Halloween Makes an Early Appearance at Merkin Concert Hall
Last night at Merkin Concert Hall was a gleefully fun and surprisingly nuanced concert of Halloweenish orchestral works that transcended being pigeonholed as such. Sure, it was impossible not be drawn into the fun as conductor/composer Charles Coleman scrunched his face into a triumphant, “yessssss!” expression as he signaled a series of macabre, pulsing tritones from the violins as the world premiere of his symphonic poem Carmilla for String Orchestra got underway. But there was plenty of subtlety and sophistication that tends to get trampled in this kind of music: while there was an abundance of menace on the program, it never really went over the edge into grand guignol.
Anchored by heavy washes of bass and cello, the piece quickly shifted into more plaintively neoromantic territory before hitting a hypnotic, rhythmically minimalist coda that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Julia Wolfe catalog. The full orchestra followed with William Maselli‘s deliciously fun Visions of Sabbath, a mashup of classic Black Sabbath themes. How familiar the ensemble members were with the source material became obvious in an instant, from who was dealing with it like any other task, and who couldn’t resist a grin. One of the bassists and a violist in particular were having a ball with the artful interweave of motives: the signature chromatic theme that opens the band’s first album; riffs galore from Electric Funeral and War Pigs,and a playfully blustery arrangement of the verse from Iron Man, to name a few. And when they reached the point where one of the clarinets voiced a couple of Ozzy lines from The Wizard, pretty much everybody was cracking up. “This initial effort may well be expanded on in the future,” the program notes hinted. Bring it on!
The final work was Maselli”s two-act opera Draculette. It’s a highly thought out piece of music, and it was well executed. Bloodily surreal as the storyline is, there was less bombast than expected. Maselli’s main themes developed out of a cinematic progression of the utmost simplicity that rose and fell with a Moussorgsky-esque unease, punctuated by several more bittersweet interludes, a couple veering into lively, carefree Italianate operatic territory, others with a vividly anthemic art-song quality that reminded of Elvis Costello at his most ornate. Did Maselli immerse himself in a Prokofiev opera before tackling this? That wouldn’t be a surprise.
Coloratura soprano Olga Zhuravel sang the lead role, holding the center with a fang-baring luridness. High soprano Micaela Oeste got less time in the spotlight but made the most of it: one particular spine-tingling, stratospheric, chromatic phrase of hers was worth the price of admission alone. The guys – baritones Brad Cresswell and Kevin Glavin, and tenor John Bellemer – were given goofier roles and thus less opportunity to explore as much emotional terrain as the women. Which made sense considering the storyline: unsympathetic characters are easier to kill off. In the spaces between, brief solos made their way cleverly and purposefully throughout the orchestra: Tomina Parvanova’s harp, BJ Karpen’s oboe and Allyson Clare’s viola in particular were standouts. Meanwhile, a series of microphones hung overhead: if the engineers soundchecked this right, the orchestra and singers got a dandy live recording out of it.