Press

Sat, September 10, 2016

Ouroboros Trilogy: Naga, Madame White Snake and Gilgamesh
Opera News

Prestini’s neo-Romantic score, more meditative and less incisive than the other two, was ably steered by Julian Wachner.

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Ouroboros Trilogy: Naga, Madame White Snake and Gilgamesh 

BOSTON
Beth Morrison Projects | ArtsEmerson, Cutler Majestic Theater
9/10/16

ZHOU LONG'S OPERA MADAME WHITE SNAKE , which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, was originally intended as part of a trilogy conceived by librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs. After the death of Jacobs’s husband and collaborator, Charles M. Jacobs, the other two parts lay unfinished until Scott Wheeler and Paola Prestini were engaged to compose the remaining operas, Naga and Gilgamesh, respectively. On September 10, the full cycle premiered as Ouroboros Trilogy at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater, produced by Beth Morrison Projects in an all-day marathon: Naga opened at 11 a.m., Madame White Snake at 3:00 p.m. and Gilgamesh at 7:30. (The following week offered one solo outing of each opera, plus another three-opera marathon.) 

Ouroboros is the serpent in ancient mythology whose head devours its own tail, but in so doing, provides itself with the sustenance to regenerate in an infinite circle of life and death. The three operas are united by their depiction of the White Snake, who alternates between reptile and female human form and is equally seductive in both. She is dogged by Xiao Qing, her former male lover, who has been transformed into a hybrid of woman and snake, doomed to follow his beloved through all her incarnations without ever attaining the intimacy he longs for. The two snakes interfere in the lives of three sets of humans, and their relationship patterns repeat as they are reincarnated on their path to Nirvana, souls drawn to each other by intangible recollections of their previous existences. 

In all three operas, Xiao Qing is a countertenor, Madame White Snake is a coloratura soprano, and the holy man bent on her destruction a bass. While the operas all employ a double Greek chorus of adults and children (the impressive Boston Children’s Chorus), the non-recurring humans vary in vocal range. Michael Counts staged the trilogy, but chose to meet the challenge of adding dramatic tension to a fundamentally presentational narrative by substituting projections for direction. The singers rarely made eye contact with one another, and the overuse of S. Katy Tucker’s video, though imaginative and often dazzlingly three-dimensional, only called attention to the fact that long stretches were dramatically static. Some of the visual imagery was helpful in connecting the dots from opera to opera, as were Zane Pihlstrom’s ornately bejeweled recurring snake costumes. The humans were attired appropriately to their stations, but somewhat ambiguously in terms of time and place.

Although the stories are sequential, the producers offered three different starting points along the continuum. For the all-day marathon on September 10, the operas were performed in this order: Naga, Madame White Snake andGilgamesh. Each begins with a prologue, but Naga’s, which relates the birth of the White Snake at the beginning of time and establishes her as a mythic archetype across multiple cultures, seemed to serve as an introduction to the trilogy as a whole, reinforcing this as the preferred order. In the story proper, the White Snake, intrigued by a Buddhist Monk who strayed from the Way to marry, yearns to experience the intensity of human passion. The Monk forsakes his pregnant wife to resume his journey, but succumbs to visions of her dying in childbirth. The White Snake alerts a nearby herbalist Master, who saves the Monk but traps the White Snake in a cage. Beguiled by her incandescence, the Monk sacrifices his karma to kill the Master and free the White Snake, who assures him they will meet again.

Stacey Tappan made an imperious White Snake, tossing off Wheeler’s staccati and roulades with shining, crystalline tone and astonishingly clear diction even in the stratosphere. The extraordinary Anthony Roth Costanzo explored every nuance of the quixotic Xiao Qing. Dragging a giant wheeled tail that protruded from his skirt, Costanzo allowed the appendage to inform his movement rather than impede it as he glided across the stage, head tilted at a watchful angle. His burnished countertenor was more expressive and powerful than ever, and he and Tappan turned the eternal power play between the two snakes into a tussle worth watching. Performing despite an announced indisposition, Matthew Worth paced himself well as the Monk; his forthright baritone sounded underpowered only in the final moments. Sandra Piques Eddy brought intelligence and a pleasing dark mezzo to the Wife, while the stygian bass of David Salsbery Fry wrung conflict from the Master’s decision to kill the White Snake. Wheeler’s appealing, primarily tonal score featured spiky vocal lines, transparent choral writing, and the idiosyncratic but effective inclusion of soprano saxophone and electric guitar. Conductor Carolyn Kuan was simultaneously fluid and precise. 

Madame White Snake remains the most musically inventive and dramatically taut of the three,with an intrinsic completeness that allows it to stand on its own. Long’s ravishing score combines delicacy, lyricism, and power with a patina of exoticism provided by Chinese flute, erhu, and harp. He lets no dramatic moment pass without illuminating it with bold orchestral strokes, propelling the action forward. Sprechstimme and other vocal effects borrowed from the Peking Opera tradition often push the singers to the extremes of their ranges, but never derail them. Here, the White Snake, after 1,000 years of meditation, is granted human form, although she must still shed her skin every month. When she falls in love with the healer Xu Xian, she makes him promise never to question her periodic disappearances. The Abbot of the Golden Mountain Monastery (the reincarnated Master) recognizes Madame White for the snake she is and offers to tell Xu Xian the truth about her. Forced to decide between knowledge and unconditional love, Xu Xian succumbs to the Abbot’s temptation, and Madame White, locked in deadly combat with her nemesis, accidentally kills her husband before bearing their child. 

Soprano Susannah Biller rode the sumptuous strings with honeyed tone and melting poignancy, displaying flashes of the temptress while maintaining an air of detachment. Lurking in the shadows like a disapproving duenna, Michael Maniaci’s Xiao Qing offered a silvery soprano timbre that emphasized the feminine over the reptilian. His serpentine nature emerged in sliding vocal swoops and dives, and even in moments of stillness, his face radiated deep pain at being relegated to servitude. Tenor Peter Tantsits wielded his penetrating tenor like a weapon as Xu Xian, while the gravitas of bass Dong-Jian Gong’s Abbot evoked centuries of wisdom. All three men reprised the roles they originated in the 2010 Opera Boston premiere. Conductor Lan Shui demonstrated complete mastery of the score, and the rain-stick-wielding chorus excelled executing Long’s pointillistic susurrations.

In Gilgamesh, the snakes, far more compelling characters than the humans, are relegated to supporting roles, and the opera suffers for it. Thirty-year-old Ming, son of Madame White Snake and Xu Xian, knows nothing of his parentage, despite having inherited his mother’s magic powers and his father’s man bun. Ming dreams he is Gilgamesh, a demigod from Sumerian mythology who embarks on a fruitless quest for immortality. The libretto is repetitive, with multiple characters relating the same events, while extended sequences built on oft-used quotes from Shakespeare’sThe Tempest and King Lear were lazy substitutes for active storytelling. 

Director Counts also seemed to have run out of ideas. One stunningly weak directorial choice becalmed the proceedings utterly: a moving projection of Ming (Christopher Burchett) loomed on a large screen behind Madame White Snake, as she revealed the truth to him, while Burchett sang from the wings. Burchett, to his credit, kept his pre-filmed facial reactions contained, but the stunt only further estranged the performers, who in that moment, desperately needed to connect in real time as real people. In less capable hands, Ming could come off as an entitled and tiresome protagonist, but Burchett, an intense, committed actor with a focused, resonant baritone, plumbed the depths of confusion and anger. He was especially moving when deciding whether to abandon the mother who abandoned him or save her by setting her free from the alms bowl in which the Abbot has imprisoned her. 

Hila Plitman used her violin-like timbre to project acute pangs of loss, making the most of the mortally aging Madame White Snake’s single scene, despite the ungracious, multi-octave leaps that replaced traditional coloratura. Similarly, Costanzo, returning as Xiao Qing, was forced into chest register for no apparent reason, but his technical proficiency allowed him to revert to his superlative countertenor register with minimal disruption. Ku, Ming’s pregnant wife, exists primarily to fill in narrative blanks—they’ve been wanting a child for ten years; she’s scared of snakes—without being accorded much of a personality. Although the role sat low for her, soprano Heather Buck sang sweetly, especially in her opening ode to the fertility-granting pomegranate tree. Marooned upstage on top of a bridge, the authoritative bass Andrew Nolen was an imposing Abbot, despite being distanced acoustically and visually. Prestini’s neo-Romantic score, more meditative and less incisive than the other two, was ably steered by Julian Wachner. The opera ends with Xiao Qing spiriting away Ku’s baby—a white snake—finally explaining the video image that beginsNaga, and so the cycle continues. —Joanne Sydney Lessner 

Fri, September 9, 2016

9/11 Memorial Concerts, Mostly Low-Key
The New York Times

Trinity Wall Street, in particular, positioned itself then as a major moral force in Lower Manhattan, with hourly concerts during the day at the home church and its satellite, the historic St. Paul’s Chapel. Choristers, instrumentalists and audiences alike repeatedly shuttled up and down Lower Broadway. And all those different versions of Maurice Duruflé’s glorious, haunting hymn setting, “Ubi Caritas,” which served as an anthem throughout the day!

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9/11 Memorial Concerts, Mostly Low-Key

By JAMES R. OESTREICH

SEPT. 9, 2016

In classical music, birthday celebrations and other anniversary observances sometimes seem strained, even ludicrous, marketing ploys. It is hard to argue with recognitions of round numbers in, say, multiples of 50. But something like Carnegie Hall’s 125th anniversary, which came in May? Borderline. And how does a 15th anniversary stack up against a 10th?

New York, as a whole, seems keenly attuned to the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on Sunday, yet classical music is scarcely taking notice. The contrast is all the more remarkable because the 10th-anniversary commemorations in 2011 were so memorable.

Trinity Wall Street, in particular, positioned itself then as a major moral force in Lower Manhattan, with hourly concerts during the day at the home church and its satellite, the historic St. Paul’s Chapel. Choristers, instrumentalists and audiences alike repeatedly shuttled up and down Lower Broadway. And all those different versions of Maurice Duruflé’s glorious, haunting hymn setting, “Ubi Caritas,” which served as an anthem throughout the day!

This Sunday at 7 p.m., the observance will be far simpler: A brass octet composed of members of Novus NY will perform a memorial program in the St. Paul’s churchyard. Then listeners so inclined can troop down to Trinity Church for a brief compline (end of day) service.

Julian Wachner, Trinity Wall Street’s director of music and the arts, confessed to mixed feelings about the modesty of this year’s commemorations. “But so much has changed since 2011,” he said. He singled out the completion of the nearby National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

“And a closed chapel on top of things,” Mr. Wachner added. St. Paul’s Chapel, which long sat in the shadow of the World Trade Center but somehow survived the attacks to serve as a refuge for emergency medical workers, is undergoing a major renovation to prepare for its 250th-anniversary celebration (yes, a big one) on Oct. 30. It is currently closed to the public, but the extensive musical activities there in recent years will resume when it reopens as a year-round standing memorial.

“If you visit the museum, you will want to retire either to a bar or to a church,” he said wryly, and St. Paul’s should serve the purpose nicely.

On Sunday morning, firefighters from New York and elsewhere will march from ground zero to the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Brooklyn for a noon Mass featuring a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, presented by theFoundation for the Revival of Classical Culture. The performers — members of the Schiller Institute NYC Community Chorus, vocal soloists and a sizable orchestra — will already have done the Requiem in concert in the Bronx (Friday, at Lehman College) and Manhattan (Saturday evening, at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Midtown), and will repeat it in Morristown, N.J., at the Presbyterian Church on Monday evening.

Bargemusic, the splendid floating concert hall moored in Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Bridge, used to offer a wonderful view of the World Trade Center, along with the rest of Lower Manhattan, through its picture windows. It has presented a memorial concert every year on Sept. 11 and will do so again on Sunday afternoon.

“I can’t imagine not doing the concert,” said Mark Peskanov, Bargemusic’s artistic and executive director. “It all happened so close by, and we felt such a part of it. Horrible as it was, it brought people together, at least for a time. We try to capture a little of that feeling once a year.”

The free 4 o’clock concert on Sunday is scheduled to run an hour, but listeners may want to linger in the area to see the “Tribute in Light,” the towering blue light installation near ground zero, activated at 6 p.m.

A couple of other concerts more or less related to Sept. 11 are scheduled, but they mostly conflict with these, the programs most likely to live in memory.

Thu, September 8, 2016

Review: Texas Camerata
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Kline’s Alma Redemptoris Mater and Wachner’s O clarissima Maria were beautifully sung by countertenor Ryland Angel. For their texts, the two composers reached back about a thousand years to two medieval poets: Herimann the Lame (1013-1054) and Hildegard von Bingen (ca. 1098-1179).

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Review: Texas Camerata

BY OLIN CHISM

The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra may have gone on strike Thursday, but there were still some angelic sounds to be heard downtown. The Texas Camerata, several of whose members are FWSO musicians, presented a program called Sacred Art in St. Patrick Cathedral. (The Camerata is not, of course, involved in the current artistic strife.)

Seven of the nine composers on the program were active in the late 17th and early 18th centuries — familiar territory to Camerata, which specializes in music played on old-timey instruments or replicas thereof. What made the program a little unusual was the inclusion of two works by composers still alive.

This worked out very well, for Phil Kline (who was born in 1959) and Julian Wachner (1970) obviously weren’t intent on creating any stylistic clashes. Their music was gentle, appealingly lyrical, reverent even. Their sounds blended well with those of their 17th- and 18th-century brethren.

Kline’s Alma Redemptoris Mater and Wachner’s O clarissima Maria were beautifully sung by countertenor Ryland Angel. For their texts, the two composers reached back about a thousand years to two medieval poets: Herimann the Lame (1013-1054) and Hildegard von Bingen (ca. 1098-1179).

For me, the most moving work of the evening was Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, a sad and deeply touching composition again showing Angel’s mastery of this sort of material.

The music wasn’t all religious or somber. Some highlights included two bright fanfares, with Adam Gordon and Leigh Anne Hunsaker as the featured trumpeters; an appealing trio by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, with flute player Lee Lattimore as the featured soloist; and Vivaldi’s catchy La Folia, with violinists Kristin Van Cleve and Ania Bard taking the lead.

Other participants in a pleasant evening were violist Donna Hall, cellist Karen Hall and organist Corey Candler.

Tue, August 30, 2016

This September, Boston Proves It’s Still An Opera Town With Big Names And Even Bigger Productions
WBUR ARTery

The first major event of the classical music season (presented by ArtsEmerson) is one of the largest: a trilogy of operas, two of which are world premieres. Under the overall title of “Ouroboros Trilogy” (the circular image of the snake eating its own tail — an ancient Greek symbol of life, death and rebirth), the project is really the brainchild of Cerise Lim Jacobs, a retired lawyer born in Singapore, who wrote the librettos for all three operas, basing them on Chinese legends…

...The other new opera “Gilgamesh,” composed by Paola Prestini [and conducted by Julian Wachner], is about the half-demon son of Madame White Snake. Prestini, a New Yorker and Juilliard graduate who was born in Italy and grew up near the Mexican border, should be a welcome addition to the Boston musical scene.

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This September, Boston Proves It's Still An Opera Town With Big Names And Even Bigger Productions

August 30, 2016
By Lloyd Schwartz

They say Boston isn’t an opera town, and September isn’t usually a big opera month. Most companies need more time to prepare for performances, so what operas we get usually come later in the season. But not this year.

"Ouroboros Trilogy" | ArtsEmerson, Sept. 10-17

The first major event of the classical music season (presented by ArtsEmerson) is one of the largest: a trilogy of operas, two of which are world premieres. Under the overall title of “Ouroboros Trilogy” (the circular image of the snake eating its own tail — an ancient Greek symbol of life, death and rebirth), the project is really the brainchild of Cerise Lim Jacobs, a retired lawyer born in Singapore, who wrote the librettos for all three operas, basing them on Chinese legends.

“Naga,” one of the premieres, deals with the dangerous encounter between a monk and the mysterious, sexually alluring figure of the White Snake. The music is by the Boston composer and Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble director Scott Wheeler, whose latest CDs are the Bridge recording “Portraits and Tributes” with the superb pianist Donald Berman, and a section on an Albany recording called “Songs to Fill the Void” with baritone Robert Barefield. Wheeler’s major musical influences are Charles Ives and his teacher Virgil Thomson, and I’ve been a particular fan of his operatic jeux d’esprit “The Construction of Boston.”

The other new opera “Gilgamesh,” composed by Paola Prestini, is about the half-demon son of Madame White Snake. Prestini, a New Yorker and Juilliard graduate who was born in Italy and grew up near the Mexican border, should be a welcome addition to the Boston musical scene. 

The central opera, and the earliest, is Chinese-American composer Zhou Long’s “Madame White Snake,” based on the legend of the snake who falls in love and turns herself, tragically, into a real woman. The opera was written for the now defunct Opera Boston, which presented it in 2010. I had very mixed feelings about its familiar combination of Chinese and Western musical styles and the stilted diction of the libretto, but the Pulitzer Prize committee didn’t agree with me and awarded it the 2011 prize for music. 

The cast for the trilogy includes two of the star countertenors of our day. In "Madame White Snake," Michael Maniaci reprises the role he created of the White Snake’s woman servant and former lover. In both "Naga" and "Gilgamesh," that character will be played by the Met’s Anthony Roth Costanzo. Each opera will have a different Madame White Snake.

On both Sept. 10 and 17 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, beginning at 11 a.m. there will be performances of all three operas, though in two different orders. Each opera will get a separate showing during the evening performances Sept. 13-15. There are special subscriptions for either all three operas or all nine performances.

"Dimitrij" | Odyssey Opera, Sept. 16

On Friday, Sept. 16 at Jordan Hall, Odyssey Opera will present its annual concert performance of an opera that’s too big for most companies to stage. So far, there have been exciting, sold-out versions of Wagner’s epic “Rienzi,” Korngold’s orgasmic “Die Tote Stadt,” and Massenet’s Technicolor “Le Cid.” This year’s concert opera may be the most unusual. It’s the first Boston performance of Dvořák’s grand opera, “Dimitrij,” a sort of sequel to Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” — a vast and colorful national canvas about what happens in Russia after the death of Czar Boris. Sung in Czech, it will feature leading artists from Czech opera new to Boston and a large chorus.

"Carmen" | Boston Lyric Opera, Sept. 23, 25, 30 and Oct. 2

A week later, Boston Lyric Opera brings its latest version of Bizet’s “Carmen” to — of all places — the Opera House, which hasn’t seen a full-fledged opera in quite some time. (It's also the concluding event of BLO's "40 Days of Opera" in honor of the company's 40th season.) This will be the BLO’s fourth “Carmen” since 1994, when the incandescent Lorraine Hunt Lieberson gave life and depth to the title role. In 2002, thousands of people attended the BLO’s “Carmen on the Common” (an “Aida on the Common” was supposed to follow, but there wasn’t enough money). And in 2009, BLO shortchanged the audience by making significant musical cuts.

This latest “Carmen” production (Sept. 23, 25, 30 and Oct. 2) already has a history. It will be the first time a Boston audience will get to see anything by the controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieito, as revived by Joan Anton Rechi (who recently oversaw the American debut of this 1999 production in San Francisco where it got quite a range of reviews). Updated to the late 20th-century and moved from Seville to Spain’s North African city of Ceuta, this comes with a warning: “Please note: This production contains violence, nudity and suggestive behavior. Parental discretion is advised.”

The role of Carmen will be sung here by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who sang Donna Elvira in BLO’s 2015 production of “Don Giovanni.” In the Metropolitan Opera’s “Carmen,” she appeared in the smaller role of the Gypsy Mercédès. Last year, she was well received playing the title role in Savannah.

You can hear excerpts from “Carmen” by Maria Callas and Jonas Kaufmann on the BLO website.

"Der Rosenkavalier" | Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sept. 29 and Oct. 1

And leave it to the Boston Symphony Orchestra to put the cherry on top of this mini opera season (mit schlag). Andris Nelsons — especially admired here for his two Richard Strauss operas (“Salome” and “Elektra”) — will be conducting the most beloved of all Strauss operas, “Der Rosenkavalier,” with no less than super-diva Renée Fleming in one of her signature roles, the glamorous but aging Marschallin. Fleming has recently announced that her upcoming Strauss performances this season at Covent Garden and the Met “will be my last mainstream opera appearances.”

At the BSO, she’ll be joined by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the “trouser role” of her young and soon-to-be former lover Octavian. Coloratura soprano Erin Morley, the Met’s current Sophie of choice, plays the ingénue for whom Octavian abandons the Marschallin. The final trio, in which Octavian gives up his love for the Marschallin and his ensuing love duet with Sophie, are among the most luscious pieces of music for women’s voices in all of opera. The libretto by poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal is half farce, half bittersweet romance. Between the trio and the duet, Sophie’s father says innocently to the Marschallin, “Young people are just like that!” to which the Marschallin responds with knowing resignation and irony, “Ja, ja.”

There are only two performances at Symphony Hall, Sept. 29 and Oct. 1, at 7 p.m., and there are unlikely to be any empty seats.

Who says Boston isn’t an opera town?

Fri, August 26, 2016

The Take: Ouroboros Opera Trilogy Opening in Boston
The Take with Sue O'Connell

Is this the most ambitious opera project ever to debut in Boston? Cerise Lim Jacobs and Cori Ellison of the creative team tell Sue O’Connell about the upcoming “Ouroboros” opera trilogy at Cutler Majestic Theater [featuring Paola Prestini’s ‘Gilgamesh,’ conducted by Julian Wachner].

Fri, August 19, 2016

The Hubble ‘space opera’
Nature

In 2012, composer Paola Prestini began collaborating with astrophysicist Mario Livio — who worked at the Hubble Space Telescope’s operations centre from 1991 to 2015 — on a “space opera” celebrating the instrument’s 25th anniversary. The result, The Hubble Cantata, debuted on the telescope’s 26th. Performed on 6 August at the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! festival in New York City’s Prospect Park, it is a multidimensional paean to the ‘eye in the sky’, meshing Livio’s narration with performances by Norwegian orchestra 1B1, a 100-strong chorus and Metropolitan opera stars Jessica Rivera and Nathan Gunn [conducted by Julian Wachner], and a climax featuring a 3D virtual-reality (VR) experience incorporating Hubble images that allows viewers to drift through the Orion Nebula. Here Prestini talks about the joys and challenges of putting together a highly collaborative meld of science and art.

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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE

The Hubble ‘space opera’

August 19, 2016 | 3:54 pm | Posted by Barbara Kiser | Category: Acoustics, Arts, Space, Technology

3Q: Paola Prestini

In 2012, composer Paola Prestini began collaborating with astrophysicist Mario Livio — who worked at the Hubble Space Telescope’s operations centre from 1991 to 2015 — on a “space opera” celebrating the instrument’s 25th anniversary. The result, The Hubble Cantata, debuted on the telescope’s 26th. Performed on 6 August at the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! festival in New York City’s Prospect Park, it is a multidimensional paean to the ‘eye in the sky’, meshing Livio’s narration with performances by Norwegian orchestra 1B1, a 100-strong chorus and Metropolitan opera stars Jessica Rivera and Nathan Gunn, and a climax featuring a 3D virtual-reality (VR) experience incorporating Hubble images that allows viewers to drift through the Orion Nebula. Here Prestini talks about the joys and challenges of putting together a highly collaborative meld of science and art.

What inspired this project?

About four years ago, I was asked by the nonprofit Bay Chamber Concerts — who were in touch with Matt Mountain, then-head of Hubble operations centre the Space Telescope Science Institute — to create a piece commemorating the telescope’s legacy and anniversary. I began to read what Mario Livio had written on hisblog, and after meeting, we began to pull together a loose narrative. With the librettist Royce Vavrek, I realised that Mario could become the inspiration for the opera’s main character. What emerged from our collaboration with Mario was a cantata drawing connections between human loss, love and sorrow, and the life cycle of a star. We decided that Mario would narrate and be the voice of the lead character, an astrophysicist who had lost his wife; there would be an adult choir, children’s choir and orchestra. No Hubble images would be used until the ending, which would culminate in a VR work exploring the beauty and depth of Hubble images. I began to record Livio, and that was the launch of the cooperation.

How does your composition incorporate science?

Both in its premise, of course, and in the technological underpinnings that have gone into creating it. I worked with sound designer Terence Caulkins from engineering firm Arup to create the 3D soundscape. To present the experience outdoors, in particular for the VR experience, we needed to create an immersive experience that gives the impression sounds are moving around and through the audience space. We mixed the music in a spatialized sound format called Ambisonics, which can be used for various loudspeaker layouts. For example, in its Soundlab Arup has a sphere of loudspeakers that allows you to place sounds around, above and below listeners to enhance the VR effect. Ambisonic sound can also be mixed down to “binaural”, which is a 360-degree sound format for headphones. (This is what people downloading our free app, Fistful of Stars, will hear.) For the performance, we designed a concentric eight-point loudspeaker system surrounding the audience. The electronic narration sequences include Mario speaking about everything from baryonic matter to extra-solar life. Filmmaker Eliza McNitt created the virtual-reality film in collaboration with the Endless Collective. This is a five-minute VR video that gives a 360-degree tour through space, comprising CGI-animated Hubble imagery of the Orion Nebula. We found a company to sponsor cardboard virtual-reality glasses for audience members.

What is it like for you as an artist to work with scientists?

It’s great fun. It’s fascinating to think about our creative processes and how different they are. Mario has worked with the Baltimore Symphony as a narrator for performances, but never really deeply in a music collaborative process before this one. There’s a great deal of learning going on for all of us. He needed to trust that we were going to bring these massive concepts to fruition, so there was a lot of back and forth. He is able to explain super-complex concepts, such as dark matter, to musicians; setting these texts as simple narrations was important to me so that they could be clearly understood. Hubble’s legacy and what it has done for our understanding of the Universe is at the core of our drive to give it a musical life. The loss of communication between loved ones in the cantata storyline is echoed by the expansion of the Universe “at the rate of our imagination” (something Mario often says). Yet as the fictional astrophysicist’s understanding of the Universe deepens, he reconstructs his wife’s story and understands her better. Woven together, those twin threads in the piece — the rarity of life in the grand cosmic scene, and Hubble’s revelation of that scene — connect human and cosmic scenarios, revealing realities that may exist at vastly different scales, but that are each vastly important.

Interview by Jeff Tollefson, a reporter for Nature based in Washington DC. He tweets at @jefftollef.

Paola Prestini is currently in conversation with several producers in the United States and overseas about presenting The Hubble Cantata again. The piece will be released as a recording by VIA Records and as a short film by an as-yet unnanounced distributor.

Sat, August 13, 2016

Outer Space, Via Virtual Reality, in Prospect Park
The New Yorker

Last Saturday evening at the Band Shell in Prospect Park, as part of the bric Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, the composer Paola Prestini, who is also the creative director of the performance space National Sawdust, premièred her work “The Hubble Cantata.” Space fever was in the air. The concert, a free outdoor event, featured a virtual-reality trip to the Orion Nebula, in the Milky Way. Space is silent, but this would not be: the cantata, conducted by Julian Wachner, featured the soprano Jessica Rivera, the baritone Nathan Gunn, and members of the Washington National Chorus, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the Norwegian string ensemble 1B1, and Trinity Wall Street’s new-music ensemble, Novus N.Y. We’d downloaded the V.R. experience, a short film written and directed by Eliza McNitt called “A Fistful of Stars,” in an app. When we affixed cardboard goggles to our phones, pushed play, and put the goggles on, the movie would provide a cosmic experience in three hundred and sixty degrees, re-creating actual images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Before the concert, a line of thousands of people snaked out of the park and down the block.

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OUTER SPACE, VIA VIRTUAL REALITY, IN PROSPECT PARK

 By Sarah Larson, AUGUST 13, 2016

What do we want from outer space? From here, on Earth, we marvel at its vastness and contemplate its black-and-white wonders. We thrill to the sight of cosmic funny business, such as an eclipse or a shooting star. We imagine going to space, and, perhaps, take solace from knowing that we’ll never have to. It can serve as a physical reminder of the unknowability of existence, the vastness of time and history, the ephemerality of you and me. Art and science that connect us to it—the moon landing, the wowings of Carl Sagan, the rollings of the Mars rover, the Treks, the Wars, Holst’s “The Planets,” David Bowie in general—can be imbued with some of its glory and mystery.

Last Saturday evening at the Band Shell in Prospect Park, as part of thebric Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, the composer Paola Prestini, who is also the creative director of the performance space National Sawdust, premièred her work “The Hubble Cantata.” Space fever was in the air. The concert, a free outdoor event, featured a virtual-reality trip to the Orion Nebula, in the Milky Way. Space is silent, but this would not be: the cantata, conducted by Julian Wachner, featured the soprano Jessica Rivera, the baritone Nathan Gunn, and members of the Washington National Chorus, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the Norwegian string ensemble 1B1, and Trinity Wall Street’s new-music ensemble, Novus N.Y. We’d downloaded the V.R. experience, a short film written and directed by Eliza McNitt called “A Fistful of Stars,” in an app. When we affixed cardboard goggles to our phones, pushed play, and put the goggles on, the movie would provide a cosmic experience in three hundred and sixty degrees, re-creating actual images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Before the concert, a line of thousands of people snaked out of the park and down the block.

That afternoon, actual reality had threatened to intervene. A couple of hours before showtime, a torrential rain fell in Brooklyn—batten-down-the-hatches stuff that doused the open-air seats and the lawn beyond. But the rain stopped abruptly and the sun came out. Before the show, Prestini was buzzing around the band shell, wide-eyed and happy, wearing a midnight-blue toga dress that floated around her like the cosmos. The many complex components of the performance—singers, orchestra, scrim, headsets, V.R., specially boosted Wi-Fi—were ready to go. “The weather is the one thing I can’t control,” she said.

Four years ago, Prestini was commissioned by Bay Chamber Concerts to compose a piece celebrating Hubble’s twenty-fifth anniversary. She collaborated with the Israeli-American astrophysicist and author Mario Livio (“The Golden Ratio,” “Brilliant Blunders”), who worked with Hubble for twenty-four years, and created a narrative about a widower, his late wife, and their lost child that also tells the story of the birth, life, and death of a star. Royce Vavrek wrote the libretto. “We decided to not actually show Hubble imagery till the very end of the piece,” Prestini told me. “The last thing we want to do is have it feel gratuitous, or like screen savers.” The goal was to have you be “really thirsty for it.”

We heard a thudding, collapsing sound. Prestini jumped. “The glasses!” she said. A stack of cardboard V.R. headsets had fallen over; someone scurried to fix it. “It’s going to be O.K.,” she said. Prestini said that she hoped attendees would come away with an appreciation of Hubble’s legacy. It’s still working, but “they dosay it’s going to fall into the ocean,” Prestini said. (Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be launched in 2018.) Near the stage, a blast of rainwater spilled out of something overhead, sounding like a splashdown in a flume ride—or, perhaps, like Hubble crashing into the ocean. Prestini jumped. “I can’t with this,” she said.

Livio, who lives in Baltimore, had come for the performance, in which his recorded voice would figure prominently. He told me that he hoped people would come away from the event having connected the Hubble imagery they’d see—“these stunning, breathtaking works of art”—to a more concrete understanding that these things actually exist, and to “the concept of a dramatic universe.” Because of Hubble, he said, the universe is “not totally mysterious to us now.” We know that it is expanding and that the cosmic expansion is accelerating; we have clear observational evidence for the Big Bang. “And we know that there are a few hundred billion galaxies like our own Milky Way, in which we live.” Livio has never wanted to go to space himself. “I’m content with living on our small planet,” he said. “But telescopes take us there.”

As the event began, people in the chairs around me fiddled with their V.R. glasses, excitedly fitting their phones to the lenses and looking around. The crowd included many families with kids. Organizers thanked people, including the Amateur Astronomers Association, who were “out there with telescopes on the hill,” and introduced “two esteemed men of space”: Livio and the astronaut Mike Massimino, the first person to tweet from space, who wore a blue nasaastronaut shirt. People cheered every time Massimino made a remark or waved a genial arm. When Livio tapped into space fever—“We literally are stardust!”—people whooped. (His description of the cantata’s plot—“a young woman loses a child, that leads her to suicide, and her husband is searching for answers in the cosmos”—was met with quiet, and, I imagine, surprise.) Livio added that Massimino, in the last Hubble servicing mission, had fixed something by breaking off a railing, as engineers on Earth had said he should. “He pulled it, with force, and he broke, in space, that railing. And this is why Hubble continues to work now!” The crowd went wild.

The lights went down. We could hear crickets in the park. Onstage, the performers appeared behind a scrim. The performance combined everything from children’s voices to operatic singing to what sounded like a jet engine. On the scrim, we saw a series of black-and-white photographs of Wendy Whelan, the ballet dancer, and an abstract man made of stars. “The atoms in our bodies were forged inside stars,” Livio’s voice said. “The universe has expanded just as fast as our minds. In that sense, we are the center of the universe.” Chiming, flutes, a chorus. Black-and-white stills of Whelan’s hands. “Hello, hello, hello,” Gunn sang. “I am a pilgrim.” At one point, a lighted plane flew overhead, and people looked up at it. Only a few stars were visible in the sky.

Crescendos, beauty, drama, and a distinct lack of pictures of space: after forty-five minutes, the thirst for Hubble imagery had been created. When the scrim read “Astronauts, Get Ready,” there was a blast of excitement in the audience. “Countdown Imminent.” We scrambled for our cardboard glasses and our phones. Glasses: on. Inside them we read a message—“Astronaut, Look in All Directions.” Then darkness. Was it working? Where was I? Then, a familiar curved shape, glowing with light: Earth, our old friend, our home. It astounded me, this feeling of floating above Earth, and tears began to emerge from my cardboard goggles. We roamed toward something cylindrical and metallic—were we getting sucked into a rogue jet engine? No: Hubble! We floated into it.Astronaut, look in all directions. I turned my head, seeing blackness and stars. To one side, where a high-strung neighbor had been—a chipper, distracting presence—there was nothing but the blackness of space, and, beneath that, fiery points of light and a flaming fireball. Peeking out of my goggles at the park around me, I saw rows and rows full of space-gawkers, fellow-adventurers clutching cardboard boxes to their faces, twisting this way and that, looking up and down. I remembered, a bit startled, that we were all looking at our phones—a gesture known to disregard the common experience, the present moment. Here, it was providing it: six thousand of us together, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, floating around the Orion Nebula.

Thu, August 11, 2016

Paola Prestini’s “The Hubble Cantata”
VAN Magazine

At 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 6, the line just outside the entrance of the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, New York, was already sprawling around the block. It was the kind of large crowd that might be expected for, say, the U.S. folk-rock band The Lumineers, which had played a benefit concert at the venue only a few nights ago. But this particular evening’s entertainment offered an intriguing break from the festival’s usual diet of indie rock bands and world-music artists: the world premiere of a new classical work called “The Hubble Cantata.” Billed as “a live virtual reality performance,” according to promotional materials distributed on-site, the piece incorporated images and soundscapes, along with two soloists, chamber orchestra, and two choruses [conducted by Julian Wachner]. It also featured a five-minute virtual-reality film. As one might guess from its title—referring to the 26-year-old-telescope that, through the images it has captured of outer space, has enriched our understanding of the universe beyond Earth’s borders—these elements combined to take us on a journey into the cosmos.

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Paola Prestini's “The Hubble Cantata”

BY KENJI FUJISHIMA · PHOTOGRAPHY KATALINA STUDIO · DATE 08/11/2016

At 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 6, the line just outside the entrance of the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, New York, was already sprawling around the block. It was the kind of large crowd that might be expected for, say, the U.S. folk-rock band The Lumineers, which had played a benefit concert at the venue only a few nights ago. But this particular evening’s entertainment offered an intriguing break from the festival’s usual diet of indie rock bands and world-music artists: the world premiere of a new classical work called “The Hubble Cantata.” Billed as “a live virtual reality performance,” according to promotional materials distributed on-site, the piece incorporated images and soundscapes, along with two soloists, chamber orchestra, and two choruses. It also featured a five-minute virtual-reality film. As one might guess from its title—referring to the 26-year-old-telescope that, through the images it has captured of outer space, has enriched our understanding of the universe beyond Earth’s borders—these elements combined to take us on a journey into the cosmos.

It’s a journey that has been three years in the making, when “Hubble Cantata” composer Paola Prestini was approached by the Maine-based organization Bay Chamber Concerts in 2013 to create a piece to commemorate the anniversary of the Hubble telescope. Along with librettist Royce Vavrek—a prolific opera wordsmith (with recent credits including two acclaimed new operas with composer David T. Little, “Dog Days” and “JFK”),who had previously collaborated with Prestini on some smaller song-cycle projects—they were both put in touch with Dr. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who spent 14 years at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the Hubble telescope. But it wasn’t just his experience with the Hubble that impressed them both. 

“He has a wonderful, wonderful way of describing super-complex concepts,” Prestini glowingly remarks. Vavrek echoes his collaborator’s assessment. When they both went down to Baltimore to meet Dr. Livio at the Hubble Institute, he recalls that in addition to learning more about the science behind the Hubble, “we also understood that the scientific language that Mario was using was so poetic, and so utilizing the poetry of the science was something that we were really excited about, and something we implemented rather early on.” Thus his own words, spoken in his own voice, are sprinkled throughout “The Hubble Cantata,” during its many interstitial soundscapes, offering contextual musings that are simultaneously scientific and philosophical in nature. 

But though the piece is abstract to a certain degree, there is something of a storyline to draw us in. Originally, it began just with the idea of a woman searching for her lost child in the stars. “We knew we wanted to tell a story about a woman who was grieving, and she goes on a journey and becomes lost to the stars,” Vavrek explains, “but she begins by drawing these pictures based on the Nazca lines in Peru, and so she draws stories in the ground.” Only later—after “The Hubble Cantata” initially premiered as a 20-minute piece for soprano and small ensemble in Rockport, Maine, in 2013—was a second character, the woman’s husband, introduced. “If we were going to make this longer,” Vavrek says, “I would love to write a companion work where her husband goes out and tries to find her. He traces the lines she’s drawn and he searches for her in the heavens, but the heavens are so vast, how would you ever find somebody, especially in the future when galaxies open up?” Both characters eventually found their way into the final work unveiled in Brooklyn.

The idea of accompanying “The Hubble Cantata” with images and a virtual-reality film, however, was a more recent addition to the creative equation—and this is where Eliza McNitt comes in. Her filmography to date evinces a passion for cinematic depictions of science, a passion that began with research in high school into the disappearance of honeybees around the world, for which she made a documentary, “Requiem for the Honeybee,” that was eventually broadcast on the television cable channel CSPAN. “It made me experience firsthand the power of film through documentary means, [and] inspired me to further explore how to tell stories about science,” McNitt explains. Cut to seven months ago when, through a classmate of hers at a New York University screenwriting class, she was introduced to Prestini, who was immediately excited about the possibility of incorporating visual elements into the piece. “She really wanted to create something that essentially explored the Orion nebula,” Prestini recalls. “And so, honoring the collaboration with Mario with a visualization of the Hubble felt like the perfect match.” With the help of the VR firm The Endless Collective, McNitt created an immersive five-minute VR film called “Fistful of Stars” that offers a depiction of the life cycle of a star, based on Hubble imagery—in essence, what McNitt calls “an artistic interpretation based off scientific data.”

On top of all those moving parts, there were the 360-degree sound designs conceived by Arup; the black-and-white still photographs by Sasha Arutyunova, featuring stage actor Rufus Collins and former New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan, projected onto a screen in front of the performers; and the presences of Jessica Rivera and Nathan Gunn, two renowned Metropolitan Opera singers, as the soloists. In short, “The Hubble Cantata” is an immensely ambitious production, with its multimedia aspects distinguishing it from many modern-day opera events. With some advance publicity in the preceding days thanks to articles in popular local publications like The Village Voice and Brooklyn Magazine, anticipation could not have been higher for its world premiere.

At a party earlier this year, I got into a brief conversation about opera with someone who admitted to finding it too much for her, with the interplay of musical, literary, and visual elements. I couldn’t help but think of this exchange as I watched “The Hubble Cantata” unfurl, because the work represents an attempt to push that interplay to the futuristic limit. Perhaps it’s too much to expect any work to measure up to such openly grand ambitions—though of course, that didn’t stop filmmaker Stanley Kubrick from forging ahead with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which remains arguably the premier artistic meditation on outer space and man’s ultimate insignificance in the grander scheme of things. 

There’s certainly much to admire about “The Hubble Cantata” conceptually. The idea of setting a smaller human story about loss against the backdrop of the cosmos is a sound one: What better way to illustrate Dr. Livio’s own thoughts on “the multiverse” and the possibility that intelligent civilizations such as ours may be but a mere précis in the world’s broader timeline? But neither the woman nor her husband come off as much more than ciphers, which keeps us at an abstract intellectual remove even as the mother cries out about how “a mother should not outlive her son / on Jupiter, in fetal position.” (Supertitles might have helped; it wasn’t always easy to understand the words that were being sung, especially by two choruses, The Washington Chorus and Brooklyn Youth Chorus.) 

Thankfully, Prestini’s music compensates for a lot, vividly shimmering and raging with the emotional temperatures of characters as suggested in Vavrek’s libretto, and generally conjuring up an authentically cosmic atmosphere with its trembling strings, ethereal wind lines, and luminous glockenspiel. Prestini offers some imaginative touches in her orchestration, having a couple of the performers blow into Victrola horns and conch shells to contribute a sense of the primal to the proceedings. Even the miking of all the 1B1 and NOVUS NY players (under the direction of Julian Wachner, another frequent collaborator with Prestini) and singers adds to the atmosphere, with the extra reverberation giving the whole work a mythic feel. 

Then there are Arutyunova’s photographs: surreal black-and-white images, some of the husband and wife, either separately or together, posing in ways that suggested romance, pained yearning, and rapturous wonder. Seeing them projected with crystal clarity on the large white screen erected in front of the performing forces onstage was already impressive enough. But the pièce de resistance, of course, was McNitt’s “Fistful of Stars” VR film, at the end of the 55-minute work, contained in a smartphone app which all of the audience members (in a venue that can hold 6,000 people) were encouraged to download before donning custom Google Cardboard VR glasses distributed at the event. As awe-inspiring as the animated imagery was, this final stretch of “The Hubble Cantata” also suggested the possible limitations of Prestini & co.’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. While much of the audience was audibly dazzled by the transporting views inside the Orion nebula that McNitt offered, the act of donning those cardboard glasses and moving one’s head all around in order to get a fuller view of the 360-degree visual environment distracted from the words of both Dr. Livio from the soundscapes and the singers onstage. Even as a devotee of opera, or staged opera, productions like this, I could for once understand what that party guest was saying about having too much thrown at us all at once.

Still, warts and all, I’m glad something like “The Hubble Cantata” exists—if nothing else, to suggest possibilities for opera and classical music in general going forward. 

Even now, the term “classical music” for many conjures up associations of old works, performed in lavish settings, with generally older-skewing audience members rich enough to be able to afford the high-priced tickets they usually command. This is especially the case with opera, with the Metropolitan Opera still ruling the roost in New York, at least—even though many of their new productions in recent seasons have been either half-baked high-concept embarrassments (I’m still scratching my head over the useless meta-theatrical conceit behind Mary Zimmerman’s 2009 reimagining of Vincenzo Bellini’s “La Sonnambula”) or even bigger high-tech disasters (like Robert Lepage’s much-hyped “Ring” cycle with its cumbersome 24-plank machine and general lack of interesting vision beyond the pictorial). 

“The Hubble Cantata” represents an attempt to shake up that musty museum image of classical music that still persists in many people’s minds. Certainly, that’s the spirit with which Prestini has undertaken not only this particular project, but her work as the founder of the nonprofit VisionIntoArt—which she started back when she was still a student at Juilliard—and, more recently, creative/executive director of the new performing-arts organization/venueNational Sawdust in Brooklyn. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this for a long time, because I’ve always been very preoccupied with first being a woman composer and trying to find my way in the world when I was in my 20s,” Prestini says, “and realizing just how many doors I had to open. So for me, the beginning stages of this question occurred when I was in my 20s and I began to think of what is my responsibility to the art form. And so what I realized is that I couldn’t wait for opportunities. I had to create them, and I had to not just create opportunities for myself, but I had to also create opportunities for people in my field.” 

This perhaps explains the collaborative spirit she has fostered with many of her works, including “The Hubble Cantata.” It’s another aspect of her artistry that was fostered in her Juilliard years. “When I was in Juilliard,” she tells me, “there wasn’t a lot of collaborative work being done, and I started my company, VisionIntoArt, when I was there. The disciplines were there—there was a dance department, an amazing theater department—but they weren’t really working together at the time. It felt like something that really needed to be done, and it spoke to my calling as an artist. …I began playing with the idea of different disciplines in one concert. First, it was more about the juxtaposition of different forms. And then it really became about the integration of multimedia and different forms and different collaborative work.” It’s a generous ethos that Prestini brought to the rehearsal process for “The Hubble Cantata.” Even two days before the world premiere, Prestini was working closely with the musicians and technicians, patiently fielding suggestions and even making small last-minute adjustments to the score to accommodate their needs. Despite being the essential mastermind of this enterprise, she exuded not an ounce of ego as she either sat behind the players or, in the fuller rehearsal the next day, perched in the balcony observing the proceedings from above.       

“The Hubble Cantata” could be considered the highest fulfillment of this collaborative, boundary-expanding potential: a free public event incorporating multiple forms of media into one communal interactive experience. It didn’t necessarily pass by without hiccups: On a couple of occasions during the opening act’s set, one of the organizers of the event came out and implored people to turn off the wi-fi on their smartphones in order for others to be able download the “Fistful of Stars” app and film for the main event. But such difficulties are to be expected in trying to push an art form forward. Beyond the journey it chronicles, “The Hubble Cantata” suggests a deeper, more subtextual journey: a peek into the future of classical music, one as full of endless possibilities as the cosmos it explores. ¶

Wed, August 10, 2016

At a Concert, Floating Through Outer Space in Virtual Reality
Hyperallergic

Prestini’s operatic score, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, did not encourage the “astronauts,” as the MC called the audience, to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight: Instead, it was a thundering opus that obliquely told the story of a woman losing her child and committing suicide. The 20-person orchestra [conducted by Julian Wachner] was silhouetted behind a translucent screen projected with Sasha Arutyunova’s ghostly black-and-white photographs of a couple in despair, hands forming shadow puppets, and a glowing pregnant belly. This human tragedy was framed by a parallel narrative charting the birth, life, and death of a star, narrated by the Hubble’s lead astrophysicist, Dr. Mario Livio.

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At a Concert, Floating Through Outer Space in Virtual Reality

by Carey Dunne on August 10, 2016

On Saturday night, some 6,000 people gathered on the Prospect Park Bandshell’s grassy knoll and waited to be beamed up into space. Via Google Cardboard VR headsets, they would float through the Orion Nebula, a Milky Way star cluster more than 1,000 light years away. As they floated, they would listen to a Norwegian string orchestra, a choir of 100 and two Metropolitan Opera stars singing about the parallel life cycles of stars and humans.

This was the Hubble Cantata, a staggeringly ambitious work that attempted to bring the cosmos down to Brooklyn and make sweaty crowds bordered by beer tents and porta-potties feel like astronauts. Part of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! concert series, the event fused music by composer Paola Prestini with astrophysics and a finale in virtual reality.

Prestini’s operatic score, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, did not encourage the “astronauts,” as the MC called the audience, to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight: Instead, it was a thundering opus that obliquely told the story of a woman losing her child and committing suicide. The 20-person orchestra was silhouetted behind a translucent screen projected with Sasha Arutyunova’s ghostly black-and-white photographs of a couple in despair, hands forming shadow puppets, and a glowing pregnant belly. This human tragedy was framed by a parallel narrative charting the birth, life, and death of a star, narrated by the Hubble’s lead astrophysicist, Dr. Mario Livio.

When composing the cantata, Prestini took a synesthetic approach to translating the Hubble’s Orion Nebula images into music. “There’s actually no sound in space,” Prestini told Hyperallergic. She asked herself, “What do collapsing clouds of gas sound like? What do stars sound like?” In her musical imagination, they sound almost apocalyptic, with foreboding timpani rolls and searing string runs. The bellowed lyrics — sometimes a little on-the-nose — mused on “intelligent life,” “exhausted promises, exhausted frontiers,” and “a filter of doom.”

Forty-five minutes into the piece, a message appeared on the screen: “Astronauts: Lift Off Imminent.” The choir began a countdown. Before the show, audience members had been told to download an app, called Fistful of Stars, featuring a five-minute VR video by filmmaker Eliza McNitt. In unison, the “astronauts” popped their smartphones into the VR headsets, handed out for free, and launched into a 360-degree tour through space composed of CGI-animated imagery of the Orion Nebula, first photographed by the Hubble Telescope in 1993.

“People have asked, did you actually send your cameras to space [to make the video]?” McNitt said.

No, it would take thousands of years to get the footage back. And to the human eye, [the Orion Nebula] would just look like white light. We used Hubble Telescope photos as reference, to create a photorealistic simulation of what it would be like to travel into pockets of the universe that only the Hubble gets to see. We tried to make things as accurate as possible, but also to create a sense of magical realism.

Looking through the headset’s plastic eyeholes, a glow on the horizon grew into a glaring white sun, and the astronauts, sitting on a patchwork of blankets in the grass, were virtually transported into the silver cylinder of the Hubble Telescope. But just as I was about to float into the telescope’s round eye, the VR experience stopped, interrupted by a low battery warning on my phone.

Sans headset, angrily tapping the phone screen, I was returned to a non-virtual reality of french fry trays and half-eaten burgers and $8 cups of beer littering the grass, mosquitoes biting my legs, a crying baby, and my own dumb lack of preparedness (why hadn’t I visited the “charging station” nearby?). Stars in the real sky overhead twinkled faintly behind the light pollution. Around me, hundreds of people stared into their headsets, swiveling around in wonder, like drunk cyborgs. They had blasted off without me. My escape had been thwarted.

My expectations for the Hubble Cantata, vaguely based on sci-fi imaginings of VR, were impossibly high. I had arrived in Prospect Park hoping to achieve something akin to astral projection. A lazy meditator, I thought maybe this technology could offer a shortcut to five minutes of enlightenment. “All elements in our bodies were forged at the centers of stars,” Dr. Livio had said at the start of the performance, “which means we literally are stardust.” This wasn’t news, because I had heard Crosby, Stills & Nash before, but I’d hoped this smartphone app, paired with loud opera, would kill my ego and make me feellike stardust, for once. I had hoped an animation of the Orion Nebula seen through a cardboard headset would give me a hallucinogen-level out-of-body experience without destroying brain cells. Of course, this was too much to ask. The experience of VR, so far, doesn’t live up to the fantasy of total escape. (For the sake of staving off a Black Mirror-esque dystopia filled with VR porn addicts, that’s probably a good thing.)

“We may be doomed and intelligent civilizations will not survive for very long,” said Dr. Mario Livio from the speakers. “Life is extremely rare.” As if rooting for the survival of intelligent civilization, my phone did not die, the video resumed, and massive peaked clouds of pink and orange and blue star stuff began to swirl around me in all directions. Flecks of dirt on the screen camouflaged into thousands of virtual stars, and the usual sounds of Prospect Park mixed into the booming orchestra: Airplanes, skateboards, and garbage trucks on the nearby road, cicadas and tree frogs. The effect was dazzling and so unreal.

Mon, August 8, 2016

“The Hubble Cantata” and Tigue at BRIC’s Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival
Feast of Music

The performance itself featured the first-rate string ensemble 1B1 from Norway, the amassed voices of the Washington Chorus and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and soloists Nathan Gunn and Jessica Rivera, all conducted by Julian Wachner.

During some especially ravishing passages, I kept looking up towards the clear night sky speckled with stars, and felt a connection that was far more transporting than the mild VR one. I could only imagine what it would be like to hear this cantata in one of those places on the planet where the sky is teeming with millions of stars from our galaxy and not just a few pale pinpricks from the brightest ones.

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"The Hubble Cantata" and Tigue at BRIC's Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival

by Steven Pisano

"We are stardust/ Billion year old carbon/ We are golden/ Caught in the devil's bargain/ And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." --Joni Mitchell

For anyone interested in the origins of the Universe, the concepts of space and time, or the genesis of life, the spectacular, awe-inspiring photographs taken with the Hubble Space Telescope over the past 36 years have been a magical, almost religious source of wonder, enabling humankind to peer back 14 billion years into our collective past. These extraordinary photographs have inspired scientists to dream about what the future might hold for us. 

In Paola Prestini and Royce Vavrek's The Hubble Cantata, which received its world premiere as a full-length virtual reality experience at BRIC's Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival on Saturday night, the audience was invited to travel on a shared journey inspired by these majestic images, following the skeletal story of a woman who is born, dies, and seeks to be reborn, just as stars are reconstituted from their own stellar dust. Images of ex-New York City Ballet dancer Wendy Whelan were projected onto a scrim in front of the orchestra and chorus.

The tease of the show to the thousands of people in attendance was that it was the first-ever fusing of a major musical performance with Virtual Reality. But the VR experience--a wishy-washy video of theOrion Nebula called "Fistful of Stars" by filmmaker Eliza McNitt viewed on smartphones inserted into cardboard headsets--was underwhelming at best. I was anticipating oohs and aahs all around me, but mostly I saw a sea of shrugs. With a long line of feature film depictions of space from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity, there has been no shortage of jaw-dropping footage of what space might look like.

Nevertheless, the performance itself was full of magic and wonder. Space, of course, is silent: there is no audible music of the spheres. But, Prestini has written some astonishing musical passages that capture a sense of what it might be like to be set adrift in a universe without the limitations of space or time. According to Hubble astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio, who provided voice-over narration, all living matter on Earth is composed physically of star matter dating back to the Big Bang, so the stars are within us even as we are amongst the stars.

The performance itself featured the first-rate string ensemble 1B1 from Norway, the amassed voices of the Washington Chorus and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and soloists Nathan Gunn and Jessica Rivera, all conducted by Julian Wachner. 

During some especially ravishing passages, I kept looking up towards the clear night sky speckled with stars, and felt a connection that was far more transporting than the mild VR one. I could only imagine what it would be like to hear this cantata in one of those places on the planet where the sky is teeming with millions of stars from our galaxy and not just a few pale pinpricks from the brightest ones.

Leading off the night, and getting the audience in the mood for some intergalactic travel, was the Brooklyn-based art-rock group Tigue (Matt Evans, Amy Garapic and Carson Moody), whose voiceless compositions lean heavily toward drone-like percussion that can often be trance-inducing. They played selections from their new album Peaks, including the spacey "Dress Well," featuring Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan on guitar and James McNew on electric bass.

There is a Kickstarter campaign seeking to raise additional funds to perform The Hubble Cantata again in this full-performance version -- it has previously been performed as a 20-odd minute piece without the bells and whistles -- and from there it may go on tour. And as for the Hubble Space Telescope itself? For all it has revealed about the Universe, it should continue working for many years to come - though it will soon have competition from the larger and more sophisticated James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2018.

Mon, August 8, 2016

‘The Hubble Cantata’ Explores Orchestral Transcendence in Space by Embracing VR
The Observer

After four years in the making, the success of this multi-disciplinary performance lies in its ability to exist as both high art and popular entertainment. And so The Hubble Cantata is a work that knows no parallel, pushing boundaries of technology and presentation that push our city’s relationship with multi-disciplinary performance further into uncharted territory.

The piece’s world premiere last weekend at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival in Prospect Park not only utilized a 100-person choir, a 20-piece ensemble, baritone Nathan Gunn and soprano Jessica Rivera [conducted by Julian Wachner]—a massive production by normal standards alone—but a Virtual Reality climax to the piece, wherein the audience downloaded the VR film on their phones beforehand and raised their viewers (the same Google Cardboard boxes the NYT sent out to subscribers last fall) when the on-stage screen gave the signal.

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‘The Hubble Cantata’ Explores Orchestral Transcendence in Space by Embracing VR

By Justin Joffe • 08/08/16 12:27pm

There’s no experience more wondrous than the moment you first learn there’s music in space.

Generations of kids got wise when they heard Dark Side of the Moon for the first time, and some even earlier upon discovering the works of Sun Ra or Alice Coltrane. My fortunate musical education provided me with all of that, but it wasn’t until much later in life, when working for the record label of composer Philip Glass that it all made sense.

One evening Glass spoke with astrophysicist Greg Laughlin as part of the Rubin Museum’s BRAINWAVE speaker series about the music of the cosmos. They were how, when the sound of planetary orbits was recorded and adjusted to something we could hear on an audible spectrum, the orbits sounded just like Tibetan prayer bowls. This confirmed that music was not only innate to the universe, but that we humans are channeling it.

It also put those years in high school orchestra spent learning Gustav Holst’s 1916 astrological symphonic suite, The Planets, into perspective. The bright string runs that opened “Jupiter” still ring with the rush of interplanetary wonder, while the brass of “Mars” still sounds like impending cosmic conflict. Whether we consciously know it or not, the voices of orchestral music have long been well-versed in the music of the stars, too, for so long that they’re imbedded in our subconscious.

Those bright string runs and foreboding brass runs make brief textural appearances in The Hubble Cantata, composer Paola Prestini’s brilliant collaboration with librettist Royce Vavreck and the Hubble Space Telescope’s lead astrophysicist, Dr. Mario Livio. But in all other arenas, Hubble pushes its classical cosmic themes ever more upward than any orchestral work these ears have ear in a long time, upward and toward the stars.

After four years in the making, the success of this multi-disciplinary performance lies in its ability to exist as both high art and popular entertainment. And so The Hubble Cantata is a work that knows no parallel, pushing boundaries of technology and presentation that push our city’s relationship with multi-disciplinary performance further into uncharted territory.

The piece’s world premiere last weekend at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival in Prospect Park not only utilized a 100-person choir, a 20-piece ensemble, baritone Nathan Gunn and soprano Jessica Rivera—a massive production by normal standards alone—but a Virtual Reality climax to the piece, wherein the audience downloaded the VR film on their phones beforehand and raised their viewers (the same Google Cardboard boxes the NYT sent out to subscribers last fall) when the on-stage screen gave the signal.

“We decided to create a piece that would essentially follow a woman’s perspective, who had lost her child and killed herself,” Prestini told me. “We began to create this hyper-structure of the birth, life and death of a star, but within it a human narrative that connects to it.”

That story, told through Vavreck’s libretto and delivered by Metropolitan Opera stars Gunn and Rivera, was further advanced with Sasha Arutyunova’s beautiful black and white photographs on a giant, translucent screen that covered the stage. The orchestra was tastefully silhouetted, visible only in the moments appropriate to the piece.

Dr. Mario Livio’s narration explained the larger celestial implications at stake in a simple, coherent manner, further revealing our characters’ journey in the grand scheme of things.

“All elements in our bodies were forged at the centers of stars,” he told the audience before the performance, “which means we literally are stardust. Not only that, but it is possible that this atom in my body was formed in that star, and this atom in my body was formed in another star over there. So not only are we in the universe; the universe is inside us.”

Such a message might sound like boiler-plate inspirational dreck in lesser hands, but it’s to The Hubble Cantata‘s credit that the piece never panders to its audience or offers any easy answers to the difficult metaphysical quandaries it proposes.

Prestini’s score is equally dense and modern in moments that communicate our characters’ duress, while airy and light in the story’s moments of transition or epiphany. Her ability to intimately evoke specific emotions and feelings with her phrases speaks to time spent not only as an accomplished composer for new media and modern orchestral performance.

Prestini’s time spent perfecting 30-plus commissioned multidisciplinary works and serving as creative and executive director of Williamsburg’s National Sawdust has only further fortified her with the tact to balance all the voices, mixed media and technology that combine to make The Hubble Cantata such a spectacle. Hence, Eliza McNitt’s stunning five-minute VR climax doesn’t come off as gimmicky or tacked on. Instead, Prestini’s decision to use the Hubble’s imagery sparingly speaks to her tasteful intuitions as a multi-disciplinary artist. (Her production company, Vision Into Art, also produced the show.)

“We decided to not use Hubble imagery until the very end of the piece,” she said, “and holding back was very important. Because by the end, when you’ve really connected with the human story and you finally get to be in the Orion Nebula, it’s much more visceral.”

It’s such commitment to using new technology, not as a driving force but as a means to accent the work, that makes The Hubble Cantata a resounding success. More often than not technology puts us at a distance from establishing an emotional connection, but it doesn’t have to. And that’s a valuable lesson in of itself.

Many families brought young kids to the performance, which was both free and outside, and for its entire spectacle, a more enticing young person’s gateway into the world of classical music does not exist.

Astronaut Mike Mannino was also on hand, regaling youngsters with tales of his time spent servicing the Hubble, including one harrowing tale where he had to break off a support rod in the blackness of space so that the thing would work properly.

“We’re the repair people,” he told the crowd, “and we did the job so people like Mario could look at the images and make the great discoveries that they did.”

The packed house ran out of its 5,000 viewers, and even on the lawn an empty spot was tough to come by; The Hubble Cantata demonstrated that people will still turn out for classical music, even when it’s presented in new, more modern perspectives.

“It’s just really cool that we’re no longer at a time when only one type of classical music is allowed,” said librettist Royce Vavreck. “We are free to dream, and this piece really came from that liberation.”

Fri, August 5, 2016

A Saturday Night at the Center of the Stars
The Wall Street Journal

It is often said that music can transport a listener. On Saturday night, “The Hubble Cantata” hopes to launch some 6,000 people from Prospect Park into the Orion Nebula, more than 1,000 light-years away.

“We want everyone at the performance to feel like they are an astronaut, but to go where no astronaut has ever gone before,” said filmmaker Eliza McNitt, who is directing visuals for the ambitious project that merges science and modern classical music. It will be presented as part of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn concert series.

For its operatic tour of outer space, “Hubble” features a score by composer Paola Prestini, a libretto by Royce Vavrek, narration by astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio and virtual-reality effects from the Endless Collective. Performers include a 20-piece orchestra, a 100-person choir and two Metropolitan Opera veterans, Nathan Gunn and Jessica Rivera [conducted by Julian Wachner].

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A Saturday Night at the Center of the Stars
‘The Hubble Cantata,’ inspired by images from the telescope, comes to Prospect Park

By 
ANDY BETA
Aug. 5, 2016 7:12 p.m. ET

It is often said that music can transport a listener. On Saturday night, “The Hubble Cantata” hopes to launch some 6,000 people from Prospect Park into the Orion Nebula, more than 1,000 light-years away.

“We want everyone at the performance to feel like they are an astronaut, but to go where no astronaut has ever gone before,” said filmmaker Eliza McNitt, who is directing visuals for the ambitious project that merges science and modern classical music. It will be presented as part of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn concert series.

For its operatic tour of outer space, “Hubble” features a score by composer Paola Prestini, a libretto by Royce Vavrek, narration by astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio and virtual-reality effects from the Endless Collective. Performers include a 20-piece orchestra, a 100-person choir and two Metropolitan Opera veterans, Nathan Gunn and Jessica Rivera.

And organizers have 6,000 cardboard virtual-reality headsets ready to hand out to attendees, who are encouraged to download a specially designed Fistful of Stars app before the show. The visuals were inspired by images transmitted to earth by the Hubble telescope.

“It’s poetic license with scientific guidance,” Ms. Prestini said of the project, which took more than four years to conceive and bring to completion. “You cannot know what space looks like, and of course space doesn’t sound like anything.”

Ms. Prestini is known for pushing the boundaries of classical music, in part through collaborations—with poets, filmmakers and conservationists, among others. Her work has been commissioned by groups including the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Opera and Kronos Quartet; she also serves as creative and executive director for Brooklyn’s National Sawdust performance space.

She worked with Mr. Vavrek and Dr. Livio to tell a story about the parallel lives of stars in deepest space and humans here on earth.

“Like humans, stars are born, live and die,” Dr. Livio said. “All the elements that make for life within our body—carbon, oxygen, iron and so on—are actually forged in the nuclear furnaces at the center of stars.”

According to Ms. Prestini, a key boost to the project was Dr. Livio’s ability to translate complex matters of physics, such as dark matter or extrasolar life, into graspable metaphors.

His guidance provided scientific grounding to the group’s broad creative interpretation of outer space.

“I gave them lectures on concepts,” Dr. Livio said. “They sent me everything to make sure there were no gross mistakes.”

“We’d go back and forth with lyrics, and Mario would go, ‘You can’t say multiverses, that’s not right,’ so we’d go back to the drawing board,” Ms. Prestini said.

Inspiring the group were the images transmitted from the Hubble telescope, which launched in 1990 and for the past 36 years has provided a window into previously unseen aspects of our universe.

“I’ve grown up with the legacy of Hubble and fallen in love with the images and been inspired, shocked and in awe of them,” Ms. McNitt said.

As she began to work on the project with Ms. Prestini, she said, she realized the best way to translate these images into an immersive experience for an audience was to use virtual reality.

Enter Duncan Ransom and the Endless Collective team. With visual credits including blockbuster films like “Wrath of the Titans” and the Academy Award-winning “Gravity,” Mr. Ransom accepted the challenge of manifesting the Orion Nebula for “Hubble.”

“ ‘Gravity’ was visually driven, but this is driven by sound,” Mr. Ransom said, adding that creating the cantata’s immersive experience isn’t simply a matter of tweaking the visuals.

Virtual reality, he said, comes with a lot of technical obstacles.

One hurdle: “You can’t actually experience VR for more than 10 minutes or else you get sick,” Ms. Prestini said. It is an aspect of the new technology that scientists have yet to understand.

So the part of the cantata where the audience explores the Orion Nebula occurs near the end of the performance, presenting a climax of the music with an immersive visual experience that aims to be as awe-inspiring as the telescope itself.

Dr. Livio said he hopes that through its ambitious mix of music, text and cutting-edge visuals, “Hubble” will personalize astrophysics for people—if only to impart an important lesson about the stars.

“Not only are we in the universe,” he said, “but the universe is inside us as well.”

Sun, May 22, 2016

Concert Review: A Mighty Shout of Joy
Super-Conductor Classical Blog

...Mr. Wachner followed the Ginastera with Beethoven’s Ninth, its mysterious opening chords seeming to float in the air as the audience waited for the first fortissimo to drop. What followed was a taut and relatively lean performance, as Mr. Wachner made the unfamiliar ensembles play together in taut accord.

The second movement benefited from the bright acoustic of Trinity, an ecclesiastical space that was somehow blessed with good sound design. Here, the propulsive scherzo was driven forward by a triple stroke on the timpani and Mr. Wachner was efficient in picking up the maddening repeats that haunt this movement. The slow movement was eloquent, benefitting from lush string playing from the 1B1 musicians and poetic winds from NOVUS NY.

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SUNDAY, MAY 22, 2016

Concert Review: A Mighty Shout of Joy

Trinity Church ends its two-month Revolutionaries festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 should not be taken, or performed lightly. This unwieldly but popular symphony is an occasion piece, performed at the opening or close of a major festival or sung to commemorate an historic event. The performance Friday night at Trinity Church met both qualifications, as five ensembles pooled their resources to perform the Ninth alongside Alberto Ginastera's equally imposing setting of Psalm 150.

Here, the event was the end of Revolutionaries: Beethoven and Ginastera a two month festival at the historic Wall Street church commemorating the 100th anniversary of Ginastera's birth and juxtaposing his ground-breaking music with more familiar pieces by Beethoven. With the church packed and the late composer's daughter present in a central pew, the sense of occasion was palpable as music director Julian Wachner mounted the temporary podium well in front of the massed forces.

Ginastera's setting of Psalm 150 ("Let All Things Praise the Lord") is a massive choral arrangement on a scale that would make Gustav Mahler proud. Like that earlier composer's Eighth Symphony, it opens with a mighty shout of sound, with the Downtown Voices and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street singing first in unison and then in more complicated polyphony and fugue. The massive orchestra (members of NOVUS NY and the Norwegian group 1B1) thundered, supporting the singers in a pillar of strength.

The work is sung in French, and although the words did not always come clearly to the ear its intent in singing the praises of the Almighty were lucid enough. The most impressive moment came in the final sections of the mass as the scarlet-gowned members of the Trinity Youth Chorus lined up on both of the outer aisles of the church and sang, giving this listener the effect of natural quadrophonic sound and the feeling of being totally immersed in this impressive work.

Following the structure of the aforementioned Mahler symphony, Mr. Wachner followed the Ginastera with Beethoven's Ninth, its mysterious opening chords seeming to float in the air as the audience waited for the first fortissimo to drop. What followed was a taut and relatively lean performance, as Mr. Wachner made the unfamiliar ensembles play together in taut accord.

The second movement benefited from the bright acoustic of Trinity, an ecclesiastical space that was somehow blessed with good sound design. Here, the propulsive scherzo was driven forward by a triple stroke on the timpani and Mr. Wachner was efficient in picking up the maddening repeats that haunt this movement. The slow movement was eloquent, benefitting from lush string playing from the 1B1 musicians and poetic winds from NOVUS NY.

And then it was time for the mighty finale, with the setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy led off by four unusually strong vocal soloists. The baritone was firm and resonant, aware of the import of the words he was singing but not too florid as he sang them. Mezzo-soprano, tenor and soprano joined the great outcry, with the chorussimetimes in support and other times in the lead. The most harrowing moment was the mighty double fugue, with the high voices seeking a "Father beyond the stars" in a rising tide of sound that overwhelmed and engulfed.

Sun, May 22, 2016

Review: Julian Wachner Celebrates Ginastera’s Centennial
The New York Times

For this concluding program…Mr. Wachner conducted Ginastera’s seldom-heard “Psalm 150” for chorus and orchestra, followed by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The roster of performers exemplified Trinity’s tradition of bringing together diverse ensembles. The impressive Choir of Trinity Wall Street was joined by Trinity Youth Chorus, Downtown Voices (a new choir comprised volunteers and professional Trinity choristers), Novus NY (Trinity’s contemporary music orchestra) and 1B1 (a Norwegian string ensemble)...

...This was a stirring, intensely dramatic performance…I have seldom been so swept away by the “Ode to Joy” choral finale. At the end, the ovation was tremendous.

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Review: Julian Wachner Celebrates Ginastera’s Centennial

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

MAY 22, 2016

The conductor Julian Wachner’s feeling for the music of the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera began before he was born, he told the audience at Trinity Wall Street church on Friday night. When his mother was eight months pregnant with him, Mr. Wachner explained, she started learning Ginastera’s pulsing First Piano Sonata, and played it constantly.

Mr. Wachner most recently put his passion for Ginastera into practice this spring to celebrate that composer’s centennial. Friday’s program was the finale to “Revolutionaries,” a two-and-a-half-month celebration that linked Ginastera, who boldly combined South American musical idioms with atonal 20th-century techniques, to late Beethoven, suggesting that in their own ways both were revolutionary.

For this concluding program, a free concert streamed live on Trinity’s website, Mr. Wachner conducted Ginastera’s seldom-heard “Psalm 150” for chorus and orchestra, followed by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The roster of performers exemplified Trinity’s tradition of bringing together diverse ensembles. The impressive Choir of Trinity Wall Street was joined by Trinity Youth Chorus, Downtown Voices (a new choir comprised volunteers and professional Trinity choristers), Novus NY (Trinity’s contemporary music orchestra) and 1B1 (a Norwegian string ensemble).

The centennial of Ginastera, who died in 1983, has been mostly overlookedby New York institutions. In a notable exception, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented the Miró Quartet in exciting accounts of Ginastera’s three string quartets on a single program last month.

Though the “Revolutionaries” festival mostly presented late Ginastera works, “Psalm 150” was written in 1938 by the 22-year-old composer as a silver wedding anniversary present for his parents. This teeming 16-minute piece for large chorus and orchestra must have been the couple’s ultimate gift.

The music conveys the exuberant cacophony of an Argentine wedding. As it opens, a subdued, ominous bass motif stirs and slowly crests, breaking into fractured brassy fanfares and choral proclamations. During whole stretches, celebratory choral bursts seem to escape tugging strands of nervous, dark orchestra music. Reflective passages lead to celestial phrases for the children’s choir. The piece ends with blissful “Alleluia” refrains as crystalline chords cascade in the piano and percussion.

The reverberant acoustics of the church must make it a little hard for orchestra players to hear one another. During the Beethoven Ninth, the playing lacked precision and clarity now and then. No matter. This was a stirring, intensely dramatic performance. Four excellent vocal soloists — the soprano Sarah Brailey, the mezzo-soprano Melissa Attebury, the tenor Vale Rideout and the bass-baritone Dashon Burton — sat in the first pew of the church until their moment came in the last movement, when they rose to face the audience, seated right before them, and sang splendidly. I have seldom been so swept away by the “Ode to Joy” choral finale. At the end, the ovation was tremendous.

Sun, May 15, 2016

Trinity Church: Matt Haimovitz and the ‘Missa Solemnis’
The New Yorker

The great church’s festival celebrating the music of two forthright personalities, Beethoven and Ginastera, is in its final month. One of this week’s concerts (free, as always) is especially grand, offering the Argentinean master’s vivid Cello Concerto No. 1 (with a distinctive soloist, Matt Haimovitz) and the Viennese titan’s major sacred work, the “Missa Solemnis.” Julian Wachner conducts Downtown Voices, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and the NOVUS NY ensemble.

Fri, April 29, 2016

A Parisian Spring Gala: The Washington Chorus celebrates at the French Embassy
DC Performing Arts Examiner

In the great French tradition of composition, music director Julian Wachner improvised at the piano on each letter of Peterson’s first name: DIANNE. The improvisation nodded to many of the great choral music that Wachner and Peterson have collaborated on over the years, many of which were settings of the Requiem…

...Rounding out the special celebration was the rendering of the beautiful “Cantique de Jean Racine” by Gabriel Fauré by The Washington Chorus conducted by Julian Wachner. What a perfect prelude to their special concert at The Kennedy Center.

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A Parisian Spring Gala: The Washington Chorus celebrates at the French Embassy

April 29, 2016  7:10 AM MST

By Patrick McCoy

The beauty of spring is certainly the time of year that conjures up beautiful celebrations, the sounds of music and the festivity of gala season. At the French Embassy, that could not be more evident as a few hundred well-wishes attended the Parisian Spring Gala on Tuesday evening hosted by The Washington Chorus. Brilliant colors, sparkling champagne and the elegance of the crowd all marked a festive evening honoring the chorus' executive director Dianne Peterson and Washington attorney and cultural benefactor Leonard Silverstein, who served as leader of the The French-American Cultural Foundation, a partner in the evening's festivities.

A unique aspect of any gala in Washington is certainly having a theme. In advance of The Washington Chorus' Kennedy Center Concert featuring the music of French composers, what better way to punctuate the beauty of French culture through wonderful food, fashion and of course, music. There was a wonderful showing of arts leaders in particular to celebrate Dianne Peterson's exemplary leadership. Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter, Washington Performing Arts President and CEO Jenny Bilfield, Chorus American President Catherine Dehoney, NEA Director of Music and Opera Ann Meier Baker, Gay Men's Chorus of Washington Executive Director Chase Maggiano,Wolf Trap President and CEO Arvind Manocha among many other arts administrators came out in full force to celebrate the accomplishments of two towering arts figures in Washington.

And there were surprises too! In the great French tradition of composition, music director Julian Wachnerimprovised at the piano on each letter of Peterson's first name: DIANNE. The improvisation nodded to many of the great choral music that Wachner and Peterson have collaborated on over the years, many of which were settings of the Requiem. Vale Ridout who has sung with the chorus on several occasions as guest soloist serenaded Dianne with a special song of tribute, much to her surprise.

“I thought there may have been some surprises in the last year...but I am just stunned. I am bursting with so much love and gratitude. This is an incredible honor, especially to me with Leonard who I have been in awe of for so many years...I never dreamed that 32 years later I would be standing here tonight trying to explain why I could still be here.” she reflected. In her generosity, she also announced and acknowledged her successor as executive director, Chase Maggiano.

Watch and listen to a touching excerpt of Dianne Peterson's remarks.

A hallmark of Peterson's leadership has been the Side by Side program which gives exceptional high school choirs the opportunity to perform with The Washington Chorus. The outstanding performance of the evening by A cappella! directed by Sandra Zinkievich was a wonderful example of this wonderful partnership and nurturing of young performers.

Rounding out the special celebration was the rendering of the beautiful “Cantique de Jean Racine” by Gabriel Fauré by The Washington Chorus conducted by Julian Wachner. What a perfect prelude to their special concert at The Kennedy Center.

The Washington Chorus in partnership with the French-American Cultural Foundation presents “A Parisian Spring” on Sunday, May 1, at 5 p.m. In the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, featuring the music of French composers Fauré, Duruflé and the premiere of Julian Wachner's “At the Lighting of the Lamps.”

Thu, March 10, 2016

Wachner brings new slant to “Americas” program with Seraphic Fire
South Florida Classical Review

This is the type of score the Seraphic Fire singers excel at, particularly the writing in the low register of the second lamentation where the hushed richness had potent impact. Wachner drew a larger corporate sonority from the singers than artistic director Patrick Quigley often achieves. The 13 choir members sounded at times, like more than twice their number. Dynamic contrasts were huge and wonderfully clear in the cathedral’s warm and reverberant acoustic.

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Wachner brings new slant to “Americas” program with Seraphic Fire

By Lawrence Budmen

Julian Wachner, music director of Trinity Wall Street in New York, was guest conductor for Seraphic Fire’s survey of choral music from the Americas Wednesday night at Miami’s St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral. A finely wrought Canadian discovery and major scores by one of Argentina’s most important voices and an American master highlighted Wachner’s ambitious program.

A vocal version of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9, the concert opener, was an intriguing novelty. Wachner told the audience that this was a very flexible adaptation of Villa-Lobos’ partly illegible manuscript and described the result as a combination of Bach and doo-wop. The result sounded like the Swingle Singers, a group whose jazzed-up Bach vocals has had a strong following for decades.

Alberto Ginastera was one of South America’s most distinguished and prolific composers. The composer evolved from a folklorist who mined indigenous music from the Argentine countryside to a high modernist, embracing atonality and seralism.

His Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae (Lamentations of Jeremiah) dates from 1946, just before Ginastera joined the musical avant-garde. This liturgical setting is a major discovery. Opening with a huge wail from the women, which builds to a crescendo, the three-movement work proceeds to a solemn proclamation of grief–strikingly beautiful in its austere reverence–and closes with a Bachian fugue.

This is the type of score the Seraphic Fire singers excel at, particularly the writing in the low register of the second lamentation where the hushed richness had potent impact. Wachner drew a larger corporate sonority from the singers than artistic director Patrick Quigley often achieves. The 13 choir members sounded at times, like more than twice their number. Dynamic contrasts were huge and wonderfully clear in the cathedral’s warm and reverberant acoustic.

The octogenarian Canadian composer Ruth Watson Henderson has long been associated with her country’s choral music. Henderson’s musical sensibility is clearly French-oriented, as shown by the performance of her Missa Brevis.

The opening Kyrie echoes Renaissance polyphony through the modernist palette of Messiaen while the Gloria suggests the rhythmic and melodic contours of Poulenc’s setting. Henderson’s version of the Hosanna almost sounds like a French carol. The low male voices intoning Agnus Dei sets the stage for a final ascending theme which Wachner called a Mahlerian climax. Henderson’s voice and sensibility are distinctive. If her other choral works are as fine and interesting as the Missa Brevis, her music deserves to be heard more frequently south of the Canadian border.

Two settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke concluded the program. Wachner compared the tonal journey in his Six Rilke Songs to the circle of life. Based on Rilke’s animal poems, the 2001 suite is in the modern lyrical choral tradition. The score’s most effective sections exploit contrasts of vocal coloring and dynamics. A languid unicorn and jazzy black cat afforded its best moments.

For all his skill, Wachner’s work inevitably paled next to that of Morten Lauridsen, one of America’s finest choral composers. Lauridsen’s irresistibly charming Les Chansons des Roses, to French texts by Rilke, is a masterful demonstration of his gift for melody and alternating patterns of meter and texture. “Contre qui, rose” is quintessential Lauridsen, an expansive theme that stays in the listener’s memory.  “Dirat-on,” the concluding movement, proved both rousing and soothing with a piano line that Wachner adeptly played at the Yamaha, the choir bringing tonal purity and supple blending to this gorgeous score.

Seraphic Fire repeats the program 7:30 p.m. Friday at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables, 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale, and 4 p.m. Sunday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Miami Beach. seraphicfire.org; 305-285-9060.

Wed, February 24, 2016

Wachner to leave Washington Chorus after 9 seasons
The Washington Post

Today, the Washington Chorus is a young group that bears the stamp of Wachner’s colorful programming — innovations such as the annual New Music for a New Age concert, focused on the work of a single living composer. (This year’s installment, devoted to Luna Pearl Woolf, is Sunday.) The Essential series offered new perspectives on composers not necessarily known for their choral writing, including Wagner, Puccini and Bernstein, and the Washington Chorus’s Christmas concerts now feature carol arrangements by Wachner that he gleefully calls “trashy” but that share some of his own slightly messy exuberance.

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Wachner to leave Washington Chorus after 9 seasons

By Anne Midgette Classical music critic/The Classical Beat February 24 

The Washington Chorus is facing a complete change of leadership. Its longtime executive director, Dianne Peterson, is preparing to step down in June. Now, it will also be in the market for a new music director. The organization announced Wednesday that Julian Wachner, who has led the chorus since 2008, will leave at the end of the 2016-17 season.

The news is hardly a surprise. In 2010, Wachner became music director of Trinity Wall Street in New York. Since then, he has transformed that post — leading several ensembles, including the church choir, the Trinity Baroque Orchestra and the contemporary-music ensemble Novus NY — into a significant presence on the New York scene, participating not only in regular Trinity programs, but also in collaborations with a range of other New York presenters (the Prototype Festival, the Metropolitan Museum). Wachner also is an active composer and has an increasingly busy schedule of guest-conducting appearances, with big-league management — Opus 3 Artists — working to get him ever more. It’s no secret that fitting Washington into his schedule has been a challenge; more notable than his departure, perhaps, is the fact that he has stayed here so long.

When Wachner took over, the chorus was still recovering from the difficult departure of its longtime music director Robert Shafer, whose dismissal by the chorus’s board prompted something of a schism among the chorus’s members. But choruses have a way of regenerating themselves as members cycle in and out. Today, the Washington Chorus is a young group that bears the stamp of Wachner’s colorful programming — innovations such as the annual New Music for a New Age concert, focused on the work of a single living composer. (This year’s installment, devoted to Luna Pearl Woolf, is Sunday.) The Essential series offered new perspectives on composers not necessarily known for their choral writing, including Wagner, Puccini and Bernstein, and the Washington Chorus’s Christmas concerts now feature carol arrangements by Wachner that he gleefully calls “trashy” but that share some of his own slightly messy exuberance.

Peterson, who has kept everything running smoothly during Wachner’s protracted absences, will be departing before the search for Wachner’s replacement gets fully underway. (An announcement of her replacement is said to be imminent.) And the programming for Wachner’s final season has yet to be made public. Whether Wachner will be back to guest-conduct the chorus is also unclear. But one way or another, chances are that music lovers will be able to hear more of him in the future.

Thu, January 21, 2016

Miscellany
Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Trinity Wall Street’s annual Twelfth Night Festival, in the period after Christmas, brought the inauguration of the multi-year Mass Reimaginings series. On Trinity’s invaluable streaming portal, you can see Daniel Felsenfeld’s potent, questing Astrophysical Mass, on a text by Rick Moody. The video also includes Lassus’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum

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Miscellany

One of the most impressive improvisational feats I've ever witnessed took place at Marlboro Music in 2008, when the pianist and composer Matan Porat provided live accompaniment to a screening of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The really amazing thing, it was revealed afterward, was that the version of the film shown was different from —and quite a bit longer than — the one that Porat had looked at in advance. You would never known from his ebullient, seamless playing. Porat has two concerts coming up at the 92nd Street Y: on January 25th, he will give a program entitled Variations on a Theme by Scarlatti, covering music from Bach to Boulez; and on the 26th he will accompany a screening of Buster Keaton's The General.... Trinity Wall Street's annual Twelfth Night Festival, in the period after Christmas, brought the inauguration of the multi-yearMass Reimaginings series. On Trinity's invaluable streaming portal, you can see Daniel Felsenfeld's potent, questingAstrophysical Mass, on a text by Rick Moody. The video also includes Lassus's Prophetiae Sibyllarum.... Eric Huebner has a pop-up concert on Jan. 26 at Miller Theatre, playing Roger Reynolds's Piano Etudes, Book I and Eric Wubbles'sPsychomechanochronometer, both written for him.... TheSpektral Quartet, young radicals of Chicago, have a delirious new record called Serious Business, on the theme of comedy in music. The central piece, Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Hack, is a knockout: instrumental reproductions/revampings of comedy routines by the likes of George Carlin, Robin Williams, Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor, Sarah Silverman, and Dave Chappelle. Spektral will present live concerts in Chicago on January 29th and 31st.... David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony have unveiled their enhanced production of Messiaen's Des Canyons aux étoiles, with imagery of the Utah canyons provided by the photographer Deborah O'Grady. I listened to the radio broadcast and was enthralled by the playing. The orchestra will now bring the Canyons west, to Berkeley's Cal Performances series (Jan. 31) and LA's Disney Hall (Feb. 2). The latter concert is part of the LA Phil's Francophone series called City of Light, which will culminate in a semi-staged production of Pelléas et Mélisande, with Esa-Pekka Salonen presiding.... This year's Juilliard Focus! Festival (Jan. 22-29) is celebrating the centenary of the great, lamented Milton Babbitt. Will Robin has a good overview in theNew York Times. Once again I urgently recommend Robert Hilferty's brilliant Babbitt documentary.

Mon, January 18, 2016

At an opera festival, tales of drug cartels. At opera houses, same old song.
The Washington Post

The main presenter of all of this work is the Prototype Festival, which, in only four seasons of existence (the 2016 edition ran from Jan. 6-17), has become something of a beacon as a generator of high-quality new operas…

...Prototype’s aesthetic runs more to dark, edgy subjects — such as the devastating “Angel’s Bone” by Du Yun that I saw on Saturday. What would happen if two angels fell to Earth? In this work, they are first lovingly taken up by a human couple who are delighted at their find — but then “prune” the angels (an excruciating scene) and effectively pimp them out to their community, allowing access to people who do gradually crueler and crueler things to them.

The anguish of the hurt and battered angels and their horrific treatment is conveyed in a well-paced libretto by Royce Vavrek, who has become a kind of Metastasio of the downtown opera scene, and in music that ranges across a spectrum of sound — from a fine a cappella chorus to the hum of electronica, presented here by Julian Wachner, the music director of the Washington Chorus and the head of music at Trinity Wall Street in New York.

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At an opera festival, tales of drug cartels. At opera houses, same old song.

By Anne Midgette Classical music critic/The Classical Beat January 18 

NEW YORK — Classical music, some say, is in decline. I say, over and over, that it isn’t. Classical music is just fine. It’s the institutions that perform it that are having trouble.

Traditional orchestras and opera houses are struggling to keep up funding, ticket sales, and audiences — and to figure out how to present new work, which is essential to any art form. Alas, the core audience of these traditional institutions isn’t always interested in venturing outside of the canon. Recently, someone informed me that this season at the Washington National Opera was the worst he had ever seen — because it included two works, Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” (from 1949) and Philip Glass’s “Appomattox,” that he didn’t know.

Of course, new work has an audience. It just may not be a traditional opera audience. This weekend in New York I went on an opera binge that started with a sold-out matinee of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” at the Metropolitan Opera and continued with several other sold-out productions of new works at much smaller venues across the city. The audiences tended to be energetic and enthusiastic — but they were coming to see work on a different scale than a typical opera house, and with different content. (I saw an opera about human trafficking, one about a Mexican drug cartel and one that, in the best traditions of modernism, proved its edginess by remaining defiantly impenetrable, but it involved a hotel, an unhappy couple, a suicide and disco lights.)

The main presenter of all of this work is the Prototype Festival, which, in only four seasons of existence (the 2016 edition ran from Jan. 6-17), has become something of a beacon as a generator of high-quality new operas. Co-founder Beth Morrison has been identifying and producing new operas since 2006, and her stable has included works by Missy Mazzoli (“Song From the Uproar”), Paola Prestini (whose “Oceanic Verses” was seen in Washington in 2012), Mohammed Fairouz (whose works in progress include “The New Prince” for the Dutch National Opera, with a libretto by David Ignatius), and David T. Little, whose acclaimed “Dog Days” has appeared at the Fort Worth Opera, the Los Angeles Opera and in a revival at this year’s Prototype Festival.

All of these mainstage commissions and opera-house collaborations demonstrate one reason for Prototype’s rapid ascent to prominence: The opera world is desperate to find good new operas and new audiences, and it isn’t sure how to go about it. Mainstage commissions are an expensive gamble, costing upward of a million dollars and creating, all too often, work that fails to make an impact or to get the best out of an adventurous young composer. Beth Morrison’s production company helps midwife mainstage projects (such as Fairouz’s “Bhutto,” scheduled to premiere at the Pittsburgh Opera in 2018) or develop autonomous pieces such as “Dog Days”; it has a sizable roster of touring productions that an opera company can take over lock, stock and barrel.

All of the cool companies are doing it. Opera Philadelphia’s Aurora Series for Chamber Opera develops and presents work — such as “Yardbird” or its recent Andy Warhol opera — in collaboration with other small companies; and smaller-scale operas will become even more integral to the company when it launches a new opera festival next year. The Los Angeles Opera started a chamber opera series five years ago, and it began collaborating with Morrison not long thereafter; Los Angeles has seen “Dog Days” and “Song From the Uproar,” and in June, it will present the Morrison-developed world premiere of “Anatomy Theater” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, which will subsequently be seen at Prototype. The San Francisco Opera will open its new, smaller Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera in February; its program includes some chamber operas, such as “Svadba-Wedding,” which Opera Philadelphia offered in 2013.

Some companies, of course, remain invested in creating new work themselves — such as the Washington National Opera, which has, in recent years, been offering plenty of new chamber opera thanks to its American Opera Initiative, a commissioning program created in-house with plenty of workshops. Most of these works partake of the aesthetic of the mainstage house — which is exactly what Prototype doesn’t do.

Prototype’s aesthetic runs more to dark, edgy subjects — such as the devastating “Angel’s Bone” by Du Yun that I saw on Saturday. What would happen if two angels fell to Earth? In this work, they are first lovingly taken up by a human couple who are delighted at their find — but then “prune” the angels (an excruciating scene) and effectively pimp them out to their community, allowing access to people who do gradually crueler and crueler things to them.

The anguish of the hurt and battered angels and their horrific treatment is conveyed in a well-paced libretto by Royce Vavrek, who has become a kind of Metastasio of the downtown opera scene, and in music that ranges across a spectrum of sound — from a fine a cappella chorus to the hum of electronica, presented here by Julian Wachner, the music director of the Washington Chorus and the head of music at Trinity Wall Street in New York. Disturbing, powerful and original, effectively using electronics and video, the opera ended with the evil wife tearfully pleading her case on daytime TV, adding the final nail of credibility to a work that gave me nightmares, yet one that I would nonetheless see again.

“Angel’s Bone” was a showpiece of a range of work, not all of it developed here. “The Last Hotel,” by the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, has been seen at the Royal Opera House and the Edinburgh International Festival, where one reviewer found it “searingly powerful.” Dennehy’s music, filled with restlessly active sawing strings in nonrepeating patterns, is certainly both searing and powerful in places, but Enda Walsh’s opaque libretto kept me from connecting to the characters or their disjointed story, for all of its cute touches.

Whatever your view of the individual work, the Prototype Festival demonstrates conclusively that opera is a perfectly natural vehicle for contemporary stories and contemporary art. The real issue is one of scale, and, perhaps, taste — does the opera world as it exists want to embrace this size opera and this kind of subject? David Gockley, now in his last season as general director of the San Francisco Opera, controversially described his company’s brand of opera as a “bourgeois art form” in a radio interview this summer. That’s not what you’ll find at the Prototype Festival. What it offers is less opera of the future than opera of the present. Whether or not opera’s institutions are able to embrace it remains an open question, but it’s very much worth seeing.

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