Press

Fri, December 22, 2017

Review: Du, Angel’s Bone
Opera News

Too often, winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Music seem to be chosen according to politics rather than aesthetics.  But Du Yun’s opera, ‘Angel’s Bone,’ - which received the prize in 2017 - is the real deal. I’ve never experienced a work quite like this. The libretto, by Royce Vavrek (who has recently become ubiquitous in contemporary opera), is a disturbing parable of modern-day human trafficking and sex slavery…

...In response to the brutality of Vavrek’s text, the Chinese-born, American-based Du has developed a fractured, schizophrenic music language that pieces together hacked up bits of various styles and genres. Reflecting the angels’ divine origins, she draws on religious choral music in a series of bizarre interludes for the Choir of Trinity Wall Street [under the direction of Julian Wachner].

...

Sat, December 16, 2017

Retelling the Sacred: Trinity Wall Street Presents Handel’s ‘Messiah’
Medium

Nothing can describe the sensations one receives when hearing the Baroque Orchestra strike their first notes of Sinfony in Trinity Church. The acoustical reflections of the hall reverberate in a haunting way when the first few dramatic notes are struck…

...This was by far, one of the best performances of the piece I have seen yet.

Read Full Text

Retelling the Sacred: Trinity Church Wall Street Presents Handel’s ‘Messiah’

by Kevin Christensen

“Show of hands first, how many of you know that tonight’s Messiah going to be a little different than normal?”

Ms. Brailey words resonated among the 19th century arches.

“Okay so maybe not even half. So, for the rest of you we’re flip flopping everything.”

My attention was caught. I immediately had mixed feelings. Being a purist — to an extent — on many things I was hesitant. But, I’m always willing to be persuaded. She continued:

“So, the sopranos are singing the tenor arias. The Basses are singing the mezzo arias and vice verse. We’re even flipping things in one of the choruses, but I won’t tell you which one, you have to…wait and see.”

You could sense in the air a mixture of feelings. But, just like myself, you could tell that people were willing to consider the possibility.

“This already happens with a few of the aria’s in the Messiah, ‘Who May Abide’ is frequently done by both mezzos and baritones — basses. But, besides the typical cuts that are done in the Messiah there’s sort of a standard convention these days as to how it’s done. But if you happen to have had the chance to look at a score in many editions there is an appendix in the back that includes several of the arias in different keys, and even a few different movements that are generally included.”

You could tell she was excited and nervous — but mainly excited. Her excitement was contagious.

“For a variety I have always thought this would be a fun idea, so I got excited when Julian sent this email. But, in rehearsing it, I think many of us found something that we didn’t expect — which I think is actually very relevant to the public conversations we are having today about gender and expectations of masculinity and femininity. So, for example, you know when we hear an aria like ‘The Trumpets Shall Sound’ typically you expect this big thundering bass, right? That’s not what you are gonna get tonight. The wonderful Mezzo friend of mine Ms. Brackett is singing that tonight — and it’s not just that it’s this female voice singing this text and heralding the triumph of the resurrection — but if you look at the typical roles that the voices play, especially in Baroque music, they are generally pretty narrow. The soprano is the true believer, the soul, the angel, the Mezzo is generally the maternal one, but to hear this text sung in a voice you don’t expect I think really makes you think about it in a new way.”

She continued, elaborating and giving historical justification to the decisions made. This eased some of the initial feelings of skepticism I experienced. It calmed the purist voice in my head, soothing it into a lull.

“And, like the duet ‘He Shall Feed His Flock’ is now this big beautiful bass and this lovely tenor. And, to hear this really masculine voice singing these words of comfort I think is really beautiful and profound. And, I and several of my colleagues found it very moving. This Idea of flip flopping isn’t so strange — Handel himself would transpose arias for new singers and new performances, so I think there is a little bit of historical practice here also — but I would like to encourage you to also listen to the text tonight and to examine how you think about the gender issues that we are talking about in this day and age. So I hope it’s not disappointing. I hope it is revelatory. And, we hope you enjoy. Thank you.”

Ms. Brailey resumed her place among the choir, and the the first soloist resumed her place beside the conductor to sing the first Arioso.

It was snowing when I left my room uptown to catch the Two train to the Wall Street station. I had been looking forward to this night all week and it was finally here.

I don’t remember what exactly spurred the tradition into existence, but when I moved to New York in the fall of 2016, it rekindled me desire to connect with a side of me that I hadn’t tapped into since before the military.

Growing up in the Willamette valley there weren’t too many opportunities to participate in cultural experiences. But in the winter of 2006 I remember taking my 1987 Subaru Justy and a couple of my friends to attend Western Oregon’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. I was a senior in high school at this time, and was a member of my schools choir. And something about it moved me in a profound way.

I hadn’t had the opportunity for 10 years, but finally I was living in a city where participating in cultural experiences was possible, if not encouraged. So, I purchased tickets to the New York Philharmonics production of the Messiah. That was in 2016. This year, however, I chose to attend the Trinity Church production of Handel’s Messiah, conducted by Julian Wachner.

Trinity Church stood majestically at the end of the street when I came up from the warm subway. Its neo-gothic spire jutting into the sky. Snow whirled around and the ground was slick. But this was not the original iteration of Trinity Church on this plot of land.

In 1696 the plot of to build the first Trinity Church was purchased by the Church of England. King William the III the following year gave it it’s charter, and it’s rent was to be 60 bushels of wheat. In 1968 the first iteration of Trinity Church was built.

In 1705, Queen Anne expanded the parishes land to 215 acres, and over the next 50 years two schools — Trinity School and Kings College (now Columbia University) would be built.

Finally, in 1776 the church was destroyed in the Great New York City Fire.

Meanwhile, across the pacific, two men following in the trend of English language operas, which had become popular in the mid 1700’s, worked on what would become one of the most famous Oratorios to ever grace the stage. As Charles Jennens — the librettist — put in a letter to his friend Edward Holdsworth: “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

The Messiah, was composed in three to four weeks in 1741 and eventually premiered at Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The piece was so popular and so many people arrived that the management pleaded with the women not to wear hoops so that they could fit as many people possible into the hall.

Handel also found success with the piece when it was brought to London audiences, however it did take time for it to be recognized as a Christmas favorite and tradition. The decision to premier it in Dublin was due to some of Handel’s lack of success in recent past works and fear of a critical failure at this time, and since Dublin was the budding economic powerhouse, it was chosen to test the unorthodox loose narrative piece about the life of Christ.

While the Messiah is often attributed to Handel, he wasn’t alone in the creation of the work. Charles Jennens — a oxford trained Shakespeare scholar — wrote the libretto. Jennens purpose in writing the piece was to be a declarative statement about Christ’s divinity in the wake of the rise of rationalized atheism.

It is uncertain how Handel felt about religion, but his fondness of grand myths and legend is known, and this piece fit the bill.

It seems like nearly every day a new person speaks out about an experience they have had regarding sexual misconduct or mistreatment. More often than not those speaking out, the victims, are women or women passing. The #metoo movement, paired with recent events in American civil and political life, ignited a fire, and started a conversation.

What are the implications of gender? What of Masculinity? What of Femininity? How do they intersect with power? These are only a few of the many questions being discussed in the public spheres.

Last year we had the first woman presidential nominee in major party. She, unfortunately, lost to a man with a horrific track record of using his power to manipulate women. Meanwhile, the republican front runner in an Alabama special election for a senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a man accused of multiple instances of Ephebophilia, sexual assualt while charading as a and fundamentalist evangelical.

It is this intersection of the “patriarchal religions” and gender roles that makes this particular production of Handel’s Messiah interesting, as many religious folk hold to the belief that women shall not take high leadership roles such as that of a pastor.

At the time when Handel wrote this, the conversations surrounding the roles of women were in discussion. In fact, Mary Wollstonecraft — one of the grandmothers of feminism — wrote her Vidication of the Rights of Woman as a push back on the conversations surrounding gender roles (the roles of women in particular) in 1792. Only a few decades after the premier of the Messiah.

Knowing this historical context is important, and pairing it with what we know of women in patriarchal religions — like Christianity — helps us develop a baseline to think about the ramifications of flipping the genders on their head, which this particular production chose to do.

After the context was given to the particular differences in this performance as opposed to others, Scene 1: Isaiah’s Prophecy of Salvation began — Sinfony.

Nothing can describe the sensations one receives when hearing the Baroque Orchestra strike their first notes of Sinfony in Trinity church. The acoustical reflections of the hall reverberate in a haunting way when the first few dramatic notes are stuck.

The first musical phrases of the piece are dramatic and mysterious. Sinfony is in E minor, and while the piece isn’t directly related to the following vocal pieces, one familiar with the Oratorio as a complete work, does recognize its relationship to the piece by its rhythms and passages as clearly being of the production.

Following Sinfony, is the Recitative “Comfort ye my people” from Isaiah 40, 1–3. This piece is normally done by a tenor, but for this performance — do to the flipping of the parts on their heads — it would be performed by the beautifully talented soprano Ms. Molly Netter.

I was already overcome by emotion witnessing the Sinfony, that when the first she let from her lips “Comfort ye…” in, I could not help but continue be overcome with emotion. The only descriptions I can give to the emotions are that of a burden being lifted. The articulation was with such gentle grace that watching I felt a single tear fall from my left eye and drip down my cheek. This was by far, one of the best performances of the piece I have seen yet.

My favorite piece within the first part of the Messiah is the final chorus at the end of Scene 3: The prophecy of Christ’s birth. The song, which has always reminded me of Christmas, is titled “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and just like nearly every other aspect of the evening, they did not disappoint. Following the Chorus, and beginning Scene 4: The annunciation to the shepherds, is a break from accompanied pieces and we receive the famous Pifa — “Pastoral Symphony.” Making this particular scene the more interesting and beautiful, we were graced by three soloists from the Trinity Youth Chorus. Each one of them sang a different Arioso or Recitative. This provided a beautiful telling of the story. It was as if four young angels approached the shepherds announcing the coming of Christ.

The walk from my room to the redline was slick, and I was nervous. I had left myself an hour and a half to get to the venue, but unfortunately, you never know whether or not MTA would delay you.

When I got inside the 135 station, I was pleased to see that there was a two minute estimate on the arrival of the next subway to take me downtown.

This is good. It would take me 45 minutes — with no delays to get to the venue and so if all went smoothly I would arrive with plenty of time. Unfortunately, with the MTA one can experience severe delays depending on possible unforeseen events, and even giving yourself a 45 minute buffer may not be enough time. I remember a time when I was nearly late for a production of “Something Rotten” and I had given myself a 30 minute buffer. I boarded the subway when it arrived, and we were off.

Along the way I played one of my daily podcasts that I would normally listen to on my commutes, and observed the comings and goings of other riders. It’s Friday, around 6 in the evening, people are getting off of work, others are making their way to dinner and happy hour. Everyone is bundled up in winter attire.

72nd street…42nd street…34th street…14th street…

We were making incredible time. My fears began to subside. Periodically, I would try to scroll through Facebook like the addicted Millennial I am, unfortunately while there is excellent wifi at the subway stops the tunnels still have not implemented wifi. It’s only a matter of years — given we still have the internet (my concern triggered by the recent FCC vote to repeal Net Neutrality).

Canal Street…Chambers Street…Park Place…Fulton Street…Wall Street.

I exited the subway car. It was 7pm. I made it.

I felt tired, and the Messiah is long. It would probably be in my best interest to find some coffee, so I did. I was lucky to realize there was a Starbucks on my way to the venue so I picked up a tall drip coffee and braced myself for the cold.

It was still snowing, as I came up from the warm subway. And looking west I could see the grand gothic steeple jutting into the pitch black sky.

I pressed towards it, careful not to fall on the slippery snow-covered sidewalk.

Both men and women are taught very specific gender rules to follow, and this relates to the music world as well. Indeed, for many years women were not allowed to participate in public singing. And, when they were they were required to sing very specific roles. As Ms. Brailey explained:

“If you look at the typical roles that the voices play, especially in Baroque music, they are generally pretty narrow. The soprano is the true believer, the soul, the angel, the Mezzo is generally the maternal one.”

This, unfortunately is completely unsurprising. To this day there is still widespread discrimination and mistreatment and subjugation of women by men, why wouldn’t women then, in Baroque music, be sanctioned to very specific conceptions of the role of women as viewed by men — maternal, pure, angelic, submissive rather than majestic, bold, angry, powerful.

But why shouldn’t they? What can be experienced when when we flip those roles? What advance towards progress can be made in society by such a choice? What can we learn? The answers to those questions are mostly private ones that each listener will have to answer to themselves. But, I must say, that the beauty of living in an age whereby such question can be asked put into practice make me thrilled to be alive.

Upon reaching the parish, I was greeted by two lovely gate keepers, and they told me I needed to drink my coffee before entering the venue, but they let me pass inwards still. I quickly downed my coffee, as I looked around at the ornate architecture. The two doors at the entrance of the the parish were ornately molded Iron, by the looks of it. And depicted different biblical stories — revelations VI: Verses 15, 16, and 17 — was listed below the top panel on the right hand door. Below it a passage from Luke, and what can be described as an Angel speaking to a kneeling woman — Mary — I assume. And around the panels seem to be depictions of different men, though I did no really recognize any of them. Both doors had three panels, and each one told a different story. I stayed long enough to appreciate their beauty, but after I quickly finished my coffee, I went inside.

Following the Great fire, the the second Trinity Church was built then consecrated in 1790. It was politically significant because President Washington and members of his government often worshiped there including John Jay and Alexander Hamilton (who is buried in the adjacent Graveyard. The second church was eventually torn down after being weakened in 1838 due to the severe snow storms.

Finally the third, and current iteration of the Church was built in 1846. And, since then it has been important location for multiple pivotal in history. On 9/11, the church was a refuge amidst the chaos. And during the Occupy Wall Street movement the church provided moral and practical support. Three of the clergy were even arrested when demonstrators attempted to occupy a space called “LentSpace.” .

Stepping into the third iteration of the Trinity Church, I was immediately in awe of the majestic nature of the beautiful church and it’s neo-gothic architecture

There was a ticket checker, and she directed me to an usher who gave me a program and helped me take my seat.

Being a poor college student, I could not afford on. Of the states int he center, and while I thought I was choosing an excellent seat with only partial visibility, it turned out that seat A104 was nearly no visibility. To make up for the lack of visibility, however, the performance was also broadcasted onto large screens, one of them was displayed directly in front of me.

I was a little disappointed, as I wanted a more pure experience and viewing the production on a screen — even though I was in the venue — didn’t seem to be very pure. Nevertheless I was optimistic.

I took off my layers and made my comfortable — snapping a few photos to share with friends and family on Facebook. Eventually my row filled up with other people including another man who was equally disappointed with the lack of visibility. I told him that if I were to ever return I would choose a row a few rows back as the visibility would be less obstructed. He agreed. “Next Year.”

The other seats began to fill, and the musicians began to take their places. There was a quiet hum as the musicians tuned and tested their instruments, making subtle adjustments.

Then, things got quiet as the Concertmaster, Robert Mealy, provided the proper tuning for the first part on his violin. The other instruments responded.

The show was about to begin.

The Choir took their places too, and finally, the conductor, Julian Wachner, took his position at the head of the stage.

He spoke a few words, talking about the tradition of the performance, then hinted at tonight being a bit different. In doing so, he invited one of the Soprano’s Ms. Sarah Brailey to speak about the nature of this particular performance.

Example of the interior of gothic architecture. In the image we can see the Nave which leads to the Ambulatory. On the sides we see Pointed Arches held up by Piers and reinforced by Ribbing.

When I stepped into the venue I was immediately overcome with a pure sense of calm and awe. I had been in this venue before but it had been a while. The combination of my purpose for being here with the weather outside and the burden that had gathered over the past few months due to the intense nature of my education, seemed to be lifted. The ambiance provided by the lighting down the nave and how it reflected on the piers fading as it approached the rib and the rib vault. The matte brown paint on the ribbing provided a wonderful contrast to the cream colored walls and the dark wooden pews.

The tone of the room was warm and ballanced. Having seen the same production done in other venues which tended to feel much dryer, this venue, with its natural reverbs provided by the architectural design imbued the harmonics with a beautiful warmth that is very hard to describe otherwise.

My only real complaint with the venue are the seats, and while they are indeed padded, ones space is constrained. And, my space was intruded upon buy small carved wooden arches that jutted from the walls, and made it very uncomfortable to rest upon, likewise, there was a heater directly below my seat that I was afraid was going to potentially light me on fire from how hot it got.

Following the intermission after Part One, the performance continued to bless us. Mr. Massey, an alto, performed a wonderful performance of Scene 5’s “Thou art gone up on high.” And, while the end of the orotorio doesn’t end with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” Trinity Choir didn’t let us down. The piece was just as majestic and resonant as one would expect from a choir at this caliper.

I can never help but feel sorry, however for the Timpanist who performs with this oratorio, as s/he is only really utilized for the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But, that is the reality of the job.

Finally, closing up Part 3, we were graced with a wonderful musical trio between Robert Mealy on violin, Ezra Seltzer on Violincello, and Mr. Parsons singing in alto “If God be for us, who can be against us.”

What are your thoughts? What do you think about flipping gender roles in traditional productions like this? Do you think the performance successfully achieved what it sought out to do? Is a production like this a place for social or political messages? Do you think the production should have sought to warn all of the audience that what they intended to do? I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Please discuss this with me below, and I will do my best to respond as much as I can.

Originally published at kevinleechristensen.com on December 16, 2017.

Fri, December 15, 2017

Humble Cinderella: The 8 Best Classical Music Moments of the Week on YouTube
The New York Times

Julian Wachner’s annual presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” at Trinity Wall Street, always eagerly awaited by early-music fans in New York, brings added curiosity this weekend: Advance publicity reports that “parts typically sung by female voices will be sung by men and vice versa.” This version of the soprano aria “Rejoice greatly,” sung by the tenor Roberto Saccà in a performance led by Helmuth Rilling, gives an idea of the possibilities: a rough one, since it is sung in German (“Erwach’ zu Liedern der Wonne” for “Awaken to songs of bliss”) and backed by Mozart’s reorchestration, from his arrangement of “Messiah.” Mr. Wachner promises to explain his reasoning.

Read Full Text

Humble Cinderella: The 8 Best Classical Music Moments of the Week on YouTube

Dec. 15, 2017

Record of Last Year

While tilling the ground for records of the year 2017 recently, I was directed not only to the Danish String Quartet’s collection of folk songs and the like, “Last Leaf,” which qualified, but also to the ensemble’s 2016 recording of works by Per Norgard, Hans Abrahamsen and Thomas Adès, which I somehow missed at the time. Here is a video of the quartet’s account of the same Adès work, “Arcadiana” (1994), as performed at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse during the 2015 Mostly Mozart festival. Particularly captivating is Mr. Adès’s eerie danse macabre “Et... (tango mortale),” as it grows out of the distinctly un-Schubertian “Auf dem Wasser zu singen.” JAMES R. OESTREICH

Harp Does Organ?

As with Handel’s “Messiah,” it’s impossible to imagine a Christmas season without performances of Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” by every church with a boys choir. On Thursday, 15 boys of the Saint Thomas Choir on Fifth Avenue, accompanied by harpist Bridget Kibbey and under the direction of Daniel Hyde, gave a tender, cleanly executed account of Britten’s beguilingly modest piece. But the surprise of the program came at the start, when Ms. Kibbey played her own transcription of Bach’s dark and restless Toccata and Fugue in D minor for Organ. Say again? This mighty organ piece played on a harp? It was remarkable. Yes, you missed the organ’s body-shaking low-bass pedal tones. But the gossamer colorings and improvisatory fervor of Ms. Kibbey’s account hooked me. Here she is playing this transcription in 2015. Catch the Lisztian passage early on when Ms. Kibbey creates a hazy tangle of swirling notes. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

Seductively Intimate

The annual Richard Tucker Gala, a fund-raiser that’s also a chance to get a hoard of opera singers in a room together, was pretty sleepy this year. Except, that is, for some poised, committed arias from Ailyn Pérez and the showstopper: Stephanie Blythe riding her big, chocolaty voice all over the “Habanera” from “Carmen,” an opera a big girl like her is (criminally) almost always overlooked for. Hers is a more unwieldy and hooty instrument than it was back when she sang it in Seattle in 2004; listen to how seductively intimate her mezzo-soprano got for this repetition of “Si je t’aime.” Her tone is luxurious but she doesn’t ladle on the sensuousness too thick. (Listen to all 45 minutes of highlights!) ZACHARY WOOLFE

‘Messiah’ Sex Change

Julian Wachner’s annual presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” at Trinity Wall Street, always eagerly awaited by early-music fans in New York, brings added curiosity this weekend: Advance publicity reports that “parts typically sung by female voices will be sung by men and vice versa.” This version of the soprano aria “Rejoice greatly,” sung by the tenor Roberto Saccà in a performance led by Helmuth Rilling, gives an idea of the possibilities: a rough one, since it is sung in German (“Erwach’ zu Liedern der Wonne” for “Awaken to songs of bliss”) and backed by Mozart’s reorchestration, from his arrangement of “Messiah.” Mr. Wachner promises to explain his reasoning. JAMES R. OESTREICH

Leontyne’s Grammys

I just had the honor of interviewing the great soprano Leontyne Price in Maryland, where, now 90, she is living in retirement near her large extended family. (I’ll be reporting more on this visit soon.) At the 1983 Grammy Awards, Ms. Price stopped the show with a sumptuous and sensitive performance of “Vissi d’arte” from “Tosca.” Every moment of her singing is wondrous. I especially love the climactic phrase when Ms. Price, after leaping to a glorious high B flat, takes a quick breath then sings a plush A flat (a sighing “Ah”) that slips smoothly down to a sustained, uncannily steady G — those two notes prolonged on a single breath for almost 15 seconds. Some in the audience, thinking the aria is over, or perhaps simply amazed by what they’ve just heard, start to applaud. Unruffled, Ms. Price concludes the aria beautifully, eliciting an instantaneous standing ovation from an audience full of pop icons. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

Humble Cinderella

Cinderella operas aren’t rarities: Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” is done all over, and Massenet’s “Cendrillon” has its advocates. (One of them, Joyce DiDonato, will bring it to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time this spring.) But Nicolas Isouard’s 1810 version, which predates both, has all but vanished. So bravo to Manhattan School of Music, where French rarities have found an unlikely home, for carefully reconstructing and reviving the charming work last weekend. Very little of the opera is online, so take this clip (in German!) as a teaser; Isouard’s Cinderella is so humble that the repetition of her sweet, forlorn little early aria is without fussy ornaments or much distinction at all. ZACHARY WOOLFE

Brechtian Distance

Critics of John Adams’s new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” have largely taken issue with the somewhat anti-dramatic libretto, a collage of primary sources from California’s Gold Rush assembled by Peter Sellars. But Mr. Sellars’s concept has flashes of brilliance when combined with his direction, which owes much to Brechtian distancing. The first act is laden with inert monologues, but the second has the feeling of a pageant: present-day actors recounting California history, sometimes as a show within a show. “Ladies and gentlemen, the ballad of Ah Sing,” Clarence tells an onstage crowd from atop a sequoia’s stump. (Is there anything more Brechtian than introducing a ballad?) Then Ah Sing (the Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee) delivers her story of a Chinese prostitute who dreams of a better life. JOSHUA BARONE

Heartbreaking Farewell

Putting together our list of the best classical recordings of 2017 this week provided an opportunity to revisit Erato’s four-hour (but rewarding, I promise!) concert recording of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg and a luxury cast, including Joyce DiDonato’s assured role debut as Didon. In this excerpt from the fifth act, she bids farewell to her city after singing the aria “Je vais mourir” (“I am going to die”). Listen for the quiet, devastating intensity in her voice as she recalls “stars I admired in nights of intoxication and infinite ecstasy.” JOSHUA BARONE

Thu, December 14, 2017

Classical Music in NYC This Week
The New York Times

“All we like sheep,” sings the chorus in Handel’s “Messiah,” and most of classical music’s more traditional institutions appear to agree when it comes to programming at Christmas. No matter, when it comes to Trinity Wall Street’s “Messiah,” which is undoubtedly the best on offer every year. With Julian Wachner at the helm, there is never a hint of routine, and the story is not comforting, but a gripping, edge-of-the-pew drama. If the performances are sold out, they are all broadcast live on the church’s website, and available later on demand.

Read Full Text

Classical Music in NYC This Week

By DAVID ALLEN

DEC. 14, 2017

Our guide to the city’s best classical music and opera.

‘THE BOOK OF DREAMS’ at National Sawdust (Dec. 17, 4 p.m.). The premiere of a new work by the composer David T. Little is always worth exploring, and his operas — “Dog Days,” “JFK” — reveal him to be an especially powerful composer for the voice. “The Book of Dreams: Chapter Sand” is a song cycle for baritone and electronics based on poetry by the surrealist Sonja Krefting. David Adam Moore is the singer here, in a production directed by Vita Tzykun.
646-779-8455, nationalsawdust.org

CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY at Alice Tully Hall (Dec. 15, 7:30 p.m., through Dec. 19). Escape the Handel that surrounds us every holiday season with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s annual holiday presentations of that other Baroque great, Bach. The complete “Brandenburg” Concertos are on offer, as ever, with an array of players that includes the violinist Cho-Liang Lin, the cellist Nicholas Canellakis and the New York Philharmonic’s flautist, Robert Langevin.
212-875-5788, chambermusicsociety.org

‘HANSEL AND GRETEL’ at the Metropolitan Opera (Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m., through Jan. 6). Humperdinck’s fairy tale with darkness at its heart returns in a holiday version, sung in English and performed in the Richard Jones production. Donald Runnicles, a sure hand in any music, conducts a cast including Lisette Oropesa as Gretel, Tara Erraught as Hansel, Gerhard Siegel as the Witch and Dolora Zajick as Gertrude.
212-362-6000, metopera.org

JACK QUARTET at National Sawdust (Dec. 21, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.). The American premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 9, from a quartet that has developed a particularly strong relationship with the composer. Like several of his more recent works — including “in vain” and the String Quartet No. 3, “In iij. Noct” — this one takes place in darkness.
646-779-8455, nationalsawdust.org

‘MESSIAH’ at Trinity Church (Dec. 15, 7:30 p.m., through Dec. 17). “All we like sheep,” sings the chorus in Handel’s “Messiah,” and most of classical music’s more traditional institutions appear to agree when it comes to programming at Christmas. No matter, when it comes to Trinity Wall Street’s “Messiah,” which is undoubtedly the best on offer every year. With Julian Wachner at the helm, there is never a hint of routine, and the story is not comforting, but a gripping, edge-of-the-pew drama. If the performances are sold out, they are all broadcast live on the church’s website, and available later on demand.
212-602-0800, trinitywallstreet.org

Mon, December 11, 2017

Notable Performances and Recordings of 2017
The New Yorker

[Included in ‘Ten Notable Recordings’]
Du Yun, “Angel’s Bone”
Abigail Fischer, Jennifer Charles, Kyle Bielfield, Kyle Pfortmiller, Julian Wachner conducting the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Novus NY (VIA Artists)

Read Full Text

2017 In Review

Notable Performances and Recordings of 2017

By Alex Ross

December 11, 2017

The loveliest experience of my listening year took place on a balmy September night at the Hollywood Bowl. Yo-Yo Ma came to the great amphitheatre in the Hollywood Hills to play the six solo cello suites of Bach. I had doubts about the enterprise going in. Could Ma’s instrument be amplified effectively in such a wide open space? Could such intimate music speak to a crowd of thousands? People prize the Bowl for its casual conviviality. Patrons dine, drink, and, sometimes, chatter among themselves. A lighter repertory works best: Holst’s “Planets” is a blast. Bach’s itineraries of the world spirit are another matter.

I sat with a friend well to the back, several hundred feet from the stage. Ma was a mere dot in the middle distance. Video screens on either side of the shell provided closeups of his playing and of his famous grin, but, for the most part, I looked out at the sandy-brown landscape, at the glimmer of far lights, and, most of all, at the crowd, which filled all but a few of the Bowl’s more than seventeen thousand seats. Almost no one made a sound. Almost no one moved. When a large audience is listening intently, it creates an atmosphere that cannot be measured or recorded, only remembered. Here, it was as if music had stilled the world.

Ma applied his customary virtuosity and warmth. At times, he seemed to lose the narrative thread as he savored every twist and turn of Bach’s endless melody. Several of the sarabandes slowed to a contemplative crawl. Thomas Demenga’s new recording of the suites, for the ECM label (see below), has more straight-ahead song and dance in it. But you never doubted the sincerity of Ma’s approach: he was following his natural musical rhythms, to the point that it felt less like a performance than like an interior monologue. Little was lost in the amplification: the cello sound remained full, nuanced, and unforced.

Since the death of Luciano Pavarotti, Ma has been the most popularly celebrated of classical musicians. Very few other soloists could have sold out the Bowl. If Ma enticed thousands to the space, it was Bach who held them rapt, for nearly three hours. The enthusiasm of large crowds is always a bit unsettling: no matter how innocent the occasion, you can imagine the energy of the collective being channelled to less wholesome ends. The huge, serene company at the Bowl was another matter: it was under the spell of a solitary searcher in the dark. One of the only sounds I heard around me was someone quietly sobbing.

Ten Notable Performances of 2017

“Ipsa Dixit” at Dixon Place, February 4th

The composer, singer, and theatre artist Kate Soper is one of the great originals of her generation—a maker of erudite entertainments that inhabit a self-invented realm halfway between opera and philosophy. “Ipsa Dixit,” her most recent large-scale work, was seen in the intimate confines of Dixon Place; she deserves a much bigger stage. Read more.

“Infinite Now” at the Flemish Opera, April 23rd

Chaya Czernowin’s opera “Infinite Now” tells two harrowing stories in alternation: one, of the chaos and gore of the First World War; the other, of a Chinese woman trapped in a claustrophobic male realm. The merging of the stories has an epiphanic effect, as if a mystery of human misery has been solved. Read more.

Mozart at the Pierre Boulez Saal, April 30th

At the age of seventy-five, the conductor, pianist, and intellectual politician Daniel Barenboim is at the height of his powers. This year, he presided over the inauguration of the Pierre Boulez Saal, in Berlin—another concert-hall masterpiece by Frank Gehry and Yasuhisa Toyota. Barenboim’s account of the last three Mozart symphonies with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra exploded with detail. Read more.

The Dream Unfinished at Cooper Union, June 11th

The Dream Unfinished is a visionary chamber orchestra dedicated to discovering and reviving minority composers. The group’s concerts combine music-making with activism: their event in June featured works by William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Margaret Bonds, and others, alongside presentations about the school-to-prison pipeline—the criminalization of minority children in the education system. The most riveting voice was that of Truth Templeton, a thirteen-year-old Brooklynite who held forth precociously on the topic of protest music. You may see his name again.

Roomful of Teeth at the Tank, June 21st

The Tank, a converted water tank in the high-desert town of Rangely, Colorado, has long been a secret gathering place for improvising musicians who prize its hyper-reverberant acoustics. It is now open to the public, and the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth celebrated midsummer there with sounds that welled up out of the earth. Read more.

“La Clemenza di Tito” in Salzburg, July 30th

Peter Sellars instigated two major new productions this year. “Girls of the Golden West,” Sellars’s latest collaboration with John Adams, felt like a work in progress, though a major opera should emerge from it. Mozart’s “Clemenza,” which was seen at the Salzburg Festival, was one of Sellars’s finest, most finished creations—a study in power, betrayal, and compassion, with singers of color dominating the cast. Read more.

Bach at the Hollywood Bowl, September 12th

Read about Yo-Yo Ma’s performance in the introduction above.

“The Force of Things” at Montclair State, October 8th

Photograph by Marina Levatskaya / Peak Performances at Montclair State University

Ashley Fure’s experimental opera “The Force of Things,” which Peak Performances brought to Montclair, New Jersey, rivalled Czernowin’s “Infinite Now” as the most purely visceral music-theatre outing of the year. Fure, who studied with Czernowin, aims to capture the “mounting hum of ecological anxiety around us,” and, unnervingly, succeeds. Read more.

Monteverdi at Lincoln Center, October 18th–21st

John Eliot Gardiner and a brilliant company of collaborators enchanted New York audiences this fall with deft, vivid productions of the three surviving operas of Claudio Monteverdi, on the occasion of the composer’s four-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday. The obvious was again confirmed: the first great opera composer remains the master of the game. Read more.

“War of the Worlds” at the L.A. Phil, November 18th

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is so far ahead of other American orchestras that it is in competition mainly with its own past achievements. This fall, it offered Annie Gosfield’s site-specific opera “War of the Worlds,” created in tandem with the director Yuval Sharon. Musicians positioned in parking lots around downtown Los Angeles helped to replicate Orson Welles’s famous radio hoax. Two performances took place in the context of the Noon to Midnight marathon, an every-which-way survey of Southern California’s vibrant new-music scene. The L.A. Phil has a new leader in Simon Woods, but no change of direction is needed. Read more.

Ten Notable Recordings

Tyshawn Sorey, “Verisimilitude”

Sorey, Cory Smythe, Chris Tordini (Pi)

“Divine Theatre,” works of Giaches de Wert

Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi)

Bach, Solo Cello Suites

Thomas Demenga (ECM)

Jürg Frey, “Collection Gustave Roud”

Frey, Stefan Thut, Dante Boon, Andrew McIntosh, Regula Konrad, Stephen Altoft, Lee Ferguson (Another Timbre)

Scott Wollschleger, “Soft Aberration”

Longleash, Anne Lanzilotti, Karl Larson, Andy Kozar, Corrine Byrne, John Popham, Mivos Quartet (New Focus)

Linda Catlin Smith, “Drifter”

Apartment House, Bozzini Quartet (Another Timbre)

Björk, “Utopia”

(One Little Indian)

Du Yun, “Angel’s Bone”

Abigail Fischer, Jennifer Charles, Kyle Bielfield, Kyle Pfortmiller, Julian Wachner conducting the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Novus NY (VIA Artists)

Kurtág, Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

Reinbert de Leeuw conducting Asko / Schönberg and the Netherlands Radio Choir (ECM)

Berlioz, “Les Troyens”

Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Stéphane Degout, Nicolas Courjal, Marianne Crebassa, Hanna Hipp, Cyrille Dubois, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Philippe Sly, John Nelson conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Choeur de l’Opéra du Rhin, Badischer Staatsopernchor (Erato)

Ten More
James Weeks, “Mala Punica”

Exaudi (Winter & Winter)

Daniel Lentz, “River of 1000 Streams”

Vicki Ray (Cold Blue)

George Benjamin, “Into the Little Hill,” “Dream of the Song,” “Flight”

Hila Plitmann, Susan Bickley, Bejun Mehta, Michael Cox, Benjamin conducting the London Sinfonietta, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Netherlands Chamber Choir (Nimbus)

Gregory Spears, “Fellow Travelers”

Aaron Blake, Joseph Lattanzi, Devon Guthrie, Alexandra Schoeny, Mark Gibson conducting the Cincinnati Symphony (Fanfare Cincinnati)

“Sabine Devieilhe: Mirages”

Alexandre Tharaud, François-Xavier Roth conducting Les Siècles (Warner)

Weinberg, Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1-4, Piano Quintet (arr. Pushkarev and Kremer)

Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica (ECM)

Chaya Czernowin, “HIDDEN”

JACK Quartet, Inbal Hever (Wergo)

Sibelius, “In the Stream of Life”

Gerald Finley, Edward Gardner conducting the Bergen Philharmonic (Chandos)

George Lewis, “Assemblage”

Ensemble Dal Niente (New World)

Wagner, “Parsifal”

Andreas Schager, Anja Kampe, Wolfgang Koch, René Pape, Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin and Staatsopernchor, Dmitri Tcherniakov directing (BelAir DVD)

Music Book of the Year
Tim Rutherford-Johnson, “Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989” (University of California Press)

Sat, December 9, 2017

The Choral Society of Durham Brings Reverence and Celebration of Christmas
CVNC Arts Journal

Part of what makes Wachner’s arrangements unique is his determination to write fresh harmonies to very well-known songs, often by adding a descant part or through the audience taking over the melody completely (such as in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “Angels We Have Heard on High”). After the wonderment and unexpected explosion of “The Snow Lay on the Ground” and the syncopated bass ostinato of “Nino Lindo,” “The First Nowell” was the joyous finale for the set and the concert. Here, all performers came together (including the audience) to experience the jubilance of Christmas.

Read Full Text

The Choral Society of Durham Brings Reverence and Celebration of Christmas

By Chelsea Huber

December 9, 2017 - Durham, NC:

The Choral Society of Durham's annual holiday concert, this year entitled "Christmas Music for Choir and Brass" took place amid an unseasonably early (at least for North Carolina) winter weather advisory. However, that did not hinder either the concert or concertgoers from enjoying an evening of holiday music. This was undeniably a program of contrasts: the first half was chant-like, reverent works, and the second half was more contemporary and exuberant favorites. Put together, the program explored the duality of celebrating the Christmas season – joyfulness and festivities, while recognizing the reason for celebration. Conductor and director Rodney Wynkoopled the choir through both halves with ease.

Modern composer Bob Chilcott's Advent Antiphons consists of seven unaccompanied movements, each using the melody and text of the "O" Antiphons – centuries-old Advent texts that all begin with the word "O," addressing seven different names for the Messiah. Each of these short movements was interposed with another piece of varying origin, with a text that echoes the theme of each antiphon. Most of the Chilcott antiphons begin in a simple chant style, evoking its inspiration, but then delve into thick, lush harmonies. This dense texture was emphasized by the reverberation inside Duke Chapel to great effect. The accompanying pieces to each antiphon provided some contrast in texture and style without losing reverence, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Blessed Son of God," a chorale-like English piece employing lots of suspensions.

Movement three ("O Radix Jesse") was a highlight, due to the choir's execution of Chilcott's employment of aleatoric texture, where the women sang motifs with free rhythmic improvisation over a written part for the tenors and basses. The effect was unique and eerie, yet each motif could be heard from within. The piece sung after movement six ("O Rex gentium"), "Puer natus est nobis" by Arjan van Baest, contained the most bold harmonies and dynamics of the program's first half, with unpredictable chromaticism and sudden, terraced shifts in volume.

Julian Wachner's The Snow Lay on the Ground: Festive Carol Settings provided a lot more volume in general, especially with the addition of a brass and percussion ensemble. Despite the challenge of achieving balance in such a reverberant space, the choir was not overpowered by the exuberant brass and percussion. The resulting effect in the cathedral-like space was a very visceral experience for the audience. The brass ensemble really shone in "Un Flambeau," where fragments of the melody were tantalizingly introduced and then brought together. In addition, the choir's execution of the French text was notable, all linked with the gently rocking meter.

Part of what makes Wachner's arrangements unique is his determination to write fresh harmonies to very well-known songs, often by adding a descant part or through the audience taking over the melody completely (such as in "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" or "Angels We Have Heard on High"). After the wonderment and unexpected explosion of "The Snow Lay on the Ground" and the syncopated bass ostinato of "Nino Lindo," "The First Nowell" was the joyous finale for the set and the concert. Here, all performers came together (including the audience) to experience the jubilance of Christmas.

Fri, December 8, 2017

Getting into the Christmas Spirit with The Snow Lay on the Ground
ECS In Tune

Everyone has their favorite Christmas album. Whether it’s Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, The Nutcracker Suite, or Messiah, decorating a tree, sitting by a fire, baking cookies and other traditions just don’t feel the same without the right music in the background. This year we have enjoyed listening to the 2016 Arsis release, The Snow Lay on the Ground, a collection of carols and organ improvisations by Julian Wachner, performed by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Trinity Youth Chorus, and Novus NY.

Read Full Text

Getting into the Christmas Spirit with The Snow Lay on the Ground

DECEMBER 8, 2017

Everyone has their favorite Christmas album. Whether it’s Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, The Nutcracker Suite, or Messiah, decorating a tree, sitting by a fire, baking cookies and other traditions just don’t feel the same without the right music in the background. This year we have enjoyed listening to the 2016 Arsis release, The Snow Lay on the Ground, a collection of carols and organ improvisations by Julian Wachner, performed by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Trinity Youth Chorus, and Novus NY.

Listen to the full album on Spotify!

And if your favorite Christmas music is Messiah, Trinity Wall Street will live stream their performances December 15-17. More information here.

Wed, December 6, 2017

The Best Classical Music Performances of 2017
The New York Times

The centennial of another American maverick — the composer, pacifist, instrument maker, explorer of Asian music and gay pioneer Lou Harrison — was celebrated this year, including at an exhilarating concert at Trinity Wall Street {Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts] featuring a chorus and percussion ensemble from Rutgers University. Their account of “La Koro Sutro,” a 1971 choral setting of a Buddhist scripture translated into Esperanto, the synthetic universal language, showed Harrison finding wondrous commonalities between Eastern and Western culture while speaking in a modest, authentic musical voice. The concert was a rallying cry for peace and tolerance.

Read Full Text

The Best Classical Music Performances of 2017

By THE NEW YORK TIMES

DEC. 6, 2017

Classical music critics and writers of The New York Times share their picks for the best of the year.

On Jan. 20, the day President Trump was inaugurated, the outspoken conductor Daniel Barenboim seized the moment to argue for the importance of culture and community at a time of bitter divisiveness. The occasion was the second of Mr. Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin’s sweeping survey of Bruckner’s nine symphonies at Carnegie Hall.

After leading a magnificent account of Bruckner’s Second, Mr. Barenboim spoke to the audience to defend classical music from charges of elitism. Concerts like this one, he said, can bring audiences and musicians from around the world together as “one community” in an act of “human communication.” Referring to the events that day in Washington, he emphasized that America, of all countries, has “the possibility” to “make the world great!” The audience applauded vigorously.

Here was a musician who has long channeled social ideals into artistic action, drawing explicit links between a Bruckner cycle and today’s roiling political issues. But I was struck all year by how many performances — challenging new works as well as repertory pieces we may take for granted — spoke to our fractious times. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

‘THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL’ Last year, I included the world premiere at the Salzburg Festival of Thomas Adès’s audacious opera, adapted from Luis Buñuel’s surreal 1962 film, on my list of favorite performances. I’m choosing it again this year, after the Metropolitan Opera presented the American premiere in October with an impressive cast and Mr. Adès conducting. The opera’s themes felt chillingly pertinent: In the plot, the guests at a fashionable dinner party find themselves psychologically trapped in the salon of their wealthy hosts. Some force — internal, imposed or both — seems to be sapping their will to act. There were eerie parallels between these panicked members of the ruling class and the elected officials in Washington who can sometimes seem frozen in deciding how, and even whether, to stand up to a norm-shattering administration.

‘DER ROSENKAVALIER’ The Met’s inventive new production of Strauss’s beloved opera was, on one level, a showcase for Renée Fleming, who sang her last performances of a signature role, the Marschallin. She and the cast were superb. The director, Robert Carsen, drew out this staple’s modern currents by moving its setting from the 18th century to the Vienna of 1911, the year of the opera’s premiere, a time when the aristocratic order that had endured for centuries was about to collapse under the horrors of World War I.

‘WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED’ Opera Philadelphia’s ambitious fall festival offered the premiere of the composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s new music-theater work, with a libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. This raw, powerful opera tackles issues of race and inequality by looking back at an infamous 1985 incident in which Philadelphia police bombed a rowhouse occupied by a group of black separatists, causing a deadly conflagration. In an inspired twist, the opera revisits the tragedy indirectly, by depicting a crisis in the lives of five teenagers in 2017, runaways who take refuge in an abandoned house that turns out to be the separatists’ old home. Mr. Roumain deftly folded gospel, funk, jazz and classical styles into his arresting score.

CONRAD TAO As part of the Crypt Sessions series, this adventurous young American pianist presented a compelling program called “American Rage” in the intimate crypt of a Harlem church. He gave blazing performances of Copland’s flinty Piano Sonata and two fiendish works by the maverick composer Frederic Rzewski that incorporate labor movement songs and anthems.

‘BERNSTEIN’S PHILHARMONIC’ Though Leonard Bernstein’s centennial arrives next August, the New York Philharmonic got an early start this fall in honoring its legendary music director, with a series focused on Bernstein’s three overlooked symphonies. Leonard Slatkin led an intense account of the “Kaddish” (Symphony No. 3). In this unjustly criticized work, Bernstein’s poignant setting of the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer alternates with episodes in which a narrator (a riveting Jeremy Irons), speaking a text by the composer, engages in a fierce argument with God, that “angry, wrinkled old majesty,” backed up by a feisty orchestra and frightened chorus. Bernstein composed this unabashedly theatrical symphony during the early 1960s, when the threat of nuclear war seemed all too real. That threat looms again.

LOU HARRISON’S CENTENNIAL The centennial of another American maverick — the composer, pacifist, instrument maker, explorer of Asian music and gay pioneer Lou Harrison — was celebrated this year, including at an exhilarating concert at Trinity Wall Street featuring a chorus and percussion ensemble from Rutgers University. Their account of “La Koro Sutro,” a 1971 choral setting of a Buddhist scripture translated into Esperanto, the synthetic universal language, showed Harrison finding wondrous commonalities between Eastern and Western culture while speaking in a modest, authentic musical voice. The concert was a rallying cry for peace and tolerance.

DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY Finally, I must mention the great Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who died on Nov. 22 at 55 after a long struggle with brain cancer. His courageous and unforgettable recital at Carnegie Hall in February, mostly devoted to Russian songs, may not have been overtly political. Yet Mr. Hvorostovsky addressed timeless human issues of impermanence, love and death through the songs he sang so beautifully.

The Best Opera and Vocal Performances of 2017

O.K., I cheated a little with the numbers. So call these, in chronological order, my 10-ish favorite opera and vocal performances of the year — the most joyful, moving, provoking. ZACHARY WOOLFE

‘DUST’ It is so satisfying to see the enigmatic, wry and wistful works of Robert Ashley increasingly entering the repertory in the years after his death in 2014 — and even being done by young artists at conservatories, as “Dust” was in February at the Mannes School of Music. Embodying ragtag park denizens, Mannes students meticulously captured Ashley’s singsong, half-speaking style and his deadpan ruefulness. Another victory for contemporary music at Mannes: A few weeks later, the school announced that it would partner with John Zorn and house the latest iteration of his performance space, the Stone.

‘LA SERENISSIMA’ The too-little I heard at Carnegie Hall’s rich February festival, celebrating the Venetian Republic, was all superb, including Vivaldi’s “Juditha Triumphans,” in a performance of Technicolor vividness by Andrea Marcon and the Venice Baroque Orchestra, and an elegantly restrained take on Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” from Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano. (John Eliot Gardiner’s “Poppea,” part of a splendid Monteverdi trio at Lincoln Center in October, was more lavish and just as memorable.)

THREE TENORS No, not together, alas. But nevertheless a trio of magnetic stars I relished over the course of the year: Vittorio Grigolo, singing so that you could practically hear him sweat at the Metropolitan Opera in “Werther” in February and “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” in September; Javier Camarena, his voice a golden smile through the long, slow lines of “I Puritani” at the Met in February; and Jonas Kaufmann, whose hooded, mahogany sound was uniformly secure throughout his first “Otello,” the pinnacle of the Italian repertory, at the Royal Opera House in London in June.

THE MET’S 50TH This was a party, plain and simple: a five-hour celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary at Lincoln Center at the end of the season in May, and I would have been happy to stay longer. Punctuated by witty and insightful archival and interview footage about the “New Met” were Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels in Handel, Susan Graham and Matthew Polenzani in Berlioz, Piotr Beczala in Verdi and Anna Netrebko in “Macbeth” and “Madama Butterfly,” among (many) others. And, of course, Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s surprise appearance in the midst of cancer treatment to sing (with gusto) an aria from “Rigoletto.” An evening of pleasure — and reflection on a beloved, if vexed, theater — more than the sum of its parts.

‘DAS RHEINGOLD’ Alan Gilbert intended to include Messiaen’s “Saint François d’Assise” among the programs closing his tenure as the New York Philharmonic’s music director; stymied, he chose Wagner instead, and to mesmerizing effect. Without frills or fuss, he shaped a riveting family drama, a plausible potboiler worthy of Arthur Miller, with a cast including a world-wearily granitic Eric Owens, as Wotan, and Christopher Purves, eloquently and chillingly human as Alberich.

JOHN KELLY’S JONI MITCHELL When I had last seen Mr. Kelly’s uncanny evocation of Ms. Mitchell, in 2009, he was in full Joni costume, flowing blond wig and all. In June, at Joe’s Pub, he wore his own clothes and hair, but his voice — airy, languid, day-dreamy — still conjured her, in a homage sweeter and more poignant than ever.

A SALZBURG DUO My 10 days at the Salzburg Festival this summer were filled with music, but two opera productions stuck with me: William Kentridge’s teeming “Wozzeck,” a savage indictment of war’s ravages, and Peter Sellars’ spare, just-as-savage “La Clemenza di Tito,” a racially charged transmutation of Mozart to contemporary Africa. Within them were two star-making performances: Marianne Crebassa, artfully agonized as Sesto in “Clemenza,” partnering with an onstage clarinetist in a performance of the aria “Parto, parto” that made visible and audible the progression of a mind and heart; and Asmik Grigorian as a girlish, irresponsible, daringly unsympathetic Marie in “Wozzeck.”

‘THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL’ The event of the year: A work that wasn’t perfect but was dazzling and proud, impossibly grand and surprisingly subtle. Highest note in Met history and all, Thomas Adès’s score was a force of wild virtuosity and ever-mounting anxiety; diction and characterization did fall by the wayside, but neither so much as some critics would have had you think. Tom Cairns’s alert, savvy production, which opened in October, slyly formed a playing space both domestic and theatrical, making it clear that this is a piece that is messing with opera without quite parodying it. It indicts the art form for its stagnancy, then proceeds to show just what it can do when it’s operating on all cylinders.

‘ARABELLA’ This Strauss opera has never been among my favorites. Yet when I saw it in October at the excellent Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, with a committed cast led by Erin Wall, Tomasz Konieczny and Jane Archibald, I found it newly powerful. There’s such realism, clarity and compassion (to say nothing of beauty) in how the creators show Arabella’s maturation happening before your very eyes and ears; and vanishingly rare in opera is the formation of real, adult love.

‘THE MOTHER OF US ALL’ Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s surreal, endlessly evocative Americana fantasia about Susan B. Anthony and the struggle for women’s suffrage gets no less timely, nor painful. A community-sourced, chronology-crossing staging by R.B. Schlather brought the performers among the audience in November at Hudson Hall in Hudson, N.Y., an intimate setting for the unforgettable exhaustion of Michaela Martens, whose Susan B. had both near-mythical stature and soccer-mom immediacy.

Mr. Bernstein’s “Song of Nature” (1996), based on an essay by Emerson, was presented by Musica Viva together with Brahms’s “A German Requiem” in May as part of a program called “An Elegy for All Humanity.” (What does seem to be a trend is the use of Brahms’s requiem as part of a larger concept, at least since Lincoln Center’s presentation of the English chorus master Simon Halsey’s program, “human requiem,” last October.)

Mr. Currier, writing on a commission from the Minnesota Orchestra to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, produced “Re-Formation,” a sort of choral symphony for performance in Minneapolis in November. The work begins by celebrating Martin Luther, through his use of Psalm 46 for his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and Mendelssohn, through his use of that hymn in his “Reformation” Symphony.

Then it turns to the dire state of the planet, with a text by Sarah Manguso (“Black sky, …/Black sea, …/Black earth.”) “Re-Formation” turns the tables on the psalm’s notion of God protecting his creatures amid threatening elements to suggest that God’s subjects now have to protect his creation. JAMES R. OESTREICH

A Funky Updating of Minimalism

Jung Hee Choi has absorbed much from her years of study with the Minimalist composer and performer La Monte Young and the singer and visual artist Marian Zazeela. Some of the lessons are easy to spot — as in video pieces that hark back to the hallucinatory effects pioneered by Ms. Zazeela. But Ms. Choi has also been innovative.

In 2011, she brought a change into the musical lives of her gurus: a new composition to play at their Dream House space in Lower Manhattan. Its current title — “Tonecycle for Blues Base 30 Hz, 2:3:7 Ensemble Version with 4:3 and 7:6” — bears traces of Mr. Young’s obsession with the whole-number ratios of just-intonation tuning. But the approach to blues in Ms. Choi’s piece sounds unlike anything in Mr. Young’s catalog, even the more vernacular touches of his Forever Bad Blues Band, recorded in the 1990s.

Heard in its latest iteration, this October, the deep groove of the work’s slow-tempo “ektal vilampit” section had a unique majesty. Heaving funk progressions from a fretless bass mingled with tabla percussion and sustained vocal tones of pristine calm. Fans of Minimalism often speculate about the opening of a vault said to hold material recorded over the decades by Mr. Young and Ms. Zazeela. But they should also be hoping for a release or two from Ms. Choi’s recent exhibitions. SETH COLTER WALLS

An Opera That Resonated This Year

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Der Rosenkavalier” was a major event from the start: It was Renée Fleming’s farewell to one of her signature roles. But the staging, updated to the early 20th century by Robert Carsen, ended up particularly resonant with the biggest news stories at the bookends of 2017.

When Mr. Carsen’s “Rosenkavalier” had its premiere at the Met in April, the Trump presidency was in its infancy and liberal America was searching its soul in the aftermath of the election. What the comedy series “Broad City” had described as the country’s “caramel and queer” future suddenly seemed newly fragile. This mood lent special punch to the opera’s ending, which depicts just how easily a way of life can vanish. After the soaring love duet, the set’s velvet walls came apart to reveal a bare stage with soldiers marching toward the audience (and presumably into World War I) before dropping dead, as if felled by gunfire.

Now the end of the year has brought a watershed of cads getting their comeuppance for sexual misbehavior. Harvey Weinstein and his ilk resemble Strauss’s Baron Ochs, whom the bass Günther Groissböck portrayed not as the usual buffoon but as a dangerous predator. Ochs brags that “some women like to be seized” by powerful men like him before being brought down in disgrace near the end. JOSHUA BARONE

Wed, December 6, 2017

Finding ‘Hallelujah’: How to Navigate the ‘Messiah’ Landscape
The New York Times

Meanwhile, Julian Wachner blew into Trinity Wall Street in 2010 and quickly made its version perhaps the essential New York “Messiah.” With the church’s choir and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra, a period band, Mr. Wachner provides gritty, gutsy, edge-of-the-seat performances…

Read Full Text

Finding ‘Hallelujah’: How to Navigate the ‘Messiah’ Landscape

By JAMES R. OESTREICH and ZACHARY WOOLFE

DEC. 6, 2017

How do you distinguish among the host of performances of Handel’s “Messiah” that crowd New York’s musical calendar each December? Some have choruses of a dozen or so; some field hundreds. Some use baroque instruments; some, modern. Some (a lot) are amateur; some are professionals. Some leave the singing to the people on stage; some (heaven help us) let the audience-cum-congregation participate. Some offer a comfortable holiday tradition; some (we’re looking at you, Trinity Wall Street) offer something closer to a sacred rite.

Here’s a brief and inevitably incomplete rundown of the history and current landscape.

A few decades ago, amateur groups like David Randolph and the Masterwork Chorus dominated the “Messiah” scene. (Masterwork is still out there, doing its thing.) But the first glimmerings of more memorable quality came with Richard Westenburg and Musica Sacra, who were in the ascendancy in the 1970s.

The St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys performs Handel’s “Messiah” in 2016.CreditMichelle V. Agins/The New York Times

There were, in those days, also sometimes scrappy performances at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, with a choir of men and boy trebles led by Gerre Hancock. But it was John Scott who put the St. Thomas offerings on a consistent professional footing after his arrival in 2004, using the period band Concert Royal. Their performances, which were generally the first high-profile ones in the season, in early December, typically set a high standard.

Mr. Scott died in 2015, and Daniel Hyde, his successor, took over “Messiah,” with results more distinguished this year than last. Mr. Hyde has shifted from Concert Royal to the ensemble New York Baroque Incorporated, largely made up of alumni of the Juilliard School’s dynamo historical-performance program; he’s also provided a showcase for the tremendously gifted young contralto Avery Amereau.

Musica Sacra eventually began to grow a little mannered and stale in the later years of Mr. Westenburg, who died in 2008. Kent Tritle, who took over a few years before his death, largely restored the quality, still using modern instruments. But the gifted Mr. Tritle, who also does an annual “Messiah” with his amateur chorus, the 200-voice Oratorio Society of New York, soon came to seem overexposed if not overextended, and Musica Sacra’s performances have lost urgency and a sense of occasion. (This year Kathryn Lewek, the Metropolitan Opera’s Queen of the Night in this fall’s “The Magic Flute,” solos with both Tritle groups.)

Meanwhile, Julian Wachner blew into Trinity Wall Street in 2010 and quickly made its version perhaps the essential New York “Messiah.” With the church’s choir and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra, a period band, Mr. Wachner provides gritty, gutsy, edge-of-the-seat performances — though the vocal solos, featuring choir members rather than guest artists, can be wildly uneven.

The New York Philharmonic, like many other symphony orchestras, has generally moved beyond using journeymen or assistant conductors and now often brings in Baroque-specialist conductors, like — this year — Andrew Manze, with that omnipresent “Messiah” hand Mr. Tritle playing continuo organ. The instruments are, obviously, modern ones, but in keeping with mainstream historically informed practice, assume that vibrato will be kept to a minimum and forces somewhat reduced.

Occasionally music directors will take on “Messiah” duty — Alan Gilbert did on occasion with the Philharmonic; Yannick Nézet-Séguin has with his Philadelphia Orchestra and, this year, his Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal — and Xian Zhang is shortly taking on the run at her New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. It’s always a nice show of commitment from conductors whose specialty is repertory from a couple hundred years after Handel.

Tue, December 5, 2017

MA 30 Movers & Shapers: Cerise Jacobs
Musical America

Last September, her REV. 23, described as “a farcical hellish opera which traverses hell, paradise­on­earth and everywhere in between,” and sporting a poly­styled score by Julian Wachner, was premiered at John Hancock Hall. Future projects include an interactive video­ game opera, PermaDeath (scheduled for September 2018); Monkey, a “kung fu puppet parable” (September 2019); and Cosmic Cowboy, inspired by the robotic space probe Philae (September 2020).

Read Full Text

MA 30 Movers & Shapers: Cerise Jacobs

By Richard S. Ginell

December 5, 2017

Co­Founder, Librettist

White Snake Projects

Cerise Lim Jacobs was a Boston lawyer for more than two decades. Then, three years after she retired, she found a new calling. In 2005, as a birthday present for her husband, she started to write a libretto for a song cycle based on a Chinese folk tale. Upon his prodding to go deeper, she expanded it into an opera, for which composer Zhou Long would write the score. The result was Madame White Snake.

To fund the project, Jacobs and her now late husband
formed a 501(c)(3) corporation called White Snake Projects, which raised the money to put on the work with Opera Boston in 2010. It went on to win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

But Jacobs didn’t stop there. White Snake Projects ultimately became an expansive commissioning program to include seven operas over a span of five years using original Jacobs stories. She expanded her original idea into a trilogy—Madame White Snake, Naga, and Gilgames—under the umbrella name of Ouroboros Trilogy, which was performed in an all­day marathon in September 2016 at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater.

Last September, her REV. 23, described as “a farcical hellish opera which traverses hell, paradise­on­earth and everywhere in between,” and sporting a poly­styled score by Julian Wachner, was premiered at John Hancock Hall. Future projects include an interactive video­ game opera, PermaDeath (scheduled for September 2018); Monkey, a “kung fu puppet parable” (September 2019); and Cosmic Cowboy, inspired by the robotic space probe Philae (September 2020).

“I want to create American opera that comes from my imagination,” says Jacobs. “I’m not interested in writing libretti derived from a play, book, or movie, no matter how great.... Perhaps I will feel differently later in my development, but right now, there are just too many stories bursting out of me.” 

Wed, November 8, 2017

Psalms Encounter Covers Wide Field Within NY Chapel
Classical Voice America

Among St. Paul’s assets is its balcony, which enabled Wachner, director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, to deploy his choral forces in different ways. In Venite exultemus Domino (Come Let Us Praise the Lord) by Michael Praetorius, one of many highlights, six choristers stood in the balcony, alternating passages with the choir below. For British composer Nicola LeFanu’s The Little Valleys, an arresting anthem based on portions of her larger choral work, The Valleys Shall Sing, ten female singers and a countertenor were arrayed around the balcony, where they slowly moved closer and regrouped. The most modernist of the settings heard, it featured novel sound effects and created a sense of drama…

...In two of the most musically impressive pieces – Rachmaninoff’s Blagoslovi, dushe moya Gospoda, No. 2 (Bless the Lord, O my soul) and Bruckner’s Os justi meditabitur (The mouth of the righteous) – the sheer expressivity of the singing brought the texts to life, transforming the listening experience into something akin to worship.

Read Full Text

Psalms Encounter Covers Wide Field Within NY Chapel

By Barbara Jepson

NOVEMBER 8, 2017

NEW YORK — The Psalms, song texts written for temple worship in ancient Israel, have fired the artistic imaginations of composers from medieval times to the present. In fact, more than half of the total choral repertoire in the Western classical canon is based on the Psalms, according to an essay by Tido Visser, managing director of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, who created and premiered The Psalms Experience in Utrecht earlier this fall.

Now The Psalms Experience is underway at various locations through Nov. 11 as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, which reliably offers top-notch musical presentations from around the globe. By the time it concludes, four superb choral ensembles will have sung a cappella settings (with occasional organ accompaniment) of all 150 Psalms by as many composers. Where no suitable setting was available, the Netherlands Chamber Choir commissioned works from nine composers, including Michel van der Aa, Evelin Seppar,Nico Muhly, and Caroline Shaw.

The three concerts heard on Nov. 2 and 4 were performed by the 24-member Choir of Trinity Wall Street under conductor Julian Wachner in the light, airy interior of Trinity’s recently renovated sister church, St. Paul’s Chapel, in lower Manhattan. Built in 1766, the Chapel’s exterior and grounds were inundated with debris but otherwise unharmed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The Chapel became sanctuary and sleep space for the rescue and recovery efforts. At the opening concert, two days after a truck-driving ISIS supporter killed eight individuals and injured eleven others in lower Manhattan, it again felt like a refuge.

But as a performance space, St. Paul’s has its pros and cons. It was hard to remain in a state of transcendence given the frequent rumble of nearby subway trains, far louder than those heard at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. On a few occasions, when the full ensemble was singing fortissimo passages, the sound in the otherwise pleasingly resonant but clear acoustic got blurry, and it felt like the music required a larger concert arena. Still, that happened less at the two Nov. 4 concerts, perhaps because of a different seat location, and was a small price to pay for the greater sense of intimacy achieved.

In the Jewish Tanakh, known to Christians as the Old Testament, the Psalmists grapple with the trials of life in an imperfect world. With magnificent poetic language, they not only praise their God’s attributes and actions but pour out their emotions to Him — joy, sorrow, anger, fears, doubts, and questions. They plead for individual or communal deliverance, forgiveness, mercy, and vengeance, finding solace and faith in the texts’ eternal perspectives.

To show the relevance of the Psalms today, and provide musically balanced programs, Dutch scholars grouped the Psalms into twelve thematic segments, including “Mortal Leadership, Divine Guidance,” “Faith,” “Justice,” and “Abandonment.” Translations of text segments used by the composers were shown on video screens. Each concert began with a succinct homily related to the topic by Rev. Phillip A. Jackson, vicar of Trinity Church Wall Street.

Then we were awash in choral music, about a dozen works per concert. Sumptuous,overlapping vocal lines and long, sighing suspensions in the Renaissance motets. The formal complexity and grandeur of Edward Elgar’s Great is the Lord (Psalm 48). A virtuosic, gospel-flavored improvisation on Psalm 12 by the Trinity choir. Pieces by less familiar composers, like the late 16th-century Italian Damiano Scarabelli and the impressive Baroque master Francisco Valls, new to this listener. Medieval plainchant. A Jewish prayer, Kol Adonai, intoned cantor-style.

Among St. Paul’s assets is its balcony, which enabled Wachner, director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, to deploy his choral forces in different ways. In Venite exultemus Domino (Come Let Us Praise the Lord)by Michael Praetorius, one of many highlights, six choristers stood in the balcony, alternating passages with the choir below. For British composer Nicola LeFanu’s The Little Valleys, an arresting anthem based on portions of her larger choral work, The Valleys Shall Sing, ten female singers and a countertenor were arrayed around the balcony, where they slowly moved closer and regrouped. The most modernist of the settings heard, it featured novel sound effects and created a sense of drama.

William Byrd’s contemplative Domine secundum multitudinem (O Lord, according to the multitude of sorrows) provided Wachner and his flexible, well-trained choir more opportunity for nuances of phrasing and expression than were evident in some of the other works on the opening program. A case in point: The performance of Robert White’s Exaudiat te Dominus (The Heavens Declare), where it seemed like conductor and singers were more attuned to a beauty and balance of sound than to the meaning of the texts. That tendency largely vanished during the second and third concerts. In two of the most musically impressive pieces – Rachmaninoff’s Blagoslovi, dushe moya Gospoda, No. 2 (Bless the Lord, O my soul) and Bruckner’s Os justi meditabitur (The mouth of the righteous) – the sheer expressivity of the singing brought the texts to life, transforming the listening experience into something akin to worship.

James MacMillan’s A New Song, based on Psalm 96, showed how living composers have enriched the choral genre. This extraordinary piece has a simple principal vocal theme embellished with grace notes and the composer’s rapid, hairpin-turn ornaments that play off the longer, repeated organ glissandos. Elsewhere in the piece, the vocal line floats atop bass drones in the pedals. Hearing it performed with such agility by the choir and organist Avi Stein was a treat.

David Lang’s If I Sing, in its U.S. premiere, was also memorable. Lang rewrote parts of Psalm 101, homing in on the question “When will you come to me?” in the second verse. As a result, the declarative statement of the Psalm’s first line, “I will sing unto the Lord” becomes a more uncertain, conditional query: “If I sing of mercy, if I sing of justice, if I sing your praises, will you come to me?” The stirring music, as rendered by Wachner and his choristers, became a vehement plea for God’s presence.

Still to come are the remaining premieres, plus works by Bach, Handel, Brahms, Poulenc, and a four-concert “immersion” experience on Nov. 11. At the final event, which features the Tallis Scholars, members of all four choirs will join in a performance at Alice Tully Hall of Spem in alium, a splendid 40-voice motet by Thomas Tallis, whose psalm-like text apparently comes from the Apocryphal Book of Judith. No matter. By then, anyone who has attended several of the concerts will have gained a deeper knowledge of the compelling musical genre of Psalm settings.

Barbara Jepson is a longtime contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Life & Arts section. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Arts & Leisure, Smithsonian, Opera News, MusicalAmerica.com and other publications.  She is on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America, having recently completed two terms as its president.

Tue, October 31, 2017

Hear 9 New Psalm Settings for Challenging Times
The New York Times

When Lincoln Center first planned the Psalms Experience, an ambitious series of concerts that includes musical settings of all 150 biblical psalms, it was thought of as an antidote to what felt like a terrible year: 2016.

“The origins of the project were inspired by the challenging nature of our lives a year ago,” said Jane Moss, the artistic director of Lincoln Center and its White Light Festival, which will present the 12 Psalms Experience concerts from Wednesday, Nov. 1, through Nov. 11. “I’m sorry to report the world seems equally challenging today.”

[The Trinity Choir, under the direction of Julian Wachner, is among the ensembles participating in the Psalms Experience at the White Light Festival.]

Read Full Text

Hear 9 New Psalm Settings for Challenging Times

By JOSHUA BARONE

OCT. 31, 2017

When Lincoln Center first planned the Psalms Experience, an ambitious series of concerts that includes musical settings of all 150 biblical psalms, it was thought of as an antidote to what felt like a terrible year: 2016.

“The origins of the project were inspired by the challenging nature of our lives a year ago,” said Jane Moss, the artistic director of Lincoln Center and its White Light Festival, which will present the 12 Psalms Experience concerts from Wednesday, Nov. 1, through Nov. 11. “I’m sorry to report the world seems equally challenging today.”

For centuries, the Book of Psalms has been fodder for composers. David Lang, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008, called it “a catalog of all the ways you can have a conversation with God.”

But there were gaps. So the project also involved commissioning nine new psalm settings. Here are audio excerpts from each, with comments from the composers.

Michel van der Aa, Psalm 5

This Dutch composer, known for complex multidisciplinary operas, wrote in a relatively straightforward harmonic language for his psalm setting, “Shelter.” The title comes from what Mr. van der Aa said was the most poignant passage, which says that people should shelter all who take refuge.

“This text is so timeless, even urgent,” he said. “We seem to live in a time when the differences between us are getting not smaller, but larger. The more vulnerable people need our protection.”

Mohammed Fairouz, Psalm 14

At its heart, Mr. Fairouz said, this psalm is about “believing in something bigger than yourself,” even while living in divisive times.

In writing his setting, “Diversions,” he felt the psalm’s message was ultimately one of hope. The piece unfolds in three parts: a poem by Michael Bembenek Jr. that opens darkly (“Fresh corpses line the boulevard”); text by Isaac Newton, including his famous phrase “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”; and Psalm 14, which ends with the feeling, Mr. Fairouz said, that “if you look at the world we’re living in today, the opportunities are tremendous.”

William Knight, Psalm 21

Mr. Knight, a British tenor who grew up singing sacred music, is familiar with this psalm. Still, he said, “it was interesting to read it and interpret it in a new way.”

He found himself drawn to the psalm’s message about eternal life — something that “can be achieved through remembrance,” he said — and the concept of divine right. He thought of world leaders using religion to justify their actions, but pointed to the second half of the text, which depicts a wrathful God who has more power than any king.

Zad Moultaka, Psalm 60

Reading this psalm for the first time was difficult for Mr. Moultaka, a composer from Lebanon now based in Paris. “There is a lot of violence in it,” he said, pointing to moments in the text where, for example, God tramples down enemies.

Mr. Moultaka said that while revisiting this psalm for his piece, “Sakata” (its text in Aramaic), he interpreted it as: “We are lost, and we have to find a new way, maybe, to relate and find a new space together.”

Nico Muhly, Psalm 63

Choral music, especially sacred music, is Mr. Muhly’s home base. “It’s the first music that I loved and the first music that I made,” he said, adding that he enjoys setting psalm text “because it can bear the weight of a variety of musical interpretations.”

His setting, “Marrow,” takes its title from the line “My soul shall be satisfied, even as it were with marrow and fatness.” Anchoring the piece is a musical texture in three-quarter time — “a kind of wet aquatic idée fixe,” as Mr. Muhly called it.

Isidora Zebeljan, Psalm 78

Ms. Zebeljan, a Serbian composer, translated her psalm into Portuguese because “there is a very special melody in this language,” she said. The words fit naturally into the tone of her piece, which she described as a slow dance.

Even though the psalm deals in holy fury, Ms. Zebeljan said she wanted the music to reflect the line in which God remembers that people are “but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.” She said she tried to capture that breeze as “a brief dance of changing and passing,” like the danse macabrethat closes Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal.”

Caroline Shaw, Psalm 84

This psalm opens with one of the most memorable lines in Brahms’s “A German Requiem”: “How beloved is your dwelling place.” Ms. Shaw, who wrote the beginning of her setting like an Anglican chant, made sure to preserve that line while treating the rest of the text more liberally.

Ms. Shaw said the psalm made her think of the immigration crisis, which she alludes to her repeated use of the phrase “the sparrow found a house.” She added that she wanted to set that phrase “in a way that feels urgent and not calm.”

David Lang, Psalm 101

Mr. Lang, who describes himself as religious, rewrote the psalm for his setting, “if i sing.” The piece straddles the line between sacred and secular, as does “the little match girl passion,” his Pulitzer-winning oratorio inspired by Hans Christian Andersen and Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”

The psalm “is really like a bargain,” Mr. Lang said. “It’s like, ‘If I do this, will that work? Will you come to me?’” That question is present in nearly every line. By the end, it appears as a plea: “Come to me.”

Evelin Seppar, Psalm 129

“This is about overcoming difficulty,” Ms. Seppar, an Estonian composer, said of her psalm setting. “Something horrible has been done to you for a long time, but you haven’t given up.”

She aimed to create a dense, sea-like structure “with lots of voices, so that you can’t really tell what exactly is the harmony. I wanted this almost drowning feeling, that you’re in the water and it’s pulling you.”

Yet Ms. Seppar’s message is ultimately one of perseverance. “It ends in unison,” she said. “I don’t normally finish pieces like this, but after this turmoil it felt like clarity was necessary.”

Thu, October 26, 2017

Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Angel’s Bone on VIA Records
I Care if You Listen

Angel’s Bone, awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was premiered at the 2016 PROTOTYPE festival and co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects, HERE, and Trinity Wall Street. The work is a momentous accomplishment for intrepid composer Du Yun and librettist Royce Vavrek, and it serves as a bold example of the continued relevance of the operatic genre. The recent CD release of Angel’s Bone (conducted by Julian Wachner for the VIA Records label), is a profoundly important testament to the work’s emotional and artistic impact. Unifying traditional forms with modern musical expression and unapologetically graphic and relevant subject matter, Angel’s Bone is a work that deserves to be heard everywhere.

Read Full Text

Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Angel’s Bone on VIA Records

LAUREN ALFANO
on October 26, 2017 at 6:00 am

Angel’s Bone, awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was premiered at the 2016 PROTOTYPE festival and co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects, HERE, and Trinity Wall Street. The work is a momentous accomplishment for intrepid composer Du Yun and librettist Royce Vavrek, and it serves as a bold example of the continued relevance of the operatic genre. The recent CD release of Angel’s Bone (conducted by Julian Wachner for the VIA Records label), is a profoundly important testament to the work’s emotional and artistic impact. Unifying traditional forms with modern musical expression and unapologetically graphic and relevant subject matter, Angel’s Bone is a work that deserves to be heard everywhere.

The opera opens with solemn procession, setting the mood but revealing little of the impending drama. The Chorus sings “A Prism, A Video, A Flurry,” with exquisite purity of tone. The voices bring the words to life, unfolding across dissonances, navigating meandering tonalities, and finally, unraveling into the next scene. We meet the scorned wife, Mrs. X.E., (rich-voiced mezzo-soprano, Abigail Fischer) and Mr. X.E., who rushes in bearing two beings with bloodied faces.  They are not runaway children, but in fact, angels. The angels, badly wounded, are deposited into the bathtub, wings askew, shaking in agony and fear. Cut and bleeding, they still have hope, singing, “People are naturally generous…good, helpful, kind, welcoming…They would never hurt us.” 

As the Boy Angel, Kyle Bielfield’s bright, youthful tenor encourages the weary Girl Angel (Jennifer Charles), who bravely musters the strength to produce languid, melismatic sighs and shaking exclamations. Lest these valuable treasures fly away, Mrs. X.E. coldly commands her husband to, “Prune them.” Desperate to please, Mr. X.E. does this against a violent cacophony of gasps, screams, and shrill punctuations from the orchestra. Already bloodied and weak, the angels are completely defeathered by sharp pruning shears. One does not need a set and actors before them to visualize the terrible brutality and horror of the scene. In the end, the angels are left gasping and mutilated, and listeners cannot help feeling overwhelmed by this stunning violation. Who could brutalize an angel, and with such violence? Mrs. X.E., bursting with narcissistic self-pity, compares herself to the Virgin Mary, recalling her past financial struggles, and proudly displaying the angels’ feathers now adorning her body. 

Some of the most poignant and beautiful moments in the opera come from the Choir of Trinity Wall Street—virtually unmatched for their exquisitely pure sound and perfect blend. The profound movement, “Feathers are Prickly Things,” has a homophonic, hymn-like feel, a strong contrast to the harsh sounds of earlier scenes. As the voices swell, first the lower ones, and then the higher ones, the message becomes clear: “Feathers are prickly things in the wrong hands.” 

Meanwhile, the angels languish, and the Boy Angel comforts the Girl Angel who is “cut up, marked…from head to toe.” One could guess at how their injuries came to be, and that might be good enough. In fact, some might consider these images too vivid, too disturbing. But Du and Vavrek do not let their audience off the hook. In the next scene, “Taking Orders,” we are forced to witness, in graphic detail, the horrific abuse, torture, and rape of these poor and helpless creatures. “They are at your service!” says Mrs. X.E. to her clients, who arrive to be serviced as they wish. The Female Customer (Melanie Russell)’s sweet soprano belies her repulsive intent as she chokes and kicks the Boy Angel in a fit of rage. Beaten and bruised, he is then raped by Mrs. X.E. to a feverish orchestral accompaniment. 

The Girl Angel fares no better. In “Brick J,” a spoken tour-de-force, she cries over the pulsing orchestra, recounting that her client “likes it rough…I’m wailing. He’s devouring.” She is so broken, that she can no longer sing. She must speak, and sigh, and howl, and moan as she tells her story, and even this cannot truly convey her horror. The Boy Angel cries “I am a wound, gaping, gushing.” They know that they must run away.  Still, confused and broken, the Girl Angel hesitates, as many victims do, “But [Mr. X.E.] loves me.” 

The X.E.’s grand scheme falls apart, however, as Mrs. X.E. reveals that she is pregnant with the Boy Angel’s child. Mr. X.E. throws a bag of feathers at the angels, yelling, “Restore your wings and fly away! Remove your shackles and fly away!” before remorsefully stabbing himself in the heart. Mrs. X.E. unrepentantly hatches a plan to escape justice for her crimes and to turn her transgressions into a source of pity. “My story, a television spectacle…forced to sell the spiritual, the sexual, by a deranged spouse.”

Whatever happens to those beautiful, broken, and tormented angels? We will never know, just as the fates of the most vulnerable victims of abuse are far too often unknown. Unlike so many operas before it, there is no tidy resolution, no happy ending, and no justice. Not even a weak apology can be mustered up for the victims. They are the forgotten ones in this drama. For them, there is only tremendous pain, unspeakable horror, and then, silence. 

Angel’s Bone is a truly groundbreaking work, both in its deft integration of various, sometimes unexpected, musical styles and expressions into a unified whole, and for a libretto that is poetic and beautiful without ever glossing over the ugliness, violence, and horror of the story it depicts. This work serves as mirror, illuminated by bright fluorescents, inviting us to lay bare our own complicity in—or indifference to—these heinous, crimes. Bravo to Julian Wachner for leading a first-class roster of musicians through a complex score with equal parts precision and passion. It is my hope that Angel’s Bone will have a run in every major city and inspire a new generation of composers and librettists to challenge the idea of what is acceptable or desirable subject matter for opera in the twenty-first century, to explore and expose in great detail, the most painful and disturbing taboos, to give a voice to the voiceless, and to elevate the disturbing scenes from the world around them into a bold and engaging artistic creation that demands our full attention—even when we so desperately want to look away.

Tue, October 10, 2017

In ‘The Hubble Cantata,’ opera blasts into the world of virtual reality
The Los Angeles Times

McNitt’s VR experience is the metaphorical tail on the multimedia comet that is classical composer Paola Prestini’s “The Hubble Cantata,” which swept up that huge audience in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last summer and stages its West Coast premiere Wednesday at the Ford Theatres in Hollywood. Presented in association with Los Angeles Opera, the show features soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Nathan Gunn singing a libretto by Royce Vavrek. Members of the L.A. Opera Orchestra, L.A. Opera Chorus and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus are also part of the production [directed by Julian Wachner].

Read Full Text

In 'The Hubble Cantata,' opera blasts into the world of virtual reality

by Jessica Gelt

When 6,000 of her fellow audience members placed cardboard goggles on their faces to watch her five-minute virtual reality film, “Fistful of Stars,” Eliza McNitt’s heart broke from happiness.

She heard people shuffling around, then a brief silence followed by a collective gasp. This happened when viewers, many of whom had never experienced VR before, realized that they were being transported inside the Hubble Telescope in order to view the enigmatic enormity of the cosmos from its privileged perch beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

McNitt’s VR experience is the metaphorical tail on the multimedia comet that is classical composer Paola Prestini’s “The Hubble Cantata,” which swept up that huge audience in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last summer and stages its West Coast premiere Wednesday at the Ford Theatres in Hollywood. Presented in association with Los Angeles Opera, the show features soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Nathan Gunn singing a libretto by Royce Vavrek. Members of the L.A. Opera Orchestra, L.A. Opera Chorus and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus are also part of the production.

I think storytelling is at the heart of all these experiences. We are trying to leave people with a sense of wonder and awe.— Eliza McNitt, filmmaker

The performance is a cosmic collision of science and art on a novel scale, arriving at a time when experimental companies such as Yuval Sharon’s the Industry are using the classic art form to push technological and artistic innovation — and in the process draw a new generation of fans.

“What is so exciting about this project was being able to bring a new perspective to an art form that has existed for so long in order to provide a new way of experiencing it,” McNitt said by phone from New York. “I think storytelling is at the heart of all these experiences. We are trying to leave people with a sense of wonder and awe.”

Prestini first approached McNitt about the project a few years ago. She told McNitt that she wanted to create visuals for the performance, which tells the tale of an astrophysicist who looks to the mystery of the cosmos after losing his wife and child. This story finds its parallel in the life cycle of a star, which McNitt’s film reveals as viewers are transported to the Orion Nebula to watch a star be born, age and eventually explode in a supernova.

McNitt, 26, is a bit of a supernova herself. She is a two-time winner of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a self-professed “certified nerd” whose research on honeybee colony collapse disorder earned her a visit to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. There, during a stroll in the particle accelerator, she fell “deeply in love with particle physics” and realized she needed to show the world that science is art.

This led to her first documentary film, “Requiem for the Honeybee,” which was broadcast internationally on C-SPAN. Since then, McNitt has made it her mission to create films that bring science to vivid life.

For “Fistful of Stars,” McNitt worked closely with astrophysicist Mario Livio, a prolific author who devoted more than 25 years to overseeing many of the Hubble Telescope’s discoveries. Livio also narrates “The Hubble Cantata,” and he helped McNitt hew true to the scientific realities of her interstellar journey.

Using real footage from the telescope, McNitt crafted a film that took scientific theories grounded in hard data and interpreted them through an artistic lens, making sure to consider crucial points of interest including the color of a star when it is born and what solar flares look like when they’re circling off the body of a star.

“I wanted to make people feel like they were seeing through the lens of the Hubble Telescope, and peering back in time billions of years ago to see what Hubble sees thousands of light years away,” she said.

The beauty of this particular collaboration, L.A. Opera President Christopher Koelsch said, is how seamlessly the various art forms blend together.

“You don’t want to allow the technology tail to wag the artistic dog,” he said. “There would be no point in incorporating this technology if it weren’t merited by the aesthetics of the piece.”

Koelsch is a big fan of Prestini’s work. The young composer, who in 2011 was named one of the top 100 composers under 40 by National Public Radio, is part of an exciting group of new music innovators whom Koelsch affectionately calls the “iPod generation of composers.”

“They are classically trained musicians who are as equally influenced by pop culture and rock ’n’ roll as they are by Wagner,” he said, adding that the kind of experimentation Prestini has lent to her work will help “shape what masterpieces come out of the next 50 years.”

Ford Theatres’ interim executive director, Olga Garay-English, is welcoming “The Hubble Cantata” to Los Angeles as part of a 10-part series featuring work by contemporary artists called “Ignite @ the Ford!”

“It’s not an expensive technology, so we’re able to share this for free with all of our patrons who come to the event,” she says of cardboard goggles that fit to audience members’ personal mobile phones for viewing “Fistful of Stars.” They will download the film in advance, so that when the cue comes to don the goggles, they are ready for experience.

“As the music crescendos, you meld into the cosmos,” she said. “What can be accomplished these days is extraordinary.”

Also extraordinary, added McNitt, is the collective nature of the experience. VR has traditionally been a solitary experience, with viewers isolated in headsets and headphones, separate from the rest of the world while becoming part of another world entirely.

“I think there is something very special about embracing the flaws of that idea to create this communal experience where you can not only listen to this thunderous score, but listen to the person next to you reacting to that experience,” McNitt said.

Mon, October 9, 2017

The Devil Came Up to Boston for Cerise Lim Jacobs’ New Opera, “REV. 23”
La Scena Musicale

In selecting Julian Wachner to compose REV. 23, Jacobs chose cannily. Mirroring the opera’s mediation between Paradise and Hell, Wachner has described his own compositional impulses as poised between what he calls the “Apollonian” – rational, ordered, sanctified – and the “Dionysian,” i.e., free, rebellious, and transgressive.

Wachner’s score thus amounts to a broad-board conspectus of historical styles, tics and tricks, rendering it quite appropriate as the music of a post-modern opera about a post-historical universe. Everything is equally at hand, equally valid, equally susceptible of repurposing and imitation – Monteverdi, Gluck, Wagner, Hindemith, Britten, Led Zeppelin, Stephen Sondheim, Metallica, Adele.

Read Full Text

The Devil Came Up to Boston for Cerise Lim Jacobs’ New Opera, “REV. 23”

BY CHARLES GEYER

9 OCTOBER 2017

The End was at hand, and it was a devil of a good time.

The city of Boston recently got a privileged, early glimpse of the Apocalypse – and beyond – courtesy of resident visionary, opera-maker, and eschatologist nonpareil, Cerise Lim Jacobs, who not only conceived and wrote the libretto for REV. 23, but commissioned its composer and produced the work via her White Snake Projects, a not-for-profit organization committed to presenting new opera while making meaningful educational and development contributions to the community at large.

Boston, of course, is a place historically inured to fire-and-brimstone preachments. But here was a very different kind of sermon. This isn’t your Cotton-Mather Last Judgment.

Billed as “a farcical hellish opera,” REV. 23 purports to reveal the contents of a previously unknown Chapter 23 of St. John’s Book of Revelation. Until now, the canonical Christian Bible concluded with Revelation‘s 22nd chapter and its saccharine prognostications of eternal peace in a land irrigated by the “pure river of the water of life” where “there shall be no night.”

But Jacobs glances beyond all of that. Wryly claiming to be not the author, but a mere mystic scribe receiving St. John’s dictation of this explosive, previously withheld material, she has created what is tantamount to a Tartarean tabloid exposé – regaling us, fascinating us, and scandalizing us with a spectacle of hella trouble in Paradise.

Where There’s Smoke….

Recorded preshow music for REV. 23 included Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Then – crisis! – a sudden grind of gears, a surge and dip of light, Lucifer and his associates rushed the stage, gnarring and howling imprecations, and REV. 23 was underway.

The action takes place in the (superficially) halcyon days beyond the Rapture. Paradise has been regained. Lucifer has been deposed from worldly dominion by the Archangel Michael for the second (and presumably final) time, and is now reduced to the role of noisome house guest in the underworld home of the god Hades (Jacobs prodigally and deliciously mixes Judeo-Christian and pagan myth canons).

But not so fast. Lucifer’s been plotting his comeback. His current chagrin stems from the failure of his most recent assay – an attempt to sabotage the master generator sustaining Paradise’s blasted eternal daylight. He’s got to come up with something else.

Hades, meanwhile, is pining for his lost love, the goddess Persephone, who, through centuries of diurnal time following Hades’ abduction of her, had been obliged to return and abide half the year in the underworld with him. Since the last trumpet, however, the goddess has presumably been released from her cycle of bondage.

Nonetheless, to Hades’ delight, Persephone does reappear, á la La sonnambula, drawn back to Hell by inveterate habit. An ensuing subplot involves the hot-and-cold erotic byplay between Persephone and Hades, along with Lucifer’s mischievous interventions that threaten to turn the affair into a netherworld ménage-a-trois.

By the Book

Lucifer’s real interest in Persephone, however, entails her unique right among created beings to make free passage between the worlds above and below. Lucifer sees her as his passport back into Paradise, where he and his confederates – Hades and the three omnipresent Furies – might somehow contrive to bring darkness back to the cosmos.

A new scheme is hatched. At the instigation of the shade of Sun Tze, the ancient Chinese military strategist who wrote the authoritative tract on “The Art of War,” Lucifer and company will derange utopia with the help of “Art, Literature, Drama, Opera, Heavy Metal, Pop” – in short, all the corrupting influence of the humanities, which will seduce the children of Paradise out of passivity and jejune bovine contentment and into open revolt. Sun Tze is here figured as a kind of Saul Alinsky, and his treatise on warfare becomes Lucifer’s Rules for Radicals.

Jacobs’ arresting and subversive thesis thus comes into focus. The redeemed are not so much blissful as merely narcotized, bleared by an imposed amnesia about all that humanity, for good or ill, had created. References to Shakespeare, for instance, are veined throughout REV. 23, his works forming a synecdoche for all the hazards of human genius that threaten to revive mankind’s old-style, willful and perverse ways. The Furies quote the weird sisters of Macbeth. Macbeth and Lear are offered as examples of “the betrayer and the betrayed.” A copy of Romeo and Julietis offered to Eve, who finds irresistible its distillation of the mystery of a broken heart, and prompts her to look, in the words of the opera’s memorable 11th-hour pop ballad, “Beyond Paradise.”

Indeed, so destabilizing to Heaven’s purposes is the reintroduction of art and literature that the Archangel Michael organizes an empyreal fascistic book-burning, a bonfire of vanities that recalls the dire cautions of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

And ultimately it isn’t really Lucifer or his accomplices who detonate Paradise. Rather, in a recapitulation of Genesis (spoiler alert), it’s Eve. Loath as she is to surrender Romeo and Juliet, she seizes the “Book of Life” itself from Michael and chucks it on the pyre, effectively purging all of peccant creation’s “permanent record” and thus, as the opera concludes, starting the cycle of life, sin, death and redemption all over again.

The Devil His Due

There’s something in REV. 23 to inflame and incense, entice, gratify and seduce just about everybody. In a climactic encounter between Lucifer and Michael (the former playing with the latter’s head, the latter shaken from his preening self-satisfaction in the Almighty’s refurbished esteem), Lucifer sings a stunning aria of curdled reverence, self-pity and arrogance – a magnificently toxic devil’s brew asserting God’s indebtedness to Lucifer for His relevance. It’s a Manichean paean worthy of Verdi’s Iago, yet fully consonant with Jacobs’ overarching theme of self-actualization through rebellion.

More than Shakespeare – more even than the Bible – an obvious urtext informing REV. 23 is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, with which REV. 23 shares a glamorous and valorizing view of Lucifer’s rebellion. Indeed, as William Blake famously observed of Milton, Jacobs might be considered “a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

Except that she does know it. More unambiguously than Milton, Jacobs construes Lucifer as the ultimate man-in-full, raging against the bland brightness of the light.

Irreverent? Perhaps. But, as it is written: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.”

Those aren’t Jacobs’s words. They’re St. John’s (Revelation 22:11). Perhaps Jacobs and the Bible are on the same page after all.

Look Out Below

Of course REV. 23, for all its ingenious biblical reconfiguring, isn’t really about theology. Jacobs works fluently with biblical material owing to a strong Methodist rearing, complementing a solid classical education that likewise facilitates her deployment of Greco-Roman myth.

The daughter of an ethnically Chinese family which emigrated from then-colonial Singapore to Australia, Jacobs later made a life in Great Britain and ultimately in the United States, where she forged successful careers as a trial lawyer at a major Boston law firm and eventually as a U.S. federal prosecutor. Jacobs thus has a lot of contemporary, secular things to say about issues of self-determination, coercion, law enforcement, social justice, and the problematics of securing the consent of the governed. She writes parables that throw considerable shade on repressive societies, and on the insidious machinery of forced conformity.

REV. 23 couches much of this richly suggestive – one might say libertarian – commentary in the opera’s farcical depiction of the governance of Paradise, as when its misbehaving inhabitants are subjected to “re-education camps” administered by an overbearingly schoolmarmish Archangel Michael, or even tactics of intimidation redolent of Stalin’s Great Purge (“I can expel you from Paradise with a little rub of my eraser,” Michael sneers).

Yet for all the provocative and important ideas that teem in REV. 23, the work manages to sustain its engaging and even guffaw-inducing comedy.

“I want people to have fun,” Jacobs says of her work, and one realizes with delight that she considers that to be as important as anything else.

The New World

With REV. 23 – along with the three components of her earlier major opus, The Ouroboros Trilogy – Jacobs might be seen as having singlehandedly brought on a radically new operatic dispensation, to wit: librettist-driven opera. All of Jacobs’ works are drafted before any composer has weighed in. Jacobs then audits a battery of recommended American composers and chooses the one she feels viscerally most closely attuned to her new libretto.

It’s a novel modus operandi by contemporary standards; but Jacobs’ approach might, in another sense, be seen as harking back to principles laid down in the 18th Century by opera theorists and practitioners such as Francesco Algarotti and Christoph Willibald Gluck. Indeed, as much as REV. 23 might be viewed as an ironic reworking of Paradise Lost, it is equally if not more evidently a turn on Gluck’s masterpiece, Orfeo ed Euridice – almost its infernal inversion.

Gluck and his Orfeo librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, were determined to write a new kind of opera – an “azione teatrale per musica” that would emphasize drama and storytelling in a clear, entertaining and accessible, if fantastically mythological, fashion. Jacobs follows suit, and plays rich mischief on the original structure. Instead of a hero penetrating the underworld, REV. 23 offers an underworld antihero storming heaven. Furies bar the hero’s way in Orfeo, while REV. 23 features Furies as allies assisting the protagonist’s sally upward. Both operas end in restoration – in Orfeo, a restoration of love and happiness; in REV. 23, the restoration of historical time, with all its struggle, suffering, and uncertainty – in short, a restoration of the human condition.

(Note to opera companies: wouldn’t the tight and intermissionless REV. 23 make for a virtuosic double bill with a condensed suite from Orfeo?)

Music of Two Spheres

In selecting Julian Wachner to compose REV. 23, Jacobs chose cannily. Mirroring the opera’s mediation between Paradise and Hell, Wachner has described his own compositional impulses as poised between what he calls the “Apollonian” – rational, ordered, sanctified – and the “Dionysian,” i.e., free, rebellious, and transgressive.

Wachner’s score thus amounts to a broad-board conspectus of historical styles, tics and tricks, rendering it quite appropriate as the music of a post-modern opera about a post-historical universe. Everything is equally at hand, equally valid, equally susceptible of repurposing and imitation – Monteverdi, Gluck, Wagner, Hindemith, Britten, Led Zeppelin, Stephen Sondheim, Metallica, Adele.

And Wachner appears clearly alive to the Orfeo inversion model. When we first encounter the denizens of Paradise – almost literally flower children, synchronously cavorting with homogeneously vapid smiles – the music is a witty (and beautiful) quotation from the “O puro ciel” of Orfeo. Wachner then develops, adorns and dramatically skews the quotation with an accretion of jazzy dissonances, as Lucifer and company distribute books and headphones, and the paradise people succumb to an orgy of rediscovered art, artifact and desire.

Elsewhere, Wachner writes saltatory, jagged, rangy vocal lines, replete with neurotic modernist stutters and repetitions of phrases. For the most part, the chthonic characters Lucifer, Hades and the Furies are called on to do heavy vocal lifting, singing with propulsive force over each other and over a lot of complex rhythmic orchestral accompaniment. By contrast, the vocal lines for Adam accommodate lightness and purity; those for Eve, a clement Broadway/pop sound. Wachner, it goes without saying, knows his voice types and mixes styles and production practices artfully.

There are certain standout set pieces in the score, such as the sinuous aria for Persephone – “Blood Rubies” – which has an upholstered, bordello-red sensuality reminiscent of a James-Bond flick title song. And the Archangel Michael gets some very showy, unapologetically florid baroque flights.

Playing with Fire

The performers were uniformly strong, pumped up, focused, and on point.

Baritone Michael Mayes limned a Lucifer of haughty, sexed-up virility – a rebel with a big cause, and a daemonic knack for seducing or intimidating others into it. His supremely dark tones were impressive, and his physical life – gyrating like Elvis, leering and menacing like the Brando of The Wild Ones – was pitched perfectly.

Hades was played with Mad Max aggressiveness by tenor Vale Rideout. His voice was potent and pliant. And one could not but admire his game tackling of the character’s inherent dramatic challenges – juggling thwarted erotic desire for Persephone, nimble intellectual counterweight to Lucifer’s mercurial temper, and an unstinting frustration at being made the lackey and subordinate in his own abode.

Soprano Colleen Daly played Persephone – the ultimate moll and muse to the opera’s two hellboys, Hades and Lucifer – with beautifully haunted, odylic vocal smolder.

The Three Furies – soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine and mezzo-sopranos Nora Graham-Smith and Melanie Long – were a trinity of unholy grunge-punk goddesses par excellence. Colorful, adorable and terrifying, dressed in leggings, tutus, perky neon wigs and wild, severed-doll-head- and Care-Bear-adorned bustiers, all three actresses mustered extraordinary precision and stamina to maintain an effective choral melding of their complex music, all while honoring equally demanding and complex physical staging requirements.

Bass-baritone David Cushing, as the ancient Chinese master of war-craft, Sun Tze, made a big impression, and generated some big laughs, with his wildly contrasting sepulchral vocal tones and his politely chirruped, tenor-light requests for tea.

Against the calloused forcefulness of the underworld characters, Adam was handsomely sung with bright church-choir purity by doe-eyed tenor Jonathan Blalock. (Blalock was also remarkable for his impressive physical evocation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Adam, as he – along with Annie Rosen’s Eve and the production’s entire eightfold corps de ballet – spent nearly their entire stage time virtually naked but for dance briefs and bikini-wear – flesh-toned before their corruption, tighty-whitey thereafter).

Mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen played Eve with beguiling openness, warmth, and remarkably sumptuous vocal fullness. (And her tastefully managed quasi-striptease during the lovely aforementioned ballad “Beyond Paradise” was a true crowd-pleaser.)

Finally, phenomenal “male soprano” Michael Maniaci, one of several currently prominent American high-voice male vocalists at the vanguard of a revival of interest in this remarkably ethereal sound, played his own eponymous archangel Michael with elegance and even a sly touch of diva-like camp. Dressed in a white Hillary pants suit, flowing blond tresses and gilt Lady Liberty aureole, Maniaci extorted full comic value from REV. 23‘s clever conflation of the sacred and the smug.

Oh, and since the job of monitoring the gates of Hell has presumably been rendered obsolete by the End Days, the hellhound Cerberus was reduced in size and terror (and number of heads), and played by a darling, scene-stealing chihuahua named Micro Jackson (whose mistress, incidentally, is Jacobs herself).

The people of Paradise were portrayed by a group of consummate dancers conscripted principally from the ranks of the Boston Ballet – Rachele Buriassi, Kendall Bush, Darius Malone, Alexander Maryianowski, Hanna Pregont, Reina Sawai, Mathew Slattery , and Yury Yanowsky, who also created the delightfully fluid choreography.

Director Mark Streshinksy kept his astonishing array of infernal and paradisiacal plates spinning expertly, while conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya was in full, hyperkinetic command of the biting rhythms and quick changes of Wachner’s rambunctious score.

Master dramaturg Cori Ellison worked on the production, and contributed an eloquent and engaging essay about farce to the production’s printed program. (Insightful notes were presented by Jacobs, Streshinksy, and Wachner as well.)

The inventive and eye-catching sets were by Zane Pihlstrom (who also designed the production’s colorful and eclectic costumes) and featured chain-link fences, projections of billowing and sulfurous exhalations (by Barry Steele), and a huge weather balloon that doubled as a swirling planet Earth as well as the glowing central core of Heaven’s generator. (The edgy peril that the balloon might deflate or even explode exemplified the brinksmanship and adventurism that permeated every strand of REV. 23‘s texture, literal and literary). Huge, illuminated, often flickering letters ranged along the back of the set spelled out a faux simulacrum of the word “Paradise” in mostly Cyrillic characters – РДЯДDІЅЗ – an arresting visual gag, presumably inviting comparison to the old Soviet Union (or current Russia?).

Effective lighting and sound designs were by Lucas Krech and David Reiffel, respectively.

The Next Big Bang

REV. 23 represents Year Two of a five-year commitment on the part of Cerise Jacobs and her White Snake Projects to produce a new opera annually. But what, in the larger scheme of things, is Cerise Jacobs up to?

By her own account, she is trying to renew relevance for opera, prove its viability as popular entertainment, and make works that will tap new audiences – those previously unmoved either by antiquarian opera, or by heavy and derivative operatic adaptations of literary, filmic or stage properties. Jacobs is rightly proud that her works are sui generis.

She is demonstrably making headway. After each Boston performance observed here, strangers were seen approaching her, admitting to being operatic neophytes, and thanking her for the REV. 23 revelation. These are not just new Jacobs fans; they are tentative new converts to the overall opera experience, each provisionally poised to give the form a run for its money.

It should be noted that Jacobs has already generated material that redounded in a Pulitzer-prize for composer Zhou Long, her collaborator on her first opera, Madame White Snake, in 2011.

So, question: where is the opera “establishment” in all this, and when will its mandarins acknowledge and afford entrée to this remarkable advocate for the modern American opera project writ large?

Jacobs’ literary and imaginative feracities are prodigious. Companies large and small each year award commissions, and jockey to produce the next big, popular, audience-enhancing operatic phenomenon.

Is anyone looking toward Boston?

Fri, October 6, 2017

“The Hubble Cantata,” an Operatically Cosmic Voyage, Comes to the Ford on Oct. 11th
LA Excites

Composed by Paola Prestini, with libretto by Royce Vavrek, and musical direction by Julian Wachner, The Hubble Cantata celebrates the interstellar junction between art, science, and technology. Joined by the LA Opera Orchestra, LA Opera Chorus, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, renowned baritone Nathan Gunn and soprano Jessica Rivera will star in a story not only based on the published works of the distinguished astrophysicist, Dr. Mario Livio, but also narrated by him.

Read Full Text

“The Hubble Cantata,” an Operatically Cosmic Voyage, Comes to the Ford on Oct. 11th

By Imaan Jalali
Posted on October 6, 2017

Combining the past and the present, or the classical and the contemporary, into an attractive presentation takes a fine finesse, whereupon a symbiotic relationship is not only forged, but creates a byproduct of something more. In this case, it is the historical import and prestige of opera that is united with modern-day inventiveness to yield a sensorially ethereal experience set trillions of miles away in outer space. There, in the celestial scope of things, the audience member becomes an active listener and discoverer.

“The Hubble Cantata” performance at the 2016 BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival. Photo credit: Jill Steinberg

To make this little miracle happen in Los Angeles, “The IGNITE @ the Ford!” series is collaborating with the LA Opera, as well as co-producers, Beth Morrison Projects and National Sawdust, to bring a one-of-a-kind spectacle of sight and sound, titled The Hubble Cantata, to the Ford Theatres on the evening of October 11th. It will mark the West Coast premiere of the production, which made its debut at the 2016 BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival.

Composed by Paola Prestini, with libretto by Royce Vavrek, and musical direction by Julian Wachner, The Hubble Cantata celebrates the interstellar junction between art, science, and technology. Joined by the LA Opera Orchestra, LA Opera Chorus, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, renowned baritone Nathan Gunn and soprano Jessica Rivera will star in a story not only based on the published works of the distinguished astrophysicist, Dr. Mario Livio, but also narrated by him.

As such, Vavrek’s artfully inspired story explores the heartbreak of a couple who have lost their child. This is tied into an allegorically transcendent message that extends far beyond our physical world and deep into the ether of the universe, where we observe the beginning and, oftentimes, inexplicable loss of life as symbolized by the genesis and death of a star (supernova).

The prospect of being able to journey through space and time, and to thus see outside of ourselves and our merely Earthly purpose, as afforded by a cosmic perspective, is carried out to fruition by the astounding technology on hand for this performance. This will be best represented via a five-minute virtual-reality film by Eliza McNitt called Fistful of Stars, which premiered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival in 2016, and will be experienced at the conclusion of the cantata. Virtual-reality headsets provided by the FX firm, The Endless Collective, and bolstered by stereophonic sound, courtesy of the sound design company, Arup, will enable attendees to transport themselves to the breathtaking Orion Nebula. Aided by convincing photorealistic simulations and images from the Hubble Space Telescope, viewers will note a feeling of “floating” and gravitational pull within an immersive and panoramically resplendent experience that can’t be missed.

Even more impressive is that the virtual-reality odyssey of a Fistful of Stars will be activated by a downloadable app of the same name on users’ smart phones prior to “liftoff.” If one doesn’t own a smart phone, the film can still be viewed on the scrim that it is projected onto. In either case, an operatic ode to humanity, as well as our primordial origins as stardust within the greater expanse of the unknown, is in store for those who attend this otherworldly extravaganza on October 11th.

Though the show begins at 8:00 p.m., there will be a pre-show discussion at 7:30 p.m. with Dr. Livio and the curator of the Griffith Observatory, Dr. Laura Danly.

For more information, and to purchase tickets to “The Hubble Cantata” at the Ford Theatres, please visit:

fordtheatres.org/calendar/hubble-cantata

Thu, October 5, 2017

Rev. 23 Take Two
The Boston Musical Intelligencer

Wachner focused on writing music that held together via a tactus, otherwise known more colloquially as an internal pulse, letting the style vary from there. What happens as a result is that serial pointillism gets juxtaposed against musical theater in the vein of Leonard Bernstein or Stephen Sondheim, bel canto arias get juxtaposed against swing, and the style varies wildly. Due to using the inner pulse, though, Wachner ensured that all of the material does not feel disconnected from what comes before it and after it, creating an endlessly unfolding chain of highly controlled polystylism. Sometimes, styles nested within one another: an aggressive but static accompaniment reminiscent of John Adams and Nixon in China smashed in a pointillistic tone row above it, an actual moment from the beginning of the first act (I inadvertently got a work-in-progress copy of the REV. 23 score from the Beth Morrison Projects workshop at New England Conservatory, verified by Wachner, so that statement came from theoretical analysis). Having an extensive knowledge in the comic opera literature himself, Wachner also used Falstaff, Gianni Schicchi, Albert Herring, and Christopher Sly as models for writing comic operas, and this research shows in how the music can be bipolar in character to highlight the needed emotion. The music at times became referential too, heightening the polystylism and taking direct references from Wagner (the Tristan chord) and Handel (the Baroque-sounding consort under the introduction of Archangel Michael), among a multitude of others. Hearing such references is fairly novel and entertaining, showing the production is very aware of its lineage.

Read Full Text

OCTOBER 5, 2017
Rev.23 Take Two
by Ian Wiese

Revelation 22 happened, it says in the Bible. Paradise and Earth merged, one in the same, and the souls of the saved enjoy endless day, free from hatred, wantonness, and despair. The Archangel Michael cast Lucifer, the Bringer of Light, down into the black pit of Hell a second time, ending humanity’s strife and preserving us in God’s grace until the end of time.

But it ain’t necessarily so. What if Lucifer tried once again, this time introducing lost feelings to mankind such as sadness and anger to balance endless joy through literature? What if that caused mankind to turn on God to preserve the new knowledge? Composer Julian Wachner and librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs, under White Snake Projects hot on the heels of the highly successful Ouroboros Trilogy, ask and answer that very same question in REV. 23, which recently closed its performance run at John Hancock Hall from September 29th-October 1st. Except instead of only being rooted in Abrahamic Christian characters, throw in Greek gods, demigods, and The Art of War writer Sun Tsu/Tse. Also, instead of being a serious drama, it’s a farce, satirizing historical and modern political authoritarianism and intellectualism. Mixed in together, REV. 23 paves out a road for itself: a punk rock influenced romp through the second tragic fall of man while laughing sadistically all the way home.

Picking up immediately after Paradise and Earth have merged, Lucifer and Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld, attempt to sabotage the power generator providing endless day in Paradise (known in the story as “Up There”). Failing, they both escape back to Hell (“Down Here”), where they wallow in frustration at losing their last chance to destroy it and bring darkness back to earth. Lucifer wants to spite God once again for casting him back down into Down Here while Hades wants to bring Winter back to earth in order to see Persephone once again. Shortly thereafter, Persephone returns to Down Here, wanting to be with Hades again, as she loves him now, and also desiring that the world be brought back into Winter so that when she returns she can make the flowers bloom once again in Spring. Realizing all their goals line up, Hades summons the master tactician, Sun Tse, stuck Down Here for writing the most referenced book on warfare. Sun Tse comes up with a plan of poisoning the minds of all the humans Up There with knowledge: “art, literature, drama, opera, heavy metal, pop!” Passing out books, music, and strangely enough iPads and iPhones, the quartet (along with the Three Furies, who mostly do Hades’s bidding, zip around, and play the part of the Greek chorus commenting on everything, despite not being actively involved in the plot) begins to feed new emotions to the residents of Up There. Two in particular, Adam and Eve (from the Book of Genesis, the original sinners), especially take to the new material, loving the new emotions they experience. Persephone takes them to the generator while Hades and Lucifer continue with the residents of Up There, only to be interrupted by Archangel Michael who stops Lucifer by forcing him into the light. Weakened, Lucifer flees while Michael stops Persephone, kidnapping Adam and Eve in the process, soon setting up re-education camps for Up There. Lucifer, Hades, and Persephone seek Sun Tse again, looking for a way to free Adam and Eve. On a suggestion of infiltration, all the main denizens of Down Here disguise themselves to fit in with the re-education camp, which has begun a book burning of all the material that had been distributed, fueling the power generator. When Eve asks to preserve her favorite book, Romeo and Juliet, Michael commands her to toss it into the furnace, prompting Eve to question the value of eternal life without her pleasure. In a fit of desperation, Eve grabs the Book of Life, which contains all the names of those allowed to stay in Paradise, and throws it into the furnace instead, destroying Paradise, Down Here, and the rest of the universe as the story of the Bible begins once again, creating an endless cycle of destruction and rebuilding.

The story itself is a solid, if not blasphemous, circle for the Book of Revelation to take, cycling mankind back through the same sordid history it once had. Some elements, though, do not hold up under question, IE why does Hades want to bring back Winter to see Persephone if Persephone can come and go in this end of times, as implied near the beginning? These questions aren’t nitpicking, either: they represent large character motivations, which given how the story of REV. 23 is focused on character leaves major holes. Also, some characters are not as actively involved as others, such as Adam (whose major contribution is that he throws the Book of Life in the furnace along with Eve) and the Three Furies (which is understandable, as they represent the aforementioned Greek chorus commenting on the story and actions), despite being major roles. The desire to create voice roles for different voice types may have driven this thought process, but as an outsider it’s hard to tell for sure. The most jarring aspect, though, has to be the merging of several different mythologies, Christian with Greek with Chinese. Someone explained it later that in Singapore, Cerise Lim Jacobs’s home country, all matter of religions and philosophies mingle with each other, pollenating ideas freely, so given that bit of information, it makes a lot more sense to see these widely varying mythologies together in one story. As an overarching plot, however, everything functions well in the confines of an opera, wrapping Book of Revelation around with a slightly warped and reconfigured story of the temptation of Adam and Eve with the Apple of Knowledge.

In a way, that’s REV. 23’s greatest strength as a story. The phrase “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it” ring true in the ears of those looking into the symbolism of the story. Everything is a mashed together version of the beginning and the ending of the Bible, creating the necessary circle to show that mankind will never truly learn from any past mistakes. It’s no mystery why Adam and Eve are the ones who bring upon the destruction of Paradise: they were the original sinners, the ones who ate the Forbidden Fruit and doomed mankind to life tainted by the original sin. But in this version, both Lucifer and Michael/God aren’t black-and-white good and evil. Lucifer wants to bring back darkness to mankind, but he does it through the reintroduction of knowledge to man, acting as a bringer not only of light but of intellectualism. Michael wants Paradise and eternal happiness for all of God’s creation, yet he attempts to save everyone by enacting a Khmer Rouge-style re-education camp, propagandizing and demonizing knowledge in the vein of Soviet Russia (the program book mentions its response to Donald Trump both overtly and covertly several times, though the final product reeks less of populism and more of strict Maoist authoritarianism, failing that litmus test hard). That’s the real secret of REV. 23: ignoring some of the surface-level flaws, several deep questions and carefully constructed grey morality beg the audience to ask “is there truly good in this story?”

Wachner focused on writing music that held together via a tactus, otherwise known more colloquially as an internal pulse, letting the style vary from there. What happens as a result is that serial pointillism gets juxtaposed against musical theater in the vein of Leonard Bernstein or Stephen Sondheim, bel canto arias get juxtaposed against swing, and the style varies wildly. Due to using the inner pulse, though, Wachner ensured that all of the material does not feel disconnected from what comes before it and after it, creating an endlessly unfolding chain of highly controlled polystylism. Sometimes, styles nested within one another: an aggressive but static accompaniment reminiscent of John Adams and Nixon in China smashed in a pointillistic tone row above it, an actual moment from the beginning of the first act (I inadvertently got a work-in-progress copy of the REV. 23 score from the Beth Morrison Projects workshop at New England Conservatory, verified by Wachner, so that statement came from theoretical analysis). Having an extensive knowledge in the comic opera literature himself, Wachner also used Falstaff, Gianni Schicchi, Albert Herring, and Christopher Slyas models for writing comic operas, and this research shows in how the music can be bipolar in character to highlight the needed emotion. The music at times became referential too, heightening the polystylism and taking direct references from Wagner (the Tristan chord) and Handel (the Baroque-sounding consort under the introduction of Archangel Michael), among a multitude of others. Hearing such references is fairly novel and entertaining, showing the production is very aware of its lineage.

The production felt reminiscent of the recent Boston Lyric Opera production of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek with chain link fences and constructed metal ramps. Behind the fence that defined the visible backstage, a flickering neon sign spelled out “Paradise” in a font best described as reminiscent of Soviet Russian signs. The package felt as though it reached back into the late 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev era East Germany and threw it in front of us. Given how the story continued to reference Soviet-style re-education, the staging was effective and stark. The costumes reflected this feeling, an unnerving mashing of punk rock spiked hair and leather forced together with whatever trash could be scrounged together, like a license plate emblazoned with 666 or two Care Bears heads acting as bra cups, supplemented by projections for difficult effects, like Archangel Michael’s wings. Contrasted against the naked beings of Up There (not actually naked, the actors wore skin colored underwear and fig leaves), it was gritty and impolite, exactly what the designers were going for.

All the vocalists showed their own unique power in their roles, despite the unfortunate masking of many of the vocal lines in the exceedingly dry John Hancock Hall (made worse by the orchestra being amplified like a Broadway production). Baritone Michael Mayes as Lucifer growled his way through the role, exuding rage and anger but remaining personable. Tenor Vale Rideout as Hades had the best time in the hall; his voice easily carried over the amplification the best, both cutting and dramatic. Soprano Colleen Daly in the role of Persephone maintained fragility and desire yet never succumbed to feeling weak (her performance of the best-known aria “Blood Rubies” was the highlight of the production). The only bass in the production, David Cushing as Sun Tse, carried himself with grace yet allowed himself to enter into basso buffo territory, creating a unique portrayal of the music and one of the more memorable characters in the production. Tenor Jonathan Blalock and soprano Annie Rosen, as Adam and Eve respectively, meshed their voices well together, acting as one voice when they needed to while personifying innocence in how light each of them sounded. The true standout, however, was countertenor Michael Maniaci portraying Archangel Michael. Maniaci’s voice, both effected and unaffected, was a complete powerhouse, tearing through any issues with the hall and demanding attention immediately turn to him. The role was also one of the more wholly operatic ones, so Maniaci could work with the vocal lines he had to show more of his own unique strength. Each of the Three Furies, sopranos Nora Graham-Smith, Jamie-Rose Guarrine, and Melanie Long, did their roles admirably, taking what little material they were given and turning it into a nasally chorus of fluttering noise behind everyone else; each soprano blended well with the other, and all the material was enjoyable, especially in how they carried themselves, slinking around and throwing themselves every which way. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya of Juventas New Music Ensemble handled both the orchestra and the vocalists under her baton extremely well, taking risks in the ensemble balance where she needed to without overdoing anything.

All in all, REV. 23 was a comedic romp through deadly serious matters. Man falls a second time, but that’s what it wants us to know as an audience: we never will learn from our mistakes, and those who are both trying to help and control us haven’t learned either. By taking these disjointed feelings and rolling with them from stage to score, the opera clearly demonstrates what it wants to say.

Thu, October 5, 2017

REV. 23: A Gnostic Farce
The Boston Musical Intelligencer

Wachner’s REV. 23 sounds as broad, interesting, and brightly colored as the characters and plot of Jacobs’ libretto. He describes a tactus, or inner pulse, as an organizing principle for his music. Rather than developing themes or a harmonic palette throughout the opera, it is this pulse that unifies the entire work and compels it forward. Thus, Wachner is able to maintain cohesion with this rhythmic discipline, while sampling and playing with all manner of color and genre. To be sure, much of the opera’s affable 12-tone language is also informed by the expectations and conventions of musical theater. Wachner’s excursions to different genres t keep REV. 23 exciting and fun: an early-Romantic ballet accompanies the dancers that appear in the second act; a Handelian movement accompanies the Archangel Michael’s first appearance on stage. Scattered among musical numbers that could have been lifted straight out of Sweeney Todd or Rent are arias and ensemble pieces that Alban Berg or Benjamin Britten would have been proud to have written. Amidst this entertaining gallimaufry, Wachner often reveals deep emotional intelligence: Persephone’s mournful second-act aria was a highlight of the evening; Eve’s “I don’t know what’s beyond Paradise” in the final act provided a sobering conclusion to the breathless absurdity that is REV. 23…An eccentric vision of a world before the Beginning, REV. 23 received an eager standing ovation from an ecstatic audience.

Read Full Text


Published by Sudeep Agarwala in Reviews on October 5, 2017

REV. 23: A Gnostic Farce

In 2010, Cerise Lim Jacobs commissioned Chinese-American composer Zhou Long to set her libretto, White Snake to music. This collaboration won critical acclaim widely, winning Long the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work on the opera, and setting the seed for Jacobs’s White Snake Projects: a foundation that commissions American composers to set Jacobs libretti. These collaborations began in 2016, with the premiere of the Ouroboros Trilogy in which Scott Wheeler’s Naga and Paola Prestini’s Gilgamesh book-ended Long’s prize-winning work. The premiere was extensively covered by the Intelligencer hereand here; and was thoughtfully reviewed by Justin Casinghino for BMInt here.

REV. 23, a collaboration with composer Julian Wachner, allows Jacobs to imagine herself transcribing the dictation of St. John the Divine as he reveals a new final chapter to the book of Revelations (the concluding book of the Christian Bible). Revelations 22 tells of how the Archangel Michael suppresses a revolt against Heaven by Lucifer. Jacobs’s new chapter narrates how Lucifer wages another revolt against the Archangel Michael and returns the world to a state poised at the beginning of time. How fitting that this opera received its premiere in Boston’s John Hancock Hall on Friday, September 29th—the feast day of the Archangel Michael.

REV. 23 is no Paradise Lost, and perhaps it’s best not to think too deeply or critically about the libretto’s plot. In the opera’s cosmos, Hades and the Furies begrudgingly share the underworld with a lascivious Lucifer, frustrated with his fall from Heaven. It is unclear what caused it, but there has been an outage at the cosmic power plant that keeps everything in perpetual summer and light. Enter Persephone, who has been jolted into remembering a world with seasons. For unclear reasons, the three deities team up to bring knowledge to Earth and Paradise, and take military advice from the 6th Century BCE Taoist philosopher and author of the Art of War, Sun Tzu, before they wage their campaign (best not to spend too much time wondering how or why he comes into this world). This Gnostic universe filled with crudely drawn characters and improbable plot points also loads on kitschy fun that means to sweep its audience away with its dizzy slapstick.

But gentle probing into the libretto’s text reveals some uncomfortable darkness: are we meant to laugh when Sun Tzu blithely suggests Hitler’s Mein Kampf, stands on equal footing with Romeo and Juliet, or that Anna Karenina, is a good book for the inhabitants of Paradise to read? Later in the play, after losing a battle with the Archangel Michael, Lucifer laughs and proclaims himself “Death, destroyer of worlds”–a chilling reference Oppenheimer’s famous quotation from the Bhagavad Gita after seeing the destructive power of his atomic bomb. We are reminded again of the 20th century’s horrors when the inhabitants of Hades deride the Archangel Michael’s “re-education camps”, comparing them to the Khmer Rouge, among other genocidal authoritarian groups. What does Jacobs mean with these references to tragedies of modern history? It is jarring to hear them approached in this light comedy with such little gravitas. Certainly, few subjects should be so hallowed as to be off limits to mockery or parody. However, to interpret everything in REV. 23 as a lighthearted stunt is to ascribe no meaning to the work at all; to delve instead into the libretto’s politics requires careful attention all of the details. The audience left wondering how seriously to interpret Jacobs’ farcical drama.

Currently the Director of Music and the Arts at Trinity Wall Street in New York City, Julian Wachner is no stranger to Boston audiences. Wachner arrived as an undergraduate to study composition at Boston University, where he later completed his doctorate, all the while, rising to prominence as a conductor, educator, and most importantly, composer. During his tenure as organist and choir master at BU’s Marsh Chapel, Wachner composed liturgical pieces that are still widely performed throughout Boston; his recordings with multiple Boston ensembles still garner acclaim.

Wachner’s REV. 23 sounds as broad, interesting, and brightly colored as the characters and plot of Jacobs’ libretto. He describes a tactus, or inner pulse, as an organizing principle for his music. Rather than developing themes or a harmonic palette throughout the opera, it is this pulse that unifies the entire work and compels it forward. Thus, Wachner is able to maintain cohesion with this rhythmic discipline, while sampling and playing with all manner of color and genre. To be sure, much of the opera’s affable 12-tone language is also informed by the expectations and conventions of musical theater. Wachner’s excursions to different genres t keep REV. 23 exciting and fun: an early-Romantic ballet accompanies the dancers that appear in the second act; a Handelian movement accompanies the Archangel Michael’s first appearance on stage. Scattered among musical numbers that could have been lifted straight out of Sweeney Todd or Rent are arias and ensemble pieces that Alban Berg or Benjamin Britten would have been proud to have written. Amidst this entertaining gallimaufry, Wachner often reveals deep emotional intelligence: Persephone’s mournful second-act aria was a highlight of the evening; Eve’s “I don’t know what’s beyond Paradise” in the final act provided a sobering conclusion to the breathless absurdity that is REV. 23.

Friday evening’s performance buzzed with wit and energy. Zane Pihlstrom’s sets featured an industrial setting complete with scaffolding and chain-linked fences that flexibly adapted to the scene changes between Paradise and the Underworld. Sexy and fun costumes adorned male citizens of Hades in the denim and leather of punk rockers and sported bejeweled cod-pieces; Furies flitted about the stage in halter tops, colorful leggings, and hot pants. The inhabitants of Paradise made do with far less material (a fig leaf goes a long way in Pihlstrom’s hands), but their fall and subsequent shame brings them into the world of braziers and underpants. Director Mark Streshinsky’s vision for the opera, in collaboration with choreographer Yury Yanowsky and dramaturg Cori Ellison, teems with a distinctive sophisticated style.

The evening was marked by many fine performances. Lidiya Yankovskaya led a fully committed pit orchestra that met the challenges of Wachner’s wide-ranging vision with ease, although an over-exuberant ensemble sometimes overwhelmed the voices in the very dry but surprisingly serviceable John Hancock Hall. Baritone Michael Mayes (Lucifer), tenor Vale Rideout (Hades), and soprano Colleen Daly (Persephone), occupied center stage early on. Mayes’s resonant baritone portrayed a jovial, if put-upon Lucifer, frustrated with the underworld, but not immune to the carnal distractions of the Furies or, when he re-takes Paradise, of a scantily-clad Adam. Early on, Vale Rideout seemed tattered in the extremes of his range, but embodied a self-centered, jealous Hades with bold, well-shaped tone. As Persephone, Colleen Daly’s powerful soprano proved as comfortable with histrionic drama, as with rich, meditative arias. Later, countertenor Michael Maniaci (Archangel Michael) joined the fun with a clear, exquisitely controlled, but flexible sound that negotiated labyrinthine melismae with ease and clarity. Well-cast supporting roles made essential contributions to the success of Friday evening’s premiere: small-ensemble work by the three Furies (Nora Graham-Smith, Jamie-Rose Guarrine, and Melanie Long) balanced and executed impressively, especially in light of the acrobatics of their staging. Jonathan Blalock and Annie Rosen performed the wide-eyed Adam and Eve; bass-baritone David Cushing’s envisioned a bumbling, congenial Sun Tzu.

An eccentric vision of a world before the Beginning, REV. 23 received an eager standing ovation from an ecstatic audience. This run continues in John Hancock Hall on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. White Snake Projects has already committed to producing PermaDeath, a collaboration between Cerise Lim Jacobs, her son Pirate Epstein, and composer Dan Visconti, set to premiere in 2018; two other projects, Monkey, and Cosmic Cowboy are slated to premiere in 2019, and 2020, respectively.

Tue, October 3, 2017

From the Book of Revelation, an operatic chapter you never knew
The Boston Globe

Sunday’s audience rose to its feet…Wachner’s protean score deftly employs a grab-bag of 20th-century operatic and musical-theater styles to hold a mirror to the libretto.

Read Full Text

OPERA REVIEW

From the Book of Revelation, an operatic chapter you never knew

By Jeremy Eichler GLOBE STAFF  

OCTOBER 03, 2017

Many have observed that present-day politics have made it tough for comedians accustomed to bouncing one-liners off headlines, since events in the news already seem more outlandish than anything the comedic mind might conjure.  

But how about an operatic farce, would that fare any better? The indefatigable Boston opera impresario Cerise Lim Jacobs, together with her production company White Snake Projects, has recruited a new team of collaborators to give it a shot, including composer Julian Wachner, director Mark Streshinsky, and dramaturg Cori Ellison. The resulting project, titled “Rev. 23,” premiered this weekend at John Hancock Hall.  

As with her past projects, which include the opera “Madame White Snake” and the “Ouroboros Trilogy,” Jacobs has supplied the concept and libretto for “Rev. 23.” The program describes it as “a farcical hellish opera” and as “a parable of our times,” one that takes the form of an imaginary new completion of the Book of Revelation, which, in the real New Testament version, ends after 22 chapters. The official synopsis tells us that, at the opera’s opening, “the Kingdom of God has come upon the Earth. There is no darkness, want, or strife.”  

What there is, is a vivid set (by Zane Pihlstrom) that smoothly pivots between a place described as “UP THERE” — at least nominally, a version of paradise — and “DOWN HERE,” which the program calls “the deepest pit of Hell.” The characters form a motley ancient, mythic, and post-apocalyptic crew. Greco-Roman gods mingle with biblical figures (including the Archangel Michael and Adam and Eve) and Sun Tze, author of “The Art of War,” is brought in as a consultant. Loosely stated, the opera’s plot centers on the scheming of Lucifer and Hades, who are on a mission to wreak havoc in the world of paradise, all in the name of returning darkness to a supposed utopia of perpetual light. 

Somewhere here may be the ingredients for a hilarious existentialist romp, perhaps in an early-Woody Allen vein — but, I’m very sorry to have to report, “Rev. 23” is definitely not it. At Sunday’s performance, the last in a run of three, the opera came across as a cheerfully, earnestly yet nonetheless supremely muddled work, a piece that seems to place both big laughs and big ideas in its sights without really knowing how to hit the mark in either case.  

The big ideas Jacobs is keen to explore are worthy and, indeed, timeless: that good and evil, joy and suffering, light and darkness only take on meaning in each other’s presence, and that experiencing their inseparability is part of what it means to be human. But this is terrain best approached obliquely, and through the resonance that builds from onstage interactions of characters that an audience can actually care about. There is a dearth of such characters in “Rev. 23.” In their place we are given two-dimensional gods, warriors and ciphers, and other figures who seem to have drifted from the pages of a Joseph Campbell lecture. 

As for the big laughs, what’s funny is always a highly personal question. Aside from the odd political-topical reference, this opera pins its comic hopes on a succession of antic schemes perpetuated by the denizens of DOWN HERE: to blow up a generator that powers the eternal light of paradise; to infect the pristine minds of the land UP THERE with art, literature, iPads, and televisions; to kidnap Adam and Eve. You get the idea. 

When the protagonists are not busy with these plots, they tend to muse in earnest and baldly metaphysical terms. I’ll let them speak for themselves. “What a sham, what a farce,” Lucifer sings at one point, “this duel between good and evil/When good and evil spring from the very same place/The mind of God.” For her part, Eve yearns for “a brave new world/On the other side of sunrise/Where butterflies go to die.” 

Wachner’s protean score deftly employs a grab-bag of 20th-century operatic and musical-theater styles to hold a mirror to the libretto. And on Sunday, a capable ensemble cast turned in highly committed performances, including Michael Mayes as Lucifer, Vale Rideout as Hades, Colleen Daly as Persephone, Michael Maniaci as Archangel Michael, David Cushing as Sun Tze, Jonathan Blalock as Adam, and Annie Rosen as Eve. From the pit, conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya steered the ship with care and precision.

But does “Rev. 23” add up to more than the sum of its many parts? For me, not remotely. For others, apparently yes. Sunday’s audience rose to its feet, so consider this a minority view. Next up for Jacobs and White Snake Projects, in September 2018, will be “PermaDeath: A Video Game Opera.”

REV. 23

Julian Wachner, composer; Cerise Lim Jacobs, librettist

Presented by White Snake Projects

At John Hancock Hall, Sunday

Tue, October 3, 2017

Fair is Foul. Foul is Fair*: “Rev. 23: A Hellish, Farcical Opera”
The New England Theatre Geek

Rev. 23: A Farcical, Hellish Opera is a compendium of arts references bursting with innuendo and cheeky wit…

Magnificent beast of a score!

Read Full Text

Fair is Foul. Foul is Fair*: “Rev. 23: A Hellish, Farcical Opera”

Posted on October 3, 2017 by Kitty Drexel

Presented by White Snake Projects
Creator and libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs
Composed by Julian Wachner
Directed by Mark Streshinsky
Conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya
Dramaturgy by Cori Ellison
Choreography by Yury Yanowsky

Sept. 29 – Oct. 1, 2017
John Hancock Hall
Boston, MA
White Snake Projects on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

“The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”
Revelation 21:23, Bible, New International Version  (NIV)

(Boston, MA) White Snake Projects is giving the BLO a run for their money. It’s my sincere hope that artists and their audience will watch the works of both companies but, if one has to choose, WSP may be the winner in the competition for attendees. Its edgy productions are worth the commitment.

Rev. 23: A Farcical, Hellish Opera is a compendium of arts references bursting with innuendo and cheeky wit. The premise is simple: Greek Gods bust into Christianity’s Heaven to shake up the boundaries between good and evil. Lead by Lucifer (Michael Meyers), domestic abuser Hades (Vale Rideout), and recovering assault victim Persephone (Colleen Daly) convince Adam (Jonathan) & Eve (Annie Rosen) to blow up the generator causing perpetual Summer. Their goal is to achieve perpetual winter. Gleeful chaos ensues.

This is easily the most yuppie punk show I’ve seen all year. Librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs and director Mark Streshinsky are not messing around with their work. Rev. 23 is an opera firmly rooted in the 21st Century. Lidiya Yankovskaya’s vivacious conducting might as well have been head banging for all her hard work corralling Julian Wachner’s magnificent beast of a score. Add to the mix the tarted up Furies (Nora Graham-Smith, Melanie Long, Jamie-Rose Guarrine) flitting around Hell like deranged pixies at a bacchanal, and you’ve got one wild ride.   

The vocals were amazing. Despite the stage swallowing sound from anyone more than five feet from the lip, the diction was crisp within those five feet. The cast made it obvious with their presentations that they were working very hard to communicate the libretto to us. They were effective enough to win against the supertitles 80% of the time. 

The neglectful fable that opera singers can’t or shouldn’t act must die. Anyone looking for examples against this lie should look to Rev. 23.  

Zane Pihlstrom’s costuming was insane. The occupants of “Hell” were dressed in S&M meets Ed Hardy chic. (Lucifer’s extra flamey codpiece was fascinating.) Pretty much exactly what one would imagine Hell’s catwalk would feature. In contrast, “Heaven” is populated by extremely attractive, mostly naked people in minimal amounts of fig leafery. The nightmarish CCD uninformslooked an awful lot like red prison jumpsuits. It was the stuff of nightmares.

Rev. 23 openly mocks biblical stories. Several people left during the production’s Archangel humiliation scene, and did not come back. Shockingly, the deserters were totally cool with Greek Gods receiving the same treatment.

Opera does not get a pass for casting white people in roles depicted as People of Color. Black, Brown and Yellow face are unacceptable on any stage. It’s not as if classical music is missing the necessary humans for these roles. It’s awesome that POCs were used in typically white roles. Do more. 

In Rev. 23,  the Gods subvert Heaven with artistic materials. Adam and Eve are perverted into awareness by Romeo and Juliet. At a time when the bigots occupying Capitol Hill are defunding everything except their own pockets, we must resist. Take an example from White Snake Projects. Use your art for good… Or, at the very least, to upset whatever the automatons in the White House are shilling.  

*Mackers

Page 1 of 23 pages  1 2 3 >  Last ›