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June 2007 Archives

June 8, 2007

Mark Adamo's Harp Concerto

What causes a brilliantly successful opera composer like Mark Adamo to accept a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra that results in “Four Angels, Concerto for Harp and Orchestra”? The Dresser, who has experienced Adamo’s second opera Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess and is eager to hear Little Women, his first which will be presented this June in Washington, DC at Catholic University by Summer Opera Theatre Company, scratched her head when she got notice of the June 7, 2007 premiere. Apparently as the senior NSO harpist Dotian Levalier said in a talkback session after the concert, Adamo, who early in his career was a critic for The Washington Post, “understands the color of the harp” and it was Levalier who chose Adamo after Leonard Slatkin, NSO music director, asked her to recommend a composer for a composition featuring the harp. The back story is that in a conversation between Levalier and Slatkin regarding Levalier’s career, the only accomplishment Levalier’s career lacked was a concerto written specifically for her and the harp.

Did the Dresser, who is not really into the schmaltz of angels and balletic harp glissandos and pizzicatos, like “Four Angels”? No, she loved it.


Sandwiched between Joseph Haydn’s “La Reine” (Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major) written in 1785 and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D major (originally named by Mahler as “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts”) completed in 1888, “Four Angels” brought the Dresser to full attention. Haydn’s symphony contains much to be appreciated—the plaintive oboe in the opening Adagio, the folkloric Romance: Allegretto, the whimsical violins in the Menuetto—but his music tends to induce sleepy reverie in the conscious mind of the Dresser. Mahler’s symphony, which is large and powerful with its constant building toward its stormy conclusion, seemed a bit more complementary to the joyful landscape of “Four Angels.”

Adamo has named the four movements of his concerto after Metratron, known in the Kabbalah as the angel closest to G-d; Sraosha, the Zoroastrianian Angel of Divine Intuition; Mary, who as the mother of Christ became an angel at her death; and the archangel Michael who appears in the liturgies of Jews, Catholics and Moslems.


Using a postmodern approach, the Dresser will start inside “Four Angels” and move out. Movement 2 “Scherzo: Sraosha” stands head and shoulders above the other angel movements. Adamo pursues an oriental approach in this movement. The Dresser’s initial thoughts include the following reactions—the emphasis on percussion that includes slapping sounds, whirring, woodpecker-like thrumming, the striking of an off-key gong that sounds like a warped trashcan lid, rattling paper-like noise is reminiscent of what Tan Dun does in his recent opera The First Emperor and the scherzo dance form conjures up a 21st century Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with fleet feet able to move with the odd library of sounds. Everything about “Scherzo: Sraosha” is engaging and this is where the harp, using pedal crashes and tuning-key glissandos, becomes (to steal a metaphor used by Adamo in his May 23, 2007 article “On Babes and Angels” on newmusicbox.com) more than a voluptuous dumb blond just decorating what the orchestra delivers. In fact, as Adamo explained in the talkback session following the concert, the harp becomes a percussion instrument. The Dresser advices the serious music fan to hear Adamo's Lysistrata because percussion is also featured in this opera's orchestration.

The Dresser pauses here to say she was not familiar with the term pedal crash before hearing Adamo mention this in the talkback and so she Googled the Internet to see if she heard this term correctly and hoped she might find out more about the technique. What she found was the article “On Babes and Angels,” Adamo’s treatise on how he approached the issues of creating a harp concerto. Soon enough, the Dresser will ask the composer if pedal crash is a standard harp technique or something he put a name to after the harpist demonstrated to him all that the harp was capable of.


The most lyrically beautiful movement is the third which is entitled “Aria: Regina Coeli.” Somber violins make way for swells of heavenly triplets from the harp strings. Adamo said he wrote this movement for his mother (remember this is the Mary-as-angel movement) who came to a rehearsal this week to hear her son’s new composition. Levalier said she wasn’t entirely sure she liked the concerto until she heard this movement and the first time she played it, she wept.

The first movement, “Overture: Metatron,” had little windows of Aaron Copland-like sound and it was fluid and mysterious. The last movement, “Finale: Mik’hail,” opened with a rising line that stopped with a slap. Then came wooden knocks followed by horns in dialogue with the strings.

Overall, the Dresser heard the repeating theme of “Angels” and enjoyed the tidiness of its recurrence and how it cinched the four movements together. For the Dresser, she experienced fireflies and woodland fairies more than angels, particularly in the scherzo and finale movements. The Dresser didn’t believe that the harp had as much of the limelight as a concerto demands but she did not find that bothersome.

Continue reading "Mark Adamo's Harp Concerto" »

June 21, 2007

Birth of an Ekphrastic Opera Inspired by Edward Hopper's Art

What happens when an opera mover and shaker like University of Maryland Opera Studio Director Leon Major Leon%20MajorSM.jpg
Photo Credit: Stan Barouh

meets with an all-embracing art museum official like National Gallery of Art Deputy Director Alan Shestack? The birth of an ekphrastic opera--Later the Same Evening: an opera inspired by five paintings of Edward Hopper by composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell. The art-on-art opera will premiere at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center November 15 through 18, 2007 in conjunction with the three-city (Boston, Washington, Chicago) exhibition of Edward Hopper's work running September 16, 2007, through January 21, 2008 at DC's NGA. One performance of the opera will occur December 2 at the National Gallery.


The Dresser was pleased to be invited June 19 to the press breakfast announcing this new operatic work. Although she was a bit shocked at the 1950s diner menu of hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, and frothy milkshakes conjuring up
Photo Credit: Karren Alenier

Hopper's renown oil icon Nighthawks, she was excited to hear soprano Claire Kuttler sing an aria inspired by Hopper's 1931 oil Hotel Room and enjoy the four-hand piano accompaniment played by pianist Jeffery Watson and composer John Musto.Musto.jpgMusto-Singer.jpgSinger-Pianist.jpgPhoto Credit: Karren Alenier

If this tonal aria full of youthful angst and whimsy accented by broken chords that tip toe across the keyboard is indicative of the whole opera, the Dresser believes audiences will be moved and enlightened about Hopper's work which often makes viewers guess about his intentions.

The way this collaboration between the University of Maryland and the National Gallery of Art happened is that Major, who knew about the music programs at the NGA, met with Shestack to suggest a event using outstanding student singers from Maryland's School of Music. When Shestack mentioned the Hopper exhibition, a bell went off in Major's head. Major remembered that Mark Campbell had writtenMark%20Campbellsm.jpg
Photo Credit: Alex Beauchesne

a 10-minute pieceinspired by the art of Edward Hopper. Although Later the Same Evening sprung largely from Major's suggestions and had nothing to do with Campbell's earlier work, what Campbell created initially inspired by Hopper opened the door for him and for John Musto.


Campbell and Musto had already worked with Major who directed their opera Volpone [translates as The Fox], which was commissioned by Wolf Trap Foundation and then premiered in March 2004 by the Wolf Trap Opera Company. A second production of this comic opera occurs June 22 to July 1, 2007, for four performances at the Barnes of Wolf Trap Farm.

At the news conference, the Dresser spoke to Campbell who said while Volpone emphasizes comedy, Later the Same Evening delves into the emotional load of Hopper's landscape--solitude, loneliness, life in the big city. (The traveling Hopper exhibition focuses on the artist's most reknown works created from 1925 to mid century.) The composer, librettist, and director of the Hopper opera, which Alan Shestack affectionately calls the Hoppera, emphasize that their goal is to make popular entertainment. Leon Major said that the highbrow label for opera belongs to the 19th century.

Continue reading "Birth of an Ekphrastic Opera Inspired by Edward Hopper's Art" »

June 23, 2007

Volpone and What's in a Name

“What’s in a name?” The Dresser summons William Shakespeare, a rival of Ben Johnson who was author of the black comedy Volpone, to discuss the contemporary opera Volpone by librettist Mark Campbell and composer John Musto.


Let it be known that the Dresser enthusiastically enjoyed the June 22, 2007, performance in the second production of Volpone playing at the Barns of Wolf Trap by the Wolf Trap Opera Company. The Dresser's concerns about Campbell’s text lacking VAL0079.jpg
Joshua Jeremiah as Volpone

the poetry and metaphor of Ben Johnson’s original work were sucked back into the critic’s black hole of I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-the-problem-but-something-is-blocking-the-transfer-of-work-that-is-well-conceived-and-will-succeed.

Just for the record, the Dresser trots out the opening lines of the Volpone script by Johnson:

The Argument

Volpone, childless, rich, feigns sick, despairs,
Offers his state to hopes of several heirs,
Lies languishing: his parasite receives
Presents of all, assures, deludes; then weaves
Other cross plots, which ope themselves, are told.
New tricks for safety are sought; they thrive: when bold,
Each tempts the other again, and all are sold.

versus the opening of the libretto by Campbell:

Our beloved master
May not, alas, outlive this day.
Angels hover near him
To bear his spirit Heaven’s way,
Dear God, we importune
That thou receive him soon—
In death he’ll find relief
Though brief his pain and woe,
The same will ne’er be so
For our undying grief.

Without trying to build a fire, the Dresser quietly notes that the first letters of the opening lines of Johnson’s Argument form the word Volpone and is what is known in the world of poetry as an acrostic. Johnson is heavy on rhyme with end words rhyming in close proximity and the lines are packed with details. In other places in his play, Johnson uses poetic form labeled turn, counterturn, and stand to advance his moralistic messages. Having no intention of competing with Johnson and focused on entertaining and not educating his audience, Campbell produces a looser, less heated rhyme scheme, attentive to the singer’s breath. Whoosh, that last flame of contention is now blown out.


In complete disclosure, the Dresser points out that Campbell and Musto make it clear that their opera is “unfaithfully adapted from Ben Johnson’s eponymous comedy” and that operas usually demand fewer words because musical setting extends how much time it takes to deliver text into the heads of the listeners. Also, the Dresser insists that a minute be spent on the word eponym, which means the name of a person real or imagined whose name is the source of another name of particular place, tribe, discovery, or other item. So for example in American history, William Penn’s name was used to create the name for the state Pennsylvania.

In Volpone, Johnson named most of his characters with Italian words that were the names of animals: Volpone—old or sly fox, Mosca—fly, Voltore—vulture, Corvina—raven-black, Cornaccio—carrion crow. Campbell added the character Erminella, the ermine, a seductively beautiful animal that belongs to the weasel family. Scratching her head, the Dresser thinks the word eponym fits with the idea that Johnson’s play was a reinterpretation of the medieval morality play where characters were not flesh and blood but stand-ins (or personifications) for human behavior involving greed, hate, love, etc.


When the Dresser saw the original 2004 production of the Musto-Campbell opera Volpone, she knew it would be successful but something riled her up about the production, which was highly polished and crowd-pleasing. In Leon Major’s interpretation of this opera, all the characters progressively turned into the animals their name suggested. Peter Kazaras in the new production follows a more traditional character development approach, such that while the personalities of characters might be eccentric or exaggerated, the characters don’t transform either into morality, mythic, or animalistic forms. The Kazaras vision fleshes out the characters as human beings with a lot of baggage.

Nosing around on the Internet, the Dresser found an interview on the Seattle Opera website with Peter Kazaras, who is a tenor turned director. In this interview, Kazaras said,

“I developed a technique which involves stripping the text from the music and really looking at what it says. Once you do that, whether it is poetry or a libretto or a play set to music, you suddenly find meaning. And once you as a performer start to find meaning, then you are getting into the mind of a composer who worked very diligently to create something meaningful. In the past eight years of teaching, I’ve seen amazing things happen when you get people to connect with what the words are, with what is actually going on. And then when you add fantastic music, whether it’s by Verdi, Puccini, Blitzstein, or whomever, you’re suddenly able to go someplace you never believed possible.”


At intermission when the Dresser and her seatmate composer Janet Peachey found Mark Campbell to say how much we were enjoying the production, the Dresser also quizzed the librettist about what was different. Although the Dresser knew this production had lost the animal interpretation and that the set was new, she wondered if anything, like possibly the orchestration, had changed. Campbell said no, nothing had changed except the set and direction. When Janet Peachey said she liked this production better, Campbell practically levitated into the beautiful June night.

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About June 2007

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in June 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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