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"November 21, 1963: The Day Before" at Symphony Space

by Michael Cirigliano II


All photos: Rahav Segev

There are moments in history that not only make a sudden impact, but continue to define a generation of people; the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, is such a moment. Commonly referred to as "the day the country lost its innocence," the murder not only added to the turbulence of the decade, but ultimately redefined the country's collective sense of humanity.

The-Day-Before1512-47To mark the 50th anniversary of the president's assassination, Laura Kaminsky—Artistic Director of Symphony Space and a fellow of the Hermitage Artist Retreat, a co-presenter of the evening's program—decided to memorialize not the event itself, but the day before the tragedy. To reimagine the country's mindset only 24 hours before, Kaminsky commissioned new works from over 50 Hermitage artists, both past and present, encompassing a wide range of disciplines that included composition, visual arts, film, spoken word, and even puppetry.

To say that such an undertaking is overwhelming would be quite the understatement, but surviving the nearly four-hour event was a feat of strength worthy of Sisyphus himself. This is not to say that any of the work presented was lacking—in fact, a comprehensive review of the evening's merit would probably take up a whole Arts and Leisure section of the Times—but sometimes there is too much of a good thing.

The musical highlights of the evening presented a spectrum of ideas and thoughts, with contributions made by composers Nico Muhly, Eve Beglarian, Kamala Sankaram, Robert Vuichard, Thomas Cabaniss, and Kaminsky herself. From works for solo electric guitar to art song for soprano, baritone, and piano, the collected works were as diverse as the makeup of 1963 America itself.


Singing nearly a dozen works over the course of the evening, soprano Megan Weston and bass-baritone Robert Osborne showed themselves to be adept at juggling a range of musical and acting styles. Weston (who looked like she had stepped onto the set of Mad Men with her blonde bob and ruby-red lipstick) was involved in two of the first half's most interesting works—Muhly's Impaired Vision and Vuichard's Ammunition. Both composers had the honor of setting texts assembled by playwright Craig Lucas (the librettist for Muhly's Two Boys), who compiled a set of advertising copy and news headlines taken from the November 21 edition of the New York Times.

Taking on the headlines of the day, Muhly used repetitive, recitative-like strains of melody and a sparse, Copland-esque piano setting to showcase the seemingly dramatic headlines that would pale in comparison to those of the next day. However, interwoven with breezy banners were moments of chilling connection with today's events, showing that the country hasn't really come far in terms of gun violence or personal safety.

Proving an interesting contrast, Vuichard's setting of ad copy was fully orchestrated in the piano (kudos to pianist Margaret Kampmeier) and required virtuosic delivery from Weston—taking her up and down a two-octave-plus range as a woman realizing the advent of her own neuroses when compared with the perfect female figures used in the marketing ploys of the day. The comic moments won in the end here, and Weston relished every opportunity to evoke a laugh from the audience. Although vocally pure, I couldn't help but wonder if someone with a character more akin to a brassy Elaine Strich could have added to the Broadway-style vamp needed to carry off Vuichard's energetic style.

Kamala Sankaram was more avant-garde in her approach to her song, John-John, using vocal loops that echoed from her laptop—in addition to her own live performance—to convey the childlike perspective of JFK's then-two-year-old son. Despite the repetitive nature, Sankaram's composition brought realized the most searing intensity of the evening, as the musical layers built to four- and five-voices deep before gradually fading into a ghostly silence.