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Stone Mason Projects at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery

by Steven Pisano
20160121-Screenshot 2016-01-21 14.31.54(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

Sometimes the thrill of great music can be discovered in the most unexpected of places.

On Wednesday night, I attended a concert produced by Stone Mason Projects in the Wilmer Jennings Gallery in the East Village. Named after a black printmaker from the 1930s, the gallery walls were hung neatly with photographs. Some plastic folding chairs were arranged in rows. Somehow, they squeezed in a baby grand piano.

Founded by soprano Pamela Stein Lynde, Stone Mason Projects is a small production company dedicated to promoting contemporary music, particularly for voice. The audiences at these concerts have so far been small—fewer than 50 people—most of whom seem to be friends or family of the performers. At first glance, one might think these concerts to be merely vanity productions, just a step above performing in one’s living room. But the singing was stellar, on par with anything I've heard recently at higher profile venues such as Zankel Hall or National Sawdust. These concerts deserve a wider audience.

20160121-Screenshot 2016-01-21 17.37.37Sarah Hawkey, a clear, articulate soprano, brought bright and naturalistic phrasing to her delivery of Abraham Z. Morrison’s “Surprisingly Poetic Moments from an Otherwise Typical Hiking Guidebook.” Hawkey also performed Christopher Cerrone’s “I Will Learn to Love a Person,” with text by Tao Lin, and Ms. Lynde's “I Will Not Be Silent,” which explores the resolute will to carry on and be heard in the face of life’s impediments, particularly for women.

Rounding out the program, Kaya Katarzyna Bryla-Weiss, an award-winning violinist originally from Poland, and Mila Henry, a pianist familiar from projects by American Opera Projects and HERE, performed “Sonata No. 2 for Violin” by Grażyna Bacewicz and “Fratres” by Arvo Pärt.

20160121-Screenshot 2016-01-21 17.38.53The highlight of the concert, however, was Christopher Cerrone's heart-breaking, deviously funny, and achingly hopeful “I Will Learn to Love a Person.” Dating from 2013 and originally written for soprano, saxophone, percussion, and piano, the piece is a series of five short poems tracing someone looking for love, being bewildered by love once found, then wondering where love went once lost. Ms. Henry’s piano was sublime, and Ms. Hawkey’s singing was transformational. (You can see her in another performance here.) Mr. Cerrone himself was in attendance, and embraced each performer warmly at the close of the piece.

Before this concert, I had not heard of Christopher Cerrone. But after hearing this one piece, I immediately wanted to listen to everything he has ever written.(Cerrone's short opera Invisible Cities, based on the Italo Calvino novel, was a 2014 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize). Cerrone’s music and Lin’s lyrics distill human emotions the way a vintner makes bubbly champagne out of a musky fermented mush; with masterful art songs like this, the human heart has found in Cerrone a deeply compassionate and expressive voice.

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