kid!
Saturday, January 31, 2015
about to go live on Huff Post In With The New Leonard Bernstein said, “The nineteenth century dies hard.” By that he meant his American concert-going audience would rather hear the lush, romantic music of over a hundred years ago —Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Verdi — than the angular, anguished music of the twentieth —Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich. Personally I love 20th century music, especially Britten, Bartók, and Ives, but when it comes to the classical contemporary concert music of this very moment, what composers have written from 2000 to today, I admit to a gaping hole in my knowledge (although I do know and love the contemporary opera scene). My New Year’s resolution last month was to address that gap. So, I boarded the Q train to Atlantic Avenue in uber-hip downtown Brooklyn to revisit the 400-seat jewel-box theater known as Roulette, the gorgeous and red-hot center of the contemporary music universe. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glen-roven/my-brooklyn-bridge-the-pa_b_6378252.html The moment I took my seat I had a panic attack. There on the stage, in addition to a set-up for a traditional string quartet, was a bright red toy piano. Allow me to explain. A few months ago, in a nascent attempt to experience more contemporary music, I attended a concert featuring “the foremost virtuoso of the toy piano.” This artist performed for twenty minutes, which felt to me like twenty years. Each tinny note was a pinprick to my soul. My concert-going buddy Christopher didn't speak to me for a month. As the audience at Roulette filled up, my dread began to ease. I was thrilled that the orchestra was quite a full one, allowing me to breath freely and stop my silent prayer of “Please don’t be a toy piano concerto, please, please, please.” I was in luck. First on the program was Quatuor Bozzini, a Candian string quartet, three parts woman one part man. The program describes the group as “an original voice in new, contemporary, experimental and classical music.” Their first piece Contact; Vault (1997), despite indecipherable program notes by the very talented Canadian composer, Martin Arnold (who is also a landscape designer but, perhaps, not a writer) was an intensely moving composition with a single melodic line extended over the entire piece. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a softer piece played in a concert hall. It reminded me of an Agnes Martin painting where the stillness and quiet of her delicate pencil marking bring a much-needed sense of calm to our boisterous, exterior world. Even at its loudest, the piece never graduated beyond a quiet piano, and I particularly liked how the first violin played the subtle but angular melody while the second violin doubled the first using softly plucked pizzicato, the plucked sound disappearing instantly while the bowed notes lingered in the air. For their next piece, the members of Quatuor Bozzini all put in earpieces which were clearly connected to two toy pianos on stage (there was a second, black piano that, in my panic, I had not seen). OK, I told myself, Remain Calm. You are facing not one but two amplified toy pianos. Stay strong. I was happily surprised. The piece, Hitchcock Études, turned out to be a multi-media composition, about as contemporary as it gets, and yes, it was about Hitchcock! Projected on the screen behind the players was a mashed up, Vine-style sequence of well known scenes from the British master of suspense: The Birds, Psycho, Vertigo, the familiar images playing over and over, in slow motion, backwards and forwards, cut up and re-cut, complete with a sliced-and-diced Bernard Hermann score playing while at the same time Quatuor Bozzini played Nicole Lizée’s equally arresting score, punctuated by — here it comes — the childish plunk of amplified, twin toy pianos. And surprise of surprises, the toy pianos were a wonderful addition to the string sound of the quartet (played by Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung, momentarily putting down their violins) and the string orchestra of Hermann’s score. This piece had the players (and composer) interact with “the lost, forgotten or even dead icons, simultaneously breathing new life and emotions in the function and storyline.” The quartet also performed James Tenny’s Koan (1984), a minimalist, microtonal creation, the perfect way to end the act. After the intermission came the act that had drawn me to Roulette: String Noise, a violin duo consisting of husband and wife Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris. Even I, with my limited knowledge of “what’s happening,” knew this dynamic duo. As did the audience for they were greeted with a thundering ovation, more common for American Idols than classical musicians. String Noise premiered a new piece written for them by super-nova, interdisciplinary composer Spence Topel, an influential force in the contemporary music and sound art scene, direct from Dartmouth College where he teaches in the Department of Music and the Digital Music’s Program. Topel’s piece needed no toy piano or deconstructed film: in fact, Palavers (2014) was the only piece on the program that, because of its astonishing emotional depth, I felt could easily fill the stage at Carnegie or Avery Fisher Hall. “Palaver” is defined as 1) Talk that is not important or meaningful, and 2) Excitement and activity caused by something that is not important. Topel’s choice of title must be either ironic or counter-intuitive as there is nothing “not important” about this piece. Far from a dialogue of inconsequential chatter, this composition offered a conversation as intense, witty and at times as violent as the dialogue in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, its two violins competing and counterpointing like Martha and George. In fact in the first section of the piece, Ms. Harris’s bow struck the strings with such ferocity that an unexpected puff of resin exploded from her instrument and sailed toward the ceiling. (I wondered if that was notated in the score: “Strike the strings hard so to cause a resin explosion”?) In the hands of these virtuosos, Palaver explored the life of a particularly vivid relationship: the tender courtship, the passion and hunger of new love, the intensity and catharsis of fighting, (complete with string pizzicatos thundering as the hammer blows do in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony) the reconciliations and, finally, peace and acceptance. This piece was “absolute music” and absolute joy. String Noise also performed Dan Siegler’s “Read the Following Before Playing,” which challenged the duo to accompany pre-taped dialogue that they had never heard before. Fascinating. September (2013) by Petr Bakla was an exploration of open strings and high stopped notes, with “strangely meandering tonal constellations,” another tour de force. The vivid finale of the program was an excerpt from Monodologie XXVI (2013) a rollicking roller-coaster of a composition by Bernhard Lang which will also be on String Noise’s first CD to be released in the Spring. I can’t wait. Glen Roven
Monday, December 29, 2014
Emmy-award winning composer, Artistic Director of GPRrecords Email My Brooklyn Bridge: The Party's Not Over Posted: 12/29/2014 1:42 pm EST Updated: 1 hour ago Share 8 Tweet 9 0 Comment 0 Share on Google+ The one thing the blogosphere does not need is another article about trendy, hip, ironic, facially-haired Brooklyn. In fact some recent articles now toll the death knell of the borough, saying that Brooklyn is passé; it seems that Queens is the new Brooklyn. That fact notwithstanding, I've always been rather late to the party, and although I'd had my share of evenings at BAM and the wonderful concerts at Bargemusic, it wasn't until recently that I discovered the depth of serious music, opera and theater happening throughout the borough. I never felt comfortable embracing Brooklyn. Flatbush, decidedly un-hip (at least in the '70's) was my ancestral homeland, the place I had to escape, although the escape wasn't all that physically dangerous as I simply took the D-train to the bright lights of Manhattan. So every time this prodigal son returns, I always feel certain trepidation: will memories I've successfully repressed all these years rear their ugly heads as I walk down Atlantic Avenue? Recently, I was invited to a recording of Yotam Haber's new work; Haber is a composer who's work I deeply admire, so I enlisted a friend with a car and we made the trek across the bridge to Roulette. Despite the world-class contemporary classical musicians who regularly perform there, I was completely unaware of this venue. I learned that the original Roulette, a bastion of avant-garde music, was in Jim Stanely's TriBeCa loft. (Stanley, a renowned trombonist, was a force in the hip, downtown loft music scene in the 1980's, another party I'd have been happy to come late to, had I known it existed!) Roulette has moved often over the decades, but in 2011 it settled into what now seems a permanent home: Memorial Hall in Boerum Hill. Entering through a completely non-descript set of iron doors, you are welcomed into a small but friendly lobby, artfully renovated. The real treat of Roulette is the performance space itself: an intimate gem of an old ballroom/theater, a tiny balcony spanning the perimeter, anchored to the ceiling by skinny, frail looking pipes. Despite extensive on-line research I couldn't find the original purpose of the hall/theater, although it was obviously built as a performance space so I imagine it could have been an Elks Lodge or a Kiwanis Meeting Hall. It rather reminded me of Wilton's Music Hall, the oldest Music Hall in London, also now meticulously renovated. On stage, an entire orchestra fit very comfortably, which is unusual for a venue that only holds about 250 seats on the orchestra level. Furthermore, this wasn't just any orchestra. It was Contemporaneous, the premier orchestra dedicated to promoting and performing new music. As I arrived they were finishing rehearsing a piece by Thomas Adès and Haber's piece was ready to be recorded. Haber, in addition to numerous awards and commissions, was for some years the Artistic Director of MATA, the organization founded by Philip Glass and others to commission and present new works. His music, based loosely on a minimalist style, is hauntingly beautiful and seductively hypnotic. The piece I heard, "We Were All," had all the Haber trademarks I love: the melodic loops of phrases, the sensual tonalities and the completely original harmonic language. Based on "Cherries," a poem by Andrea Cohen, the piece started with three singers singing separate, staccato syllables in a quasi-baroque style; these syllabic organisms then cautiously migrated into the orchestra, instrument by instrument, until a great crescendo heralded the climax, the entire orchestra elaborating on the tiny phrases, timpani's banging, trumpets blaring, followed by a gradual decrescendo as the syllabic phrases dissipated to their original state. It was a gorgeous, explosive piece: the creation of the universe, if you will, in less than fifteen minutes. One incredibly important feature of Haber's music, to me anyway, is his sensitivity to the audience. His music always sounds fresh and cutting edge, but the audience is inevitably seduced as opposed to being bewildered or worse, indifferent. After the recording at Roulette, my next point of call was LoftOpera's production of The Barber of Seville. Happily, LoftOpera is only two years old, so I was only 700 days late to this particular party. Their Barber was performed in another incredible environment, The Green Building, a gorgeous multi-use space in Carroll Gardens, complete with exposed brick walls and soaring wooden beam ceilings lit by elegant chandeliers. It was set up rather like the Parish House next to St John the Divine's where I recently saw Britten's Curlew River. How can you not have an enormous smile on your face when you walk into a venue like this offering Barber, and find positioned near the entrance an actual barber chair complete with hairdresser offering free trims to anyone who signs up on the chalkboard? Those who didn't didn't need a haircut, could go outside to the enormous beer-garden and get a bit sloshed for Rossini. Of course, an opera has to be judged on its musical merits, not its beauticians, and this production was sensational. I had already seen the Met's production with superstars Laurence Brownlee, Christopher Maltmen and the enchanting Isabel Leonard who is the greatest Rosina alive today. There is probably no better cast available in the world, so I was surprised and delighted to hear the youthful OperaLoft cast completely hold their own in spite of a forbidding comparison. Although I wasn't familiar with José Adán Pérez, his Figaro was a delight. Even without checking his bio, it was clear he had performed this role many times; he knew it inside and out. His singing was robust and athletic, easily navigating the treacheries of the famous "Largo al factotum," (that's the Bugs Bunny "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro," that every non-opera aficianado sings when asked if he knows opera.) The true star of the evening was a super-nova on the classical scene, Jonathan Blalock as Almaviva. Anyone who reads music reviews is aware of Blalock's ascent, as he can't seem to help but get raves from everyone from Alex Ross to the Anthony Tommasini. This is the first time I'd seen him in a role and this guy can sing! And act! And is strikingly handsome as well, a singer who has it all. He negotiated the extremely challenging bel canto sections with great dexterity and a technique that belies his young age; the audience burst into well-deserved applause halfway through his first aria. The production itself was sublime, a real treat. The audience sat in two sections facing each other across stage platform that looked like a large dining table and ran the length of the hall. That's where most of the opera was performed, except when the action shifted to the upper reaches of the hall's fire escapes, where Rosina was held captive by Bartolo or when the ensemble ran through the audience. The second most important thing about any Barber after the singing is that the opera be funny. Although the cast at the Met was wonderful, the heavy handed-production, complete with unfunny cartoon anvils falling on people and outsized pumpkins (oranges?) being tossed about, was anything but. This production (despite the staged Overture with some sort of chamber maid chasing a butterfly -- will directors please stop staging the Overture!) was hysterical. Every joke that Rossini wrote landed, and the director Laine Rettmer directed the comedy with the lightest of touches despite the inherent slapstick of the libretto. Of course, it's infinitely easier to make a joke work in a tiny venue than in the vast enormity of the Met, but still, this is a company to be reckoned with; I can't wait to see what they have in store for next year. The last leg of my Brooklyn odyssey was a return trip to the Theater for a New Audience. I was again completely late to the original party of this company having never seen them in Manhattan. Happily I saw a magnificent Lear there last season, vastly superior to the ponderous and self-indulgent Frank Langella production at BAM, and this season I recently saw Tambourlaine, Parts I and II, staring the magnificent John Douglas Thompson. One of the most wonderful things about a night with this company is simply walking into the spanking new Polonsky Shakespeare Center. The program notes say that the theater was inspired by the Cottleslow Theatre of Britain's National Theater, but having been to the Cottleslow hundreds of times, I can say that this open, airy, audience friendly environment is 100% more inviting than any of the brutal-esque monstrosities that comprise the National Theater, Cotteslow included. It's a wonderful feeling knowing that prior to seeing a performance you are going into a clean, well-lit, elegantly designed environment with a formidable canteen and comfortable seats. Despite 30 years of theater going, I'd never seen Tambourlain, and I honestly can't recall any opportunities to do so. Knowing it was such a seminal play in its own right, not to mention a huge influence on the young Shakespeare, I eagerly bought a ticket. I was disappointed to see the audience not nearly full, despite the raves. (Will Manhattan-ites still not make the trek? Or are they already in Queens?) The performance was directed by the great Shakespearean Michael Boyd, who achieved an amazing task: directing a troupe of American actors in an Elizabethan drama and creating a completely naturalistic style that had its own "American" rhythm without pandering to the text or history of the play. Tambourlain was gory, poetic, riveting, exhilarating, all the things their Lear had been a year ago. Ah, Brooklyn. What else have I been missing? No matter, I'm back now and am on the mailing lists of Roulette, LoftOpera and Theater for the New City. You can go home again.
Thursday, December 18, 2014
Rob Kapilow: Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express; Dr. Seuss’s Gertrude McFuzz. Sung by Nathan Gunn, with the Polar Express Children’s Choir (Polar); sung by Isabel Leonard, with Olivia Lombardi as Gertrude (Gertrude); Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra. GPR. $19.99. The dreams are for the youngest listeners rather than the oldest on a new GPR recording of two works by Rob Kapilow, one based on Chris Van Allsburg’s moving Christmas dream/fable, The Polar Express, and the other taking off from a much lighter fantasy by Dr. Seuss, Gertrude McFuzz – a work that does, however, have a moral as clear as Van Allsburg’s. This is a CD for families already familiar with the two works that Kapilow sets, because the text is almost identical to that in the books but, of course, does not have the pictures that render these two very different works so intriguing and enthralling in printed form. Kapilow is especially sensitive to Van Allsburg’s pacing: listeners can easily hear the places where the composer moves from one page of the book to the next. The music is supportive of the narration but also has a delightful character all its own. In The Polar Express, for instance, snatches of Christmas carols are woven into the musical tale, while in Gertrude McFuzz, little bits of well-known tunes are included in a score that nicely characterizes the participants – Gertrude’s Uncle Dake, for example, gets a jazzy beat, while Gertrude herself is accompanied by rather whiny notes that neatly complement her temper tantrums. The performers are all first-rate, not over-intellectualizing any of the words but not talking down to the intended audience, either. Nathan Gunn narrates with seriousness befitting that of an older man looking back on childhood while retaining a sense of wonder and communicating it to children, while Isabel Leonard offers bounce and brightness and just enough snottiness to show a narrative disapproval of the demands of Olivia Lombardi, who gets her comeuppance in typically gratifying and amusing Seussian fashion. This CD is not inexpensive, considering the fact that it runs just 34 minutes and that CDs of books’ readings are sometimes included at no extra charge within the books themselves. But the fine music and wholehearted involvement of all the performers make the disc a very worthwhile seasonal gift, especially for families that see it as a complement to The Polar Express and Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (in which Gertrude’s tale, and tail, appear).
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
One of the more eagerly heralded recordings of this holiday season is Rob Kapilow’s Polar Express and Gertrude McFuzz, concert adaptations of the beloved books written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg and Dr. Seuss (respectively, of course). Aiming to engage young audiences with music that’s fun but not dumb, Kapilow has composed lively scores with plenty of appeal for grownups, too, and he mixes child singers (a chorus in Polar Express, a preternaturally red-hot jazz-baby soloist named Olivia Lombardi in Gertrude) with Opera World grown-ups Nathan Gunn (in Polar Express) and Isabel Leonard (in Gertrude). Especially when seen in excerpts on video, Leonard’s performance really makes you wish you could just bring her home and let her do her stuff for you. She’s a busy woman, of course, so in all likelihood you’ll have to settle for buying the album. But it’s spectacular work in any case. Even having seen her as Rossini’s Cinderella with Fort Worth Opera in 2009, and as Mozart’s Cherubino at the Met this fall (among other roles), I was only barely prepared for the wit and charm — and vivid acting — she brings to bear as Gertrude’s Narrator. “Rob created a very fun, funky, musically narrative score for the book,” Leonard told me in a phone interview several weeks ago. “It’s perfect for kids, and that’s what this whole CD is about, not only bringing classical music to kids but bringing classically trained voices who can do a variety of things with their voices, to show kids what’s possible.” Mezzo Isabel Leonard For Leonard, the Gertrude score represented an opportunity “to play with my voice, to sing in a classical style and maybe in a more musical-theater style and jazzy style … a combination of colors and different styles,” she says. “Sometimes when you’re entrenched in the opera world, you forget what it is that you can do, in general. I’ve done jazz and musical theater, and it was great to put it all together.” Renowned as the host of NPR’s What Makes It Great?, Kapilow has adapted Dr. Seuss before — his Green Eggs and Ham is widely considered a contemporary classic — and he has a pretty good idea what makes Seuss great. His music exults in the author’s imaginative use of language, and, much though we love the illustrations in the book, Kapilow rises to the challenge of substituting sound for image. He provides his own ingenious surprises, characters and curlicues and improbable landscapes, until we feel as if we’re listening to the pictures. “[Kapilow’s] vocal writing has a range, so the singer has to have range and good rhythm, good funk in your voice,” Leonard says. “I was able to do that, and play around with accents and being goofy, and really, really telling the story, not just by way of beauty — which is what you hear so much in opera — but even more with the texture of sounds and words.” Both Polar Express and Gertrude McFuzz are a particularly effective kind of composition for young audiences. They’re not didactic, explaining what a woodwind is; instead, they’re exemplary. These pieces demonstrate an original way to tell a story, and they showing that music isn’t just for Wotans and Valkyries and venerable conductors with great profiles, because kids can take part, too. You wind up with gateways to more and more music — which will seem less intimidating, because kids already have a sense of the potential pleasures and rewards. As a parent — and as a former child — Leonard describes music education as “paramount, just like any arts education,” and she’s worked with children and young adults many times. “They’re still at that stage where they’re an open book: they can be inspired, and they’re still willing to be inspired,” she says. As audiences, kids “respond to something that’s true, their response is very genuine. It’s something they don’t forget, so they’re impacted on a level that really lives with them, for the rest of their life, most likely.” Gertrude McFuzz does contain a moral — and wouldn’t we all like to be smart enough to know what’s enough? But Leonard was smart enough to have a good time with Kapilow’s score. “You can’t go far from the microphone” in the recording studio, she says, “but I was definitely rocking it out and having fun. It’s that kind of music. It’ll get little kids and older kids up on their feet, bouncing around and having fun with it.”
Friday, December 12, 2014
December 12, 2014 5:17 pm Richard Fairman Music from the ongoing collaborative project talks not only of sadness, but also comfort and resilience arious Artists An Aids Quilt Songbook: Sing for Hope (GPR Records) Do a good deed for Christmas. Like the Aids Memorial Quilt, the Aids Quilt Songbook is an ongoing collaborative project. This new disc features 20 songs, many directly on the subject of Aids, by as many composers and performers, including some illustrious names like Joyce DiDonato, Nicole Cabell and Anthony Dean Griffey. The music talks of sadness, but also comfort and resilience, and the disc serves as an absorbing survey of American song today. In addition, Sharon Stone reads two poems. All profits go to amfAR, the Foundation for Aids Research. © THE FINANCIAL TIMES LTD 2014 FT and ‘Financial Times’ are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd. An Aids Quilt Songbook:... £7.49 Shop now 1