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April 3, 2011

Ricky Ian Gordon: Lost Loves

Gordon.jpgApril 1, 2011, the Dresser literally dashed out of her home leaving dinner uncooked so she could catch Orpheus and Euridice and then Green Sneakers, two operas by Ricky Ian Gordon running in the first UrbanArias Festival. Because UrbanArias is presenting these short operas (both are about an hour long) as separate shows, April 1 was the only occasion to see these companionable stories in one visit to Arlington, Virginia's Artisphere. While the Dresser should have been checking regularly on the UrbanArias schedule since she was truly blown away when she saw their stellar program of pocket operas back in January this year, if she hadn't gotten a late afternoon invitation to Green Sneakers from her friend Charles Downey, she would have sorely missed this rare opportunity to hear more of this prolific composer's work under such excellent circumstances.

Why does the Dresser say excellent circumstances? Because UrbanArias Executive Director Robert Wood knows how to get the right artists to his forum and while he works minimally with sets, number of performers, and, so far, duration of each opera, it all adds up to what the Dresser calls a maximum success factor. The only piece Wood (he has built his resume as an opera conductor) needs help with is publicity so he can increase his audience count.

elizabeth_futral.jpgDespite the fact that both operas involve a pair of lovers, these lyrical song cycles each feature one lone singer. In Orpheus and Euridice, the impressive coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral sings Euridice to clarinetist Todd Palmer's non-speaking role as Orpheus. ToddPalmer.jpgThis opera was commissioned by and for Todd Palmer and he is awesome in this literally and figuratively moving role. He travels the staging arena like a dancer with measured control. The Dresser cannot imagine a better singer than Futral who has the ability to sing as if she were an answering clarinet. Vocal gymnastics are clearly her forte and Gordon, without imitating 19th century techniques, gives his soprano musical challenges that show off her abilities. In Green Sneakers, baritone Ian Greenlaw ably brings the spirit of the missing partner into the room. His voice is rich with emotion, but his acting is what certainly convinced the Dresser of his prowess. IanGreenlaw.jpb.jpg

Kevin Newbury directs both of these operas and will be premiering with Virginia Opera on April 12, 2011, Gordon's Rappahannock County, a civil war story written in collaboration with librettist Mark Campbell. (Campbell wrote libretti for John Musto's Later the Same Evening: an opera inspired by five paintings of Edward Hopper and Volpone.) In both UrbanArias operas, Newbury does a good job in placing the musicians (Orpheus includes a piano--played by Melvin Chen while Sneakers offers a string quartet) and singers on stage and getting the singers to use the staging area they are given--a black box theater, meaning a plain staging area within a more-or-less square room with black walls and a flat floor.

The Orpheus and Euridice set places the action in a waiting room station in the present time. We see Euridice in a modern day trench coat with her roller bag luggage. When she removes her coat and shoes, she becomes the mythological goddess in a golden satin gown. Green Sneakers is the recent past, set in the opera composer's living room. The composer character is Ricky Ian Gordon. The main furnishings are an easy chair, a wooden chair displaying the green sneakers, and a large area rug.

Newbury attempts to tie together these operas with two props: a suitcase and a boom box. In theory, the repetition of props helps tie together these two disparate love stories where one of the partner dies. What makes them unlike each other is that one is a mythological story (Orpheus and Euridice) while the other is about the relationship Ricky Ian Gordon had with his partner who died from A.I.D.S (Green Sneakers). In practical application, the use of these props are a subtle point not likely to get much notice since few audience members would see these two operas in close enough proximity to notice these details. Since the boom box was never turned on during Orpheus, the Dresser wondered what that prop was for. In Green Sneakers, the composer character lies belly down on the rug and mimes use of the boom box. The Dresser wonders if Newbury ever considered a more radical prop sharing between the two operas, such as putting the green sneakers that belonged to the composer's dead lover on the feet of Euridice.

The Dresser found Gordon's text for Green Sneakers moving without being sentimental or self-pitying. In the closing text, the composer says he and his partner never saw a meadow together, never saw sheep but that he sees a vast scene as he watches his dying partner sleep and then the composer realizes that together they had a "universe of moments." In "Farewell to the Body," Barbara Moore confronts death head on with a similar honesty that looks at the terrible loss and finds both distance and closeness in what death leaves to the living.


FAREWELL TO THE BODY (an excerpt)


We try to think about it but find
that impossible, suspended in its smoke
and water--leaching to two small windows,
cloudy at best, twitching in their silver jelly
like fish. Through which we wink, send a
love beam--and my eye
falls on the tree, in a burst of applause,
under which you stand
Come closer. I see you
pressed to the pane, which melts,
whereupon you enter, all sparks and pearwood,
and speak,
which can't be exactly recorded. Meanwhile
the tree, a burst of invisible leaves,
scratches on the tinfoil of the retina,
scratches in a perfect cornucopia,
emblazoned, etched, mottled, quivering,
transparent to the last green flaw.
The colors drip into your bones. Not
into your brain waving far up on its stalk,
but into the chalk and salt of your bones,
that barrow, ancient, porous, serious,
fresh beyond all argument.

Something sad, something sacred about the body
from which all arguments rise. Once
I left a peach on the kitchen counter for a week,
watching the transformations: the way it
teemed, sank, soaked toward center--grew a blue
powder all over, then a black, dense, velvety--
then collapsed into a kind of bud
or navel turned inside out. Then leaked all its juice
forever, in a sticky trail on the formica.
Maybe this was blasphemous, but I
thought about my mother's body
slipped into the ground in Vermont
six years earlier, and wondered if by now
it looked like the peach. If it
had soaked up all the mud and gravel,
poured out of itself in a long, forgetful tongue;
become a sluice, a runnel, a cycle
of vapors, sunk into a silvery
coalseam or underground river...


... A sparrow lights
in my ribcase, whistles in the gap,
and I understand that this is my body,
the one window I can't look in ...

by Barbara Moore
from Farewell to the Body

Copyright © 1990 Barbara Moore

April 6, 2011

U MD Preview: Fortune's Bones & More

YsayeBarnwellSmall.jpgApril 5, 2011, the Dresser dressed up to dip into a preview of the 2011-2012 10th anniversary season coming up at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center where the selected features were (their words) a Divine Diva--Ysaye Barnwell, Sweet Honey in the Rock composer of the cantata Fortune's Bones, and a Serious Kidder--Basil Twist, an out-there-on-the-edge puppeteer who created Symphonie Fantastique. Sitting among a group of exceptional student artists, well-heeled arts patrons, and welcoming University officials, the Dresser realized she had had up-close connections to both of the featured artists.

Dr. Barnwell's collaborator for Fortune's Bones is the poet Marilyn Nelson, a gifted teacher the Dresser invited to the DC area to give a master class in writing when the Dresser was organizing such writing workshops for The Word Works. From Dr. Nelson's Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem, a poem about a slave named Fortune whose accidental death led to his owner, a Connecticut doctor, mining his slave's bones for educational purposes--in death, Fortune's skeleton became a medical specimen. From Fortune's Bones, the assembled audience heard soprano Shannon Finney's moving interpretation of "Dinah's Lament." Dinah was Fortune's wife, who was forced to clean the room where her husband's bones hung, including dusting his bones.

In 1998, the Dresser took her teenage niece to New York City for a whirlwind weekend tour that included the world premier of Symphonie Fantastique. After watching the underwater puppetry, basaltwist.jpgBasil Twist invited the audience to come backstage to see how the puppeteers dragged strips of cloth through the tanks of water in a show that was psychedelic and nothing like traditional puppet shows since there was no human or animal forms involved. Twist is currently working with University of Maryland students on a new project that uses wind and silk cloth to create a new dimension of puppetry. This is what he and two students demonstrated for the preview show.

Other programs scheduled in the 2011-2012 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center season that especially excite the Dresser are productions of Postcard from Morocco and Miss Havisham's Fire, two operas by Dominick Argento. For a full listing, visit the 2012 Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center website.


Here is an excerpt from Marilyn Nelson's poem "Dinah's Lament" that was interpreted musically by Ysaye Barnwell:

To dust the hands what use to stroke my breast,
to dust the arms what hold me when I cried;
to dust where his soft lips were, and his chest
what curved its warm against my back at night.

Through every season, sun-up to star light,
I heft, scrub, knead: one black woman alone,
except for my children. The world so white,
nobody knows my pain, but Fortune bones.

by Marilyn Nelson
from Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem

Copyright © 2003 Marilyn Nelson

April 11, 2011

Uniting Heaven & Earth: Violinist Brings New Classical Music to Rural PA

How does new musical work happen? The Dresser poses this question because lately she has come into contact with musicians who have commissioned compositions from composers whom they feel can bring some attention to the musicians' technical abilities. For example, clarinetist Todd Palmer commissioned Ricky Ian Gordon to write him some music and not only did Palmer get a featured clarinet part, he was cast as a character in Gordon's pocket opera Orpheus and Euridice.

MarkHartman.jpgOn April 10, 2011, the Dresser attended a concert entitled "Bach and Inspired by Bach" done in the style of Leonard Bernstein that opened up on several levels a work commissioned from composer Janet Peachey by violinist Mark Hartman. Hartman is Assistant Professor of Music and Director of the University-Community Orchestra at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. The original commission from Hartman resulted in Night Songs for Violin and Piano, which was premiered by Hartman and Peachey (on piano) in Waterloo, Ontario in June 2009. The April 10 concert premiered the work in an expanded format--Night Songs for Violin and Orchestra, a three-movement work. As Dr. Peachey explained to an audience nearing 700 members, the "night songs" quoted in her compositions are the evening hymns "Now the Day is Over" by Joseph Barnby (1868) and "Der Tag mit seinem Lichte" ("The Day with its Light"), originally attributed to J. S. Bach and included in his collection of sacred songs, but actually written by Jakob Hintze in 1670.

Preceding the performance of Night Songs for Violin and Orchestra, "Now the Day is Over" was sung by the Shippensburg Concert Choir, which was stationed in the balcony facing the stage where the orchestra was positioned. Since the audience was seated in front of the stage and not in any balcony areas, the surround-sound effect of choir and orchestra performing at cross currents over the audience was quite dramatic in the way someone attending a service in a large cathedral might experience such sacred music. Also preceding Peachey's extended composition was an intimate performance of "Der Tag mit seinem Lichte" which featured soprano Elizabeth Shoenfelt, harpsichordist Margaret Lucia, cellist Barbara Lewis, and violinist Mark Hartman.

The composer also moderated musically demonstrated examples of what the audience should listen for. Peachey.jpgThis included her use of the famous B-A-C-H motive. Here the Dresser spells out BACH to reinforce that this melodic pattern, using Bach's name, translates according to the German music convention as musical notes B flat, A, C, and B natural. What the Dresser found inexplicably compelling was hearing the violin play the BACH motive over a portion of "Der Tag mit seinem Lichte." Overall, Night Songs for Violin and Orchestra, a predominantly tonal work which begins with bright, almost twinkling, percussion produced by glockenspiel and vibraphone riffs, is mysterious both in its landscape of sound and how it can quote well-known music and still achieve its own voice and character. Probably part of the mystery involves the complicated pattern of time signature changes. The Shippensburg University-Community Orchestra, under the baton of Dennis Ritz and featuring Mark Hartman on violin, did an admirable job in delivering a substantially challenging work.

While not religious, there is clearly something prayerful and spirit-filled inhabiting Janet Peachey's Night Songs for Violin and Orchestra. It seems fitting that this work premiered in the rural community of Shippensburg PA where so many community members took time to hear not only three selections by Johann Sebastian Bach--Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, "Sheep May Safely Graze" (from Cantata No. 208), and Fugue in G Minor--and Felix Mendelssohn's 4th Movement of Symphony Number 5 in D Op. 107 ("Reformation Symphony") but also an unknown new work based on familiar church songs. Melissa Stein's poem "The Night Orchard" captures the atmosphere of this world premiere work that seems to address both heaven and earth.


THE NIGHT ORCHARD (excerpts)

I. Losing Gravity

Someone is saying the body
is an irredeemable thing
. Don't tell me how
to pray. I'm stripped like wallpaper, weak
gum and sweet glue. I've seen whole
houses arranged by the colors of their roofs.
Behind these lids a stippled orchard
revolves in the sun's decrease. Fruit
refuses to fall. Swelled walnuts split
like words, hulls still propped in branches of
their beginning. Steady myself with handfuls
of air. Over that wall I know it's winter,
some saying the taste of your tongue
in your mouth is the only poem
.

II. The Night Orchard

Wound through Winters, past
the old graffitied Stevenson bridge,
in the headlights, ghost imprint, orchard
retina repeating: angel-bright trunk
and the black sweeping tail...
film-frame symmetries. Then a crook
in the road struck like a snake
I never saw.
......................(What I mean to say is this:)
White stitches pulled the lanes together.
The road curved, but I was all angles.
...

VII. Telling

In this incomprehensible, alphabet light
I'll step down from silence: what's in my mouth is that
I still want to lay you down in that slatted orchard
light, to tuck us there, thin husks between air-breathing
roots and earth-bound branches. What sweeter than
watered hay steaming off the fields? Crows stutter
by the road's haunches. Tractors chug, slow till
of chaff-dulled blades. Over the wall we find
it's summer, we live on less.

by Melissa Stein
from Rough Honey

Copyright © 2010 Melissa Stein

A Trip into the Minotaur's Maze Circa 1920, Chicago

Minotaur prologue sacrificeSmall.jpgPop quiz: did you read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and if you did, were you appalled but riveted, maybe outraged? If you are socially engaged, seek artistic work that makes you think, then the Dresser suggests that Izumi Ashizawa's adaptation of the myth of the Minotaur, which is set in the 1920s stockyards of Chicago might be worth your time and money.

The Dresser was taken behind the scenes at the Clarice Smith Center for the Arts to talk to Ms. Ashizawa and two of the principle actors: Nick Horan and Claudia Rosales. What she learned is the play features Japanese movement (Ashizawa was trained in the arts of Japanese Noh theater) and unusual puppetry. Minotaur human chess gameSmall.jpgThe stage is configured in the shape of a steer's hoof. The lighting features "red outs." The original music comes from a Greek contemporary composer, Simos Papanas, who is not a Minimalist but not a Schoenberg either.

The ninety-minute performance about modern day immigration problems runs without intermission. Director Ashizawa hopes to shake the inner core of those who attend. Because every element of this theater work, which features the same group of outstanding graduate students the Dresser saw in the Mendacity Festival, counts--there is no pretty fluff added, the Dresser believes seeing the play once might hook the viewer into seeing it again. Minotaur Icarus' fallSmall.jpg

Minotaur opens April 15, 2011.

Photo Credit: Izumi Ashizawa

April 30, 2011

Showdown with The Inspector

At the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, the team of composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell recently premiered The Inspector, their fourth opera. The Dresser caught the April 29, 2011 performance. Like most new operas, the performance run was limited and for this opera, directed by Leon Major, there were only three performances.

WELCOME TO SAINT FILTH

Mayor-and-Board-of-DirectorsSm.jpgLoosely based on The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol, the Musto-Campbell opera, set in the fictitious Sicilian town of Santa Schifezza during Mussolini's regime, hinges on a case of mistaken identity by a petty but corrupt official. Mayor Fazzobaldi (baritone Robert Orth) of Santa Schifezza--meaning Saint Filth or Saint Trash--explicitly states in the first scene of this two-act, five-scene opera that things are done "our way." While the Mayor wants to convince anyone listening that he has a democratic government (his officials call him "your supremacy"), his actions say, like Frank Sinatra's well-known ballad, "I did it my way." Hold on to that notion of musical pop culture.

Exactly, who is listening? Well, for one is Sister Anjelica (actor Naomi Jacobson) who has just come to town to open an orphanage or so her note says since another note indicates that she has taken a vow of silence. The Mayor, who has just gotten news that one of Mussolini's inspectors is about to sneak into his town, grants the silent sister a promise about the orphanage in exchange that she becomes his biographer to record his good deeds. He says that his book The Mayor of Santa Schifezza: A Day in the Life of will become a best seller, leaving the Bible "in the dust." Can you hear, Dear Reader, the Mob man Sinatra climaxing with:

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels and
not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows
and did it my way!

OK, maybe the Sinatra association is a little far fetched but the Dresser got defocused a number of times during this supposedly comic opera.

MIXING IT UP

The story spins into action when the town's twin mail carriers--think Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee--convince the Mayor to read a letter that comes packaged in elegant paper. How about you, Dear Reader?--the Dresser loves shopping in Florence for stationery and note cards, even in the bargain markets, the Italian paper is high quality. Bobachina (soprano Andrea Shokery) says, "The swaper's very panky" and Bobachino (mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther) interprets "the paper's very swanky." Mayor-MailmenSmall.jpgThe letter warns the Mayor about an inspector from Rome traveling incognito and shortly thereafter, the Mayor has latched onto two seemingly down and out men who have, in fact, come from Rome. However, the audience knows that the younger, blond man Tancredi (tenor Vale Rideout) and the older companion Cosimo (baritone William Sharp) are not inspectors, but just two hungry people who have lost all their money and who are trying for some unexplained reason to get to a boat in Palermo. Things are not as they appear in this opera.

Musically, the opera blends tonality and dissonance with a landscape of what sounds like Italian folk tunes, circus tunes, silent screen melodies and droll noises like a contrabassoon imitating Cosimo's hunger pangs. Musto assigns the best music to the Mayor's headstrong daughter Beatrice (soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird). In Act I, her aria about having nothing but contempt for the new leader of Italy (Mussolini is not mentioned but certainly understood) introduces a simpler musical line in what has been throughout this act, an overly busy and complex regimen that quite frankly bored the Dresser. However, the Dresser suspects that judicious cutting of Act I would remedy that problem and give the Dresser renewed respect for the composer's challenging offering. Beatrice, who constantly has her nose in a book, also steals musical attention when she replies to her parents who want her to be nice to Tancredi (the Mayor has been offering all sorts of bribes to him because he thinks Tancredi is Mussolini's inspector). Beatrice is furious with her parents, because they pulled her out of her studies at the university after only one year.FamilySmall.jpg

All of the performers gave excellent recitals but the Dresser expects any cast working under Leon Major to perform at this level. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen as Sarelda, the wife of Mayor Fazzobaldi and mother of Beatrice, delivered a notable performance in the last scene of Act I when she sang about the shoes and hats she hopes to have when they move to Rome, now that she believes her husband has bought Tancredi's full support.

Erhard Rom's set was every bit as engaging as the two he created for the Wolf Trap productions of Musto-Campbell's Volpone. What the Dresser particularly liked was that the three walls required stagehands to get very physical when they were required to turn them. This visceral engagement reminded the Dresser of construction workers in Italy who always seemed to be more emotionally involved with their buildings than American construction workers.

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About April 2011

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