[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
“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 bandoneónistaJP 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.
Updated : 9/6/12 with added thoughts from Laura Kaminsky.
Every so often we have a conversation that changes us for the better. Sometimes, we have this type of conversation with our mothers, our fathers, our close friends and allies, our colleagues, or with an artist. Last weekend I had a profound conversation with the latter, an artist named Laura Kaminsky.
Laura Kaminsky, composer, is also the artistic director of Symphony Space, the renowned performance venue in New York City. She has received commissions, fellowships, and awards as both a composer and presenter from over twenty organizations including the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and the Aaron Copland Fund. Ms. Kaminsky also plays a large role in the operation of many musical and arts organizations including Chamber Music America, and, in the past, New Music USA (formerly the American Music Center), and as a member of the Artistic Advisory Council of the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others. Laura Kaminsky is an important and influential voice in the arts world today. Having the chance to speak with her by phone, I first asked her about her musical upbringing.
Laura Kaminsky (LK): I grew up in New York City, and was surrounded by musicians, painters, writers, and actors. As a very young child I thought I was going to be a painter when I grew up. But I started taking those typical piano lessons at about age ten or eleven, and quickly decided that practicing wasn’t nearly as much fun as making up my own music. This led me to start trying to figure out how to write down that which I made up. So, I was composing at a very young age, untrained, just writing the things that occupied my imagination. Still, I just thought of it as a fun thing to do. [Around this time] I began tormenting my younger sisters because I used to create family musical evenings that I insisted they participate in. We would perform these programs on the weekend for our parents. I think this is probably where I got my passion for producing.
When I was about 13, it was that time in New York when, if you were a public school kid, you could test and audition to go to a special high school. I wanted to go to [LaGuardia High School of] Music and Art, and originally I thought I was going to audition with an art portfolio. As I got closer to the day of the testing, however, I realized I was more passionate about my time spent in music, and requested that I switch my art audition to a music audition. I got in not because I was a particularly good pianist or clarinetist (that was my second instrument) but I think because I presented music that I wrote, and performed one of my own compositions. My four years at M&A were profound and formative; many of my friends today still date from that time, and many are living active lives in the arts. Read the rest of this entry »
On Monday, January 24, 2011 at 8:00 p.m. at The Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn, violist Wendy Richman of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) will present “Viola & “, the first program in her “Vox/Viola” project, in which she presents new and important works for singing violist and/or electronics. The program features works by Arlene Sierra, Lou Bunk, Hillary Zipper, Kevin Ernste, Kaija Saariaho, Giacinto Scelsi and Sequenza21’s own Senior Editor, Christian Carey. I caught up with Ms. Richman via email to speak with her about the project’s origin and her interest in performing “one-woman duos.”
“It’s not entirely fair for me to say all the pieces are one-woman duos,” she says. “There’s a very active partner, sound designer Levy Lorenzo, doing much of the program with me.” The idea for these programs goes back several years, growing in part out of Wendy’s involvement with a number of composer friends who happened to work extensively with electronics, but “also because I liked the idea of having a recital program that was totally self-contained. In my imagination, I could pack my laptop, mic, and a pedal, meet with a sound guy for 10 minutes, and—bam!—the show would go perfectly.”
The reality of doing recitals with live electronics proved more complicated than Richman imagined, however, until she met Lorenzo while performing Kaija Saariaho’s Vent Nocturne at an ICE Saariaho portrait concert in New York’s The Tank, where Lorenzo was the audio engineer. “I really experienced the piece differently during that performance. Levy is a fantastically sensitive musician, in addition to [having] great technological skills. Maybe it was in part the rather cramped quarters of the Tank, so we were essentially onstage together, but I’d never really approached playing this music as a duet. Now, it’s really important to me to approach it that way, so the electronics part is not only ‘live’ but ‘alive’.”
“About five years ago,” she adds,” I began playing Scelsi’s Manto, a three-movement work whose movements can be played separately, all together, or in any pairing. The last movement’s instruction states that it is for ‘altiste/chanteuse (necessarily female),’ and ‘the text is a speech of the Sibyl [a prophetess or seer].’ I was learning the piece during a really hard time in my life, when I was recovering from a bad accident, and I think I was looking for music that really spoke to me. Well, the Scelsi did! I guess I was speaking/chanting to myself, (because) it was the first piece in a long time that I had an extremely visceral response to, and that particular commitment seemed to speak to audiences. I received really positive feedback about it and began to feel that it was my piece.”
While there are a number of violinists who sing and play at once (Courtney Orlando of Alarm Will Sound and Monica Germino, of the Dutch group Elektra come to mind), singing violists remain something of a rarity. “I knew that there were some other string players who had done similar things but hadn’t heard much about viola/voice works aside from the Scelsi, and basically I just thought it would be a fun project for me to do.”
So at the urging of the composer Ken Ueno, Ms. Richman embarked on blazing a trail as a singing violist commissioning a number of composers to write pieces for her. The commissioning process, she says, was refreshingly informal and casual. “I talked to composer friends and told them that I don’t have any money (yet!) but that I’m fairly confident I can get a decent number of performances. Their responses varied, of course, but for the most part they were all interested and it was just a matter of time (many had paying commissions that would obviously take priority). I currently have eight finished pieces (three of which are being premiered on the 24th), and a total of about twenty composers who have committed to writing things over the next few years.”
The group of composers on the “Viola & “ program represents a highly eclectic and diverse group. This may seem unusual, but it stems from Ms. Richman’s refreshingly open and friendly approach to commissioning new works. “After hearing (a composer’s) music and liking it, the most important thing for me is that I like the composer (himself) and want to work with (him). In some ways, that’s more important to me, because they might find themselves making stylistic adjustments anyway given the relative newness of the genre to them. I needed to feel like we connected as friends so I could be really comfortable in the collaborative aspect of the project.”
Violist/vocalist Wendy Richman and Engineer Levy Lorenzo
Part of The Forge’s Forgefestival
Monday, January 24, 2011 at 8:00 p.m.
The Bushwick Starr
207 Starr Street
Brooklyn, NY 11237
Info Line: 201.875.8573 www.theforgenow.com