Sunday, September 29, 2013

New York City Opera - Anna Nicole - 09/25/13

Composer: Mark-Anthony Turnage
Conductor: Steven Sloane
Director: Richard Jones
Anna Nicole: Sarah Joy Miller
J. Howard Marshall II: Robert Brubaker
Stern: Rod Gilfry
Virgie: Susan Bickley

The first time I heard that a British opera was being written out of the tabloid-ready life of Anna Nicole Smith, the poor Texan backwater fast-food worker turned big city stripper turned popular Playboy playmate/model turned billionaire's trophy wife turned bloated pill popper turned overdose victim, I was skeptical. She may have lived fast and died young, but she definitely did not make a beautiful corpse. After Anna Nicole got its premiere in London though, the word was that she made a perfectly adequate subject for an opera, in a Cinderella-gone-wrong kind of way and with a little help from Mark-Anthony Turnage, reputedly one of the U.K.'s most adventurous composers.
Last summer my subscription to The New York City Opera had Anna Nicole as its first production of the 2013-2014 season, but it now seems that it also may be its last production for awhile as increasingly desperate requests for financial help from the endangered institution have been piling up in my Inbox. Depressing thoughts about the cultural vacuum its disappearance would create aside, I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Tuesday night, feeling like a still slightly jet-lagged visitor among a large crowd of chatty local hipsters, but most of all extremely curious about what would come out of the whole endeavor.

When one thinks of Anna Nicole Smith's spectacular rise and fall, it is hard not to think "tacky". To the credit of its creators, the production did not go that easy route too many times. On the other hand, the bright pink curtain welcoming the audience to the otherwise rather dignified opera house for sure indicated that we were not in for a particularly high-brow evening either. But hey, as the chorus itself promised during the opening scene: "This is a unique story, so you won't be bored".
The story may not be that unique after all, however, it regularly made headlines in its own unique way. And this was probably due to the genuinely touching personality of its main character. Hence, the importance of finding the right singer for the part. The NYCO certainly hit the jackpot in that regard with American soprano Sarah Joy Miller, who not only brought a sweet personality to the role, but also happened to be blessed with an appealing body and an attractive voice. Her big aria, after Anna Nicole had finally become a bona fide bimbo extraordinaire, suggestively sashaying around a dance pole, now blessed with cascading golden locks, a sparking pink revealing bodice and, most of all, two humongous breasts, clearly demonstrated that a pretty girl could sing as well. Even in the most ridiculously tacky moments, such as her standing on top of a huge wedding cake in an equally huge puffy dress, complete with loads a diamonds and a tiara, she still projected the innocence of a little girl whose dreams had come true, even if the means to that end had not been that innocent (Cue to the ranch-earning oral sex scene).
She was well supported by American tenor Robert Brubaker, who was obviously having a ball playing J. Howard Marshall II, the fun-loving octogenarian oil billionaire who literally came from the sky to rescue and eventually marry her. Although the production could not help but dwell on the many differences between them, there were also subtle hints that this odd couple shared an at least semi-real bond. A much creepier character was Anna Nicole's lawyer, manager and lover, the ready-made-for-talk-shows Stern, winningly impersonated by American baritone Rod Gilfry, who gave the part all the swagger and sleaziness he could muster, and there was plenty of it.
As Anna Nicole's tough-as-nail mum, and occasional voice of reason, Virgie, English mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley reprised the role she sang at the Royal Opera House and established a formidable, if sporadic, presence. In their short but powerful appearances, Richard Troxell and John Easterlin were spot-on as, respectively, Doctor Yes and Larry King.
The rapidly succeeding 16 scenes provided a fairly good narrative, although one had to deplore the omission of the whole Playboy episode, allegedly for copyright issues. But the show went on regardless, with some memorable vignettes such as a sizzling strip club with pole dancers so hot that a young, wide-eyed audience member in front of me just had to break the no-photo rule and take a quick, guilt-ridden picture of it. Or a resplendently marilynesque Anna Nicole singing a little ditty about the sound of Jimmy Choo shoes on the red carpet and asking who Icarus is in practically the same nouveau riche breath. The rock 'n' roll band - well, OK, trio - entertaining one of the couple's wildest partays, which included selected guests crawling on the floor to sniff the last bit of cocaine, was certainly a first in my dedicated opera-goer's experience.
There were also more meaningful elements, such as the all-black-clad camera-headed mutants that kept on following Anna Nicole everywhere she went once she had become famous, effectively turning paparazzi into vultures. Or her beloved but often neglected son, who grew up dutifully bringing his mum pills and pillows to relieve her constantly aching back. The ever-quiet character only got to make his presence heard once he was dead, hauntingly singing an impressively long list of the drugs he had been taking from his body bag. Anna Nicole ended up in a body bag too, blowing a final kiss to the audience, just like she did when she first appeared onstage.
The story may have been be simple and tawdry, but the music was not. Although at times it sounded too eclectic for its own good, lacking a defining center, its various influences, from jazzy sensuality to big band brashness, did a good job emphasizing the situations at hand. And, after all, what better way to efficiently convey the dramatic roller-coaster that was Anna Nicole's life than with a score bristling with complex harmonies and emotional immediacy? Under the energetic baton of Steven Sloane, the orchestra delivered a vibrantly colored performance of it.

So, could it be it for the New York City Opera? Please say it ain't so. If the packed audience's enthusiastic reaction on Tuesday night were any indication, there is a lot of love for the company out there, but there is also no guarantee that it will translate into enough financial support for the "People's Opera" to survive. Where's an actual sugar daddy when you really one?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Nederlands Kamerkoor - MacMillan, Gouttenoire, Kleppe, Tulev & Daniel-Lesur - 09/16/13

Conductor: Risto Joost
James MacMillan: Laudi alla vergine Maria
Philippe Gouttenoire: Logoi
Joost Kleppe: Passavámos
Toivo Tulev: Car j'ai vécu de vous attendre
Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur: Le cantique des cantiques

Once our hectic but oh so enjoyable weekend over, my mum and I were still keen to take full advantage of our last day in Marseille with more sight-seeing during the day, including some exciting exhibits at the old Palais Longchamp's musée des Beaux-Arts and the new MuCEM, and more music at night, thanks to the much anticipated concert by the Dutch Nederlands Kamerkoor in the MuCEM's sleek auditorium. The rather late starting time of 9:30 PM had given us a brief pause, but the opportunity to hear this distinguished ensemble in such a cool and convenient venue was decidedly too good to pass.

Opening with a superbly lyrical work based on St Bernardino's prayer to the virgin Mary in Dante's "Il Paradiso", the choir quickly proved worthy of their sterling reputation. Combining the best in classical and contemporary vocal music while remaining effortlessly accessible, Nederlands Kamerkoor's remarkably assured handling of this striking piece predictably made an excellent first impression.
Philippe Gouttenoire's "Logoi" (Plural of "logos", which means word, language, reason), a world premiere commissioned by the choir, focused on languages threatened by extinction as well as seven assertive statements sung in some of the world's most predominant languages. As much as the original concept fundamentally appealed to the dedicated linguist in me and I appreciated the unusual interweaving style of the composition, I did not feel that it ever really took off, although the whirlwind at its center certainly gave it temporary momentum.
We were back, however, on more engaging territory next with Joost Kleppe's "Passávamos II", which was based on poems by Fernando Pessoa and happily combined the immediate attractiveness of Portuguese fados with the composer's own sense of harmony. As a result, the complex composition beautifully expressed a wide range of emotions that will be long remembered.
After intermission, Toivo Tulev's "Car j'ai vécu de vous attendre", another world premiere commissioned by Nederlands Kamerkoor, was lovely in a subdued sort of way. Although it did not really grab me, it was probably because of me, not them, as all the accumulated fatigue was by then taking me and my attention span over.
The last work on the program, Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur's "Le cantique des cantiques", was an ethereally soothing work, in which meaningful words and vocal sounds appeared purposely inserted in a seamless vocal tapestry. The discreet but solid virtuosity it required from the performers was on full display on Monday night, and this magnificent piece concluded the concert, and our extended weekend in Marseille, on a truly elating note.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cantori New York & Musicatreize - Gurol, Ben-Haim, Flecha, Nazziola, Breit, Moultaka, Canat de Chizy, Markeas & Fauré - 09/15/13

Cantori New York
Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Erol Gurol: Gel bak ne buldum
Paul Ben-Haim: Sephardic songs
Mateo Flecha: El fuego
Tom Nazziola: Mediterranean Trilogy
Jonathan Breit: Recette de bouillabaisse

Musicatreize
Artistic Director & Conductor: Roland Hayrabedian
Zad Moultaka: Ikhtifa
Edith Canat de Chizy: Duerme – Christian Hamouy
Alexandros Markeas: Wall Street Lullaby

Cantori New York & Musicatreize
Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Gabriel Fauré: Cantique de Jean Racine

Because there's no rest for the brave, Cantori New York's last concert of the day would be a double bill with Musicatreize in Salle Musicatreize, which happened to be conveniently located a short walking distance from the opera house. Once inside, the concert hall turned out to be a minimalist and welcoming space that was filled to the brim way before the performance's starting time, a performance whose first half would be sung by Cantori New York, the second half by Musicatreize, before the two choirs get together for the final piece.

Starting off with the same three composers as in Cassis – Erol Gurol, Paul Ben-Haim and Mateo Flecha – the program also presented Tom Nazziola's Mediterranean Trilogy, which consisted in three short vocal pieces based on texts by Gibran, Neruda and Shakespeare. Although I've always found The Prophet's New Age mysticism uniformly bland and overly sentimental, Neruda and Shakespeare decisively tipped the balance in the right direction in this case. Cantori's indiscriminately inspired singing did the rest, and the trilogy went down easy to a leisurely rhythm reminiscent of graceful Mediterranean waves.
This portion of the concert could evidently not end without an ultimate serving of "Bouillabaisse", and I am happy to report that all the relentless practicing the singers had put themselves through really paid off: After hearing it five times within 24 hours, not only had I pretty much figured out the entire text, but I had also come extremely close to knowing it by heart myself.

After Cantori's ever-popular finale, their fellow contemporary vocal ensemble Musicatreize took over with their own Mediterranean tour. Opening with Zad Moultaka's "Ikhtifa" (The disappearance), the Marseillais choir immediately set a resolutely experimental tone. Playing around with fragmentation, density and disintegration, this diptych sounded all the more foreign with the combination of atonality and the Arab language, a challenge that the poised singers had clearly no problem handling.
Edith Canat de Chizy's "Duerme" took a poem by Lorca and gave it a polyphonic treatment for voices and percussion that quietly emphasized the mysterious quality of Spanish nanas infantiles.
Back to the real world, Alexandros Markeas' "Wall Street Lullaby" evoked the false escape that sleep provides, either when Wall Street sharks shamelessly lure their victims with fake promises or when a Greek mother sings a misleading lullaby about the future to her child. The composer's growing unease at this unstable world was eloquently expressed in the restless voices of the choir, creating a telling testimony to the insurmountable gap between illusion and reality.

In order to wrap up a wide-ranging smorgasbord of musical works, it is sometimes best to simply go back to a classical piece whose sheer beauty everybody can effortlessly relate to. And that is exactly what happened when Cantori New York and Musicatreize joined forces with the flawless support of pianist Victoria Harmandjieva and under the unwavering baton of Mark Shapiro for an unrehearsed, but nevertheless delicately soothing and beautifully uplifting "Cantique de Jean Racine" by Gabriel Fauré.

The festivities were actually not quite over yet as artists and audience got to enjoy a scrumptious reception during which we endlessly compared notes about various personal experiences, marveled at the cool concept of the whole enterprise and the tremendous organizational work it took to pull it all off so successfully, praised the bottomless knowledge and genuine kindness of the staff and volunteers, who were always ready to help with a smile, as well as wondered about the ever-changing playlists, which had apparently been updated with each new program printing cycle and constantly kept us on our toes. Best of all, there was still one last concert on our schedule, this time by the prestigious Dutch ensemble Nederlands Kamerkoor in the much-talked about MuCEM museum the very next evening.

Cantori New York - Flecha, Ben-Haim, Breit & Castelnuovo-Tedesco - 09/15/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Château Borély
Mateo Flecha: El fuego
Ballet National de Marseille
Paul Ben-Haim: Sephardic songs
Jonathan Breit: Recette de bouillabaisse
Opéra de Marseille
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Canciones gitanes – Rémi Jousselme
Jonathan Breit: Recette de bouillabaisse

Back in Marseille for more of the "20 lieux sur la mer" (20 leagues/places on the sea) events featuring Cantori New York during the "Journées du patrimoine" (Heritage days), my mum and I woke up early on Sunday to the sound of (Gasp!) rain. We, however, decided right away that we would not let a few drops get in the way of our carefully planned music-filled day, and after a robust breakfast, we headed to the Château Borély just as the weather was clearing up. If the general area was not as bucolic as I expected – some ugly modern buildings in the background kind of spoiled the overall view – the small-scale 18th century château, which these days houses the musée des Arts décoratifs, de la Faïence et de la Mode, was a charming residence.
It was also the location of Cantori New York's first mini-concert of the day, so at 11 AM sharp they all walked in and evenly spread along the main staircase in order to perform the piece of the hour, Flecha's "El fuego". The dramatic contrast between the hot-blooded lyricism of the catchy medieval composition and the cool elegance of the marble staircase, the vibrant harmonies from the fired-up ensemble terrifically enhanced by the incredible acoustics of the unusual space, the winning combination of the informal, seemingly impromptu, performance and the formal, quasi-aristocratic setting literally stopped everybody in their track and contributed to making these 15 minutes of heavenly choral singing a huge success and our indisputable highlight of the entire weekend. Seriously, who needs pastis when one can have a premium shot of Cantori for apéritif ?

Passing from the foyer of the stately Château Borély to the decidedly less visually pleasing courtyard of the Ballet National's building nearby, we also moved on to the many moods of love in the Judeo-Spanish culture with a nice assortment of Sephardic songs. The sun was finally shining and the attractive sounds coming from the choir quickly and effortlessly made our surroundings more appealing. The encore was our first, but definitely not our last, "Bouillabaisse" of the day, a song that was well on its way to becoming the biggest hit of the ensemble's first French tour.

After an enjoyable sight-seeing break in the afternoon, we made our way to the Opéra de Marseille for Cantori's last mini-concert of the day. We eventually realized, however, that the word about their presence must have spread pretty far out because when we arrived a good half hour ahead of the scheduled 5:00 PM starting time, the fancy 200-seat foyer was filling up so rapidly that we ended up in the first row. Still going strong after performing all over the city all day long, the choir looked more than ready to wrap up their mini-concert marathon in the city's most prominent vocal art institution.
Accompanied again by the superb classical guitarist Rémi Jousselme, they treated the captive audience to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's highly melodic canciones gitanes, whose emotional directness and intrinsic musicality was beautifully rendered by the harmonious combination of voices and guitar. The overflowing audience was so wildly enthusiastic, with standing ovation and all, that they had to perform the "Bouillabaisse" encore not once, but twice.

The atmosphere eventually calmed down, and the Mediterranean exploration took an unexpected turn with some excerpts from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" assertively played by Victoria Harmandjieva, which had been listed as a "surprise" on the program. And then we all moved on to the official concert of the day with the Musicatreize ensemble, right around the corner.

Cantori New York - Gurol, Ben-Haim, Flecha, Castelnuovo-Tedesco & Breit - 09/14/13

Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Erol Gurol: Gel bak ne buldum
Paul Ben-Haim: Four sephardic songs
Mateo Flecha: El fuego
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Canciones gitanes - Rémi Jousselme
Jonathan Breit: Recette de bouillabaisse

When I first heard at the end of last year that Cantori New York would be singing in Marseille, France, as the only American vocal ensemble invited to take part in the city’s year-long celebration for being one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2013, I jokingly said that I’d love to tag along so that I could discover the ancient metropolis and pay a visit to my mum and step-dad who live in the area by the same token. After successfully negotiating numerous twists and turns in terms of finances, schedule and logistics, this past weekend the original tongue-firmly-in-cheek statement had become a sometimes still hard to believe reality.
Once the standard tourist fare was more or less planned and underway, my mum and I headed towards Cassis late on Saturday afternoon for Cantori’s first performance of what sounded like a very busy weekend.  Partly scheduled to coincide with the annual "Journées du patrimoine" (Heritage days), during which the entrance to all French cultural institutions is free, the "20 lieux sur la mer" (20 leagues/places on the sea) events included whirlwind and multi-faceted musical explorations of Marseille and the Mediterranean region.
Neither the concert location – the Fondation Camargo – nor parking was particularly easy to find, but our efforts were handsomely rewarded when we heard the choir rehearse from the rocky beach below, an irrefutable proof that we were in the right place. After a dinner and a walk in the picturesque little harbor, we made it back to the by then open gate of the estate at dusk and found ourselves entering what looked like a little corner of the garden of Eden. Overlooking the serene Mediterranean and facing the imposing Cap Canaille, at our feet laid a miniature amphitheater surrounded by grass and trees, forming a setting so fairytale-like that I half-expected some Greek gods to suddenly materialize out of the invigorating maritime air. More prosaically, the members of a slightly modified Cantori New York eventually appeared onstage instead.

Their Mediterranean tour kicked off in Turkey with "Gel bak ne buldum" (Come see what I've found) by in-house composer Erol Gurol. Dreamingly evoking the fascinating country where East meets West and possibilities seem endless, the Turkish language’s unusual sounds started the musical voyage with mystery and exoticism galore.
Next, we went back to the roots of Mediterranean travel with four sephardic songs by Paul Ben-Haim in Spanish. Probably some of the most traditional work I’ve ever heard from Cantori, those attractive testimonies of the various moods of love from a culture that would symbolize the Judeo-Spanish exile into eastern Mediterranean lands enlarged the scope of the adventure to a more global scale.
As the evening was becoming darker and the air cooler, the lighthouse started flashing its green warning light and we got to experience an irresistible fire during our stop in medieval Spain. That's where Mateo Flecha’s ensalada "El fuego" brought up the earthier concept of sin, brazenly stressing out the fun part of it, even as the cooling chorus was trying rather unsuccessfully to keep things under control. Accordingly, the ensemble heartily sang about the eternal tug of war between fire and water while keeping the former fiercely burning, steadily avoiding the dreaded ignis interruptus.
We remained in Spain and moved further forward in time with some Lorca-inspired canciones gitanes by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, which took us on a colorful Spanish journey. By turns joyful, wishful, or mournful, occasionally whimsical, those songs gave the singers plenty of opportunities to emphasize the intrinsically musical nature of the Spanish language. This entire collection of appealing tunes was soulfully supported by classical guitarist extraordinaire Rémi Jousselme, who, beside a promising earlier YouTube glimpse, had just met his vocal partners and conductor that very same day.
The closing number, on the other hand, zeroed in on Marseille proper. Committed to the official theme of the Mediterranean region yet determined to do it their own way, Cantori did not come up with any high-brow tribute to the typical "Cradle of Civilization" image, but served us a high-spirited "Recipe for bouillabaisse" – Marseille’s trademark fish stew – in French instead, courtesy of their other in-house composer Jonathan Breit. Vividly bringing to mind the exorbitantly priced, but guaranteed 100% authentic and all-around divine bouillabaisse my mum and I had enjoyed the night before while watching an incredible sunset on the coast – if you’re gonna do it, just do it right – this entertaining musical version of the culinary classic concluded our enchanted evening in Cassis, France, on a truly local note.