Sunday, June 12, 2011

Down in the Holler!

When is a cabaret not a cabaret?

When it's something else.

That's what happened at Barrington Stage 2 this afternoon: something else. It was listed as 'A Cabaret from the Musical Theatre Lab' and it was more lab than musical. It is called Surviving the Avalanche and had lots of sound effects of avalanches and rock and ice crashing. That part, at least, was authentic. The music was by Vadim Feichtner and the lyrics by Jeremy Desmon. The performers were Miguel Cervantes. Andrew Kober, Dana Steingold, and Cassie Wooley.

According to Wikipedia, a cabaret is a musical entertainment featuring song, dance, theatre usually held in a restaurant or bar. This performance included a free glass of wine, so maybe that was an attempt to make you think you were in a bar. There was no dancing and not much theatre.

The lyrics seemed to be 'Stream of Conciousness' writing that Mr. Feichter tried to set to music. Say Virginia Woolf met Stephen Sondheim. You should be so lucky.

It sounded to me like an autobiographical rant about a life spent under an avalanche of problems, all of which could be solved by singing. That didn't happen. It was tiresome to hear these long, tedious sentences painfully set to a wandering melody that you certainly did not leave the theatre whistling.

All four singers have what could be fair show-biz voices if they would stop feeling the need to scream and shout when holding a microphone two inches from their lips. Hence the title of this post. There is singing and then there is hollering.

Every musical I have heard that has come out of the Musical Theatre Lab sounds alike, no matter who is the composer and who the librettist. Most of the participants work with William Finn at NYU and are obviously influenced by his work. This is not necessarily a good thing.

I am probably just not in the swing of things when it comes to present day musical theatre, but if this is the trend, I'll pass.

Dear Julie Boyd, your lab needs some new ideas.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The force is with us

A dear friend of mine used to say, 'What's worse than one flute?'  The answer, of course, is 'Two flutes'. Dorothy had a flute problem.

Well then, what's better than one Tour de Force?


As someone once said 'Tel jour, telle nuit'. Tonight I had a ticket to see Zero Hour at Barrington Stage 2. It is a one man show about Zero Mostel.

On the drive up to Pittsfield I encountered the first tour de force. It was my own Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I decided to listen again to her recording of the Berlioz Nuits d'été. I should not have been surprised at the power of her performance. I had heard her sing it many times. But tonight, driving through the countryside on the Tyringham Valley Road with its multitudes of greens and pinks and lavenders, it just hit me once more.

My God, that girl could sing!

A few years ago when Lorraine was still with us, I was having dinner with friends. A local music critic was also at the table, and when the subject of Lorraine came up he said, 'I think that her singing is just too intense.' I, amazingly, kept my mouth shut, but my thoughts were unprintable. It was only too intense if soul searing emotion and musicality are more than you can take. As you might guess, he was not a very good music critic and is no longer in print.

Then, arriving at Stage 2 and being seated in Row AA, center, the second tour de force arrived on the scene in the person of Jim Brochu who simply blew the walls out as Zero Mostel. He had known Zero when Jim was a young actor and has him down to a T. He made us laugh, and cry, and gasp. In the midst of this one act mono-drama, we were treated to a major storm going on outside the theatre. Perhaps this was to compliment the major storm going on inside the hall. We could hear hail pounding on the roof. At first I thought it was a theatrical effect, but when the lights kept dimming and coming back up and even going out for several seconds, I decided that both storms, inside and out, were the real thing.

Jim Brochu, a consummate actor, never blinked an eye at the competition and kept absolutely in character even when the lights went off in the theatre. I would say that he and Lorraine have the same intensity when doing what they do best. It is an all compelling fury about the way they approach their art. Fury and love, I guess.


Then, to cap off the evening, when I left the theatre, I found that the storm had put out all the lights in Pittsfield and everywhere else most of the way home. The theatre must have it's own generator. I guess you would call this a Tour de force de nature. Number three.

As I wended my way back to Sandisfield, I encountered downed trees strewn across the highway. I actually got lost for a few minutes in Lenox with no lights. Then had to make a detour before getting to Stockbridge and come home through Lee and Monterey. For those of you who do not know Berkshire County, this is not exactly as the crow flies. Mix in a lot of fog and you have the setting for the perfect Hallowe'en night!

The Temperature today went from 96 at Bradley Airport to 64 in my front yard when I reached home.

Who ever said that life in the country is dull?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Two for the Price of One

Yesterday afternoon I drove over to Hadley, MA, ostensibly to hear a new student sing a very difficult Bach aria we had been working on for several weeks, and found I was attending a double header. In addition to the Bach cantata sung by the Da Camera Singers, there was a premiere of a new work by Ron Perera.

The choral group is ably directed by Sheila L. Heffernon and was assisted in the Bach by a chamber orchestra that played very well. The chorus of 40 singers performs very efficiently and is obviously well trained. They could use a few more sopranos. Especially in the first movement of the Bach, with two excellent trumpeters tooting away, I had a hard time hearing the soprano line.                      

Justina GoldenMy student, Justina Golden, sang her aria very well. It is a real gut-buster, with endless runs that went at the speed of light, which she negotiated with ease. Peter Shea, who was listed as baritone/tenor, sang very well in his two recitatives. A well-focused pleasant voice that easily covered both ranges.

Ronald PereraI was happy to see Ron again after several years. Some time ago Jane Bryden, another student of mine, sang the leading role in his opera S at Smith College. Jane and I worked on the role while Ron was still composing the end of the opera. It was a great success. Ron studied composition with Leon Kirchner at Harvard and with Randall Thompson.

If memory serves me correctly (not always guaranteed these days) the year we landed on the Moon, in fact, that very day, John's Harvard Summer Choir sang a work of Ron's at Dartmouth College. I drove up from New Jersey with our friend Dorothy Fee for the performance. How time flies!

Part of Thompson's Frostiana was also sung on the program. Thompson has never been my favorite composer and, having once taught my choir his famous Alleluia, I vowed never to do it again. And I haven't.

Ron's new work, North Country is also based on poems of Robert Frost and explores the poetry with great imagination and beauty. I was happy to be there for the occasion.

The choir also sang Songs of Nature by Antonin Dvorak. These relatively minor works were in the same mode as the Thompson, making the program too monochromatic.

I always like to hear my students in live performance; that is where we find out if 'the curse is working': that what we have been doing in lessons is actually becoming a part of their technique. When one is changing the way one sings, one needs time to build new muscle memories. Justina is in the process of doing this. It is a very good voice and I look forward to our future work together.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Strident la vampa!

Apparently one of the signs of my advancing age is that there are just not that many singers I want to listen to these days.This truth was borne out tonight when I attended a re-HD showing of Verdi's Il Trovatore at the Warner theatre in Torrington, CT. In previous years the Warner has shown live filmed operas from European opera houses that I have enjoyed very much. This is the first time they have dealt with the 'Live from the Met', or in this case, since it was filmed a while ago, 'Dead from the Met', series.

It opened with a commercial from the Bloomberg Co., followed by a treacaly introduction by my not favorite soprano.

Caruso is supposed to have said that the only thing you need for a production of Il Trovatore is having the world's four greatest singers. Apparently they were tied up tonight.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca & Falk Struckmann as Scarpia (Tosca, Metropolitan Opera, January 2011). Photograph: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan OperaThe Leonora of Sondra Radvanovsky had its moments, but most of the time her square shaped voice hung on the flat side of the pitch. When she went high she tuned it up and it could be quite beautiful. Unfortunately in Verdi, you don't spend all night at the top of your range.

Marcelo Alvarez as Manrico has a true Italian tenor voice. He can sail out the high notes with ease, in spite of taking very high, shoulder wrenching breaths. It is when he sings in mid-range at a mezzo-forte level that he swallows the sound. In the duet with Azucena in the last act he found a resonant pianissimo, probably because he had to match Dolora Zajick's amazing soft sound that is both sweet and resonant.

Speaking of Ms. Zajick, she has been singing this role at the Met for twenty-three years and certainly is in command of all its requirements. She has an odd way of dealing with her mid-range when singing with medium volume. She seems to maintain a Sherri Lewis technique. Her lips don't move. It's a little disconcerting because I wasn't sure if she was the one singing or not. When she goes higher or lower or louder, everything seems to work normally. It is an enormous voice that she can pare down to a whisper and still be heard perfectly. Go Dolora.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count di Luna has a remarkable voice which he is beginning to cover. Maybe this is a Russian baritone thing? I've heard this in others from that part of the world. He also is doing the Popeye thing when he sings high and loud: singing out of the side of his mouth. This looks like tension to me. It's too bad, because I don't think that he really has to do this.

I also like him because he has white hair!
 My Photo

I'm sorry to be such sour grapes about this performance but all of the singers in the cast have perfectly fine voices that they are not using to their fullest capacity. Dolora excepted.

For some reason the opera was placed by the stage director in the period of the Civil War. Huh? It had a very drab set that certainly didn't look like Spain, where it is supposed to take place. Maybe Appomattox?

I have heard this opera performed wonderfully at the Met years ago and wish I could remember the cast. Oh well, as I said, I have a hard time with singers these days. Especially when they waste wonderful instruments by doing dumb things with them.

As the story goes, a man said to Jasha Heifetz, 'That Strad makes beautiful sounds'. Heifetz held it up to his ear and said, 'Really? I don't hear anything.'

It's nice to have a Strad, but you have to learn how to play it. Replace 'Strad' with 'Voice'.