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May 2008

Vox and Run

Dsc06573Opera is not the sort of art form that lends itself to easy experimentation. Typically, you need sets, costumes, an orchestra - not to mention singers who are usually booked 3-4 years in advance. So, nine years ago, City Opera hit upon the idea of giving American composers the chance to have their works heard in a workshop format, using the full City Opera orchestra and professional singers from their regular roster, as opposed to synthesizers and amateur friends. They called it: VOX.

Now in its tenth year, VOX is still going strong and has produced several notable American operas, including Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison's Margaret Garner, which played at City Opera this past season to sold-out houses. Clearly, this is a win-win situation for all concerned.

VOX had it's most recent installment this past weekend at NYU's Skirball Center. Tickets were free, and easy to get through the advance reservation system (though I think most standbys managed to get in as well.) The theater, which sat 850, felt intimate yet formal. Each composer was allotted half-an-hour to present an excerpt of their work in concert format; many felt finished enough to stage. Without the benefit of an orchestra pit, all the singers were mic'd: a necessary and reasonable compromise.

Dsc06575Unfortunately, I was only able to attend on Sunday, but managed to hear representative performances of four distinct American voices. Scott Davenport Richards' Charlie Crosses the Nation tells the story of an Army big band playing the front lines during WWII. The music is written in an unqualified jazz idiom, sounding more like musical theater than opera but thoroughly satisfying. Richards didn't pull any punches on his libretto, turning the old Army acronym "SNAFU" ("Situation Normal All Fucked Up") into a rousing ensemble number.

Less successful was Alice Shields' Criseyde, recounting the story of Troilus and Cressida as told by Chaucer. The music is a strange blend of early Wagner, Britten, and North Indian raga while the subject matter (not to mention the use of Middle English in the libretto) felt completely divorced from modern reality. Not exactly an easy sell.

Dsc06580After an intermission, the performers returned with Justine Chen's gripping Jeanne, based on the life of Joan of Arc. Chen's music is dark, complex, even angry as it recounted the trials of Joan through the words of her captors. Particularly striking was Bishop Cauchon, who struggles with the possibility that the girl he's sending to the stake might actually be God's handmaiden. His aria (sung by Kevin Burdette) had the same wrenching impact as "Batter My Heart" from John Adams' Doctor Atomic, which I heard earlier this year in Chicago.

David T. Little's Soldier Songs is not an opera, but a cycle of songs culled from interviews he made with relatives and friends who experienced the horrors of war firsthand. Nevertheless, it packed the most dramatic punch of any of the works on the bill: it was both thoroughly relevant and profoundly disturbing. This is opera as political activism, the sort that Beethoven embraced in Fidelio but has been rarely seen in rep houses since. As Little says in the program:

"Opera is an art form in which the political and the artistic can be fused in a way that expresses the desires - the need - for social change through empathy, not preaching. Empathy fuels the expression of the social, the political, and makes it real. This is the essence of what I call 'socially engaged music.'"

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Speaking of the music, the orchestra (led by City Opera music director George Manahan) was driving and propulsive, full of heavy percussion and shrill, piercing strings. James Bobick delivered an astonishing solo performance, his voice ranging from bass to countertenor while running the gamut of emotions familiar to many soldiers: angry, stoic, scared.

In the final section, Little tells the story of a father who receives a home visit from two Marines, to tell him his son has been killed in combat. The music grows heroic as the father torches the Marines' van in protest, then plaintive as he pleads, "Bring back my son!" to anyone who might listen. There was hardly a dry eye in the house as the final notes faded away.

(Unfortunately, I missed Robert Manno's promising Dylan & Caitlin, about the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and his wife, with a libretto by Welsh playwright Gwynne Edwards. I learned from my next-seat neighbor that Manno is a former Met chorus member, so I'm sure he knows a thing or two about how to write an opera.)

Dsc06584VOX will return for its 10th anniversary next season, despite the arrival of Gerard Mortier as general manager and his many planned changes for City Opera. One would hope he knows enough to leave well enough alone.


Rockstar

Dsc06565It was a less-than-full house at the final People's Symphony Concert of the season Saturday night, which probably had a lot to do with the bill: an unknown pianist with a funny-looking name. But, after hearing Mihaela Ursuleasa, a young Romanian based in Vienna, I can assure you that you'll be hearing that name (for the record, it's pronounced "UR-soo-lee-AY-sa") a lot more in the next few months. So, get practicing.

Ursuleasa started out with the New York premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis' Ballad(e) Out of the Blues: a ten-minute piece full of jazzy chords and rhythms, of which she gave the world premiere in Minneapolis less than a week before. Kernis, who was present to introduce the piece, described it as a memorial to his father, who loved blues and ballads.

Dsc06558Ursuleasa followed it up with Brahms' uber-romantic Fantasies, Op. 116. It went down like a big, soft Cabernet, full of richness and warmth.

After intermission, Ursuleasea marched onto the stage while patrons were still making their way back to their seats and  launched straight into Rachmaninoff's Etudes-Tableaux for Piano, Opus 39. Immediately, the room fell silent: no easy feat at these concerts, where the mostly-senior audience doesn't hesitate to shout down offending performers with their disapproval. Piano playing doesn't get more exciting than this: with her long brown hair flying, Ursuleasa went from bombastic to gentle, then back again, not once seeming pushed or strained. Watch out, folks: this girl's got fire.

Dsc06566After exploding through the final section, Ursuleasa leapt to her feet, and much of the room immediately stood with her, cheering wildly. (The only ones who didn't stand seemed to be those reaching for their canes and walkers.) She rewarded us with the Toccata by her countryman Georges Enescu, full of bouncing rhythms that sounded a lot like gypsies dancing.

Ursuleasa will be back in town this summer to perform at the Mostly Mozart Festival, playing Beethoven's 3rd concerto with Osmo Vanska - one of her biggest champions - as well as a late night recital of Chopin and Ginastera. Tickets on sale June 11 at the box office.

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Basement Tunes

Nice, low-key evening at Union Hall last night, just the right tonic after a tough week at work. Dave Godowsky played clever songs on acoustic guitar while Takka Takka went indie pop, filled with organ and Gabe Levine's quavering vocals. Toronto's Ohbijou closed out the night with a quiet set of guitars and strings that sounded like something you'd hear in a snowbound cabin. Mmmm, pass the Yukon Jack.

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Dsc06484 Takka Takka

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Ohbijou

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Water Music

Dsc06542For over 30 years, Olga Bloom's Bargemusic concerts have been a New York institution, albeit a peculiar one. As the name indicates, the concerts take place on a 100-foot floating barge in Brooklyn Heights just south of the Brooklyn Bridge, commanding postcard views of downtown Manhattan.

On her website, Olga - who turns 89 this year - relates the tale of how Bargemusic came to be:

"In Averne, a borderline community between Nassau County and Queens, a hospitable boatyard provided us with space and helpful tutelage by experienced waterfront dwellers. We solved the problem of achieving good acoustics in the practical advice that we visit a maritime scrap yard on Staten Island. The proprietor there, Mr. John Witte, offered a huge supply of paneling, mahogany stripping, and cherry wood benches retired from duty on the original Staten Island ferry The American Legion. For a year and a half I made weekly trips from the scrap yard with materials weighing down my VW Beetle until it almost scraped the ground. En route, truck drivers shouted to me, ‘Yo! Mama.’

Dsc06537The interior, which remains unaltered, has a quirky, patchwork quality. On one side of the barge is a brick fireplace, on which a ceramic vase precariously sits. Outside the north windows, tourists compete for space with wedding parties, scrambling for the perfect photo opp. Behind the stage, floor-to-ceiling windows are filled with Wall Street skyscrapers and passing boats, whose wake causes the barge to shift violently from side-to-side and up-and-down. It is not for the faint of heart (or stomach).

Dsc06525It must also test the concentration of even the most seasoned musicians, most of whom are not used to having the floor moving underneath them while playing. Fortunately, it didn't seem to faze the young pianist Victoria Schwartzman, who performed this afternoon in Bargemusic's monthly free recital. Schwartzman, a Russian expat, played a powerhouse performance of Schumann's Symphonic Études from memory. (She also played Prokofiev's 10 Pieces from Romeo and Juliet prior to my late arrival.) The crowd of fifty-or-so - equal parts young and old - gave her a warm, well-deserved ovation.

Bargemusic's performance calendar continues throughout the summer with concerts every Thursday-Sunday, in addition to the free monthly recitals. Go, and say Hi to Olga while you still have the chance. And, tell her thanks. (More pics after the jump.)

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(Seated: Bargemusic director Mark Peskanov with Olga Bloom)

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