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Kinan Azmeh

Kinan Azmeh

On September 3rd Kinan Azmeh CityBand returned to Joe’s Pub for the official release of their new album, Elastic City. The disc, a collection of passionate and virtuosic pieces in the genre of Arab World Jazz, features Azmeh (clarinet), Kyle Sanna (guitar), Josh Myers (bass), and John Hadfield (drums and percussion). Formed in 2006, the ensemble has received critical acclaim in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Judging from the large and wildly enthusiastic audience at Joe’s Pub, they are clearly developing a big following here in New York.

Born and raised in Damascus, Azmeh finished his training at New York’s Juilliard School and has since gained international recognition as a clarinettist, composer, and musical innovator. He’s currently recognized as one of Syria’s leading classical musicians and composers, and also has a well deserved reputation as one of New York’s most engaging composer-performers. In addition to his work with CityBand, Azmeh performs regularly with the Syrian ensemble HEWAR, the Damascus Festival Chamber Music Ensemble (of which he is the artistic director), and also as a solo artist.

CityBand has a captivating stage presence and an interpersonal attunement that comes from years of performing together. They respond intuitively to each other, grooving effortlessly in complex meters, and never getting in each other’s way. Their improvisations are sophisticated and emotionally powerful, each member contributing a distinct individual voice to a seamlessly blended whole. At times Azmeh brings the dynamics of the group down to an almost inaudible level, building it slowly to ecstatic heights.

Azmeh started the evening with a deeply moving solo entitled A Sad Morning, Every Morning, a composition that he wrote in memory of the thousands who have lost their lives in the Syrian conflict. Other memorable moments included Woods, a haunting and transportive work by Kyle Sanna, and Wedding, a raucous piece written by Azmeh that featured the group’s dazzling virtuosity.

Kinan Azmeh: A Sad Morning, Every Morning  (art by Kevork Mourad)

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nD9jbBFKetA[/youtube]

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wandel-10The two-week long series of experimental music concerts in and around Los Angeles concluded Saturday, August 17 with es geht weiter a reading of nine compositions from members and friends of Wandelweiser, an international group of composers and performers founded in 1992. The event was held at the Wild Beast performance space on the Cal Arts campus in Valencia and was curated by faculty and Wandelweiser member Michael Pisaro.

Twelve musicians in various combinations performed the nine pieces and a number of these works were heard in the US for the first time. The instrumentation varied widely – including found objects, standard instruments played normally or by coaxing out new sounds, voices and various electronics. Many of the pieces were very soft with long pauses and this invited a high level of alertness and concentration from the audience.

The nine works offered in this concert were highly varied in their instrumentation and approach – here are some random observations and reactions:

Through the window and the wood – Daniel Brandes. Very soft solitary electronic tone that slowly increases in volume, is then joined by a voice and followed by silence for several minutes. The most subtle of pieces, the long silences and low dynamics are effective in putting the listener in a heightened state of anticipation. Read the rest of this entry »

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CalArts-10As part of a two-week long concert series of experimental music, For John Cage (1982) by Morton Feldman was heard at The Wild Beast performance space on the campus of California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA on August 14. Dante Boon was at the piano and Andrew McIntosh played violin in the concert titled, suitably, ‘Bon Amis‘.

John Cage and Morton Feldman both have historical connections to Cal Arts: Cage received an Honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts from the Institute in 1986, and Morton Feldman was composer-in-residence that same year. The Wild Beast was named in honor of Feldman who, according to the campus website, “likened the ineffable creative energy in art to a wild beast.” The Wild Beast is an airy but not overly large space with good acoustics that were well-suited to this performance.

For John Cage is a quiet piece for piano and violin played at very low dynamic levels, yet all of the nuances could be plainly heard. Typically the piano plays a few notes or a soft chord and the violin answers, followed by a brief pause. The phrases are sometimes repeated, or the violin sounds first or they may play together – but the call-answer pattern predominates. For me the sequence was most effective when the piano made a declarative statement and the violin softly reflected off the slightly harder tones of the keyboard. This seemed to heighten nuances in the violin, especially in the quietest passages.

Dante Boon provided a solid foundation throughout, never tentative with the many piano entrances but always with the delicate touch that this piece requires. His sensitive playing set the stage for the violin and here Andrew McIntosh displayed amazing control of pitch and intonation, even when the sounds coming from his instrument were barely above a whisper.CalArts-20

Despite the fragmented nature of the piece – and its 75 minute length – it was never boring. This was due largely to the quality of the playing but also the fact that it was performed live in a space where the finest details were audible. The soft dynamics invite the listener to concentrate on each passage played and to create the context for it. This is challenging listening but those in attendance were engaged throughout – and there were happily no coughing attacks or cell phone outbursts to break the spell. This was an excellent performance of one of the landmarks of late 20th century experimental music.

The concert series concludes with Es geht weiter, music by Jason Brogan, Dante Boon, Taylan Susam, Sam Sfirri, Daniel Brandes, Stefan Thut and Johnny Chang at The Wild Beast, Cal Arts, Valencia, Saturday, August 17 at 5 pm. Admission free.

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wolff11On August 9, Christian Wolff’s Changing the System (1973) was performed by the new experimental music group Southland Ensemble, in the heart of historic China Town here in Los Angeles. About 40 people filled Automata, a small space at Chung King Court dedicated to the experimental arts, to hear Wolff’s politically charged and innovative work that utilizes graphical scoring designed to inspire a kind of consensus-driven interpretation from the players. Enlarged reproductions of the score were hung on the walls and the audience was encouraged to walk about and inspect them during the performance.

Christian Wolff is the last surviving member of the New York School of experimental composition that famously included Morton Feldman and John Cage. In fact it was Wolff who gave John Cage a copy of I Ching , stimulating that composers use of random processes in composition. And Wolff himself, according to the program notes, sought “to turn the making of music into a collaborative and transforming activity…” allowing the players to work out the realization of the piece within the guidelines of the score.  Read the rest of this entry »

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“I am not a cheerleader,” Auerbach says in our meeting, the day after The Blind premiered on July 9th as part of Lincoln Center Festival. (until July 14th)“I am not trying to please anybody, which, by the way should not be the goal of any artistic endeavor. Yet, art should give you something you have not yet experienced in the same way and you want to be changed by that experience.” Despite Auerbach’s artistic intentions, critical voices have emerged which attack the political correctness of the core metaphor of The Blind, giving rise to a debate about a symbol largely removed from the context of the work. I ask her, “Why the blindfold? Why the potentially sensational effect?” She explains: “I am not about shocking; The Blind is not a gimmick, but aims to fulfill to Maeterlinck’s (the playwright) call for a symbolist breaking of barriers, and attempts to provide a deep psychological understanding. It also pertains to a religious, meditative state of being, which entails a certain unearthing experience of disorientation, facilitated by the absence of the visual element. The Blind brings the audience away from the material state, exploring mental communication with the music’s ritualistic elements, and hopefully lets the audience come away with an individual learning experience that will stay with them, potentially changing who they are.” Directed by John La Bouchardière, the New York production of the work, which Auerbach for lack of a more precise description refers to as “a cappella opera,” has omitted the traditional stage setting used in the 2011 Berlin Konzerthaus and Moscow Stanislavsky Theatre productions of her score and libretto.

This new, innovative production takes The Blind a step further, eliminating the darkened stage of former productions in favor of the extremely isolating effect of blindfolding the audience; this theatrical method addresses our extreme reliance on visual effects, and aims to challenge the audience’s capacity for hearing, listening, smelling, and feeling temperature, thus evoking a heightened sensory and emotional experience. “Part of Maeterlinck’s conception is a distinct religious connotation, and includes elements of randomness, which, in this production led also to the separate placing of women and men,” says Auerbach, and adding that the experience of the piece also differs slightly for each participant, depending where they are seated. “Every staging demands different elements; in this particular one, timing and positioning was essential to the flow and the individual impression of each audience member.” The physical experience of The Blind’s staging is truly unique, and remarkably executed. Read the rest of this entry »

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Liquid Skin 1Liquid Skin Ensemble teamed up this weekend with the dance company Naked With Shoes for an evening of new music and choreography at the AndrewShire Gallery in the vibrant Koreatown area of Los Angeles. Two concerts were given – July 5 and 6, 2013 – consisting entirely of works by Steve Moshier and featuring the premiere of a new piece, Guilt of the Templars. Original choreography was provided by Jeff and Anne Grimaldo, and also dancer Mary Stein.  The AndrewShire art gallery is an intimate space – holding maybe 40 people – and the arrangement of audience seating, musicians and dance space, while imperfect, was the best that could be done. The sight lines and acoustics in this venue are not ideal, especially given the dynamic power of Liquid Skin, but this did not detract significantly from the performance. The dancers also coped well with the limited space.

The Liquid Skin Ensemble has been a presence in the Los Angeles new music scene for over 13 years and their trademark rock-solid playing is a happy consequence of the stability of the personnel – the seven members of this group have played together for a long time and it shows. The mix of guitars, keyboards, saxophone, electric bass and Moshier’s vibraphone make for a balanced combination of percussion and sustained sounds that were used to good effect throughout the concert. Works dating from 1981 up to the present were included in this concert and gave a sort of historical arc to the programming.

The music of Steve Moshier falls squarely within post-minimal/neo-tonal tradition with propulsive percussion and driving rhythms such as were heard in the opening piece Shakeout (1981). The dancers here responded accordingly with a sort of fight scene that mirrored the high energy in the music. This was followed by Hidden Face (1990), a slower, more introspective piece that felt much more fluid and relaxed. Hero of the Blast Furnace (1983) featured more fast and hard rhythms with the dancers artfully including chairs in their choreography.  Lost Souls (1991) gave the dancers another workout with chairs and a strong beat. The call and answer between the saxophone and vibes was particularly effective here and at the end the dancers were fully extended across the chairs, exhibiting an enviable agility and athleticism.Liquid Skin 2

Two Liquid Skin pieces were offered without choreography. Cross the Wounded Galaxies (1985) has a light, airy texture that starts in the vibraphone and is variously joined by guitar, woodwind and keyboards. Different combinations of the instruments pass the theme around and the swelling tutti sections, when dominated by the saxophone, are especially effective. Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves (2010) was probably the most serene piece in the concert – quiet, simple and almost chant-like.

This set the stage for the premiere of Guilt of the Templars: for the Liquid Skin Ensemble (2013) and this was accompanied by dancers Anne Grimaldo and Mary Stein. The title suggests some sort of dark, medieval thundercloud of a piece, but it is actually a light, cheerful work that begins with the dancers bouncing two large rubber balls back and forth in a sort of game. Gentle and disarming, the piece quickly acquires a child-like charm. The two dancers are both very tall women and this piece was subtitled ‘Too Long Ladies’ – a truth that was ironically disguised by their costume and playful choreography.

About midway into the piece the accompaniment by Liquid Skin Ensemble ceased and the dancers sang out several of the tall cliches that they must have been endured growing up: “How is the air up there?” and “My, you are a tall drink of water!” – a sort of cathartic release that generated an empathic response from the audience. They then sang several of the old Doublemint Gum tunes – a parody put down of the old sexist jingle that invites you to ‘double your pleasure, double your fun’ – and this was received with a knowing laugh by the audience. A video followed, projected on the wall,  showing the ‘Too Long Ladies’ outdoors on sidewalks, streets and curbs performing dance steps on everyday objects underfoot. The video was accompanied by Liquid Skin, and as is the case with music skillfully written and performed for a film or video, you forget that the musicians are even in the room. The dancers may have stolen the show in this piece, but Guilt of the Templars was a fine finish to an evening of good music and skillful dancing.

The Liquid Skin Ensemble is:

Jannine Livingston – Electric keyboard
Ruth Cortez – Electric Keyboard
Mark Gordillo – Amplified Acoustic Guitar
Hai Truong – Electric Guitar
Susanna Hernandez – Electric Bass
Michael Lassere – Saxophones
Steve Moshier – Vibraphone

More information about the AndrewShire Gallery is here.

 

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incThe 2013 Ojai Festival continued its look at American composers with a performance of Suite for Symphonic Strings by Lou Harrison on Saturday, June 8 in the Libbey Bowl. A 24-piece orchestra comprised of the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble and the American String Quartet filled the stage with a strong presence. Joshua Gersen conducted.

Suite for Symphonic Strings is an assemblage of pieces composed at various times in Harrison’s career, and is loosely based on allusions to the Greek gods. One of his most-performed pieces, Suite for Symphonic Strings reflects a diversity of influences. The dance-like first movement Estampe and the fourth, Ductia: In Honor of Eros, clearly betray the Asian influences that Harrison absorbed as a West Coast composer. Other sections, such as the second, Chorale: Et in Arcadio Ego provide a warm, open sound full of lush harmonies. Still others such as number five, Lament and nine, Nocturne are poignant and quiet while number three, Double Fugue: In Honor of Heracles, has a anxious edge. It is a piece that is rich with a variety of feelings and emotions and these were put across effectively by the string orchestra.

During some of the quieter moments in the piece the inevitable outside noises of kids playing in the park, or the band playing in a nearby bar could be heard, but these did not detract decisively from a fine performance of Harrison’s lovely music.

After a short intermission For Lou Harrison by John Luther Adams was performed by the same string ensemble, but this quickly became problematic. Full disclosure – I am a big fan of this piece and was excited when it was programmed for this year’s festival. This performance, however, suffered from too much sound coming from the big orchestra. The beginning arpeggios washed over the listeners like a tidal wave and became relentless as the piece progressed.

The notes and tempo were correct – and what I heard certainly resembled the piece I love – but too much of the intimacy and sweetness of the piece was lost in the translation to larger musical forces.  It seemed to work best when at the lower dynamic levels and there were occasional flashes of the beauty that this piece contains. But much like the sacred music of Bach, For Lou Harrison is too much the chamber piece to be scaled up to the level we heard in this performance.  Additionally, the outdoor venue became quite chilly in the late evening after a long day of warm temperatures and this didn’t help the concentration of the listeners or the conditions for the musicians. The length of the piece, with all the players playing most of the time, eventually became wearing and the audience was visibly restless as the final chords sounded.

songbirds1 A much more satisfactory outcome was heard the following morning with the performance of songbirdsongs, another outdoor piece by John Luther Adams. The venue this time was Meditation Mount, a local Ojai landmark about 5 miles out of town. The location was high along a narrow winding road and buses were required to take the listeners up to a small promontory that overlooks the Ojai Valley. About 200 early-risers packed themselves into a performance space just a few dozen yards across. Red fish blue fish and two brave piccolo players formed the smallish ensemble. Percussion stations were scattered around the area and the players moved about as necessary for each section.

Written over several years (1974-79 and revised in 2006) and as the title indicates, songbirdsongs is a series of musical realizations of bird calls. As the program notes describe, the players are to “play with the free intonation and inflection of bird songs, not in exact temperament. Time should also be free and fluid…”

The nine sections of the piece are titled after the names or characteristics of various birds and evoke a wide variety of natural sounds. The piece proceeds with a back and forth calling of rapid, bird-like phrases between the piccolos. Other percussion pieces join in, generally at a low dynamic, and convincingly portray the familiar landmarks of a woodland or meadow. The music and the surroundings actually seem to merge together in the mind of the listener.

There are regular pauses in each section – and with the audience sitting stone silent – the natural sounds of the environment became part of the performance. This was remarkably effective – as a city fellow I don’t pay much  attention to the sounds of nature – but during the pauses in this piece I suddenly become aware of all of the birds in the surrounding trees calling back and forth. I am no naturalist but it seemed to me that some of the local birds were actually answering the piccolo calls. I talked later to one of the piccolo players who said that a bird swooped down and buzzed by her head during one passage.

The integration between performance and nature was virtually seamless and the audience agreed that this was an experience far beyond that found in the average concert hall. Music, intention and venue met successfully in this performance of songbirdsongs and it makes a powerful case for the direction John Luther Adams has taken with his art.

More information about the 2013 Ojai Festival is here.

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It’s still so unbelievable and so marvelous, that John Cage would be able to perform such a piece on national television, on a game show! It’s the sort of thing that was not supposed to be possible before the Internet, but there it is, and at the time it was shown there was little chance that the federal government knew who was watching it.

“Water Walk” seems to me to be convivial, like a party, with the same aesthetic values as “Living Room Music,” something that friends should enjoy together in an intimate setting. It can be performed by anyone with the time and equipment to prepare and an inclination for quick thinking and good humor. I think Jenny Q. Chai has most of those qualities, but she’s a busy musician with many demands on her time, and in the living room concert venue, Spectrum, on May 7, she was a little flustered and a little rushed as she checked the running time on her iPhone and moved from object to object. Practicing the piano is one thing, setting up and knocking down all the bric-a-brac on tables, and doing it again and again, is a challenge on time that I don’t image Cage expected many musicians to undertake.

But in the context of the concert, and in the Spectrum setting with books lining the walls and easy chairs and couches, it was a convivial encore, a trick at the end of a good party. The party was a collection of old and new pieces, set together into short suites. Chai is known for her playing and her programs that demolish distinctions between past and present and show that the Western classical tradition is an endless flow, no part of it beyond the reach of any composer or the ears of any listener. The program was called Acqua Alta, the music having in some way to do with water.

She’s not the only musician who does this — most prominently in my mind is Marino Formenti — but she does so without didacticism, which is unusual and compelling. She plays the music with great skill, intelligence and commitment, but she doesn’t belabor her points or our need to hear what she hears, and as a critical listener I have utmost respect for that. I don’t think all the music she played in Aqua Alta was successful, but I was left feeling that everything she played was offered as it should be.

The opening suite sandwiched Kurtag’s “Hommage à Scarlatti,”, a couple Scarlatti Sonatas, and Gibbons’ “The Italian Ground” with premieres from Milica Paranosic and Nils Vigeland. Scarlatti’s are some of the finest keyboard works in the literature, and Chai played them with accuracy and insouciance, an ideal combination. All the older works put the new ones in difficult contrast, their combination of craft and the focussed exploration of controlled ideas set an example that Paranosic’s underdone, programmatic and overlong minimalism couldn’t match, Vigeland’s “I Turisti” sounded great, but the result didn’t match his own description, the composition too clear to encompass the sound of chattering tourists that was somehow supposed to drown out the music.

The large scale piece on the program was a new work from Michael Vincent Waller, “Acqua Santa,” that started modestly but grew into an ambitious and attractive work. Waller’s basic pulse both lengthens and picks up the pace as the music moves along, the structure builds from monophony to homophony, and there’s some of the pleasantly mesmerizing quality of watching waves from the shore. It’s essentially minimal without being minimalist in the repetitive sense, and the appearance of whole-tone scales develops an impressionistic aesthetic that elided nicely with the closing set of pieces: Ravel’s “Une Barque Sur L’océan,” Debussy’s prelude to “La cathédrale engloutie,” and Liszt’s “La lugubre gondola,” finished off with Marco Stroppa’s effective adaptation of a traditional lullaby, “Ninnananna.” This whole stretch of the concert was involving and powerful. While even the most sensitive, intelligent listener has to navigate their way through how a brand new piece should go, it’s easy to hear exceptional Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. Chai is great in this music: she has the technique to pull it off, the power to play it with expression and confidence, and the intelligence to make it coherent and meaningful. There are few musicians who can play both Scarlatti and Liszt naturally and convincingly — Formenti is one, there’s Mikhail Pletnev — and Chai does it. She plays Cage well too, and probably no one but the man himself can pull off “Water Walk.”

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jla1The 2013 Ojai Music Festival began this week under the artistic direction of choreographer Mark Morris. The festival will focus on American composers including Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison, John Luther Adams and Terry Riley. Two pieces – Strange and Sacred Noise as well as songbirdsongs by John Luther Adams – were scheduled for outdoor performance in rural venues.

The first of these performances, Strange and Sacred Noise (1997) was sited on a knoll in Upper Ojai  that is part of a local country school about 10 miles out of town. The 8:00 AM concert time found the musicians and about 150 listeners wrapped in an early morning mist. The percussion ensemble red fish blue fish had set up several stations around the top of the hill and the players and audience were free to move about as the piece progressed. Folks sat on blankets or brought a chair, but most stood and watched, moving as necessary to hear each section.

The beginning of the performance was announced by a sharp field drum roll and a series of characteristic rhythms that comprise …dust into dust…, the first section of  Strange and Sacred Noise. The early morning stillness made for good listening in the open air, and a series of soft snare drum rolls that alternated in dynamics were clearly heard and very effective. Despite the unusual venue and informal atmosphere the audience was attentive; a series of pauses in this section would briefly restore the early morning quiet and this seemed to engage the listeners even more.

The second section, solitary and time-breaking waves, was played on a four tam-tams placed about 50 feet apart. A series of rolling crescendos rumbled through each register adding to the mystical atmosphere of the morning mist. The shimmering sense of waves and swift river currents invoked by this section reminded me of parts of Inuksuit, another JL Adams piece performed at Ojai last year. Inuksuit is on a much larger scale and was performed with several hundred in attendance outdoors at Libby Park and the audience reaction then was to watch and listen and to wander among the players while talking or calling on cell phones. For Strange and Sacred Noise, however, the audience was silent – as if in a concert hall. In both cases the audience reaction seemed appropriate and the staging of outdoor performances continues to be a good way to help people connect with new music.

The third section of Strange and Sacred Noise begins with a powerful roll of bass drums that vary in dynamics as higher register tom toms vary in tempo. Titled volocities crossing in phase-space this provides a muscular contrast to the previous section. The cross currents developed by the rhythmic interplay between the drum sets make for an interesting listen. The fourth section – triadic iteration lattices – consists of four differently pitched hand cranked air-raid sirens that are started at different time intervals. The sound of four sirens screaming out into the pastoral landscape was strikingly surreal, and the inclusion of these sounds in an outdoor percussion piece designated for a rural setting seems unusual. The rising and falling of four continuously changing pitches made for some unusual sonic combinations as this section progressed, however, and the fun of it is too much to resist.Sections 5 through 8 of this work are titled clusters on a quadrilateral grid and are performed on various marimbas, vibraphones and xylophones. The first part on marimbas is very quiet – a ten second pause by the players and then a switch of harmonies add to the mystery. The next part on xylophones is strident and dissonant and makes a fine contrast. After that a switch to bell-like registers form a lighter, faster texture and finally there is a return to the marimbas – a sort of da capo – completing section 8.

JLA2 The ninth and last section of Strange and Sacred Noise – titled … and dust rising… – is a return to the original field drum set that opened the piece. By now the haze had burned off revealing the mountains that surround the knoll and the soft snare rolls and louder rhythms recalled the opening section but in a changed environment.

Strange and Sacred Noise is one of the earlier pieces by John Luther Adams that explore the sense of place and its connection to the  environment. The little knoll in Upper Ojai was a fine venue and seemed well suited to the occasion.

Later that morning in the Libby Bowl Terry Riley’s In C was performed by 26 musicians including percussion by members of red fish blue fish. The sound system was in good form and those of us on the lawn could hear the precise rhythms and tight ensemble that was playing on the stage. To my ear there was a solid bass line and this gave the piece a sense of reserve and formality. But what it may have lacked in exuberance was more than offset by a consistently good reading as the piece progressed. Pronounced dynamic changes from time to time gave the texture some relief and the audience was for the most part engaged with a groove that was carefully sustained for the entire 65 minutes. At one point – about 36 minutes in – the combination of basses and voices was reminiscent of Wagner. At 49 minutes that same combination produced a definite sense of the majestic. Not what I expected but a very fine reading throughout.

This was a solid performance of In C and if recorded might make a good addition to the history of Terry Riley’s classic of minimalism. More information about the Ojai Music Festival can be found here.

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[Ed. note:  Welcome our newest contributor, conductor / percussionist / vocalist / composer Jordan Randall Smith. A Dallas native, Jordan is the Co-founder of the Dallas Festival of Modern Music and the festival's sister ensemble, Ars Nova Dallas, serving as Conductor and Artistic Director. Jordan's just moved on to Baltimore to pursue a Doctorate of Musical Arts in orchestral and operatic conducting at the Peabody Conservatory. ]

Last weekend, Opera Hispánica concluded their first festival and third season with Astor Piazzolla‘s María de Buenos Aires, his 1968 tango “operita,” or what might be called chamber opera by the wonkish. However, this Sunday, the chamber was filled not with nobility ancient or contemporary, but with beer and wine, and the people who like to consume them, at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge.  (Although, some opera nobility, including one of Plácido Domingo’s sons, were spotted at the Sunday evening show.)  In truth, the word “opera” is only useful in that it brings to mind how openly this drama defies the classical notion of what opera is supposed to be. Instead of conforming to tradition, it provokes a re-examination of convention. This sort of provocation proved to be the theme for the work and for the night.

With a tango band occupying fully 60 percent of a stage which is already rather limited in dimension, production design was a daunting task expertly fulfilled by Stage Director Beth Greenberg of City Opera fame. Greenberg managed to turn the cramped, uncooperatively spare stage to her advantage, projecting into the space a smokey, claustrophobic Buenos Aires alleyway positively dripping with sinful lust and criminality, where “Hustlers, pimps, and devils appear at every turn,” as Greenberg wrote in the program. And the claustrophobia was palpable. The audience was repeatedly intruded upon by El Duende (ghost poet), a spoken role played by Gerardo Gudiño. The tragic heroine María, performed by Solange Meridinian, also came to a portion of a table in the middle of the audience to penetrate both the 4th wall and the comfort zone of the audience with the surrealist poetry of librettist Horacio Ferrer. In an interview for Sequenza21, Greenberg admitted, “you spend a great deal of time with a work with symbolism as dense as this, you spend time looking for a door in. The poetry is so rich that it can actually at times seem impenetrable, but you look for a door in, and it always rewards you in the end.” The audience was rewarded with the fruit of these artists’ diligence in what came out as a heady mix of musical riches, rhythmic banality, and dramatic density that somehow reached in and grabbed each of us.

Solange Meridinian, Mezzo-Soprano

Solange Meridinian, Mezzo-Soprano

“Forgotten among women,” the text reads, upending the biblical Mary, an archetype this diminutive operita pokes, prods, and ultimately breaks. The text is not purely in spanish but often in a lower class Buenos Aires dialect called Lunfardo, spoken in “the Tango underground,” as Meridinian called it in correspondence with Sequenza21 for this review. The work is rife with religious imagery and references: from the Virgin Mary, to the baby Jesus, to the wicked, the latter which in Ferrer’s and Piazzolla’s world seem often to go through life unpunished. Meanwhile, wide-eyed orphan María pays for her innocence and naiveté with her virginity and her life, set to the unrelentingly sensual rhythm of the dance.

Solange Meridinian, who is herself from Argentina, had been waiting nearly ten years for the right opportunity to finally perform María, and happened to have not one but two chances crop up, the first having been with the Lexington Philharmonic this past February. Meridinian gave a startlingly resonant account of her character, difficult in a work which even embeds its own internal psychoanalysis into the latter scenes. It was doubtless a taxing work for the highly-capable mezzo-soprano, who consistently had to perform in the lowest parts of her already extensive vocal range. She handled each phrase and scene with care and culture, remaining mindful of the tango style. The other musicians and dancers performed excellently, although there was an unpolished instrumental solo in the beginning of the fugue from “Fuga y misterio.” As a whole, the musical ensemble served the drama admirably throughout  the work’s sixteen numbers as a sort of commenting Greek Tango Chorus, even interjecting sensational bandoneónista JP Jofre as an ad hoc cast member during one episode.

At this point, the music and the name of Astor Piazzolla is widely-known among musicians and music-lovers. In recent decades, his music has become something of a crossover sensation in symphony halls, cabarets, and every venue in between. Unfortunately, the popularity of his tango-infused compositions has ironically caused them to often receive unfair dismissal in terms of emotional or musical depth. After a night with María in the hands of Opera Hispánica, the audience left with no such misapprehensions.

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