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"Frankenstein" and Other Works in Green-Wood Cemetery

by Steven Pisano

20181009-20181009-DSC04065(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The composer Gregg Kallor has an affinity for the macabre. His musical setting for Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" debuted two Octobers ago in the burial crypt of the Church of the Intercession in Upper Manhattan, and this last week selections from his opera-in-the-making based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein were performed in the catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Produced by Andrew Ousley at Unison Media in collaboration with the innovative On Site Opera, Frankenstein featured the baritone Joshua Jeremiah as the Monster, the tenor Brian Cheney as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano. Music was provided by Kallor himself on piano and longtime collaborator Joshua Roman on cello. Sarah Meyers was the director. Although only three scenes of the work-in-progress were presented, it is clear that Kallor has grand plans.

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Carnegie Hall's Opening Night with the San Francisco Symphony, Renée Fleming and Audra McDonald

San Francisco Symphony Carnegie Hall Gala - 5Carnegie Hall opened it's 127th season last Wednesday with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony in a pops-style program that skewed heavily towards Americana and Broadway (with a little Liszt thrown in.) Which is precisely the sort of crowd-pleasing concert that the occasion called for, not unlike the all-Bernstein concert MTT programmed for the last time San Francisco opened the Carnegie season in 2008

The program was dominated by Gershwin, bookended by his visceral, dancey Cuban Overture (1932), and ending with An American in Paris (1928). In between, the orchestra played Liszt's Mephisto Waltz: a Romantic showpiece not quite rising to MTT's characterization of it as "incredibly daring."

The bulk of the program consisted of a selection of show tunes, sung by six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald and celebrated soprano Renée Fleming, who is working to establish her Broadway cred with her recent run as Nettie Fowler in Carousel and her new album, Renée Fleming: Broadway. 

McDonald played to her strengths with Gershwin's "Summertime" and "Vanilla Ice Cream" from Jerry Bock's 1963 musical She Loves Me, investing both with deep meaning and substance. Fleming began in familiar territory with the lilting Aria from Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (with SF principal cellist Michael Grebanier) before transitioning to "Fable" from Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza, which she said was "one of my favorite musicals." Her voice is still a miracle, penetrating and powerful, yet accessible and intimate. 

The vocal part of the program ended on a politically-charged note, with McDonald and Fleming singing a medley of Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods and Richard Rodgers "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific. "Seems appropriate for our times," McDonald said, a not-so-oblique reference to recent events. To drive the point home, they then offered an encore of Laura Nyro's 1969 anti-war rock anthem "Save the Country."

"I got fury in my soul, fury's gonna take me to the glory goal 
In my mind I can't study war no more.
Save the people, save the children, save the country now"

MTT, who will be stepping down as San Francisco Symphony music director after next season, has been appointed a Carnegie Perspectives Artist, and will be returning later this season with the Vienna Philharmonic (March 5-6) and his other ensemble, the New World Symphony (May 1-2), who will be performing two of Thomas' own works. As for Carnegie Hall, upcoming highlights include concerts by the Czech Philharmonic (Oct 27-28), the Mariinsky Orchestra (Oct 30-Nov 1), and recitals by pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Oct 25) and Yuja Wang (Oct 26).

San Francisco Symphony Carnegie Hall Gala - 15
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A New Organ for New York: The Miller-Scott Organ at St. Thomas Church

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"John taught me that... a pipe organ, breathing the living force of air, has a soul.” - Reverend Andrew C. Mead, former Rector, St. Thomas Church

Look around, and you might notice that New York City is living in a golden age of pipe organs. In the past decade, several significant instruments have been either installed or restored around the city, notably at Ascension Church, Alice Tully Hall, St. Paul's Chapel, and soon to come, Trinity Church on Wall Street. Add to that list the new Irene D. and William R. Miller Chancel Organ at St. Thomas Church, which was dedicated this weekend with a recital on Friday evening and a liturgical service on Sunday morning. The massive instrument, built by Iowa's Dobson Organ Company and originally conceived by St. Thomas' Organist and Director of Music John Scott, has been more than a decade in the making and is already regarded as one of the finest instruments in the country.

When Scott arrived at St. Thomas in 2004 after more than 26 years as organist at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, he quickly realized that the existing chancel organ - a heavily modified 1913 Aeolian-Skinner - was in severe disrepair and needed to be replaced. In so doing, Scott wanted an instrument that could perform the full breadth of the organ repertoire: everything from Baroque (Buxtehude, Bach), to Romantic (Franck, Vierne) to Modern (Messiaen, Ligeti, etc.)

More importantly, Scott wanted the organ's sound to penetrate the full length of the nave, in order better accompany parishioners in their singing of hymns. For this, a new case, filled with ornate carvings by woodcarvers Dennis D. Collier and Family, has been added to the north wall of the chancel, facing the original 1913 case on the south wall. In all, the new organ has 7,000 pipes over six divisions and 102 stops, reduced from the previous instrument's 8,905 pipes and 112 stops.

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"Proving Up" at the Miller Theatre

by Steven Pisano

Proving Up Miller Theatre-50_photo_by_Rob_Davidson(Photos by Rob Davidson for the Miller Theater.)

"Proving Up," the new chamber opera by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, opened at the Miller Theatre Wednesday night, to an audience brimming with composers, singers, and directors in the contemporary NYC opera scene. A fellow photographer was overheard saying: "Screw the Met! This is the place to be" - a reference to the news earlier this week that the Met Opera has commissioned a new opera from Mazzoli based on George Saunders’s novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

Mazzoli and Vavrek are perhaps best known as the team responsible for 2016's "Breaking the Waves," based on the Lars von Trier film of the same name, which remains one of the standout productions I have seen in the last five years. But "Proving Up" - a co-commission with the Washington National Opera and Opera Omaha - proved to be something very different. Based on a short story by Karen Russell," it is a bleak, mysterious, and slow-moving work about the opening of the American West. In order to earn "free" land being offered by the U.S. Government via the Homestead Acts (known as "proving up"), settlers in Nebraska needed to abide by certain requirements, such as residing on the land for five years and making improvements to it. One of these "improvements" was that settlers install glass windows in their house. It is around one such window that this opera revolves.

The Zegner family has encountered many hardships. Two unnamed daughters (Abigail Nims and Cree Carrico) are dead and buried on the land, though they appear dramatically throughout the opera as mischievous symbols of death, reminiscent of the twin girls in Stanley Kubrick's film "The Shining."  Another older son, Peter (Sam Shapiro), has been seriously injured somehow. The youngest son, Miles, who is supposed to be 11, is played by a grown man (Michael Slattery). Late in the story, a mysterious stranger called "The Sodbuster" (Andrew Harris) appears, but he seems to muddy the story rather than add to it.

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