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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.

6 Questions RE: “On This Muddy Water” with Composer D. J. Sparr

December 17, 2014

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.

D.J. Sparr, Composer | Photo Credit: PJ Sykes

D.J. Sparr, Composer | Photo Credit: PJ Sykes

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.

D. J. Sparr with Conductor Marin Alsop at the Cabrillo Festival | Photo Credit: RR Jones

D. J. Sparr with Conductor Marin Alsop at the Cabrillo Festival | Photo Credit: RR Jones

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.

"On This Muddy Water" HGOco | Photo Credit: Lou Vest

“On This Muddy Water” HGOco | Photo Credit: Lou Vest

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.

As always you can find The Sybaritic Singer on Facebook and Twitter. I hope you’ll join me there.

in performance: SONAR New Music Ensemble’s Invigorating “Child’s Play”

November 25, 2014

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.

in performance: SONAR New Music Ensemble's Invigorating "Child's Play"

SONAR New Music Ensemble | “Child’s Play”

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.

in performance: Rhymes With Opera “Heartbreak Express”

November 17, 2014

Note: Many thanks to Michael Berg for this guest review. I am thrilled to have talented writers, such as Michael, who help expand the geographical reach of the Sybaritic Singer. Read more about Michael at the end of this post. – Sybaritic Singer

Heartbreak Express

Alongside the frequent (and highly publicized) struggles of large opera companies, there lies a compelling trend: a growing wealth of smaller-scale opera companies that prioritize innovative productions of everything from standard repertoire to obscure gems to entirely new works. Rhymes With Opera is a perfect example of such a company. Since their founding in 2007, they have provided consistently high-quality performances of new operas, often in varying stages of development. Friday night’s concert performance of Heartbreak Express at the charming H.B. Playwrights Theater is no exception; in this semi-staged reading, RWO treated its audience to selections from this compelling new piece, which the company hopes to present fully staged before long. Kudos to RWO for the evening’s inventive programming: they invited pop trio Siren to perform small sets between the selected numbers from the opera. In the spirit of the opera, the trio played several Dolly Parton songs, while including several original pieces as well as selections by everybody from Beyoncé to Alanis Morissette. Between their intricate harmonies and clever arrangements of well-known works, Siren’s delightful performance provided a perfect counterpart to the opera.

in performance: Rhymes With Opera "Heartbreak Express"

Robert Maril, Karen Hayden, Elisabeth Halliday |Photo Credit: Janette Pellegrini

Heartbreak Express tells the story of four Dolly Parton fans who have an opportunity to meet the country star, first focusing on their interaction as they arrive at Dollywood and then on their reactions afterward. These four fans, supervised and herded by Ms. Parton’s assistant, arrive in two couples: LuAnne and Darlene are middle-aged sisters who dressed in angel-wing costumes for the meeting, and Don and Travis are a couple whose entire home is a shrine devoted to Dolly paraphernalia. For Darlene and Travis, meeting Ms. Parton has the air of a holy experience, on which they pin hopes for some form of personal salvation or revelation; their counterparts, LuAnne and Don, are not as devoted, but make the trip out of a combination of love and obligation. During the interview, Darlene has a nervous breakdown, and LuAnne—who appeared not to expect much from Dolly—is struck by her graciousness and sensitivity. Travis, meanwhile, is crushed by the fact that Dolly does not (indeed, can not) live up to his expectations, and Don is deeply troubled by his partner’s obsessive behavior both before and after the interview.

Dolly Parton superfandom makes it to the opera stage with Rhymes With Opera’s “Heartbreak Express.” tweet this

The structure of the piece is, in effect, a Classical or Baroque aria writ large: the first act is expository recitative, while the second act is a series of lyrical reflections in which the characters relate the experience of meeting their idol. The libretto, written by John Clum (who also served as director for the production), adroitly contrasts witty and fast-paced dialog with poignant reflection throughout the piece. George Lam’s score is evocative and nuanced, featuring a muted perpetual motion in the orchestra ensemble out of which individual instruments emerge to intertwine with the vocalists. Under the baton of Joon Andrew Choi, the orchestra played with precision and expression, providing the perfect counterpart to the narrative as it unfolds.

The singers appeared more comfortable with the music of the second act than with the recitative-like music in the first; there were moments of discomfort for all four as they navigated the less lyrical passages, but they acquitted themselves well overall. Soprano Elisabeth Halliday sang the role of LuAnne with crystalline intensity, particularly in her stunning performance of the Act II aria, “Ease This Burden.” Soprano Karen Hayden (Darlene) conveyed charming naïveté with her well-crafted presentation of the younger sister, singing with earnest warmth. In the role of Travis, baritone Robert Maril sang with searing fervor, effectively portraying the character’s blinding obsession and the crippling disillusionment he experiences after meeting Dolly. Baritone Gerald Yarbray (Don) sang with subtlety and expressivity, doing a marvelous job of acting with the voice and reacting to his partner’s worrying mania. And countertenor Peter Thoresen (the Assistant) sang with agility and passion in a role that ebbed and flowed between comic relief and eerie reflection.

in performance: Rhymes With Opera "Heartbreak Express"

Gerald Yarbray, Robert Maril | Photo Credit: Janette Pellegrini

All told, RWO’s concert reading of Heartbreak Express was an engaging performance that the full house enjoyed with great enthusiasm. The second and final performance was Saturday, November 15th, but if you found yourself unable to attend, don’t fret: RWO has promised a fully staged production, which—if it lives up to the promise of last night’s performance—will be a marvelous experience for all involved.

Michael Berg serves as the Administrative Director of the Chautauqua Opera Company; he also works as a freelance writer and development consultant.

in performance: Beyond the Score with the Des Moines Symphony

November 16, 2014

It is a testament not only to the rich legacy of the 77 season history of the Des Moines Symphony but also to the faithful patrons in the region that on the first big snowfall of this Iowa winter, the 2,662-seat Des Moines Civic Center was nearly packed. The audience composed of diverse age groups all turned out for the perennial wonder that is Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C Minor as well as a new edition to the performance, Beyond the Score. It was an evening devoted to committed musicianship and discovering a favorite masterwork with new ears.

Des Moines Symphony | Beethoven's Fifth "Beyond the Score"

Des Moines Symphony

Beyond the Score

Beyond the Score is a fascinating multimedia exploration featuring four actors, pianist Eugene Gaub, Maestro Joseph Giunta, and the Des Moines Symphony all working together to encourage a richer listening experience for all in attendance – not just the unpracticed concert-goer. The visual, aural, and dramatic production is a clever way to introduce the themes and elements of the symphony. Originally created by the Chicago Symphony in 2005, it is the closest I’ve ever witnessed to a “Pop Up Video” for the classical music set. The actors touched on moments in Beethoven’s life leading up to and during the writing of his fifth symphony including his admiration and esteem for Napoleon Bonaparte. Roger Mueller‘s lightly accented text leant gravitas to his Beethoven admitting, “how can I admit inferiority in the one sense that should have been more perfect in me? I heard nothing.” A few interesting pronunciations aside, Michael Boudewyns, Sara Valentine, and Stephen Yoakam were excellent guides through the history of the composer. Boudewyns as critic E.T.A. Hoffman and Yoakam’s French Military Officer were energizing and gave a sense of authenticity to the text.

Symphony No. 5 in C Minor

The Beyond the Score program with its musical extracts, theatrical narrative, and hand-paced projections stoked the audience’s anticipation for the full performance. This was not an oppressively solemn hand of fate from the Des Moines Symphony. The first movement Allegro con brio did indeed move with brilliance and the bright and brassy horn sounds were vivid throughout. Jennifer Wohlenhaus‘ treatment of the short oboe cadenza in the first movement was a sterling delivery of the unexpected phrase.

Likewise, Gregory Oakes‘ second movement messa di voce clarinet work grew out from the texture of the strings to provide a touchstone for the ear. The woodwinds exhibited accomplished and deft ensemble playing. It was gratifying to hear the orchestra under the baton of Giunta emphasize when Beethoven leads the listener’s ear in an interesting and evocative way. With their performance, one can hear how this work influenced Brahms so deeply. While there were a few debatable tuning moments in the cello/bass Scherzo theme, both elements of the “singing piano,” legato dotted rhythms in the Andante con moto of Saturday night’s performance were impressive.

When the Symphony reaches the finale there is an exuberance without hint of labor or weight. One could sense a collective smile break out across the audience. It is too often that we hear an almost out of control Allegro finale and the sense of mastery is hidden in favor of immense sound. Giunta made an expert choice to let the musicians shine rather than pummel through the finale. Instead of oppressive, the continued emphasis of the cadential chords was therefore uplifting.

While the “fate theme” is conceivably the most famous beginning of all classical music, the Des Moines Symphony took care which each successive moment of the popular work. This is not an example of a regional symphony programming stalwarts to achieve ever elusive attendees but a commitment to the musical literacy of their community and their own musical mastery. It was encouraging to witness the Des Moines Symphony actively employing thoughtful and engaging audience development tools in addition to their impressive musical performance.

in performance: A Vision for Chamber Music – Fifth House Ensemble’s “Black Violet Act II”

October 19, 2014

Peter Stevenson, Executive Director of the Civic Music Association, welcomed the audience in Sheslow Auditorium of Drake University on Saturday night declaring, “Fifth House Ensemble has a vision for chamber music that involves storytelling, graphic novels, and of course music.” Murmurs from some nearby audience members suggested that the performance, which mixes the high-calibre music making of Fifth House Ensemble with projected slides of Ezra Claytan Daniels‘ stunning drawings, was an entirely new adventure and perhaps a bit avant-garde in their experience. However, Fifth House Ensemble was superlative in their ability to craft an unforgettable evening of sight and sound with Black Violet Act II: The Great Exodus of the Tamed.

Sybaritic Singer | Fifth House Ensemble

Fifth House Ensemble | Learn more at

The first of the three acts to the story of Black Violet premiered in the fall of 2009, but each act stands alone as an evening-length performance. The story, with historical consulting from Kristen Klebba, takes place in 17th Century London during the Great Plague of London, in which one in five residents died from the infamous bacterial infection. The second act of the story jumps in following the heroine Violet, a young black house cat, as she is forced to venture out into the world after she believes her owner to have abandoned her. She has already-formed alliances, both positive and negative, with other characters that the audience pieces together seeing only this middle act of the story. Ezra Claytan Daniels’ highly graphic illustration style provides a lot of information for the eye while keeping the phrasing of the text on the slides quite simple and straightforward even with the 17th Century English text influences.

It is this straightforwardness with text and highly visual artwork coupled with the precise musicality from the instrumentalists that highlighted the most important factor of this performance: curating the distance of attention. It isn’t immediately noticeable how important this influence is in this program. Cellist Herine Coetzee Koschak and pianist Jani Parsons initially draw the audience into a close focus of the aural world of the performance with the spellbinding Ernest BlochPrayer.” Then, movements of the meticulous John HarbisonQuintet for Winds” and Sergei Prokofiev‘s highly characteristic “Quintet Op. 39” matched with slides from the Black Violet graphic novel direct the listener’s attention into a big picture survey both visual and musical. This type of programming could find detractors in those that want to hear the development of a multi-movement work in its original formation. Yet, the insightful programming heightens other emotional and intellectual connections to the themes inherent in the work. It is also clear that the musicians in Fifth House Ensemble have an intense commitment to musical excellence and enjoy making music together on stage in the way that they cue and check-in visually. Then, the interludes (without the visuals) including Caleb Burhans‘ piano solo “In Time of Desperation” featuring Parsons and especially the emotionally charged Dmitri ShostakovichPiano Quintet Op. 57 Movement II: Fugue” draw the collective attention to an extremely fine point. Each of the five movements of the Shostakovich performed by Charlene Kluegel, Rachel Brown Clark, Clark Carruth, Herine Coetzee Koschak, and Jani Parsons were exquisite moments throughout the evening. With so many ensemble members, it is difficult to mention them each by name, but their work as soloists and as a whole is impressive.

It is evident with this performance that Fifth House Ensemble has a clear vision for themselves in the new music domain. While graphic novels and storytelling are an excellent outgrowth of their creative strengths in the Black Violet performances, it is their steadfast commitment to high-calibre musicianship that continues to lie at the heart of that vision.

Ezra Claytan Daniels

Photo Credit: Ezra Claytan Daniels for Fifth House Ensemble

Full disclosure: In 2013, I was a voice fellow at the Fresh Inc Festival in Kenosha, WI. I worked with many of the Fifth House Ensemble members who are the faculty and organizers of the Fresh Inc Festival. 

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