New Life for Old Subjects
(c) 2008 by Leonard J. Lehrman, Critic-at-Large,
It's an old truism that if you want to bring something new to an audience, you've a leg up if you start with something at least partially familiar, whether it's a classic poem, a play, or historical figure. Most of the items seen in New York this season fall into that category.
The New Music Connoisseur, v. 16 #1, pp. 16-18
Persian-American Berliner-New Yorker pianist Soheil Nasseri opened his Beethoven/Schumann recital at Weill Hall Sept. 21, 2007 with the world premiere of the promising-sounding "Lullaby of War" (2007) by Haskell Small (b. 1948), narrated, with two false starts, by Daniel Hendricks Simon. Characterized by the composer, who was present, as "an expression of outrage... and an offering of compassion," it utilizes 6 well-chosen poems, ranging from Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman to Yvan Goll, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and the contemporary Joy Harjo (b. 1951), and Paula Tatarunis. From the opening "War Is Kind," read without irony, it was clear that the work deserved more rehearsal, at least on the part of the speaker. The performance by the pianist seemed committed enough, though the rest of the program could have used a bit more Weltschmerz. The Schumann First Sonata came across as rather unpassionate, the Beethoven Bagatelles overly smooth (#1), un-agogic (#8) and a mishmosh (#5), with bass consistently underemphasized.
The following weekend, at Symphony Space's Nimoy Theater, Julia Ward Howe, of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" fame, was the subject of "a dramatic monologue, op. 73," aka "an operatic monodrama" by Henry Papale for soprano and 4 instruments, based entirely on her letters. Again I found the idea promising, having written both a monodrama (after Sholokhov) and a cantata based on letters (Julius & Ethel Rosenberg) that have had multiple performanes. But in this case, though the subject was a poet, somehow the composer/librettist found more inspiration in the poet's life than in any of her poetry, none of which he ended up using. Other self-imposed limitations involved a complete absence of thirds, sixths, or any triadic harmonies in the musical composition. The resulting sameness carried over into the performance by Christine Sperry, Sept. 26 (Jeannie Im was the soloist Sept. 29), in which places and dates were sung with the same tone as emotional passages. A Q&A after the show with scholar Valarie H. Ziegler and the composer explored the fascination modern feminists have with the subject's sexual identity questions, typical perhaps for an age when a biographee's achievements (in the abolitionist and suffragist movements, and the creation of Mothers' Day as an anti-war holiday) are subsumed pathographically into psychological ruminations bordering on narcissistic.
Writing a work to complement sextets by Strauss (from the opera Capriccio) and Brahms (#2 in G, op. 36) is no small task, for which BargeMusic commissioned Russell Platt (b. 1965), who responded with his "String Sextet with Voice (Transport to Summer), op. 26," on 8 poems by Wallace Stevens, premiered there with soprano Nancy Allen Lundy Feb. 15-17, 2008. Ambitious, expansive, in a pervasive E major, the work feels transitional, and it is. Three of the movements were originally written for string trio. Except for the penultimate movement, which is a cappella, all felt as though they might benefit from even greater forces, like a whole string orchestra. Ms. Lundy is a valiant performer, last heard struggling through David Diamond's demanding "Hebrew Melodies" (a cycle Helene Williams & I coached with him and recorded on Albany). She struggled here too, but made the work sound as though it had been written for her, which in fact it seems to have been.
Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs of Continuum also have a talent for making works sound as though they were written for them. That same weekend, at Merkin Hall, Feb. 16, 2008 they paid tribute to the music of Shostakovich's colleague, and muse, composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006), ranging in emotions from dire to dour, opening with the Symphony #4 "Prayer" (1987) featuring mezzo-soprano Alison Tupay accompanied by trumpet, percussion and piano, and closing with Symphony #5 "Amen" (1990), featuring Philip Booth intoning in Old Church Slavonic, accompanied by oboe, violin, trumpet, tuba and percussion. In between came Composition #2 "dies irae" (1973) for 11 players; the Violin-Piano Sonata (1952), the one piece with a clear formal sense, ending with the bow knocking on the wood of the violin (played by Renée Jolles) - which Laurel Fay reminded me had received its U.S. premiere at Cornell in the 1970s; and most impressive: Piano Sonata #6 (1988), featuring fingered and elbowed clusters (no fists), played without score by Ms. Seltzer.
Also that same weekend, Feb. 17, 2008, Downtown Music Productions paid tribute to poet Langston Hughes. Pianist Mimi Stern-Wolfe accompanied seven vocalists - including the excellent quartet of Allison Semmes, Roz Woll, David Robinson and Ivan Thomas - along with clarinetist Liz Player and cellist Kermit Moore, husband of Dorothy Rudd Moore, one of 11 composers represented. Three of them were present, including David Hollister and William Mayer. The latter's quartet/choral setting of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is a treasure. Though so billed, this was not a world premiere - Harold Rosenbaum's singers have also performed it as a quartet. John Musto and Ricky Ian Gordon... should have been there. Also missed was music by the composer of more Langston Hughes settings than anyone else, Elie Siegmeister (1909-91). Look for that deficit to be made up next year, the centennial of his birth. (See events listing, elsewhere in this issue.)
A world premiere by Alla Borzova (b. 1961) on 7 classic poems by the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov was the high point of the Da Capo Chamber Players concert, "Da Capo in Song," two days later, Feb. 19, 2008. Tenor Steven Ebel, accompanied by the 5 Da Capo players (Patricia Spencer, flute; Meighan Stoops, clarinet; Curtis Macomber, violin; André Emelianoff, cello; Blair McMillen piano), conducted by the composer, worked very hard at pronouncing the Russian properly, which is always extremely difficult for anyone dependent on a transliteration, rather than the original Cyrillic, that was considerately printed in the program, though preceding rather than side by side with English translations, mostly by Eugene Kayden, a few by the tenor and the composer. The cycle, melodious and listenable, notwithstanding the often witty satirical distortions of conventional patterns, was given the title in English "Merry Hour," though it would probably have better been called "The Happy Hour," regardless of possible libational associations! A few other glaring errors really need correction: the word "not" missing from the phrase "happiness does not die in him"; "people" translated as "men"; and "calm" as "elated" - the latter resulting from a free rendering employing rhyme but distorting the literal meaning, always a danger as translation can all too easily become treason.
The program also included N.Y. premieres of the motorically virtuosic yet often sentimental quintet "Sparkling Thirds" (2007), written for Da Capo by Igor Golubev (b. 1945), in from Moscow for the occasion; and two cycles: "The Gods of Winter" (2007) by Louis Karchin (b. 1951) on texts by Dana Gioia, sung impressively by bass-baritone Jan Opalach; and "Bad Pets" (2006) by Paul Salerni (b. 1951), also sung by Mr. Opalach, accompanied by flutist Patricia Spencer and guitarist William Anderson, also on texts by Gioia (the same "Alley Cat Love Song" set by Joelle Wallach), Robert Frost and Mark Doty. Mr. Salerni was also represented by yet another cycle on Gioia texts, "Speaking of Love" (1995), sung by soprano Janna Baty, accompanied by viola, percussion, and piano. In his terseness of expression and delicate, sensitive use of percussion, the influence could be heard of Salerni's (and my) teacher, the late Earl Kim, whose music we hope to hear more of in the future. Karchin's music, by contrast, employed stately, square chord progressions, over raging, stormy timpani rolls and tutti tremolandi, particularly effective in its use of wind chimes and high tremolos in winds and strings to underscore "the unpossessable jewel of ice." The Da Capo Players, augmented by violin, horn and percussion, were conducted by the composer.
Enjoyed Karchin's Washington Square Contemporary Music Society, collaborating with The Brooklyn Conservatory New Music Collective, in "A Celebration of the Voice" March 10, 2008 at Merkin Hall. The order of the program was changed so that Elliott Carter would not have to stay through the intermission after his climactic "A Mirror on Which to Dwell" (1975) on poems of Elizabeth Bishop, movingly sung by soprano Lucy Shelton with a nonet conducted by Mr. Karchin. Well, when you're nearly 100 years old, you may be permitted such concessions. Ms. Shelton also sang the N.Y. premiere, a cappella, of a brief Carter setting written for her on Baudelaire's poem "La Musique," reproduced in the program with numerous typos. Someone with a knowledge of French really should have proofed the copy, which was otherwise flawless. Other world premieres included Part II of Peter Susser's "Wisteria" (2007) on text by Richard Haney-Jardine, sung by baritone Dominic Inferrera with sextet conducted by Karchin, and Steven Burke's "The Snow Man" (2007), on a poem by Wallace Stevens, sung with aplomb by tenor Steven Ebel, who also performed his own "Fool's Air and Prophecy" (2007), based on King Lear, written originally for New Music New York's 21st Century Shakespeare concert. Michael Rose accompanied his own Rilke setting "Der Panther" (2006), sung by Mr. Inferrara, who was accompanied by Stephen Gosling in Mr. Karchin's "Two Short Songs" (2003): the atmospheric "Echoes" and quiet "Memory," on texts by Hart Crane and Theodore Roethke, respectively. Lovely Linda Larson opened and closed the program with John Eaton's "Three Early Songs" (1949-56), on poems by Yeats and William Carlos Williams, and Tom Cipullo's "Late Summer" (2001). The latter, accompanied by the composer, combined poems by William Heyen and Emily Dickinson, imploring the audience: "Listen!" in a quieter mode than Cipullo's teacher Elie Siegmeister's loud invocation of that word in his classic "Strange Funeral in Braddock."
Baritone Thomas Meglioranza's impressive Naumburg Vocal Award recital at Weill Hall Feb. 26, 2008 was packed, and filled with delights, nearly all of them from 20th-century repertoire that deserves to be better known:
2 cabaret songs of Arnold Schoenberg, 2 Craigs List settings by Gabriel Kaane (b. 1981), 2 Auden settings by Britten, 4 Weinstein settings by Bolcom (and a fifth as an encore), 5 by Blitzstein, 1 by Bernstein, and 3 by Joseph Kosma, plus an encore by Cole Porter. Pianist Timothy Long accompanied very sensitively, though a bit improvisationally, missing the "ping" in the accompaniment after "Fifth Avenue" in Blitzstein's "The New Suit." And Kosma's "Barbara" could, I think, have used a bit more passion. But overall, the program, subtitled "Songs of Decadence," covered the subheadings "unfulfilled," "fulfilled," "death and war," and "childhood" very movingly, leaving one only wanting more.
The opposite impression was what one took away from the satiating drama of lust and intrigue, The Dangerous Liaisons, the Pierre Choderlos de Laclos play transformed into an opera by librettist Philip Littell and composer Conrad Susa, and presented in its N.Y. premiere by Dicapo Opera Theatre Feb. 21, 23 & 29 & Mar. 2, 2008. Supertitles would seem to be less than necessary when an opera is sung in the native language of the audience, but not so here: the musical settings, so often high above the staff, rendered said titles quite essential for understanding. John Farrell's set and Angela Huff's costumes were attractive, and the seven soloists and ten comprimarios, staged by Michael Capasso, sang and moved effectively. Oliver Gooch conducted an orchestra of 18 that responded well, and in tune. But the music, while often pretty, and expressive, had, unlike the drama, little sense of inevitability, or coherence.
March 4, 2008 we got to the Minetta Lane Theatre to see the most outstanding new musical of the season, as it would be aptly named May 5th at the 23rd annual Lucille Lortel Awards: Joshua Schmidt's and Jason Loewith's 90-minute musical adaptation of Elmer Rice's 1923 American expressionistic play, The Adding Machine. The definite article is dropped from the title of the musical, and the program contains not a word about Rice, who was one of the most important voices in early 20th century theatre. (The first director of the New York office of the Federal Theatre Project, he resigned in 1936 to protest government censorship of the FTP's "Living Newspaper" Ethiopia, about Mussolini's invasion of that country. His 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Street Scene and its operatic adaptation by Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill, is his other most enduring work.) A severe critic of capitalism, Rice (1892-1967) also had little faith in the masses, showing the inhuman sides of both in this harrowing cartoon of Elysian dreams and automational nightmares. (An early Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, he was an ardent proponent of the 1940 expulsion from that Board of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, citing her Communist Party leadership role as a conflict of interest; said expulsion was only rescinded in 1972, 8 years after her death.) Schmidt's score owes much to American blues and Broadway, but also a bit to Stravinsky. Joel Hatch as Mr. Zero, director David Cromer, and lighting designer Keith Parham also won Lortel awards. Equally deserving are the four pit musicians: J. Oconer Navarro, musical director; pianist/assistant musical director Andy Boroson; percussionist Brad "Gorilla" Carbone; and synthesist/assistant to the composer Timothy Splain. The supporting cast of 8 players ranges from good to adequate.
I wish I could say the same about the supporting cast of the Encores! Mar. 26-29 revival of Marc Blitzstein's musical, Juno_ the first with full orchestra since its 16-performance run in 1959. This is one of the most gorgeous scores ever written for Broadway, and was directed caringly and sensitively by Garry Hynes,starring the plucky and very conscientious Victoria Clark. Too bad Kelli O'Hara, the wonderful star of the glorious South Pacific revival, was unavailable to play her daughter (as she had in The Light in the Piazza). Conrad John Schuck was the best Boyle I've seen since Milo O'Shea at Long Wharf in 1976, but Dermot Crowley as Joxer inexcusably never learned his music well enough to sing the right notes. And while some numbers were movingly restored, others which should have been were not, or only half-way so - for lack of "time," conductor Eric Stern opined to me, apologetically. But, as I noted in remarks I was invited to give at the Saturday matinee talkback, I only hope that the largely positive response this production evoked will prompt "a turnaround for Blitzstein's fortune..., and that we'll be seeing lots, lots more of him," especially, of course, his "magnum opus," to use his own words, Sacco and Vanzetti, which has been discussed extensively in this publication. For more on Juno, see Mark Grant's remarks, and my comments, at http://www.newmusicbox.org/chatter/chatter.nmbx?id=5531 .
Back to Main Page