I’ve been so busy attending interesting musical events over the past few weeks that I’ve fallen behind in noting them here. So, here goes:
The New York City Opera, having foresworn Lincoln Center, is in its second year of wandering, with four operas on the schedule. The first two, which I’ve now attended, were presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I went to successive Saturday performances of “Powder Her Face” by Thomas Ades (music) and Philip Hensher (libretto) on February 23 and “The Turn of the Screw” by Benjamin Britten (music) and Myfanwy Piper (libretto) on March 2. This was the 20th century British half of the season. Next up will be two operas presented at New York City Center, Rossini’s “Moses in Egypt” and Offenbach’s “La Perichole,” the 19th century Romantic half of the season.
While I thought that both of the BAM productions were worthy efforts in the sense of providing a showcase to relatively contemporary works, in the end I was not persuaded that either work is all that wonderful. “Powder Her Face” presents imagined scenes from the life of the Duchess of Argyle, famously divorced by the Duke for her brazen philandering. This piece struck me as intended to make a sensation rather than a serious musical statement. In fact, with some exceptions I found the music rather thin on the ground, more like a soundtrack for a movie (in the traditional sense of background commentary to heighten emotions or stimulate mood) than an opera where the music takes a central place. The production was undoubtedly true to the composer’s intent in packing the stage with nude bodies. The best bits from the score might be heard on an EMI recording of an orchestral suite comprised of the overture, a waltz, and music from the finale. “The Turn of the Screw” is derived from a short ghost story by Henry James, with prominent roles for two child characters, here sung by performers who struck me as slightly too old for the roles. The music has more substance than that of “Powder,” but I don’t find it anywhere near as strong a score as “Billy Budd” or “Peter Grimes.”
Production values for both were very high, with workable sets, innovative lighting, and excellent costumes — especially for the nude men! Conductors Jonathan Stockhammer (“Powder”) and Jayce Ogren (“Screw”) did what could be done for these scores, with excellent work from the instrumental ensembles (not full opera orchestras) in the pit, and fine contributions from the singers. The cast list in the “Powder” program was not particularly helpful, since several singers took on multiple roles, but were unhelpfully identified in the program only with one role each. Allison Cook as the Duchess seemed comfortable with her challenging role, and the “corps of lovers” seem to have been recruited at a serious gym. Sara Jakubiak was very convincing in the lead role of the Governess in “Screw,” but I was less convinced by Dominic Armstrong’s performance as “Peter Quint” — although much of the time he sounded like Peter Pears, for whom the part was written, he seemed a bit strained by the wide range of the music – perhaps this goes with the territory. Jennifer Goode Cooper was suitably creepy as the other ghost, Miss Jessel. I recall Benjamin Wenzelberg’s performance as Miles from Symphony Space last year, when he was perhaps just within the proper age range for this role. Now he seems a bit old for the part, although he sang it very well.
On Sunday, February 24, I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Declassified program on Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 at Symphony Space. Leon Botstein, a bit of a contrarian where Bruckner editions are concerned, decided to present the original version of the score, which Bruckner subjected to substantial revisions after Herman Levi rejected the opportunity to conduct the premiere on the ground that he couldn’t understand the score. (It’s hard in retrospect to sympathize with Levi, having now heard that original score.) Ultimately a revision was conducted in 1892 by Hans Richter, to great success. Leon Botstein’s talk provided an illustrated comparison of Bruckner’s first thoughts with his revised version, and proved most illuminating, although I suspect it was most comprehensible to those of us who are reasonably familiar with the standard version usually performed today.
I was very impressed by the full performance of the piece. Botstein prefers faster-than-usual tempi in Bruckner, and I think he is correct in this, since the music coheres much better when not unduly stretched out. Even at these brisk tempi, the piece took more than 70 minutes. The brass playing was extraordinary, and the comfortably small concert hall at Symphony Space helped the string section – numbering somewhere between a chamber orchestra size and a full symphony orchestra size – to full and rich sound. After hearing this original version in concert, I think most of the changes Bruckner made were improvements, but that may be as much a function of familiarity as of actual quality. This deserved to be heard. The more of late Bruckner I hear, the more I am persuaded that his musical genius approached that of his contemporary and antagonist, Brahms.
On Thursday night, February 27, I attended the second of the New York Philharmonic’s five performances of “Carousel,” the musical show by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (1945). “Carousel” induces nostalgia in me because I played double bass in the instrumental ensemble for a production at Oneonta High School when I was just a lad. The handful of performances followed many weeks of rehearsals, by which time I had pretty much memorized the dialogue and lyrics. Although it’s been many years since I listened to the cast recording, it all came flooding back on Thursday night. Every song is skillfully constructed to advance the action, most of the tunes are difficult to get out of your head, and Rodgers’ harmony is pretty sophisticated for 1940s Broadway stuff. I don’t think Hammerstein’s lyrics have aged quite as well, and the handling of Billy Bigelow’s abusive treatment of Julie Jordan would not meet today’s standard of political correctness, as the lyrics incorporate sexual stereotypes in ways that today sound naive or offensive -sort of letting Bigelow “off the hook” because the pressures of his life help to explain his physical abusiveness.
The production was excellent, with special commendation for NYC Ballet dancers Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild (choreography by Warren Carlyle), who made something splendid out of the ballet-pantomime in the final scenes. Nathan Gunn and Stephanie Blythe, the two opera singers in the cast, seemed over-microphoned to me. They really didn’t need amplification in this hall, but their fellow cast-members from the Broadway theater did, and I guess it wouldn’t work to have some amplified and some not. Kelli O’Hara, Shuler Hensley, Jason Daniely, Jessie Mueller, Kate Burton and John Cullum rounded out the cast, and Rob Fisher, the original music director from City Center Encores!, led the orchestra. It is quite a luxury to hear this score played by the NY Philharmonic string section, just slightly reduced from the size that would be used for Beethoven symphonies. The overture in this rendition was very well upholstered. John Rando’s direction had the cast moving about well in the restricted space they had using a stage extension in front of the orchestra (with some platforms for added movement). The production was beautifully designed and staged, coming very close to what one might consider a fully-staged production were the orchestra to be moved down into a pit. These performances deserved the encomia they’ve received in the local press.
Finally, last night I attended the 18th Annual Shabbat Shirah Concert presented by Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, my synagogue. This year the event, held at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side, was devoted to celebrating and honoring Jonathan Sheffer, composer-conductor-pianist, who is a member of our board of trustees and a very active congregant in supporting the musical program. Sheffer displayed all his musical talents yesterday, including even singing for an encore number. He announced that he plans to set the entire Friday night Shabbat service, and has begun with a very moving setting of Oseh Shalom that was performed with great enthusiasm by the CBST Community Chorus directed by Joyce Rosenzweig. David Marks (violin), Adrian Daurov (cello), and Spencer Myer (piano) collaborated on Sheffer’s Piano Trio No. 2, Mary Feminear (mezzo), Jonathan Estabrooks (baritone), David Mintz (tenor), Naomi Katz Cohen (soprano) and Joyce Rosenzweig (piano) performed the 10-minute chamber opera, Camera Obscura, and ballet dancer Tom Gold superbly executed very athletic choreography to three Sheffer piano pieces. The highlight for me included two songs Sheffer had written for musical shows, especially a show-stopper from 1982 sung by Christine Ebersole and deserving of wider exposure. It was a very interesting concert, well performed, and an unusual opportunity to hear lots of music by Jonathan, who received an award for his services to the congregation.