Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Songbook—Broadway’s Future (2/24/14)

Show music by new composers and lyricists. There were ‘selections’ from two shows on display on Monday evening: The Bootlegger & the Rabbi’s Daughter and Tink! When I read the program notes, I had fairly high hopes. I was somewhat rewarded.

Bootlegger (book and lyrics: Tajlei Levis, music: John Mercurio) turned out slightly less successful than I had hoped for. In 1920, on the lower East side, an Italian immigrant takes advantage (in more ways than one) of sacramental synagogue wine and the rabbi’s daughter (though they eventually fall in love—the daughter and the immigrant, though the wine doesn’t hurt!). If this sounds stereotypical, you’ve just gotten why I found it less than successful. The score was OK, with jazz touches, a hint of klezmer, etc., but the book/lyrics and over-the-top accents out-Fiddlered Fiddler on the Roof, while adding a touch of Rocky. “Heaven Full of Stars,” a nice song of want, and a male duet, “You Could Learn So Much,” were pretty good. “In the Snow” was a nice period piece. And “Confession,” with two guys playing stereotypical Italian mamas was humorous. Still I wasn’t overly impressed.

Tink! (book and lyrics: Diane Uniman, music: Kevin M. Cotter) was far more enjoyable for me. The convoluted plot involves Cap’n Hook (as his grandma) transforming Tinkerbell into a ‘real, live girl’ so that she can pursue her love of Peter Pan. That’s really all you need to know for this go ’round. “Behold Tink” was a real opening number—introducing characters, and setting the stage. “Loster” was a play on words and a play on what really affects the Lost Boys. “Meanies” brought to mind an English music hall number. There were a couple of ‘star turn’ tour-de-force numbers presented; is the whole score that good? We’ll need to wait and see. I hope I’ll get to see a further iteration of this one. Just came across this, from my notes (I think it was from Tink): “I came from a land where make-believe is real!” Says it all, for me.

Overall, the performances were very good (without naming all of the artists)—a hodge-podge of working/auditioning/soon-to-be-working actors and actresses. And, as always, I enjoy expanding my horizons by hearing new theater music, getting first (or somewhat recent) hearings. There should be one more Songbook for each of March, April, and May. I hope to hear all three, and report back on what I hear.


Monday, February 24, 2014

I Did Not Know That! (2/18/14)

Programs at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York are always interesting and this one didn’t disappoint. Cornet: Viktor Ullman’s Legacy from Theresienstadt commemorating the 70th anniversary of Ullman’s murder in Auschwitz. Well, as it turns out, there was nary a cornet to be seen or heard. The program consisted of an introductory lecture, Music from Theresienstadt, by Michael Lahr, and then music of Viktor Ullman (1898–1944)—Piano Sonata No. 6, op. 49, Allegro molto, Allegretto grazioso, Presto, ma non troppo, Allegro molto, Dan Franklin Smith (piano); and Die Weise von Lieb und Tod des Cornets Christof Rilke (The Lay of Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke – 12 pieces from the poem of Rainer Maria Rilke for recitation and piano), Gregorij H. von Leïtis, recitation; Dan Franklin Smith, piano. Aha! There’s the cornet—an officer in a cavalry troop who carried the standard.

The music was written while Ullman was in the concentration camp, during 1944—the year he also died there. The first movement of the sonata was dissonant without actually being atonal, was very pianistic, and included some jazz riff overtones. The second was a little more melodic, with a more formalized structure, while the third was mainly repetitive rhythms. The final movement was similar to the first but a little less dissonant, a little more accessible, to my ear, again with jazz influences, and a rather abrupt ending. Mr. Smith played very well, here and in the piece that followed.

The Cornet was quite interesting, with the texts (translated) being shown on screen, but also at times showing a printed page from the score—so you could actually follow along, both piano and the text in German. The printed pages that were shown also included shadowy images including a horse with the rider bearing the standard, the horse and rider sans standard, and a standing skeleton bearing the standard. Very moving images. The music was (this from my brief notes) alternately lively and dramatic, gentle, rhythmic with more verbose text and a piano coda, piano opening with text followed by a piano epilogue, lush, almost pastoral—but a false impression, martial, rapid text and music, and then a denouement. All of the varied music and recitations were carried out quite effectively; a true collaboration through composition.

Considering the rather “heavy” aspect of the lecture, music, and drama, and the fact that all of this was from a dark era in our collective histories, the concert was moving, eventful, successful and thought-provoking. I must remember to check ACFNY’s website more regularly, to broaden my horizons. Musically and historically.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Rusalka (2/15/14)

Okay, not free but relatively low cost. Every once in a while I splurge on a standing room ticket to the Metropolitan Opera. After hearing Renée Fleming sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, and after reading some chatter on WQXR’s message boards re. the 2/8/15 Saturday afternoon broadcast of Rusalka, I bought a ticket to what was its final performance of the season.

Rusalka, Antonin Dvořák (1841–1904) World premiere, Prague, 1901; Met premiere, 1993

Main characters: Rusalka, a water nymph, Renée Fleming; The Prince, Piotr Beczala; Ježibaba, a witch, Dolora Zajick; and Water Gnome, Rusalka’s father, John Relyea. Other cast members available upon request.

The story is a fairly straightforward fairy tale. Rusalka sees the Prince and falls in love with him. Only via a spell can she become human, but she will lose the power of speech. She’s convinced that love will conquer all, so she agrees. Even though the Prince loves her, he also (frustrated by his inability to communicate with Rusalka) confesses his love for a Foreign Princess. Rusalka returns to her water, and the Foreign Princess mocks the Prince and tells him to follow his beloved to hell. While Rusalka is lamenting her fate, the witch gives Rusalka a knife and says that if she kills the Prince, she can save herself. Rusalka throws the knife into the water. The prince arrives, calls out to Rusalka to return to him and learns that a kiss from her would kill him. He requests a kiss—and peace. She kisses him, he dies in her arms, and she asks for mercy on his soul and then disappears into the water. (Freely stolen er, adapted, from the synopsis in the Playbill.)

Here’s one of the good things about opera—the characters are broadly drawn and broadly played, in order to make sense in a larger-than-life performance space. Here’s one of the bad things about opera—see the previous sentence. The sets, staging, costumes, orchestra (conducting), and singing were all top notch. By having a standing room ticket, I was at a slight visual disadvantage in that my view of the stage could best be described as letterbox format. By bending down a bit and using a small pair of binoculars, I was able to see Rusalka as she sang the “Song to the Moon,” perched in a notch in a tree. Both it and Ms. Fleming were gorgeous here. It’s almost too bad that it appears so early in the opera since it’s such a highlight. Maybe the next time I splurge for an opera ticket I’ll buy one that has a full view of the stage (though I’m sure I’ll still need the binoculars).

Opera is a commitment (this one ran from 8:00pm–11:50pm) that I’m not always willing to make. But seeing Ms. Fleming in a signature role, and the other vocalists were no slouches either, is something that I should do for myself every once in a while. As this was the final performance of the run (and I think this might have been the case in the last one or two Met performances I attended), all of the cast members applauded the orchestra during their curtain calls. If this is a “last night” tradition, I’m okay with it; if it’s an “every performance” tradition, not so much. Hey, if that’s my only quibble, so be it. The music, a mix of impressionism, romanticism, a few set pieces, but mostly through-composed, was as much a highlight as the individual (and collective) performances.


Monday, February 10, 2014

Vocal Recital (2/8/14)

This was a concert under the auspices of the Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert series, with Marina Harris, soprano, and Robert Mollicone, piano.

A textbook recital: Ch’io mi scordi di te … Non temer, amato bene, K. 505, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1790); Chanson Triste, Extase, L’invitation au voyage, La vie antérieure, Henri Duparc (1848–1933); Barcarolle, Do not tempt me needlessly, To her, Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857); Sechs einfache Lieder, Op. 9, Erich Korngold (1897–1957); Selections from Natural Selection, Jake Heggie (b. 1961); and Wie nahte mir der Schlummer … Leise, leise from Der Freischütz, Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826).

I find it hard to comment on song recitals since they are so full of so many small gems. Overall, Ms. Harris sang very well—I was especially impressed with the even sound of her voice throughout the entire range. The lower part of her range was strong though there was just a hint of pushing of sound in her upper range—truly just a hint. Her diction, in Italian, French, German, English, and Russian, was very good. OK, I made up that last part about Russian. And Mr. Mollicone was a worthy partner, pianistically and as a raconteur providing spoken program notes.

As always, I appreciate program notes, even if they are announced from the stage—or, in this case, the front of the church (with very good acoustics). The Mozart was described as a concert aria, originally to be part of Idomeneo, but always kept separate. A very interesting note about the Duparc songs is that he gave up composing after a period of time and burned all but 17 of his compositions! As a result, the four songs we heard were a major portion of his resultant song output.

It’s always fun to hear unfamiliar music, and the Glinka filled that bill perfectly. The Barcarolle was gently rocking, appropriately enough, while Do not tempt me sounded like a bit of a lament, to me; To her was nicely animated.

After intermission, we were treated to Korngold’s Six Simple Songs. Indeed, they were relatively simple—especially when we realize that Korngold, an Austrian, was the winner of the first Oscar presented for a film score. These were six gems, unfortunately interrupted by a cell phone ringing. Really? It’s bad enough dealing with clanking radiators and sirens outside on the streets of New York; can’t concertgoers figure out the cell phone thing?

I didn’t quite know what to make of Mr. Heggie’s two selections. The first, Animal Passion, was fun and interesting, almost reminding me of some Leonard Bernstein writing from Trouble in Tahiti. It was amusing and pretty much successful. Alas! Alack! lacked a certain something, for me.

The Freischütz aria showcased Ms. Harris’ opera instincts very well. At intermission, Marilyn Horne spoke briefly, and beautifully, commenting that she thought that
Ms. Harris could very well be a breakout performer in the next five to ten years, if not sooner. I trust Ms. Horne.

This was a very good recital as part of a very good series. There is at least one more, and I plan on being there.

p.s. Ms. Harris sang a well-deserved encore of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Climb Ev'ry Mountain.

Saturday, February 1, 2014


I recently attended Fantasies, a recital by Sofia Melikyan, pianist, that explored fantasies in different forms and from different eras.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788), Fantasy in f sharp minor H 300; Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), Fantasien Op. 116; Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Fantasy in g minor Op. 77; John Corigliano (b. 1938), Etude – Fantasy, For the left hand, Legato, Fifths to thirds, Ornaments, Melody; and Franz Liszt (1811–1886), Anées de Pèlegrinage, Deuxième anée: Italia S. 61 (Years of Travel, Second Year: Italy), Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata (After a Reading of Dante).

Ms. Melikyan played from memory (and played very well) throughout the entire performance.

The Bach had a calm opening and then alternated between flights of controlled fancy and calmer sections. C.P.E. learned a lot from his papa, J.S., and others; this was a thoroughly enjoyable piece that was a transition from the Baroque to the Classical eras. Brahms’ seven-movement work bounded into Romanticism with an expansive (compositionally) opening that was also powerful (both the music and the playing). The second movement had a contrasting calmness, and was dream-like though still fully engaged. The third was explosive, but not frantic. My notes for the fourth movement include, ethereal, even in the lower tones of the piano, with subtle, nuanced playing. The fifth was more energetic, though still somewhat subdued, while the sixth had a fuller build-out of sound. The final movement was very fast, powerful, and broad ranging.

[Mini-rant here—no fewer than four electronic devices went off during the first half of the concert. And this is a venue where there is a notice in the program (and the program is not one of those huge booklets) and there was an announcement from the stage at the beginning of the concert. Please, please, please show some common courtesy.]

After intermission, Beethoven took us backward a bit with a piece that had fragmented ideas with a Classical esthetic. It then moved on to energetic sections with very rapid fingerwork, and finally returned to a melodic, totally fantasy feel. While it was well played, it was also not my favorite—maybe by having experienced Romanticism, the Classical nature paled a little. Just my personal reaction.

The five movements of the Corigliano piece segued so smoothly that it was sometimes difficult to figure how far along we were, as listeners. The piece had a very modern feel (emphasis on very), with very “rangy” writing for the left hand alone, creating an almost angry feel. The mysterious second movement then transitioned into a brisk, definite, frantic third movement. The fourth movement had a mystical quality and then virtuosity that didn’t quite lead anywhere, while the fifth movement was calm, but a bit meandering.

Liszt’s Dante-themed work had a dramatic opening that used tri-tones (think European ambulance or emergency vehicle sirens) representing evil. This led to flights of fancy, of the type often associated with Liszt, and to virtuosic writing that was, here, used very well. A chorale-like section then moved us into a major key, as a means of giving us a feeling of heaven—at least as had been explained from the stage, before the piece began.

This concert was a great journey through some of the eras of classical music, played very well by a wonderful artist. Fantastic, indeed.