photo courtesy Patrick Harlin

This past Friday and Saturday gave Ann Arbor new music seekers two compact and powerful concerts: the final concert of the year for the University of Michigan Contemporary Directions Ensemble (CDE) and a series of 8-minute operas created by graduate students in Music Composition and Creative Writing from the University of Michigan.  The CDE concert – directed by charismatic conductor Christopher James Lees – was about an hour in length, and packed into that time four vibrant works from Pulitzer Prize winners Leslie Bassett, William Bolcom, Jennifer Higdon and Shulamit Ran. Similarly, it took an hour to see all the brief operas performed on Saturday, which were on display at the beautiful Univeristy of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA).

The program for Friday’s concert featured a disparate set of pieces, which began with Jennifer Higdon’s Zaka for pierrot ensemble, written for and made popular by Eighth Blackbird. This was my first time hearing this piece – or any by Ms. Higdon, for that matter – and I was struck by how many other, later pieces I’ve heard by other composers, which resemble it strongly. With two opposing groups of material, Zaka is principally focused on rhythm and color, and – on its largest scale – contrasts incessant rhythmic drive with a placid chorale-like middle section, which she references towards the end.

Other writing about Zaka I’ve encountered likens the piece’s orchestration to Igor Stravinsky’s and notes how the work focuses on Ms. Higdon’s own instrument, the flute. I suppose the constantly shifting colors can be vaguely connected to the mischievous and convivial timbres of Petrushka or L’histoire du Soldat, but Zaka’s unusual sounds actually led my attention to a different member of the ensemble: the piano. For much of the work’s fast music, the pianist plays inside the piano, intermittently hitting open fifth ‘power chords’ along the way. Though the rest of the ensemble is subjected to similar extended techniques – none more remarkable than the clarinetist’s futile tapping on the mouthpiece-less opening at the top of his instrument – it seemed like the piano’s role in the piece was most significantly shaped by these uncommon colors, particularly because it leads the group in the work’s slow contrasting  midsection.

After Zaka whirled itself into nothingness, the audience was treated to Leslie Bassett’s Brass Quintet, a stark contrast to the Higdon in its traditional materials and nearly uniform instrumental color. The instigator in this work is the Tuba, which – from the outset – tends to challenge the textural status quo of the rest of the ensemble. Unexpectedly, only one movement uses mutes, but this overall stable timbre  suits the narrow scope of material transformation from the piece’s beginning to end. Brass Quintet stays close to home for much of its duration, and often references previous material sometimes for the purpose of establishing a landmark in unfamiliar musical territories or also developing earlier ideas a few movements later. Although the most reserved work on the program, Mr. Bassett’s Brass Quintet still shone brightly with its elegantly spaced sonorities, allusions to jazz and puckish Tuba part.

To continue on the theme of contrast from one work to the next, Brass Quintet was followed by Shulamit Ran’s 1979 Clarinet-Cello duo, Private Game. Relentlessly dissonant and explosive, the work’s intensity stood up well to its larger neighbors on the program. The two voices in Private Game fade delightfully between total, ignorant independence and elegant musical conversation, spiraling through a transient landscape of violent activity and brooding repose. Generally, the music is clamorous and full of potent gestures, which often appear in each instrument as their roles evolved over the course of this dramatic and somewhat theatrical work.

The final piece on the CDE concert was William Bolcom’s Orpheé Serenade, a brashly tongue-in-cheek fantasy on French Baroque forms and the Orpheus legend. The work begins with an overture distantly related to the traditional French overture in its dotted rhythms and austere orchestration. Orpheé Serenade is scored for wind quintet, string quintet and piano, an unusual combination of instruments all facets of which emerge throughout the course of the piece. For example, the second movement features a diatonic oboe solo accompanied by placid strings, which later evolves into a violin solo all of which is intermittingly interrupted by a seemingly unrelated, quintal piano part.

The third movement, “Pas des Bacchantes”, is a frantically driven depiction of the Bacchantes’ attack on Orpheus, complete with moments where the melodies break off and flee into the distance – as Mr. Bolcom explained prior to the performance – ostensibly taking one of Orpheus’ limbs off as a prize. The cartoonish characteristics of the fourth movement, “Hurluberlu”, come from its odd instrumental colors, fragmented texture and juxtaposition of ‘classical’ references and extreme dissonance. “Elegie”, the fifth movement, is a subtle piano-based lament for the death of pianist Paul Jacobs, which possesses a distinctly French – Erik Satie-esque to be precise – aural aftertaste. Finally, the violin interrupts “Elegie”, and leads the ensemble into the work’s final romp, “Energique”, which begins with the violin like an operatic diva delivering a dramatic recitative/aria and unfolds to fractured neo-classcism in which Mr. Bolcom references Mozart.

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Saturday’s 8-minute operas were a more pure and deliberate exercise in brevity. The program was presented in partnership with the UMMA and led by Jennifer Goltz, the curator of the SMTD@UMMA concert series and one of Saturday’s performers. These “micro-operas” follow last year’s series of miniature percussion concerti, which were presented in a similar manner, dispersed in various corners of the UMMA’s first floor. To be honest, this project was a really three-part collaboration between the composers, the writers and the atmosphere provided by the individual performances spaces and the building itself.

The program ran at ten-minute increments and repeated itself on the hour, so I’ll begin chronologically with David Biedenbender and librettist Leah Falk’s Dark Star. Though other operas fell into trends in terms of their narrative subject matter, Dark Star was one of the two that stood apart on its story alone, which involved a cosmic link between biblical Abraham and Albert Einstein. Wisely, Mr. Biedenbender supplemented his accompanying trio of bass clarinet, cello and percussion with electronics to transport his audience into the surreal dimension of Ms. Falk’s story. The two characters’ music often overlapped, signifying their shared conflict – as described in the program notes, “both men prepare to abandon their old lives: Einstein by leaving Germany, and [Abraham] by agreeing to father a new nation.” Singers Jeffrey Wilkinson (Einstein) and Glenn Ellington (Abraham) delivered a stunning performance that left me with lingering Goosebumps as I ran off to the next opera.

Donia Jarrar and librettist Kate Middleton’s A Queen for Gaza followed at ten minutes past the hour, and told the story of four Palestinian women waiting for the symbolic blooming of the cereus flower, a symbol for future peace. A Queen for Gaza featured the largest cast and backing ensemble of all the 8-minute operas, which allowed Ms. Jarrar to create beautiful harmonies with her singers and back these densely rhythmic grooves decorated by the unusual combination of a traditional Middle Eastern lute, the Oud, and harpsichord. I was fortunate enough to talk to Ms. Jarrar and Ms. Middleton following the performance to get a sense for their collaborative process, which seemed to be fairly relaxed with Ms. Jarrar  suggesting a good deal of the narrative’s subject matter. Singers Elise Turner, Emily Goodwin, Elizabeth Lenz and Sarah Batts were captivating to watch and listen to, particularly Ms. Batts whose beautiful and compelling opening solo drew the audience in to the rest of the opera.

Evan Ware and librettist Nawaaz Ahmed’s Luminous/Pitiless was the other opera, along with Dark Star, which stood out from the others based on its story alone. In this opera, the performance of what seemed like a re-vamped version of Puccini’s Turandot is held up by a gunman who emerges from the audience and asks the singers to, “sing something honest”, among other dark demands. As grim as this brief description sounds, there is a small degree of humor and clear entertainment value in this unconventional narrative. Mr. Ware’s score played perfectly with the storyline, both supporting and mocking the frantic psychology of the terrorizing gunman, brilliantly portrayed by Brandon Grimes. Soprano Alex Clark and Tenor Kyle Tomlin showed their fear and confusion effectively and poignantly and Marc LeMay, a recent alumnus of the Michigan composition department, successfully fulfilled his small part as a conductor, and the gunman’s first victim.

Patrick Harlin and librettist Jessica Young’s The Speed of It was the first opera I saw Saturday, so it stole my heart through its novelty, to an extent. My memory’s attraction to The Speed of It is also rooted in how well the opera exemplified the power of this format: its transparent and modest staging melted into the backdrop of the museum, allowing the opera’s simple and emotional narrative to be amplified by the production’s surroundings, much like the ringing echoes of Soprano Kimberlin Bolton’s high notes. I also felt like Ms. Bolton’s partner on stage, Brian Rosenblum, delivered one of the day’s most persuasive performances as a husband forced to confront his wife’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. Mr. Harlin’s score was a successful and evocative vehicle for Ms. Young’s libretto and, together, they epitomized the depth of character development and narrative unfolding possible in these miniature operatic forms.

photo courtesy Patrick Harlin

I’ve mentioned the ‘trends’ in subject matter explored in these operas; the Twenty-Seventh Night written by composer Michael-Thomas Foumai and librettist Samiya Bashir defines the first of these ‘theme categories’: refugees. Twenty-Seventh Night and A Queen of Gaza overlap in their discussions of government oppression, families in crisis and – to an extent – Islam. Mr. Foumai and Ms. Bashir’s work focuses on a Somali family separated as insurgents took over Mogadishu in 1991. The distance between sisters Leyla (Jenny Nash), Sagal (Jennifer Goltz) and brother Assad (Ben Sieverding) was reflected in Mr. Foumai’s score and the staging, which included placing Mr. Sieverding on an upper level of the UMMA as he searched for his sisters. The music in Twenty-Seventh Night featured the most unique color of the day: a propane tank, which Mr. Foumai directed to be struck with a hammer. Cold and persistent, it perhaps represented the bells of a clock tower or – more indirectly – the inevitable arrival of the forces of evil and chaos in this family’s life.

Paul Dooley and librettist Stephanie DouglassPartial Before the Door rounds out that second ‘theme category’: marriages broken by health problems. As you remember, Patrick Harlin and Jessica Young’s The Speed of It dealt with the effects of cancer on a couple’s marriage; Partial Before the Door was a little different, as it used a wife’s fertility issues to expose deeper rifts between the couple, played beautifully and austerely by Brandon Grimes and Amy Petrongelli. Unfortunately, the acoustics of the room in which Partial Before the Door was performed made it hard for me to understand part of Ms. Petrongelli’s singing, but that didn’t deprive me of relating to the main plot point: the two do not communicate at all, insofar as Mr. Grimes’ character did not react to any of Ms. Petrongelli’s words after she explains she’s had a miscarriage. Mr. Dooley set the text to an uncommon instrumental backdrop of cello and celeste; he paired them excellently and I found the ethereal and innocent chiming of the celeste evoked a dream-image of the wanted child’s music box.

A friend of mine pointed out how none of the operas were very upbeat in character, which is clear from my descriptions. I, in fact, did not notice the overall darkness of the group of operas, and I don’t think that detracts from their success: each developed and saw through a detailed and rich narrative through well constructed musical scores and compelling, memorable dramatic performances. With that said, it would be nice – if a project like this ever happens again at the University of Michigan – to see a humorous or cheerful 8-minute opera. Traditionally, there have been comedic and tragic operas, and there is no problem these collaborative teams tended to stay in the latter of these categories. However, it would be a wonderful musical and textual challenge to create a funny opera as concise, relevant and successful as the six pieces of serious drama I saw and enjoyed Saturday.

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