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 red velvet chairs and a vestibule to hang coats.

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.