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Fantastic Young Singers for a NYC Musical Weekend

Posted on: November 9th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

New York City is definitely the place to be if you want to hear lots of fantastic opera and art song singers in unusual settings.  That was my experience this weekend, when I attended the Brooklyn Art Song Society’s program at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, and Venture Opera’s presentation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Brooklyn Art Song Society is a project of its musical director and chief pianist, Michael Brofman, who is a very accomplished pianist and collaborator with singers.  One of the series he is presenting this season is Britannica, a survey of English art song ranging from the Baroque era to modern days.  On Friday afternoon, November 6, he presented the second program in the series: Britannica II: In Memoriam: Songs of the Great War.  The “Great War” from the British perspective is World War I, whose centennial we are in the midst of marking (1914-1918).  The war stimulated many British poets to produce meditations on war and death, and many British composers set them to music, including some who served in the conflict (and among whom we have important losses to mourn).  The 20th century vogue of adapting the typical melodies and harmonies of English folk song into art songs was at its height at the time most of these songs were written, resulting in music that is both accessible (certainly by comparison to what the leading-edge composer of Europe were producing) and achingly beautiful.

This program presented three very talented young singers:  baritones Jarett Ott and John Moore, and tenor Dominic Armstrong.  Mr. Brofman was the pianist for Ott and Armstrong, while Miori Sugiyama collaborated with John Moore.  The first half was all-baritone, the second half was given over to Armstrong & Brofman for a rare performance of both books of settings by George Butterworth of verses from A. E. Housman’s collection titled “A Shropshire Lad.”  Butterworth served in a combat unit and died at the front, a tragic loss to music.  Moore sang Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cycle “The House of Life,” setting verses of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, a poet who long predated the Great War, but the tie-in here is Vaughan Williams’ service driving an ambulance at the front and the themes of these poems which complement the overall theme for the concert.  Ott sang a variety of songs: two by Ivor Gurney, one by Gerald Finzi, and a rarity by William Dennis Browne, another composer lost in military service during the Great War.

All three singers made a deep impression on me.  Although still at the outset of their careers, they have already accumulated a wealth of experience, including opera at major houses, soloing with major orchestras, and highly regarded recital series.  To get to hear them in the small space of the Old Stone House, which felt almost like a private salon event, was an extraordinary privilege.   Unfortunately the next concert in this series presents a scheduling conflict for me, so I will have to miss the third in the series on December 3, which will present Armstrong and Sidney Outlaw singing works by Finzi and Vaughan Williams at the Brooklyn Historical Society.  This is urgently recommended for those who love English song or want to make its acquaintance.

It would be hard to top the musical experience I had Friday night, but then Sunday night brought Venture Opera’s first presentation of its inaugural season, Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Angel Orensanz Center on Norfolk Street in Manhattan’s lower east side.  This building was constructed as a synagogue at a time when the neighborhood was solidly packed with Jewish immigrants a century ago.  After the neighborhood had changed drastically and the congregation diminished to a point of not being able to sustain the building, it was deconsecrated and turned into an arts center.  Some of the original iconography remains, but the space has been well adapted to support theatrical and musical events.

This Don Giovanni, conducted by Ryan McAdams (with a competent chamber orchestra assembled for the purpose from NYC’s extraordinary pool of freelance musicians), and imaginatively directed by Edwin Cahill, was absolutely, completely thrilling.  The excellent young cast included Philip Cutlip as Don Giovanni, Eric Downs as Leporello, Christian Zaremba as Il Commendatore, Amy Shoremount-Obra as Donna Anna, Yujoong Kim as Don Ottavio, Marquita Raley as Donna Elvira, Matthew Patrick Morris as Masetto, Cecelia Hall as Zerlina, and a fine collection of supporting players and choristers.  The space doesn’t lend itself to a traditional opera production.  Instead of an orchestra pit, the instrumentalists were assembled in a space under the side balcony to the left of the stage, such that Mr. McAdams could be seen by both the orchestra and the singers, although coordination was challenging and not always infallible.  There is a raised area in front, but no proscenium, but the entire space of the synagogue was enlisted in the production, with a fair amount of the singing taking place in the center aisle and the balconies being pressed into use as well.  No sets, as such, with everything being accomplished through movement, costumes, makeup and lighting.  The performance was in Italian with English projected titles on a screen suspended above the staging area.

What was thrilling about this performance?  First, McAdams provided vigorous leadership, tempos on the bright side for the most part, the action ever moving forward without any loss of momentum.  Second, the staging involved the audience in the drama at every moment, the action taking place amidst us much of the time.  Third, the fine acoustics of the old synagogue sanctuary made it possible to hear all the singers without any amplification at all times, with the placement of the orchestra off to the side providing sound that was clear and well balanced but sufficiently restrained by McAdams so that the singers could all be heard.

But, perhaps most importantly, all of the singers were magnificent.  Cutlip captured the rogue in Don Juan from the first moment.  Downs as Leporello was positively Satanic, giving an energetic performance that dominated the scenes in which he appeared, but without inappropriately tipping the balance between the characters.  Shoremount-Obra and Marquita Raley as the two Donnas were commanding and fully in charge of Mozart’s vocal pyrotechnics.  Young Morris and Hall won everybody’s hearts as the young couple whose wedding is screwed up by Don Juan’s machinations.  Zaremba was the Commendatore to the life – and his return as the Stone Guest in the final scenes was spine-chilling.

This was the second of three performances, the last to take place on Tuesday, November 10.  It appeared that Sunday’s performance was sold out.  Such is the hunger for good opera in New York.  I would estimate the audience capacity of the space at around 250.  If tickets remain for the last performance, they should be snatched up quickly.  Venture Opera has a minimalist website at this point, and future plans are still in formative stages.  They make bold to announce Bizet’s Carmen for February presentation, but neither the participants nor the venue are revealed yet, and tickets are not available to purchase.  I hope to be there.  This kind of immediate and involving opera is a rare treat, and NY’s music-lovers should hasten to support it.

Beginning of the new concert season: 5BMF and BASS

Posted on: September 21st, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

My 2015-16 concert season began early this year, with season-opening concerts by the Five Boroughs Music Festival on September 11 and the Brooklyn Art Song Society on September 18.

5BMF decided to start their season in Manhattan, at the National Opera Center’s recital hall, with a program by the American Contemporary Ensemble, a youthful group of composers who perform their own music in ensemble.  Group members Caleb Burhans, Timo Andres, Caroline Shaw, Clarice Jensen and Ben Russell collaborated in performances of their own compositions and also performed ensemble pieces by Meredith Monk and Charles Ives.

What struck me most forcibly in listening to these excellent performances was how the “new music” scene has changed and evolved so much since I was a youngster decades ago first encountering “contemporary music.”  In those days of the 1960s and 1970s, “contemporary” music meant, for the most part, atonality or serialism, dissonance, the lack of appealing melody, and a generally “grey” coloration, largely abandoning instrumental music’s roots in vocal music and “naturally occurring” scales and melodies.  There has been a revolution, and for the past few decades most contemporary music has reclaimed those roots with melodic lines one can follow, consonant harmonies spiced up with occasional surprising modulations or occasional dissonance.  Unlike the famous headline from a feature about a contemporary composer in a music magazine of the 1960s (“Who Cares If You Listen?”, facetiously attributed to Milton Babbitt), today’s young composers do care.  All of the pieces were well-made in this listener-friendly modern manner, seeking to communicate and appeal to the heart, not just the head, of the listener.  The main complaint I might have about some of the pieces was that these composers have imbibed at the well of “minimalism” to the degree that some of the pieces struck me as less eventful than they might ideally be and strained patience at times with their repetitions of small rhythmic cells.

Ironically, perhaps, the piece that was most challenging in terms of harmony, rhythm, and following the musical argument was the masterful Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano by Charles Ives, written a century ago.  This was the centerpiece of the program, performed immediately before the intermission.  If I were a young composer presenting new music, I would hesitate putting my latest pieces on the same program with the Ives piece, the work of a mature master in a more advanced idiom.

Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable concert, with many memorable moments and at least one piece, Caleb Burhans’ “Jahrzeit” in memory of his father for string quartet, that was extremely moving to hear.

Brooklyn Art Song Society began its season at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in the Fort Greene neighborhood.  This is the first of several programs planned for this season surveying British song, so they went back to the beginnings, John Dowland and Henry Purcell.  The program was a provocative blend of “authenticity” and “inauthenticity.”  The first half, devoted to Dowland’s songs for voice and lute, were performed with the collaboration of Charles Weaver, one of the city’s leading lutenists, which vocal performances by soprano Sarah Brailey, mezzo Kate Maroney, tenor Nils Neubert, and baritone Jesse Blumberg.  I think these songs would have been a bit better served had they been performed in a smaller, less resonant performing space than this church, since the voices tended to overbalance the lute at times.  For the second half, Purcell songs were presented using Benjamin Britten’s realizations of piano accompaniments.  Britten did a great job, but using a piano to accompany Purcell is throwing authenticity out the window.  Nonetheless, these performances were better suited to the acoustic space.  The four vocalists from the first half were accompanied by pianists Yuri Kim, Dimitri Dover, and BASS artistic director Michael Brofman.  As in the first half, the performances were all very accomplished, and the overall program was a big success to usher in the BASS season.

Coming up next?  5BMF heads to the “boroughs” for performances in Brooklyn and the Bronx on November 12 and 13 by Montreal-based musicians performing baroque music by Biber, Bach, Buxtehude and Schieferlein.  BASS presents its next program on October 6 at Deutsches Haus (New York University), settings of German lyrics by Britten and English-source lyrics by Schubert, Schumann and R. Strauss, and a Ned Rorem birthday celebration at Bargemusic in Brooklyn on October 22.  Lots of good stuff coming up.

Brooklyn Art Song Society: New Voices – The New American Art Song

Posted on: May 14th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Brooklyn Art Song Society is the brainchild of Michael Brofman.  It’s been around for five years, but last night was the first time I was actually able to clear my calendar and head over to Brooklyn to attend one of their concerts.  I had been invited by composer Glen Roven to help celebrate the release of a new Naxos recording that includes his song cycle, The Vineyard Songs.  I had been present over a year ago at a concert in Manhattan when the piece was given its world premiere, with the same performers who were to give it last night: soprano Laura Strickling and pianist Michael Brofman.  As I had expressed eagerness to hear it again, I cleared my calendar and showed up at South Oxford Space, a performance space a few blocks away from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  (I had previously attended a concert there a few years ago that was presented by Five Boroughs Music Festival.)

First a comment about the performing space: The second floor at South Oxford Space (138 S. Oxford Street) is a small concert hall, rectangular with a stage at one end.  But the stage was not used on this occasion.  Instead, the piano was located along the long side of the rectangle with folding chairs spread out facing it.  The acoustics are good, but actually the room is a bit small to accommodate the sound of the piano and singers with operatic-size voices, so much of the time the music was very loud, sometimes oppressively so, and the piano was extremely loud in relation to the voices.  I think that lowering the piano lid to half-mast might have helped with the balances.  This didn’t detract unduly from my enjoyment of the concert, but I think if they use this space again they should think more about balances in light of the size of the room.

That out of the way, I found the entire concert fascinating.

In the program flyer, Brofman describes his organization as “dedicated to the vast repertoire of poetry set to music.”  That means he will NEVER run out of interesting new pieces to present!!  We are actually experiencing a great flowering of new art song in America from numerous young (and not-so-young) composers who are busily enjoying the “new” dispensation to write music people will want to hear.  I say that advisedly.  When I was a student, back in the 1960s and early 1970s, concert music was largely consumed by striving to write music that most ordinary concert-goers would not even recognize as music: no discernible melody, atonal and serial harmony, and a pervasive “grey” quality to everything, buried under a haze of rhythmic complexity.  Although Milton Babbitt didn’t actually say it, a headline writer for High Fidelity magazine summed it up nicely for an article about his work: “Who Cares If You Listen?”  But even at that time, the seeds of a counterrevolution were starting to take root, as the Minimalists were emerging, their music generally well rooted in tonality, and some of the ultra-modernists were rediscovering tonality – Exhibit A was probably George Rochberg.  By the 1990s, the concert music world was once again dominated by tonal composition and a concern for melody and its developments was becoming prominent as a new burst of Romanticism emerged.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the field of American art song, building on the heroic earlier accomplishments of such composers as Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem (and the grandfather of them all, Charles Ives).   Barber and Rorem had been looked down upon by the serialists as “old fashioned.”  It is a source of some regret that Barber didn’t live to see the revival of his music, but happily Rorem is still with us. . .

Every work heard last night seemed to be concerned with communicating, vividly, with an eager audience.  None of these composers could be accused of not caring whether the audience bothered to listen.  Indeed, their songs were all well-crafted to draw the listener into a sound world where words and music combined to enchant the listener, to put the listener under the spell of the composer and the poet, to grip the emotions and produce that collective intake of breath at the peak moments and the gratified murmur at the end.

Last night’s composers, all living and very productive, were Michael Djupstrom, Herschel Garfein, James Kallembach, James Matheson, and Glen Roven.  All except Matheson were present to receive the appreciative applause of the audience, well-deserved.  Baritone Kyle Oliver sang Djupstrom’s “Oars in Water.”  Elisabeth Marshall sang Garfein’s “Two Stoppard Songs” and Kallembach’s “Four Romantic Songs,” and Laura Strickling sang Matheson’s “From Times Alone” and Roven’s “The Vineyard Songs.”  All the performers were excellent in their own individual way, and not one of the songs was less then totally absorbing.  I was hearing everything except the Roven cycle for the first time, but all of this music was so listener-friendly that I found no difficulty in appreciating and enjoying it all.  Michael Brofman’s collaboration at the piano was sterling, and I will be eager to hear his work again during BASS’s next season.  I also hope to hear more of all of these singers, each of whom really knows how to “put over” a song!

According to an announcement in the program, the opening night for next season will be on September 18.  The theme for the season will be British songs, and music by John Dowland and Henry Purcell will make up the first program.  There will be lute songs as well as songs with piano accompaniment.  The location will be the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church which, contrary to the name, bears a S. Oxford Street address.  Check out the Brooklyn Art Song Society website for details.

In the meantime, I would encourage anybody interested in American art song to consider acquiring the new Naxos CD whose release was celebrated last night.  It contains performances of many of the works on last night’s program, with many of the same performers.  I’ve already ordered it, and will add a postscript to this blog posting after I’ve received my copy and had a chance to listen.

New Music Collective Concert on April 18, 2014, at Spectrum (NYC Lower East Side)

Posted on: April 20th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I was invited to attend the concert presented under the auspices of New Music Collective at Spectrum on April 18 by Glen Roven, composer-conductor-record producer extraordinaire. We became acquainted when Glen was commissioned to contribute a song to the 5 Boroughs Music Festival’s Songbook and I attended one of the presentations of that project. His GPR Records is making an important contribution to preserving and advancing American art song as performed by exciting young performers. So when he invited me to attend this concert to hear the premiere of his new song cycle, The Vineyard Songs, Op. 33, by soprano Laura Strickling and Michael Brofman, I resolved to go despite my unfamiliarity with the venue.

Spectrum is a second-story floor-through apartment in an ancient narrow building on Ludlow Street, just a few blocks from where my great-grandfather Jacob Cohen had his tailor shop when he arrived in the New World around 1920. So I get an eerie feeling walking around in this neighborhood, knowing that an ancestor who died long before I was born once walked those streets and, given the age of the buildings in the neighborhood, saw many of the same sights I was seeing as I scurried eastward on DeLancey Street to get there in time for the concert.

I was familiar with only three composer names on the program: Glen Roven, of course, Steven Gerber, and Lowell Lieberman. I’d say that of the three Lieberman is the one who has broken through into the more general consciousness of music lovers to the greatest extent, but his inclusion on this program actually seemed a bit out of place, since he was represented by three of the “Four Etudes on Songs of Robert Franz,” charmingly rendered by pianist Miori Sugiyama, which sounded like relatively faithful piano transcriptions of 19th century lieder, not early 21st century creations!

First things first: Glen’s song cycle is gorgeous. He has set verses by Judith B. Herman, Justen Ahern and Angela M. Franklin, evoking the experience of spending time on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve never been to the Vineyard, so I can’t attest to the accuracy of the feelings summoned up by this melding of verse and music, but I know a fine song cycle when I hear one, and this is a fine song cycle, expertly performed for this world premiere. My enthusiasm for American art song dates to my college years, when I fell deeply for Charles Ives’s songs. Ives really invented the naturalistic setting of idiomatic American verse, liberating us from the constraints of England’s folksong and Germanic-Mendelssohnian precedents, and I heard the same sort of freedom in Glen’s songs. Actually, most of the cycle is concerned with Judith Herman’s songs, six out of the eight numbers, and the two by Ahern and Franklin are the shortest songs, so I would consider this largely a Herman/Roven cycle, and the two combine wonderfully to enhance each other in a unified artistic expression. After the concert, I asked Glen whether these will be recorded, since I want to get to know them better, and he assured me that they would be forthcoming. After all, he pointed out, he owns a record label. . . Happy composer who owns a record label.

Turning to the other works on offer, mostly world premieres:

Herschel Garfein offered two songs from his ongoing project to make an opera out of Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, sung by mezzo-soprano Krista River collaborating with pianist Brofman. I was less impressed by these than by Roven’s songs. I dimly recall attending a production of the Stoppard play when I was an undergraduate at Cornell. (Christopher Reeve, then a Cornell undergrad, appeared in the production I attended. Who knew that skinny kid would become Superman?) I remember a somewhat manic riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, seen from the perspective of these two minor, comic relief characters. I didn’t get a strong sense of character from Garfein’s settings, however. Perhaps the problem was first-hearing, but I didn’t have that problem with most of the other works on the program. The music did not really enhance the text, or at least I didn’t feel that these texts particularly called out for musical setting – although it was difficult to tell because the venue turned down the lights making it impossible to follow the texts in the program and the singer’s enunciation was not sufficently clear to make them easily decipherable as sung. (This was not a problem with Roven’s song cycle, since the lights were kept up.)

Adam Tendler accompanied himself on the piano as he recited Frankie Krainz’s text for Gerald Busby’s melodrama titled “This Is How I Do It.” One doesn’t expect pornography at a serious music concert, and perhaps the text was not included in the program for this reason — but what Busby has provided is a musical accompaniment to a masturbatory scene. And, since the text wasn’t in the program, the audience was properly caught by surprise as the story unfolded and, at the last, an orgasm was described in music just as the text reached that critical point. Well, it was involving…. And the piano accompaniment did work well with the text.

Then we had Michael Rose’s set of variations for woodwind quintet inspired by a J.S. Bach chorale. The members of the WorldWinds Quintet seemed to have the matter well in hand, but on first hearing I could not find much to like in Rose’s quintet. It had a rather fragmentary quality and, as is frequently the case with modern “variations” set, the connection between the variations and the chorale on which they were said to be based, were not obvious to the ear. Perhaps it would grow on me with repeated hearing, but I found this piece tiresome.

Not so, however, the bassoon monologue by Steven Gerber, played most expressively by Jack Chan. This came through as a heartfelt song, inspired by the infamous bassoon solo that introduces Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballot score, Le Sacre du Printemps. I was spellbound by it.

Finishing out the first half of the program was “Marvin Gardens” by Ben Morss, a composer-pianist who performed his own piece. Morss explained that this was an experiment, combining in the same piece the classical piano tradition of the early 19th century remembered from his student days and the more pop-oriented music that he frequently performs in his professional life. This was fun to listen to, but I found it difficult to take seriously, despite the composer’s evident sincerity. It was not a melding of styles, but rather a back-and-forth, passages sounding like Chopin or Schumann alternating with passages sounding like 20th century Broadway, pop and cocktail piano music. Morss, despite his disclaimer before the performance, sounded fully up to the technical challenges he set for himself.

The penultimate work on the program (before the Lieberman Etudes) was a set of three exerpts from a Suite for Electric Guitar, played by composer Thomas Millioto. Millioto seems to have channeled J.S. Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello through his creative process, having written in a style heavily based on that baroque master, but using the characteristic sounds of the electric guitar to make the pieces have a contemporary flavor. So, do we need baroque-style music for electric guitar? Somebody who wants to play the electric guitar in a serious concert setting certainly needs material to play, and I suppose this serves the purpose. Heard on their own, the pieces were interesting and richly evocative of the period on which they were based. And Bach, who himself freely transposed works between different media, would undoubtedly have experimented with the electric guitar were such an instrument available in his time. (I’m not sure how seriously I meant that last line, but on the other hand Bach did experiment with instrumental novelties, such as the recently-invented fortepiano…)

Altogether, some hits and some misses, but that is what one expects from a concert of new music. After all, in any given period of musical history only a handful of composers rise to the top and produce works that will have real staying power beyond their lifetimes, and one can’t be certain from a contemporary perspective about which works by living composers will attain such a life. If I were placing bets from this concert, I would bet on Roven and Gerber most heavily, but all of these composers have enjoyed a certain level of success, and there is no real predicting the musical future. It’s important to support contemporary music concerts and to encourage the composers because the production of music is an extraordinary creative feat and the art needs constant refreshment. I’m glad Glen invited me to this concert.