Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Am I too loud?

Some years ago Gerald Moore, the brilliant pianist and musical collaborator with the likes of Pablo Casals, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskow, Victoria de los Angeles, and Maggie Teyte, to name but a few, wrote his auto-biography entitled Am I too Loud? 

In those days Gerald, and most musicians, were concerned with volume and balance.

I have decided, after witnessing a performance at Barrington Stage 2 last night, that those words are so old-fashioned as to be practically Shakespearean. Nothing, in today's musical theatre world, is considered too loud.

Last night's production, a rip-off on the musical Jersey Boys,  was absolutely deafening. I hated it! I can't even tell you much of what it was about because I had my fingers stuffed into my ears to protect my hearing until the intermission, at which point, I left. Even at 82, my hearing is still pretty good. Good enough to know when to get out of the din!

It gave me the idea that volume has now replaced emotion in popular theatre music. Forget text, forget harmony, forget melody (ça va sans dire); when the composer wants an emotional response from the audience he raises the volume electronically, sometimes to painful levels, as was done last night- over and over.

Nothing is real anymore. Orchestras for musical theatre presentations in New York City are now often in a building blocks away from the stage where the singers and actors are performing. Brrrrrrrr! Eeeeeek!

I know, I know- I'm old. Apparently younger ears have already lost so much of their receptive capabilities that they need more decibels to accept anything. I take ear plugs to the local cinema. Yes. I am apparently the only one in the theatre that can't take the volume the camera man prefers. With ear plugs in place, I hear everything perfectly.

Also, especially with the Musical Theatre School at Barrington Stage, the rule is 'Set whatever words come out of your mouth to some sort of tune, no matter how impossible this may be. Prosody begone! Iambic pentameter be damned!'

More and more often in musical theatre, at least on the local level, volume replaces joy, terror, sadness, anger, just about any true emotion. Just turn up the dial and the audience claps. Last night these five young actors (all of them very talented, I have no doubt) were jumping about the stage, screaming into their body mikes, lighting fires, having sex, smoking pot, trying to put together a Boy Band, at fortissimo levels.

I should probably have my hearing checked. At my age you are supposed to be losing your hearing. Am I an aberration? (Probably) Is my hearing improving at 82 going on 83? (Duh!!!) Or are theatrical productions using volume to replace emotion and excitement.

How did Rogers and Hart ever make it, un-amplified?

A mystery of the age.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Proud Teacher!

This afternoon Rood Hill Farm was filled with concert-goers who had come to hear a recital by Katie Weiser, soprano, and Jerry Noble, pianist. Katie is a senior at Smith College and Jerry is the Staff Accompanist at Smith. They presented a delightful afternoon of song.

While it is unseemly to brag about one's voice students, here goes: Katie was sensational; singing a program that included Handel, Bach, Wolf, Barber, Hundley, and Puccini. Jerry is a fabulous pianist who provided musical taste and immaculate cooperation.

                      Katie and Jerry plus audience

Katie also studies with Jane Bryden at Smith College and recently won honors which include two voice lessons a week for her senior year. She will sing two recitals this coming year. She has been working hard with me all summer and has made great strides. The appreciative audience called for two encores. She sang 'Breit über mein Haupt' of Richard Strauss and a new song that had been composed for her by a friend.

The concert was filmed for a documentary presenting 'Music at Smith.'

It was a lovely afternoon.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Zing went the strings!

I spent a delightful afternoon at a concert held in the Trinity Episcopal Church in Lenox, Massachusetts by Elizabeth Faidley's 2012 Conservatory Camp Violin Choir. Ms. Faidley is an excellent violin teacher whom I got to know through my good friend, the brilliant violinist, Yevgeny Kutik.
Elizabeth Faidley

Having made a gift to Yevgeny's fund to help produce his CD, Sounds of Defiance, I found that I was eligible to take a violin lesson with the Maestro. Since my only acquaintance with the violin had been a few lessons I took from a friend when I was Searle Wright's Assistant Organist and Choirmaster at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University in the 1950's, (and those, under duress!), I could see no valid purpose in taking advantage of this offer, as splendid as it was.

Having been told about a talented young violinist in New Jersey by a friend of mine, I asked if he would be interested in using my lesson to work with Yevgeny. He was delighted to do so and his parents brought him to Rood Hill Farm last summer to play for him.

Benedikt Winzer is now ten years old. When he came here last summer, he played for Yevgeny with me at the piano, and was given an extraordinary lesson by the Master. Among other ideas Yevgeny presented was the thought that Benedikt should find a different teacher. Yevgeny recommended Ms. Faidley and the rest was history.

Pictured above are Yevgeny Kutik, Elizabeth Faidley, Benedikt Winzer, and myself at the Lenox concert.

This afternoon Benedikt played the first movement of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins with Yevgeny brilliantly. His growth over the past year amazes me. Ms. Faidley certainly knows what she is doing with young violinists.

Her Violin Choir had studied for several weeks at her Violin Camp in North Adams this summer. These eleven young performers, the oldest being sixteen, performed a program that included works by Vivaldi, Telemann, and Kreisler with wonderful tone, tuning, and musicianship. I was hoping to hear some violin solos from the youngsters, and was a little disappointed that much of the rest of the program was a series of transcriptions from various operas, played (very well indeed), by the group. Another time I would like to hear some of these fine young musicians perform Sonatas or movements from Concerti rather than the ilk of O Danny Boy and O sole mio arranged for group performance.

All of these young people are to be commended for the hard work they have put into the preparation of this program. They are all en route to a career in classical music.

Yevgeny Kutik has been under the aegis of the Ferris Burtis Foundation for the past nine years and is performing internationally. It was this connection that eventually put him in touch with Benedikt and Benedikt under the tutelage of Ms. Faidley.

Job well done!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Laughter at last!

After a season that has been filled with grim reality, Barrington Stage has made us laugh. And laugh and laugh! Tonight we saw See how they Run by Philip King, a British playwright. It is a complicated, hilarious farce in the style of Georges Feydeau who wrote for the Paris stage during the Belle Époque. His plays often involved the world of the Paris demi-monde complete with great wit, complicated plots and what a critic called 'Jack-in-the-box' construction. There were always a number of people running about the stage at great speeds, mis-understandings, and character mix-ups.

Tonight's play had all of the above. Cary Donalson played the part of The Reverend Lionel Toop, a vicar in a small town church. Lisa McCormick played his wife, Penelope. He the befuddled husband; she an ex-actress upon whom the townsfolk tended to frown.

Michael Brusasco played Corporal Clive Winton, an actor who had performed Noël Coward's Private Lives with her many times before her marriage. He shows up unexpectedly while her husband is off with the village choir.

Dina Thomas was the maid, Ida, who is befuddled most of the time by the rapid-fire happenings.

Michele Tauber was the village gossip who also arrives un-wantedly.

Keith Jochim was The Bishop of Lax, Penelope's uncle, who arrives a day early.

Jim Schubin the escaped German prisoner who attempts to take over the household. (The play is set in wartime England; 1942).

Jeff Brooks was The Reverend Arthur Humphrey, who has arrived to fill the pulpit for Lionel on Sunday morning.

Don Lee Sparks is Sergeant Towers who is called to help capture the escaped German and return him to the prisoner camp.

So you have two clerics, a bishop, and then Clive who dresses in one of Lionel's clerics so he and Penelope can attend a play which he is not supposed to do while in uniform. The German also puts on some of Lionel's clerics to disguise himself, giving us a total of five apparent clergymen on stage at any given time. Total befuddlement!

Trying to persuade the Bishop that all is well, Penelope, not wanting her uncle to think she is mis-behaving while her husband is away, first tries to pretend that Clive is her husband, and then, threatened by a revolver the German is holding, is forced to say that he is her husband so that he will not shoot her.

The plot gets wilder and wilder with people being pushed into the closet, running in and out of doors, falling on the floor, and so on.

This wonderful cast kept the action going at breakneck speed, adding to the general confusion. They and the director, Jeff Steitzer, are to be complimented for an evening of exhausting gaity!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Tanglewood at Night

Last night I attended a concert which was a part of the 'Festival of Contemporary Music' at Tanglewood. Tanglewood is 'just up the road' from Rood Hill Farm but I don't get there very often anymore.

Last night, with two friends, I  heard a remarkable concert with music by Niccolo Castiglioni and Oliver Knussen. Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center provided the very fine orchestra and singers.

The first work, Inverno In-Ver by Castigliano, was a series of short sketches, musical poems as it were, about the iciness and whiteness of winter. While interesting in its plan and orchestration, it is not the work I want to have with me when stranded on a desert island. There is a certain sameness to many of the movements and the orchestration is so brilliant, both in concept and in actual sound, that I found it irritating. Mr. Knussen conducted this work wonderfully well and obviously had this difficult score fixed securely in his mind.

Second on the program was Mr. Knussen's own Higglety, Pigglety, Pop! or There Must Be More to Life, a charming fantasy composed in collaboration with the brilliant Maurice Sendak, based on his book of the same name.  Netia Jones was the video designer and live video performer and had created a remarkable animated film that was shown on a large screen at the rear of the stage in Ozawa Hall.

One of my friends attending the concert with me was Mike Miller, the illustrator, who introduced Knussen to Sendak years ago at Tanglewood, thereby setting in motion this collaboration.

In this work, Knussen's brilliant and humorous score set forth Sendak's tale of his little dog, Jennie, who goes on an imaginary voyage of discovery, finally to find her way back home at the end of the opera. The role of Jennie was brilliantly sung by the wonderful mezzo-soprano Kate Jackman, who embodied  every inch of Jennie.

The Potted Plant, Baby, and Mother Goose were sung by soprano Ilana Zarankin, Rhoda and the Baby's Mother were sung by soprano Sharon Harms, the Cat-Milkman was Zach Finkelstein, a remarkable tenor, the Lion was Richard Ollarsaba, bass-baritone, and the Pig-Ash Tree was performed by Douglas Williams.

All of the singers were very fine, especially Ms. Jackman and Mr. Finkelstein.

The demanding vocal score fit Ms. Jackson like a glove. If I were to make any criticism, it would be that the roles for the other soprano had so much stratospheric singing that it was impossible to hear the text. On the other hand, some of the bass arias went so low that these young men really didn't have these notes in their voice. Composers should realize that while some sopranos are able to sing incredibly high pitches, one should not put a lot of text on the high C's and above if you want anyone to get an idea about what the singer is trying to convey textually. The reverse is true for the men, of course. If you don't have a solid low E, don't try to sing Baron Ochs.

The opera is a work of two geniuses and I am happy that I could be there.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Now this is theatre!

After what has been,for me, at least, an under-whelming season at Barrington Stage, tonight they hit the jackpot with a new play by Rajiv Joseph. It is called The North Pool and it is a winner. It is a terse, almost frightening story of an encounter between a high school vice-principal and a senior in the school.

The senior is Syrian and is new to the high school, having transferred from a fancy private school. He is called into the office of the vice-principal who then proceeds to conduct an inquisition worthy of an Auto da fe. These were popular with the Roman Catholic hierarchy from the 13th to the 16th centuries, especially in Spain and Portugal. Nothing good ever came from them.

The principal alternates between seeming to chat with the young man and suddenly raging at him. He accuses him of cutting classes, vandalism, and various other misdemeanors, all of which he young man denies.

Finally, inflamed by anger, the young man turns on the principal and accuses him of perversion. Apparently this is the tale that has gone through the school

It turns out that both of them have been involved in one way or another with a young woman who has committed suicide. She, eager to make some big money participates in a wild party, where she is paid to have sex with a number of men, getting beaten-up in the process. The young man has told her about these kinds of parties that pay a lot of money for this sort of thing and feels responsible for her death.

She comes to the principal, bruised and beaten, who has been a close friend and mentor, tries to kiss him, and is pushed away. He already has a reputation that is not too savoury. He also feels that had he not pushed her away, she might still be alive.

Both the principal and the student feel guilty, thinking that it is their fault that the young woman commited suicide. Each has lived in torture with this grief ever since her death.

The two actors, Remi Sandri, as the principal, and Babak Tafti, as the student, are forceful and wonderful in their roles. They leave the audience gasping by the final moments of the play. They keep the audience on the edge of their seats throughout the performance.

The play was brilliantly directed by Giovanna Sardelli.

These are 80 minutes of the most dynamic play- writing I have witnessed in a long time.

Good for you Barrington Stage!