Friday, February 23, 2018

A family affair

Mozart and Sly Stone may not have much in common besides music, but it was Sly's hit "It's a Family Affair" that ran through my head after Distinguished Concerts International NY's (DCINY) latest concert, at Carnegie Hall.

The performance, titled "Perpetual Light: The Requiems of Mozart and Duruflé," was the second in DCINY's tenth-anniversary year, which is playing on the concept of light in  a couple of its 20 programs.

As I wrote in this post about singing in DCINY's "Messiah," the company invites choirs from around the world to perform in New York, maintains a regular orchestra and engages soloists.   

At "Perpetual Light," the 250+ singers on stage came from 20 choirs (U.S., Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, U.K.). Many family members were in attendance, buoyant with pleasure at seeing a relative onstage in the glamorous venue.

At intermission, I met two ladies from Louisiana, there to support an 87-year-old mother-in-law. The program listed the First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir from Lake Charles, La., which also had a 92-year-old member in the concert, the ladies said. 

A young man named Chaz Adams, from San Francisco, was there for his mom, Ingrid Gosney of Kalama, Wash., not too far from Portland, Ore. (Portland Choir). For her, performing at Carnegie Hall was "a dream come true," he said.

The invited choir members support the concert financially. To its credit, DCINY staff maintain a professional but warm atmosphere while handling 3,500-4,500 singers a year. You could call it a family.

The real bottom line lies in this question: is the music of high quality? The answer, with a couple of qualifications, is "yes."

DCINY supports and enhances its amateur singers with solidly professional conductors, orchestra musicians (especially concertmaster Jorge Ávila) and soloists. If my experience in December is any guide, the choirs generally have been working on the music at home for weeks before coming together to rehearse in New York for a couple of days before the concert.

For me, the Mozart Requiem towers above all others in its high drama and emotion. There is not much going gently into that good night in the work that Mozart was composing even on his death bed.

Maestro James M. Meaders set an exciting pace in the "Dies irae" ("day of wrath") and brought out the lovely melodic line in the "Hostias" section. Soloists Maribeth Crawford (soprano), Ceclia Stearman (mezzo-soprano), Shawn Mlynek (tenor) and Patton Rice (bass) navigated their parts expertly, but Crawford projected most fully into the hall.

The choir sang with real feeling, but often the precision wasn't quite there that exists when a group sings together regularly, and it seems the singers gave way to the temptation to blast. I recall from my experience that maintaining piano and varying the dynamics, according to the conductor's rehearsal instructions, sometimes was forgotten in the excitement of the moment. 

However, the singers really seemed to gel in the Duruflé, conducted by Jean-Sébastien Vallée, with its echoes of Gregorian chant. Stearman really shone in a sublime "Pie Jesu," scored for accompanying solo cello and organ, and the soprano section stood out in the "In Paradisum."

One advantage of these family events is the presence of young people in the audience, and (a few) in the choir. A girl, perhaps 15, sat in front of me, intently absorbing the music. Across the aisle sat one girl with blue hair and another with fuschia hair. It may not be explicitly stated in DCINY's mission, but the "parent" organization is also raising the classical music children of the future.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Messiah II - slim and dancing

A great work such as Handel's "Messiah" -- especially if it has been around for nearly three centuries -- will inevitably be subject to different interpretations as it passes through musical styles and eras.

My second "Messiah" of this Christmas season looked back toward the baroque 18th century, while the first had more in common with the Romantic 19th. This time, the venue was St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Mamaroneck, N.Y., celebrating its bicentennial year.

Music Director Eric Milnes led a chamber orchestra of about 15 playing on period instruments, and a choir of about 25, compared to the 400 singers and 70 instrumentalists performing at Carnegie Hall last month in a concert produced by Distinguished Concerts International NY (DCINY).

As I wrote about "Messiah" I, making a Carnegie Hall debut in this work was a thrilling and very special experience.

"Messiah" II was astonishingly different.

At Carnegie, the DCINY chorus, consisting of more than a dozen choirs from around the world, produced a mighty and magnificent sound, aided by conductor Jonathan Griffith's inspired antiphonal placement of singers at the ends of the first balcony.     

With just three rehearsals, it seemed to me that Griffith was, first of all, striving for clarity of expression as he melded the choirs. There were unique characteristics, such as his emphasis on taking silent breaths. Can you imagine 400 people all audibly taking a breath at the same time?

"Messiah" at St. Thomas Church, Mamaroneck, N.Y.
At St. Thomas, the church was full -- but this audience numbered about 220, compared to 2,800, an intimate living room compared to an awe-inspiring hall. 

Milnes, a baroque specialist who has conducted "Messiah" many times, has put his individual mark on this work. He conducted from the harpsichord, whose gentle, ethereal sound complemented the warm sonic color of the baroque instruments. 

With a much smaller group and more time for rehearsal, Milnes conducted a "Messiah" that was quite brisk. This "Messiah" danced, with rising and falling dynamics that shaped phrases like an urgent conversation. It was as if we were speaking one-on-one -- "Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Let me tell you about this. It's wonderful!"

He also varied the articulation. One example that resonates in my head was the phrase in the sublime chorus, "Worthy is the Lamb." The next few words are "that was slain." I've only ever heard the phrase sung legato, but Milnes had us detach the last three words - "Worthy is the Lamb. That. Was. Slain." Now there is a poignant contrast between the two phrases.      

Here's Milnes conducting the Hallelujah Chorus in rehearsal at St. Thomas, with a tympani solo at the end that I've never heard before. 

Milnes' collaboration with a stellar group of soloists and skilled instrumentalists produced  a "Messiah" that received a tumultuous ovation at the end. However, this interpretation also touched people directly in the heart.

After the applause and bows, as musicians were packing up and audience members shrugging into their coats, a woman came backstage with tears in her eyes, just looking to find someone to whom she could say, "that was profoundly moving. I have never heard 'Messiah' like that."

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Carnegie debut in a hall of memories

Radio dramas are described as "theater of the mind," but a work of music that comes pretty close to that description for me is Handel's "Messiah," which captivated me from a young age.

I was electrified by the drama baked into the oratorio's music as it told the story of humankind's redemption through the coming of the Christ. When the tenor opened with "Comfort ye, my people," the violins accented with a sweet, soothing melody. In the bass air, when "the nations so furiously raged," so did the music. When the holy one is betrayed - "He was despised," "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart" -- the grief is palpable.

"Messiah - Refreshed" at Carnegie Hall
The great soaring choruses - "Hallelujah," "Worthy is the lamb" and the "Amen," "For unto us a child is born" - seemed to break open a vision of the heavens.

Growing up in New York, "Messiah" was a part of Christmas, usually at Carnegie Hall. My mother would take me and my brother and sometimes one of our friends. She got box seats - a special experience with a vestibule to hang coats and red velvet chairs.

Since I tend toward anxiety, I always worried about whether anyone would stand during the Hallelujah Chorus. Would I be the only one? If no one else stood, should I sit down quickly?

So the curtain rose on a multi-layered theater of the mind on Nov. 26, 2017 when I made my Carnegie Hall debut in the chorus (soprano section) of "Messiah," produced by Distinguished Concerts International of New York (DCINY).

This organization, celebrating its tenth year, produces concerts, including large scale choral works with auditioned and invited choirs from around the world, which also contribute financial support. This mighty "Messiah," using the Thomas Beecham/Eugene Goossens 1959 version for full symphony orchestra, featured more than 400 singers and around 60 instrumentalists. The concert title was "Messiah - Refreshed," referring to this version more suited to the Romantic age.

With conductor Jonathan Griffith. 
A few weeks before the concert, they needed additional singers and reached out to a Connecticut group with which I'd sung "Messiah." That group put the word out to its list and it took me a nanosecond to say "yes" to appearing on the august stage of the hall inaugurated by Tchaikovsky in 1891 and since host to so many immortals. (As a pianist, it's a thrill to tread the same floor as Horowitz and Rubenstein.)

Our first rehearsal, in a hotel ballroom, besides resembling a cattle call, indicated DCINY's reach and attraction. I was astonished to hear ensembles introduced that had traveled from several states as well as Canada, Mexico, Austria, France, Hong Kong - and Australia!

Our dynamic maestro, DCINY co-founder Jonathan Griffith, led rehearsals with a big personality and deep choral knowledge, shaping the drama of the work and bringing out the group's best sound. When we "got" an important point, he would let out a triumphant "YES!"

Singing soprano means you get to hit the thrilling high notes, such as the high A toward the end of the great "Amen" that slices into the music with ecstatic joy. As our section gelled, the sound waves from my neighbors' voices resonated in my head.

After two days and seven hours of rehearsals, concert day began with a dress rehearsal and I stepped onto the stage for the first time. Note: there is very little wing space on stage right, so since my group was in an assembly room four flights up, we were lined up and waited ... then we hustled down the stairs and whoosh! - right onto the bright lights of the stage.

The lovely white and gold auditorium, with its gently curving balcony lines, seems to embrace the performer, and its acoustics are legendary. How is it possible that a 2,800-seat hall can seem like an intimate music salon?

Carnegie Hall: the view from the stage.
Our choral group was scheduled to perform in parts 2 and 3. The chorus for part 1 took seats on both ends of the first balcony. They also sang "Hallelujah" and "Worthy is the lamb," with us, for a surround sound effect. For the first time, we heard the rich orchestral instrumentation. "The trumpet shall sound" -- another favorite air.

After lunch break, we reassemble. This is it; showtime. Breathe. Stretch. Focus. Hum. Warm up the voice. Relax the jaw. Relax the tongue. Prepare for those Handelian high Fs, Gs and As. Hurry up and wait. Line up. Down the stairs. Music down at the side, in the left hand. Bright stage lights! Walk onto the riser ... carefully. Turn. The house lights are still up and there is a person in every seat. My daughter springs up to wave. I smile.

The house lights fade to black. I look up at the box seats and see my mother, with two kids, laying down a legacy of music in a magical hall, in a great city. I hope my daughter will also feel it, generation to generation.

We open our books and we're away. We're onstage for more than an hour, but it goes fast. At the first few notes of "Hallelujah," people begin to get to their feet and by the time we swing into "for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth," everyone I can see is standing.

Look mom, I'm standing on the stage of Carnegie Hall. It's a miracle. How do we sound? Hallelujah.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Waiting for Hamlet

Milton’s famous dictum – “they also serve who only stand and wait” – came to mind while experiencing the existential confusion of the duo at the heart of a new opera, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Composer and librettist Herschel Garfein’s work musicalizes Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, which took two minor characters at the edges of Hamlet and gave them universal anxieties – “What is my part in great events?”, “What am I doing here?”, “Do I really understand what’s going on?”

Rosencrantz  is receiving a fully-staged (and sensationally good) production with piano accompaniment at the Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake, N.Y. as part of the summer opera training program’s expanded initiative to support new works. Last year, the program produced a memorable staging of Mack and McGuire’s  Roscoe based on the William Kennedy novel, which went on to have an orchestral, semi-staged production with Deborah Voigt and the Albany Symphony.

A scene from the opera Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo/Seagle Music Colony
In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two school friends of the prince, hired to spy on him and deliver him to an assassin. They prove to be unequal to the task and their eventual fate is announced with the dry line, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”

With a healthy nod to Beckett’s existential Waiting for Godot, Stoppard created two bewildered bumblers trying to make sense of events whipping past their eyes – a prince who pretends to be mad, a murder mystery surrounding the previous king, a vengeful current king, a queen with loose morals. He also brilliantly created major characters out of the Player and his “tragedians” – the troupe that arrives at court and mimes the circumstances of the former king’s death – who deliver witty comments on acting and theater, artifice and reality.

Garfein’s intriguing music generally follows a narrative line since R and G are mostly passive characters commenting on the action, and he delightfully uses vaudeville style in “Your Uncle is the King of Denmark.” In addition, “Guildenstern’s Aria,” “The Butterfly Song” and the final chorus, “Was It All for This?” are particularly striking.

It’s the first staging for Rosencrantz, which has had excerpts produced, and it’s to be hoped the opera will have further development. While Garfein and director Richard Kagey’s staging have beautifully mined the absurdist humor in the play, the dramatic drive sags in the second act, with, for instance, one too many ruminations upon death.

A bit more exposition for those not familiar with Hamlet would help audiences through what seems to be a puzzling plot. In the final duel scene, for instance, Hamlet’s opponent Laertes’s name isn’t mentioned until halfway through the scene, much less why he’s dueling. Although any theater work can be enjoyed on its own, reading at least a synopsis of Hamlet before seeing the opera will help.

In this production, the ensemble acting is particularly strong. The July 22, 2017 cast featured Joshua Cook as a genial Rosencrantz, Zachary Crowle as a brooding Guildenstern, Andrew Henry as a charismatic Player, Kevin Bryant as a magnetic, arrogant Hamlet and Bridget Cappel as the sweet-voiced boy actor Alfred.

Clearly the cast had strong training in farce and absurdist styles, and director Kagey’s blocking created some beautiful stage pictures. Andrew Bisantz conducted with verve as master pianists Jennifer McGuire and José Meléndez negotiated the fast-moving score with enormous skill. Jim Koehnle’s set is simple but effective, with a barn-board backdrop, steps creating several levels and some clever projection work (Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy is projected on the backdrop while he mimes it downstage). Of Therese Tresco's Elizabethan costumes, the colorful plume on the Player's dramatic black hat was particularly effective. 

In the beginning, R and G note that “we were sent for,” but in the end they bungle their mission completely. Let’s hope that any of us responds to a similar call with more aplomb – but, of course, nothing is a sure thing.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Far away from violence and fear

I knew the cast of Come From Away, a new Broadway musical that celebrates the best of humanity in the dark days following 9/11, would get the Newfoundland accents right where a woman said early on that planes were landing at the "hairport."

The Rock's version of Celtic speech -- attaching an "h" to a beginning vowel and speaking with a rhythmic verve -- was just one of the island's unique ways that greeted 6,500 passengers from 38 planes forced to land in the town of Gander on that day of terror.

As American authorities closed U.S. airspace, dozens of incoming flights were diverted to Canada. With just 10,000 people, Gander's extra-long runway, from the days when it was a transatlantic refueling stop, made it a perfect location.  

What happened to the passengers next was first told in a 2003 book by journalist Jim DeFede, The Day the World Came to Town.

The people of Gander and its neighboring towns mobilized in an army of concern and hospitality, opening churches, community halls and schools as shelters, providing clothing and food (even kosher meals), setting up phone banks and fax machines.

Then they went further - inviting the "plane people" into their homes for a bed and a shower, taking care of the animals on the planes, offering to lend personal vehicles for sightseeing.

In a place that's mostly white and mostly Christian, they took care of people from all over the world -- a point that now resonates most powerfully in a time of suspicion and fear.

The Canadian creators of Come From Away's book, music and lyrics, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, attended a tenth-anniversary reunion in Gander in 2011. The show was then initially developed by producer Michael Rubinoff at Canada's Sheridan College, where the dynamic music theater performance program held a celebration in New York on opening weekend.

Featuring an ensemble cast, the show opens with a rousing "Welcome to the Rock," a fast-moving introduction to Newfoundland, a windswept island on the edge of the north Atlantic, "where the winter tried to kill us." The island's harsh weather serves as a clue to its culture - sturdy people in a seafaring economy whose instinct is to band together for survival and whose humor is legendary.

Lest the idea of a "9/11 musical" (as some unfortunate headlines had it) conjure up the ultimate in bad taste, the horrific events in the U.S. are referred to through reactions - to a radio report, an unseen TV, a phone call.

Left, Jenn Colella as American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass, and passengers..
A musical in the modern style that mixes narrative, song and movement, the 12-member cast plays many parts against Beowulf Boritt's spare set of planks and trees.

Director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Kelly Devine move the action swiftly, from the local Tim Hortons coffee shop to the airport, the planes and the town.

An eight-piece onstage band keeps the Irish-flavored music whirling, especially in a bar scene where some of the newcomers are made honorary Newfoundlanders by drinking the fiery rum called "screech" and kissing a cod.

One of the most affecting moments - again, in today's atmosphere - was a song called "Prayer," where the firefighter's mother prays at a Catholic church, the Muslim goes down on his knees and a Jewish rabbi chants. The song begins with the prayer of St. Francis: "Make me a channel of your peace."

The stress and tension of those days isn't glossed over - the school bus drivers are on strike and have to be convinced to come off the picket lines to drive hundreds of passengers from the airport, a Muslim passenger is the object of suspicion, people stuck in a strange place just want to get home, a woman is desperate for news of her firefighter son in New York.

The cast are all excellent, but standouts for me were the zestful Jenn Colella as American Airlines' first female captain, Beverley Bass and Joel Hatch as Gander Mayor Claude Elliott.

At times, the party atmosphere and celebration of all things Newfoundland made me a little uncomfortable, given the context. Yet the joy of discovering such humanity in a moment of ultimate darkness and evil bubbles to the surface, especially since one realizes that Americans were the refugees at that moment and were given shelter.

This was expressed most amusingly as an African-American passenger, played by Rodney Hicks, is told by the mayor to go get some barbecue grills out of some backyards so a big cook-out can help feed the passengers.

The black man is convinced he's going to be shot, then wonderingly relates how "every single person invited me in for a cup of tea and offered to help me steal their own grill."

"Sure, if you need it, go ahead and take it" -- that was the prevailing reaction in Gander, Newfoundland and its next-door towns on September 11, 2001.

This wonderful musical extols generosity and emotions that should last long after the current angry climate is swept away.


Monday, December 26, 2016

L'Amour de Loin: operatic dream world

Opera may be the most tradition-bound of art forms (on a par with symphony orchestras), but the Metropolitan Opera continues to explore exciting new methods of musical storytelling with its new production of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin (Love from afar).

The production has made headlines because it's only the second opera by a female composer produced in the Met's 133-year history. In addition, it's only the fourth time that a woman has taken the podium -- the Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki.

Far from a gimmick, both women are in the midst of respected careers and it seems a shame that the New York classical music world would seem to be a bit behind Europe and other areas in creating opportunities for female artistic leaders.

Now, L'Amour de Loin (which premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000) has very little action and practically no change of scene. However, Canadian director Robert LePage and set/costume designer Michael Curry have created a visual world that moves while exploring such non-physical realms as mind and emotion. 

Left to right, Tamara Mumford, Susanna Phillips
 and Eric Owens in L'Amour de Loin
The plot concerns the 12th century French poet and troubador, Jaufré Rudel, who was said to have fallen in love with the Countess of Tripoli (one of the Crusader states in what is now Lebanon) simply from descriptions of her virtues brought to France by pilgrim travelers. He sets sail across the Mediterranean to see her, falls ill on the journey and, upon arrival, dies in her arms.

This is wholly in keeping with improbably opera plots, but as is often the case, plot isn't the main point. Inhabiting the mythical status of the story, L'Amour de Loin explores the quality of purity in love, divorced from love's object. The poetic libretto by Amin Maalouf even asks, "What good is love from afar?"

The undulating sea is suggested by rows of thousands of LED lights suspended across the stage. A pilgrim traveler (Tamara Mumford) and Rudel (Eric Owens) travel in a small boat, but a large set piece resembling a bridge on a single pivot also suggests a boat and, when stationary, a shore or the rim of a castle. The lights swirl with color and are separated by enough space that the chorus seems to rise from the sea.

The work of lighting designer Kevin Adams, lighting image designer Lionel Arnould and sound designer Mark Grey is seamlessly integrated.    

While firmly tonal, Saariaho's music includes electronic sounds. Each character, the chorus and the orchestra is given differentiated music. (I was particularly struck by the nearly-human quality of the woodwind voices.)

Malkki's conducting drew out all the sectional qualities with a clear sense of pace. However, the score's overall flowing, dreamlike quality did produce one unintended effect: my seat companion and I found our eyelids lowering during the first half. At intermission, we agreed that we were so fascinated by what we were seeing and hearing that we were fighting the somnolent urge.

The small cast was thrillingly committed to the music. An announcement before the performance told us that Owens was battling bronchitis, but "he wishes to sing for you." His commanding bass-baritone voice seemed slightly diminished in power, with an occasional cough, but beautifully expressed Rudel's discontent and longing. I was glad Owens made the effort.

Mumford's pilgrim traveler shuttled between the lovers with a sturdy sense of mission and compassion. As the countess, soprano Susanna Phillips seemed to glow with both physical beauty and wistfulness, soaring in her final moments as she rails against fate and prays to - whom? God or her "love from afar?" The mysterious qualities of love seem to intersect with faith to pose eternal questions.  

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Never stop the presses

I visited an old theatrical friend last fall - a limited Broadway run of the 1928 classic play about newspaper journalism, The Front Page.

As far as I'm concerned, no play to this day has captured better the sheer exuberant adventure of being a newspaper reporter, wrapped in long hours, grubby conditions and low pay. With its brilliant structured plot, rapid-fire overlapping dialogue and snappy pace, The Front Page remains sensationally entertaining nearly 90 years later.

I first encountered this look at the raucous world of Chicago journalism in a 1969 Broadway revival, then in a 1994 production at Canada's Shaw Festival.

The current production, starring Nathan Lane, not only unwittingly illustrates the seismic 21st century changes in the newspaper business but also, in today's overwrought political landscape, how journalism may well save us. That may be too heavy a load to place on the shoulders of what is intended as a comedy, but it's there, nonetheless.

John Slattery, left, as Hildy Johnson and
 Nathan Lane, right, as Walter Burns. Photo/Variety 
It all takes place in the press room of the downtown Criminal Courts Building on the eve of a hanging. Reporters on the courts beat make this room their home - phoning updates to their copy desks while passing the time playing cards and cracking wise.

They seek to drum up stories from the police scanner, leading to one of my favorite lines, from McCue of the City Press: "Is is true, madame, that you were the victim of a Peeping Tom?"

They are a powerful group - representing eight newspapers in a pre-television and certainly pre-Internet age. Radio was just beginning to grow in popularity.

Into their midst swaggers Hildy Johnson (played by John Slattery), star reporter for the Examiner, about to get married and move to New York for the plush confines of advertising and a salary of $150 a week. Not, however, if his editor, Walter Burns (played by Lane, whom we initially hear simply as an irascible voice barking orders over the phone) has anything to say about it.

The condemned man, Earl Williams (John Magaro), makes an improbable jailbreak, Hildy and Walter try to hide him for the scoop of all time, and the mayor (Dann Florek) and sheriff (John Goodman) are exposed as craven and corrupt opportunists.

Hildy tries to break free of the Examiner, Burns and the thrill of chasing the next big story as fiancee Peggy (Halley Feiffer) and her mother (Holland Taylor) grow impatient.

From left, John Goodman, John Slattery and Nathan Lane.
Photo Sara Krulwich/New York Times
It's not fair to compare performances, but the definitive Walter Burns for me was craggy Robert Ryan in the 1969 revival. Lane can play many things, but a tough guy isn't one of them. In fact, I was surprised to see him playing Walter and Slattery playing Hildy; the roles should have been reversed. Where Ryan prowled, Lane bustles.

Douglas W. Schmidt's wood-paneled set beautifully evokes the shabby grandeur of a 19th century municipal building.

The pace of the production could have been faster, however, and the comedy style a little less "knowing." Farce is at its best when it's played completely sincerely; any sort of "comment" on the action dilutes the fun for the audience.

As a former newspaper reporter and current editor, I love this play with all my heart. To me, the most romantic sentence is, "I am a newspaper reporter." The Canadian production got it wrong when it thought it was a critique of the business.

The Front Page glories in the raffish adventure of newspaper journalism, the adrenaline high of chasing the story, beating the competition, pounding out the words - even as it skewers with a clear eye the grubbier aspects of the process.

In covering and meddling in the saga of Earl Williams' escape, Hildy, Walter and the Examiner expose the incompetent sheriff and corrupt mayor - exactly what journalism is supposed to do.

The standup telephones are now smartphones and the typewriters now laptops, but journalism is more necessary than ever.