Opinion

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. 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

Musical and Dance Novelties: D-I-Y Nutcracker and “An English Gigue”

MuSE, the people behind the Dance-It-Yourself Nutcracker, have found a new delight to add to the holiday candy sampler that is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker: an English Gigue cut from the original production and obscured by time until recently.

According to MuSE Creative Director and founder Alicia Lieu, the playing and dancing of this toe-tapper may well be the New York premiere. It will be used as an audience “dance-it-yourself” event during the ballet.

The interesting concept for the DIY ballet is to have some scenes danced by professionals and then use other numbers as an opportunity to get the audience involved. The original choreography was conceived by Theresa Burns with a little help from Associate Producer Ian Brodsky and Marisa Byers who is also prima ballerina.

I played trombone with the group last year, and their hybrid approach was widely enjoyed by the audience. I expected the audience to be full of lots of little girls in tutus, but that wasn’t the case. While children are encouraged to attend, the crowd was mostly adults who participated with gusto in the simple and enjoyable group dancing.

The production features a full orchestra of top flight players which alone is worth the price of admission. If you are looking for something creative and fun to do this weekend, with your child or with a date, then take this opportunity to dance it yourself. See the Gigue performed by the creative people at DIY Nutcracker in the clip below!

Dance-It-Yourself Nutcracker
Friday, December 8 – 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, December 9  – 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church
152 West 66th St
New York City, NY 10023

 

The Dybbuk: A Review of Opera in Concert

Image ©2017 Gregory Briggler

The biggest, most enthusiastic applause for the night came for the principal cellist before the performance. You see, he was late, and normally being responsible, had all of the music for the rest of the cello players. He realized his reputation for dependability was in peril halfway to the performance. The eighty four year old composer and conductor, Joel Mandelbaum,  walked to center stage in his comfortable shoes and explained good-naturedly in his Kissinger voice what the delay was about. As if on cue, the principal cellist rushes in and hands out the parts. The crowd of older opera enthusiasts and younger singers went wild.

Often times classical musicians, even in famous orchestras, can’t be bothered to dress well since black is the only requirement. This orchestra, however, was not only young but also well dressed. The concert master strode out on stage in a lovely, understated horizontal-stripe gown and the concert began. The orchestra held forty five members. There was even a harp poking up near the percussion and a microtonal electronic keyboard sitting in the middle. When I spoke to orchestra members during intermission and after the performance, they were all worried about overpowering the singers. Although I sat near the front, the balance seemed fine. A pit would have been better, of course, but the singers were up to the challenge.

Although I will mention bits and pieces of the plot here, the story is so overwrought and melodramatic that it would be a fool’s errand to try and offer a full summary here. The confusing, layered plot set in a 19th century Russian shtetl begins with a love affair set in a synagogue and ends under a marriage canopy with the dead lovers spending eternity together-  with an exorcism in between. This opera is not afraid of spiritual thinking. Based on the Yiddish classic “The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds” by the Russian playwright S. Ansky, it displays the realistic tension between religion and superstition which is prevalent in communities where God is taken seriously. The odd thing is that the action seems to “bless” superstitious and sacrilegious thinking and not the established faith.  Channon, a youth desperately in love with Leah, is the eventual dybbuk of the title, the ghost of a dead person which takes hold of another.  He is so desperate to impress the father of his beloved Leah that he gives his soul to the devil (in the synagogue no less), and that vow kills rendering him a ghost. That ghost first possess the body of Leah, and at the close of the opera takes possession of her soul, by her own desire. At first it seemed the main story was that of possession and redemption, it is called “The Dybbuk” after all, but at the end it was a twisted love story instead. The opera was at its best as a story of possession and the spiritual heroics of a uncertain rabbi. Yet Dybbuk is more Liebestod than The Exorcist.

***

A Ram’s horn, called a shofar, is used even today as a faithful signal call during Rosh Hashana, the most important Jewish holiday of their religious year. In ancient Israel shofars were also used to signal during war. It is very helpful to listen to shofar calls before seeing the opera if you are not familiar with the sound and meaning of the instrument. They sound a fifth, the common interval of a trumpet fanfare, hold steady or then repeat in a kind of rat-a-tat. It helps to listen for these soundmarks (like landmarks) through the opera. The shofar-like blasts from the brass in the exorcism scene invoke the joining of faith and resolve needed for the spiritual battle taking place.

Mr. Mandelbaum mentions in the program notes that he used the notes of shofar calls to create a tone row, albeit a tonic one. In other words, instead of using a traditional scale, he decided to build his own with the notes expressed by the blowing of the ram’s horn trumpet. Do not worry, if you were to see the opera, this theory does not get in the way of music comprehension.

The world in which the characters live is very foreign to us and not only from the setting. At the time, it was common for a young woman had very little say in who she was to marry. In the middle of the opera, her new, unseen fiancee is set to arrive once the dybbuk, Channon, has been driven from her. But it is she who longs for her dead love interest which brings him back. Unrequited love has an durable appeal to many audiences. Another idea struck me during the two hour performance. What is it like to live with death all around? I assume Leah is very young, and yet her mother has died. Channon’s father is also dead. The town is centered on the grave of a murdered couple. Death is a major theme in this play upon which the opera is based. Perhaps in the imagination of Ansky, the young lovers receive in death which was unattainable in life.

***

The evening was enjoyable overall due to the singing displayed by the principal players. The lovers were well matched in voice. Emily Misch sang with beautiful purpose as the young Leah.  She looked resplendent in a blue gown a la Grec and completed her look with a turquoise ring on her left hand. She describes herself in her bio as “clear-voiced, versatile, and intellegent…” a description that I am not sure I could improve upon. Singing as Channon, John Ramseyer’s voice was a light tenor which fit his role nicely, but it was hard to understand the words during the first act.  Gilad Paz had presence of voice and command of the stage fitting for the rabbi hero. He made strong dramatic choices for the constraints of the staging especially leading up to the exorcism when he removed his coat and then rolled up his sleeves to let us all know that there was work to be done. Playing the grandmother, Amy Maude Helfer also worked nicely within the confines of the concert with her expressive face, but she, of course, is much too young for the role. I would have liked to have seen a more age appropriate woman sing the role to bring some scratchy-voiced wisdom to the scenes in which she appears.

My desire for some timbral excitement does not stop with casting choices. Orchestral colors were at times fresh, but when I heard a chord that blossomed, it always seemed cut off too soon. The orchestra was conducted by the composer which was the only obvious misstep of the evening.  When Stephan Fillare stepped to the podium, the orchestra found more vigor and precision. This was necessary so that the composer could sit down to the microtonal keyboard for a scene in the fourth act.

The staging was not of the full four hour opera, thankfully. To fill in the missing pieces the bass Stephan Kirchgraber, in a fine and powerful voice, as the emcee kept us in the loop as far as the story was concerned and as “The Messenger” sang a “parable” about the love between the heart of the earth and a crystal spring on a mountain top. This was a marvelous musical opportunity to unspool this idea into a fantastical microtonal aria as if from a religious vision. Unfortunately, the music of the parable does not stray from the orchestration heard in the rest of the opera.

The writing for all the instruments seemed to sit in their comfortable registers giving the sonic landscape a sameness which made me want those few moments of pizzazz to last a dramatic beat or two longer. The musical concept was a Wagnerian approach to through singing enlivened at times by Broadway style orchestrations. It was tonal, but not tune-al. There was too much bowing and not enough pizzicato. Any rhythmic vigor was as short lived as timbral creativity. Throughout the performance, the percussion seemed to drop things clumsily, I am not sure if that was uncertainty with the score or the result of a tight squeeze on stage.

The text was taken fully from the Ansky play and needed to be pruned badly. Macheted, honestly. The libretto got in the way of the music. It reminded me of a comic book I once saw in which the words crowded out the pictures leaving only a thin strip of images pushed to the side, which is clearly not the point of the comic. It is also not the point of an opera. One singer would sing his soliloquy and then the next would sing hers. There were no music duets to speak of or ensemble singing other than short men’s choruses. The scene between the rabbi and his servant was touching, but they didn’t interact musically. The singers sang their block of words while many instruments played in the orchestra.

There were a few moments of silence to bring attention to important ideas. Leah sings of a couple buried in the center of her town murdered on their wedding day by Cossacks. The orchestra falls silent for the first time and she sings, “They were laid in one grave”. Then the next few lines ruins the moment, to paraphrase, “…where they would be together through the rest of eternity”. The point was already made with the rare moment of silence and the beautiful turn of phrase. No need to belabor the point.

After the musical drama ended, most of the audience stood to offer a warm ovation. Mr. Mandelbaum could not have asked for a better workshop revival of his 1972 opera.

October 26, 2017, 8 p.m. Merkin Hall One Performance Only

 

 

 

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!

A Relic and a Resource: Rare Percy Grainger Recordings

Image © 2017 Gregory Briggler

I have a cassette that I have been carrying around for twenty years. It even survived a surprisingly recent “ancient media” purge. The cassette had captured in its magnetic dust wax cylinder recordings of English folk songs recorded by Australian composer Percy Grainger. Also captured there were demonstrations by the composer of “Rufford Park Poachers” and “Lord Melbourne” from Lincolnshire Posy performed on piano and harmonium, a foot-pumped organ. Grainger was asked by the band director who premiered the work to record the music to better understand how it flowed together.

 

I had first heard the recording at a concert at the University of North Texas Wind Ensemble. Eugene Corporon, the intimidatingly bald director of the wind ensemble, gave the audience a taste of the origins of the classic British band piece that they were about to play. He pointed out seagulls squeaking in the background of the recordings captured on the English seashore. Later, I borrowed his demonstration cassette, and after keeping it a little long, dubbed it to another. There the recordings stayed, unlistened, until last December. It was finally in my means to digitize the cassette. I felt it a shame not to share the music as a relic and a resource. The performance of this music is still a challenge after almost eighty years.

The recordings were originally copied out of the Library of Congress recording collection in Washington, D.C. by a friend of Corporon’s who was researching the composer for a thesis. The wax cylinder recordings were on a vinyl record, Unto Brigg Fair, and the recordings of Grainger seem to be transferred from reel-to-reel tape. There is minimal cleaning of the digital recording other than removing the record noise -not to be confused with the surface noise of the wax cylinder recordings.

 

There are voices on the track on which Grainger plays “Rufford Park Poachers” on piano. I did not attempt to transcribe the speaking. It has the push and pull of a music lesson, but I don’t know what’s really going on. I find the craggy, limping singing voice of Grainger on the harmonium track of the same movement particularly noteworthy. This is an imperfect, intimate recording for a friend who is trying to understand Lincolnshire Posy better. I hope my sharing it helps you, too.

Some of the facts in this post might be wrong, I have been carrying this information around in the electric field of my mind for twenty years as well..

The Magic of Kumar

Image © 2017 Gregory Briggler

Around the Christmas of 1996, I went to the Cosmic Cup in Dallas to see the local band Little Jack Melody and his Young Turks. It was an intimate concert in a place that had the feel and dimensions of a living room. Little Jack sang and played tenor banjo. On stage there was quite the menagerie of instruments: harmonium, tuba, cornet, drums, and saxophone. The crowd sat on cushions on the floor, and we were occasionally asked to sing Salvation Army arrangements of Christmas Carols. That was a crowd favorite except for a white-haired atheist who chose to try and ruin the fun for everyone else instead of voting with his feet. It was a benchmark concert of my five years in Texas.

Mixed in with the proto-hipster crowd were promed-up Indian teens who were there to support the Amazing Kumar. Short, white haired and wearing a sweater vest, he performed magic tricks, spun plates and entertained as part of the evening. I only discovered he was the owner of the place while researching this post.

The next time I saw Kumar Pallana was in 1998 on the big screen.  I often drove from Denton to the Inwood Theater in Dallas to watch independent films. There was Kumar on screen in Rushmore, a film by Wes Anderson exploring the life of an overachieving, under-performing private school boy. Anderson is from Houston and so had a special place in the hearts of arty Texans. The film was witty and awkward and charming and silly. I felt like I was at the genesis of something great. And then, there was the Amazing Kumar on screen! I had before seen him in the flesh. He wasn’t just another film person, but a magician I had first seen in a tiny restaurant in Dallas. My adventure – the move from Arkansas to Texas, the seeking out of art and music and films – had brought me close to people who were making movies. Through slight of hand, Kumar connected my real life to the movie on screen- an Amazing trick!

Of course, I still watch Wes Anderson’s movies. He is one of the most interesting filmmakers, forgive me, of my generation. Everything on screen is polished and just-so. We haven’t met yet, but we will eventually. I want to share a Pimm’s Cup with him and talk about that Texas to New York shift he made. That we made. We’ll toast together someday and talk about music, the big D and the big Apple.

“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!