June 26, 2014

And If You Lose Your Way or A Food Odyssey

         You want to see something, right? Something cool. Go out, have a good time, and feel like you’ve got your finger on the pulse. It’ll make you feel alive, I’m guessing. You want to know there is a creative community in your neighborhood or nearby, that it isn’t all left to the movie screen out of reach from you and yours, that it isn’t only in the established or more traditional halls with only the famous gracing their stages. And, you wonder who these creative people are, right? You want to share moments with them because they are like you, but maybe they will change you, rekindle something gone dark, or make you feel something. Sweet sentiment aside, really, you’d love to just have fun with them. This. This is And If You Lose Your Way or A Food Odyssey, and is performed at The Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn by people you would call friends easily and gladly.
         The Invisible Dog is a Cobble Hill, Brooklyn art space hosting this play on food and an old, epic story. After walking the two short flights of stairs that seem like they lead you to the secret part of the building that you are glad you know about, you enter a long, really open space with old, wooden floors that are lit by tall, huge windows on each end. The room is decorated with many mismatched wooden chairs around its center, which is held together by a worn, Quaker-like table. It’s crunchy and feels homey or like you’ve arrived at a party since friendly performers greet you and introduce themselves and their friends. While mingling with the performers and other audience members, you can participate in their questionnaire on food/meals by putting your answers on yellow post-it notes then adding them to the wall along with the others. Before the show even starts, you are collaborating as one group.
         During the show, the audience joins the performers by sitting in longish rows that frame the performance space, the kitchen table. Here many gatherings happen with the Mom, Penelope. Particularly heartfelt are those including the Dad, Odysseus, and the Son, Telemachus. The Dad is mostly absent as he journeys through life as a soldier, who is trying to find his way home. The Mom and Son struggle to sustain themselves, but the Son does begin to find his own way in the world. The play interweaves parallel narratives as Odysseus and his struggles mirror those of his wife: to keep promises made to those you love, to sustain yourself without them and to remain hopeful of reunion. A third narrative develops as the son grows older, trying never to forget his roots as he finds his way, just like his Dad. Although these characters were separated, they were connected through food since they had fond memories of making food and sharing it with one another. It was a beautiful story held together with music as its hinges; each character having their moment in the sun- a song.
         With music written by Nick Choksi, who another audience member called “the nicest guy in New York,” how can you go wrong? Teaming up with Lauren Feldman and Pirronne Yousefzadeh, they had listeners hanging on every word. I loved the immersive theater style and was surprised at many moments throughout when the actors included us in this journey as they opened us up as collaborators by asking us questions and giving us food. As involved as I felt in the play, I couldn’t wait to find out how it ended, thinking surely the Mom and Dad will reap the rewards of their tenacity or faithfulness and wondering then how their love would be expressed. Yes, it is a relatable twist to an old epic, The Odyssey, but they still surprised me at the end. They opened me up and I think everyone up to the good in each other. I left feeling like I had an opportunity to meet people well and share something special with them, what a privilege! We had good food and good conversation to boot. I found this unique: the creative intention of this cast to unite strangers in such a heartwarming way. So, forgo sand in your shoes, skip the sunblock, forget bug repellent, and seek out And If You Lose Your Way or A Food Odyssey because I know you want to have fun with them too.


June 10, 2014

Vox Hebraica in Times Square

         Recently, I revisited Times Square and was surprised for some reason. . . it was the same as I left it. What we all experience there in one walk through and every walk through does not change an inkling, not one iota: bright lights decorating billboards along any inch of street side that often promote the latest musical, huge videos promoting the latest fad with beautiful, young people sporting their goods, tons of pedestrians with faces upward, stopping many times right in the middle of the flow of people to gawk at all of this or to stand mesmerized, fast food eateries and bars to satisfy that urge for comfort food, theaters with musicals that boast some of the most interesting artists in the city, who seem to do everything from dance, sing, play numerous instruments and compose, restaurant row which has its reputation of ethnic variety with a slower pace and a little more quiet, iconic stores selling products in a huge way like Hershey’s and M&M, which has bins upon bins of different colored M&Ms and a section where you can even print your own logo on them. Each and every walk through, this is Times Square.
         While realizing this, I walked my familiar path, but to a new place, The Actor’s Temple, which offered something different for the area, a concert of Jewish Classical music. Hosted by Marina Kifferstein, who curated the series and plays in the duo Rhythm Method, this concert was the last of the series, which was a really neat find in such a hyped-up area. It’s not too often that you find a concert series dedicated to preserving a particular heritage, and to hear it performed where an audience considers it their home, not without the shuffling sandals of elders, seemed quaint. In the case of this last performance, I think the program reflects the diversity of Jewish statements in Classical music.
         The program included music by John Zorn, Noam Faingold, and Gyorgy Ligeti. I’m familiar with John Zorn, I’ve heard his mosaics of rapidly changing genres in Naked City and his warmer, often jazzy, Masada project. For Ligeti, I’ve played his Six Bagatelles for woodwind quintet, which is incredibly fun and easily my favorite in the woodwind quintet repertoire. Written in the 1950s, originally for piano, it is a collection of short pieces with listenable melodies that are rhythmically spirited. The tunes are as catchy to listen to as they are tricky to play. With no knowledge of his String Quartet No. 1: Metamorphoses Nocturnes, I could only wonder if its statement was similar to that of Six Bagatelles- fun.
         I got my answer with the opening melody. The piece begins with a beautiful yet haunting violin melody, which fits well a piece named after night transformations. The 12 movements are played continuously, but they fly by! Ligeti seemed to group the movements together in such a way that they would start simply and build to become quite dense with all performers bowing heavily, only to suddenly withdraw to a single sustained tone, and then continue in much the same way throughout the piece. For all its intensity, the piece was really listenable even with atonal melodies and odd meters and/or syncopations. Frankly, it had a rock ‘n’ roll quality due to its call and answer moments, infectious vitality and harsher sounds. After quickly realizing in the beginning this piece was nothing like Six Bagatelles, I was surprised to hear the quartet's 8th movement, Subito Prestissimo, was strikingly similar to the 4th movement of Six Bagatelles, Presto Ruvido. The closing section, after hearing the frenzied section preceding it, was particularly beautiful: poignant with that haunting violin melody and an exhausted, somber cello line. Ending with a return to the beginning, to finally and reluctantly relent.
         Although changing quite a bit across the 12 movements, I think the general statement of the piece was intensity followed by our inevitable yield to it. Intensity was something this young quartet was not short on. Marina Kifferstein, Lavinia Pavlish, Meaghan Burke and Anne Lanzilotti, all gave incredible energy to this performance. Not only their execution, but their actual physical intensity heightened the emotional impact of the piece. I was impressed with their stamina and appreciated that they lightened when the music did as well, maybe even sneaking a smile to one another. Great to see people doing what they love!


June 05, 2014

Potential Energies

         May/June is a beautiful time of year in New York. Flowers and trees are blooming in May and the Cherry Blossoms are unforgettable. By June, the local parks have woken up and farmers markets have become the Saturday morning gathering with not only great food, but live music too. For this, it has been my favorite part of the year in New York, and as a musician, it has often been a time of celebration followed by rejuvenation. With many years here as a student, I’ve celebrated the end of the school year or the end of projects in May as well as the graduation of friends and eventually my own graduation; this as a teacher as well. June, on the other hand, has typically been the month of respite; the bounce back time until I begin looking for inspiration. This year, before I could wonder for too long on how or where I would find this inspiration, I was invited to Potential Energies, a Classical premiere with dancers. This concept piece expressed in some way my feelings of May/June in New York: to find renewed inspiration.
         Potential Energies was performed at BAM Fisher in Brooklyn by the Nouveau Classical Project and the TrioDance Collective. The BAM Fisher theater is pretty minimal with seating in auditorium style, and for this performance, there was no dressing of the stage as though we were seeing the performance from backstage or we were seeing them perform a dress rehearsal, the moments just before a shared realization. All of it was unadorned, not just the stage, the performers also were dressed simply in mostly black and grey; each dressed to accentuate their own personal form, but none were highlighted as a central character nor were they dressed to convey a personality or individualism. This was an interesting choice. It allowed the group to move and express itself as one unit, much like the corps de ballet in a ballet company, including the musicians in this case. Unlike a ballet, everyone was onstage with nothing hidden; I liked that.
         The show started with musicians filing in to sit along the back wall of the stage including a violinist, clarinetist, and flutist with a pianist off to the side. The cellist was more center stage and while plucking a staccato groove, a dancer, much as his shadow, began to move with him. As she became more independent, she began to gently move him and lean against him and his cello. Both liberated, she played music with him by plucking the strings.
         As this culminated, the remaining musicians along the wall, playing as you would expect off music stands, began to join the cellist one by one. The other dancers seemed to lure these musicians to join him. Each musician had a dancer that paired with them and explored their physical space and their movements as they played. The musicians influenced by their dancer began to dance while playing. The clarinet part I really liked: the clarinetist played a melodic hook that seemed to loop playfully and likewise she gracefully spun in a circle with her foot leading her through the slow, gentle movement. In this section, each musician huddled together near the piano with the dancers weaving in and around them as they seemed to wake up the musicians and their creativity. Dancer as muse, I really liked this; they expressed that unspoken spark that will drive a creator forward or open them up to a new idea- neat! This was my favorite part of the entire show.
         As the show continued, it seemed the role of the dancers changed. This was highlighted with solos and duos among the musicians; two, I especially liked. One duo was between the violinist and the cellist, who were sitting in chairs upstage facing the audience. As they played pretty spunky music with more frenetic rhythms and melodies, the dancers seemed not to lure the musicians, but to interfere and even argue with them. They were pulling their bow arm away from the instrument, trying to intrusively pluck the strings, and even pushing the musicians in and out of their seats. The dancers no longer that initial spark were the emotion or drive a performer may feel during a performance, particularly a challenging one.
         The other duo was between the flutist and clarinetist. Unlike the strings, they played facing each other, while standing center stage. Their duo seemed more like a private music-making moment or a rehearsal situation. Their music was less frenetic than the strings with smoother melodies and long, bright dissonances. The two seemed to be relying on each other rather than solely their inner drive/the dancer as they slowly moved together, changing their orientation to one another. That personal, inner drive or source of inspiration never left as the dancers would run up to the musicians and then run as far away from them as they could and stand still with their backs to them, never gone for long.
         It was a neat show and a cool concept piece. I enjoyed sitting and watching them play, to see that physical momentum transferred from dancer to musician. Impressive too, all musicians played by memory coordinated with their own dancing. Boundaries were loosened among performers that traditionally collaborate separately, not even sharing the stage, and it was enjoyable to see a collaboration that creates wonder on inspiration. As performers, what renews us? Maybe, it’s shows like these.


June 02, 2014

The Raven

          NY Phil Biennial is the Big Apple’s Classical new music festival sponsored by the New York Philharmonic and its curators, lasting from May 28th through June 7th, 2014. There are 21 concerts programmed for these 11 days including opera premieres to the very young composers concert to performances by established groups, such as Bang on a Can All-Stars or the Orchestra of St. Lukes, and with concerts held at various venues within New York City. When I checked their calendar, what seemed most intriguing to me was the posting for an American premiere, The Raven, composed by Toshio Hosokawa and performed by Gotham Chamber Opera. It is an opera for one singer with dancer based on the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe, one of my childhood favorites.
          The Raven was performed at the Gerald Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan on 59th Street. The theater was nice with an art gallery at its entrance, which displayed artistic photographs of previous performances. Each provided for me a portal into a show I had missed, which made me glad I made it to this opera performance, but also eager to see what the staging and costuming would be like. On its medium-sized stage was an off-set square platform and off to stage right in the shadows were a few rows of empty chairs. All this with a shell behind it looming tall at just the right angle for sound projection. Of all this, what struck me most was the program. To me, it seemed fancy with its clean, perfectly pressed paper, and thick paper, that was larger than a book and smelled as new books do- good. Much like the off-kilter yet minimal stage, it had its own flair with its precisely torn corner at the bottom of all pages. In today’s digital age, this program seemed elaborate and much enjoyed as I thumbed through it, while waiting for the show to begin.
          In those spare moments before the show, I read again the poem in the program. Before reading it, I had vague memories of the poem, but I think with any amount of time, I will never forget the line: “Nevermore,” croaked by the raven, along with an image of this dark bird perched at the home of the bereaved narrator. After reading the poem, I couldn’t help but wonder how an opera on such a famous poem, and a story that had already drawn me in, would make me feel. I’ve only seen operas in mostly other languages, on stories that are near ancient, erring on melodramatic, and with no personal connection to me at all. So, I couldn’t help but feel excited to hear an opera with modern tonalities and instruments with a story that I not only knew but liked. And a story that seems timeless in its depiction of the unbearable loneliness of those grieving, or those lost in its darkness.
          My musings were answered when the opera began with a short overture played by a small combo of woodwinds and brass along with a string quintet and a percussionist. The atmosphere created by the ensemble in the overture and for much of the piece, I think, was mostly mysterious or ethereal in nature: air on a lonely, dark night. Not to suggest it was unchanging, the accompaniment flowed with the singer and her mental projections, as air can be cool and refreshing, cold and uncomfortable, still and calm, or windy and worrisome. These ideas were conveyed especially well in the woodwinds and brass. I have to say I really enjoyed all the sounds from the alto and bass flute- what a beautiful sound! And, the solos from the saxophone were played very unjazzlike and lent a heft to the flute sound, sometimes punctuating the more nebulous sounds of the ensemble with slap tonguing; this punctuating was heard from the percussionist as well. And, when warmth was needed, the trombone chimed in with just enough blat.

          As for the mezzo-soprano, Fredrika Brillembourg, she began the opera in a sprechstimme style; she began switching between this and singing operatically within a stanza or two. Eventually, she was mostly singing and what a deep sound she created, sometimes meaty. Her sound filled the room and reverberated my head; I could feel my ear drums vibrating. As much as the singer touched the audience through her voice, she also spoke to us with many questioning or pleading glances as well as reaching out to us.
         On the other hand, the dancer, Alessandra Ferri, never danced to us or for us, but always with and for the narrator solely. She danced with bird like gestures; her legs and feet were bent and flexed talon-like. As the narrator became more intrigued by her, the raven entwined herself around the narrator with gangly and bony gestures. The narrator would not only be standing but lying down, kneeling or moving across the stage. This dance of the raven did not look beautiful nor comfortable, but always performed gracefully. At a point when the narrator seemed the most confused or lost, the raven perched on the back corner of the platform and on the shell was the shadow of the raven projected as a female figure, who was dancing. I’m still thinking of this: the dancing shadow as thoughts of Lenore or the allure of the raven? I’m not sure.
          Throughout this performance, I felt my original interpretation challenged and new ones formed. This is thanks to the performers being female. Due to this, I thought the dancer at times was the raven and other times Lenore. This was an intriguing ambiguity, since I had never thought of the raven as a visitation by Lenore in another form nor a memory of Lenore. Also, I liked the narrator sung as a woman. When reading and without much thought at all, the narrator was a man; I never questioned this. And as quickly, the raven as a bearer of darkness was a masculine entity. To consider for the first time the relationship of the narrator to Lenore as something other than that of lovers was refreshing, or if lovers then not heterosexual lovers. And, I welcomed the opportunity to reconsider that a somber, dark entity does not imply a masculine entity.
          With female performers and the opening up of possibilities in this old story on grief, it definitely made the poem new and without former performances created something as fresh as ever. By now, I can’t help but wonder if Lenore represents the narrator, who is lost in yesteryears as in memories of herself, or if the opera represents a woman so afraid of her own death that she is preoccupied with it. With all these questions and changes in perspective, I read the poem again to ponder and I think I just have to see the opera again!