Category Archives: criticism

Reich Drive

Last week while driving solo up to The Newman Compound (trademark pending, JM) I made the most of the long trip by finally listening to some pieces I purchased a few weeks ago in a flurry of iTunes Store activity. It was a random selection of this and that … a bunch of David Lang chamber works, some Evan Ziporyn pieces, an arrangement of Björk with the percussionist Evelyn Glennie … stuff like that. But it was the piece at the end of the “Recently Added” playlist which wrapped it’s arms around me in a late-night embrace of brilliance. On those country roads, as I tooled north, I heard Steve Reich’s new masterwork, You Are (Variations).

I purchased the recording really knowing nothing about it, other than it was a fairly new work, premiered only a year or so ago, in LA, and that it will be part of the big “Steve Reich at 70″ festival B&H put together this for Fall. It’s just crazy how fast this stuff comes out. Reich writes a piece, and Nonesuch records it—seems like instantly.

It’s not like I can actually write a review of a Reich work, because there’s never really anything to criticize. He’s just that good. One of those guys who is simply incapable of composing junk. Not every piece is a masterpiece, of course, but they’re all at least good. Now, if he wrote a bad piece, that would be something to write about. And now, at 70, like the unending Elliot Carter (98), he actually seems to be getting better.

All the (now usual, but always comforting) Reich elements are there in this piece, but somehow this one develops more for me than other recent works … the rhythms jerk and twist in surprising ways, and the counterpoint seems more intense and complex than in other pieces from the last few years. The colors change more frequently, as well, driven by a bunch of marimba/vibes stacks balanced with pianos. Those things are like glorious mallet/keyboard engines, pushing the piece faster and faster up a hill. The piece simply grooves like crazy.

The similarity to Tehillim (really, just the Best Piece Ever), is striking, but I think that’s only a good thing. It invites comparison, but little suffers from it. In fact, the English text in two of the movements might be the only unsettling element…in Tehillim, the piece is entirely in Hebrew (a language I can read, and yet not understand a word of, thanks to modern secularized Jewish education). When all that Hebrew is grooving, I mean, who knows (or cares) what they’re singing about? I know the gist, of course, but the foreign tongue forces a removal, keeps it from getting too close to reality. All that repeated, abstracted text becomes just another layer in the counterpoint, rather than an element of drama and shape. And that’s always been one of the cool attractions about Reich’s vocal music—so much of it is masquerading as instrumental parts. For that reason, I find the fact that I can occasionally understand what the singers are singing about in You Are to be slightly disturbing, and so the movements with the Hebrew texts (especially the second) work best for me.

And we’ve certainly come a long way from “phasing.” The counterpoint is rich and surprising, and the arc is determined by nothing other than drama and pacing. There’s no external forces imposed on this music. It’s just about the text, and the flow of the piece. And despite what people have been saying about this stuff for the past 30 years, it’s not “mechanized,” or “soul-less,” or “ambient”, or any of those awful adjectives. In fact it’s the opposite; this is music full of life and human energy, requiring extremes of musical emotion to put across. I recall a Ned Rorem quote I came across at some point, probably from one of the books (paraphrased of course): One should play Debussy like Bach, and Bach like Debussy. Well, exactly. The best performances of “exacting” and rhythmically precise music are the extremely musical ones.

While at B&H day-jobbing years back, one day the MIDI mockup of the Triple Quartet came in, and made the rounds around the office. It was awful. I mean, just stunning. If it was a regular submission, we would have filed it after a good laugh. And yet, that piece, when brought to life with the quartet and the tape part, is moving and gorgeous. Reich just does not translate to anything other than real people, playing instruments and singing, often joyfully. His is purely human stuff.

And this performance from the Los Angeles Master Chorale doesn’t disappoint. It’s crystal clear and balanced perfectly, with superb musicality, especially from the percussionists. The piece shines in this recording. On the last track, though, I’m of two minds … as Nonesuch tacked on Cello Counterpoint (played well by many Maya Beisers) at the end of the CD. It’s a fine work in and of itself, but after the meatiness of You Are, it comes off as more than a little disappointing—like a weak afterthought.

When I heard my first Reich, I was 17, and a student at Tanglewood. Of course, someone put on the Different Trains CD, that recording for the ages, with Kronos, and Pat Metheny playing Electric Counterpoint. I think my brain exploded. All decisions toward writing music for the rest of my life were confirmed, and I had a lifelong friend in his music. This was a new world to me, and a wholly new way of fusing music with meaning. Years later, at another Tanglewood summer, while lounging outside Ozawa Hall, waiting for the start of a live performance of Different Trains, my companion (new to Reich, and a writer) said a mouthful while perusing the program’s linear transcription of the interview-text so integral to the piece: “Oh! He’s a poet, too.”

Indeed.

Old English Monsters in Town

It was a night of high/lowbrow on Tuesday, when Better Half and I attended the much-anticipated premiere of the Elliot Goldenthal/Julie Taymor opera, Grendel, after which we rushed home to watch the TiVo’d All-Star Game like a couple of rabid blue & orange body-painters.

I’m sure everyone’s had their fill of the game by now, but the opera is definitely something to report on. For ten years or so, The Lincoln Center Festival has been filling the role of a kind of summer BAM Next-Wave Festival on the Upper West Side, which is a situation I will never complain about. The one month each season when Lincoln Center apes BAM is just about the only time of the year when I prowl its gaping, cavernous halls.

The first Taymor piece I ever saw was the spectacular Lion King—I missed Juan Darién when it was up a few years before that. I have a vivid memory of a school chum describing the experience of watching Juan Darién, though, where he reportedly said to himself at intermission, “Wow, this is fantastic. She’s an absolute genius. And I could totally leave right now”. And that’s generally the consensus behind much of her work. Similar thoughts cropped up for me when we saw the gorgeous Robert Wilson-directed Peer Gynt at BAM (in Norweigen for goodness sakes) a couple months ago: “This is masterful!” I thought. “Brilliant! Do I really have to stay for all four hours?”

This piece, though, raises the bar, and from what I could tell, there was far less wristwatch-gazing happening for such a venture. In fact, the work is gorgeous. We got J.D. McClatchy’s tight/engaging libretto (and he’s proved himself before, with Tobias Picker’s Emmeline), great stuff in the story itself (based on the Beowulf-from-the-monster’s-perspective novel by John Gardner), terrific music from Goldenthal, fantastic performances from the cast and chorus, and the expected over-the-top Taymor spectacle, to boot. Great Performances, indeed … every singer was brilliant, especially Eric Owens, singing the title role—that guy deserves a special place in Performing Arts Heaven for all the singing and movement he does, nonstop, for 3 hours. You have to hand it to Ms. Taymor … somehow she can get opera singers to wear masks, fly in harnesses, and howl like wolves. This isn’t your everyday Merry Widow we’re talking about here, where the most difficult staging a soprano has to endure is singing a portion of her Act II aria while sitting down. Singing quite complicated stuff, while pouncing around in Constance Hoffman’s sumptuous, and often equally-complicated costumes (the bard-like “Shaper” was my favorite) is one thing. Singing complicated stuff wearing a head-to-toe “dragonette” costume while hanging suspended from the catwalk over an undulating dragon tail, well, that’s quite another. This monster is staged like nobody’s business, and the cast come off like champs.

The now-infamous set (designed by George Tsypin), much anticipated after the delay in LA when some mechanical bits didn’t work in tech and they had to delay the opening, was indeed, technically amazing. It opened in various ways, turned around, and did all kinds of nifty things (all of which worked flawlessly as far as I could tell) while generally looking wildly-expensive, but design-wise, it was a little bit of a letdown. It is, frankly, kind of ugly. Despite the gymnastics the thing pulled off, ultimately it’s kind of a big grey rock. The other set elements throughout the opera, however—the various objects and individual pieces brought out along the way—a funeral pyre, a marvelous tree-eating/road-making machine, a dragon head and tail—well, each one was more breathtaking than the next. Gorgeous pieces of the most complicated constructions you’ve ever seen on stage paraded out, all along with Michael Curry’s always-beautiful puppets, and all stunningly-lit by (my new favorite) Donald Holder. And when the staging is too complex for the singers to pull off, well, why not have dancers do it. And they did, undulating all over the space (performing quite beautiful choreography by Angelin Preljocaj) while Grendel hoots and howls solo from his perch on the big grey monster rock. In fact, this kind of thing is where Taymor shines as director. I would suspect that for about 3/4 of the opera, if you were looking at the vocal score, you’d see the orchestra playing away, and a single staff above: Grendel, singing his heart out for hours on end. Under another director, that could be more than a little dull. And yet, you’d never know it from looking at the stage. Grendel may be soliliquizing, but the dancers are going full-throttle in their wild costumes, the set is turning this way and that, the puppeteers are jumping about with their Curry Creations, and the lighting is darting across the scrim where the video projections frolic in front of it all.

I would imagine Taymor’s problem is that we now expect this kind of a visual feast, every time she shows up to work. I’m apologetic that I probably expected it myself, and I admit that’s just not fair. But I think the real short-shrift in these collaborative Taymor endeavors goes to Elliot Goldenthal. The guy is a terrific composer, a master craftsman in film and theater music, and yet, after Taymor and all the designers bowed and the audience is hooting and cheering and on their feet stamping with delight, Goldenthal comes out solo for his bow, and you can kind of feel the audience thinking, “Wait, who is that, now?” It’s an opera for Christmas-sake, with, you know, music, and yet it is still very much Taymor’s show.

And still, it’s the best Goldenthal score I’ve heard, perhaps ever. Always engaging, lyrical, and wildly colorful—his lines make complete dramatic sense, and I was stunned with how well it all worked musically. I’ve enjoyed his film scores very much, some more than others, but when his offerings for the concert hall have come up, the one I remember, Fire Water Paper, impressed very little on me when I heard the premiere years ago. So I was thrilled to like this score as much as I did. It’s true that there’s not much of a singular voice in his music (one hears quite a bit of Corigliano in there, and quite a bit more of John Adams), but it’s all synthesized together with expertise and creativity.

I was most impressed with some excellent (musical, dramatic, and staging) decisions the creative team made along the way—especially the well-conceived occasional use of Old English, the idea of the Dragonettes (a trio of women representing the tip of The Dragon’s tail), the employment of Grendel’s “Shadows” (a trio of men, Grendel’s inner demons/voices), and the excellent solution of singing Beowulf as a chanting male chorus. As a whole, it all dramatically worked about as well as you can hope. Honestly, only once, maybe twice, did I shift in my seat thinking, mmm, perhaps this scene could be cut a bit. But that happens with everything. Let’s be honest … every piece of performing art, unless you made it yourself, is a little too long. I would guess it’s been like that since barely-upright-people started banging on rocks ’cause it sounded cool. (Great performance, Ugghuh! Perhaps there were a few too many boulder-smashes?)

Now that these paragraphs are down, I will allow myself to see the Times review, out this morning. In fact, I link to it without yet reading it, so I do hope this venture got some praise—I think it deserves it. Of course, it’s not a perfect piece, but Lordy, it does stuff. Sometimes that “stuff” you do doesn’t work all that well, but at least you tried something. Nothing makes me more crazy than a massive venture which never remotely tries to do, frankly, anything at all. This Grendel, though, is a big mammoth of a thing, grandly conceived and expertly executed, stuff and all. Counts for a lot for me personally, so, bugger all the reviews. Including this one.

Odd Couples

It’s the kind of thing we used to bitch about in school. We’d sit around, soaking in our green youth, and complain about how concerts stink. How the whole experience of modern concerts is boring and dated, and how when New Music, usually saddled with electronics and amplification and complex percussion setups, is infused in this creaking old structure the result is often mind-numbingly dull: 12 minutes of setup for a 6 minute piece. The lights come up, and another setup, for another piece. And there’s usually more people onstage than in the audience. No wonder no one goes to these things. I try not to at least.

Oh, you know, we tried to put our efforts into bravely re-making the concert experience, with inter-arts collaborative projects and staged concerts featuring music and dance and theater and film, and they often were fantastic, and truly inspiring. But these were one-off events. They took months of planning, we all chipped in, the school funded it, it happened, everyone loved it, and we all dispursed into the world, where presenting similar paradigm-shifting concert experiences isn’t exactly the easiest way to get work.

But Thursday night the chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound gave us an idea of how this kind of thing could actually go in The Real World. Their Carnegie Hall debut, in the gorgeous one-season-old Zankel Hall downstairs was a spectacular example of forward-thinking concert programming. I have a soft spot for these guys, of course, having contributed 2 arrangements for their excellent CD, Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound performs Aphex Twin, and I consider myself a friend of the ensemble. My lack of partiality aside—the evening was triumph of programming: 9 eclectic pieces, tossed together, but with the solid theme of continuity in relationships between various pairs of the representative composers. Add in that each piece is staged within an inch of its life, and sounded out expertly, and you’ve got yourself a serious show.

It’s hard to describe just how classy AWS managed to come across in this endeavor. The usual result of attempts to “stretch” the concert experience out of the particular Piece, Pause, Piece, Pause box we currently suffer through often come off as forced and, well, sophomoric … and well, overly theatrical (adjective used pejoratively I’m afraid, with apologies to Theater-Designing Better Half). Artistic Director and Conductor Alan Pierson and Staging Director Nigel Maister deserve the credit for designing every transitional effort to be more clever than the last, and every visual element never once bouncing over-the-top.

I generally despise blow-by-blow non-review reviews, but this concert was so very much not what one thinks of when you say “concert” that I can’t resist describing what happened. They opened with a Frank Zappa medley of sorts, Dog Breath Variations followed immediately by Uncle Meat. The AWS musicians wandered on stage, as their parts were needed (it’s an old trick, but it still works … Corigliano’s Promenade Overture comes to mind as the supreme example), music impressively memorized, while images and text that can only be described as Live Program Notes are projected on the screen behind the ensemble. Funky pics of Zappa, quotes, dates, and some fantastically-expert PowerPoint skills float around up there while AWS blares through the Zappas — it all could go very very wrong very very easily, and yet, the visual elements are somehow so subtle and periodic (the image changed maybe only every minute or 2) that so far it all works out.

No stage entrance necessary for John Cage’s 0’00″ — it began before the last chord of the Zappa died out in the hall. One of the infamous performance/chance pieces, the instructions are simply to go do a “disciplined action”, with “maximum amplification”. I know this because the projections told me so, and so the ensemble started setting up the next piece, only with quite deliberate gestures, repetitions, random movement elements, and floor mics picking up every stand scratch, instrument drop, and footfall. Brilliant. It was the Cage, but it was setup for the next piece.

As mentioned above, the program’s theme was of composer continuums—one composer related to another, by studies, by social aspects, or simply by reverence. The first connection started with the third piece by Ghanian musician and composer Bernard Woma, expert of the gyil, a xylophone of sorts. Derek Bermel, composer of the last piece on the half, studied gyil with Woma, and as the piece (Gyil Mambo, expertly arranged by David Rogers) progressed the projections provide quotes and anecdotes from Derek, pretty much about how simply awesome Woma is.

By now I realized that because of these projections, I haven’t yet needed to glance down at my program at all, and it occurs to me that this was perhaps the idea. And what an excellent idea that is—to create a concert experience which does everything in it’s power to keep your eyes glued to the stage at all times. Who would go to a play or a musical or a dance only to spend half the time looking down at their lap? And yet this is most everyone’s standard concert music experience…

European modernist Wolfgang Rihm wrote the evening’s commissioned work, entitled Will Sound — a well-crafted and expertly-orchestrated piece, providing no surprises at all. It’s exactly the sort of spiky and expressionist gestures I expect to hear from Rihm, whose star is very high indeed in Europe (less so in the States). AWS sold the piece like superstars, and the various photos and quotes about Rihm and his music (by no less than John Adams, whose music ended the concert … another composer-connection-continuum) helped make what could have been an excrutiating 6 minutes for many in the hall into a fun and likely eye-opening piece. To see Adams’ words describe Rihm’s music as “painting in expressionist brushstrokes” float in front of you as the music is happening … well, you begin to actually hear that, whether you’d like to or not. It certainly helps matters. Playing the final punchline, the last projected image was Rihm’s own quote—from a letter (or more likely, an e-mail) to AWS, all carefully timed to the final seconds of the piece: “I am excited to write for your crazy ensemble. —Wolfgang Rihm”. As a final rim-shot, the quote was fonted in Old German Script.

Bermel’s piece Three Rivers, which polished off the first half, is an excellent piece of work. Eclectic in its influences, the piece is water-tight, hefty, and fun. In another stroke of brilliance, the piece was slightly re-scored, so that at the end director Nigel Maister could block-out bringing in the rest of the AWS players. The result for the final moments of the piece: an alternation between ear-blisteringly loud, hairy chords, and crazy-fast improvisational passages on mallets and piano, where the rest of AWS, meandering onstage, joined in on the tuttis (memorized). The result worked really well for the piece, and served the extra purpose of getting the entire band onstage for the bows.

The funkiness continued in the opening of the second half with the Varèse Intégrales (simply one of The Great Pieces), performed in the round and all over the space, back forth, up, and down, and with Pierson conducting from what appeared to be the exact center seat of the hall, where he had positioned himself at intermission. Antiphony and surround-sound works really quite well for Varèse, and some might leave it at that, but Maisters took the next step and staged the whole piece with players running up and down the aisles, entering and exiting, and just generally moving about the space. Meanwhile, Maister projected pics of Varèse (once even slightly animated) and cheeky quotes from Zappa (a self-proclaimed Varèse freak) on the back screen, and so Intégrales was quite the sensory-rich show.

Imagine yourself the director of this evening, and now you’ve got yourself a staging problem: Your conductor is now stuck in the middle of the auditorium, in the middle seat, at the end of the piece. How do you get him, and the rest of the players, in position and set up for the next piece? By performing another Cage chance piece, of course— this time Variations III, for which the score is described as consisting “simply of a series of transparencies with markings on them, which are then dropped onto a blank sheet of paper by potential performers, who interpret the resulting marks whichever way they desire.” Pierson was the comic star here, standing and sitting, half-sitting, standing again, asking neighbors loudly if he might borrow a program, repeatedly, in various volumes, and in gibberish. Eventually he moved his way backstage, occasionally reading from the program and entertaining the whole way, as AWS musicians crawled along the stage, repeatedly bowed, and generally moved their setup into position, all while hilariously nonplussed Union Stage Workers plugged amps in around them.

John Cale, a protege of sorts of Cage (and the continuum collects another dot) but most importantly an original member of The Velvet Underground, wrote a score to the 1963 experimental film by Andy Warhol, Kiss, in the ’90s, and it’s a gem. Arranged by AWS member Dennis DeSantis and played live with bits of the film projected on the ubiquitous backstage-screen (I can’t even begin to imagine the licensing involved in this), the result was spectacularly beautiful, and oddly moving. The Warhol is intense and raw—a series of close-up scenes of passionate kisses, fierce and breathtaking. Men and women, men and men, women and women … visual fare so Downtown I had to remind myself I was sitting in the basement of Carnegie and not somewhere in Tribeca. The Cale score was gorgeous … evocative, propulsive in rhythm, and colorful with double reeds, electric guitar, and amplified strings and voices.

AWS finished off with two electronica arrangements: listed last on the program was ensemble violinist Caleb Burhans’ arrangement of “Coast”, from Hoodoo Zephyr, the fascinating 1993 all-synthesizer album by John Adams, and the inevitable encore was the first track off the aforementioned Aphex Twin “Acoustica” CD, Cock/Ver 10, arranged by AWS cellist and composer Stefan Freund. Both are perfect examples of AWS’s crossover efforts—but all genre pigeon-holing aside, these suckers just work for the ensemble, and are a whole heck of a lot of fun to listen to. In fact these two pieces represent exactly what Alarm Will Sound is successfully pushing into the concert hall: a wide swath of style and source, creatively presented, and superbly executed.

Piano Men

Last night I attended a great big concert in a teeny tiny space … American Modern Ensemble, recently started up and expertly run by Rob and Victoria Paterson, produced an evening of new American piano works, showcasing the two best pianists in town (in town no doubt—best in the world I would imagine, I just haven’t heard them all yet…) Blair McMillen and Stephen Gosling. Both are musicians of such compelling stature, that it’s difficult to elaborate on the brilliance of these guys (full disclosure, both are school chums)—needless to add that I go hear them play whenever possible. But it was also the first time I’ve had a chance to hear them on the same program, that is, back to back, so that you could easily A/B their stylistic differences, and that made for a particularly fun concert.

There was a large menu that evening, representative of many disparate 20th-century techniques and styles (this was Rob’s programming theme, and it worked well), but despite the general level of high quality, taste is taste, and pieces did pop out to me as strikingly good: Steve played a set of miniatures, including a Nancarrow tango and a David Rakowski etude which were both really terrific, and Blair played George Tsontakis‘s wonderful Bagatelle—excellent and par for the course for George, who I think I’ve said before, I’m pretty sure doesn’t know how to write bad music. The top two for the evening though were Chester Biscardi‘s Piano Sonata, a lush, romantic, Ruggles/Ivesian/Sessions-type concoction which stuck-out stylistically in the programming more than a bit and so stayed with me the whole evening, and Annie Gosfield‘s Brooklyn, October 5, 1941, a barn-burning pounder of a piece played with baseballs and catcher’s glove. Yes, more than a little gimmicky, but who cares really because the piece actually works great, and Blair absolutely sold it. Not a frown in the house after McMillen played the Gosfield—everyone had a big slap-happy smile on their face.

Songs for Silverman

My Ben Folds fandom goes back to the heady days of Ben Folds Five, when every song was a precious Beatles-derived gem, and the last two solo albums have not disappointed. As a rule, I buy his albums, even the EPs and occasional single for download off of the iTunes Music Store, because I am a sucker for this guy’s piano-driven grooves tinged with jazz and show-tune harmonies. My first taste of BFF came late one night on Conan, oh probably about 1996 or so. I had never heard rock arrangements for piano, bass, and drums sound like that, and as I missed the O’Brian’s introduction I immediately went into an internet-driven tailspin trying to find out who they were (less easy those days).

Like the title track from his previous offering, Rockin’ the Suburbs (an excellent piece of work), there are the obligatory one or two tracks delivered with tongue firmly inserted in cheek—in SfS it’s Jesusland, which works quite well as a humor track, and very well if you dig his politics. Unfortunately, also like RtS, there are some notable clunkers. Folds has this unfortunate tendency to occasionally get overly earnest and sentimental, and more-than-a-modicum too personal. On RtS, it was The Luckiest, a sugary ballad clearly written for his then new wife/partner which quickly got deleted from my Ben Folds playlist. In the same vein of ill-advised and way-too-specifically un-metaphored songwriting, this album’s heart-on-sleeve homage to his daughter, Gracie, (I kid you not … if these depictions of life’s rite-of-passages continue in order, I expect the next album to treat us us to an emotional musical journey exploring the death of a parent) is as awful as you’d think, providing us with that stomach-turning “more information about your personal life than I wanted, thank you” moment. Another bad compositional decision is Late, an unsubtle tribute to a songwriter I can only assume is Elliott Smith (worthy of tribute if it is a paean to Smith, yes, but I think perhaps with some more thought Folds might have done better than “The songs you wrote, got me through a lot, just wanna tell you that”). All these tracks are arguments against a songwriter having too much artistic control—you get the impression that had the label had any say, they would have 86′d these suckers at the earliest opportunity.

SfS also provides object lessons in pop production, in two instances: one being the unfortunate bonus “strings” version of Landed (an otherwise attractive, cleverly-written and well-produced tune) … the other is the completely re-produced cut of the previously-released Give Judy My Notice. What was a simple and very effective vocal/piano arrangement on last year’s Speed Graphic EP, was unfortunately re-worked for SfS into a misguided and overly-produced mess of slide guitar and choral overdubs. With the magic of iTunes, one can A/B these versions side by side, and learn how not to produce a perfectly good song.

But these are the exceptions. The new album as a whole is excellent, providing more of the same rock- piano fireworks, catchy tunes, and cheeky lyrics. Sentimental Guy, for one, is a terrific cut, providing some relief from the barn-burning rock tracks by somehow achieving a very groovy retro 70′s TV sitcom theme sound in the production. And when on the mark (and less on-the-nose than “I love my wife/daughter”) his lyrics are clever and funny—the best penned tracks probably being Landed, and Trusted, which provides what is my favorite Folds lyric from the album:

She’s pulled all the blankets over
Curled in a ball
Like she’s hiding from me and
that’s when I know
She’s gonna be pissed when she wakes up
For terrible things I did to her in her dreams

PRISM Quartet – Saxophone Buffet

Well, they’re loud. Saxophones definitely have volume going for them. Other attractive qualities of the instrument are debatable, but last week’s PRISM Quartet 20th Anniversary Concert served as a valuable forum for those of differing minds on the subject. To celebrate the ensemble’s (impressive) milestone, the sax quartet programmed 20 short “dedications” (they were about 1-2 minutes long each), all commissioned by the ensemble for the occasion, as well as a premiere of a new 3-movement work entitled Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Steven Mackey. It was Friday night at the “Leonard Nimoy Thalia” performance hall at the “Peter Norton Symphony Space” (by far the best-named endowments in town, proving once and for all that DOS books, virus software, and Star Trek can happily coexist side by side with Art) and saxophones were on everyone’s mind.

I’ll have to refrain from discussing any specific piece in detail, as there were just too many friends, acquaintances, and colleages (a complete list of the commisioned composers, many of them young and “emerging,” can be found here) on the program that night. That abstention now out of the way … Whither Saxophone? An evening of 21 different answers to this can be pretty revealing, and yet, probably not quite as much as you’d like it to be. There were 21 composers, but were there 21 different pieces? Mmmm, Yes, but perhaps there weren’t 21 different Musics. What’s worth discussing is that 21 composers, whether they mean to or not, are forced into an aural consensus of sorts: We have only a minute or two to present our material, which is barely enough time to articulate a coherent musical thought, let alone a rounded and complete work, so the compilation of our efforts ends up being a compendium of “here’s what absolutely works on this ensemble, because it’s all we have time for…”

One-minute pieces do have a certain advantage, of course. Certainly we’ve all been plagued by the irrepressible “Will this ever end?” thought at New Music concerts, but with the miniature bon-bons PRISM presented, you never had to think that, so if the voice in your head did join the party it was only to think good thoughts, like “I wish this was longer…” A nice change.But Postcard Music, excuse the ad-hoc label, isn’t exactly Music, it’s more like, a Gesture. A concert presentation of 20 miniatures is the musical equivalent of walking onstage, nodding your head, and walking off. Walking back on, and shrugging your shoulders. Etc. Out of necessity, only one musical idea can (should!) be expressed, and interestingly, the expressions were of only a few types. That is, there were pieces where the saxes were asked to sound “good”, and pieces where they were asked to, basically, make noises. Guess which pieces worked best.

Saxophone can be a truly expressive instrument (I wholeheartedly point to almost a century of American Jazz), but its expressivity is not born out of the beauty of it’s sound. What it does have going for it is its noisemaker versatility: these hunks of metal and plastic are fantastic at making pops, buzzes, growls, clicks, hoots, hisses, squeals, screams, and multiphonic screeches. They just don’t sound very good playing actual notes, is all. I mean, we’re talking about an instrument where as it plays, you hear the keys clicking along with the fingering. There are limits to its aural beauty. (ie. after 2 hours of nonstop saxophones, I began to visualize a drill bit slowly approaching my temple. The concert fortunately completed before any drastic side-effects commenced…)

When a beautiful sound is attempted for the ensemble, the result is specifically French. And for good reason. For many of the composers, that sound fit their personal styles and harmonic languages very well. But since many of the commissions in this category were essentially concentrated studies of motion—streams of notes whipping around like a serpent, back and forth and up and down (gestures that work great on that ensemble, as no one really wants to hear them holding pitches for very long), the inevitable result was something akin to what I would imagine French cartoon music would sound like— scurrying little creatures and fantastic animals defying gravity in scenes of 1920′s Parisian bliss. Look! Milhaud has finally stopped looking like a cartoon and has actually morphed into one! He’s turned into a little saxophone with a Provençal accent…

As attractive as that sound can be, it loses it’s effectiveness with repetition. About half of the commissioned “dedications” aimed for this mark, and it quickly turned into some predictable stuff (at least two of them started out by laying down a bass line with the Bari, and other clichés followed close behind). So for me, the better works were the outright extra-musical sound-pieces (When it comes to the effectiveness on the ensemble of pieces like this, I’m probably not objective. For evidence, see my own, youthful saxophone quartet). If the little studies in French baguette crumbs seemed to be limited to banalities and predictable gestures, the Noisemakers looked to be much more free in their music-making. With no specific harmonic language or sound world to constrain them, and armed with the rich palette of cacophony the saxophone offers, those composers were able stretch out and make some interesting and fun little pieces.

As performers, PRISM is a fantastic ensemble—as good as a sax quartet can sound. Timothy McAllister, Michael Whitcomble, Matthew Levy, and Taimur Sullivan are all fabulous musicians. I heard no (accidental) squeak or hoot —they were a smoothly operating machine, feverishly dedicated to every note they were playing. And their history of commissions and championing composers is enough to take one’s breath away. 20 years is a great run for any quartet, let alone a rare animal like a professional saxophone quartet. And 20 years of supporting new music—that is an anniversary worthy of separate and significant celebration. But the excellent impression this ensemble made was less about their undeniable musicianship, and more about how they approached their performing tasks. That is, the biggest mistake most sax quartets make is one of self-perception, and PRISM doesn’t fall for it: they never try to sound like a string quartet. And that kind of self-awareness not only makes an impression with the audience, but serves the music very well. It’s not unlike looking in the mirror and coming to terms with the fact that you’re never going to be the dashing leading man, so instead you blow them all away as the brilliant but odd-looking character actor, and steal the show.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

You would think that in our current museum-culture of symphonic music that New Opera is a rarity, but it’s not as endangered as you would imagine. In Cooperstown, Santa Fe, St. Louis, Houston, Chicago, L.A., and other cities of impressive cultural heft, New Opera gets an airing. It’s not an everyday occurence, but it happens. And often these are works with big designs, enormous budgets, huge publicity machines, and superstar talent; event qualities which aren’t necessarily specific to Brooklyn and Manhattan anymore, nor have they been for quite a while.

Now, a new opera not based on a classic American novel, or on a beloved film? Now that’s rare.

All the feels-good-self-worth of supporting new art without any of that messy Thinking business! OK, it can be new, even slightly scary in it’s newness (aurally, that is) but for goodness sakes at least let it be familiar.

Well that’s not entirely fair. No matter what the libretto is based on, it’s still new—it’s still new music, new designs, and new productions, often with music written by composers who might otherwise find the task of getting programmed on a symphonic concert in one of those above cities more than Herculean. This, of course, is hardly a problem (if one even chooses to think of it as a problem at all) specific to opera; it’s often the circumstance in modern musical theater, and heck, half the time new movies can’t even muster up the energy for an original screenplay. So as pleased as I am when I hear of a new production somewhere, I often cringe in anticipation of the big Opera Subject Reveal. But if the stars align and the producers have taken a deep breath as they wrote the check and I am unfamiliar with the title or it’s a brand-spanking new story? I am so there.

New York City Opera‘s production of Haroun and the Sea of Stories falls into a sub-category of the above … let’s call it New Opera’s Second Best Option. That’s when we hedge our bets just a bit, and though the subject is original, a celebrity name on the writer’s marquee is provided as compensation. In this case it’s Salman Rushdie, whose children’s book of the above title, is, granted, an existing work and therefore we’re not dealing with a technically original story, but I’m fairly sure it was never a blockbuster. No fatwa has ever been issued for it’s salicious prose, no bestseller lists have ever swooned under it’s title. So, despite Rushdie’s name, we’re dealing with a fairly big unknown.

The other names surrounding Haroun make an impressive list. Even without Rushidie, these folks might very well get people in the door on their own: Charles Wuorinen, the (academically) celebrated American writer of spiky brambles of contemporary music is the composer. James Fenton, the famous (well, I’ve heard of him) English poet, is the librettist. And the oft-employed Mark Lamos is the director.

So all the ingredients are there, and (to run with the metaphor a bit) many of them do taste very good: the libretto, for instance, is fantastic. Just brilliant, Fenton’s words provide a wonderfully taught structure, providing the composer with a gift of chunky, evocative text, full of internal rhyme, fancy, and fun. Well-crafted creative elements on their own do not a successful production make. But, the right well-done elements? Well, it helps. How infrequently is a libretto really good?! …and when it is good the music (good or bad) is just so much less of an issue. If James Carville was an Opera Queen, you’d be sure he’d be singing “It’s the libretto, stupid” at every opportunity. The libretto is the architecture, the skeleton; what would be countless weeks/months of sketching the pacing, timing, and structure in an instrumental work doesn’t exist in an opera, that’s not the composer’s job. It’s all in the libretto. And in instrumental music, it’s the pacing and structure which makes it a piece—the notes, well, honestly, any notes work as long as the piece makes sense. I’ll probably go to straight to Composer Jail for this, but if the libretto is strong and the music is, um, let’s say less strong, then you’ve definitely got a better opera going for you than if your libretto is weak and your music is marvelous. Sadly, in my experience the latter is most often the case, but Haroun interestingly seems to fall into that former box. Fenton (and Lamos, to a great extent) give us just enough to keep us from bowing our heads in disappointment and walking out into the night.

Although, many people did, of course. And that’s to be expected. I mean, Wuorinen is no easy night at Pinafore. To describe the music as “difficult” is a start, but it wouldn’t be the whole story. Wuorinen is incredibly skilled, a craftsman of the highest order. Top shelf stuff. Brilliant orchestrations from a Pulitzer-Prize Winner. Undoubtedly every note is exactly where it should be. Absolutely. But despite that (because of it?) the score sounded like, well, a mess. I spent the evening concentrating very hard on making heads/tails of it and failed. It was just too durned inscrutable. And I’m pretty good at these things. There very well may be brilliant music in there, I just found it hard to hear what with all the notes flying around.

But it’s not as easy as dismissing the music outright, declaring the libretto a success and the score a failure, and calling it a day. There were Moments. Let’s call them Moments of Musical Clarity. Infrequent scenes/sections/arias where the clouds parted, and I could hear clear, actual Music. I’m not talking about less music, or easier-to-listen-to harmonic language—I’m talking about moments where I could hear the music doing something, something clear and audible, as comprehensible moments… they were infrequent, but there were just enough of them to keep me going. Most of the choruses had this effect on me: the “Get on the bus” scene, the “mechanical ship” scene toward the end (actually, some fabulous music in there, best in the opera methinks)… there were maybe a dozen in all—periods when the constant pounding of, well, Wuorinen, paused, and actual music happened.

Daniel Felsenfeld’s note in the program, serving as the “really, you’ll like it!” piece for the subscribers, celebrates Wuorinen with an eye toward justification:

The bite, sting, crunch, and occasional blasts that Wuorinen offers are at points witty, at others wrenching, sometimes a little rude—all done as the drama demands. These sounds are exciting, exquisite, full of color, pith, and an ear-turning, (and sometimes hair-raising) energy, which contribute to and vitalize the motion that defines this show. Dissonant bleats, brays, whacks, or wallops can be as beautiful as lush, finely tuned chords, and in a gamut-runner like Haroun, Wuorinen is wise to utilize maximally the broad palate at his disposal, to run to a wide swath of musical textures in order to tell the story in the riches, most varied way.

Uh, OK. Now that I know how it sounds maybe I won’t say I think it sounds awful. Excusing the cacophony as devices necessary to tell the story would be fine, if that were the case. But the score is so often working against the libretto (and the story), that it seems purposefully willful in it’s insubordination. “No!” the score snarls, crabbily. “I won’t write you a cute little chorus for this text that obviously celebrates this story’s nod to fanciful children’s fairy tales. I won’t do it I tell you.” The result of this tug-of-war is that every element of the production, direction, sets, lights, costumes, all aligned, trying desperately to pull something together from what the libretto obviously wanted to do (“iiiiiit’s a princess rescue story! it’s a tale of derring-do!”), practically ignoring the fact that the music was not playing along. The final product was unfortunate. Lamos’s laudable attempts ended up only exaggerating Wuorinen’s stubborn contempt. “Never say NO onstage,” an Acting-training Survivor told me afterwards. And how. That score is just a earful of NO.

Sadly, the libretto is so cute and so very clever and bursting with imagery, obvious set pieces, and stage business, (all of which are, yes, granted, nothing new, but Lordy they work), that I found myself wondering “if only this libretto were dropped onto the desk of some other composer…”

And that’s just such a sad thing to think in the middle of an opera production.

But I couldn’t help it… Oliver Knussen! David Del Tredici! Tom Adés! Any of these guys could have done wonders with this terrific libretto. I sat in the State Theater and thought of Knussen’s sparkling score to Where the Wild Things Are, Del Tredici’s evocative vocal paintings of Lewis Carroll, and Adés, well, I don’t know exactly why this libretto seemed to fit him but it does. It’s not like Powder Her Face was fanciful or anything. I just think that this kind of libretto would suit his particular talents.

Yes, I thought of other composers while bringing Wuorinen to the dance. It felt dirty and adulterous, but I couldn’t stop myself. My date was a dud.

To be fair, there was lots of great stuff happening on stage. Besides Lamos’s skillfully direction, there was Heather Buck’s perfectly charming performance in the title role, and excellent performances by Ryan MacPherson as Iff the water genie, Wilbur Pauley as Mali the floating gardener, and Ethan Herschenfeld as the mechanical Hoopoe. And the singers deserve extra credit—they performed, moved, and danced in, some complicated crazy costumes And they sang their hearts out. Put their all into the Wuorinen. It was enough to make you cry. With a different score, maybe, their performances would have lit up the night sky.

But the composer was not the only offender of Lost Opportunities, as some production elements never quite carried their full weight of a design whole. The lights (Robert Wierzel) and sets (Riccardo Hernandez), though very good, seemed to take a decidedly supporting role to Candice Donnelly’s costume design, which, for what seemed like a lack of proper funding, was obviously the production’s crutch. When the costumes look like that’s the only thing you spent money on (and they were lovely), you might have some money issues. The budget certainly wasn’t spent on the set, which for the most part was replaced by projection design (Peter Nigrini). You would think projections would be an opportunity for some eye-popping creativity, but in this case (and sadly, in most cases with projections in opera), we were treated to Projection Mickey-Mousing, the visual equivalent of wiggling your fingers to indicate that the rain is falling. When we sing of the moon, we see… a moon. When we sing of the sea turning purple, we see the sea turning purple. Really? Despite reality-television’s monstrous pull, I’m not so sure our imaginations have atrophied quite to the point where that kind of visual accuracy is necessary.

Seán Curran, the fantastic dancer formerly with Bill T. Jones, now with his own company and several Joyce Theater seasons under his belt, was the choreographer. I applaud Curran for getting his singers to move so well, and for integrating the dancers skillfully into the production. Donnelly and Curran worked so well together in fact, that I thought perhaps Lamos had separate design meetings with them, as they seemed to have their own, smoothly collaborative design going all on their own.

The net result of all these production elements was that Lamos seemed to be sweating hard to make it all work somehow, on the cheap, with a score that wasn’t helping matters any. He had an adorable story by a world-renowned/award-winning author, a brilliant libretto, a skilled cast, and a talented and experienced design team and choreographer, but no workable score. He chose to ignore it. It almost worked, as the story and libretto were just that good. But Wuorinen is hard to ignore, and that fact is most definitely for the best, were we dealing with only music. Opera is never just music, though—never just big name authors or librettists, never just famous books or movies made manifest with comfy seats and high ticket prices. I await the New Opera production that is complete unto itself, that is more than Only Just.