Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cantori New York - The End of Men - 11/10/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Claudin de Sermisy: Martin menoit son pourceau
Jacobus Clemens non Papa: Jacquin, Jacquet
Pierre Passereau: il est bel et bon
Lord Mornington: The Housemaids
Jonathan Pollack Breit: The End of Men
Jason Wirth: Piano
Tristan Marzeski: Drums
Dann Rose: Judd
Jonny Beauchamp: Ru
Atjana Andris: Clitilla
Paula Galloway: Myra
Quinn Warren: Lena

After a mini-tour in the South of France in September and a follow-up gig on the Upper East Side in October, Cantori New York finally started their 30th season in earnest last Sunday with the premiere of The End of Men, a brand new work written by their member composer Jonathan Pollack Breit. It had been described to me as a modern musical adaptation of Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, which, beside distinguishing itself by being a true mouthful, may also not be at the top of most people's reading list when it comes to social satires. But then again, why stick to familiar territory when there is plenty of little-known fertile ground waiting to be explored out there?
Since the venue ended up being The Dixon Place, an underground black box on the Lower East Side, I found myself wrapping up my week the same way it had started, by trudging downtown for experimental music purposes. On Sunday, however, I managed to make the most of my trip by taking the time to walk around what is left of this once wild side in memory of recently departed Lou Reed.

The concert started with four frisky tunes, whose perky rhythms and general high-spiritedness left little to the imagination, even if the old language and multi-layered textures often made the text difficult to decipher. The three French madrigals and one English song were short and fun, just enough of an appetizer to get the packed house in the mood for the main course.
Unusual set-ups being common practice at Cantori's performances, I was not overly surprised at the sight of four empty chairs in front of the stage, which would be filled by actors, and a drum kit standing beside the more standard piano. The stage was divided in two according to gender with the women house left and the men house right, and maestro Shapiro smack in the middle trying to keep the two groups from killing each other. As the show went underway, we were duly warned that the performers reserved "the right to be absurd", but we were already hooked anyway and decided to stay put no matter what.
After a brisk exposition of the trouble brewing between the sexes, things really got going when the two male protagonists, Danny Rose as red-blooded Judd, whose wide-eyed affability called to mind the late James Gandolfini, and Jonny Beauchamp as drag queen Ru, who bore an eerie resemblance with a young and skinny Sarah Bernhard, quickly realized that their loosely plotted scheme to infiltrate the women's exclusive meeting was no match for Arjana Andris as the strong-headed leader Clitilla, and Paula Galloway as the young voice of reason Myra. Eventually, the arrival of Quinn Warren as the luminous goddess Lena reconciled everybody and led to a happy end that was both traditional, with two weddings, and unorthodox, since it is not every day that a woman marries a drag queen.
Transposing a 5th century play into the present time provided the advantage of introducing plenty of contemporary references to which the audience was able to relate (Who knew that after-school workshops did so much for women's lib?). On the other hand, practices like hair waxing, which goes back to the Egyptians but remains a reliable source of comic relief, and themes like stereotypical gender-based recriminations, this time-tested fodder for much of the world's entertainment industry, apparently never die. When they're so ingeniously refreshed, they can even be as relevant as ever. The once censored vulgarity was allegedly back and for the most part PG-13, with just enough Rabelaisian humor to keep things happily saucy without falling into tasteless raunchiness.
Each half of the choir brightly demonstrated that making war to infectious music can be an extremely enjoyable endeavor as the women kept on fighting for supremacy and the men struggling for survival. At the piano, Jason Wirth proved one more time that he is capable of expertly handling anything thrown at him. Percussionist Tristan Marzeski turned out to be a remarkably talented partner who kept the beat steady and the music hot. Together they seamlessly combined the attractive qualities of smooth modern jazz and uplifting Broadway musicals in one swell package. One particular highlight of the show was the riotous four-hand Battle Music, for which Jonathan Breit joined in at the piano, which brilliantly emphasized the rowdy confrontation that was culminating onstage.
After experiencing a cerebral Monday evening with Salonen and some musicians of the New York Philharmonic, it was really nice to enjoy a, err, less intellectually challenging Sunday afternoon with Breit and the singers of Cantori New York, but still solidly on the wild side.

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