Criticism

Largo al factotum: Rossini’s Barber at Baruch Performing Arts Center

Image © Gregory Briggler 2017

As I was making my way to the city from my apartment in Queens, the cold mist visible in the street lights made the decision to turn to flurries in the ten minute walk to the subway. I was late for the opera. The start time was 7:30 and not 8:00 as I had assumed. I missed the overture and “Figaro qua, Figaro là…” much to my chagrin. This would be my first time to see the Barber of Seville live, I thought on my way to the theater. Once I sneaked into the darkness, after descending through the Dynasty era decor of the lobby staircase, I remembered that I had played the opera over twenty years ago! Opera in the Ozarks is a fantastic summer program for young singers from all over the country to gain experience singing major roles in full stage productions. I sweated through many outdoor performances of this buoyant farce playing trombone in the orchestra. As a veteran of the pit, I was happy to see a small full orchestra at this performance.

IMG_0232

Keith Milkie as Don Bartolo & Katrin Bulke as Rosina

Some composers, like Bach, craft a logically flawless piece of music that can work for organ, kazoo ensemble, or slightly out of tune community band. Shakespeare is similar in Drama, all one need do is plant themselves on stage and say the words clearly for the audience to get something from the beauty of the language and insight into what it means to be human. For Rossini, however, the medium is the message- both the farce and the songs. The orchestration is intentionally simple. Rossini uses the instruments as the canvas and frame for the vocal impasto. The comedy is intentionally broad. There were chuckles throughout the night from the audience. I particularly enjoyed the Bill Irwin look-alike Don Raymond as Ambrogio. Deaf and trying constantly to react to the craziness around him he was always one step behind. Mostly, he wanted to eat peanuts out of his shoulder bag.

Count Almaviva, Rosina’s love interest and eventual husband, was sung by Sam Varhan. His voice had a very nice “Italian” ring to it, but it was very quiet. I kept imagining turning up his volume with a out sized, cartoonish volume dial. I say put a mic on him and let him sing “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables! Claudio Mascarenhas was a resonate presence as Don Basillio. I enjoyed the acting from the rest of the cast, although I would have liked a little more Three’s Company and a little less How I Met Your Mother from the action.

IMG_0235

The singing from everyone, however, was full of mistakes, chips, not-quite notes and forgotten lines. The stated purpose of Vocal Productions NYC, the producers of the evening, is “to cultivate opportunities for emerging musical professionals to perform roles, conduct ensembles, and accompany major musical works within a positive nonjugdemental [sic] environment.” I tried to approach the evening with this in mind. The production was fully staged, with nice costumes and a sturdy set, so the environment set expectations high for the audience. The Vocal Productions NYC website states that they are open to more than just opera, so perhaps a musical wouldn’t be out of the question for next time.

Precision was a problem both in the pit and on stage. The singers were sometimes out of phase with the orchestra which was often out of phase with itself. When the orchestra managed to bring it together here and there, it resonated nicely. The chug-chug from the strings and winds can be as enjoyable as the singing, but the band has to be in the pocket for the joy to come through. The ensemble finale was an interesting pastiche of tempos from all over the stage and from the pit.

There were some minor productions mistakes. For example, Don Basilio needs some pants underneath his robe!  The super-titles were missing throughout the first act. Count Almaviva had three or four costume changes while Rosina had none which seems unjust. Although not a mistake, keep an eye out for Danny DeVito and Eric Clapton among the soldiers in the chorus.

The cast is different each night, so it would be impossible to make suggestions for the entire run based on opening night. I suspect everything will be tighter on and off stage by, say, Thursday. The artistic director of the group, Valentyn Peytchinov, will sing Don Basilio on Saturday, December 16th which would be a good time to go. If you are willing to accept the imperfections of singing from emerging professionals, then feel free to enjoy. If you are more judgmental, then this isn’t the production for you.

The Barber of Seville
Gioachino Rossini
Sung in Italian
December 12-17
Baruch Performing Arts Center
55 Lexington Ave.
New York, NY 10010
(entrance on 25th St. between Lexington and 3rd)
$31 or $51
Vocal Productions NYC

 

Advertisements

An Album Review: Lieder/Canciones by sTem

There are four pieces played on Lieder/Canciones by the contemporary classical trio sTem. Each piece is distinct. Two are commissions (Das Stunden-Buch and Preludio de un Diamante) and two are not (Der Hirt auf dem Felsen and Escúchame). Two are sung in German; two in Spanish. Both commissions are worthy touchstone recordings. The Schubert, new to me, showed off echo effects throughout for which it is probably famous. The final track Escúchame is a solid arrangement of an opera aria. Echoes are reflected there as well. This is one of the few obvious ties in the album other than the language bundles.

The most successful piece opens the album- Das Stunden-Buch, a commision from Rex Isenberg. Being very cool and mid-century it is a Sondheim-flavored miniature. Because it is sung in German, I had to rely on the work as a music event as it can’t speak to me any other way. This piece was a smart way to open the album as it best shows off the strengths of the ensemble: reliable piano playing by Sophia Vastek, remarkable clarinet from Eric Umble, and nice high-register control by the soprano Meagan Amelia Brus. This album opener successfully took me somewhere. I felt I was sharing an emotional journey- a foreign movie with no subtitles. Isenberg’s brocade sound world definitely has vaseline on the lens.

Unfortunately, each piece is best enjoyed individually. The album doesn’t take me on a ride like the individual pieces do.  At the end of listening, I wanted more shock and contrast. Not drama- I think the music has plenty of that built in. I would like to see the band chew the scenery a little more. They clearly have good taste in commissions and repertoire. I would like to see that taste slip a little when it comes to playing. Umble comes close at times with Klezmer chirps and breathy sighs. If the listener descends from the pastoral longings of the nineteenth century alps to the existential questions raised in a city like twentieth century Bogota, they had better know they are somewhere else musically and emotionally. Overall, I would like to hear bigger contrasts between the works.

The recording itself was the biggest problems that I had in listening to Lieder/Canciones. Das Stunden-Buch was recorded a little too close for my taste. It sounds as though the musicians are inches from you. I would have preferred a little more aural space. About nine minutes into the Schubert, Umble plays solo and reverb seems added out of nowhere. The mix is off kilter on many of the tracks. Again, in the Isenberg, the voice is suddenly shoved to the background while the clarinet comes to the fore. Elsewhere, I felt the piano was panned flat, but not fully, with the clarinet and voice laid in straight lines left and right and much too close.

This album would probably be most interesting to a soprano looking to spice up a recital or a clarinet player who wants to find an ensemble work to show off his chops. It has been out since September of 2016. It is well worth the $10 asking price at Bandcamp.

This is my first album review for brigglerintune.com. I hope to offer more in 2017!

“They Said It Wouldn’t Work” – Margaret Glaspy – Sound Opinion – Railroad Jerk

On the subway this morning, I was reading A.M. New York, like you’re supposed to, and I saw a blurb promoting singer/songwriter Margaret Glaspy. I like to take a chance on new music from all kinds of places, so I gave her a listen before I read the interview.

I have Indie rock on my mind because of a Chicago based podcast called Sound Opinion that a young man who works for me suggested. Kyle said it was like “Siskel and Ebert” for music. It seems the podcast is mostly about Indie rock which they are very enthusiastic about. They didn’t disagree at all about any of the people they played on the episode that I listened to, so I didn’t get the pugilistic thrill that I had watching the Chicago film critics go at it. Siskel and Ebert was the only debates about art on T.V. when I was a kid. They were passionate and fun. I cared more about film than politics, so I skipped the McGlaughlin Group, the other debate choice.

I stopped listening to rock music after college. It wasn’t intentional; it happened naturally. Partly, I moved away from Texas to Europe where dance music rules the airwaves. I preferred punk to most Indie rock as a twenty year old. I never really fell into the whole NPR rock thing as I grew older. To bolster my “real rock” bona fides, I revisited an Indie band I saw live in Denton, Texas, around 1996  that Jeremy, my friend from home, urged me to see on a visit. This morning, I enjoyed The Ballad of Railroad Jerk again for the first time in twenty years.

I went straight to the NPR Tiny Desk concert video after an internet search of Margaret Glaspy. I have always been a fan of the live cut, much to the chagrin of most everyone else I know. You learn what kind of musicians people are when they play live. I always liked the way it sounded, too. Miss Glaspy played guitar solidly, writes very good songs, and works with top rate musicians. Tim Kuhl is on drums and Chris Morrissey is holding down the bass. “You and I” is the musical standout thanks to Morrisey’s bass lines – both florid and solid like wrought iron.  Shame on NPR for not including the band’s names in the YouTube description.

After I listened to the singer/songwriter with the small, powerful voice, I read the interview. It was interchangeable with all other pop or rock interviews. Always listen before you read.

Margaret Glaspy Bandcamp $2 digital download!

Totestod – A Bleak Tristan and Isolde at The Met

Photo Credit: Gregory Briggler ©2016

I am not a fan of Wagner in general. Well, a fan of his orchestral writing, but not the rest. Who can tell if the singers are making up the never ending vocal lines as they go along? The storylines are often silly or become so. I never felt like he managed to “do it all” successfully. I feel the same about Tristan and Isolde specifically. The music is often precise and pulsating, but the story detail, the character development, is what kills the momentum especially in the first act. The first act is a prolonged lover’s quarrel on a ship after the kidnapping of Isolde. I fell asleep around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!” and woke up around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!”. That’s right, I dozed during the dress rehearsal I attended. Wagner writes the perfect napping operas.

The new production at the Metropolitan Opera, captained by Mariusz Trelinski, was licensed from the Polish National Opera give or take. Gird your loins for six hours of visual abuse. It is primarily bleak – brutal even – in true modern European style.The musical work is made secondary to the ideas of the directorial auteur. The stage is black and white each act. The only relief from that is a whisper, a breath of blue and green occasionally. Be prepared for the stunningly subdued “pop” of color when Isolde reveals her dark maroon velvet dress during the second act. The black and white aesthetic is made more intense by the bullying of the stage lights. The default light is a bare white. Upstage, there is a row of Klieg lights that are used like cannons to wake up or ambush the audience. Also, the director always needed to have “something” happening during the overture and prelude to the second act. The circle of a working sonar screen (green, of course) was projected onto the curtain for the duration as well as a film. The director was very fond of circles, they play a major role in the symbolism of the staging. At one point in the second or third act, another circle was projected onto the haze that constantly smogged the stage to great effect.

Not everything was an assault. Sometimes the stagecraft was amazing!  The most impressive stagecraft was the appearance and disappearance of characters while onstage. I was honestly surprised over and again by this device. The sets confined and defined the acts in a purposeful way. In the first act, the result often was to give the stage the feeling of a film which seems to make sense for Trelinski who began his career as a film director. The set for the second act was inexplicably “boaty”, though no less impressive. Over the course of the production, the staging opened up so that by the third act there was plenty of space for nihilism.

There was a choice by the director to exaggerate the importance of the fact that Tristan as a child lost his father to the sea. One line late in the opera was used to justify  a lot of psychological speculation. This idea was used in a film projected during the overture inside the sonar ring. Is this the story of a forbidden, tragic love of two young lovers? No! It’s the sea swallowing up lives. The production was so brutal and acerbic, the Liebestod comes across more as a Totestod.

The famous Liebestod, the culmination of operatic longing, the most famous melody from this sing-a-thon, and the point of the opera, is the end point of an arguably silly idea. But, it has its place and purpose as the logical conclusion of the action. How is the intractable problem of hatred turning to love ripening to despair solved? Life apart is resolved by death together. A powerful, ridiculous idea akin to the juvenile logic of Romeo and Juliet – both romantic and wrong. Or is it romantic because it is wrong? The story itself hints at the mindless origins of this poisonous thinking with a switch of love for hate by Isolde’s handmaiden early in the action. The faulty Liebestod is the fruit of magic- a poison switched for a potion, the effects of which were finally nullified by tragedy. Far from immersing myself in the ideas even for a short moment, the staging kept me from accepting the flawed logic and yearning for the power of forbidden, eternal love.

What can be said about the music and singing? Not much, but in a good way. Nearly flawless, from beginning to end. The orchestra, directed by Sir Simon Rattle, sawed away, unflagging for the duration. Tristan played by Stuart Skelton had a presence of voice that eclipsed everyone onstage until the end of the third act. By that point he began to chip around the edges. Nina Stemme sang beautifully, allowing her voice to blossom fully at the bitter end. Support was near perfection from Ekaterina Gubanova and René Pape.

My summary? This would be a horrible first opera to take a novice. The unceasing music is made less bearable by the bleak staging. What’s worse than six hours of Wagner? A stage director trying to one up Wagner for six hours.

Only a few more days to suffer for art’s sake. Tristan and Isolde is at the Met through October 27. Tickets almost certainly available here.

Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part Four)

A still from “Crossroads” (1976)

Go for the films! Notice his use of Rock and Roll of all kinds. “Three Screens Ray” (2006) is a film triptych which pulses with love, death, desire, silliness and light. A live version of Ray Charles’ “What I Say” accompanies the film and echos through the exhibition by the comings and goings of slightly embarrassed museum goers. It is the most overtly sexual film in the retrospective. After watching, the music “bleeding into” the gallery is a constant, musical reminder of the big ideas in Conner’s head.

“Looking for Mushrooms” had many iterations, but the one shown here is from 1996. Again, the music is by Terry Riley. The footage is in color and was shot mostly in Mexico by Conner. One of the versions of the film included a song by the Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows”. I think you can see the affinity between the images and music in both versions. The gallery notes mention a cameo by psychedelic guru Timothy Leary. It is a beautiful film to experience. Even with the galleries outside crowded with Sunday morning museum visitors, I shared the experience with only one other viewer.

It’s hard to believe the seven minute musical portrait of the beautiful Toni Basil “Breakaway” (1966) was made in the 60’s and not a few weeks ago at the House of Yes in Bushwick.  To accompany the movie, he plays her song Breakaway forward, completely, and then backwards, completely. The transition is a light touch after a fade out. The beat -unlessened- goes on, and the intensity of the images grows for this film portrait.

Personal energy is the subject of “Breakaway” and an equally powerful energy is the subject of “Crossroads”(1976).

File_000(1)

The flickering film shows the same 1946 Pacific ocean nuclear test over and over filmed from many different positions by military planes and warships. As if Conner had chosen the location himself, the test was performed with a wink over the shoulder in the Bikini Atoll. The film has music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley, but it is the sound which caught my attention. The rumble of destruction sometimes begins with the image of the explosion. Sometimes the sound continues as the explosion begins again.

Again and again, Bruce says:

Behold what we have done.

Behold the power,

the cacophony,

and the fury.

The navy ships

that won the great war

bob

like driftwood

In a timid circle.

We –

great and small.

 

Behold the image on the screen

as the film rat-a-tats through the machine.

Isn’t it awful!

Isn’t it amazing!

Our nature-

best and worst.

 

This is the final post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part III)

A  stolen frame from “Looking for Mushrooms” by Bruce Conner

Conner photographed the San Francisco punk scene of the late seventies- a micro scene really- and the resulting photographs and collages hang out in the gallery just outside of the showing of his film “Crossroads”. He went to hear the not-yet-famous Devo at the Mabuhay Gardens club at the suggestion of Toni Basil (whose energy and person is the subject of “Breakaway”). For a few years, that place became his bar, the bands and crowds his people while punk sparked and smoked. Oddly quiet is this noisy scene.  He probably saw his younger self in these young musicians. His early melting sculptures and collages are as punk as any baby-pinned cheek or torn nylons.  He never seems to slip into the punk aural aesthetic entirely, but he did make a music video of Devo’s Mongoloid (1978) during this period.

About twenty years later, using some of these pictures in collage, he eulogises the same men whose angry, destructive lives brought them to early deaths.

Always in the thick of things, Conner continued making music videos in the early 1980’s. As much a collaborator as collage maker, he made collage videos with the art-rock dream duo of Brian Eno and David Byrne. He pairs the pairs’ sound collage songs with images that flicker and dot with retro found funkiness. The videos don’t add to the music or detract from it, either. The sound is the hum of the box and the video is the embellishment on screen. Three black boxes wait the museum-goer on the first floor in front of the elevators which rise to the main exhibition hall. Give them a listen. Mongoloid is there. I liked Mea Culpa which is in the middle.

 

“Easter Morning” (1966/2008) is a meditation on love and resurrection. Placed at the end of the show, it clangs with the music of fellow bay-area legend Terry Riley. The music used is Riley’s “In C” which plays with a simple chord and leaves the when and where up to the individual musicians. The changing sameness of the strange soundtrack is emphasized by the use of traditional Chinese instruments instead of western instruments. The color film begins with flowers, crosses and spots of light and leads to a naked woman sitting demurely on the floor bathed in Van Eyck sunlight.

This is the third post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.

Bruce Conner Loves Sound (Part 2)

From Angels (1986) with Edmund Shea

In one visit, it is difficult to appreciate the welter of media, styles and experiences of Bruce Conner: It’s All True. Mandalas are framed and hung on the wall in one gallery- inked in minute, cramped detail. Intentional or not, it reminds me of the test patterns and countdowns that one often sees in his films. Those images make me “hear” the beeps and sine waves of the behind-the-scenes machinations of watching T.V. and movies as a kid. Sometimes the curtain would open and you would see and hear the wizard, or at least the technician, before the show started.

web_100-MANDALA

#100 MANDALA (1970)

hqdefault

1950’s  era television test pattern

Conner likes working with other artists.  Angels is one cooperative effort with Edmund Shea from 1986. The room for Angels is painted black and hung on the walls are several gelatin silver prints of heavenly light piercing a black plane. There are eight almost-full-sized portraits, each cutting through the dark in its own way. According to the information sign, Bruce liked making his gallery shows “theatrical”, so these images were originally accompanied by crickets in a box, chirping. MoMA shied away from this idea by playing a close recording of crickets into the gallery space. I guess bait shops and potato slices aren’t plentiful on 53rd street.

 

The chirping warms the room, accompanying the angels not with the sounds of  heavenly hosts, but with a summer night. The angels are made familiar by this friendly, earthy chorus. Angels is now associated in my mind with the sound of chirping crickets, and they are more alive in my memory. Clever how he attaches his angels to my memory with sound.

This is the second post of many about this exhibition. Please go! At MoMA until October 2nd.