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11/24 Janacek’s From the House of the Dead @ The Met Opera

Magical is usually not the first adjective that comes to mind when one thinks of an opera based on Dostoevsky’s experiences in a prison camp. And yet, that is precisely the word I would use to describe the production I saw last Tuesday. The blend of evocative music, terrific ensemble acting and singing, appropriate design was like no other opera I’ve experienced before.

The design of the opera was quite good, gritty and realistic, almost like watching a movie (what a pity this production is not being broadcast in HD!) The grey concrete of the prison camp and the drab clothing of the prisoners gave the proper air of the mind numbing boredom that would be life in a prison camp, but it was the staging choices themselves that were most effective. At the opening of Act 1 fighting prisoners were put into a line to receive what looked to be soup, but after half the line had their cups filled, the guards inexplicably denied the rest of the line a meal. Such arbitrary injustices appeared multiple times in the play, a daily plague. Later, prisoners were seen dressing in a seething mass, revealing the complete lack of privacy prisoners had. The staging of a play-within-the opera was done with the “actors’ ” backs to the opera audience while the prison spectators looked out towards us,  a telling mirror image. The transition between Act 1 and Act 2 was marked by a large amount of debris falling from the ceiling, which the prisoners then cleaned up with baskets. There was no glamour about it-one had a very clear idea of what it would be like to be a prisoner in the camp, of the monotony and small injustices or projects that characterized everyday life.

Given the staging, one might think the opera quite depressing, yet the music was so sympathetic and almost uplifting that the prisoners were transformed. The stark reality of the staging was overcome by the transcendence of the music. Janacek wrote in a style that incorporated late Romanticism, Stravinsky, and Czech folk music; a blend that allowed for a wide range of expression in the music. The way the opera was written, the music was almost a wordless narrator, giving depth to each character and event. The music could have stood alone as an orchestral work, but proved even more potent with the lyrical settings of the Czech words. For me, the power of the music in the work left a lasting impression and lent a significant sparkle to the opera.

Conductor Esa Pekka Salonen was masterful in his conducting of the piece (basically a 100 minute tone poem for orchestra), and the orchestra played vivaciously and supportively. The male chorus was an impressive sound, while each soloist shone as he told the story of how he had arrived in the prison. Particularly impressive was Peter Mattei in the role of Shishkov, who tells his story of murdering his wife for loving another man in Act 3. The drama and conflict of the story were evident in Mattei’s singing, holding the listener spellbound until the end. However, what was really impressive was the ability of the ensemble to work together seamlessly; given that the opera does not have a dynamic plot, it is the forceful and dramatic singing that carried the show.

Bravo to the Met for deciding to take on a difficult and unknown opera. I think, given that the house was full, they have been justly rewarded. I was left wondering what other gems might be buried behind concrete walls in Siberia, and hoping that I might get the chance to hear them. Given the general acclaim and popularity of this production, I hope the Met, and other opera companies, are encouraged to take chances and program modern and less well-known works. If they are done with as much care and talent as this production, and if they have so moving a score, they are surely going to succeed.

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Legends Retold

11/21 Bang On A Can All-Stars + Trio Mediaeval @ Zankel Hall

Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer

A more succinct version of this review available here.

After seeing Julia Wolfe’s Vermeer Room performed by the NYU Symphony Orchestra in October, I became interested in the music of Ms. Wolfe and was thrilled to find out that a new piece of hers was being premiered at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in November. Zankel is a more intimate venue in the same building as Carnegie’s main stage, Perlman/Stern and a perfect place for the premiere of a new work performed by a chamber group. And an interesting chamber group it was. The piece called for piano, clarinet, cello, bass, guitar/banjo/mountain dulcimer, and quite an assortment of percussion (including performers’ feet and hands, and “the bones”) as well as the wonderful Trio Mediaeval, three female vocalists from Scandinavia. The piece, Steel Hammer, was a retelling of the myth of John Henry, known for using his steel hammers to beat a steam machine in a race. But unlike many composers before her, Ms. Wolfe did more than just retell a legend-she chose to look at the legacy of legends themselves through the lens of this particular one.

The piece was organized into several different movements that each told a part of the legend, and were ordered by each segment of lyrics. However, the “lyrics” were mostly descriptions which were then layered together to create an ambiguous narrative. The first movement was a setting of the words “Some say he’s from”, which were broken down and put back together in a round of the three vocalists. There were some beautiful harmonies and the cohesiveness of the singers was quite impressive. The instrumentalists joined in at the end with percussion that sounded like a train moving on a track-a theme both aural and visual throughout the night. The next movement, The States, was a list of (as Ms. Wolfe explained in the talk beforehand) all the places that different versions of the story said John Henry was from, which were again layered by the vocalists over and over such that the meaning of the words themselves was almost obscured. One got a sense of how many different versions of the story exist and have been told. The trend continued in the other movements, with John Henry being described as small, tall, black, white, true, false and many other things. By choosing lyrics that were ambiguous and layering these descriptions over each other, Ms. Wolfe was able to communicate to the listener the sheer scope of the legend. Walking away from the concert, I felt as if I had heard the legend itself of John Henry, a myth made up of the weaving together of many different stories. The three vocalists embodied the hundred different narrators of these stories, speaking with different musical voices to lend a rich diversity of sound to the entire piece.

The instrumental accompaniment to the piece also added to the feeling of many stories being communicated at once. The background was constantly shifting, although a percussive take on the instruments as well as repeated melodic pointed to Wolfe’s minimalist background and gave cohesion to the piece. Clarinetist Evan Ziporyn’s lines often joined with the vocalists, while the rest of the ensemble was largely a percussion ensemble, using cello, bass, and guitar lines to create rhythm and drive the piece.  The mood changed from tender at some points to cacophonous, particularly in the movement about the race between the steam engine and John Henry. The instrumentation was evocative and descriptive at some points, for instance when trying to portray a train, and at other times merely a background against which the singers portrayed the storyline.

The piece had a curious, and I felt rather unnecessary series of visuals, at times flashing the words that made up the lyrics and also using charcoal drawings of a train and the map of the United States. There was a revealing moment in which the picture of chair rocking was shown to be several chairs rocking during the movement about John Henry’s “woman” Polly (further contributing to the feeling of multiple stories being told at once), but otherwise I found the video amateur and distracting. Ms. Wolfe said during her talk that she did not want it to be a formal, boring concert, but I honestly found the musicians themselves wonderfully engaging and entertaining. The use of lighting to highlight drama and show the change between movements, as well as the campfire-esque stage setup were nice touches.

The musicians themselves were quite wonderful-engaged in the music while also very precise. If no one had told me the Trio Medieaval was from Scandanavia, I would not have known given their excellent articulation. They had great group chemistry and were fun to watch. Clarinetist and conductor Evan Ziporyn was lyrical and worked well to keep the group together. Guitarist Mark Stewart is also to be commended for the performance of his feet during one movement as an effective percussion instrument-not an easy feat (yes, pun intended). The ease with which the musicians performed imbued the piece with a familiarity that one might not have expected from a modern composition.

Though I felt the piece was rather lengthy, the ingenuity of its conception and the lovely presentation it was given were quite impressive. Julia Wolfe is definitely a composer to keep watching and the Bang On A Can All Stars a group to see again.

Other Publications

Check out NYU’s new publication about music, Troubadour.

http://nyutroubadour.com

(I have an interview with up and coming musician and friend Emily Eddey.)

Well-Mixed

11/20 Mark Helias Trio @ Cornelia Street Cafe

Mark Helias-Bass, Orrin Evans-Piano, Gerald Cleaver-Drums

 The Mark Helias Trio was the rare ensemble that was both firmly rooted in the blues and jazz tradition, but also took the best of the classical world, the Downtown scene, and other modern music. The result was a sublime performance of Helias’ compositions (and one of Evan’s) that was both beautiful, intriguing, and swinging. For a trio that does not appear to work together regularly (as far as my internet research can tell), the group sounded amazingly cohesive, smoothly segueing from one solo to the next such that no space was given for the audience to applaud. Helias’ compositions were balanced among the three members and not bass heavy as I expected, making the trio a group of equals that acted as a tight ensemble. 

The set opened with a composition of Evan’s and then featured 4 of Helias’ compositions. Each of the 5 tunes of the set were unique fusions of the sounds of the players. The first piece was more straightforward, featuring a solo by Evans reminiscent at times of McCoy Tyner, and swinging solos from Helias and Cleaver that opened the set nicely. The following pieces, all Helias’, were well constructed tunes that allowed for expansive solos by each of the players. There was a nice element of repetition of motifs and ostinatos that was reminiscent both of jazz standards and of minimalist pieces. One tune (I believe it was called Professor of Air Science, but as I was at the back of the club, had trouble hearing the announcements of the names of each piece) started with Helias bowing an atonal-esque melody  and Cleaver playing with the ends of his brushes on the cymbals and segued into a lovely ballad that featured some superbly moving playing by Evans and a great bowed solo by Helias. Another song featured some arresting double stop playing by Helias that lent an air of otherworldliness to the piece. He was amazingly comfortable switching between plucking out a basic bass line, creating an intricate solo, bowing striking melodies, and playing thorny modern sounds. Evans and Cleaver were able to support him in this endeavor quite well. Evans had some hard swinging stuff, moving renditions of ballad sections, and some interesting modern comping and soloing that was played with a good deal of virtuosity. Cleaver was an attuned drummer, keeping things together and driving the pieces forward while providing thoughtful solos.

The trio has what I hope for in jazz ensembles- a basis in the tradition that defines the genre which is combined with other sounds of today to create intriguing new offerings. Often times ensembles can shift too far one way or the other-either sounding just like old bands and offering nothing new, or new to the point that they become a different genre. A band that can hold onto that jazz background while expanding its listeners’ soundscape is impressive, and last night the Mark Helias Trio was that band.

Favorites of the Street

As a resident of New York City, one is bound to encounter more than a few street musicians. Some favorites:

1. The Boba Fett Accordionist-A new favorite on the scene. I first encountered him this summer playing the theme from Amelie in Union Square, was really excited when I saw him playing The Blue Danube at the mid-western corner of Washington Square Park one Friday after class, and spent yesterday listening to his awesome rendition of all the themes from Star Wars. If you can play Amelie, Strauss, and Star Wars I think you’re awesome. If you can play them on the accordion while wearing a homemade Boba Fett mask? You might just be my favorite.

(Incidentally he’s an unemployed mechanical engineer getting a second Masters in transportation engineering. Go figure.)

2. The saxophonist at the Lincoln Center 1: There has not yet been a concert, opera, or musical at Lincoln Center that I have left where this guy has not been playing the themes of whatever I just saw. I don’t know who he is but he’s always there and always has the sheet music with the themes of the concert (Haydn’s Symphony No. 95, The Barber of Sevile, South Pacific etc.) and does a pretty awesome rendition on the tenor. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have a Youtube account, but I’ll ask next I see him.

3. The one that started it all: Back when I first visited New York I remember seeing a cellist playing under the Washington Square arch who was quite lyrical and played their because the accoustics and magnification were good. I haven’t seen him since, but hope someday I’ll find him again.

4. Want to play in Grand Central (or under the arch) Joshua Bell?

Radio lives on…

Another great discovery I made while avoiding doing homework:

http://counterstreamradio.org/player.html

Basically this online radio station plays everything that intrigues me: modern “Classical” music, jazz, experimental, world-influenced stuff and things I’m not quite sure how to classify. Definetely worth a listen (and the helpful track, artist, and album listings make it easy to look up what you like when you hear it!)

Awesomeness

Can you guys please come to New York?

The idea of a group of classical musicians that is willing to devote itself to bringing orchestral/chamber music to the people in the local square makes me smile. There’s something very unique about street musicians and I think this exemplifies that quality quite nicely. Keep up the great work!