Performances


Offensive. Incredibly offensive. Just about everything about Anna Nicole’s life as portrayed by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas is offensive. From how her father failed her as a child, to how the father of her child failed both mother and child, to how an opportunistic octogenarian preyed on her fear of once again toeing the poverty line and exploited her desire to be something more than a small-town waitress.

Anna Nicole’s story is offensive, and Turnage and Thomas pay extravagant homage to this. The tragic tale is told primarily by the media: a group of reporters, who expound and comment on the unfolding story, Greek chorus style. A pithy choice, as it is indeed because of the media, that, for better or worse, we know about Anna Nicole’s existence at all.

Something that I found particularly disturbing is how Thomas’ libretto, as we were told Anna Nicole’s back story, had the audience howling at the dirt poor “hicks” of Mexia, Texas, at how excited Anna Nicole was to go to Houston, even at the giant Wal-Mart sign that descended towards the end of Scene 3. But, as she and her fellow coworkers subsequently began to trudge across the stage singing of the woes of low wages, the audience laughter began to die down–being poor and out of options wasn’t funny anymore.

Turnage’s score is all about pure texture cleverly clothed in the intended affect for a given scene. Clusters and non-tonal lines ride around familiar contours (e.g., as the energy rises, so do the notes), and the orchestration communicates a few different genres; Sondheim-esque musical theater, dramatic opera aria, some sort of jazz/rock hybrid.

Sarah Joy Miller shone in the role of Anna Nicole, not only singing the part extremely well, but offering top notch acting. The opera rests on the singer’s ability to acquire your sympathy, and Miller’s performance truly drew you in. I so desperately wanted to stop her from getting that boob job, which, because it led to a pain-killer addiction, effectively ended her life.

Anna Nicole’s life is of course perfect opera fodder, the tragic story of a doomed woman buffeted about and manipulated by an unfeeling and greedy world. It’s as if, like Rigoletto’s Gilda, Anna Nicole was cursed from the start.

Many, many thanks to my friend Elizabeth Keenan-Penagos for the tickets. This review is of the 25 September 2013 performance.

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I missed the sold-out premiere of ¡Figaro! (90210) last November (though that didn’t stop me from blogging about it), so I am extremely excited about attending the limited run next week.

Note-for-note the music is Mozart’s from The Marriage of Figaro, but with an entirely new English (and Spanglish) libretto by writer Vid Guerrerio. The opera recasts the opera’s title character as an undocumented worker on a present-day Beverly Hills estate, with the debate over immigration reform taking center stage plot-wise.

I caught up with Vid to ask him a few questions about the show:

What was the inspiration behind this rethinking of Mozart’s work?

“It’s funny, but the original inspiration for this piece probably goes all the way back to when I was 12 years old, and had my first experience with theater, which just happened to be as a member of the boys chorus in a production of Carmen at Opera Theatre Saint Louis. What’s really special about the company is that they present all of their operas in English so, not having been schooled otherwise that opera was some kind of rarified, inaccessible artform, I just saw it as really cool theater with great music. From that experience I went on to perform in a number of different musicals and really fell in love with the marriage of theater and music, eventually landing at NYU where I studied musical theater writing as part of the graduate program at Tisch.

“I realized at that time how special my experience at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis had been, in that all of my other colleagues had this view of opera as something that was alienating, academic, and totally antithetical to the populist impulses of musical theater, no matter how hard I tried to convey my enthusiasm for my favorite operatic works. Even when I exposed them to English-language versions of the classics, especially The Marriage of Figaro, which has long been one of my favorite operas, they just complained that the language was stilted, the drama unconvincing, or that everything was just simply too long and drawn out to really engage them.

“While there are certainly a lot of other ideas that have made their way into the show, ultimately the desire to help inspire the same love of opera, and in particular this specific opera, is what drove me to create ¡Figaro! (90210). My primary objective has been to honor not only the music of Mozart, but the original intentions of both Pierre Beaumarchais and Lorenzo DaPonte, so that contemporary theatergoers, even those unschooled in the conventions of opera, can experience the emotions that those creators wanted to inspire in their audiences.”

Can you tell us a little about your involvement with the project?

“In putting together both the original workshop last November, as well as these concert performances, Morningside Opera has been an ideal collaborator. In some ways, it’s almost as if this project was tailor-made for them, with their mission to develop new audiences for opera by bridging the gap between the new and the traditional, even though we really had no contact with each other until after I had finished writing the entire show.

“As far as my involvement is concerned, I imagine it is quite typical of theater writers working with their producing company on a new work of any kind… or at least the positive examples of that kind of collaboration… and what has emerged really is a shared vision.

“I think the greatest contribution that Morningside Opera made was to assemble a creative team right from the outset that included music director Raphael Fusco, who has the musical knowledge and skills to protect the original intentions of Mozart’s music, as well as stage director Melissa Crespo, a newcomer to the world of opera, who has leveraged her experience in creating accessible and culturally-relevant theater, as well as her own Hispanic heritage, to fully realize the intentions of the new libretto.

“Throughout the production process, I certainly have given input on decisions such as casting, and I really could not be happier with the roster of singing actors and musicians that we have onboard, but the real joy of seeing the concert performances come together has been handing over the reins to Raphael and Melissa (as well as our crackerjack production stage manager Elizabeth Goodman) and seeing them build something both wildly entertaining and deeply moving from the blueprints that I adapted from Mozart, Daponte, and Beaumarchais.”

What are you most proud of about this second production?

“I view the shows this coming week as the full incarnation of what started the workshop last November, and the process has really felt like a continuation rather than a second iteration. That said, what I am most proud about is the fact that as a team we were able to put the concert performances up so quickly.

“As I mentioned, my original intention in writing this was to share the joy that Mozart’s opera inspires in me with a broader audience than typically attends original-language operas. At the same time, there definitely is a secondary objective for the show, which is to engage audiences in a dialogue about cultural shifts underway in America, stemming from this country’s increasingly diverse population, and the tensions (both dramatic and comic) that this creates.

“I feel this shift directly mirrors the dramatic change that European culture underwent in the late 18th and early 19th century, and that the unique blend of humor and heart, and wisdom that the original creators managed to infuse into The Marriage of Figaro can really speak to people today as we navigate our way forward.

“The debate over the immigration reform bill currently pending in Congress provides a unique opportunity for us to engage in a larger dialogue about the changing face of America, beyond simply the status of the 11 million or so unauthorized workers living in the United States. I am thrilled that we have been able to put this show up while that debate is still underway, and I hope that audiences will experience ¡Figaro! (90210) as the kind of popular entertainment that I first started envisioning as a 12-year-old watching Carmen dance across the stage.”

Performance details:

Morningside Opera presents ¡Figaro! (90210) at The NSD Theater (151 Bank Street, west of Hudson) in the West Village.

June 11, 12, 14 and 15 at 8:00PM and Sunday, June 16 at 3:00PM (performances last two and a half hours, including a fifteen minute intermission). More information and ticketing can be found at www.morningsideopera.com. All tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door and $25 for students and seniors.

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Transit presented the final concert of their “new music from around the world” DoubleBill festival on Monday, which featured the incomparable Vicky Chow on solo piano.

NYC

Clifton Gates (2011) by Jacob Cooper. Vicky puts in earbuds, cues up her laptop for live processing, plays from an iPad (instead of paper sheet music). Each chord she plays repeating in a rhythmic echo via the processing. Chords far enough apart to let the echo beat a couple times. A disjointed melody is woven in. Chords occur more closely together as the melody expands, intensifies. She moves gradually higher and higher on the piano, playing louder and louder, the reverberations of the high chords bouncing around the church. Minor mode. Becomes gradually softer until the end.

Hoyt-Schermerhorn (2010) by Christopher Cerrone. Named after the stop on the G train route. The piece is about waiting, the expectation of something to happen, as in waiting forever for the G train to arrive (I can personally attest to the scarcity of that train at that stop). Very still, quiet beginning, chords/dyads played in slow tempo. Four-note melody repeats with different chords underneath. New character as melody goes away and low rich chord pattern repeats and expands while another, higher pattern also repeats independently. High goes away and we’re left with rich low chord pattern. Abrupt loud and high dyad, which repeats in processed echo. Slow diminuendo as the train leaves the station.

Aorta (2010) by Daniel Wohl. Angular melody and its twin an 11th (or farther) apart played simultaneously, major 2nd dyads. Pace quickens exponentially, electronics enter. II. Repeated note in syncopated rhythm. Piano’s sound altered electronically, echoey with percussive effect like pitched wooden block. She takes hands away from piano to reveal the sound is looping. III. Electronic track begins, she plays a pattern in which almost every note is struck twice, wide contour spanning the entire keyboard. Built on melodic 2nds. Playing intensifies, activity increases, ends abruptly.

NETHERLANDS

Wave 3 (2007) by Peter Adriaansz. Electronic track and she play the same low note, she adds octave while reaching inside piano and touches ebows to the strings. Now a fifth added, she plucks a string. Track disperses into multiple barely discernible notes. Octaves and fifths persist creating with track an ever growing cloud of sound. Now a major 3rd added. She continues to touch the ebows to the piano strings. Electronic track producing beating, filling the church with its oscillations, eerily making the sound feel very close. Beating continues and intensifies, just this side of uncomfortably so. All the while she continues the octaves and fifths. Beating gradually attenuates, her playing grows softer.

The Body Is an Ear (2012) by Kate Moore. Vicky performs with pre-recorded track of herself playing the same part as she’s playing live, resulting in big, layered sound. Minor scale, different meters in left and right hands. Lots of motion, minimalistic in its slight permutations of repeated figures. Very dramatic, gradual build, sudden decrease. Watching her playing the multiple meters very exciting. Another increase, loudest yet, pounding away, using full expanse of the keyboard. Another decrease and more metrical difference between the hands. Sudden increase and much more discordant. Extreme decrease, reduces to one repeated note.

Digit #2 (2003) by Mayke Nas. David Friend joins her at the piano. Begins with deceptively simplistic alternation between loud cluster, silence for several seconds, loud cluster again. David and Vicky slamming both of their hands on the keyboard; at one point they hit so hard it makes the sheet music flutter off the stand. The clusters occur at different parts of the keyboard, and the timing in between varies. Speeding up, alternating between low and high end, both striking with their right hands and then with their left hands. They begin clapping in between the clusters, pace is regular, rhythmic now. Also slapping their thighs. Then they begin clapping each other’s hands pat-a-cake style. The rhythms become increasingly complex, amazing to watch the coordination of the clapping and cluster-playing. (A little worried one might accidentally slap the other in the face!). The seemingly simplistic piece has become really engaging. Amazing lightning fast pat-a-cake at the end! Performance ends with our cheers.

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TRANSIT New Music had their first ever DoubleBill three-day festival over the weekend. DoubleBill is an ingenious concert series that has a five-year history of presenting the “latest offerings from composers” from around the world alongside recent works from NYC composers. Here’s my take on Concert 2, Australia/NYC, performed with excellent taste and skill by Sara Budde (clarinet), David Friend (piano), Evelyn Farny (cello), Joe Bergen (percussion), and Andie Springer (violin).

AUSTRALIA

Onliving (2008/2013) by William Gardiner. World premiere of an arrangement of a longer piece.

Opens with piano, a repeating pattern in the right hand, short gestures from the left hand. The sound is gentle, major-ish, resonant. The others instruments join in, and the piece becomes more rhythmically active, louder, the scale more minor-tinged. Nonetheless it is always gentle, an ebb and flow of loudness, always a repeating pattern in the piano. Definitely a touch of minimalism.

Beginning to Collapse (2007) by Julian Day.

Pre-recorded track opens piece. Much different mood than first piece. Sparse, less activity, single notes, strings performing extended, slow downwards glissando. The track fades out, leaving complete silence, then fades back in (this happens several times). Cymbal roll quiet (soft mallets), extended. Crotales, high piano note alternating in quick, regular beat. The piece has a definite awareness of silence, as if both track and instruments trying not to obliterate it too much.

Kokain, Champagner und Beruhigungsmittel [Cocaine, Champagne and Sedative] (2013) by Tim Hansen. World premiere.

Short, quick gestures punctuate sustained notes; gestures’ character is playful, lusty. Piece is rhythmically complex, the group moving their bodies as a result of the effort to stay synced in the meter. Lots of bombast, especially from piano, and some kit playing. The clarinet and cello play stratospheric melody in unison, humorous ending as entire group plays last two, quick notes in unison, eliciting laughter from audience.

NYC

|D@L!/\/\P$3S7 ζf(f(2)) (2011) by Pat Muchmore.

I. High notes, dramatic crescendo into fast-paced rhythmic activity, a genteel tonal section punctuated by a cluster in the piano. A chill clarinet solo, abruptly interrupted by vibraphone. Moments when all are playing the same note, which then scatters out into thicker texture. A violent outburst, and then back to calm.  II. Shrill high note from the whole group, oscillating widely in vibraphone. A drastic drop to calm, eerie vibes solo. Strings abruptly switch to rhythmic sawing. Piece lives in the extremes.

Ulrikke (2008) by Matthew Welch for cello and percussion.

Gong-strike, light skittering on the cello. Vibraphone, wide vibrato. Cello plays a light melody in double stops. Vibe plays intermittent polychords. Cello plays melody reminiscent of Matthew’s opera  Borges and the Other. Vibes plays repeating upwards moving dreamy scale. More fully round sound than heretofore in the piece. Vibes now playing downward scale. Cello short-long melody with chords in vibes. Cello melody, quick-paced interlocking accompaniment from vibes. Folk and dreamscape hues.

What I’m Trying to Say Is… (2009) by Angélica Negrón.

Joe holds a red plastic toy to the microphone that says letters of the alphabet in a robotic voice, “i” and “u” (and “a” as a joke during the tuning). Bowing vibes. Ensemble playing light but active. Clarinetist speaking through mini megaphone, Joe popping bubble wrap into mic, the toy robot-voice again. Now David using megaphone, then violinist. Cool unison melody with cello and piano. Layering lines that don’t line up rhythmically, until they do. Piece has a fresh, light sound even with its heavier moments.

What I loved about this performance was that I was unable to make any sweeping generalizations (heaven forbid) about the two halves of the concert. The music really did run a gamut of styles and techniques, and I guess that is the beauty of the global “new music” scene,  that there is no overriding style; you’re always tuning your ears to new sounds.

It’s interesting, this idea of the composer performing alone onstage, simultaneously with her or his past self, whether immediate (via live looping) or more distant (via recorded track). This was the unifying feature of Instrument Unbound at 92Y Tribeca, which featured sets by composers Jennifer Stock (also the curator of the concert), Florent Ghys, Angélica Negrón, and Lesley Flanigan. It was composers unbound from the constraints of time, but also unbound from the often unwieldy act of performing with other people, a sort of streamlining of the creative process.

Jennifer Stock’s set was divided into five parts; in each, the electronic track enveloped her piano playing, often beginning and ending sections while she sat like us in the audience, listening. The music had major and minor scale hues, and was also open sounding (more sixths than thirds, e.g.). There were times of metrical activity, and times when the rhythmic element manifested itself more loosely. The energy of the music and the accompanying video was a notch above ambient, creating a subtle mood that nonetheless drew you in.

Florent Ghys’ set featured live looping of both his double bass playing and the video captured by the laptop sitting next to him. He achieved parts of this by using the iPad that was affixed to the front of his bass. There was a playful aspect to his set, the ebullient bass gestures repeating at a catchy beat, the videos of himself splitting in time with the music into four frames that spun and shrunk away into a white screen. After his set, the barefoot Ghys asked the audience to approach him with any feedback, as he was still experimenting with the technology.

As a matter of necessity, Angélica Negrón writes on her site that lately she has been thrust into the role of composer/performer; performing her music live by herself has become a “rite of passage” that her new songs must go through before she arranges them for others. A collector of toy instruments, her live performance featured a gentle layering of ethereal sound, her whispery singing floating in and out of the texture.

Lesley Flanigan is in many ways the perfect example of the solo composer/performer, building her own instruments and relying only on a PA system and microphone to broadcast her music to the audience. Flanigan creates her sounds by holding the microphone near her handmade speakers to achieve varying levels of feedback, which are then looped to create rich textures of sound. She also vocalizes into the microphone, the overall effect that of a dissipating intimacy.

Instrument Unbound told a compelling story of the writers of music, one in which both their process and sentiments were openly displayed on the stage. The audience saw, at least partially, the compositional process in action, and heard the composer’s voice directly, unaltered.

I always applaud music organizations that program concerts full of fresh pieces by young composers. Thus, though they may have overshot the mark a bit by programming no less than eleven pieces on Friday, I give due credit to NYC-based Quiet City for an ambitious, eclectic performance of new music.

The evening began with “No Hipster Hats” for trumpet and tape by Adam Cuthbért, who also performed. Using Ableton Live and a controller, Cuthbért created a layered, ambient electronic piece by looping and manipulating the sounds he made with his trumpet. Highly coordinated in his frequent moves between the controller and the trumpet, the visual effect created an interesting cognitive dissonance with the Eno-esque music.

Stand out pieces on the program included “pppppppppppppppp” by Matthew Hough, an open instrumentation work performed here on keyboard, sax, cello and violin. As can be gleaned from the title, the piece hovered on the edge of silence, the performers’ extremely quiet gestures sounding akin to a hurried, whispered conversation, drawing you in to hear its secrets.

Drake Andersen‘s “Four Boughs” for voice, flute, guitar and percussion was a sparse piece whose individual instrumental parts were loosely organized around a text called “The Mirror” by Analicia Sotelo. As each performer interpreted their part the audience experienced differing perspectives of each one’s interaction with the others. Hence, as the composer put it, the piece is like looking up into the boughs of a tree: “the shapes scatter and the sunlight reaches the eye by different lines.”

“Variations on Control” for Pierrot ensemble and percussion by Luke Schwartz explored the tension between the influence of the past over the present, and of the composer over the performer. Determinate music represented the past and the composer, while freer moments in which only parameters were given represented the present, and the performer’s influence over the “here and now.”

While crazy lengthy, the concert did serve as a reminder to me of just how much experimental music is being made in New York City; and its performance in a small blackbox in Queens reminded me just how underground (often quite literally) this music lives its life.

I’ve had the privilege to listen to some pretty awesome music lately:

From bachtrack.com

Dreams and anxieties, religious and otherwise, were the dominant themes at Thursday night’s New York Philharmonic performance.

The concert program worked backwards in time, starting with Phantasmata by composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse (completed in 1985), followed by Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo (1916), and finishing with Brahms’Symphony no. 1 (published in 1877). The effect was such that the newness of the first piece conferred upon the following pieces a sense of freshness; the Bloch and Brahms felt just as “now” as the Rouse…

From OUPblog

In December I blogged about composers whose works challenge listeners to reconsider which combinations of sounds qualify as music and which do not. Interestingly, The Atlantic recently ran an article relating the details of a study that tested how much of our perception of what is “music” – in this case, pleasant, consonant music – is learned (and thus not innate). For me (and perhaps for you) there is nothing too surprising about this — there are far too many types of music in this world of ours for the perception of consonance (or, what is pleasing in music) to be innate — but it serves as a fine backdrop for what I’m about to write…

And another from bachtrack.com

“Wheel: mechanical, circular motion. The brake was invented later.”

Enno Poppe’s words about Rad(“Wheel”), the first piece on his Composer Portraits concert at Miller Theatre on Saturday night, express well the experience of listening to it. With their two keyboards connected to computers that allowed them to play a huge array of scales in multiple tunings, Laura Barger and Ning Yu of Yarn/Wire gave a dizzying, athletic performance of the piece, which Barger related afterwards left her and Yu feeling almost like madwomen…

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