New York Music Daily

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Category: theatre

Transcendence and Inner Torment in Lesley Karsten’s Astor Piazzolla Biodrama That’s Not Tango

Over the past couple of years, Lesley Karsten has staged her mesmerizing Astor Piazzolla biodrama That’s Not Tango in larger and larger halls around New York. The project’s sold-out Jazz at Lincoln Center debut Tuesday night came across as a big victory, no matter how turbulently or quixotically she portrayed the life of the godfather of nuevo tango.

Early on we learn how his manager felt about him: “Onstage, he was a god. Offstage, he was a sonofabitch.” That quote is emblematic. Karsten sees the iconic composer and bandoneonist as a guy with a chip on his shoulder that he can’t – or won’t – get rid of, a defiant paradigm-shifter utterly consumed by dedication to his art at the expense of pretty much everything else.

She’s gone on record as surmising that he would have appproved of his role being played by a woman, and while we’ll never know the answer, it’s plausible, especially considering the quality of the musicianship behind her.

Karsten introduces him speaking posthumously – and in what could be a considerable stroke of irony, rather reflectively – from some sort of limbo. What’s he doing there? Setting the record straight, he wants us to know. The extraordinary group Karsten has assembled for this project – Brandt Fredriksen on piano, Nick Danielson on violin, Pablo Aslan on bass and the guy who may be this era’s greatest bandoneon player, JP Jofre – leap and swing and bluster through a mix of Piazzolla hits and a handful of more obscure numbers in between Karsten’s narration.

What might be most impressive about Karsten’s depiction of Piazzolla is how closely she focuses on the music. Piazzolla the character offers no shortage of drama as he rises from crippled toddler to smalltime thug, reluctantly taking up the bandoneon just to please his dad, then having a eureka moment when he hears his Hungarian neighbor playing Bach on the piano. The young Piazzolla’s dad – a hard man, and apparently a harder man to please – nonetheless was quick to act on his son’s passion. Karsten – whose background is documentary filmmaking – does not affect an accent, or a man’s voice. This tough-talking, foul-mouthed, often caustically cynical protagonist comes across as plenty macho regardless.

The band burn through the music with reckless abandon matched by expertise, no doubt due to the fact that both Jofre and Aslan are first-rate nuevo tango composers themselves. Fredriksen’s dynamism, from muted snippets of Bach, to an absolutely chilling, emotionally depleted, mostly-solo take of Soledad, to the leaps and bounds of Michaelangelo 70, ranges from flash to poignancy. Danielson, whose spare, suspenseful solo kicks off the night’s opening number, Lo Que Vendra, also gets plenty of time in the spotlight. At the end of the show, Karsten introduced Jofre as “Astor Piazzolla,” his whirlwind cadenzas and rich color palette giving voice to every shade the little bandoneon can conjure.

The noirish pulse and chromatics Piazzolla loved so much underscore just how deeply the klezmer music he heard as a kid, growing up next to a synagogue on the Lower East Side, affected him. Karsten also takes care to quote him on Bach, Cab Calloway, Ellington and especially Bartok. At the other end of the telescope, he’s even more quotable when it comes to much of tango – including a cruelly spot-on account of the kind of dancers who can be found at a milonga. There are also personal vignettes, ranging from Piazzolla’s estrangement from his children to his regrettable if tense relationship with the Videla dictatorship during the Dirty War of the 1970s.

One of the most telling moments in the show is an absolutely heartwrenching, revelatory tour through the backstory of Adios Nonino, Piazzolla’s requiem for his father and ironically one of the most traditional pieces in the Piazzolla repertoire. He’d been between sets at a gig in the Caribbean when he got the news; afterward, he went back on and played the second show of the night. Unable to communicate his grief with his family, he locked himself in his room with his bandoneon and wrote what he considered to be his greatest piece. The rest of the material on the bill focuses on Piazzolla’s most lavish ambitions, from the coy baroque allusions of Fuga y Misterio to the gritty intricacies of Tres Minutos Con la Realidad. What Ellington did with the blues, Piazzolla did with tango: this show will inspire anyone who loves his music as well as the many, many influences that went into it.

The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof: More Relevant Than Ever

Believe everything you’ve heard about the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene‘s production is fresh, the acting and singing are strong, the casting is smart and the music is both extremely dynamic and classy. Potentially vaudevillian moments are muted in favor of a gravitas that’s sometimes lush and sweeping, at other times austere and plaintive. At a time when people from Syria to Colombia are being forced from their homes to seek refuge thousands of miles asway, and when Jews from Pittsburgh to Poway, California are being murdered, this familiar old story has never been more relevant. And the fact that the narrative concerns daughters breaking free from patriarchal domination shouldn’t be overlooked either.

While the ongoing Manhattan run at Stage 42 marks the Yiddish version’s first American series of performances, Shraga Friedman’s Yiddish translation from the original English is not new: the Polish-Israeli actor and director debuted it in Israel in 1966. However, it is probably safe to say that despite the huge revival of Yiddish as a spoken language, the vernacular probably hasn’t changed much since then.

This is a long production, over three hours including a brief intermission, but it flies by. For non-Yiddish speakers (or those of us who only know terms of endearment and curse words), there are English and Russian supertitles – and some actual Russian sprinkled into the dialogue when the cossacks enter to stir up trouble. The entire cast seem at ease with the language throughout both the narrative and the musical numbers. Friedman’s translation not only rhymes but also pretty much matches the meter of the original songs, although a close listen reveals many instances where both the Yiddish and Russian take some clever poetic license.

As Cencral patriarch Tevye, Steven Skybell brings a curmudgeonly charisma but also an unselfconscious vulnerability to a role that in other productions all too frequently is done completely over the top. As his long-suffering wife Golde, Jennifer Babiak plays her cynicism as survival skill – and also gets to thrill the crowd with her vast, minutely nuanced, operatic vocal range. In a neat bit of casting, Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) towers over her shy, nebbishy would-be fiance Motl (Ben Liebert). The rest of the cast – notably Jackie Hoffman, as barely tolerated busybody matchmaker Yente, and Joanne Borts, as Tsayt’s namesake ghost of a grandmother – bring as much resonance as sardonic humor to what are in many cases multiple roles.

The music is rich and often symphonic in scope. Andrew Wheeler conducted the orchestra with remarkable restraint and attention to detail. The group only cut completely loose in the klezmer dance numbers, which were as boisterously chaotic as anyone would want. Clarinet wizard D. Zisl Slepovitch snuck from behind the curtain to the corner of the stage where he bopped and fired off an all-too-brief series of biting chromatic riffs. As the eponymous Fiddler, Lauren Jeanne Thomas sometimes mimes and sometimes plays, but either way her timing and dynamics are perfectly precise.

At last night’s performance, the two best numbers were the tantalizingly brief, rustically ambered Sabbath Prayer – a momentary showstopper for Bobiak – and a sweeping, lingering version of the bittersweet, saturnine ballad Sunrise, Sunset. If I Were a Rich Man gets translated as Ven ikh bin a Rotschild, along with some sly wordplay that’s not in the original. Hannah Temple’s accordion along with the trumpets of Clyde Daley and Jordan Hirsch, and Daniel Linden’s trombone, brought equal parts fire and poignancy to the traditional tunes, especially at the end.

Beowulf Borritt’s stark, minimalist set design creates a striking milieu for the people of Anatevka and the never-ending succession of trouble they have to face. In one of many subtle strokes of staging, a fabric backdrop seems to be repaired, between acts, in a way that would befit one of the central characters. And the simple change of language helps immeasurably in creating a defamiliarizing effect. So you think you’ve seen Fiddler? You should see this one. Shows are Tues-Sun, generally at 8 PM with matinees as well. While the performances have been selling out for months, discount rush tickets are sometimes available.

A Radical, Relevant Revival of a Witheringly Insightful, Hilarious Broadway Artifact from the 1930s

If you think a Broadway musical from 1937 couldn’t possibly have much relevance to this century, you haven’t seen Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. In this era, most people haven’t. Created under the New Deal auspices of the Federal Theater Project, the Feds notoriously closed it down on the eve of its initial Broadway premiere for being too radical. One can only imagine what the Trumpies would make of something that FDR’s people found too subversive.

The Classic Stage Company‘s current revival – continuing through May 18 – couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Beyond John Doyle’s masterfully smart direction, getting the absolute max out of a minimalist set and a multi-talented cast, what’s most stunning is how well Blitzstein’s uproariously spot-on piece of agitprop has aged. Quaintness only arises in its many historical ironies – like the once-ubiquitous reality of steel made by American union labor, rather than by Chinese slaves.

This show is all about co-optation, and duplicity, Without spoiling the plot (for those who missed the 1999 Tim Robbins film of the same title), be aware that there’s considerable irony in the costumes. Blitzstein’s relentless satire spares no one, other than protagonist and union organizer Larry Foreman, played by a tireless, ebullient Tony Yazbeck, who, interestingly, appears in only about ten percent of the dialogue. He’s looking forward to what appears to be an across-the-board victory for the workers of Steeltown, USA. Only local steel magnate Mr. Mister (David Garrison, who gives him a glowering Lionel Barrymore menace), stands in the way. But he’s making it really hard for everybody. Before the curtain falls, there will be more than one shooting; at least one hapless employee gets caught in the machinery.

Most of the action takes place in song. That those numbers have held up so well over the years testifies to Blitzstein’s reliance on Kurt Weill-style noir, Cole Porter cleverness,, and tinges of gospel and klezmer rather than Depresssion-era vaudeville schlock. Period references abound: lockouts, sitdown strikes, strikebreaking violence. It’s no wonder the censors were so frightened. Everybody sings and plays multiple roles, including three of the cast showing off better-than-average chops at the piano. Rema Webb gets the big arioso vocal moment and hits it out of the park. Kara Mikula distinguishes herself with her voice, on the keys, and also in a fleeting, completely unexpected acrobatic bit. Lara Pulver has brassy poignancy as a hooker in jail, as well as a completely contrasting, savagely ironic alter ego of sorts.

Sally Ann Triplett plays Mrs. Mister with a hilariously relsolute, clueless determination. As her ditzy, heavy-lidded slacker kid, Larry Cooper is even funnier: fauxhemianism goes back a lot further than Bushwick. Benjamin Eakeley is priceless as a mercenary violin virtuoso who gladly lets Mr. Mister buy him off, as pretty much everybody else who might be instrumental in keeping the unions of his mill does. Some have qualms – a doctor, a professor, the publisher of the local newspaper – but eventually pretty much everybody falls in line. Ken Barnett and Ian Lowe impressively negotiate roles on both sides of the divide.

Yet as corrosively cynical as this show is, it’s also a feel-good story. As the protagonist explains, sure, he gets thrown in jail for passing out leaflets – “inciting a riot” was the 1930s equivalent of “terrorism” – but he’s perfectly content to be one of many, standing on the shoulders of giants. Victory really seems inevitable – and in an era that would create union representation for almost thirty percent of American workers, it’s easy to see how contagious that optimism would be. In the meantime, let’s wish the best to the Mexican maquiladora workers in their struggle for something approaching a living wage.

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

A Potentially Paradigm-Shifting Series of Women Performers at the New School

In conversation with the audience and performers at her potentially paradigm-shifting new series Women Between Arts at the New School yesterday, singer/actress/impresario Luisa Muhr contemplated the complexities of branding interdisciplinary works. How do you market something that resists easy categorization? Maybe by calling it what it is: outside the box. Considering the turnout, there definitely is an audience for what might be the only interdisciplinary series focusing on women performers whose work encompasses so many different idioms in New York right now.

When Muhr springboarded the project, she’d assumed that Women Between Arts would be one of at least five or six ongoing programs here. But this seems to be the only one at the moment – If there’s another, would they please identify themselves, because they could be doing very important work!

Dance on the same program as storytelling? Sure! Writer/choreographer Allison Easter wryly remarked that audiences at dance performances don’t mind being talked to. Her piece on the bill featured dancers Tiffany Ogburn and Paul Morland subtly and then explosively tracing Easter’s spoken-word narrative about a couple of American college girls intent on thwarting a would-be rapist on a train winding its way through the Alps.

Klezmatics violinist Lisa Gutkin proved to be the ideal headliner for a bill like this. Born and raised in a secular Jewish family in Sheepshead Bay, the songwriter/actress revealed an insatiably curious worldview that mirrored her sizzling musical chops, via excerpts from her one-woman show. Likewise, part of her eclectic background stems from the demands of being a highly sought-after sidewoman. Irish reels? OK. Tango? Si! Klezmer? No problem! She grew up with that culture, inspired by her immigrant grandmother, who would hitchhike upstate to her bungalow where she’d book artists like Pete Seeger to entertain her garment worker friends.

And Muhr illustrated her own, similarly eclectic background with wistful projections, a subtly humorous dance piece and poetry, following her own Greek immigrant great-grandmother’s journey as a refugee from Istanbul to Vienna. In pushing the boundaries of diverse idioms, a program like Muhr’s has the potential to spur the growth of new synapses for both audiences and performers.

The next Women Between Arts performance features songwriter Jean Rohe, choreographer Sasha Kleinplatz, brilliant carnatic violinist Trina Basu, singer/actress Priya Darshini and Brooklyn Raga Massive tabla player Roshni Samlal on January 7 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St.

A Harrowing, Ferociously Relevant Mother-Daughter Conflict at the French Institute

While there’s nonstop drama and some actual physical violence in Nazmiye and Havva Oral’s No Longer Without You, a searing mother-daughter conflict currently in its US debut run at the French Institute/Alliance Française, its most serious fireworks are only alluded to. We don’t get more than a mention of the abortion, or passing references to the screaming matches and literal tug-of-war between religious Muslim mother and her willful daughter determined to escape the confines of what she feels is an antedeluvian, misogynist environment.

On a surface level, this is a feel-good story of female empowerment and triumph over adversity. A Turkish immigrant in Holland, Havva raises her Nazmiye with an iron fist in a strict religious household. Nazmiye’s father dies young and doesn’t figure much in this story: it’s clear who runs the show in this family. But Nazmiye doesn’t want an arranged marriage at age eighteen and a life of domesticity like her mom. So she leaves home, marries a foreigner, has a couple of daughters of her own, divorces and becomes a world-famous journalist and performer along the way. What’s not to be proud of?

Havva doesn’t exactly see it that way. In this performance piece, she’s less volubly critical than Nazmiye recalls, dredging up one childhood battle after another. And she’s withholding. What Nazmiye wants most is her mother’s love. In the piece’s most touching scene, Nazmiye recalls that despite the disputes and the terror of being dragged off by a teenage husband-to-be whom she doesn’t even like, the one place she feels secure is in her mother’s arms. And time after time, Havva keeps her at arms length.

Yet Havva is also anything but an ogre. Her traditional garb makes a stark contrast with her daughter’s scarlet dress. She’s calm, stolid, unassailably confident and someone who says a lot in a few aphoristic words. And she’s funny! As the piece progresses, it’s clear that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, two indomitable women, each with big dreams. Daughter speaks in English, mother answers in Turkish, usually translated by Seval Okyay, who also provides gorgeous, haunting musical interludes with electric saz lute and a soulful, often plaintive voice. If there’s anything this performance could use more of, it’s Okyay.

While the cultural idiom here is specifically Muslim, the story is an all-too-familiar one: escapees from militant Christian and Orthodox Jewish environments tell the same tale. Beyond the breaking of one taboo after another – where Havva seems genuinely worried for her daughter’s soul, not to mention her own – the most shocking moment of all might be where Nazmiye asks what right a mother has to live vicariously through her daughter. Havva asserts that it’s perfectly kosher for a child to be the vehicle for a parent’s aspirations – or dashed hopes, perhaps. It’s another familiar dynamic. Obsessive Colorado pageant moms, psycho Texas football dads and harried Park Slope helicopter parents would find themselves more at home in Nazmiye’s childhood environment than they might think.

More poignantly, there are several “do you love me” moments: the answer may surprise you, like the ending, which is anything other than pat. But the one question that Nazmiye never asks, after all she’s accomplished, is “Are you proud of me?” One suspects the response would be more predictable.

Adelheid Roosen’s direction is everything the relationship isn’t: comfortable and familial, the audience seated on comfy cushions around the floor, living room style. There is also a little interaction with the audience, which is similarly welcoming and comforting and a serendipitous respite from the intensity of the performance. The final show today is sold out, but the Institute’s long-running events and concert schedule, including their legendary film series continues through the fall. 

Celebrating Resistance and Triumph Over Tyranny at Lincoln Center

For three years now, Lincoln Center has been partnering with Manhattan’s  Maxine Greene High School for Imaginative Inquiry in an annual celebration of freedom fighters from across the decades. Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Thursday night’s annual performance featured “a stellar cast,” as Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez put it, playing some powerfully relevant music and reading insightful, inspiring, sometimes incendiary works by activists and authors from the sixteenth century to the present day.

Brianna Thomas raised the bar dauntingly high with the Civil Rights-era Sam Cooke hit A Change Is Gonna Come, guitarist Marvin Sewell playing bottleneck style on the intro for a ringing, rustic, deep blues feel. “I go downtown, and somebody’s always telling me, don’t hang around,” Thomas intoned somberly over Sewell’s terse icepick soul chords. In an era when Eric Garner was murdered because he got too close to a new luxury condo building, that resounded just as mightily as it did in Birmingham in 1964. She picked it up again with a ferociously gritty insistence, the audience adding a final, spontaneous “Yeah!” at the very end.

Later in the performance the duo played a hauntingly hazy, utterly Lynchian take of Strange Fruit. Thomas’ slow, surreal swoops and dives raised the macabre factor through the roof: If there’s any one song for Halloween month, 2017, this was it.

In between, a parade of speakers brought to life a series of fiery condemnations of tyrants and oppression, and widely diverse opinions on how to get rid of them. Staceyann Chin bookended all this with an understatedly sardonic excerpt from Bartolome de las Casas’ grisly account of early conquistadorial genocide, closing with a rousing Marge Piercy piece on how to build a grassroots movement.

Shantel French matter-of-factly voiced Henry George’s insight into how poverty is criminalized, but is actually a form of discrimination. Michael Ealy’s most memorable moment onstage was his emphatic delivery of the irony and ironclad logic in Jermain Wesley Loguen’s famous letter to the slaveowner he escaped during the Civil War: ‘You say you raised me as you raised your own children…did you raise them for the whipping post?”

Geoffrey Arend read Eugene Debs’ address for his 1918 sedition sentencing, optimism in the face of a prison sentence and a corrupt system doomed to collapse  Laura Gomez voiced the anguish and indignity of a longtime resident of Vieques, Puerto Rico who’d seen his neighbors harassed and killed by drunken marines and errant bombs dropped in practice runs (this was in 1979, before the island was rendered uninhabitable by the same depleted uranium dropped on Afghanistan and Iraq). Considering that the President of the United States has castigated the people of this disaster-stricken part of the world for being a drain on the Federal budget, this packed a real wallop. We can only hope this latest incident helps the wheels of impeachment move a little faster.

Brian Jones read from a witheringly cynical pre-Emancipation Frederick Douglass speech on what the Fourth of July means to a slave, and also Martin Luther King’s emphatically commonsensical analysis of the racism and injustice inherent in the Vietnam War draft. Aasif Mandvi brought out all the black humor in Brooklyn College professor Moustafa Bayoumi’s account of being besieged by off-campus rightwing nutjobs. And joined by incisive, puristically bluesy guitarist Giancarlo Castillo, songwriter Ani Cordero sang a venomous take of Dylan’s Masters of War and an understatedly passionate, articulate version of Lydia Mendoza’s 1934 border ballad Mal Hombre, sad testimony to the fact that Mexican immigrants have been demonized long before Trump.

The next free performance at Lincoln Center’s Broadway atrium space just north of 62nd St. is on Oct 19 at 7:30 PM featuring artsy Mexican trip-hop band Ampsersan. Getting to the space a little early is a good way to make sure you get a seat, since these events tend to sell out.

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

Sylvia Milo’s Powerful Biodrama The Other Mozart Goes Global

“They didn’t save my letters,” Sylvia Milo’s Nannerl Mozart muses early on in The Other Mozart, Milo’s witheringly relevant one-woman show now on world tour after a wildly successful  three-year New York theatrical run. If you find the glass ceiling in music troubling, consider that it wasn’t until the Reagan era – irony of ironies – that an all-female rock band, the Go-Gos, achieved national prominence. For a woman instrumentalist in jazz, the challenges continue to be daunting. And you can still count the internationally known women orchestral conductors on the fingers of one hand. In that context, is it any wonder that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his dad tossed aside Nannerl’s responses to their breathless chronicle of touring their era’s great European concert halls?

Milo’s tragicomic biodrama about “Wolfie” Mozart’s lesser-known but reputedly just as talented older sister has already been performed in the Mozart family apartment in Salzburg; the Mostly Mozart Festival here in New York would be the logical venue for a triumphant homecoming. With a lithely luminous, charismatic presence and a balletesque grace in a physically taxing role, Milo transports the audience into a world of 18th century high society drama and intrigue that puts this era’s celebrity Twitter feeds to shame. The action is nonstop, so much that in the early going, her whirlwind delivery demands especially close attention. The dialogue, most of it drawn verbatim from the Mozart family’s archival correspondence, reveals that Amadeus was hardly the only drama queen in this story. That’s a family trait, and Milo dives into that for maximum entertainment value, juicy gossip and all, although it eventually takes its toll on pretty much everyone concerned.

The great tragedy is that Nannerl’s kid brother at least got the chance to pursue his art fulltime. Her mom – who, predictably, has been lost to history to an even greater extent – couldn’t wait to put Nannerl’s childhood dreams of stardom to rest and marry her off to some bigwig. Complicating those efforts is the Mozart siblings’ past as child stars. Clearly, Nannerl dreads the thought of having peaked at a young age after having been feted as a child prodigy alongside her brother while Father Mozart, desperate to escape his dreary dayjob, pulled out all the stops in trying to ride his kids’ talent all the way across the continent, and, ultimately, out of town.

Jealousy simmers while Nannerl busies herself with smalltown drudgery, cast aside by her father and brother in their headlong dash for fame, fortune and an increasingly elusive rich patron to facilitate all of that. Milo puts all of this in context, resulting in many of the performance’s most cruelly amusing moments. After all, in Enlightenment-era Europe, everyone knew that women’s fragile constitutions and similarly weak minds put all sorts of all-male activities, the concert tour among them, permanently off limits. Milo dredges up a couple of particularly ugly, piggish quotes from none other than Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to drive that home: compared to those two, Donald Trump may not be Simone de Beauvoir, but he’s definitely a cut above when it comes to misogynist prejudice.

Although Milo saves a particularly ironic twist for the very end, the conclusion of this tale isn’t as tragic as it could have been. History tells us that Nannerl Mozart was able to find some late-career redemption, such as that could have existed for her then. Widowed and supported by an inheritance, she earned respect as a teacher, salon operator and champion of her late brother’s works. Milo doesn’t address this, but one can only wonder if Nannerl could have achieved as much without living in her brother’s shadow.

The musical score, with spot-on musical direction by Nathan Davis deserves its own stand-alone release: it’s that good. Rippling, uneasily and vividly atmospheric original compositions for toy piano and music box by Phyllis Chen are juxtaposed with well-chosen, familiar excerpts from works by Mozart and also from Marianne Martines, a popular salonniere and composer in mid-1700s Vienna. What we don’t get is Nannerl Mozart’s own work: only a fragment of one of her compositions survives.

 

Object Collection Stages a Deliciously Noisy, Messy. Provocative Piece at LaMaMa

Longtime LaMaMa impresario Nicky Paraiso reminded last night’s sold-out crowd at Object Collection’s latest experimental opera, Cheap & Easy October, that the experience would be what used to be called “total theatre” back in the 80s – a description that really nailed it. With a tight, often scorchingly intense four-piece band playing behind a ratty knitted curtain of sorts and cast members scampering, leaping and chasing each other around the stage, it’s more of a concert with a cast acting out a dadaesque video of sorts than it is anything else. And what a show it is. As immersive and pummeling as composer Travis Just’s score is, it’s far less abrasive than it is enveloping: you are drawn into the heart of the cyclotron, violently thrust out or, surprisingly, cast gently into a starlit reverie. Earplugs will be handed out, hut you don’t really need them. The run at LaMaMa is coming to a close, with final performances tonight, October 17 and then tomorrow at 10 PM; tix are $18/$13 stud/srs.

The band shifts abruptly but strangely elegantly through dreampop, post-hardcore and Mogwai-esque nightmarescapes, with acidic mid-80s Sonic Youth close harmonies, furious percussive interludes that recall taiko drumming, moments of what seem to be free improvisation, and echoes of the cumulo-nimbus swirl of guitarist Taylor Levine’s quartet Dither. Violinist Andie Springer uses a lot of extended technique and nails-down-the-blackboard harmonics; she also plays bass. Explosive drummer Owen Weaver doubles on Telecaster, while keyboardist Aaron Meicht also adds the occasional trumpet flourish or joins the stomp on a couple of floor toms.

The text – drawn from Soviet revolutionary histories by Leon Trotsky and John Reed as well as conversations between writer/director Kara Feely and cast member Fulya Peker (whose butoh background informs the simmering menace she channels throughout the show) veers from lickety-split spoken word to a bizarre, falsettoey singsong. Sardonic symbolism is everywhere: there’s a zombie apocalypse subplot, a telephone gets abused, and swordplay abounds. The rest of the cast – Deborah Wallace, Daniel Allen Nelson, Tavish Miller and Avi Glickstein – take on multiple roles, some of them living, some of them presumably dead.

There’s some toying with poststructuralist japes, springboarding off the premise that if you control the conversation, you control the situation. “Do you think a revolution of words can be as profound as an actual revolution?” one of the cast poses in one of the performance’s less chaotic moments. Much of the iconography in the set is sarcastic and ultimately portends a lot of very gloomy endings: as Feely and Just see it, revolutions tend to disappoint.

No less august a personality than Robert Ashley gave this group’s work the thumbs-up. For those who need their ideas packaged neatly and cohesively, this isn’t going to work. And it raises fewer questions than it intimates – which by itself is reason to see this provocative piece, one more nuanced than its sonic cauldron might initially suggest.