Sunday, July 1, 2012

21ST CENTURY MUSIC / July 2012


July 2012

Volume 19, Number 7

Chronicle of May 2012


Illustration / Benjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

Editorial Staff

Mark Alburger


Harriet March Page

Patti Noel Deuter

Erling Wold

Elizabeth Agnew
Alexis Alrich
Katherine Buono
Ken Bullock
A.J. Churchill
David Cleary
Jeff Dunn
Phillip George
Elliot Harmon
Brian Holmes
Jeff Kaliss
John Lane
Arel Lucas
Michael McDonagh
Chip Michael
Tom Moore
William Rowland
Lisa Scola Prosek
Andrew Shapiro
Alice Shields


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Chronicle of May 2012

May 26

Opera Moderne presents Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. Symphony Space, New York, NY. "The Turn of the Screw [is] Britten’s 1954 adaptation of the Henry James novella concerning restless ghosts and corrupted innocents . . . is . . . the rare work that grows more intensely disquieting the deeper you delve, past clear implications of child abuse, probably sexual, to allusions and suggestions coded so deeply as to be practically invisible to an audience. “The Turn of the Screw” . . . [was presented] in a one-off staging by Opera Moderne, a promising fledgling company, at Symphony Space. A major new addition to New York’s operatic ecosphere -- if its first season is any indication -- Opera Moderne offered a beautifully realized performance . . . . In James’s novella buttoned-up tensions fester into more lurid obsessions subtly and gradually -- an effect echoed in Britten’s compulsively organized score, which includes a 12-tone theme screwed slowly in permutations throughout the work. Themes introduced early in the opera recur later, corrosively transformed. But from a Prologue sung as if by a zombie head planted atop an upright piano that a headless footman played in mime, this production loaded the gothic tale with creep show antics redolent of Tim Burton films like Beetlejuice and Dark Shadows. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, former house employees returned as sinister ghosts, wore cadaverous makeup slashed with flesh wounds. The boy Miles, pale and ghoul-eyed, had spurts of green in his unkempt hair; Flora, his similarly sallow sister, had fuchsia tresses. Otherwise the stage director Luke Leonard made outstanding use of limited space, deploying his vocalists in front of and behind an onstage orchestra usually obscured by a translucent scrim. Mute doubles for Quint and Jessel were intriguing and distracting by turns. The children’s intimations of physical violence felt overplayed at times; still, enough ambiguity remained. Glenn Seven Allen was a mesmerizing Quint, singing with agility and a sweetness that grew appropriately cloying or menacing. Anna Noggle, as the governess who tries to save the children, was instantly lovable for her cheery innocence and riveting in her slow disintegration; vocally, her initially fine account became superb as the evening wore on. Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, a boy treble, sang with intensity and focus, keenly enacting Miles’s knife-edge balance as victim and villain. Vivian Krich-Brinton, as Flora, was a vivid counterpart. Julia Teitel was a reassuringly grounded Mrs. Grose; Elspeth Davis an appropriately eerie Jessel. And the 13-member orchestra, conducted by Pacien Mazzagatti, gave a coolly seductive account" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 5/28/12]

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform John Adams's The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles, CA. "For two of the great American composers, it is a season of daunting models and high expectations. Philip Glass’s expansive Ninth Symphony, which had its first performance on New Year’s Day, looks toward the famous Ninths of Beethoven and Mahler; John Adams recently took on Beethoven’s late quartets and piano sonatas, quoting them in his Absolute Jest. And now, after a career spent wrestling with, and reinventing aspects of, Bach’s seething Passions, Mr. Adams has composed his own. The Gospel According to the Other Mary . . . is big and ambitious . . . with moments of beauty among the longueurs. It evokes Bach’s form and craft . . . . Working with his frequent collaborator, the theater artist Peter Sellars, Mr. Adams has chosen to focus not on Jesus -- who is never present, only quoted -- but on the members of a family, whose lives he touched: Mary Magdalene; her sister, Martha; and their brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. As with most of Mr. Adams and Mr. Sellars’s work together -- including their Nativity oratorio, El Niño (2000) -- the libretto of The Gospel is constructed entirely as a collage of pre-existing material, much of it from the Bible but also including poetic and prose texts by Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich and others. In El Niño this felt pleasantly teeming, with the myriad sources sharing the stage in a kind of party that suited the celebratory subject matter. Dark and sober, The Gospel feels more crowded and less coherent, as in the creators’ well-meaning but anodyne and scattered attempts to juxtapose the biblical story with reports from contemporary social justice movements, like César Chávez’s labor activism. It is a use of political content far less bracing and unexpected than that in Mr. Adams’s early operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. And it distances us from the characters Mr. Adams and Mr. Sellars are trying to create: Their Mary is suicidal and self-dramatizing, Martha quietly responsible and overburdened. At first Mr. Adams approaches these distinctive personalities with energy and precision, opening the work with a harrowing account of Mary’s night in jail, followed by Martha’s calm summary of her charity work. There is a visceral thrill to the hushed ending of Mary’s narrative, “I am surprised that I am beginning to pray daily,” in the second scene. But that monologue is also one of many moments that ignore a basic principle of drama: show, don’t tell. . . . Her doubt and shame should be clear through the story and music. Mr. Adams and Mr. Sellars seem to want to have it both ways, to create fully realized, emotionally deep characters that are also abstract, philosophizing archetypes. . . . These dramaturgical flaws (which may be addressed when the Philharmonic presents Mr. Sellars’s staged version of the work next March) stand out, since The Gospel shows Mr. Adams in excellent musical form, orchestrating with creativity and mature mastery in sequences like the second scene of Act I, when he subtly troubles and energizes a calm soundscape with a quiet, persistent tremolo in the double basses. Brilliantly, the backbone of his score is the cimbalom, the hammered dulcimer that is now associated with the folk music of Central Europe but was also a feature of the Middle East; it makes sense to hear it in a biblical context. . . . [T]he instrument, played with brilliant clarity here by Chester Englander, gives The Gospel an edge of otherness entirely free of cliché -- a genuine exoticism -- when its astringent twang rises out of the dense orchestral textures. But despite many artful touches, the looseness is palpable in a work that was commissioned to be 90 minutes and ended up as an evening nearly double that length. The Gospel is full of orchestral interludes that are carefully constructed; just listen to how the music slowly, flawlessly builds and then recedes during the third scene of Act I. But they have grown numerous and unwieldy enough to strain the coherence and force of the material they are linking. Mr. Dudamel and the Philharmonic, sounding clear and transparent, do their best to bring out the elusive drama, as does a gifted group of young soloists with distinctive voices: the focused mezzo-soprano of Kelley O’Connor, the rich contralto of Tamara Mumford and the bronze tenor of Russell Thomas. There is also an excellent trio of countertenors, a feature the work shares with El Niño, which serves as a general narrator. And if Mr. Adams’s Gospel impresses, and sometimes even dazzles, more than it illuminates or moves, there are still sequences as fresh as anything he has written. The first act closes with a tenor aria set to Primo Levi’s poem Passover. The serene melody of its opening line -- Tell me: How is this night different from all other nights?' -- gradually becomes heated before easing back into tranquillity. Mr. Thomas sang the closing couplet -- 'This year in fear and shame,/Next year in virtue and in justice' -- with ringing power. As he finished . . . my eyes filled with tears. But then a long orchestral postlude follows, first crashing, then hushed, and it works to slacken rather than amplify the power of the aria that preceded it. This happens all too often in The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Mr. Adams has written a piece of grand scope and confidence. That isn’t always enough" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 6/1/12]

First American staging of Philip Glass's Kepler. College of Charleston Sottile Theater, presented as part of the Spoleto Festival USA. Through 6/10. "That may be a fine distinction: “Kepler” was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a minimally staged concert version in 2009, two months after its premiere, in Linz, Austria. Given that not much happens in this opera, a meditation on the theories, attitudes and observations of the late-16th-century mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, that seemed sufficient. Like several other operas by Mr. Glass, including Satyagraha, the work seemed more properly an oratorio. The Spoleto production, directed by Sam Helfrich, with sets by Andrew Lieberman and costumes by Kaye Voyce, does not radically alter that impression, though some of Mr. Helfrich’s stage pictures are affecting, and in the production’s best moments the static talkiness of Martina Winkel’s libretto is given at least the patina of action. But mostly, the action is that of a lecture: In Mr. Helfrich’s staging, Kepler is a dapper professor, telling his class about his findings or sitting at a desk, musing. Ms. Winkel, drawing on Kepler’s own writings as well as on the Bible and poetry by Andreas Gryphius, made the first act a synopsis of Kepler’s ideas about how the planets’ orbits are arranged, and the second a personal portrait that touches on his intense self-criticism, his feelings about his colleagues and his pained description of life during the Thirty Years’ War. But the work’s point, driven home in long, pointed sequences in both acts, is his notion that religion and science should be regarded as complementary rather than contradictory. He regarded himself as a religious man but argued that the Bible should not be read as a science text. In Brooklyn Kepler was sung in German and Latin, as it had been in Linz. Here, the ecclesiastical Latin passages are intact, but the German sections are sung in a fine English translation by Saskia Wesnigk-Wood. That is a sensible approach: There is little point in presenting a work about ideas in a language that most of the audience does not speak. Given the perpetual currency of the debate about religion and science, Mr. Helfrich’s decision to set the work in modern times makes sense as well. The baritone John Hancock, who sang the title role with an appealing suppleness, admirable clarity and a necessary but never overstated touch of melancholy, wore a three-piece suit and moved with professorial assurance. The chorus (the Westminster Choir) is his devoted class, sometimes transformed into combatants in religious disputes. Besides Kepler, the work has no other named characters. But six vocal soloists -- Anne-Carolyn Bird and Leah Wool, sopranos; Kathryn Krasovec, mezzo-soprano; Gregory Schmidt, tenor; Dan Kempson, baritone; and Matt Boehler, bass -- gave strong performances, individually and as an ensemble, as professorial colleagues, theologians or shocked citizens caught in the war. Mr. Glass’s score mixes mildly angular vocal lines into his signature torrent of swirling woodwind figures and string arpeggios, and it relies more heavily than usual on varied, assertive percussion textures and rich choral writing. John Kennedy, the festival’s resident conductor, led a brisk but fluid performance that brought out those elements with a winning consistency and unflagging energy. But though he makes a strong case for the work, the paucity of real dramatic conflict, not to mention action, still leaves it seeming more akin to Handel’s Messiah than to, say, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 6/1/12].


Michael Hearst. Songs for Unusual Creatures. Kronos Quartet; Microscopic Septet; Margaret Leng Tan, toy pianist; Michael Hearst, multi-instrumentalist; others. Urban Geek Records. "Michael Hearst is best known as a member of One Ring Zero, an ensemble that mixes chamber and pop styles and is as prolific as it is quirky. But Mr. Hearst has also been branching out on his own. When the Kronos Quartet performed Secret Word, his zany tribute to Pee-wee Herman, at Zankel Hall in February, Mr. Hearst was on hand to play theremin and claviola and to conduct an orchestra of toy instruments. Think of Mr. Hearst’s 16-movement Songs for Unusual Creatures as an exotic updating of Carnival of the Animals, with freewheeling, postmodern eclecticism in place of Saint-Saëns’s . . . Romanticism, and a parade of exotic specimens -- the elephant shrew, the blobfish, the magnapinna squid -- substituting for the original’s . . . menagerie. The work’s title notwithstanding, there are no texts. But Mr. Hearst, who is also an author, has written a related book, Unusual Creatures, due out in September from Chronicle Books. Mr. Hearst begins with a circusy march scored for brasses, woodwinds, accordion and percussion, the first of several movements to bear a distinct trace of Kurt Weill’s cabaret style. In Aye-Aye, a collaboration between the Kronos Quartet and Mr. Hearst, playing several amplified instruments, a klezmer-tinted violin line gives way to rhythms that evoke Shostakovich, harmonies lifted from Schubert and a graceful layer of electronica. Margaret Leng Tan’s toy pianos paint Jesus Christ Lizard in trebly, tactile sonorities, and Blobfish seems perfectly drawn as a duet for contrabassoon and tubax (a deep-voiced saxophone). Humpback Anglerfish draws on gamelan figuration, and other movements -- Bilby and Weddell Seal -- are more overtly electronic. But if some of the set’s surprises are in the way Mr. Hearst’s scoring changes from piece to piece, most are in this spirited music’s painterly inventiveness and lively humor" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 6/1/12].