Buckeyes and Bronx Opera's Tartuffe
AUFBAU 62:2 Jan. 19, 1996 p13
[original title: Ballads, Buckeyes and Bronx Opera's Tartuffe] Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
January 15, 1996
1028 words (2 pages)
Flutist John Oberbrunner took apart his instrument, picked up his music, made a face and left the stage amid the din. Moments later he was heard wafting simple lyrical passages from the wings. Pianist Steven Heyman exited in the same direction, leaving the three other players and conductor on stage peering after them. One half expected a pistol shot to ring out, as in the old Danny Kaye routine. Perhaps in another edition, agreed the 45-year-old composer Michael Schelle. His composition, "Buckeye Zombies," a self-styled "eclectic fusion," had been written in honor of composer Elliott Schwartz (and his brief residency in Ohio - hence the title, as Ohio is also known as "the Buckeye State") for his 60th birthday concert celebration at Merkin Hall, Sunday afternoon January 14. The work was the liveliest on this "first in a series of annual concerts by the Society for New Music highlighting the work of composers from the American Composers Alliance." Next season will be the 25th both for the Society and for the Long Island Composers Alliance, and talk of collaboration is in the air.
The concert ranged from the effulgent (Daniel Godfrey's "Festoons" for piano) to the trivial (Lukas Foss's "Birthday Blues," which merely reharmonized the familiar "Happy Birthday" in blues mode) to the nonexistent (Gunther Schuller did not complete his work on time). Short chamber pieces, a number of them based on musical letters of the name Elliott Schwartz, by Don Freund, Ursula Mamlok, Scott Brickman, David Stock, and M. William Karlins (the latter a very elegant reordering for clarinet and string trio of the materials in a Schwartz work for string quartet) all paid appropriate tribute to the Bowdoin College composer who has served his colleagues in the role of College Music Society president, American Music Center vice-president, and American Society of University Composers (now known as the Society for Composers, Inc.) national chair.
As was the case in LICA's June 1995 70th birthday tribute to Hale Smith and will be in the June 2, 1996 75th birthday tribute to Albert Tepper, half the program was devoted to compositions by the honoree: "Halo," performed by bass-clarinetist E. Michael Richards (a world premiere, as were eight other works on the program); "Elan - Variations for Five Players," briskly conducted by Edward Murray (as were five other works); and "Dream Music with Variations" for piano quartet.
This last piece happens to have an interesting AUFBAU connection: Recently one of our readers in California phoned this writer with a request for a list of piano quartet repertoire by Jewish composers. An American Music Center computer search through all works by composers who wish to be identified as Jewish netted only one piece: this one - although of course there are many other composers of piano quartets who did not or were not able to respond to the recent AMC questionnaire asking if they wanted to be so identified - Aaron Copland, for example, who died in 1980. The problem of just which composers are to be considered Jewish and which not is a thorny one I shall be addressing in my forthcoming lecture on Jewish opera at the Jewish Music Roundtable of the Music Library Association convention in Seattle, February 8.
Tartuffe in the Bronx
The New York City premiere of Kirke Mechem's Tartuffe was presented by Bronx Opera at Hostos Community and John Jay Colleges January 6, 7, 12, & 13. I attended, frankly not intending to review it: Ben Spierman, son of the company's artistic director and conductor Michael Spierman, will be directing a Sound of Music production I'll be conducting at the Sid Jacobson Y in Roslyn January 20, 21, 27 & 28, as well as starring in my new Malamud opera Suppose A Wedding next summer. But the production, directed by Lucinda Winslow, was too good not to mention, especially given its relevance to the current state of American politics, grappling with power-grabbing in the hypocritical guise of religious piety.
The 1980 opera (which also contains a couple of amazingly still current jabs at Richard "I am not a crook" Nixon) has become a modern American classic by dint of over 150 performances. With a libretto by the composer after Moliere's play (not the Richard Wilbur translation which Mechem calls "poetry," modestly characterizing his own words as "verse"), it is a hodgepodge of styles ranging from Strauss to Puccini with liberal (and obvious) quotations from Beethoven and Wagner, and yet remains both dramatically viable and grateful to the singers. The title character would be a natural for baritone William Stone; Kiri Te Kanawa would have a field day with the female lead. Glyndebourne, Glimmerglass, and eventually New York City Opera should try it. First, though, the composer really ought to scale down some of the dynamics in the orchestra which, he admits, in every performance of it he has ever attended, tends to cover the singers at times. One looks forward to his newest creation, John Brown, optioned to but withdrawn from the Kansas City Lyric Opera after the composer became dissatisfied with that company.
Prey at the Y
Meanwhile, German's greatest living lieder singer next to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey, is at the 92nd Str nth and next, which is good reason for rejoicing. In February he will preside over the last of the Y's Schubertiade series, this one exploring the connections between Schubert and Beethoven. On January 8, Prey offered an entire evening of ballads by Karl Loewe (1796-1869), ranging from his opus 1 "Erlkoenig" to the monumental "Archibald Douglas." The latter was unfortunately marred by an incessant cougher in the middle of the auditorium - despite the lozenges management had thoughtfully provided the audience. Prey is a masterful interpreter and his pianist Michael Endres an excellent and sensitive accompanist in the sometimes almost brutally difficult virtuoso passagework Loewe wrote for himself to sing and play. Nonetheless a certain sameness of structure was all too evident in many of the works, grouped into threes and fours with a request for no applause except between groups. Missed were the composer's greatest works, "Edward," "Tom der Reimer," and his multiple settings of Byron's Hebrew Melodies. Perhaps another time.
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