Press

Wed, May 17, 2017

NOVUS NY: Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 5
The New Yorker

An ambitious run of spring programming at Trinity Church wraps up with a performance of one of Glass’s grandest works, a hopeful, evening-length piece for voices and orchestra (subtitled “Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya”) that draws on religious texts from several world traditions. In a smaller-scale midday event on Thursday, at St. Paul’s Chapel, Julian Wachner and his outstanding players offer a welcome performance of John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, “Become Ocean,” in addition to works by Jessica Meyer (a world première) and Luna Pearl Woolf.

Read Full Text

GOINGS ABOUT TOWN

CLASSICAL MUSIC ORCHESTRAS AND CHORUSES

NOVUS NY: Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 5

Photograph by Eamonn McCabe / Camera Press / Redux

An ambitious run of spring programming at Trinity Church wraps up with a performance of one of Glass’s grandest works, a hopeful, evening-length piece for voices and orchestra (subtitled “Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya”) that draws on religious texts from several world traditions. In a smaller-scale midday event on Thursday, at St. Paul’s Chapel, Julian Wachner and his outstanding players offer a welcome performance of John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, “Become Ocean,” in addition to works by Jessica Meyer (a world première) and Luna Pearl Woolf.

May 18 at 1; May 19-20 at 8.

Trinity Church

Broadway at Wall St.

Downtown

212-602-0848

Mon, May 15, 2017

The Shimmering Nebulae of Paola Prestini’s ‘Hubble Cantata’
WQXR

And the project’s other collaborators are no less – and there is no other word for them – stellar. The libretto is by Royce Vavrek, the wordsmith behind the 21st-century’s most acclaimed American operas (Breaking the Waves, Dog Days), and soprano Jessica Rivera’s passionate solos transmute the scientific stuff of the text into pure theater. Baritone Nathan Gunn’s voice reminds you why he is one of opera’s biggest names, and Julian Wachner steers not only his own Washington Chorus and Novus NY but also the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the Norwegian string ensemble 1B1 through Prestini’s shimmering nebulae of sound.

Read Full Text

Published by
Q2 Music Album of the Week

The Shimmering Nebulae of Paola Prestini's 'Hubble Cantata'

May 15, 2017 · by Daniel Stephen Johnson

Paola Prestini is more than a composer. Co-founder of the production company VisionIntoArt (VIA) and its recording offshoot VIA Records, her latest institutional triumph is National Sawdust, the audiophile listening venue in Williamsburg that instantly became Brooklyn's not-just-classical hotspot.

And her new VIA Records release, The Hubble Cantata, is a more than a piece of music. It is a new kind of collaboration: a nexus of art and science. 

On the scientific side, the piece features spoken narration by astrophysicist Mario Livio, exploring the place of Earth and its passengers among the stars and generally asking the Big Questions provoked by our view of the heavens. A stereo recording, unfortunately, cannot fully convey the 3D virtual reality sound – designed by Arup, the same firm that created the acoustics of National Sawdust and, among other high-profile projects, New York's new Second Avenue Subway – that accompany live performances of the work, but vestiges of the experience remain in the atmospheric electronic elements of the score.

And the project's other collaborators are no less – and there is no other word for them – stellar. The libretto is by Royce Vavrek, the wordsmith behind the 21st-century's most acclaimed American operas (Breaking the Waves, Dog Days), and soprano Jessica Rivera's passionate solos transmute the scientific stuff of the text into pure theater. Baritone Nathan Gunn's voice reminds you why he is one of opera's biggest names, and Julian Wachner steers not only his own Washington Chorus and Novus NY but also the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the Norwegian string ensemble 1B1 through Prestini's shimmering nebulae of sound. 

For a piece that explicitly takes as its subject the seeming insignificance of mankind against the sublime and infinite expanses of outer space, The Hubble Cantata's focus is very much on the human. This studio recording is not awash in reverb but as raw and clear as a live recording, allowing us to hear the minutest details of these terrestrial voices as they lead us on a voyage through the stars.

Paola Prestini: The Hubble Cantata
VIA Records | Released May 19, 2017 | Available on iTunes

Mon, May 15, 2017

Julian Wachner leads his last concert as music director of Washington Chorus
The Washington Post

Wachner brought a somewhat different approach to D.C.’s choral landscape. Rather than seeking a life partner in an ensemble, he made no secret of wanting to continue his career as a composer and conductor of other orchestras and operas. His innovations included a series devoted to new music, a series on prominent composers not mainly known for their choral works (Bernstein, Wagner, Mahler) and significant contemporary works. He also had a populist flair, manifest in his exuberant carol arrangements for the chorus’s popular Christmas concerts. But partway through Wachner’s Washington Chorus tenure, a new post at New York’s Trinity Wall Street emerged as an even better vehicle for his disparate interests. In New York, he has become a darling of the new-music scene and early-music scene at the same time, while marrying and starting a family. His official departure from D.C. is a natural step.

Read Full Text

Julian Wachner leads his last concert as music director of Washington Chorus

Julian Wachner is leaving the Washington Chorus after 10 years as its music director. Replacing him is Scotland-based conductor Christopher Bell.

By Anne Midgette May 15, 2017

When Julian Wachner arrived in Washington to head the Washington Chorus, he was seething with unfocused energy: a man with a lot to prove. On Sunday, nearly 10 years later, he led his valedictory performance as the chorus’s music director. It was in many ways a typical Wachner performance — big and ambitious, pairing two 20th-century works with roots in the distant past, Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” and Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” But Wachner has less to prove now, and this was an amicable parting. The chorus announced his successor, the acclaimed Scotland-based conductor Christopher Bell , earlier this week.

Wachner brought a somewhat different approach to D.C.’s choral landscape. Rather than seeking a life partner in an ensemble, he made no secret of wanting to continue his career as a composer and conductor of other orchestras and operas. His innovations included a series devoted to new music, a series on prominent composers not mainly known for their choral works (Bernstein, Wagner, Mahler) and significant contemporary works. He also had a populist flair, manifest in his exuberant carol arrangements for the chorus’s popular Christmas concerts. But partway through Wachner’s Washington Chorus tenure, a new post at New York’s Trinity Wall Street emerged as an even better vehicle for his disparate interests. In New York, he has become a darling of the new-music scene and early-music scene at the same time, while marrying and starting a family. His official departure from D.C. is a natural step. 

Wachner leaves the chorus in good shape. It sounded fine Sunday, joining with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington in Stravinsky’s pounding, archaic lines, while the exuberant orchestra — Wachner is never too quiet — often all but drowned out the soloists. Margaret Lattimore was a clean, silvery Jocasta, firm and clear of tone in contrast to the men: Vale Rideout, who sang the tough role of Oedipus; Christopher Burchett, in several roles; and Morris Robinson, as a stentorian and deluxe Tiresias, all sounded a little furry.

“Oedipus” offers dark austerity; “Carmina Burana,” bright austerity. Wachner brought a fluidity and verve to this familiar piece, emphasizing less the work’s powerful sound than its sensuality and theatricality. The Children’s Chorus of Washington and the boy and girl choristers of Washington National Cathedral sang angelically from the top balcony at the back of the hall, while the tenor Robert Baker rose from a side box and moved around the stage, singing plangently in the role of a roasting swan. The soprano Colleen Daly showed a mezzo-tinted lower register rising to a wonderful warm top.

Wachner takes up a lot of space, drawing the spotlight; Bell, his successor, may offer a more conventional approach. But the chorus was perhaps able to snare someone of Bell’s international stature because Wachner has elevated its profile. Sunday’s farewell was a happy goodbye between two parties looking forward to new beginnings — as smooth a transition as an organization can have. In a few days, Wachner will be back at the Kennedy Center, conducting a multimedia new-music project from New York, “The Hubble Cantata.” Washington won’t lose sight of him in the years ahead. 

Fri, May 12, 2017

A Valiant Return to the Met Opera: This Week’s 8 Best Classical Music Moments
The New York Times

“It will look sloppy but sound cool,” Julian Wachner said in remarks before the music began. Because of an unexpected demand for seats, Mr. Wachner’s performance of Monteverdi’s magnificent “1610 Vespers” on the composer’s 450th birthday with this excellent choir and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra had been relocated a day before from tiny St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway to Trinity Church, and quick adjustments had to be made for the new space. One was to mingle the singers cheek by jowl among the instrumentalists and push the whole to either side to achieve the proper antiphonal effect in “Nisi Dominus.” Like so much else in the performance, it was not only cool but also captivating.

Read Full Text

A Valiant Return to the Met Opera: This Week’s 8 Best Classical Music Moments

MAY 12, 2017

JENNIFER ROWLEY, MAY 5

The Other Mathilde

One soprano’s illness is another soprano’s shot at a breakthrough. Jennifer Rowley was originally an understudy for Patricia Racette as Roxane in Franco Alfano’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” at the Metropolitan Opera, but Ms. Racette withdrew because of an abdominal hernia. Ms. Rowley didn’t get the same opportunity last fall as the understudy for Marina Rebeka, who never missed a performance as Mathilde in Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell.” But in a Facebook Live concert and interview with us, Ms. Rowley sang “Pour notre amour,” a challenging aria from that opera, to offer a glimpse of the Mathilde we could have seen. JOSHUA BARONE

ISRAELI CHAMBER PROJECT, MAY 9

Diplomatic Harp

The harp is a diplomatic instrument: There is something about its sound, so clear in its attack and so graceful in its decay, that suggests an openness to other points of view. As such it should be a prized chamber-music companion, a point eloquently made by the harpist Sivan Magen in a sparkling concert of music for mixed ensembles. Some of the most beautiful moments found him at his most self-effacing, like in the gorgeous first Interlude for Harp, Clarinet and Cello by Jacques Ibert, in which Mr. Magen’s pealing chords supported a soaring line in the cello with the clarinet — less heard than felt — adding just a hint of a draft in the melody’s sails. CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM

MET OPERA GALA, MAY 7

A Valiant Return

The Met’s gala concert to celebrate 50 years in its Lincoln Center home was a five-hour cavalcade of stars, hence a long lineup of musical moments, many of them thrilling. The most emotional one, by far, was the surprise appearance of the great baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Despite looking shaky from treatments for a brain tumor, he summoned fervor, passion and his distinctively smoky sound in a valiant performance of “Cortigiani” from “Rigoletto.” I was especially moved as well when Pretty Yende joined Eric Owens for a poignant account of the love duet “Bess, you is my woman now” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” Bring this great work back to the Met! ANTHONY TOMMASINI

ORATORIO SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, MAY 8

Population Explosion

You did not need to be a dogmatic one-voice-per-part minimalist when it comes to Bach choruses to worry that 203 choristers on the Carnegie Hall stage for the Mass in B minor would inevitably inject some chaos into music in which clarity of line and rhythm is all-important. And superb conductor that Kent Tritle is, his amateur chorus suggested the worry was well-founded on Monday evening. Still, in the relatively straightforward and measured “Gratias agimus” (“We give thanks”) of the Gloria. Mr. Tritle elicited a cushioned warmth within a coherent sound that often eluded him elsewhere. JAMES R. OESTREICH

CHOIR OF TRINITY WALL STREET, MAY 9

Cool Becomes Hot

“It will look sloppy but sound cool,” Julian Wachner said in remarks before the music began. Because of an unexpected demand for seats, Mr. Wachner’s performance of Monteverdi’s magnificent “1610 Vespers” on the composer’s 450th birthday with this excellent choir and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra had been relocated a day before from tiny St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway to Trinity Church, and quick adjustments had to be made for the new space. One was to mingle the singers cheek by jowl among the instrumentalists and push the whole to either side to achieve the proper antiphonal effect in “Nisi Dominus.” Like so much else in the performance, it was not only cool but also captivating. JAMES R. OESTREICH

ARTEK, MAY 5

The Dark Fantastic

This early-music group offered an enticing program, “Stylus Fantasticus: The Genius of Biber,” at St. Ignatius of Antioch Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, highlighting the unrestrained virtuosity of the violinist Cynthia Freivogel. But what would the “fantastic style” of the time be without a few outlandish quirks, as when the string players put down their bows and strummed along with the bass-baritone Peter Becker, lurking in the background and proclaiming the late hour, in a movement of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s serenade “The Night Watchman”? (“Bank the fire, bank it well, and praise the Lord God and Our Lady so beloved.”) JAMES R. OESTREICH

MET OPERA GALA, MAY 7

Mezzo’s Melancholy Fog

The Met’s 50th-anniversary gala was nothing but moments: I’ll find it hard forgetting the glowing ping of Javier Camarena’s high Cs, the bronzed nobility of Piotr Beczala, the worn-velvet ease of Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels’ Handel duet, the fearless molasses-y depths of Anna Netrebko’s low notes. But coming at a difficult point in the program — just after Dmitri Hvorostovsky roused the crowd with his dramatic surprise return to the stage — Joyce DiDonato provided a fittingly mellow coda, her voice a melancholy fog in an aria from “Werther.”  ZACHARY WOOLFE

CHIARA STRING QUARTET, MAY 11

Gritty Yet Soulful 

Pierre Jalbert runs through a series of effects In his “Canticle (String Quartet No. 6),” written for the adventuresome Chiara players and given its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: violinists doubling on crotales (small bells), struck or bowed; the cellist caught up in harmonics; violinists and violist using small glass rods as bouncing bows. The work is alternately contemplative and gritty, Mr. Jalbert said from the stage, “reflective of the time we currently live in,” but it ends in utter serenity, in a movement headed “Soulful, mysterious,” with the first violinist bowing a bell and the other players bowing their instruments in a fading pianissimo. JAMES R. OESTREICH

Thu, May 11, 2017

Washington Chorus names new music director
The Washington Post

Just in advance of the final concert of the season on Sunday, the Washington Chorus has named its next music director — and it appears to be an excellent choice. Christopher Bell, 56, a highly esteemed conductor based in Scotland who has led Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival chorus since 2002, will arrive in the fall to replace Julian Wachner, who, as previously announced, will step down at the end of the current season.

Read Full Text

Washington Chorus names new music director

By Anne Midgette May 11 

Just in advance of the final concert of the season on Sunday, the Washington Chorus has named its next music director — and it appears to be an excellent choice. Christopher Bell, 56, a highly esteemed conductor based in Scotland who has led Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival chorus since 2002, will arrive in the fall to replace Julian Wachner, who, as previously announced, will step down at the end of the current season.

Bell, born in Northern Ireland, has a fairly high-profile career in Scotland, where among other activities he is the artistic director of the National Youth Choir of Scotland, which he co-founded, and chorus master of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. He has also conducted a raft of major orchestras, particularly in Britain and Northern Ireland, including the London Philharmonic and the Ulster Orchestra. This makes him a fitting successor for Wachner, who also brought orchestral and choral experience to the table.

Bell will move to Washington to make the Washington Chorus a focus. In addition to leading the chorus’s regular-season concerts, he hopes to create something akin to the Project Inclusion initiative he developed with Grant Park, targeting underrepresented youth — in tandem with an educational program in partnership with D.C. Public Schools.

In a laudatory write-up in 2012, the late Chicago critic Andrew Patner reported the kinds of praise that Bell was receiving at Grant Park. Patner said that two of the chorus’s singers said, “He has the best ears in the business. … He misses nothing and knows how to communicate what he hears and what he wants to reach his goal.” Washington audiences may be in for a treat in the months ahead.

Thu, May 11, 2017

Classical Music in NYC This Week
The New York Times

If your John Luther Adams cravings are not fulfilled by the Crossing’s concert on Friday and Alarm Will Sound’s on Sunday, here’s a free lunchtime opportunity to hear “Become Ocean,” his symphonic masterpiece of tone painting, compositional process and ecological awareness, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Alongside it, Julian Wachner conducts a premiere from Jessica Meyer and Luna Pearl Woolf’s “After the Wave.”

Read Full Text

Classical Music in NYC This Week

By DAVID ALLEN

MAY 11, 2017

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

ALARM WILL SOUND at Merkin Concert Hall (May 13, 8:30 p.m.). Alarm Will Sound is one of those ensembles that you simply trust to have put together an interesting and fulfilling concert, whatever it is they are playing. This one, part of the Ecstatic Music Festival, is made up entirely of New York premieres and includes music by Valgeir Sigurdsson, Brian Reitzell, Tyondai Braxton, Matt Rogers and Chris Thompson.
212-501-3330, kaufmanmusiccenter.org

THE CROSSING at St. Michael’s Church (May 12, 7:30 p.m.). “Canticles of the Holy Wind” is one of two major works that this committed contemporary-music choir from Philadelphia has commissioned from John Luther Adams, a composer uncommonly concerned with the relationships between music, nature and humanity. This performance, celebrating a worthy new recording to be released on Cantaloupe Music in June, is part of an Adams series sponsored by Symphony Space. Another notable attraction will be Alarm Will Sound giving the New York premiere of “Ten Thousand Birds,” in Morningside Park at 3 p.m. on Sunday.
212-864-5400, symphonyspace.org

KYUNG WHA CHUNG at Carnegie Hall (May 18, 7:30 p.m.). Something of a cult star, this violinist has been in and out of the public eye of late after a succession of injuries. Here she takes on a challenge that might make lesser violinists sweat: in a single evening, a solo performance of all three of Bach’s violin sonatas, as well as all three of his partitas.
212-247-7800, carnegiehall.org

‘NEW MUSIC, THEN AND NOW’ at the New School (May 14, 2 p.m.). The affordable Schneider Concerts remain a solid deal for more intrepid classical music lovers, and this is a particularly intriguing program. On the first half, the inimitable soprano Tony Arnold sings in two works, Luciano Berio’s “Circles” and Matthew Ricketts’s “Song Cycle.” On the second, the excellent Calidore String Quartet plays Caroline Shaw’s “First Essay: Nimrod” and the premiere of Hannah Lash’s “How to Remember Seeds.”
212-229-5873, newschool.edu

NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC at David Geffen Hall (May 12, 7 p.m.; May 13, 1 and 7 p.m.). The Philharmonic is back on film duty this week, playing John Williams’s famous score to accompany showings of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” David Newman, the distinguished film composer and conductor, is on the podium.
212-875-5656, nyphil.org

NOVUS NY at St. Paul’s Chapel (May 18, 1 p.m.). If your John Luther Adams cravings are not fulfilled by the Crossing’s concert on Friday and Alarm Will Sound’s on Sunday, here’s a free lunchtime opportunity to hear “Become Ocean,” his symphonic masterpiece of tone painting, compositional process and ecological awareness, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Alongside it, Julian Wachner conducts a premiere from Jessica Meyer and Luna Pearl Woolf’s “After the Wave.”
212-602-0800, trinitywallstreet.org

CAROLYN SAMPSON at Alice Tully Hall (May 14, 5 p.m.). “Fleurs” is the title of this soprano’s recital with the pianist Joseph Middleton, and the bouquet blooms with myriad composers: Schumann, Britten, Fauré, Schubert, Strauss, Poulenc, Hahn, Chabrier and more. There are even a couple of rarities in the bunch, namely songs by Roger Quilter and Lili Boulanger.
212-721-6500, lcgreatperformers.org

Tue, May 9, 2017

Washington Chorus Plans Epic Send-Off for Julian Wachner
On Tap Magazine

After about a decade at the helm of the Washington Chorus, music director Julian Wachner will conduct his last official performance with the group on May 14 during their season finale concert at the Kennedy Center.

Wachner will go out with a bang, however, as the Washington Chorus will be joined onstage by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, the Children’s Chorus of Washington, and the Washington National Cathedral Boy and Girl Choristers. The program will feature Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

“It’s going to be an incredible performance with so many forces onstage, and another 80 extra men up there,” Wachner says. “Carmina Burana is such a popular and well-known piece, and doing Oedipus Rex on Mother’s Day brings sort of a primitive feel to it. I think it’s a great combination of pieces.”

Read Full Text

Washington Chorus Plans Epic Send-Off for Julian Wachner

May 9, 2017/in Music /by Keith Loria

After about a decade at the helm of the Washington Chorus, music director Julian Wachner will conduct his last official performance with the group on May 14 during their season finale concert at the Kennedy Center.

Wachner will go out with a bang, however, as the Washington Chorus will be joined onstage by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, the Children’s Chorus of Washington, and the Washington National Cathedral Boy and Girl Choristers. The program will feature Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

“It’s going to be an incredible performance with so many forces onstage, and another 80 extra men up there,” Wachner says. “Carmina Burana is such a popular and well-known piece, and doing Oedipus Rex on Mother’s Day brings sort of a primitive feel to it. I think it’s a great combination of pieces.”

Featured singers in the concert include soprano Colleen Daly, mezzo soprano Margaret Lattimore, tenor Vale Rideout, tenor Robert Baker, baritone Christopher Burchett and bass Morris Robinson. NPR’s Ari Shapiro will serve as guest narrator. The secret to conducting so many voices at one time, Wachner says, is maintaining a zen-like calm.

“When you add the orchestra into it, it’s really several hundred people, and you have to get everybody around a singular artistic vision,” he says. “There’s the basic, practical aspect of how you get people to start and stop together, but then you have to move on to how to get everyone to make an artistic statement together. It’s mostly through gesture and coercion and will.”

The show starts at 5 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

“The reason I chose Carmina Burana as my finale is I had never conducted it before, which is a weird thing for a conductor because it is so popular, and I wanted my chance,” Wachner says. “It’s secular in nature and helps us fill the hall with ticket sales because it’s a piece everyone loves.”

And although the season will officially end with that performance, a 100-person choir from the group will gather once more on May 24 to sing in the Hubble Cantata, a new work of music by New York-based composer Paola Prestini. The performance features opera stars Nathan Gunn and Talise Travigne, plus a 20-piece instrumental ensemble.

Wachner says it combines a narrative of a couple experiencing loss with the life and death of a star, and audience members will be given cardboard virtual reality headsets so they can view actual images of a voyage through the universe (as long as they download an app first).

“It’s about an astronomer and his wife, and is the tale of two lovers all wrapped up in life’s discoveries and the universe,” he says. “It’s a very forward-looking piece; very lyrical and is scored for two soloists, a child choir, an adult choir and then adds the VR experience, which is mind-blowing. It’s something truly special.”

In addition to conducting the Washington Chorus, Wachner is music director of Trinity Wall Street in New York and leads the church choir, the Trinity Baroque Orchestra and the contemporary music ensemble Novus NY. He also has an incredibly busy schedule of guest-conducting appearances, which all combined led to his exiting the choir.

“I will miss the energy and vitality that volunteer music making can offer. It’s been an incredible turn, and I’ve been very pleased with the process. We knew this was coming for awhile. We are all parting as friends, and I’m looking forward to continuing relationships with the people here as I move away.”

Fri, May 5, 2017

A Chorus Ball: Julian Wachner Fêted by The Washington Chorus
PatrickDMcCoy.com

There are certainly many galas on the DC arts scene with some of the most amazing venues in the city to choose from.  But The Washington Chorus took it to the next level as they honored music director Julian Wachner in the entire nave of Washington National Cathedral.  From the impressive lightening to the elegant place settings that lined the center of the cathedral it was truly an evening of opulence that was certainly well-deserved…

...Julian Wachner will leave a rich choral legacy in the fabric of Washington. Innovative programming, creative performances and accessibility has all been hallmarks of his tenure.  So what’s next?  We eagerly await to see what’s next on the horizon for this brilliant Maestro.  But we also bid a bittersweet farewell in a few months to a breath of fresh air on the DC music scene.

Read Full Text

A Chorus Ball: Julian Wachner Fêted by The Washington Chorus

May 5, 2017 

10th and Final Season:  The extraordinary 10 year tenure of music director Julian Wachner was honored in grand style by The Washington Chorus with a spectacular gala in the entire nave of Washington National Cathedral.

by Patrick D. McCoy

There are certainly many galas on the DC arts scene with some of the most amazing venues in the city to choose from.   But The Washington Chorus took it to the next level as they honored music director Julian Wachner in the entire nave of Washington National Cathedral.  From the impressive lightening to the elegant place settings that lined the center of the cathedral it was truly an evening of opulence that was certainly well-deserved.

Ardent supporters of The Washington Chorus packed the gala event themed “A Chorus Ball.”  The evening featured a cocktail reception, seated dinner and ended with a dance party.  It was an amazing journey down memory lane as Wachner was ‘roasted’ by friends including Executive Director Emerita Dianne Peterson,  the Honorable Jan Lodal and Elizabeth Lodal and longtime friend Beth Morrison.

A stunning evening certainly in gala fashion, music was at the core.  The composer Paola Prestini curated a special excerpt from her “Hubble Cantata” sung by members of the chorus with organist Janet Yieh, who was recently named among the 20 under 30 by The Diapason, a respected publication devoted to the pipe organ and sacred music.  In the midst of the celestial projections, the beautiful lighting and the grand space, the music was certainly transportive and ethereal in nature.

Executive Director Chase Maggiano set the stage in regards to Wachner’s role in the chorus’ present education initiatives that foster music in the public schools.  Those programs include the Junior Washington Chorus, the Side by Side program which allows a talented high school choir to perform alongside the choir on the stages of The Kennedy Center and the Music Center at Strathmore.  Most recently was The Washington Chorus’ partnering with DC Public Schools to form the DC Honors Chorus and to have an pivotal role in the choral music curriculum of DC  Public Schools.  A touching moment was when Maggiano invited all of those who teach or mentor to stand and be recognized.  In Wachner’s remarks of thanks and gratitude, he likened his own relationship with his singers in The Washington Chorus to a proud teacher, especially as he recalled his late teacher and friend Lukas Foss, with whom he enjoyed a similar relationship.

Julian Wachner will leave a rich choral legacy in the fabric of Washington. Innovative programming, creative performances and accessibility has all been hallmarks of his tenure.  So what’s next?  We eagerly await to see what’s next on the horizon for this brilliant Maestro.  But we also bid a bittersweet farewell in a few months to a breath of fresh air on the DC music scene.

Fri, May 5, 2017

Singing ‘Happy 450th Birthday’ to Monteverdi
The New York Times

The 105-minute “Vespro Della Beata Vergine” (“Vespers of the Blessed Virgin”), to give its full title, was long a musicological minefield, rife with conflagrations over its origin, nature and purpose. “To perform it is to court disaster,” the pioneering Monteverdi scholar Denis Arnold once wrote of the many interpretive decisions and conjectures that have to be made before a sound is even produced.

Yet performers have championed the work as never before in the seven years since its 400th anniversary, and none of the musicological disputes (which have in any case cooled a bit) need deter listeners if the work is in trusted hands. It will be on Tuesday, when Julian Wachner conducts the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Trinity Youth Chorus and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra at St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway, and on Wednesday, when the same forces take the performance to the Cathedral Basilica in Philadelphia.

Read Full Text

MUSIC | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK
Singing ‘Happy 450th Birthday’ to Monteverdi

By JAMES R. OESTREICH

MAY 5, 2017

It seems logical and simple enough: a performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers on Tuesday, the composer’s 450th birthday. Logical, yes; simple, not entirely.

The 105-minute “Vespro Della Beata Vergine” (“Vespers of the Blessed Virgin”), to give its full title, was long a musicological minefield, rife with conflagrations over its origin, nature and purpose. “To perform it is to court disaster,” the pioneering Monteverdi scholar Denis Arnold once wrote of the many interpretive decisions and conjectures that have to be made before a sound is even produced.

Yet performers have championed the work as never before in the seven years since its 400th anniversary, and none of the musicological disputes (which have in any case cooled a bit) need deter listeners if the work is in trusted hands. It will be on Tuesday, when Julian Wachner conducts the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Trinity Youth Chorus and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra at St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway, and on Wednesday, when the same forces take the performance to the Cathedral Basilica in Philadelphia.

The work was originally published along with a Mass and dedicated to Pope Paul V, perhaps in a vain bid for a job at the Vatican. The conductor Andrew Parrott called it a sort of “do-it-yourself Vespers kit” for choir directors.

Its main body consists of five polyphonic psalm settings — each, evidently, to be preceded by a chanted antiphon devoted to Mary or appropriate to the liturgical season, and each followed by a so-called sacred concerto or sonata. The work ends with a hymn, “Ave Maris Stella,” and a canticle, “Magnificat.” But it is never more striking than at its beginning.

Monteverdi showed in his first surviving opera, “Orfeo” (1607), that he knew how to grab an audience by its collective lapels with a brilliant Toccata, a fanfare twice repeated.

He opens the Vespers with a versicle and a response that draws on the same fanfare material, and he sets the full chorus over it, singing the text almost entirely on a single pitch, until he adds a slightly more elaborate “Alleluia” at the end.

The score is stunning in its variety, in both solo and polyphonic writing. Monteverdi adds another theatrical touch in “Audi coelum,” a sacred concerto for one voice and an echoing partner.

And after the final psalm setting, he breaks the repeating pattern, with what he calls a sonata, rather than a concerto.

Here, again, he places a vocal overlay, this time occurring at irregular intervals and in shifting, sometimes syncopated rhythms. The text, scored for soprano, consists entirely of a repeated sentence: “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis” (“Holy Mary, pray for us”). It is sometimes sung solo, or in unison by a small group of sopranos, and sometimes by massed sopranos, whether women or boys.

And this is indeed one of the great joys of the Vespers, that with so much left to the imaginations of the performers, virtually every rendition differs substantially from every other. The excerpts included in the version of this article online are from a 2014 performance at Versailles by John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Mr. Wachner’s choices in a small chapel will — count on it — prove radically different.

Thu, May 4, 2017

Classical Music in NYC This Week
The New York Times

Baroque forces have made much of Claudio Monteverdi’s 450th birthday this season, but this performance of that composer’s Vespers of 1610 ought to be eagerly anticipated. Julian Wachner leads one of the city’s most adept, versatile and impassioned choirs, along with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra. If that weren’t enough, the concert is free.

Read Full Text

Classical Music in NYC This Week

By DAVID ALLEN

MAY 4, 2017

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

CHOIR OF TRINITY WALL STREET at St. Paul’s Chapel (May 9, 8 p.m.). Baroque forces have made much of Claudio Monteverdi’s 450th birthday this season, but this performance of that composer’s Vespers of 1610 ought to be eagerly anticipated. Julian Wachner leads one of the city’s most adept, versatile and impassioned choirs, along with the Trinity Baroque Orchestra. If that weren’t enough, the concert is free.
212-602-0800, trinitywallstreet.org

DOVER STRING QUARTET at the Town Hall (May 7, 2 p.m.). One of the outstanding young quartets in the United States returns to the Peoples’ Symphony — with its eminently reasonable ticket prices — to perform Haydn and Shostakovich, as well as Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, with Richard Stoltzman as the wind soloist.
212-586-4680, pscny.org

EMERSON STRING QUARTET at Carnegie Hall (May 7, 3 p.m.). A program that plays to the technical strengths of the Emersons features quartets by Ravel and Berg in the first half, and Brahms’s Piano Quintet in the second, for which they are joined by Marc-André Hamelin, who is replacing Yefim Bronfman.
212-247-7800, carnegiehall.org

‘LUTHER’S LIEDER’ at the Met Cloisters (May 7, 1 and 3 p.m.). Five centuries have passed since the beginning of the Reformation, and in celebration the German vocal ensemble Calmus presents an array of music connected in some way with Martin Luther. The program moves through the liturgical year while also progressing through the centuries, from Gregorian chant to contemporary composition.
212-535-7710, metmuseum.org

LISA MOORE at Symphony Space (May 11, 7 p.m.). Among our most valuable and penetrating new-music pianists, Ms. Moore gives a recital curated by the composer John Luther Adams, titled “The Pleasure of Being Lost.” Two of his own works make the billing — “Tukiliit” and “Among Red Mountains” — along with selections chosen to outline influences on his work, including pieces by Lois V. Vierk, Peter Garland, David Mahler and Lou Harrison.
212-864-5400, symphonyspace.org

ORATORIO SOCIETY OF NEW YORK at Carnegie Hall (May 8, 8 p.m.). It’s Bach in grand style from the Oratorio Society, under its director, Kent Tritle, in the form of the Mass in B minor. The soloists are Leslie Fagan, Christopher Ainslie, Lawrence Jones and Sidney Outlaw.
212-247-7800, carnegiehall.org

PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA at Carnegie Hall (May 9, 8 p.m.). Sure, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 and Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 in this concert, and that inspirational conductor even has the luxury of the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke on hand. But the real interest here is Radu Lupu, the great pianist, who performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24.
212-247-7800, carnegiehall.org

‘VANESSA’ at Gerald W. Lynch Theater (May 5-6, 7:30 p.m.). This Pulitzer Prize-winning Samuel Barber opera, dating to 1958 and with a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, receives two outings from Mannes Opera, a conservatory outfit which is presenting increasingly interesting and brave fare. Conducted by Joseph Colaneri, it is fully staged by Jay Lesenger.
212-279-4200, events.newschool.edu

Fri, April 28, 2017

5 Sublime Minutes by a Maverick: This Week’s 8 Best Classical Music Moments
The New York Times

The centennial of Lou Harrison — maverick American composer, instrument inventor, pacifist and gay pioneer — was celebrated with a joyous concert at Trinity Church [Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts], featuring a fine choir and impressive percussion ensemble from Rutgers University. Harrison’s ecstatic Concerto for Organ and Percussion and his mesmerizing setting (in Esperanto) of “The Heart Sutra” for chorus and percussion were full of wondrous moments. But the one that lifted me out of myself came in the final Chaconne movement of the Suite for Violin with American Gamelan. As a stately yet smile-inducing bass theme was played over and over on various tubular instruments, the violinist Krista Bennion Feeney spun out beguiling figurations and subtle melodic twists, supported by an increasingly animated chorus of percussion sounds. Imagine American church bells mingling with pagoda chimes.

Read Full Text

5 Sublime Minutes by a Maverick: This Week’s 8 Best Classical Music Moments

APRIL 28, 2017

LOU HARRISON CENTENNIAL, APRIL 23

An American Gamelan

The centennial of Lou Harrison — maverick American composer, instrument inventor, pacifist and gay pioneer — was celebrated with a joyous concert at Trinity Church, featuring a fine choir and impressive percussion ensemble from Rutgers University. Harrison’s ecstatic Concerto for Organ and Percussion and his mesmerizing setting (in Esperanto) of “The Heart Sutra” for chorus and percussion were full of wondrous moments. But the one that lifted me out of myself came in the final Chaconne movement of the Suite for Violin with American Gamelan. As a stately yet smile-inducing bass theme was played over and over on various tubular instruments, the violinist Krista Bennion Feeney spun out beguiling figurations and subtle melodic twists, supported by an increasingly animated chorus of percussion sounds. Imagine American church bells mingling with pagoda chimes. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

BACH FESTIVAL & SYMPOSIUM, APRIL 21

Hipip Hooray

Speculating about future performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor during a panel discussion on the work at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the distinguished Bach scholar Daniel R. Melamed broached a concept that had panelists and audience members alike scratching their heads. Building on the acronym HIP, as historically informed performance is known by its practitioners, Mr. Melamed spoke of Hipip and tripped slightly over the words: no surprise, since they are hard to sort out even in print, using hyphens. Is it simply historically informed practice-informed performance, or historically-informed-practice-informed performance? The idea, Mr. Melamed later clarified, is performance (by early-music groups or not) informed by historically informed practice. So better, Pihip? Naw, it doesn’t sing. JAMES R. OESTREICH

‘EUGENE ONEGIN,’ APRIL 22

A Mist of Nostalgia

“Happiness was within our reach,” Tatiana sings to the man who years before had spurned her. “So close, so close.” At the Metropolitan Opera, Anna Netrebko sent the line into a hovering hush, a mist of nostalgia and regret. “So close” was faint, a remembrance of things past; its repetition, meatier, a recognition of implacable fate. ZACHARY WOOLFE

RED PRIEST, APRIL 27

Mournful Interruption

The wildly virtuosic little band — recorder, violin, cello and harpsichord — that sports Vivaldi’s nickname played his “Four Seasons” in entertainingly eccentric fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and filled out the program with charming pieces by lesser-known Baroque composers. As perverse as it may seem to single out a sober little violin tune amid so much great musicianship and irreverent good humor, David Greenberg’s account of “Lament for the Death of His Second Wife,” by the Scottish fiddler Niel Gow, in the best Celtic manner, was exquisite. JAMES R. OESTREICH

PAUL JACOBS, APRIL 27

Cagean Rumblings

In a video on the New York Times Facebook page, the excellent organist Paul Jacobs issues an invitation for viewers to visit his class at the Juilliard School. I did so on Thursday, and it was a heartening experience to see seven young players display their immense talents. It was also a welcome chance to experience new sounds and techniques from the fine Holtkamp instrument in Paul Hall. The most startling came from — who else? — John Cage, in his “Souvenir,” when the player, Daniel Ficarri, repeatedly reached to the bottom of the pedalboard with his left foot to sound a tone cluster in the organ’s deepest register that was mostly sheer vibration, devoid of recognizable pitch. JAMES R. OESTREICH

UMASS BACH FESTIVAL CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA, APRIL 22

Wrenching Plea

The mounting plea for peace (“Dona nobis pacem”) that concludes Bach’s B minor Mass comes as a wrench these days, in a nation riven by politics. It proved particularly stirring at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, as sung by the 35-member UMass Bach Festival Chorus, prepared by Tony Thornton, which was unquestionably the star of the festival’s two performances of the Mass. In line with much current practice, the conductor, Simon Carrington, benched the chorus for several earlier passages, allotting them instead to the vocal soloists. Given this chorus and the soloists at hand, that may have been a mistake. Happily, he left this final number to the young choristers, who repaid him handsomely. JAMES R. OESTREICH

NATALIE DESSAY, APRIL 26

Sleepwalking Soprano

In an intense recital by Natalie Dessay, a potentially campy moment, pulled off. Ms. Dessay had left the stage so that her collaborator, Philippe Cassard, could play a couple of Debussy piano preludes. As he got to the gauzy end of “Ondine,” the stage door opened and Ms. Dessay floated in like a sleepwalker, blending the end of the prelude with the start of Debussy’s song “Regret.” ZACHARY WOOLFE 

ORCHESTRA OF THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT, APRIL 26

Outsider’s Input

As expected, this period band gave stirring performances of symphonies by Haydn and his model C.P.E. Bach. But the heavy lifting was Mozart, the Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 5, with Isabelle Faust as splendid soloist. Ms. Faust became ever freer and more spontaneous-sounding in her embellishments, and a listener was prepared to believe that the inventive, unattributed cadenzas she added — especially that eerie, barely audible passage of harmonics in the finale of the First Concerto — were her own. But no, they were the work of a German fortepianist and harpsichordist not onstage, Andreas Staier. JAMES R. OESTREICH

Mon, April 24, 2017

New York Celebrates a Composer Who Left Town
The New Yorker

Harrison lived mostly in New York from 1943 to 1953. It was a desperately unhappy period for him, leading to a mental breakdown. Before he left, he wrote to his mother, “I long to live simply and well and that just isn’t possible here.” (This is from Bill Alves and Brett Campbell’s “Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick,” a superb new biography.) Making partial amends, Trinity Wall Street [Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts] will pay tribute to Harrison in late April. His 1950 score for the ballet “Solstice,” one of his first gamelan-influenced works, will be heard on April 20, and on April 23 the Rutgers Percussion Ensemble will present “La Koro Sutro,” “Song of Quetzalcoatl,” and the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, a work that employs the bespoke versions of Javanese instruments that Harrison built with his longtime partner, Bill Colvig.

Read Full Text


CLASSICAL MUSIC APRIL 24, 2017

New York Celebrates a Composer Who Left Town
Trinity Wall Street will honor the centennial of Lou Harrison, whose life and work blossomed in California after a troubled decade in New York. 

By Alex Ross

The centennial of the late Lou Harrison, the gentle maverick of postwar U.S. composition, will be marked by concerts in New York and California.

“Cherish, conserve, consider, create”: you could do worse than to live your life according to the principles propounded by the composer Lou Harrison, who would have been a hundred in May. He died in 2003, his profile inextricably associated with the cultures of the West Coast, where he spent most of his life. He was a vegetarian; he spoke Esperanto; he practiced calligraphy; he embraced non-Western music, especially the Javanese gamelan; he was openly gay long before it was acceptable, or even safe. Behind the affable exterior was a keen, questing intellect. Harrison’s music traverses a huge stylistic range, from adamantine dissonance to melodies of homespun sweetness. What is striking now, in an age of bloated genre-blending, is his lucid synthesis of extremes. Arnold Schoenberg, who taught Harrison in the early nineteen-forties, passed along advice that became a mantra: “Use only the essentials.”

Not surprisingly, Harrison’s centennial festivities will crest in California, where he lived from 1953 until his death, making his home in Aptos, near Santa Cruz. In his last years, he built an airy straw-bale house just outside Joshua Tree National Park, which was to have been his ideal retreat. Sadly, he died shortly after it was finished, but it now stands as a shrine to his art. The dancer and filmmaker Eva Soltes—who has made an affecting documentary entitled “Lou Harrison: A World of Music”—curates residencies and performances there. On May 14, Harrison’s birthday, Soltes will host a twenty-four-hour celebratory marathon. In an un-Lou-like touch—for part of his life he had no telephone—the event will be streamed on the Internet.

Harrison lived mostly in New York from 1943 to 1953. It was a desperately unhappy period for him, leading to a mental breakdown. Before he left, he wrote to his mother, “I long to live simply and well and that just isn’t possible here.” (This is from Bill Alves and Brett Campbell’s “Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick,” a superb new biography.) Making partial amends, Trinity Wall Street will pay tribute to Harrison in late April. His 1950 score for the ballet “Solstice,” one of his first gamelan-influenced works, will be heard on April 20, and on April 23 the Rutgers Percussion Ensemble will present “La Koro Sutro,” “Song of Quetzalcoatl,” and the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, a work that employs the bespoke versions of Javanese instruments that Harrison built with his longtime partner, Bill Colvig.

Unfortunately, little attention is falling this year on Harrison’s major orchestral scores: the Symphony on G and the “Elegiac Symphony,” which show his command of jagged sonorities after the fashion of Ives and Ruggles; and the Piano Concerto, whose gloriously unhinged Stampede movement rouses audiences into a frenzy on the rare occasions that the work is played. Mark Morris, a brilliant choreographer of Harrison’s scores, has written, “You either love Lou’s music or you haven’t heard it yet.” Someday, the former may outnumber the latter. ♦

This article appears in other versions of the April 24, 2017, issue, with the headline “To Lou, with Love.”

Fri, April 14, 2017

Mozart, Made New: This Week’s 8 Best Classical Music Moments
The New York Times

Eight hard-working singers of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, doubling as soloists and mercilessly exposed choristers in a performance of Bach’s “St. John Passion” with the early-instrument ensemble New York Baroque Incorporated, conducted by Julian Wachner at St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway, offered many satisfying moments. Perhaps the finest was the tenor Brian Giebler’s aria, “Erwäge” (“Consider”), rendered with lovely tone and deep expressivity, and beautifully accompanied by the violinists Lorenzo Colitto and Beth Wenstrom.

Read Full Text

Mozart, Made New: This Week’s 8 Best Classical Music Moments

APRIL 14, 2017

In addition to reviews, features and news during the week, our critics and reporters collect the best of what they’ve heard: notes that sent shivers down their spines, memorable voices, quotations that cut to the heart of the story.

METROPOLITAN OPERA, APRIL 13

Ghostly Dancers

At first I thought I was going to disdain a staging touch in Robert Carsen’s new production of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.” As Sophie and Octavian sang their love-at-first-sight duet, some eight similarly dressed couples — men in uniforms, women in white dresses — danced in the background, twirling slowly and bowing in courtly fashion. But what first seemed a distraction soon became a captivating moment, an elegant choreographic representation of the magical music, which these artists sang beautifully. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

ENSEMBLE RESONANZ, APRIL 10

Mozart, Made New

When forced laborers built the massive flak tower on Feldstrasse in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg during World War II, surely none could have imagined the scene that was to unfold in one of its utilitarian spaces when the chamber group Ensemble Resonanz performed the stormy first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 to a room packed with Syrian and other refugees. Earlier in the program, the lucid violinist Isabelle Faust had performed extracts from a fidgety new concerto by the Argentine composer Oscar Strasnoy. Now she sat in the concertmaster’s chair and led a brilliant reading of the Mozart, which the audience seemed to receive with stoic patience. CORINNA DA FONSECA-WOLLHEIM

BARROW STREET THEATER, APRIL 8

Sparse Sondheim

“Sweeney Todd” may be a musical theater piece, but Stephen Sondheim’s score has more sophistication than many contemporary operas. That ingenious music comes through with chilling immediacy in the up-close production at the Barrow Street Theater, played by just three instruments: a piano (the impressive Andrew Garle on the night I attended), violin and clarinet. For me, the sparseness of the trio’s sound revealed the harmonic pungencies and rich details in the music, like the transfixing moment when the avenging Sweeney haltingly sings the lines “There was a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful,” and the piano gently jabbed the word “beautiful” with a piercingly dissonant chord. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY, APRIL 7

Delightfully Deflating

Gautier Capuçon gave a fine account of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting his orchestra at Carnegie Hall — especially strong in the finale, which evokes the composer’s splendid cantata “The Execution of Stepan Razin.” But Mr. Capuçon, once finished, immediately set any grand notions aside with a delightfully deflating solo encore, “Walk of the Small Soldiers,” arranged from a march in Prokofiev’s piano collection “Music for Children.”JAMES R. OESTREICH

ELBPHILHARMONIE, APRIL 12

An Ebullient Indictment

“They’re bringing me to the sea without any right,” goes the first line of “A la mar me llevan,” by an anonymous Baroque composer from Peru, performed in Hamburg as part of “The Routes of Slavery,” Jordi Savall’s profoundly moving evening of music, text and dance dedicated to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Marked “for voice, bass, for dancing,” this work blends Iberian folk forms with African rhythms, resulting in irrepressibly ebullient music that becomes both a celebration of the vitality of the culture of slaves in the New World and an indictment of their captivity. CORINNA DA FONSECA-WOLLHEIM

NEW YORK CHORAL SOCIETY AND ORCHESTRA, APRIL 8

Triumph in Death

Good intentions abounded in the New York premiere of James MacMillan’s “St. Luke Passion,” with the society and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, conducted by David Hayes at St. Bart’s in Midtown Manhattan. But clarifying this kind of text-heavy composition is no easy assignment for a massed chorus of amateurs, and words and textures were largely subsumed in a mushy overall sonority. Still, the composer’s great effect, after the final chorus in “Chapter 23” and the death of Jesus, came through clearly, when an intentional mush of orchestral improvisation gave way to the triumphant strains of the ancient Passion chorale. JAMES R. OESTREICH

CHRISTINE GOERKE, APRIL 13

“They went insane.” That’s how the director Francesca Zambello described the audience response to Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde, and it is the response Ms. Goerke has generally had in the dramatic roles that have become her specialty. Michael Cooper sat down with her and tells the pretty harrowing, ultimately inspiring story of how she revamped her career after a vocal crisis. ZACHARY WOOLFE

BACH AT ONE, APRIL 10

Deeply Considered

Eight hard-working singers of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, doubling as soloists and mercilessly exposed choristers in a performance of Bach’s “St. John Passion” with the early-instrument ensemble New York Baroque Incorporated, conducted by Julian Wachner at St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway, offered many satisfying moments. Perhaps the finest was the tenor Brian Giebler’s aria, “Erwäge” (“Consider”), rendered with lovely tone and deep expressivity, and beautifully accompanied by the violinists Lorenzo Colitto and Beth Wenstrom. JAMES R. OESTREICH

Fri, April 14, 2017

Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ Has More Humanity Than Anti-Semitism
The New York Times

The performance that most resembled Tenet’s came on Monday, with Julian Wachner leading the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and New York Baroque Incorporated at St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway. (New York Baroque and the Sebastians draw on many of the same players, mostly alumni of the Juilliard School’s historical-performance program.)

As usual, Mr. Wachner, conducting from the organ, whipped up plenty of drama, though he used even smaller forces than Tenet: essentially, a vocal quartet on either side of the altar, doubling as choristers and soloists; an Evangelist (Timothy Hodges) in the pulpit; and 12 instrumentalists.

Read Full Text

Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ Has More Humanity Than Anti-Semitism

By JAMES R. OESTREICH APRIL 14, 2017

How passing strange. Typically, in the lead-up to Easter, Bach’s surviving Passions, the “St. John” and “St. Matthew,” each attract a performance or two in New York. But this spring, for whatever reasons, brought five major presentations of the “St. John” and none of the “St. Matthew.” And several new recordings arrived in recent weeks, all of “St. John,” as if to drive the point home.

But what, exactly, is that point? True, the “St. Matthew Passion” — first performed in Leipzig, Germany, in 1727, three years after the “St. John” — is a bigger, more complex work, and harder to present, with its multiple choruses and orchestras. On the other hand, it would seem an easier sell, being more majestic and ideologically trouble free.

Almost inevitably these days, the “St. John” courts controversy, with its bald use of the Gospel of John’s words, harping on “the Jews” as the prime instigators of Jesus’ death. All too vividly, it depicts Jesus facing his accusers, and the Roman prefect Pilate becomes an almost sympathetic figure, parrying with “the high priests and servants,” who shout, “Crucify, crucify!” to a frenzied orchestral backdrop, blood lust almost palpable in the sneering harmonies.

Even for those of us who treasure it, the “St. John,” as Alex Ross wrote recently in The New Yorker, “remains a little frightening.” The American choral master Robert Shaw, a secular humanist who loved the “St. John” ardently and performed it throughout his career, summarized the plight of Bachians in 1995: “Many of us never will cease to be embarrassed by its occasional vehement-to-vicious racial attribution regarding the Crucifixion of Jesus. There can be no doubt that its traditional text has added to the waves of anti-Semitism for generations and centuries since its composition.”

As this suggests, and as the musicologist Michael Marissen seconded in a lecture before the vocal group Tenet and the early-instrument band the Sebastians performed the work at the German Lutheran Church of St. Paul in Chelsea on March 25, the “St. John” problem has become ever more troubling in the decades since World War II and the Holocaust. With the horrible potential latent in anti-Semitism ever more apparent, any performance or hearing of this work must be cause for sober reflection, not mere mindless pleasure.

Is the Passion’s savage depiction of the Jews simply the work of a master storyteller? It is surely that, but not simply that. Bach’s own attitude becomes clearer in his music and in the poetry of the choruses and arias with which he surrounds John’s narrative.

An early chorale, for example, “Wer hat dich so geschlagen,” asks of the wounded Jesus, “Who has struck you so?” The second verse answers, “Ich, ich und meine Sünden”: “I” — we all, that is Protestant, Catholic and Jew alike — “I and my sins.”

Here, as Mr. Marissen notes in his book “Bach & God” (2016), “Bach moves the focus away from the perfidy of ‘the Jews’ and onto the sins of Christian believers.” And the work as a whole moves in an epic arc from turmoil to profound fellow-feeling and consolation, from inhumanity for the sake of effect, as it were, to a humanity deeply felt and registered.

The Tenet-Sebastians production was a riveting example, easily the most compelling of the recent spate of New York performances. It was conceived over a year as something of a group effort, led by Jolle Greenleaf, the performance’s artistic director, and Jeffrey Grossman, its music director. The chorus of 12 was deployed in three quartets that moved independently around the altar space, often making close contact with the audience in this intimate setting, singing separately, or combining for full effect.

To make the essential theological point of shared guilt in that crucial chorale, “Wer hat dich so geschlagen,” four singers performed the first, questioning verse in an exquisite pianissimo. Then all three quartets joined in full-throated affirmation in the confessional “I, I and my sins.”

Aaron Sheehan sang the tenor role of the Evangelist beautifully and with just the right drama from the pulpit, and Mischa Bouvier was superb as Jesus, with a warm, full baritone. The other stellar singers included Molly Quinn and Ms. Greenleaf, sopranos, and Sumner Thompson, baritone. Mr. Grossman led the terrific orchestra of 18 from the organ.

The performance that most resembled Tenet’s came on Monday, with Julian Wachner leading the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and New York Baroque Incorporated at St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway. (New York Baroque and the Sebastians draw on many of the same players, mostly alumni of the Juilliard School’s historical-performance program.)

As usual, Mr. Wachner, conducting from the organ, whipped up plenty of drama, though he used even smaller forces than Tenet: essentially, a vocal quartet on either side of the altar, doubling as choristers and soloists; an Evangelist (Timothy Hodges) in the pulpit; and 12 instrumentalists. Still, there was not a sense of directness or intimacy like that achieved by Tenet in its peregrinations, and Trinity’s two quartets, widely separated, lacked a comparable unity and force.

I unfortunately missed the first of this year’s New York performances, on Feb. 9, with Ted Sperling conducting MasterVoices at Carnegie Hall. It must have been quite a spectacle, a curious mix of the old-fashioned and the newfangled that could only have suggested the gamut of performance techniques and styles to follow. The performance celebrated the 75th anniversary of MasterVoices, which was founded by Robert Shaw in 1942 as the Collegiate Chorale. But Mr. Sperling used a full complement of 125 singers, as Shaw would probably not have done in Bach, and he set this hefty choir against the period instruments of New York Baroque Incorporated.

What’s more, MasterVoices performed the work in a modern English translation by Michael Slattery, who also sang the role of the Evangelist, and invited the audience to sing along in the chorales — practices that Shaw, who worked on his own translations over the years and favored directness of communication, would undoubtedly have endorsed. (Mr. Slattery, like Shaw, referred in his translation not to “the Jews,” but to “the people.”)

Also working with sizable forces, Dennis Keene conducted his fine Voices of Ascension Chorus and Orchestra at the Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village in a throwback performance of sorts, on March 30. Though it is no longer what we are used to in today’s mainstream, historically informed accounts, the beefy sound of Mr. Keene’s 37-voice choir and his orchestra of modern instruments offered gratifications of their own, at least for a listener who came to Bach in a different era.

Mr. Keene had a superb Jesus in the bass-baritone Kevin Deas, and a terrific alto soloist in Avery Amereau, the only female singer in the performances I heard to venture the low-lying aria “Es ist vollbracht” (“It is accomplished”), accompanied by viola da gamba. Ms. Amereau is herself something of a welcome throwback at a time when countertenors have all but displaced contraltos in early music.

A performance by the Choir of New College, Oxford, and the English Concert Players, conducted by Robert Quinney at St. Bart’s in Midtown Manhattan on March 28 harked back to a different tradition, that of the English choir of men and boys. This, alas, was not the best display of it: a performance polished enough, but largely lacking in excitement, apart from the strong performance of the Evangelist by Nick Pritchard.

It would be nice to say that a new recording by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Stephen Cleobury and released by King’s College, better represents the tradition, and it does have, in addition to the excellent Evangelist of James Gilchrist, the affecting Jesus of Neal Davies. But it, too, offers little more imagination and drive than we might have expected from, say, New York’s beloved St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys.

That group somewhat sidestepped the Bach wars this spring, as Daniel Hyde, a former acolyte of Mr. Cleobury in Cambridge, in his first Passion season as music director at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, offered a more modest 1772 “St. John Passion” by Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. C.P.E. was expected to produce a new Passion in Hamburg every year and evidently did so, in eclectic style.

This “St. John” has attractive original music, though nothing involving enough to stir particular consternation at mentions of “the Jews.” And it is all put in the shade when C.P.E. simply lifts the culminating chorus, the magnificent “Ruht wohl” (“Rest well”), from his father’s work, surely a homage born of desperation.

Among the other new recordings of J. S. Bach’s “St. John,” one is first-rate, a good choice, at least until Tenet can produce something better: a documentation of presentations by Jeannette Sorrell’s ensemble Apollo’s Fire last year in Cleveland and New York. Notable, especially, for Nicholas Phan’s Evangelist, Jesse Blumberg’s Jesus and Amanda Forsythe’s soprano arias, it is a deeply considered account, rendered with consummate skill and artistry.

It was wonderful to hear “St. John” in such variety this year. But next year, maybe also a “St. Matthew”?

Wed, April 12, 2017

Opera Composer Thrusts Grim World of Human Trafficking Back Into the Spotlight
Foreign Policy Magazine

The opera “Angel’s Bone” premiered in New York [conducted by Julian Wachner] early last year to rave reviews, both for its artistry and the innovative way it tackled such a bleak topic. Wall Street Journal opera critic Heidi Waleson called the performance “an 80-minute descent into extreme cruelty…that leaves the listener shocked and drained.” Washington Post’s Anne Midgette praised it as “a work that gave me nightmares, yet one that I would nonetheless see again.”

Read Full Text

Opera Composer Thrusts Grim World of Human Trafficking Back Into the Spotlight

BY ROBBIE GRAMER
APRIL 12, 2017 - 1:35 PM

It was around midnight on Monday when Du Yun got an excited text from a colleague. “He just said, ‘Holy shit!’ That was his text,” she recalled. Then a follow-up text: “You just won a Pulitzer.”

It was for a piece of work she did to put the grisly world of human trafficking back on the public’s radar. And not through reporting or book-writing, but through opera. “I didn’t want a didactic telling of ‘this is what this problem’ is but rather to offer this shared experience to really address the evilness,” she said in an interview with Foreign Policy at its Abu Dhabi Culture Summit (fittingly, where she learned she won the prize).

The opera “Angel’s Bone” premiered in New York early last year to rave reviews, both for its artistry and the innovative way it tackled such a bleak topic. Wall Street Journal opera critic Heidi Waleson called the performance “an 80-minute descent into extreme cruelty…that leaves the listener shocked and drained.” Washington Post’s Anne Midgette praised it as “a work that gave me nightmares, yet one that I would nonetheless see again.”

The opera comes with a twist: It’s through the point of view not of the victims, but of the traffickers themselves. The opera tells the story of two angels who fall into the hands of a down-and-out married couple. They begin “pruning” the angels’ feathers and exploiting them to gain wealth. “A lot of times politics, global issues, are very black and white,” Du Yun said. “There is a place for that, but it’s also fantastic to have art side by side, from different viewpoints open for interpretations.”

And if opera carries an effete, elitist reputation, Angel’s Bone is anything but. It weaves medieval, punk rock, electronica, and slew of other genres into its disturbing tale.

Despite the grim subject of her work, Du Yun herself comes across as friendly and expressive, weaving a sense of optimism and hope into the backstory of her opera. She said she drew a lot of inspiration from the survivors she worked with over the five years she composed it. She said she hopes her newfound ‘Pulitzer Prize winner’ title can highlight their stories for a wider audience.

Du Yun’s not a trafficking survivor herself, but she worked with numerous survivors, organizing meetings and workshops with them as she drafted her composition. “That really was just the most humbling experience I had,” she said. “They helped me to understand how to really tell the story.”

And it’s a story millions know too well. There are 21 million human trafficking victims worldwide, the International Labor Organization estimates, who are forced into labor, sexual exploitation, or slavery. Over half are women and girls.

For Du Yun’s audiences in United States, it’s closer to home than they might realize. “Often times when you think about these stories, you think it’s happening really far away…like in a Thailand or eastern Europe,” she said. “But the more research you do, the more you realize it happens right in New Jersey, right in Queens,” the New York-based artist said. While the numbers are inherently difficult to track, the anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project estimates the United States alone has hundreds of thousands trapped in sex and labor trafficking.

Du Yun, born and raised in Shanghai before moving to the United States, is returning to China to work on several new theater performances. After that, she says plans are in the works for a new project on Syrian refugees.

Tue, April 11, 2017

The Pulitzer Prize Winner for Music Is an Ambitious, Punk-Influenced Opera About Human Trafficking
SPIN Magazine

This year, the Pulitzer Prize winner in Music was as big of a surprise in the world of contemporary classical music as some of the other prize winners have been in their respective spheres. 39-year-old Chinese-born composer Du Yun–an accomplished singer and multi-instrumentalist as well as composer of genre-bending vocal and instrumental music–won for her opera, Angel’s Bone. The work has so far only been staged twice: in a initial chamber version in Philadelphia in 2011, and then in its full form during the Prototype Festival for experimental opera in New York City. The performance took place at the 1000-seat venue 3-Legged Dog in Manhattan early last year [conducted by Julian Wachner].

Read Full Text

The Pulitzer Prize Winner for Music Is an Ambitious, Punk-Influenced Opera About Human Trafficking

Winston Cook-Wilson // April 11, 2017

This year, the Pulitzer Prize winner in Music was as big of a surprise in the world of contemporary classical music as some of the other prize winners have been in their respective spheres. 39-year-old Chinese-born composer Du Yun–an accomplished singer and multi-instrumentalist as well as composer of genre-bending vocal and instrumental music–won for her opera, Angel’s Bone.The work has so far only been staged twice: in a initial chamber version in Philadelphia in 2011, and then in its full form during the Prototype Festival for experimental opera in New York City. The performance took place at the 1000-seat venue 3-Legged Dog in Manhattan early last year.

But Du Yun’s music-drama, with text by accomplished opera librettist Royce Vavrek (who recently wrote the text for Mizzy Mazzoli’s acclaimed opera adaptation of Lars von Trier’s 1996 film Breaking the Waves, which also premiered at Protoypre), embodies a smorgasbord of musical and dramatic elements which speak to its place as a forward-thinking work of “classical” music, and certainly makes sense as a Pulitzer awardee. The relatively small scale of its premiere is more a testament to the modest circumstances in which the most talented and innovative new composers are forced to mount ambitious new works these days, rather than some intentionally obscure pick.

The opera, which involved a surreal staging featuring video projections and elaborate sound design, deals with two fallen, fully-winged angels who are rescued by a “middle-American” married couple before becoming victims of sex trafficking. The narrative feels vaguely allegorical, as well as bearing a specific political thrust, while the music is chock full of disparate reference points. NewMusicBox described it in 2014 as a mixture of “church motets, punk, and quasi-European post-expressionism.” In a thank-you note Yun posted to Facebook yesterday, she cited influences “from Renaissance to chant to meticulously notated modern music to screaming songs that I like to sing.”

In addition to standard-issue opera singers, the cast for the New York premiere included Jennifer Charles, an accomplished singer of avant-garde music who is primarily known for being the lead singer of the Brooklyn-based art-pop band Elysian Fields, who came to prominence in the late ’90s. “I did not want to write an indie-rock opera, an opera that had that voice, but the story called for that,” Du Yun told NPR.

Du Yun seemed overwhelmed and ecstatic about the news of her win in her Facebook post: “It is ridiculous I get this award…(Thank you for all your kind words, which I first thought were pranks.) To win the award with this piece means so much for me. Let’s keep being part of the dialogue. Let art be that poetic space where we can initiate such conversations.”

Thu, March 30, 2017

Review: REV. 23
La Scena Musicale

Cerise Jacobs’ imagination knows no bounds – which she quite literally proves again in REV. 23, an opera that takes us on an excursion beyond the Last Judgment, and tells a tale St. John couldn’t bring himself to jot down in Revelations. The trumpet may have sounded and the saints may have marched in, but Jacobs hangs back with the restless rebels of creation, refusing to go gently into that bright light. Instead, in a wild caper aimed at undoing the Rapture, Lucifer, Hades, and a motley band of immortals try their damnedest to crank up the whirligig of history again – and, heaven help us, it’s impossible not to root for them. REV. 23 is a madcap yarn, spun with all of Jacob’s trademark wit, irreverence, and mythopoetic virtuosity – gutsy, unique, hilarious and, ultimately, profoundly moving in its affirmation of the spirit’s irrepressible need to be free.

—Charles Geyer

Wed, February 1, 2017

The Lawyer Librettist
Harvard Magazine

Now, Jacobs is intent on building an oeuvre for herself. “I have this master plan to commission and produce one new work a year for the next five years,” she says, matter-of-factly. Ouroboros is her grand epic; Rev. 23, premiering in September 2017 [composed by Julian Wachner], will be her comic opera, with a cast small enough to travel. (She has also finished drafting the next work, Permadeath, which will involve an augmented reality, videogame component.) Jacobs, who often accessorizes with a purple, gargoyle-shaped backpack, has an elfin appearance and whimsical imagination. But her undeniable, entrepreneurial energy brought composers like [Zhou] Long, Paola Prestini, and Scott Wheeler aboard her flights of fancy: her can-do spirit is matched by will-do drive.

Read Full Text

MONTAGE

The Lawyer Librettist

Creating otherworldly operas

by SOPHIA NGUYEN

JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2017

“LUCIFER’S CAR was towed,” someone announced to the room—they’d have to start without him. The three Fates reviewed some new choreography; by the piano, Persephone, a tall soprano, nervously rolled a pencil between her fingers as she approached a tricky high note. “My blood rubies, centuries old,” she sang, her eyes darting to the composer for his reaction. He gave a thumbs-up. When the devil finally arrived with breathless apology, the workshop cast of Rev. 23—all graduate students in the New England Conservatory’s opera program—prepared to take act one from the top. The curtain rises: the apocalypse is over. Heaven reigns on Earth. “Don’t get bogged down by plot issues,” the director reassured them. Gesturing toward the colleagues seated behind him, he added, “That’s their problem.”

Mainly, plot fell under the jurisdiction of librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs, J.D. ’81. Rev. 23, an imagined sequel to the Book of Revelation,begins when Lucifer conspires with Hades to destroy the power plants that enforce endless, paradisiacal summer. Later, they enlist Persephone and Sun Tzu in their rebellion; sometime in act two, Adam and Eve show up, as does the archangel Michael. Jacobs, along with composer Julian Wachner and dramaturg Cori Ellison, watched as the singers waded through this madcap, overstuffed plot. In workshop, “We find out whether something sounds stupid when it’s sung,” says Jacobs, “or if something stinks. Everything looks good on paper, sounds good on paper—but there’s nothing like putting it on its feet.”

A freewheeling approach to different cultures is typical of Jacobs’s work, which is fantastical and afterlife-obsessed. Her libretti star characters from Chinese legend, with dream sequences set in Sumerian myths and lines borrowed from King Lear and The Song of Songs. This hodgepodge reflects her upbringing in Singapore, with its stew of faiths and languages. Jacobs’s Cantonese-speaking parents initially sent her to a Chinese school, where she learned Mandarin; then they had second thoughts (“They were afraid I would be converted to this horrid little Communist in their midst”), and switched her to a Methodist missionary school, where she learned hymn singing and Bible study. The family regularly celebrated Hindu festivals and the end of Ramadan with their Tamil and Malay friends, Jacobs recalls. And: “We watched Chinese opera religiously, every Sunday, at my grandmother’s house.” The genre differs from Western opera not just in musical scale but in overall duration, she points out: a single work can go on for days, with attendees eating throughout. Jacobs attempted to recreate a version of that experience with her Ouroboros Trilogy, which audiences could watch in all-day musical marathons at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater this past September. “They do not allow you to bring in food,” she laments. “Munching on French fries as you’re watching—it wasn’t possible. But if it were, I would want that!”

Ouroboros follows a snake demon and her besotted companion as they’re reincarnated at three different points in time. In each of the operas—Madame White Snake, Naga, and Gilgamesh—a dogmatic man of religion becomes their adversary, and other humans get tragically caught up in the conflict. Spanning fictional eons, the complete cycle runs a little over five hours, and began as a lark. Having practiced law for more than two decades, Jacobs was three years into retirement when, in 2005, she began to write a song cycle as a birthday present for her music-loving husband. Pushed by his questions about the characters and plot, she expanded it into a full-length work. Potential composers balked at the prospect of writing something that would be performed only in the family’s Brookline living room, so Jacobs cold-called Opera Boston. Madame White Snake premiered there in 2010, directed by Robert Woodruff (former artistic director of the American Repertory Theater); its score, by Zhou Long, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2011.

Now, Jacobs is intent on building an oeuvre for herself. “I have this master plan to commission and produce one new work a year for the next five years,” she says, matter-of-factly. Ouroboros is her grand epic; Rev. 23, premiering in September 2017, will be her comic opera, with a cast small enough to travel. (She has also finished drafting the next work, Permadeath, which will involve an augmented reality, videogame component.) Jacobs, who often accessorizes with a purple, gargoyle-shaped backpack, has an elfin appearance and whimsical imagination. But her undeniable, entrepreneurial energy brought composers like Long, Paola Prestini, and Scott Wheeler aboard her flights of fancy: her can-do spirit is matched by will-do drive.

Collaboration does require compromise. Days in, the NEC rehearsals for Rev. 23 foundered amid the cast’s confusion about character motivations and narrative twists. The production team had an all-day meeting to brainstorm. “I needed a breakthrough,” says Jacobs. They lost a subplot involving angelic wings, but kept another about the Book of Life; they added more comedy. “As a lawyer, you’re used to being edited, people arguing against you,” she says, with a sigh. “Trying to make you better, you know.” Occasionally, she adds, “I have to step back and say, I’m at the end. I’m at the final phase of my life. I need to remember why I’m doing this. I’m doing it for the love of it. For the fun of it.”

Tue, January 10, 2017

They Sing the Body Dissected: anatomy theater
La Scena Musicale

anatomy theater is produced by Beth Morrison Projects, along with HERE, as part of the 2017 Prototype Festival of new works, with performances on January 7, 8 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, 2017 at Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts | Media House, 647 Fulton Street. The entire Prototype Festival this year runs from January 5 through the 15th, with other productions at various venues around the city, ranging from the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s and Royce Vavrek’s musically dense and morally disturbing Breaking the Waves (the Opera Philadelphia world premiere of which was reviewed here on September 29, 2016) to a workshop reading of REV. 23 – a mischievous riff on St. John’s Apocalypse with a score by Julian Wachner and an original concept and libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs (whose grand and extravagant Ouroboros Trilogy was reviewed here on September 14, 2016).

Read Full Text

They Sing the Body Dissected: anatomy theater

BY CHARLES GEYER ON 10 JANUARY 2017

OPERA REVIEW: anatomy theater, a new opera by David Lang and Mark Dion, part of the 2017 Prototype Festival, New York City (New York premiere, viewed January 7, 2017).
INTERVIEW: Composer David Lang.

She’s been hanged for murder – but men still can’t keep their hands off her.

Signs posted at the entrance to Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts | Media House for performances of anatomy theater warn of “simulated hanging” and “nudity” featured in the show. And, yep, both appraisals prove quite true (with nothing “simulated” about the latter, by the way). But no tipoff can adequately prepare one for the more existential disquietude meted out by the sly deviltry ahead.

The David Lang/Mark Dion opera, anatomy theater, begins with the execution of an 18th-century prostitute convicted of multiple homicides, but hardly ends there. The lady is still in for a few unkind cuts, as the opera’s principal action revolves around her body’s dissection at the hands of some gentlemen with some rather dicey agendas.

“People have always cut people open looking for things,” says composer Lang. “We imagine that people are cut open to heal them, or to learn how to heal people in the future. But of course people have been cutting people open forever, for all sorts of other reasons.”

And anatomy theater gets, quite literally, to the heart of some of those reasons, while also slicing away at layers of operatic propriety, and probing at questions of bodies and power, medicine and morality, the repression of women and the mystery of evil.

And, in its own uniquely macabre and rascally way, having a lot of fun doing it.

Quite a Body of Work

“I have always loved the work of the visual artist Mark Dion,” says Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer David Lang, “and so much of what I saw in his work I thought was theatrical.” It was thus that Lang contacted Dion and asked him if he’d be interested in a collaboration.

“We got together and we talked about one of the things he’s interested in,” says Lang. “The history of knowledge. The accumulation – and sometimes the mis-accumulation – of knowledge.” And out of that conversation came the idea of exploring how knowledge about something as intimate as the human body has been acquired – and exploited – by contending power structures.

The 18th Century seemed the right setting, the hinge between the modern and pre-modern worlds. But the period would only be a metaphor – our contemporary time and place would not be exempt from scrutiny.

“We didn’t want to have it too locked in the historical period,” says Lang. “I go to the theater and I only want to think about myself.”

To wit, Lang now waxes warm about a particular contemporary resonance he finds in the opera, albeit one he never intended at the time of composition.

“We just had a horrible election in which half of our population didn’t vote,” he says. “They were just bystanders.” And while “we didn’t make this piece with the events of our election in mind, it’s not a terrible thing occasionally to say that to watch something horrible is in a way to vote for something horrible.”

Not all anatomy theater audience members, of course, will share Lang’s specific opinion as to where modern horror lies. But it’s clear Lang hopes that, along with some good fiendish shivers, all will at least see some reflection of their own lives and times in his glass darkly.

For, you see, anatomy theater not only seduces us into watching; it makes us take responsibility for it.

Invitation to a Hanging

The anatomy theater experience begins before one enters the performance space proper. In a successful gambit of immersive theater, a large adjunct gallery space – its walls swathed in black – serves as an 18th-century “town square,” strewn with barrels and barrows, bales of hay and stands of merchants’ wares. Here, a bevy of wenches, sprung perhaps from Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, dispense savory sausages and tankards of ale and induct audience members into the carnival atmosphere of a scheduled public hanging, while assigning each visitor a membership in one of the privileged attending guilds – surgeons, physicians, barbers.

Suddenly, a drummer in tricorn hat appears, leading a procession. Two hooded figures (borrowed from some fever-dream auto-da-fé) escort the lovely, bedraggled, haunted-looking victim toward her fate. The audience follows into the theater and takes its seats. A heavy hangman’s noose dangles at the edge of the stage. The woman stands beside it, hands bound before her, staring stoically, silently at her assembled witnesses.

At length, the woman’s voice surges forth, and, in a tumult of rich emotion and gorgeously eloquent 18th-century diction, she both confesses and explicates her crime, narrating the sordid personal saga that has led her to the gallows: sexual abuse by a depraved stepfather, a descent into alcoholism, debasement at the hands of a cruel, pimping husband, and a final, desperate bid for escape in a spree of spectacular murder.

The language is remarkable, and the eloquence is of the essence here. The entire libretto of anatomy theater is putatively drawn largely from actual 17th– and 18th-century sources (legal documents, medical treatises), thus ensuring its Augustan sonority and marvelously persuasive redolence of place and period. Yet, via a thoroughgoing program of irony in the music, the staging, and the design, anatomy theater provokes and vexes with implications as unconstrained and corrosive as free radicals rampant in an organism’s depth structures. Cruelty, misogyny, intellectual imposture and flagrant ignorance may have wreaked havoc in the body politic of the 18th Century; could they not recrudesce with equal virulence today?

Slice of Life

The opera is populated by a quartet of richly defined characters; but none is so central as the woman hanged in its prologue – murderess Sarah Osborne. The rest of the evening not only revolves around her, it is quite literally extracted from her.

The flamboyant and seedy mountebank Joshua Crouch has obtained Osborne’s corpse, and now offers it up for spectacle. He has engaged the famed and aristocratic anatomist, Baron Peel, to conduct a demonstration autopsy – at least for those gentlemen among us willing to pay the fee (admittance to women is strictly barred!). The stated objective: to discern in which part of the woman’s body the physical sign of her wickedness lies (though the satisfactions of sheer transgressive voyeurism are winked at, as well).

Crouch becomes the evening’s subversive master of ceremonies; Peel, its rhapsodizing and polymath monomaniac of clinical misogyny. It falls, however, to the opera’s fourth character – the anatomist’s obliging young assistant, Ambrose Strang – to perform all the actual anatomical excisions from the woman’s remains, Peel having presumably risen above such menial, sullying piecework.

The opera’s main episodes, thus, are structured around the removal, one by one, of the woman’s vital organs – stomach, spleen, uterus – each held up to scrutiny, their terrifying and esoteric functions each musically eulogized, with texts of orotund alchemical and cosmological palaver from Baron Peel about humors and the elements and flesh and the devil.

Yet, to the anatomist’s chagrin, each organ fails to exhibit any pathology.

Crouch’s and Peel’s frustrations mount, while Strang, by contrast, seems gradually to start appreciating the elegance, beauty, even miraculous perfection of the female body he is dismantling – knowledge cutting both ways.

A final sortie yields the woman’s heart, and also inaugurates a stunning and sui generis denouement of lurid, palpitant, and deeply affecting theater, featuring (spoiler alert) an aria of melting poignancy and ravishing surprise performed by the woman’s corpse.

Bunch of Cut-Ups

anatomy theater is a wondrously unlikely amalgam – part Grand Guignol, part morality tale, part science lecture, part horror show. Ghoulish, gruesome, disquieting, and thoroughly engrossing, it might understandably prompt those of more delicate sensibility to leave early, but will defy any hardy enough to remain to look away.

The four principal performers, each with grounding in somewhat different musical genres and disciplines, all work marvelously together, and approach the thrills and challenges of anatomy theater with uncompromising conviction.

“I like to set up little problems for myself,” says Lang. “The problem in this piece was getting singers who are from different kinds of worlds, who have these different skills – how do you build a musical world where all of them feel equal and welcome and appropriate?”

Broadway baritone Marc Kudisch, as the evening’s sinister, sybaritic host, Joshua Crouch, proves to be oily perfection. His manner by turns leering, seductive, assaultive, crude, he might be the very Devil himself, wielding his ornate and arrantly phallic walking stick or lustfully caressing a demo skeleton in dissolute intimations of necrophilia. Kudisch’s voice is rich and flexible, yet capable of jarring deviations into insinuating nasality for moments of special, make-your-skin-crawl vocal effect.

Besides integrating performers of varying styles, Lang also bucks operatic orthodoxy by deploying discreet head mics for performances of anatomy theater. “Everything I listen to is amplified,” says Lang. “While it’s amazing to think that singers have the power to use their voices to fill a space acoustically, I feel like we respond to amplified music differently. And I like that sound.”

Legit operatic bass-baritone Robert Osborne (any relation to the opera’s central character?) plays the anatomist Peel with majestic authority and vigorous zeal. Bedecked in Isaac-Newton-like wig and voluminous academic robes, his physical and gestural life are dazzlingly convincing. Moreover, the clarity of Osborne’s diction is exemplary, and the potency of his chthonic voice can be felt in the listener’s own bones.

The role of the dutiful assistant, Strang, is portrayed with a beatific lambency by single-named tenor Timur (“who’s completely classically trained but also has a pop music background,” notes Lang). Timur’s voice has both light and warmth, and evinces admirable dynamic and coloristic range. And whether disemboweling a corpse or palpating body parts in his crimsoned hands, Timur brings poetry and humanity to the proceedings.

Perhaps the most heroic and uncompromising performance is that of mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, portraying convict and corpse. Southwell’s voice is rich, sensuous, kaleidoscopic. Her confessional prologue is a tour de force – an unparalleled fusing of vocal technique and hypnotic, hard-edged, raw emotion. Nor can one gainsay the bravery of her turn on the dissection slab. Southwell spends the better part of the evening lying fully inert and fully exposed, while her body is subjected to indignity and mutilation (one has to attend to see how that coup de theatre is pulled off).

Indeed, it was Southwell herself, says Lang, who insisted on the verisimilitude that gives such uncanny impact to the spectacle of the naked cadaver. “I would like to point out that that was her idea,” says Lang. “She said it makes absolutely no sense to do this any other way than naked.”

Quite so. “We’ve sort of forgotten that she’s a person,” Lang observes. “She’s there as a body on the slab and all these horrible things are being done to her. I sort of thought that that was a way we were complicit in her degradation.”

Music in Cut Time?

Lang has crafted a score chockful of ingenious effect and theatricality, all rendered with a deceptive economy of means.

“I played the trombone part in Threepenny Opera when I was in college,” says Lang, reflecting on the inspiration for his chamber scoring of anatomy theater which, indeed, doesn’t lack for a certain Brechtian touch. “There’s a nod to Kurt Weil and that kind of theater sound.”

But the comparison, apt as it may be on the surface, belies so much that is unique and remarkable in the score of anatomy theater. If one were to venture upon description, an overall (post)-minimalist, or even – (dare one say?) – neo-primitivist aesthetic governs (“I understand why all the labels exist,” interjects Lang. “It’s a shorthand; but I always bristled at it”); yet there is also fascinating variety within the tight and coherent sonic parameters Lang lays out for himself.

Some passages (such as the confessional prologue) evoke the naked immediacy of church plainchant (“I sang in a Gregorian chant choir at one point in my life,” says Lang, “and that music has had a very big effect on me”); other sequences conjure up boneyard-inflected strains of forlorn folksong.

But, by contrast, a wildly eccentric and extended trio vaunting the anatomist’s intention to display the instruments of his trade (“presently, I shall reveal”) reels out like a fevered scherzo variation on a Handelian canon – “The Trumpet Shall Sound” as scored for the inmates of Bedlam (indeed, the number even features a flashy solo line for the apposite brass player).

And yet another high-octane set-piece (“the instruments commonly required”) – cataloguing the anatomist’s grim panoply of knives, forceps, bellows and bone-saws – mounts with such terrifying intensity, so obsessively rhythmic, percussive and driven, it feels more harrowing than anything by Steve Reich or Philip Glass at their most daemonic.

“The way I tried to arrange the libretto,” says Lang, “was to have scenes begin with something that you feel is rational, and, as it goes farther, you realize, ‘oh, this is actually dangerous.’”

Musical Director Christopher Rountree, leading a nine-strong chamber klatch of accompanists drawn from the International Contemporary Ensemble, keeps all the complex rhythms and vibrant melodies whirring in keen operation, sharp as a scalpel and tight as a suture.

Director Bob McGrath exhibits unflagging inventiveness in shaping the action over and around the many eye-catching, gothic elements of the set (designed, of course, by collaborator Mark Dion).

Video and projection designers Bill Morrison and Laurie Olinder, respectively, contribute indispensable visual support to the multi-layered implications of the show, while sound design by Garth MacAleavey provides crucial and transparent support, and costumes by Alixandra Gage Englund are rich in character detail and period feel.

All that Remains

The themes and sensibility of anatomy theater might well owe something to a reading of social historians such as Michel Foucault, whose seminal Birth of the Clinic (1963), The Order of Things (1966), and Discipline and Punish (1975) did much to excavate and distill the psychosocial latencies of Western medical, scientific, and penal practices through the ages. It’s patently not for the squeamish or faint of heart, but the ideas in anatomy theater are important, and its targets are rich.

“Trying to figure out how to protect ourselves from evil,” says Lang, “these are unfortunately issues which never go away.” Yet the opera is written and performed with such affirmative energy, verve, ingenuity and lightness of touch that it transcends any portentousness that might otherwise have hobbled it. There is also much humor here, even if much of it is of an intentionally squirm-inducing variety – delayed guffaws here; sudden, goosed shrieks of micro-scandal there. In short, anatomy theater is that rare kind of theatrical one-off, successfully admixing equal parts intellectual ambition and in-your-face gross-out. It’s sure to pierce through to the darker folds of your cerebral cortex.

All it needs is its 90-minute playing time to get under your skin.

________________________________________

anatomy theater is produced by Beth Morrison Projects, along with HERE, as part of the 2017 Prototype Festival of new works, with performances on January 7, 8 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, 2017 at Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts | Media House, 647 Fulton Street. The entire Prototype Festival this year runs from January 5 through the 15th, with other productions at various venues around the city, ranging from the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s and Royce Vavrek’s musically dense and morally disturbing Breaking the Waves (the Opera Philadelphia world premiere of which was reviewed here on September 29, 2016) to a workshop reading of REV. 23 – a mischievous riff on St. John’s Apocalypse with a score by Julian Wachner and an original concept and libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs (whose grand and extravagant Ouroboros Trilogy was reviewed here on September 14, 2016). Full programming and scheduling information for the 2017 Prototype Festival may be accessed here.


 

Mon, January 9, 2017

Prototype Festival’s Striking Heroines
The New Yorker

Several decades after Catherine Clément wrote “Opera, or the Undoing of Women,” a classic feminist critique, women still frequently come to grief on opera stages. The form can’t seem to dispense with what Clément describes as a punitive adoration of female singers: “They suffer, they cry, they die.” Yet modern tales of doomed heroines tend to reflect a more progressive, critical sensibility, particularly when female composers take the helm. Such revisionism could almost be the theme of this year’s Prototype Festival, which, in the past four years, has become essential to the evolution of American opera. On the bill are Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves” (Jan. 6-9), about a Scottish wife who sacrifices herself to aid her maimed husband [conducted by Julian Wachner]; David Lang’s “Anatomy Theater” (Jan. 7-14), which shows the dissection of an eighteenth-century English murderess; and Matt Marks’s “Mata Hari” (Jan. 5-14), about the seductive Dutch dancer who allegedly spied as a double agent during the First World War.

Read Full Text

Prototype Festival’s Striking Heroines
Women of indestructible spirit dominate this year’s slate of operas.

By Alex Ross

Several decades after Catherine Clément wrote “Opera, or the Undoing of Women,” a classic feminist critique, women still frequently come to grief on opera stages. The form can’t seem to dispense with what Clément describes as a punitive adoration of female singers: “They suffer, they cry, they die.” Yet modern tales of doomed heroines tend to reflect a more progressive, critical sensibility, particularly when female composers take the helm. Such revisionism could almost be the theme of this year’s Prototype Festival, which, in the past four years, has become essential to the evolution of American opera. On the bill are Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves” (Jan. 6-9), about a Scottish wife who sacrifices herself to aid her maimed husband; David Lang’s “Anatomy Theater” (Jan. 7-14), which shows the dissection of an eighteenth-century English murderess; and Matt Marks’s “Mata Hari” (Jan. 5-14), about the seductive Dutch dancer who allegedly spied as a double agent during the First World War.

“Breaking the Waves” had its première at Opera Philadelphia in September. The libretto, by Royce Vavrek, is based on Lars von Trier’s 1996 film, which, like other von Trier works, has drawn accusations of misogyny because of its brutal treatment of the principal female character. Bess, a member of a strict religious community on the Isle of Skye, marries an oil worker named Jan; when he suffers a paralyzing accident, he asks her to have sex with other men. Bess becomes convinced that by abasing herself to the point of death she will cure him. Her scheme succeeds, through a supernatural logic reminiscent of the redemptive self-sacrifices of various Wagner heroines. As with Wagner, we wonder whether Bess’s act confirms or transcends stereotypes of feminine devotion.

In Mazzoli’s opera, such issues quickly recede: we trust that the lead character is not undergoing degradation for the sake of male fantasy. The story is no less harrowing—it’s perhaps more so, given that Kiera Duffy, who sang the lead in Philadelphia and reprises it at Prototype, must act out cruel scenes night after night, at times in the nude. Nonetheless, the desperate scenario of self-destruction and redemption seems to be a projection of Bess’s will to believe, her reshaping of the fabric of the world. Mazzoli’s score supports that dynamic by wedding strong lyric invention to an unsettled, insidiously dissonant chamber-orchestra texture that evokes the jagged beauty both of Skye and of Bess’s inner landscape. Benjamin Britten is a palpable influence, particularly in thrashing orchestral tempests and some melismatic, Peter Quint-like writing for tenor. Yet Mazzoli absorbs these and other elements into her own spare, propulsive voice.

Lang’s “Anatomy Theater,” which was first seen at L.A. Opera in June, offers some of the grisliest images ever shown in an opera house. But the composer handles the material with an eerie grace, creating space for another courageous solo turn. The mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell also spends much of the evening naked, lying on a table and singing as examiners scour her body for signs of evil. They find none, and she goes on singing. ♦

This article appears in other versions of the January 9, 2017, issue, with the headline “In Extremis”

Page 5 of 25 pages ‹ First  < 3 4 5 6 7 >  Last ›