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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.

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.