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6 Questions RE: Social Justice Opera “Stinney” with Composer Frances Pollock

May 5, 2015

Stinney, a social justice opera for soloists, ensemble, and chamber orchestra, will receive its upcoming world première in Baltimore, MD next weekend. The work will be performed at the 2640 Space at 7:30PM on the evenings of May 15th and 16th, 2015.  “Stinney is an opera set in Alcolu, South Carolina in 1944. The story is told from the perspective of two young murder victims: Mary Emma Thames (age eight) and Betty June Binnicker (age eleven). The girls guide us through the repercussions of their horrific deaths and the ensuing trial of George Stinney, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy and the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th/ 21st Century.” I had a chance to chat with composer Frances Pollock about her inspirations and thoughts about writing the work as well as putting it together for the world première in Baltimore.

6 Questions RE: Social Justice Opera Frances Pollock, Composer & Soprano

When listeners hear Frances Pollock’s voice, hailed for its full, rich lyric sound, they might be surprised to learn that they are listening to a woman who began her musical journey as a composer and theorist. Once this fact is known, it comes as no surprise that this soprano, who eagerly tackles some of the most challenging and enticing repertoire of the 20th and 21st century, is sought after to première works of many up and coming composers.

As a composer, Pollock draws inspiration from the evocative sounds of her native South and from her strong ties to humanism. Originally from North Carolina, Pollock’s music digs its roots into jazz, blues, gospel, folk, and a variety of other genres. Unafraid of looking for truth onstage, she is especially interested in themes that explore idealism and human nature.

Pollock recently graduated from Furman University with a BM in Theory and Composition. She is currently completing her masters under the tutelage of Steven Rainbolt at the Peabody Conservatory. She has also studied extensively with Jill Feldman and Marilyn Taylor of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Pollock is currently involved in founding the new music group, “Prima Volta,” an upcoming group dedicated to help establish new music and fledgling professional musicians.

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Welcome to the Sybaritic Singer, Frances! You’ve been building your career as both a soprano and a composer. Your undergraduate studies at Furman were in Theory/Composition and now you’re working with renowned pedagogue Steven Rainbolt at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, MD. Can you tell us more about discovering your voice both on stage and through composition?

I love theatre. My whole life, I have been drawn to theatre because it has the ability to transcend the barriers of normal relationships and heighten them to a universal experience. I love that the ephemeral nature of plays and opera brings a certain audience together to for an experience that is only tangible in that moment. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a part of that creative process in any way. In eighth grade, I wrote a musical based on AA Milne’s “House on Pooh Corner” that was put on by a local theatre company. I wrote music for my high school choir and helped arrange tunes for my dad’s jazz band. I attended Furman, anxious to be the next Sondheim.

When it looked like I was going to have more opportunities to perform rather than compose, I came to Peabody excited to hone my voice. Likewise, when this year presented me with a lack of singing prospects, I turned my attention to writing an opera that could give my peers a chance to perform. I was very lucky this year to find a friend and a mentor in Dr. David Smooke who paved the way to doing a project on such a large-scale and for having the backing of Peabody Conservatory and Johns Hopkins who have made many generous donations to Stinney. This year has been a whirlwind and I am very lucky to have had the support to create a work of this size.

That is fantastic. I think there are many singers who can sympathize with a seeming lack of singing prospects their first year of graduate school. It is so inspiring that you’ve been able to create your own fulfilling projects. Going back a little farther, what about growing up in the South, specifically North Carolina, has influenced your work both in sound and concept?

The music of the South is beautiful and typically overlooked in a classical setting. My dad is a jazz pianist, and I grew up immersed in the sounds of jazz, blues and everything country. That is the sound world that I am really comfortable in. When writing this opera, I wanted to maintain the integrity of the story in every aspect, including sonically. George Stinney did not grow up in the world of Mozart, Beethoven and Massenet. He grew up with gospel music, Baptist hymns, and folk songs.  Using this music that I am personally familiar with provides authenticity to the story.

Stinney has been called a social justice opera. What drew you to telling George Stinney’s experience of a disingenuous legal system and the mishandled evidence through music and theatre? What do you think makes this story vitally important?

This opera did not start out as a social justice piece. I wanted to explore a story that I understood on a personal level. George was exonerated this year, 70 years after his death, gaining national attention and interest. At that point, this project was already underway. This opera became a social justice piece when the trend of police brutality surfaced with the unfortunate lack of indictment in the Michael Brown case. From there, it became important not only to express Southern culture from a personal perspective, but also to examine a racially divided world that exhibited parallels to the racism we see in our country today. This story is important because it shows the ramifications of a fearful and divided world and the devastation it can wreak on a younger generation.

How has opera as a medium allowed you explore the larger issues of racial tension that are just as specific to that fourteen-year-old boy as they are to the current grievous state of our country at-large?

Opera has always been a medium for political platforms. When Mozart was writing Le Nozze di Figaro, he was being revolutionary in his discussion of class systems and his portrayal of the protagonists as strong and independent female minds. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is one of the strongest examples I can think of because of his inescapable portrayal of poverty and humanity’s disregard for human life. Stinney follows in this tradition in its depiction of relevant social issues. It paints an unfamiliar world and draws direct correlations between a tragedy in our past and contemporary social unrest.

Baltimore is a diverse city that sees its residents separated along many lines: race, income, well-being, and education. Was it important to you to bring several communities together in performance of the opera? 

Absolutely. We are telling a story about a people divided. How can you tell a story like that without people from all walks of life? We are lucky to have a cast that hails from all across Maryland, bringing together many perspectives on race, religion, sexual orientation, age and socioeconomic status. Our rehearsal process has been as much discussion-based as it has been musical. The potent part of this project is interacting with people who appear to be different from you, but who come together for a passionate and unified goal: to tell the story of a community divided by fear that lead to the death of a fourteen-year-old boy.

Do you feel that music, or specifically new music, has a duty or responsibility to be a manifestation of social justice? Would you like your work to encourage others to perform music in a way that underscores justice, health, and change?

Art has to advocate for something. Not just a political something; it can be advocating for beauty or joy or compassion, but it needs to advocate for something. Artists have the unique responsibility to speak out because their works have the potential to reach a wide audience. There is an unsettling trend in the world of classical music to create music purely for the sake of entertainment. When media outlets talk about why classical music is dying, it’s because people need more than entertainment in their lives. We can worry about entertaining the masses when everyone is fed and housed and treated with compassion. In a time where there is devastating social unrest, why wouldn’t we as artists use our platform to advocate for equality and justice amongst all people?

About the performance

Stinney will be premiered in a semi-staged production on May 15thand 16th, 2015 at 2640 Space in Baltimore, MD. There will be a presentation on the history of the trial before the performance and a Q&A session with the performers and composer afterward. Admission to the performance will be free of charge; the show has been funded through a combination of grants and fundraising initiatives.

Don’t wait. Reserve your tickets now.

in performance: Vladimir Feltsman Performs the Music of Schumann and Mussorgsky

May 2, 2015

Vladimir Feltsman plays the piano with a sure sense of will. He approaches the instrument without a moment’s hesitation and his fingers greet the keys as the contours of a known love. He reassures the audience with each passage that he is the arbiter of the night’s sounds. His interpretation is clear and clearly his own — born from thoughtful consideration and practice.

Konrad Fiedler for The New York Times

Feltsman performed an exquisite evening of piano favorites for a welcoming Civic Music Association audience in Des Moines on Friday night at Sheslow Auditorium on the Drake University campus. The program featuring Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op. 15 and Faschingsswank aus Wien, Op. 26 before intermission and followed by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, was a perfect vehicle to demonstrate Feltsman’s interpretive command.

The candor of Feltsman’s playing was captivating; particularly when he used it as a pretext to subvert the ear before the following phrase.The return of the Promenade theme in Pictures at an Exhibition was a glimpse through a kaleidoscope of interpretive nuance from the initial clarion declamation to the wistful Tranquillo. The straightforwardness was often a necessary easing from the onslaught of sound that he commanded from the keys. This program was rife with moments wherein he absolutely turned the piano out with sound. For example, The Great Gate of Kiev, the final moments of the Mussorgsky, was a glorious array of sound that gave the impression he had an entire festival orchestra under his fingertips. In fact, triumphant might be too soft of a descriptor in this case.

It is important to note that part of the brilliance in Feltsman’s playing is the realization that he eschews exact purity and over-refinement. This is not a question of his technique but rather lauding his ability to still capture that element of humanness in his playing. His phrasing never strays into the sterile, or conversely, into overt sentimentality. Feltsman brought this ability to fore in the two Schumann works and with his stirring encore, the Liszt Liebesträume No.3. Nothing in this program had the feeling of being slow. So, when he seemed to relax into the sound of a single chord it became even more satisfying to the ear of the audience. This was felt most in his poignant renderings of the Op. 15 Träumerei and Der Dichter spricht.

Vladimir Feltsman is commanding as a performer even when he elicits his most tranquil sounds from the piano. While I wouldn’t recount his playing as being gentle, his assured sense of sound and resonance of the instrument are nevertheless alluring. Which brings to mind: not every recital is the same. Not every musician playing the piano repertoire we, as audiences, love is the same. That isn’t always as clear as perhaps it should be; however, it is sublime when it is.

in performance: Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man

April 20, 2015

“Coming late is better than leaving in the middle” the girl behind me trills to her friend as she hurries to the restroom before the show. Another of the cohort slyly asks, “is that one of the tips?…” The girls cackle and I think to myself, “I hope this is an indication of a lively and fun Sunday audience.” Neither the audience nor the actors let me down. Although a rainstorm drenched most of the patrons before the opening lines of the Matt Murphy and Shawn Nightingale play “Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man” at the Temple Theater in Des Moines, IA, one cannot be sure if the audience was more moist at the beginning or the end of the show. Nevertheless, they definitely left the theater a happier lot.

in performance:

Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man | Grant MacDermott as Dan instructs an audience volunteer.

Watching this production in Iowa, where attitudes about discussing sex often run the gamut from tame to prude, may actually be more entertaining than attending in a bigger market. Having a group of people who are practically giddy at the mention of a few rebelliously risqué topics is an improv actor’s dream in a show that relies so heavily on audience participation. Throw in a few regional-specific jokes or gags, as director Tim Drucker and the cast do, and you’ve got this audience rolling in the aisles.

What makes this production so effective is the pacing. Sam Tebaldi as Robyn, the mousy, nervous academic called in to lead the book discussion at the last-minute, purposefully adds a catalogue of little physical tics to underscore her character. Furthermore, these hesitations help balance the rapid pace at which Grant MacDermott as Dan beguiles and provokes the audience. MacDermott, as the Gay BFF author and pied piper of the undersexed, is responsible for the lion’s share of the improv and does it with aplomb (even keeping the thread when an ambitious audience member responded to a cat joke with, “I’d like to hear more about your…” well, nevermind, better left for the stage.) Rounding out the speed-settings of this show is the hunk-of-all-trades Mat Leonard who incrementally ratchets up the tension between his character Stefan and Robyn. In addition to the romantic gestures, Leonard’s physical comedy gives both Tebaldi and MacDermott moments to catch their breath before the tempo of the asides spin out of control.

 While “Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man” flies by with a laugh per minute, it also tucks a nice moral into the mix. Amid the phallic and playfully erotic, there is a suggestion that may eventually make it into those ‘Iowa Nice’ conversations that “having better sex isn’t just about having better sex.”

in performance: A Golden Dvořák Cello Concerto with Joshua Roman and the Des Moines Symphony

April 20, 2015

While each composer on Saturday night’s Des Moines Symphony program, John AdamsAntonín Dvořák, and Jean Sibelius, composed works shaped by political, national, and philosophical ideas, there was an unmistakable but far more intangible feeling attached to each piece. Under the guidance of Maestro Joseph Giunta and with the help of guest soloist Joshua Roman, the Des Moines Symphony endeavored toward the ideals of charisma and enchantment. Lush string playing and a captivating sense of sonic balance ruled the evening at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines in this penultimate concert of the season.

in performance: A Golden Dvorak Cello Concerto with Joshua Roman and Des Moines Symphony Cellist Joshua Roman | Photo by Jeremy Sawatzky

Cellist Joshua Roman returned for his second performance with the Des Moines Symphony, his first was in 2012, to play “Iowa’s favorite musical guest” Antonín Dvořák’s glorious Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104. A new music triple threat: cellist, composer, and Seattle’s Town Music Artistic Director, Roman is a delight to both watch and hear. In a blue-green velvet jacket (what singer worth her salt wouldn’t notice?), Roman commanded the stage and produced a self-assured sound from his very entrance in the Allegro. Beginning with the entrance of the second subject, Roman exploited the many instances to demonstrate his genteel legato. This overall character of Roman’s playing did not abate in the second movement Adagio ma non troppo which includes a recalling of the “Leave me alone” from the Vier Lieder, Op. 82. It was in this moment within the second movement that Roman displayed his most captivating soloistic playing.

The musicians of the Des Moines Symphony met Roman in this task. The stirring horn solo in the first movement played by principal Bret Seebeck did not go unnoticed which Gregory Oakes, clarinet, gracefully transported like a baton in a foot race. One of the most exciting aural elements of the evening was the exercising of balance between sections and soloists. What could have been a question of balance became clearer as a specific motivation to bring the sound of the cello solo from subtly noticeable to the forefront of the musical texture. This was particularly noticeable in the pas de deux incidences between Roman and flutist Kayla Burggraf; and furthermore, as the string sections really opened up to their most expressive playing which was confidently lead by concertmaster Jonathan Sturm.

It was primarily this type of blossoming sound in the strings that characterized all three pieces on the program. Each provided opportunities for the string sections to soar although they employ incredibly distinct sound worlds. While the Dvořák acts as the golden mean, Adams’ The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra) presents an immediacy of musical ideas contrasted with a vast weaving of inspirations in Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43. The Symphony percussionists seemed to take particular delight in playing the subversive rhythmic elements of the Adams but that delight did not seem to transfer to all of the sections of the orchestra. The enchantment unfurled in the sweeping violin lines which was also the case in the Sibelius. Even past the two-hour mark of the concert, the instrumentalists still filled the hall with the galvanizing and triumphant lines of the Finale. 

If these pieces are showing the audience how politics and music combine, they are outlining the motivations from psychological connections rather than the actual social concerns themselves. The soaring and lush playing in the strings was the silk cord to the romance of devotion rather than an overzealous waving of any particular flag.

in performance: Opera Omaha’s “Fidelio” Through the Eye of Jun Kaneko

April 18, 2015

Fidelio is ultimately about freedom,” writes Opera Omaha‘s Director Michael Shell. According to the production on Friday evening at the Orpheum Theatre in Omaha, NE, it would seem that Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio is more about priorities than anything else. While it is true that this opera most often lends itself to politicized productions, there are more subtle notions of righteousness and virtue which emerged in Mr. Shell’s vision. The fantastical set design from Omaha-based Jun Kaneko was allowed to be the celebrity of the entire production — at times to the detriment of the exquisite singing offered by Bryan Register (Florestan), Kevin Short (Rocco), Sara Gartland (Marzelline), and most notably so Wendy Bryn Harmer (Leonore/Fidelio.)

Wendy Bryn Harmer effused a radiant sound as the devoted wife Leonore who disguises herself as a young boy, Fidelio, in the hope of releasing her imprisoned husband Florestan. While steadily acted, her stunning vocalism  was a true highlight of this performance. She delivered a dignified, free of overwrought sentimentality, “Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern” which she mirrored in the final act with “Tödte erst sein Weib!… Ja, sieh hier Leonoren.” As the wrongly imprisoned Florestan, Bryan Register also offered many moments of intelligent, robust, and ardent singing. The Act II “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!” is a primary example. Register proudly displayed the upper extensions of his voice without hint of strain. There was a wish, at times, that the chains were not quite so noisy as to not be additional percussion against the vocal line. Together Harmer and Register created some tender stage moments after their reunion — particularly when kneeling in front of each other against the backdrop of a grim prison dungeon they slowly touched foreheads for a brief but moving instance.

The voices were not the only strong influence on stage. Jun Kaneko’s set and costume design for this production was practically an additional character in each and every scene. The exploration of contrasts: light and dark, rigid and flexible, vivid and leaden, multi-dimensional and two-dimensional were exceptional, eccentric, and added an element of the surreal to what is conventionally a stark production. Kaneko writes, “The biggest and most difficult issue is to have a total understanding of this opera as a whole object. Seamless coordination of the stage sets, lighting, and movements of the singers gives maximum visual support to the music.” While this design allowed for unique take-aways it also proved distracting during important musical moments and hindered the audience from developing connections to the characters.

Still, Beethoven’s superior vocal trio and quartet writing prevailed. Kevin Short, Sara Gartland, and Wendy Bryn Harmer impressed in the Act I trio “Gut, Söhnchen, gut!” Short’s bass-baritone was resonant and authoritative throughout the evening allowing for both strength in his dealings with Mark Walter‘s villainous Don Pizarro and contrition after Florestan is released. Gartland displayed agility and exemplary diction with her gleaming vocalism. Tenor Chad Johnson made a very earnest and sweet Jacquino and Bradley Smoak‘s benevolent authority as Don Fernando did not go unnoticed.

If this particular production was about priorities rather than freedom, there were often too many vying for the attention of the audience. However, individually, the elements were all very strong. The singing, lead by Wendy Bryn Harmer and Bryan Register, was enchanting while the set design and stage direction delighted the visual sense. Although it did not always come together seamlessly, the production is moving both musically and theatrically.

in performance: Pianist Jia Cheng Xiong Stuns with Des Moines Symphony

March 30, 2015

The program of Liszt, Chopin, and Shostakovich presented by conductor Joseph Giunta and the Des Moines Symphony this past weekend was an exploration of the expressive topography of each work. Beyond the primary musical experience, the Symphony shaped a performance brimming with musical, poetic, and historical meaning which was greatly assisted by the eloquent playing of young pianist Jia Cheng Xiong.

Des Moines Symphony; Jia Cheng Xiong; Joseph Giunta

Des Moines Symphony

Xiong’s performance of Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 was his first performance with the Des Moines Symphony but clearly not his last. Maestro Giunta is clearly dedicated to the young performer after hearing him in Aspen last year – even encouraging him to give a shout out to his father from the stage. Xiong, belying his age, plays with technical mastery and eschews overt ostentation. The opening chords of the Larghetto, alternating between the descending strings and the rising winds, blossomed precisely into the entrance of the piano overflowing with pathos. Xiong is the opposite of a heavy-handed pianist (although one can be sure that he lets his gifts shine in heavier repertoire as well.) He is fond of tenderness in the line and tended toward grace and ease more often than not in this performance. This impressive evocation was particularly demonstrated in the opening ascending solo scale and mirrored in the final A flat arpeggio figure of the Larghetto. The Symphony strings paralleled Xiong’s style quite well taking their moments to open up in between each exquisite piano line.

The Symphony strings are to be commended for their ability to create a gauzy, ethereal texture not only in the Chopin with Mr. Xiong but also throughout Liszt Les Préludes. There were many instances of these gossamer string sounds while still proving a core to the sound that allowed them to transition clearly to more ominous colors as the repetitive woodwind tones urge the line forward to the rapturous brass fanfare. The poem which inspired Liszt’s work asks, “What is life but a series of preludes to that unknown hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?” The various styles, or preludes, inherent in the piece were clearly carried out by the musicians in the ensemble with extraordinary sensitivity to the overall character elicited by the Lamartine text. The horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, and percussion were on the perfect edge of unbridled in the execution of the final moments of the work.

Although written eighty-five years later, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54 provided many moments to hear the bird song amongst the felling of the trees. Though there was a clear distinction between the fine sound in the Liszt and Chopin which morphed into the more edgy and aggressive sounds necessary for Shostakovich’s symphony exploring suffering and adversity enveloped in feelings of hope, spring, and humor (albeit a biting one.) Beautifully nuanced solos from the flute, english horn, and e flat clarinet in the Largo and Allegro gave way to a blistering Presto which was fully punctuated by Maestro Giunta’s animated leaping on the podium in the final measures.

Overall there was a sense of palpable contour to each work on this recent Des Moines Symphony program from the diaphanous to the impenetrable. Each clearly related to its textual or historical context and they were performed in a way that allowed the audience to substantively connect with the music itself. As the Symphony took time to announce their next season during this concert, we should be looking forward to more musical experiences like this one in the near future.

in performance: “I Am Harvey Milk” with Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus

March 24, 2015

“It’s dangerous to tell someone how to ‘feel’ about a particular piece of music. So we won’t tell you how you should feel about this performance of ‘I Am Harvey Milk,'” wrote Dr. Rebecca Gruber, Artistic Director and Conductor of the Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus, in her introductory program note to Andrew Lippa‘s oratorio performed this last weekend at Sheslow Auditorium on the Drake University campus. This has me thinking about the intersection of social justice and musical performance. What does it take to be a cultural warrior raising the torch for equality – no matter the zip code? It takes the forethought, commitment, and action to tell our stories. The commitment to tell all of our stories. The Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus along with Dr. Gruber and the three soloists Andrew Ryker, Katy Lindhart, and Joshua Bartemes didn’t tell me how to “feel” about the work. Much like the true luminary they heralded, Harvey Milk, they invited me to a heartfelt and authentic experience.

Andrew Ryker, current faculty at Drake University, performed as the adult Harvey Milk with an immediate charm in both vocal and physical characterization. His voice bloomed easily displaying comfort with both musical theatre and classical styles during his elegant “You Are Here.” Although the soloists were mic’d, certain timbres from the instrumental ensemble seemed to force a few instances of pushing with the voice. His moments on stage with the young Harvey Milk, performed by Joshua Bartemes, were sweetly endearing. Ryker continued to draw the audience in over the course of the whole evening with his sincerity and sensitivity to the text and vocal line.

The soprano soloist, Katy Lindhart, also demonstrated a beautiful legato line without sacrificing a moment of text clarity especially in her emotional “Was I Wrong?” Lindhart put her musical theatre chops on display with the energetic and effervescent “Leap.”

The men of the DMGMC flaunted their usual fun-loving physicality (replete with club boys during “Friday Night In The Castro.” Kudos belong both to composer Andrew Lippa and Dr. Gruber for understanding that this score needs to have life and fun.) but with an elevated commitment to beautiful singing. From the ominous text painting in “I Am The Bullet” to the impressive unison singing in “San Francisco,” the chorus was a pleasure to hear on Saturday evening.

The power in the score is the intensifying nature that really begins during the broken leg waltz feeling in “Sticks and Stones.” To hear the first tenors sing out, “God hates fags” over the texture of the rest of the voices absolutely pierced the heart. However, it is the relentless climb from that dark moment to the jubilant final chorus singing “Come out! To your cops, to your doctors, to the places you spend money, to your god, to your teachers, to your friends, to your parents, to your neighbors, to your sons, to your daughters, to yourselves! Come out to yourselves!” that makes this work so emotional and important.

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