music

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

 

 

 

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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.

The Rake’s Progress (A Concert Review)

File_002The evening begins…

The venue for Eli Spindel’s String Orchestra of Brooklyn’s concert version of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Roulette Intermedium, sits within earshot of raspy-voiced island music thumping from cars on the street and within eyeshot of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower. The intimate theater (“Prime seats at the Met”) was perfect for this production. The concert-goers sported blazers and bowties, jeans and t-shirts and cocktail dresses. The small theater was full of young and old adults chatting. Dressed in black, the orchestra prepared for three hours of concentration the score demands. A screen hung behind the chorus on which to projected the super-titles. There were microphones in between the audience and orchestra which framed the evening as an inviting, open recording session.

The concertmaster, Gina Dyches, a staff member at Roulette, entered followed by the guest conductor Tito Muñoz, music director of The Phoenix Symphony and five year S.O.B. collaborator, who said a few things before the concert. He mentioned that everyone involved in the project was a volunteer, incredible considering the quality of the performance. Also, The Rake’s Progress is one of his favorite pieces of music. And with that, they began. The orchestra performed very well overall. There were moments of uncertainty, but the proper bounce, blend, and sheer concentration smoothed out any rough spots. Rebecca Steinberg should be praised for her trumpet solo in Act 2. Stravinsky always treats the trumpet player with respect and Ms. Steinberg reciprocated.

The chorus was small and rag-tag. The members offered unintended diversions during the performance. One was asleep in the front row during the first act; another pursed her lips in disapproval at the stage action later on. There was a thirsty bass on the back row three minutes after intermission and, another time, a snarky joke between two sopranos on the front. The chorus was on stage the entire night, so these discreet indiscretions helped move the evening along. I also enjoyed the unintentional gravitas added by Rebecca Pechefsky, the capable harpsichordist for the production, who occasionally descended and ascended the stage right staicase like Eurydice.

The audience enjoyed the production and singing. Both Tom Rakewell (Gilad Paz) and Anne Truelove (Stefanie Izzo) received ovations during the performance. Many in the audience stood to clap when the progress had wound its course. I enjoyed both the staging and singing as well. The petite soprano Izzo’s voice is anything but,and her Anne endearing. John Kapusta as Sellem the Auctioneer made an explosive entrance which made me laugh. He kept up the energy and character to steal his short scene. Mother Goose (Caroline Tye) was convincing as the Madam of a brothel. Amy Maude Helfer, who played Baba the Turk with skill, was difficult to hear with or without the veil covering her character’s bearded face. I expect more scenery chewing from Baba. Paul An (Truelove) was the granite presence that the small role requires.

The scenario is straightforward enough, but the welter of elements keeps you guessing. Anne is the heroine of the tale, but it’s hard to believe the sophisticated Auden and Stravinsky thought so. Anne shows up in technicolor OZ like a black and white Dorothy. I was taken with the coming and going of the characters. Each has their arch which undergird the structure and symmetry of the work. The progress begins with Tom and Anne together in Idyll. The progress is completed, after Anne, her work and charity finished, leaves. Tom in the asylum Bedlam with the chorus of mad accompanying him,dies. An epilogue with the five main characters is added a la Mozart. The work itself is an odd mishmash of seriousness and silly, romance and morality play, classical music and 50’s broadway, with scene, mood and character development turning like the flick of a playing card.

In tonight’s production, Tom’s death scene was very effective and seemed genuine, a rare feat on stage. Throughout, Paz was quite the leading man, giving Tom a kaleidoscope of feelings and character quirks throughout each tableau. His chemistry with Benjamin Bloomfield as Shadow was some of the best on stage tonight. Shadow had some moments of flubbing his lines here and there noticeable only because of the ever-present super titles. In spite of these small mistakes, his voice was nicely present and he certainly looked the part of Shadow by sporting a goatee and slicked hair. The menace of malice became real in his demeanor when he began to lose the impossible-to-lose card game to Tom near the end of the work.

Evil is very present in this work- Tom is easily talked into leaving Anne for money, easily talked into whoring and then a bad marriage. (“Marry Baba neither for desire or duty! Marry her because you can to be free!” Odd logic if logic it be.) Magic is present in this work, with Baba silenced like a canary simply by covering her head. Love is manifest by Father Truelove, Anne and Tom. Even when driven mad by Shadow, Tom as Adonis remains what he became during the card game – devoted to Anne, his chaste Venus.

Try and see this production tonight. The musicians work hard so there is no need for you to.


The Rake’s Progress

Music by Igor Stravinsky

Libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman

The String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Conducted by Tito Muñoz

8 p.m., July 23rd

ROULETTE INTERMEDIUM, INC

509 Atlantic Avenue (Entrance at the corner of 3rd Avenue)

Brooklyn, NY 11217

tickets

Huffington Post Interview

2016-05-29-1464525801-7044006-Gregory8.jpgPhoto credit: © Nancy Ruhling 2016

Early one Saturday morning, I had the pleasure to be interviewed by Nancy Ruhling for her long-running Huffington Post column “Astoria Characters”. She liked my iced tea and my kids, so she was very kind to me.

Read and enjoy!

 

“Ode to Joy” Part 2

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Photo Credit: © Gregory Briggler

(This is the end of a two-part story. The beginning can be found by clicking here.)

The performance was over. I was in a daze afterward of heightened aesthetic awareness. I remember the shabby blue and green carpet in the house where musicians mixed with the crowd accepting compliments and making plans for the evening. The evening was cool as Laura and I walked arm and arm out of the well-worn concert hall. The patterns of the architecture outside the venue were revealed to me for the first time. Windows, identical and repeating, pulled my gaze up the office building wall across the street. I was so enraptured, as I drove along the interstate, my speed slowed to a crawl. I only came back to speed, apologizing with a smile, after Laura asked me if everything was alright.

The after-concert party was held in a lousy chain restaurant. And yet, as we walked inside, I was aware of the interior design, the deliberate choices made by that anonymous design team. The open walls with plants hanging just-so seemed to frame my friends as we walked in. The food was forgettable, yet the company pleasant. I remember my choir friends, including my quirky, long-time friend Rachel, chattering around the table relieved and excited after the concert.

I was changed by the performance, and now the evening was over. After dinner and goodbyes, I drove Laura through the dark countryside separating Little Rock and Conway, our university town about half an hour away. By the back door of the girl’s dorm, we talked quickly and kissed a passionate kiss. I watched her walk up the stairwell of the dorm to her bed. How I wanted to follow!

I walked back to my room a changed man. Music matured me; performing affected a change that was permanent and profound. And a brief, intense love affair was the catalyst.

 

 

“Ode to Joy” Part 1

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Photo Credit: © Gregory Briggler

I was a boy of nineteen when I first sang in the chorus for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We performed in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, my home state. Each year select university choirs from around the state, including mine, joined forces with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Brahm’s Requiem was the showpiece the year before, and Verdi’s Requiem followed the next year. I was excited to sing again in this grand concert to the crowd sitting in darkness and hidden by the glare of the stage lights. The people who came to see me perform were my parents and my girlfriend Laura.

Laura was petite and very smart. She had sparkling honey colored eyes and wavy dark brown hair. I had met her in concert band; she played clarinet but she was studying chemistry. Many of the other boys were interested in her, but through luck and skill I was the only one who had managed to date her. The affair was new and precarious. The feelings I had for Laura that night were intensified by my experience singing beautiful, powerful music. And the performance was intensified by the affection.

For those of you unfamiliar with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it begins like all previous symphonies, but something wonderful happens during the final movement. Through snippets of melodies, that movement itself seems to ask many questions, comes to dead ends, and then settles on the main theme which bursts to greater life in song. We had studied the piece through bleary eyes in early morning music theory for the entire spring semester. Inside and out, I knew it better than any music at that point in my life. The symphony is masterful – Fugues! A Turkish March! Soloists! Full Choir! The intimate connection between learning and performing was the highlight of my undergraduate education.

But something happened that night that went beyond study and performance. When the house lights came up, I was changed. It was as pure an aesthetic experience as I have ever had. That performance changed my inner life.

Tonal Refraction: Every Gig is the Same

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Photo Credit: © Larry Beckhardt

One of the mysteries of performance is that my part in making the music is the same. Pop, jazz, polka, symphonies or trombone choir, the job is the same. I need to put the right note in the right spot at the right time. I have participated in glowing, ethereal brass section tuning on a packed stage at two in the morning dressed like Freddie Mercury. I learned to push and pull the tempo of a group playing polka upbeats and how to apply that power from the cheap seats of the orchestra (when necessary). Even when “anything goes” making music, I help make it go within a musical structure.

These different groups and genres in which I participate have different ends but the same means – my playing trombone. The ends for some are for art, others for pleasure, and a few for “pure music”. Twelve notes, give or take, are spun into strings and bows and knots of melodies and rhythms and harmonies. The sounds I contribute can bray or sing; inspire or melt into the beer-logged background. If my playing notes and rhythms had a fixed meaning like a word or photograph how could they be heard in so many musical places and moods? However, my contribution is limited to the trombone and to me no matter how large my bag of tricks. So, I play and sometimes consider the sameness of the part I play.
I think about the beautiful refraction of that sameness: music filtered through the prism of me.