New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: classical music

Somber Arvo Part Choral and Orchestral Music for Somber Times

Whether Russian orchestras actually play Shostakovich better, or French organists are best suited to perform the work of Louis Vierne, are debatable questions. What was indisputable last night was how vastly attuned the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra were to their countryman Arvo Part’s somber, rapturous mysticism. It’s impossible to think of a more apt program for a New York series called Sacred Music in a Sacred Space.

The concert was a confluence of unlikely serendipities. Beyond the rare opportunity to witness these two legendary ensembles together on American soil, the material on the bill was what many consider to be peak-era Part. Everything dated from1990 and later, with one of the arrangements a 2018 North American premiere. Better yet, the composer himself had suggested the inclusion of his soberly crescendoing, cell-like 2006 string orchestra piece, Fur Lennart in Memoria.

On a macro level, the performance was as meticulously serious as its overall gloom was pervasive and relentless. In particular, conductor Tonu Kaljuste made masterful use of the innumerable spaces that punctuated these works, leting the natural reverb of the high-ceilinged Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola resonate as profoundly as the music itself.

The ensembles only missed the big American costume-party holiday by a couple of weeks. To be fair, the only point where the sound reached fullscale horror was in the stalking pulse, gothic chromatics and brief series of muted, shrieking motives in the concluding suite, Adam’s Lament. The message, here as elsewhere, seemed to be that no human alone should have to bear the burden of being cast out of paradise, all alone in a hostile world.

The rest of the program was every bit as troubled and serious. Even celeste player Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann’s graceful comet-trail phrases and bittersweet starriness tended to simply mingle with the otherwise rather stygian, even creepy tones of Salve Regina. Mysterious bass drones anchored alternately moody and robust accents and call-and-response from the choir throughout an understatedly dynamic take of Part’s Berliner Messe, the oldest piece they performed. The string orchestra brought a gorgeous, Gorecki-like, hypnotically circling ambience to Silouan’s Song, rising to a windswept ethereality. And the Prayer, from Part’s Kanon Pokajanen suite, perfectly synopsized the concert’s slow, steady, spacious majesty, artfully developed variations on simple, emphatic phrases and lustrous contrast between highs and lows from both the singers and the strings.

The two ensembles are currently on US tour; the next stop is Nov 14 at 7:30 PM at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St. in Stanford, California; you can get in for $32, less if you’re a student. After more lighthearted holiday fare next month, Sacred Music in a Sacred Space’s programming keeps the intensity high with a performance by longtime St. Ignatius organist Renee-Anne Louprette with uilleann piper Ivan Goff on Jan 20 at 3 PM; tix are $25.

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What a Thrill: Tan Dun Conducts Tan Dun at Lincoln Center

That this past evening’s Lincoln Center performance of Tan Dun’s Cello Concerto wasn’t upstaged by the Orchestra Now‘s colorful, majestically dynamic, cinematic version of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome speaks equally to the quality of the composition and the musicians playing it. Having a composer on the podium isn’t necessarily a good idea, since many lack the ability to communicate exactly what they want in a split-second. But Tan Dun was confident and assured, building a vigorous repartee with the ensemble throughout a bill that reflected the diverse and often perverse challenges that even the most seasoned players can be forced to take in stride.

The Cello Concerto is one of four, each written for a different solo instrument, utilizing the same orchestral backdrop. This one is a real showstopper, a frequently microtonal work (especially at the end) that required all sorts of daunting extended technique not only from cellist Jing Zhao but the entire orchestra. The Asian influence was most strongly evident throughout a long series of strangely cantabile glissandos, and swoops and dives, front and center in bright stereo from various sections and soloists, percussion included. From a vast, overcast, enveloping slow build, through thickets of agitation, thorny pizzicato and more than one interlude that was essentially cello metal, the group seemed to be having a blast with it. Even the two trick codas as the end were as seamless as trick codas can be.

The other Tan Dun piece on the bill, his Passaglia, is one in the most formal sense of the word: varations on a simple, catchy bass figure. It’s an etude, an opportunity for young musicians not only to take turns in brief, emphatic solos, but also to tackle the many unusual challenges (many would say indignities) that orchestral musicians these days are called on to pull off. In this case, that included singing n unison, chanting, stomping or clapping out a beat…and using their phones. This deep-jungle theme and permutations briefly employs a sample of birdsong which the audience were also encouraged to download and play on cue. As expected, that interlude was rather ragged and took twice as long as the composer had intended. Even so, Tan Dun’s relentless, puckish sense of humor and peek-a-boo motives won everyone over.

Respighi’s tour of Roman activity beneath and around the conifers was as vivid as it possibly could have been, enhanced by the composer’s original instructions to position brass above and to the side. Introducing the piece, violinist Diego Gabete-Rodriguez reminded that Respighi had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which came through mightily in the clarity of individual voices over fluttering and then lush strings, delicate accents popping up everywhere when least expected. The kids playing a frenetic game of hide-and-seek in the Villa Borghese; the somber catacomb milieu of the second movement; the glistening nocturne of the third; the concluding ominous buildup to what seems like inevitable war (remember, this was written under the Mussolini regime); and final triumphant scene were each in sharp focus.

The orchestra opened with Smetana’s The Moldau, which, paired alongside Tan Dun’s nonstop excitement seemed tired and dated. The musical equivalent of a first-class minor-league team, the Orchestra Now’s mission is to give up-and-coming players a chance to show off their stuff in the real-live situations that they will undoubtedly encounter as professional orchestral musicians. The Czech composer’s water music is a perennially popular curtain-riser, one unfortunately too often paired with a piece as jarringly different as the rest of this bill was. To be able to leap that stylistic chasm could mean a thumbs-up from a hiring committee; in this case, the group seemed to be holding their energy, and emotional commitment, in reserve for the fireworks afterward.

The Orchestra Now’s next Manhattan concert is Nov 18 at 2 PM at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with works by Chopin and Berlioz; you can get in for $30.

Organist Gail Archer Reinvents a Horror Movie Classic and Unearths Rare Russian Gems

What’s more Halloweenish in 2018 than Russia? Not to invalidate anyone’s suffering, but compared to what Russians have had to deal with under Putin, this country’s had it relatively easy lately. And Russia doesn’t have this November 6 to look forward to.

Musically speaking, what could be more appropriate for this Wednesday’s holiday than a Russian organ music record? It doesn’t hurt that it’s played by one of this era’s most adventurous interpreters of the classical organ repertoire, Gail Archer. Her latest album A Russian Journey is streaming at Spotify.

While there isn’t as vast a tradition of music for the organ in Russia as there is further west, there was a boomlet of composers writing for the instrument beginning in the late 1800s. That’s the formative period Archer starts with, unearthing some majestically tuneful, frequently mysterious material that too seldom gets programmed beyond its home turf.

She gives Cesar Cui’s hypnotic, Asian-tinged Prelude in G Minor a relentless, artfully crescendoing interpretation. His Prelude in A Flat Major comes as a shocking contrast, a starry, steady, mysteriously rising piece with a sobering balance between lows and exuberantly voiced highs, maxing out the organ’s high reed stops. It’s a roller rink at Dr. Zhivago’s grave.

Likewise, Sergei Ljapunow’s enigmatically neoromantic Prelude Pastoral has both steadfastness and swirl, through shadowy counterpoint between the pedals and midrange, bittersweet glitter, and confidently calm exchanges of catchy, allusively carnivalesque riffage between registers. Clearly, this is Baba Yaga country he’s exploring here. Glazunov’s Prelude and Fugue in D Minor is steady, stately and somber, Archer maxing out the silken sheen of the upper registers again as she builds intensity through the hypnotic waltz of the fugue.

Contemporary composer Sergej Slominski’s Toccata has a brightly celebratory French flavor: the work of Eugene Gigout comes to mind. Archer strolls enigmatically through the opening bars of Alexander Schawersaschwili’s Prelude and Fugue, a dynamic piece with acidic sheets of sound, calmly marionettish phrasing and cinematically climbing variations, She winds up the album with a vigorous, epic, yet often remarkably subtle take of Zsigmond Szathmary’s organ arrangement of Moussorgsky’s classic Night on Bald Mountain, which in terms of sheer mystery outdoes most of the orchestral versions used in horror films for the better part of a century.  Rabid members of the organ music underground won’t be the only people who will relish making some new discoveries here.

A Dynamic, Relevant Grand Finale to This Year’s Momenta Festival

Over the past four years, the Momenta Festival has become one of New York’s most exciting annual events. Each member of the irrepressibly daring Momenta Quartet takes his or her turn programming a night. The festival usually ends on violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron’s birthday. This year’s grand finale, Friday night at the Tenri Institute, happened to be cellist Michael Haas’ birthday: he and the group celebrated by going starkly deep into a program centered around Bartok’s harrowing String Quartet No. 4.

. As he explained succinctly before the show, it’s a piece he’d been scheming to play ever since joining the ensemble five years ago.  As was the case last year, admission was free, and there was high-grade craft beer afterward, also courtesy of the hosts. What more could a concertgoer possibly want?

They opened with Eric Nathan’s diptych Four to One, from 2011. Interestingly, this was the only contemporary work on the bill. It set it the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the evening, notwithstanding the iconic Bartok quartet immediately afterward. Right off the bat, it became a harried, relentless, microtonal rollercoaster ride, the group holding fast to the counterpoint amidst the storm. Violist Stephanie Griffin’s plaintive assertions were particularly striking, as was Gendron’s turn in the rather cruel spotlight over a menacing wash in the second part. Haas’ cello was also stark yet prominent: it’s not hard to see why he’d want to program this. It reminded a lot of Michael Hersch’s recent, troubling microtonal work.

The performance of the Bartok turned out to be one of the very best of many witnessed by this blog or its owner over the past couple of decades. The persistent sense of doom the quartet parsed with razorwire intensity had particular resonance in this post-2016 election era. Menacingly emphatic gestures leapt from the dark interweave of the first movement, danger drawing ever closer. The circle dance in the second was just as macabre, especially with the exchanges of voices between instruments. Haas’ plaintive cavatina, echoed incisively by violinist Alex Shiozaki, brought the longing and if-only atmosphere of the third to a peak: it was impossible not to think of Shostakovich being influenced by this when writing his String Quartet No. 7. Both the savagery and after-the-battle emotional depletion of the final movement were just as indelible a reminder of the perilous consequences of fascism. The more things change…

Augmented by the Argus Quartet – violinists Jason Issokson and Clara Kim, cellist Joann Whang and guest violist Rose Hashimoto – the Momentas wound up the program with a triumphantly anthemic take of Enescu’s Octet for Strings in C Major. The young composer wrote it at nineteen in a rather successful attempt to outdo Mendelssohn at teenage octetry. The main theme has a suspenseful Andalucian feel, which grew to echo the Ravel bolero in places: together, the group reveled in the dramatic foreshadowing, even if it grew facile in places. A more mature composer might have written it half as long, but even so, when the synopsis of the final movement finally circled back, there was no denying how much of a party this merry band had brought.

The Momenta Quartet are currently on tour: their next gig is tomorrow night, Oct 24 at 7:30 PM playing works by Agustin Fernandez, Roberto Sierra, Eric Nathan, and Philip Glass at Santa Teresa Church in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Argus Quartet’s next New York show is on Nov 13 at 7:30 PM at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, playing an excellent, diverse program including Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” along with works by Haydn, Ted Hearne, Juri Seo and Christopher Theofanidis. Cover is $25/$15 stud.

Classical Accordionist Hanzhi Wang Brings Darkly Dynamic New Nordic Compositions to Carnegie Hall

Hanzhi Wang isn’t the first accordionist to specialize in new classical music, but she is the first-ever squeezebox player to earn inclusion on the Young Concert Artists roster. Even though more composers these days are writing for the accordion, that’s still a pretty big deal. Wang has a magically dynamic album of concise new works by Nordic composers, On the Path to H.C. Andersen, streaming at Spotify. She’s making her Carnegie Hall debut on Oct 22 at 8:30 PM in Zankel Hall, where she’ll be joined by the Zorá String Quartet, playing works by Bach, Gubaidulina, Moszkowski, Piazzolla and Martin Lohse. You can get in for as little as $10. Along with this past summer’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival – and maybe Golden Fest, which always has plenty of accordion music – this is THE big accordion event of the year in New York.

The first composition is Lohse‘s Menuetto, a steady, Philip Glass-ine, austerely waltzing theme punctuated by airy, rather still interludes, growing more uneasy as its distantly baroque-tinged, cell-like variations rise and then recede.

Lohse’s triptych Passing begins with a similarly circling if almost marionettishly pulsing allegro section. The steady, moonlit waltz that follows is deliciously ominous; the concluding variation is 180 degrees the opposite until that same resonance is artfully interpolated amidst the starry, flitting optimism. Wang’s precision, all the way through a persistent strobe effect, is striking.

A final Lohse piece, The Little Match Girl begins with sparse, Ligeti-esque syncopation and expands from there: the central theme reminds of the old English folk tune Scarborough Fair. Wang has gone on record as having a close personal connection to its persistent melancholy since it reminds her of her first solitary days and weeks as a Chinese accordion student abroad for the first time in Denmark.

She negotiates the twisted turns and sudden bursts of Jabberwocky, by Jesper Koch with carnivalesque vigor and finesse. The creepiest number here is Tears, by Bent Lorentzen, building to from ethereal suspense to phantasmagorical Flight of the Bumblebee clusters, murky low atmospherics and poltergeist accents bursting in from the shadows.

Wang concludes the album with Svend Aaquist’s practically fifteen-minute Saga Night, which quickly becomes a dissociatively eerie, rhythmically challenging fugue. A heroic theme is alluded to but never hit head-on; then a variation on the opening quasi-fugue makes an enigmatic return. In a way, it’s practically a synopsis of the album as a whole. While some of these pieces could conceivably be played on organ or by a string ensemble, nothing beats the plaintive lusciousness of Wang’s instrument of choice.

For the sake of continuity, let’s count this as this month’s daily Halloween album, shall we? Most of it is on the dark and brooding side, anyway…

Drifting Through Dystopia and the Classics with Max Richter

This past evening at the Town Hall, pianist/composer Max Richter joined forces with a string quintet subset of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble for a night of elegiacally enveloping, meticulously unfolding themes contemplating the apocalypse and the aftershock of a deadly terrorist attack. To careful listeners, the often hypnotically circling performance was also a guided tour of Richter’s big influences.

The paradigm for composing film music these days is akin to a mathematical proof in reverse, to start from simplest terms and build steadily from there toward whatever drama the script calls for. The sighing two-note riff that Angelo Badalamenti employed to open the Twin Peaks title theme is probably the most effective example. Richter is one of the great masters of that craft, a minimalist who can get maximal if the director needs it.

This was a night of generally very dark music, enhanced by the two cellos – ensemble leader Clarice Jensen and Paul Wianco – alongside violinists Laura Lutzke and Yuki Numata Resnick, and violist Caleb Burhans. The program paired a sonata of sorts, Richter’s 2008 work Infra – arguably the least kinetic ballet score ever written – with theme music from the dystopic sci-fi tv series The Leftovers

The former, a dynamic and often very still piece written to commemorate the July 7, 2005 London tube bombings mashed up Philip Glass and Brian Eno (with a few nods to a Schubert piano trio). The Leftovers score reinvented Bach and also referenced night-sky Beethoven – although the most egregiously clever quote was lifted verbatim from Cesar Franck.

Other than a dissociatively hammering, very effective interlude in the early part of Infra, any third-year piano student could have played Richter’s slow, steady, methodical variations on simple major and minor arpeggios. The brilliance was how judiciously he pieced accidentals into the fabric, from ultraviolet gleam to pitchblende finality. He occasionally switched to electric piano in the music’s starriest moments, particularly during the second half when he used a setting very close to the phantasmic tinkle of a toy piano.

The strings wove Richter’s rises and falls through increasingly complex, Renaissance-inflected counterpoint with similar dexterity. The high point of the night may have been in the early part of Infra, distant comet trails of harmonics sparkling from the strings and anchored by Richter’s simple, emphatic accents and block chords. Jensen’s vigorous propulsion beneath Resnick’s keening flickers brought to life similarly tasty contrasts. When the Leftovers score finally decayed from a dirge to defeated, lingering low-register horizontality, the devastation was visceral.

As vivid as the affinity was between the piano and string section, this was an electroacoustic performance. The lighter, glitchier electronic touches were a minor distraction; the louder ones subsumed the band. Obviously, the economics of touring make it impractical for a group that isn’t funded by all kinds of corporate or nonprofit money to bring along a full choir and low brass section. Considering how much reverb the sound engineer had put on the strings during the second half of the show, witnessing this music stripped to just Richter and the quintet would have been a lot more interesting simply because everybody could have been heard. And these are great musicians. Having to dig in and fight with a recording may have robbed them of the opportunity to play with the extraordinary nuance they’re known for. In those moments, it was impossible to tell.

A Shadowy Treat From Stile Antico

Today’s Halloween album was written to be sung by candlelight while each candle is extinguished one by one, until the singers and audience are left in total darkness. Its title make perfect sense: Tenebrae Responsories.

Tenebrae translates literally from the Latin as “shadows.” but commonly means darkness. Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria published this somber choral suite in 1585. It’s a setting of fire-and-brimstone biblical texts about exile, wartime occupation, betrayal, torture, suicide and a few more upbeat things. At the center of the narrative are the Lamentations of Jeremiah, mourning the loss of Jerusalem in a 6th century BC Babylonian invasion. Stile Antico, the world’s most popular Renaissance choir, have released a characteristically insightful, nuanced recording, streaming at Spotify. Divided up into 22 tracks, this new edit of the suite contains the high points of an epic that by any account must have been strenuous (and often utterly redundant) for the singers in mass to perform at the time it was written.

Since taking Europe by storm in the late zeros, Stile Antico have put out a dozen albums, and tour the world constantly. Through it all, their roster has remained pretty stable. They’re singing a different program – English Elizabethan works by Byrd, Tallis, Lassus and innumerable others – tonight, Oct 13 at 8 PM at a familiar and well-suited haunt, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at 145 W 46th St. to open this season’s Miller Theatre early music program. You can get into this reverb-rich space for $30.

As with most of the group’s albums, the Tenebrae Responsories were recorded in similar sonics at All Hallows’ Church in the north London neighborhood of Gospel Oak. The beginning of the suite is very spare and austere, far more northern European sounding than you would necessarily expect from a Spanish composer. The voices of the group’s women quickly take centerstage, more or less, in parts originally written for boys.

Counterpoint rises toward proto-operatic bluster and then subsides. Stately tempos juxtapose with moments of more atmospheric resonance. Sparse, hypnotically monkish plainchant interludes from the men meet with steady, pulsing passages from the whole choir. The harmonies grow more lush and ambered as the suite continues. It never reaches grand guignol heights, but that’s the point: the cyclical harmonies and absence of dramatic key changes make it as serious as life and death in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition.

And it’s another notch on the collective scorebooks of sopranos Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby and Rebecca Hickey; altos Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries and Katie Schofield. tenors Ross Buddie, Andrew Griffiths and Thomas Kelly; and basses Will Dawes, Thomas Flint and Matthew O’Donovan. They’re bolstered here by tenor and former group member Benedict Himas and bass Simon Gallear.

Brilliant Grey-Sky Themes and Savage Irony From Andrew Rosciszewski

Bassist/composer Andrew Rosciszewski’s music vividly evokes his primary influence, Shostakovich, from a persistently grim, grey-sky sensibility to a devious, sometimes cruelly ironic sense of humor. Other obvious touchpoints are the terse minimalism of Gorecki and the phantasmagoria of Stravinsky. Rosciszewski’s richly dynamic new collection of chamber works, Sonic Real Estate, is streaming at Bandcamp. His deft use of false endings is unsurpassed: Beethoven would be jealous.

The album opens with his Piano Trio No. 1. The first movement comes across as a radical deconstruction of the first couple of bars of the famous Mars theme from the Planets, by Gustav Holst, flickers of what was once bellicose drama drifting endlessly through space with a funereal pulse. Cellist Timothy Leonard’s amazingly consistent, loopy phrases contrast with Wen Yi Lo’s stern, fragmentary piano, violinist Izabella Liss Cohen eventually making a similarly somber entrance.

The gleefully creepy Balkan dance of the second movement provides striking contrast. Deep-space belltone gloom introduces a series of hypnotically emphatic, circling phrases straight out of Gorecki’s Third Symphony in the third. The concluding Allegro is a feast of darkly carnivalesque tropes: devilish glissandos, a bit of Bartokian boogie, a Balkan danse macabre with some breathtaking lows from Leonard and a marionetttish strut for a coda.

Leonard and Lo team up for the Pieśń Wdowy for Cello & Piano, a diptych that opens with Rachmaninovian glimmer and angst and swings back into the Balkans – and is that a distortion pedal that Leonard’s playing through?

Music for Three Instruments is a three-part suite, opening with a particularly animated Andante, Tamara Keshecki’s twistedly dancing flute against a backdrop of Joseph d’Auguste’s clarinet and Lucy Corwin’s viola. The sheer desolation of the Russian folk theme afterward and then the animatedly sepulchral conclusion both strongly echo Shostakovich at his darkest and most cynical.

Meg Zervoulis plays the Impromptu for Piano solo, a sly neoromantic parody that drifts off into Philip Glass territory. The title piece is a cinematically suspenseful, occasionally buffoonish, chamber-rock number with the composer on electric bass and Moog pedals alongside percussionist Vincent Livolsi, Leonard, Keshecki and Lo, who switches to synth. In a best-case scenario, this album ought to raise Rosciszewski’s profile beyond cult-favorite status: somebody give this guy a grisly historical epic to score!

Two Michael Hersch Works Top the List of the Most Disturbing Music of 2018

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. That one was inspired by Michael Mazur sketches made inside a Rhode Island mental asylum in the early 1960s. The latest recording of Hersch’s characteristically harrowing work is even more so, evoking the fitful last gasps and lingering pain of the final stages of terminal illness. Hersch’s Violin Concerto, performed by soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with International Contemporary Ensemble is paired with his End Stages suite, played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and streaming at New Focus Recordings.

The twisted march that introduces the concerto – arranged with an emphasis on strings rather than a full orchestra – kicks in with a savage downward slash from Kopatchinskaja. Within the first minute, the message is clear: the horror is going to be relentless. The brooding string quartets of Per Norgard are an antecedent. Kopatchinskaja’s role is less traditional soloist than member of the ensemble who gets the most shivery, terror-stricken lines and cruelly demanding cadenzas.

A sense of desperation pervades this piece, foreshadowing the suite to follow. Evil faces from every corner of the sonic picture peek out and then slash at each other, the horns rising over a cruel, emphatic low note from the piano. Astringent microtones linger side by side, a macabre march anchoring the shrieks overhead – not that anyone would want to be anchored in this skin-peeling acidity.

That’s the first movement. In the second, Similar shrieks burst from accordion-like textures throughout as much welcome calm as there is, the occasional piano accent piercing the veil. The third is a vast, spacious, defeated tableau punctuated by funereal piano, a horrified fragment from the strings eventually leading to a horrified quasi-march with a frantic couple of duels amid the string section, then a series of cruelly sarcastic faux-fanfares. The stillness in the fourth remains constant and sadistically icy: Hersch’s orchestration is every bit as inventive as his music is disturbing.

End Stages, which is also a microtonal work, begins with an austere mist punctuated by a sudden evocation of a scream or a brief moment of neoromantic clarity. The rest of the movements, many of them barely a minute or two long, shift from surreal, cinematic, conversational exchanges, to macabre dirges.

Bells and stark string horror permeate the third movement. There could be a death in a sudden pained cadenza here, and also in the grim codas of the fourth and fifth, puncturing their lingering, ghastly suspense. A sadistic parody of churchbells and grey-sky Shostakovian ambience sit side by side with long shrieking motives and every foreshadowing device ever invented, as these tortured voices stare down the end.  This is the best piece of new orchestral music since Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister album, which was rated the best record of 2011 here. Look for this one on the best albums of 2018 page here at the end of the year.

Missy Mazzoli’s Grim, Grisly Great Plains Gothic Tour de Force

As a sold-out crowd filtered into the Miller Theatre Wednesday night, a strange interweave of short melodic phrases rose from the newly reopened orchestra pit, played more or less in turn by a large subset of International Contemporary Ensemble’s rotating multi-city cast. They weren’t warming up for the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s harrowing opera, Proving Up: the surreal, acidic exchange was foreshadowing in disguise. It only hinted at the ghastly narrative to come.

Royce Vavrek’s libretto, based on a Karen Russell short story, follows the misfortunes of a family of 19th century Nebraska homesteaders. The only possible hardship they don’t have to face is Indian raids: presumably the original occupants of the land to which the Zegner family hopes to claim the deed have already been murdered. A cast of seven, both the living and the dead, carry out a grim narrative, clinging to the illusion of a destiny they can manifest despite all odds against that ever happening. They’re forced to recycle things you never would. Such a sobering wake-up call, from an American dream that has historically eluded most of those who embraced it, could not be more relevant than it is now.

Mazzoli’s score mirrors the Zegners’ determination to prove to a Godot of a government inspector that they’ve fulfilled every surreal requirement to make the land their own. The melodies are elusive, often maddeningly so. Folksy themes gather momentary momentum, only to be twisted into cruel shadows of themselves. Mazzoli’s orchestration is sublimely strange and counterintuitive: a melodica and a big gong figure notably in the score alongside aching strings, spare brass, sepulchrally glittering piano and woodwinds.

The singers take similarly challenging melodies which seldom stayed in any one particular scale or mode and deliver a confidently chilling performance. John Moore gives poignancy to the family’s drunken, abusive yet fiercely populist patriarch. Soprano Talise Trevigne brings an immutably soaring strength to his wife, the family’s truest believer and possibly truest victim. As their son, riding across the lone prairie on a joke of a horse, Michael Slattery witnesses the mark of the beast on midwestern sentimentality  As a very differently imperiled brother, Sam Shapiro has to hold some contorted poses, and his ballet training doesn’t let him down. Bass Andrew Harris plays a grim reaper figure with relish. And Abgail Nims and Cree Carrico, as ghost Greek choir, channel diabolical schadenfraude. Director James Darrah’s decision to stage an exhumation in the midst of all the drama packs grand guignol wallop.

The opera’s totemic central symbol is a glass window, something every verifiable homestead needed to have. A question of provenance arises, with lethal results. As the story plays out, Mazzoli’s sinister, looming ambience is relentless. Her music has no shortage of troubling undercurrents, but this is the darkest and arguably best work she’s ever composed in a career that probably hasn’t even hit its high point yet.

Downward glissandos from both the singers and the orchestra cap off some of the night’s most emphatic crescendos, one crushing defeat after another. Solid grooves are dashed away in an endlessly daunting series of rhythmic shifts: nothing is solidly underfoot here. When the orchestra finally cuts loose with fullscale horror in the final act, the long build up to that point, through vast long-tone desolation, eerily twinkling piano, marionettish rhythmic jerks and sepulchral flickers throughout the ensemble, the takeaway is unmistakeable. We should be able to see the final results of this particular promise a mile away.

There’s one more performance tonight at the Miller, and that’s sold out. Programming here this season is characteristically diverse, from Brazilian rainforest nocturnes on Oct 9 at 6 PM, to one of the theatre’s signature composer portrait performances featuring the work and vocals of Kate Soper on the 27th at 8.