Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Contemporary music, easy on the ears

Contemporary music finds a welcome home in Mt. Kisco NY, where last Sunday Music from Copland House brought composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz to its capacious barn at the Westchester estate, Merestead for a sneak preview of his first opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon. With the multiple Oscar winner speaking quietly and self-deprecatingly, series artistic director Michael Boriskin traced the path of Schwartz' career from Godspell and Pippin to his current smash hit Wicked, following which tenor Michael Marcotte joined Schwartz to sing through some of his fine songs, including “Day By Day,” “Corner of the Sky,” and “For Good.”

Based on a novel by Mark McShane and a 1964 British film, Séance is about a warped medium who seeks to further her career by kidnapping a child and then revealing information about her whereabouts in a a trance. In talking about the process of developing the opera, which premiered last year in Santa Barbara and will come to New York City Opera in April 2011, Schwartz noted the differences between writing opera and musicals. He said he had been attracted to this story for a long time but found it too subtle and moody for musical theater, and was delighted to have the chance to try his hand at opera. The libretto was completed first, and then he began the music, of which we heard about twenty minutes, including an aria, “One Little Lie,” sung by the sensational soprano Lauren Flanigan, for whom the work was written. (Hear it for yourself on YouTube.)

The overall impression was of high-intensity drama —“it's really dark, I'm happy to say,” Schwartz grinned—with typically finely crafted lyrics somewhat diffused by music rather too predictable in its harmonies and melodic contours, though always pleasant to listen to. But if Schwartz can get the millions of worldwide Wicked fans to venture into an opera house for the first time and maybe try some Mozart and Verdi after that, then he'll really have given the art form a big boost.

Up the road a piece in MIllerton, NY, Music of Kaija Saariaho, Leon Kirchner and Joan Tower and others made up the excellent inaugural program of Now! Concerts at the Millerton Library Annex last Saturday afternoon. As I listened, it struck me that we now have a century of music behind us that explored radically different sonorities from the hundreds of years preceding. From Stravinsky and Schoenberg to the thorny works of Pierre Boulez, the intricacies of Elliot Carter, the explosions of Ralph Shapey, the soundscapes of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, our ears have been cultured to the point where the sounds themselves are becoming as familiar as the music of the preceding centuries. And today's young performers seem perfectly at home with repertoire that in earlier days would have been thought unplayable, as well as unlistenable.

So although the music was contemporary, much of it had a very familiar ring to it. Five excellent musicians carried off the program with great style and seeming ease. The Kalmia String Quartet's members are still students at Bard College, where they have worked with the renowned composer Joan Tower, and gave a keenly sensitive and dynamic performance of her Quartet No. 4 “Angels,” and the energetic first movement of the Samuel Barber Quartet No. 1, which contains the lyrical and ubiquitous Adagio.

The Kalmia four, three of whom are brothers, alternated with the superb cellist Sophie Shao, who offered solo works by Saariaho and Benjamin Britten, the former replete with tricky harmonics, and the latter more conventionally lyrical and characteristic of the composer's keen sense of rhythm, all exquisitely played. And the short Kirchner work, "For Cello Solo," the most rigorously academic of the afternoon's music, seemed as comfortable as Brahms in her hands. If the word spreads, Now! Concerts, which hopes to expand to four concerts next season, will need to find a bigger venue for the audience, some of whom drove over an hour for the event.

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