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June 2008 Archives

June 9, 2008

Listening to Margo Berdeshevsky

But a Passage in Wilderness by Margo Berdeshevsky captured the Dresser's attention in the same way as Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century did. The Dresser lingered over Berdeshevsky's words refusing to turn to the next poem until fully sated with the meaning, imagery, and beauty of her language. The Dresser believes each poem could bring forth many pages of commentary. Perhaps there is a doctoral thesis in this work.Passage-Cover_Margo.jpg


Since the task of properly reviewing this important new work is so large, the Dresser has decided in a random fashion to look at three poems that speak, though not primarily, to themes of music and opera. These poems: "In Possibility," "Every Afternoon," and "Lautrec, I've Heard, Shot Spiders" appear one each in the first three sections of the collection which is divided in a total of five parts entitled "On Frailty," "Whom Beggars Call," "The Story," "On Breaking," and "Best Love." In the world of assembling a collection of poetry, poems that open and close a section and the poem from which the title of a section is drawn tend to indicate important themes and strong individual poems. Therefore, the Dresser will make references to other poems in the collection as they inform the three poems she has chosen to look at in detail.


At first glance, the title "In Possibility" resonates with the word impossibility. Berdeshevsky is nimble at making the reader slow down to hear what she is saying. This making the language new, in the Dresser's experience, comes from Gertrude Stein and this poem turns a Steinian phrase in the sentence: "Let the rose beetle/ invent a loving." The sentence, which appears divided over the last two lines of this poem, harkens back to the opening line "Nighthawk, beetle, how do you pray?" The word "pray" is carefully chosen and leads to "Is landscape your good silence, your breviary" but it is the homonym "prey" that grounds the complex working of the poet's intention. In nature, the beetle is prey of the nighthawk while the rose is prey to the rose beetle. But something sexual and not gastronomic happens in this poem as evidenced by such words and phrases as: "passion," "the first to bite back at spring's dark nipple," "love thrust," and "the pagan's skirts are lifted."

So how does one access the underbelly story of this poem? The Dresser decided to have a look at other poems in this section and noticed that the poem "On Frailty," (also the name of this section) contains the following lines:

Beware oh my Philomel who is not mine, but the sky's,
(am I and am I
tongue-cut and not
nightingale at all?)

Who or what is Philomel? How much time do you have? Short answer: nightingale. Long answer: In Greek mythology, Philomela (also known as Philomel) was raped by her sister Procne's husband King Tereus of Thrace and then when Philomela threatened to tell the world of his misdeed, he cut out her tongue. Through a tapestry, she told her sister what had happened and Procne decided the best way to punish her husband was to sacrifice their son who was his spitting image and serve the child up as Tereus' dinner. All three were turned into birds: Tereus, a hawk, and Procne and Philomela, alternately a swallow or a nightingale depending on whose story of Greek mythology one reads.

What happens in "In Possibility" is not a dwelling on the rape of Philomela, but a suggested transformation that comes with prayer first mentioned as "your breviary" and then in these words "Schubert-singer, ready for the first high G of 'Ave Maria.'" The Dresser discerns a nearly blasphemous irony in juxtaposing the Virgin Mary, mother of the Catholic God's child Jesus, with the rape of Philomela and the sacrifice of Procne and Tereus' son for the sin of the father. What alters this irony is this iconic image: "Let the protector of truth come down from her mythic hill, battered cloche and staff to pierce the ground so swollen with story." Who is this woman in a battered bell hat piercing the ground like Moses descending from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments? Is this Philomela, transformed to seer, with her tapestry? Untitled2(c)mb.jpgAnd what about the beetle? In "On Frailty," the Dresser noticed that a beetle rebuilds "her home in the mound" after the recitation of these losses: the village, child, notebook, faith. Therefore, the rose beetle of "In Possibility," always in danger of being plundered and eaten by the hawk, must "invent a loving" and create anew the "vernal nest."

Continue reading "Listening to Margo Berdeshevsky" »

June 12, 2008

Gérard Grisey & Maurice Saylor--Creating Music for Other Worlds

Recently the Dresser has heard musical works that have been created with a limited segment of instruments normally played in most classical compositions or with an unusual emphasis on an instrument or selected instruments. For example, Philip Glass in his opera Satyagraha used only winds and strings, cutting out the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra. On June 4, 2008, at the Église Saint-Eustache in Paris, France, the Dresser experienced the all percussion work Le Noir de L'Étoile by Gérard Grisey and on June 8 at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, she heard two pieces by Maurice Saylor: Concerto in A for Cello and Vocal Orchestra (one cello and 32 human voices) and The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (two separate choruses totaling 68 voices and a collection of unexpected instruments not generally employed for a classical composition, such as accordion, harmonica, and banjo.)


Le Noir de L'Étoile concerns the death of a pulsar and had its genesis when French composer Gérard Grisey met the astronomer and cosmologist Joe Silk at University of California Berkeley in 1985. Silk introduced the composer to the sounds of the Vela Pulsar. Grisey, who died in 1998 at the age of 52, taught at UC Berkeley from 1982-1986.

In the gothic Saint-Eustache church, the 60-minute concert began shortly after 10 p.m. In France at this time of the year, it's not dark until 10 p.m. and the Dresser and her friends surmised that the producers wanted the audience to be in touch with the night sky. In the dimly lit church under its 112-foot vaulted ceiling, the Dresser felt her attention directed away from things terrestrial. Six platforms of percussion instruments were stationed around the perimeter of a large energetic audience. After the concert, the Dresser told her seatmate composer John Supko, when he asked what she thought, that L'Étoile gave a whole new meaning to crescendo.GriseyPercussionist.jpg[Percussionist Olaf Tzschoppe talks with John Supko]

Being the daughter of a dad who played drums in a dance band, the Dresser has a certain appreciation of rhythm, sound texture, and silences before a mallet, drum stick, or brush strikes. Le Noir de L'Étoile was not jazz, rock, or heavy metal. There were moments of shocking explosive sound. Still, what impressed was the integrity of the work that measured silence against audible impact. In addition to the percussion, there were bits of a recording from the Vela Pulsar, which came across as static. GriseyDrums2.jpgIn certain ways, the concert in its arrangement of where the instruments were stationed and the subject matter reminded the Dresser of a Paul Winter Consort concert that she heard in Washington, DC, at the National Cathedral. Where Winter had wolves in the voice of his soprano sax, Les Percussions de Strasbourg--the same group of percussionists who premiered Le Noir de L'Étoile--produced explosive flames of the dying star. When the concert finished, the audience produced a thunder of appreciation.

This concert was the opening night of the Festival Agora, which runs until June 20 in various locations around Paris and is a production of the IRCAM-Centre Pompidou with the support of the SACEM (an organization like ASCAP here in the United States). The IRCAM (Institute for Acoustic and Musical Research and Coordination) is a musical research institute that past French president George Pompidou asked Pierre Boulez to create in 1970 in association with a national center of contemporary art that would eventually be built and named the Centre Pompidou. Serendipitously, the Dresser decided to visit the Pompidou the day of the Grisey concert to see "Les Traces du Sacré," an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, installations, and videos that covers the history of art in the twentieth century addressing, in the face of an intellectual world believing God is dead, the questions of who are we, where do we come from, and what will happen to us. (This exhibition runs May 7 to August 11, 2008.) Needless to say, this exhibition handsomely dovetailed with the intellectual construct of the concert. Also it was no accident that the Festival Agora began with Grisey's work. Grisey, who was first known as a Spectralist and later renounced that pigeonholing as Philip Glass refuses to be called a Minimalist, was influenced by his teacher of four years Olivier Messiaen as well as Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis. In 2008, Festival Agora has built their programs around the work and philosophy of Gérard Grisey.


When Gisèle Becker asserted to Maurice Saylor that she wanted her Cantate Chamber Singers to mount another production of his The Hunting of the Snark (Cantate commissioned and then gave The Snark its world premiere), she also commissioned Saylor to compose a companion piece. Saylor.jpgBecause The Snark with its ever-changing rhythms is a hard piece to sing, Saylor wanted to make its companion a work of worthy duration, difficulty, and invention that would "not put undue strain on a group that will already be burdened with hunting a Snark." Concerto in A for Cello and Vocal Orchestra is the four-movement work featuring the cello and using a vocalizing chorus in place of a traditional orchestra of strings, winds, horns, and percussion that resulted from this commission and the composer's vision of what works with The Hunting of the Snark.

The opening movement entitled "Moderato" created a mood similar to the cemetery scene in Thornton Wilder's Our Town and as set by Ned Rorem with a libretto by J. D. McClatchy. In keeping with Saylor's predilection, the "Moderato" has a fair amount of syncopation. The singers vocalized a variety of vowels and the cello wove in and out. The second movement "Scherzo-cadenza" featured the cello alone with an interesting mix of pizzicato, strumming, and the more traditional bowing. Cello-Snider.jpgIt allowed cellist Nancy Jo Snider to strut her ample talents. Movement three "Elegy" mirrored the mood of the "Moderato" and brought back the choral orchestra with some standout solo parts particularly in the soprano section. The final movement named "Allegro" had the most energy of the four pieces. As often is the case with a new work, the singers seemed to gain energy and confidence as the piece progressed. Saylor said afterwards that he plans to add a choral score for the "Scherzo-cadenza" and make some other adjustments to the overall work. Plans are in the works for a couple of other productions at DC university concert halls, including American University where cellist Nancy Jo Snider teaches.

Continue reading "Gérard Grisey & Maurice Saylor--Creating Music for Other Worlds" »

June 20, 2008

Sharpen Up Your Knife, Mackie!

Is cabaret music ugly? Should it be unpleasant? These were questions raised by Washington Musica Viva's Sex Appeal program that took place on June 18, 2008, at DC's Busboys and Poets. The Dresser stands scratching her head because, generally speaking, she enjoys the clever but raunchy turns of this kind of music.

The program included songs by cabaret greats: Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and Friedrich Hollaender. It also included new cabaret music by sax man composer Charley Gerard based on the lyrics of Judith Weinstock. The musical ensemble included: Clea Nemetz,home3121183665440.jpg mezzo; Charley Gerard, composer arranger, alto saxophone; John Jensen, trombone; John O'Brien, banjo; and Carl Banner, piano. Featured were three songs by Hollaender: "Sex Appeal," "Take it off Petronella," and "Falling in Love Again," the song from The Blue Angel made famous by Marlene Dietrich. While the Dresser grooved on the moves and throaty voice of Clea Nemetz, the musical accompaniment seemed thin (not ugly) and spiritless. The Dresser was told that Busboys, for whatever reason, didn't allow the musicians time for a sound check and so musical balance didn't happen.

Perhaps this is unfair, but in the Dresser's experience the touchstone for cabaret is The Three Penny Opera by Kurt Weill with libretto by Bertolt Brecht. And yes, the WMV program included "Mack the Knife," the most well known song from The Three Penny Opera and no, Clea Nemetz sounded nothing like Lotte Lenya or Ute Lemper. Nemetz was squeaky clean sexy in her English and interesting to watch, but she didn't have that German cabaret edge with the guttural rolls of the Rs and that insane vibrato that causes audience to scoot up on their seat and wonder what this singer would be like in bed. Oops, the Dresser can't help it if the raunch slips out. And yes, the Dresser likes a squonky sax and 'bone with the strumming of the banjo and the beating of the ivories but she really missed a bass to ground the overall sound.

The second half of the program featured mostly original songs by Gerard and Weinstock. The Dresser's favorite was "I Hate My Ex" but in truth this piece sounded like contemporary opera and not cabaret. So the Dresser thinks Charley Gerard and Carl Banner should put their heads back together and do up another program like The Weary Blues, which was a smash hit at Busboys.

In a meditation on perfection, Bryan Penberthy looks at the world of the artist in the nightclub in his poem "Expatriatetown."


Every building a café, a nightclub,
both, languid beauties tonguing the lips of
cappuccino cups, feeling if it's cool
enough to sip. Every statue is a
writer you've gotten drunk with, a painter
you've laid, carved by a sculptor who respects
you. Everyone here has read all your books--
even the bad ones--and loved every phrase.
Every sandwich you order is perfect--
the Reubens not soggy, the Romaine crisp.

Nights are opiate in their languor--warm,
narcotic. Every woman adores you.
The violinist at every café
plays your favorite songs, sad ones, music
to make your life seem a good decision.
Luckily, bars never run out of wine,
low conversation, and exotic brands
of cigarette. The only province you
can't leave is the country of suspicion.

The papers have it right: celebrity
is the only politics. Happily,
your reputation has grown mildly
comfortable. You are writing a great
novel, an epic about the war years,
which you can't seem to recall in any
great detail anymore--not in this town.

Bryan Penberthy
From Lucktown

Copyright © 2007 by Bryan Penberthy

June 22, 2008

Love's Comedy--An Opera with Strings Attached

Suddenly the Dresser is sorry she never learned Norwegian, not even one word when she was smitten in high school with a Norwegian exchange student who called himself Sandy. This sorrow followed the one-performance-only concert premiere of the musically rendered Love's Comedy by composer Kim D. Sherman and librettist Rick Davis based on Henrik Ibesen's play and adapted by Leon Katz.


While the Dresser does not agree with the creators that June 21, 2008, premiere of Love's Comedy is an opera, but rather a highly entertaining and satisfying work of music theater with a dash of Sondheim (think "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from Sweeney Todd), this disagreement in no way diminishes the accomplishment. For starters, the setting of Katz's adaptation and Davis's libretto is beautifully rendered. Though the libretto and the performance delivery of the text did not always match, clearly indicating a work still in progress, the overall effect was impressive and made the Dresser wish that she could understand Ibsen's play written in verse to compare the two scripts.

What is the story about?--Svanhild, a young woman unable to break the bonds of home and community that keep her from realizing her potential. (Yes, this is typical Ibsen fare.) Her chance arrives when Falk, a young poet staying at her mother's boarding house and eschewing conventional love and marriage pursues her as his muse. He wants her as his kite string and she says get lost. However, after he confronts her community concerning how marriage kills love and the community ostracizes him, she falls for the poet and is ready to hit the road. However, Gulstad, an older businessman stops them and questions what happens after the first flames of love die and says that she has a choice. The choice is run off with Falk and see how long love lasts or let Falk go and marry the financially comfortable Gulstad (the gold man as his name seems to indicate). Love's Comedy 3small.jpg

Photo by Rick Davis


The story of Love's Comedy reminds the Dresser of Scott Wheeler and Romulus Linney's Democracy: An American Comedy, another tale of love, marriage, community mores, and choice. Both of these musical works offer characters who throw a monkey wrench into the stew of love. In Love's Comedy both Gulstad and Falk stir the pot in what the Dresser would say is a community divide between acceptable (Gulstad) and unacceptable (Falk) behavior. In Democracy, the Baron Jacobi, who also acts as a narrator talking directly to the audience, plays a naughtier role and spirits more than one woman away from a conventional marriage.

What is also significantly different about these two works is the musical styles. Though predominately tonal, Democracy with its under current of dissonance and diatonic harmonies makes it clearly a contemporary opera. Although the second act of Love's Comedy offers a darker mix of lyric music, the overall effect of the work demands little of the audience and falls squarely into the category of entertainment and not art that pushes the boundaries. The Dresser does not think this a failing on the part of the composer but merely a choice. After all, Stephen Sondheim refuses to call his musical works operas and the Dresser thinks Sherman and Davis should be proud to name Love's Comedy, a work of music theater.


When the Dresser's friend Janet Peachey told her about Love's Comedy which was having its premiere at the George Mason University Center for the Arts, the Dresser was hoping that Internet research would indicate no particular incentive to trek out to Fairfax, Virginia, taking time away from a paper she is writing for Lifting Belly High: A Conference on Women's Poetry Since 1900. However, the Dresser was immediately intrigued by the composer's website listing the accomplishments of Kim D. Sherman. Furthermore, the concert performance was fluidly stage directed by Rick Davis and musically directed by Stanley Engebretson with outstanding performers, particularly in the roles of Svanhild (soprano Abigail Shue), Falk (baritone David Schmidt), Svanhild's mother Mrs. Halm (mezzo-soprano Linda Maguire), Svanhild's sister (soprano Danielle Talamantes) and Anna's fiancé Lind (tenor Matthew Loyal Smith. And quite frankly, the Dresser grooved on the ensemble which kept bringing back the refrain "soft, soft summer's day" which made her think of beloved medieval songs about nature and also the current summer's day in DC which was temperately warm and a joy to experience. Then too, this is a play dealing with writing plays and is suffused with well-turned phrases. What more could the Dresser want for a engaging entertainment?

Continue reading "Love's Comedy--An Opera with Strings Attached" »

About June 2008

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in June 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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