“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.
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.”
While each composer on Saturday night’s Des Moines Symphony program, John Adams, Antonín 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
In a recent conversation with composer D. J. Sparr, we stumbled onto the fact that his work “On This Muddy Water” premiered in Houston this week and I was hooked. The fascinating song cycle, featuring Lauren Pastorek, mezzo-soprano, and Heath Martin, baritone, is based on interviews collected through the Working the Port project conducted by the Folklife and Traditional Arts Program of the Houston Arts Alliance. Although these stories come from a very specific place, the themes are universal. I couldn’t wait to hear more about “On This Muddy Water” and more of D. J.’s thoughts.
An accomplished composer and electric guitarist, D. J. Sparr has caught the attention of critics with his eclectic style, described as “pop-Romantic… iridescent and wondrous” (Mercury News) and “suits the boundary erasing spirit of today’s new-music world” (New York Times). The Los Angeles Times praises him as “an excellent soloist” and the Santa Cruz Sentinel says that he “wowed an enthusiastic audience…Sparr’s guitar sang in a near-human voice.” D. J. Sparr recently completed his tenure as the 2011-2014 Young American Composer-in-Residence with the California Symphony where his works were premiered by Nicholas McGegan, Donato Cabrera, and Robert Treviño. Recent premieres have been by the Washington National Opera, eighth blackbird, the Dayton Philharmonic, Richmond Symphony, and Hexnut. Sparr was awarded the $10,000 grand prize in the orchestra category of the BMG/Williams College National Young Composers Competition and has received awards and recognition from BMI, the American Music Center, Eastman School of Music, George Washington University, the League of Composers/ISCM, and New Music USA. A fast rising star, D. J. Sparr’s musical vision is bound to catapult him to the realm of indispensable American composers.
Welcome, D. J. You are not only an accomplished composer but also a gifted guitarist. Can you talk about how those two sides of your musical personality work together and inform each other?
When I am composing, the guitar is always nearby. I don’t use it all of the time, but playing it is helpful when I am looking for a lyrical gesture or a melodic idea. If I want to jump-start the creative process by improvising, I’ll grab it. Some of my pieces began as a guitar gesture which I translate for other instruments. As an instrument, it can be both wild as well as intimate. I love the bright lights of the stage and a searing guitar sound, but I also enjoy strumming a soft chord while in a meditative state. This diversity is present in my compositions.
Last week marked the première of your work “On This Muddy Water” for Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco. Did you apply for this opportunity? What was the process like?
The folks at HGO are familiar with my work through mutual acquaintances and collaborators. Sandra Bernhard and I have known each other for some time now. She attended the première of “Approaching Ali” in June, 2013. She thought my “voice” would fit well for this project. The process was pretty conventional in terms of the piece being commissioned. They wrote and asked if I was interested in writing this piece. I took time to listen to the interviews provided by the Houston Arts Alliance. I was struck by many of the stories, so, I asked HGO for a collaborator for the text. They paired me with Janine Joseph who has worked with them before. We worked out the commission details through my publisher, Bill Holab Music and off we went!
The subject matter of this song cycle for mezzo-soprano, baritone, clarinet, violin, cello, and percussion is very specific. It is based on the lives and stories of different people who have worked on the Port of Houston. What spoke to you about these various stories and how did that inform your musical writing?
Lou Vest, a Ship Pilot said he was walking next to the channel at night, saw ships from Bombay, Bahamas, and Vanuatu. The starlight struck the water like lightning as he passed. In his interview, he said, “I wanted to stop right then and write a poem about that moment.” That is where I thought, “Hey, WE can write this poem,” and I had a vivid idea about the accompanying music.
I think of the piece as a series of portraits. Some of the personalities include a ship pilot, the first female pilot – who was in a tornado event with a boatman!, a priest who brings gifts onboard a Russian ship during the holidays and drinks vodka with a Commissar and Captain, men who were part of an arduous merger of two unions, and a song about the father-son relationship of learning a trade through one’s family. Each of the characters has their own sound world.
Were you conscious of making the work speak to other audiences outside of the specific location?
Very early on in the process, I told Janine that I wanted the piece to be able to speak to not only the community around the Ship Channel, but also to anyone on any concert series anywhere – whether a new music concert, a chamber music series, or a vocal recital. As a model, there are pieces with very specific concepts—Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World”, Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait”, Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”, or Virgil Thompson’s portrait pieces—which work perfectly in this vein. If the words and music can touch the human heart or describe an element of the human endeavor, then the piece should work anywhere. Having not been a resident of Houston, my hometown of Baltimore was a place I thought about while writing the piece.
As you said, you worked with librettist Janine Joseph for “On This Muddy Water.” You also collaborated with librettists Mark Campbell & Davis Miller on another recent, impressive project “Approaching Ali” which originally premiered at Washington National Opera and has an upcoming performance with North Carolina Opera. Will you tell us more about that collaboration between the composer and librettist partner?
I have really enjoyed the interaction of librettist and composer. Janine was a pleasure to work with. We both felt a responsibility to stay true to the interviewee’s stories while dramatizing their situations and emotions. Davis Miller is a world-class memoire novelist who, with Mark Campbell’s magic, offered us an indescribable story and perspective on his relationship with Muhammad Ali. Mark had the amazing ability to see all of this from an outside perspective and create a wonderful structure for the piece. It is sometimes overlooked how important it is for a composer to have someone they trust who they can bounce their ideas off of while writing music.
You clearly are unafraid of writing for the voice. What appeals to you about that type of writing in both opera and chamber ensemble?
The human voice brings with it a ubiquitous and universal quality. When words and music unite, it creates a whole greater than the sum…there are no limits!
Interested in seeing one of the performances of “On This Muddy Water”? There is another performance tonight at 5:30 and two more in January. Find more details by clicking here. Living in Raleigh and want to catch “Approaching Ali” in January? You can find more details for that by clicking here.
Note: Many thanks to James Young for this guest review. Talented writers and insightful reviewers across the country, like James, contribute much to the Sybaritic Singer and our overall classical music conversations. Read more about James at the end of this post. – Sybaritic Singer
SONAR New Music Ensemble Presents “Child’s Play”
For the past few years, SONAR New Music Ensemble has been attempting to construct an ideal. With the opening of their 5th season they have created it: the ‘new-music’ concert as cohesive universe.
The ubiquitous classical music conversation, that is the FUTURE OF, recently took over the Baltimore academic scene. The Future Symphony Institute came to the University of Baltimore, and Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute held its own marathon conversation impatiently titled “What’s next for classical music?”
Into this atmosphere, SONAR launches ‘Child’s Play,’ the title of their opening show, featuring an unbroken, mixed together concert program, electronic interludes composed of home movies, a back wall of visual counterpoint to each work on the program, and one sing-a-long.
Colin Sorgi, artistic director, often builds ambitious programs for SONAR: an onslaught of heavy hitters stretching deep into an evening. In the past, the shows have fatigued. Here, it was invigorating. Sorgi achieves this by the simple act of shuffling content.
The concert was framed by one expansive work, David Lang’s ‘Child.’ Its minimalist, development-phobic tendencies offer ‘Child’s Play’ a ritornello around which it may anchor and pivot, a hub from which it could reach out and explore the music of Kaija Saariaho, Charles Ives, Thomas Ades, and Heinrich Biber.
The Saariaho, accompanied by a neon, spinning, sonogram on the back wall, was especially spectacular, featuring the talents of violist Jaclyn Dorr, cellist Alicia Ward, and pianist Choo Choo Hu. Dorr and Ward shined as they deftly navigated the spectralist fireworks, attacking each timbral shift with ferocity. Hu provided a formidable landscape via the upright piano, but I couldn’t help thinking about how Hu’s efforts would be amplified by a 12-foot concert grand. Saariaho also got the division treatment: a few movements on one half, a few welcome movements returning on the other.
Both appearances of the Saariaho were prefaced by recordings of children reading poetry. Specifically, the children were from the Orchkids, an educational music-outreach program coupled to the Baltimore Symphony. The naïve poetry reading offers an instant, humanizing access point for the music to come. ‘Child’s Play’ was full of such occurrences. In most cases, the musicians of SONAR appeared on-screen themselves, presented in decades old home movies: opening presents, riding a mattress downstairs, sculpting an egg holder… followed by shouts of “IT’S AN EGG HOLDER!” Each eagerly anticipated interlude, crafted with technical care and precisely edited, forced intimacy, forced that a connection be made. Each was welcome.
My favorite of these interludes came near the end: a sing-a-long featuring “I’m a little tea-pot.” And, happily, yes the audience participated! The moment led directly into an Ives violin sonata played with great lyricism and force by Lauren Rausch, a needed respite between Saariaho and Ades. The Ades, ‘Catch,’ is an early work of the composer’s, and it features a roaming clarinetist, here played by Jennifer Hughson. Hughson provided a strong balance of humor and virtuosity to the piece, keeping up with the violently luminescent gestures played by Sorgi, Ward, and Hu. The work was a success on all counts.
Oddly, where the concert faltered was in the Lang, providing the most tiring moments for the show in the first half. I got the feeling when presented by a seemingly unending stream of pitches that the endurance of the players began to wane. The innervation was fleeting, however, entering into second half, where the Lang gave the concert its best musical moments.
In one such moment of inspiration, the final work on the program was preceded by a final home movie, this time of Alicia Ward as a young child playing a recital. As we watched the video, the real, present Ward began to tune for the final Lang, a cello solo accompanied by various keyboards. There she was in the past, on the big screen; here she was now, years later, tuning for her next performance, an entire universe protracted onto the black stage of the Baltimore Theatre Project.
SONAR is back for season five.
About James Young
James Young is a composer of music. His work has been described as fearless and clever, strange and direct. Fueled by both classical and pop sensibilities, James’s music is often rhythmically driving and emotionally charged. He is motivated by a desire not only to express, but also to collaborate with other talented artists, finding new audience and venues to connect with.
James has composed for has been performed by the Baltimore Symphony and the University of Louisville Orchestra. He has played and constructed music with the avant-garde improvisational group, Bonecrusher. His work ranges from solo piano to full sonic installations. Most recently, he has written music for the Baltimore based Occasional Symphony to accompany the film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.