Archive for April 2010

Down for the Count: “Shadowboxer” at the University of Maryland, April 17, 2010

April 20, 2010

Sports parallel the arts in many ways, one being that in both realms you can become famous only if you are really good at what you do. Crucially, “Shadowboxer: An Opera Based on the Life of Joe Louis,” which had its world premiere on Saturday in the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, fails to show, evoke, or even discuss in any detail the reason Louis had such a turbulent life in the first place: He knocked his opponents out, regularly, brutally, thrillingly.

We are initially presented with an old Joe (Jarrod Lee), in the throes of death from a heart attack, thinking he’s stuck in one last bout with his past. This first scene displayed almost all the considerable virtues of this production: It’s well-sung, mostly by students in the Maryland Opera Studio, with an assist from professor/soprano Carmen Balthrop, who is extremely charismatic even in a really ill-fitting wig, as Louis’ mother. Under conductor Timothy Long, the U-Md. Symphony Orchestra and members of the Maryland Jazz Studies Program sounded alert and vigorous in Frank Proto’s score. And director Leon Major presents his visual ideas for realizing the book and the score without impeding either.

Then Joe’s memories start rushing back to him, in convenient chronological order, and the seams in John Chenault’s libretto and Proto’s score start showing. Our first encounter with Young Joe (Duane A. Moody) comes as he is presented to a reluctant trainer (VaShawn Savoy McIlwain). Though McIlwain expresses convincing skepticism, we know that the opera will be very short if he does not take Joe on as a protégé, and thus the scene enters the critic’s logbook as the first of many clichés employed to keep the drama going. Meanwhile, Proto sets dialogue in the following style:

[ominous orchestral shiver ending on a crescendo]
[singing] I am going to declaim SOMETHING
[sustained quiet tones in strings/winds, or another shiver/crescendo]
[singing] There is SOMETHING I am going to deCLAIM

I’m not claiming my memory is perfect, but my recollection is this is how about 80 percent of the opera sounds.

The next thing you know Louis is knocking people out. It’s actually fun to watch Old Joe, in wheelchair, bathrobe and PJs, watching Young Joe, who in turn is watching Boxing Joe, aka Nickolas Vaughn, whose training for the role shows up in his footwork and handskills. Yet despite Vaughn’s balletic efforts, nobody but Joe Louis could really evoke Joe Louis as a fighter. So how do we feel his impact?

Here we could use the chorus to fill us in on what it felt like to watch Louis send people sprawling to the canvas. We could get an aria from a felled foe about what Joe’s right-left combo felt like just before he saw bright lights and faded to black. We could even get inside Joe’s mind as he puts away another palooka — what drew him to this punishing career?  We get none of these. Joe’s dominance — what makes his personal life happen, and what makes it interesting — never gets much of a description, until a eulogic aria closes the show calling Joe the greatest heavyweight champion ever. Well, why?

Instead, epochal events, like Louis making his name by dispatching Max Baer or providing yet more evidence against Hitler’s master-race theories by pounding Max Schmeling irreversibly into the canvas in 124 seconds, pass with rushed fanfare. His courtship of Marva Trotter (Adrienne Webster) happens in the space of an aria, albeit one Webster sang with involving passion. After intermission, Louis joins the Navy, then the taxman comes again, then some more fighting, then Marva leaves him…

So much incident, and we never really get a feel for the reason America lionized this man. And trying to pack in everything in Louis’ life (including the racism against a black man dominating white men in his sport) leaves all the incidents wanting more space to bloom. Chenault’s weakness for verbal clichés doesn’t help, as when life passes “at the speed of light, in the blink of an eye,” in Joe’s late-life ruminations. Somehow, I found myself bored for much of the opera.

Jazz inflections liven up the texture, but Proto mostly features the jazz band in order to conjure a seductive, dangerous lifestyle into which Louis is drawn. Elsewhere, his angular lyricism provides some occasional beauties — both of the arias Marva delivers make for good drama — but mostly meanders from moment to moment. Though it may well be there, I certainly didn’t hear anything structural in the score helping to lead me through the drama, to understand how one part of Louis’ life rhymed with or departed from another. Proto also seems reluctant to set Chenault’s occasional metrical couplets as actual metrical couplets, which makes them sound accidental and thus really stupid. All this makes “Shadowboxer” sound more like a play whose words are set to music than a dramma per musica.

I want to like English-language operas (and I could hear every word, thank you) with jazz inflections that deal with topics not normally considered within opera’s orbit, and “Shadowboxer” is all those things. But squared-circle historian (and Maryland alum) Bert Randolph Sugar‘s note in the program does a better job telling people why we should care about Joe Louis than “Shadowboxer” does, and when you leave your middle that wide open, more often than not you’re going to hit the canvas.


It’s probably a fair criticism of this review that I spent a good deal of the time talking about what I wanted the opera to be rather than what the opera was. The first job of the reviewer is to give an idea of what the music and performance sounded like. But I found the opera so unsatisfying that, after the notes about the admirable performances, a simple catalogue of what happened would have just been me complaining for 800 words. This seemed like a better idea — to investigate why along with how the opera failed.

Also, yes, I’m not a drama critic (although I used to review movies at Maryland). But since the music itself wasn’t creating the drama, you have to look at something.

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey (a more normal review).

Triple Players: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, April 15, 2010

April 16, 2010

Occasionally, I complain that orchestras do not program with a coherent theme in mind for the works they perform in a concert. After having attended the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance under guest conductor Juanjo Mena at the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday night, I realized that the somewhat incoherent-seeming program actually explores the theme of Works With Open, Ambiguous Harmonies Developed and Resolved in Interesting Ways. Advertising such a theme to the public would daunt even the most stalwart public-relations guru, but under Mena’s baton the connecting thread emerged plain as day. And, just as I always hope, hearing these three works together gave a new dimension to the whole concert — especially given the outstanding performances of each of the works themselves.

Ottorino Resphigi’s third suite of transcriptions of Ancient Airs and Dances (or, as he likes to number it in Ye Olde Style, “No. III”) begins with a sweet, gentle string-orchestra rendition of an anonymous 16th-century lute piece — not your normal orchestral showcase, but the BSO strings under Mena played with such effortless delicacy and made such gorgeous shades of tone-color that it sure sounded like one. The viola section had the most arresting moment with its melodic statement at the beginning and end of the second movement, so dark and burnished it seemed to be hiding some secret ardor beneath its own surface. Yet the strings played with bite when called for as well, notably in the broad multiple-stopped chords of the fourth movement Passacaglia.

You may remember Joaquín Rodrigo from the Concierto de Aranjuez, by far his most popular work, and if you like that one, you’ll probably like Concierto de Estió, for violin and orchestra, for which BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney took on soloist duties on Thursday. Like the one straight outta Aranjuez, the one from Estió features light scoring for an orchestra that mostly stays out of the soloist’s way, either playing a main theme underneath virtuoso figurations, accompanying a solo exposition of the main theme, or simply giving the soloist a breather. This last proves especially crucial in the Concierto de Estió, whose solo part in the outer movement demands skein after skein of highly rhythmic, fast notes to be projected over the orchestra; Rodrigo gives just enough breaks to avoid a worker’s comp claim from the violin soloist. All this bustle ultimately left a kinetic impression, rather than a melodic one (there is a reason why Aranjuez is more popular). However, Carney seems to best serve music that requires some swagger, and those movements sure do depend on the soloist’s ability to saw it out with style.

Like Aranjuez, the Concierto de Estió hit its emotional highs in its slow movement, and here Carney wore his heart on his sleeve in deft variations on a dark, graceful Siciliana theme, even as he continued his swaggerific domination of the musical soundscape. Mena admirably managed the accompaniment, gauging it to Carney’s sound and the liveness of the hall, helping create an aching climax before Carney’s big cadenza, in which Rodrigo proves he just can’t resist a pointless idea by forcing together the theme of the first movement and the Siciliana. Still, for all my reservations, I enjoyed making the acquaintance of this concierto, particularly in this performance.

Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable,” followed intermission. (OK, let’s step back: Even without the theme I discovered, doesn’t this sound like a cool program? Three 20th-century works, written by composers whose music was characteristic of their respective national origins? Maybe it’s just me, although the Music Center was surprisingly full on Thursday.) The through-composed work allowed Mena the opportunity to explore a larger landscape full of incident that develops into an abstract plot as the work progresses: the victory of the titularly inextinguishable E major over a murky, dangerous-sounding D minor.

Mena’s reading didn’t emphasize the structure, preferring to vividly characterize each passing moment, a strategy that succeeded thanks to Mena’s previously mentioned ear for color and the fine-grained, sensitive playing the BSO provided under his direction. Occasionally I felt that Mena could have pulled back a little and let the music blossom organically, but no one could complain about the spine-tingling quiet strings that led us from the first movement to the second, or the aggressive twists and turns in the finale, complete with overwhelming power from the Battlin’ Tritone Timpanists that propel this work’s closing moments.

The concert repeats Saturday and Sunday, and it’s worth the trip for anyone with the slightest curiosity about the three underexposed works on this program, ’cause you ain’t gonna hear them played much better than this anywhere.

Other People’s Perspectives: Tim Smith.

Quickie: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, April 15, 2010

April 15, 2010

As always, when repeats of a concert are imminent and bedtime does not allow me to post a full review the same evening, I am providing a foretaste of the review to come for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concert under guest conductor Juanjo Mena on Thursday (i.e., today, as this will be posted). It was great! More specifically, the BSO played extremely well for Mena, whose ear for color and feel for the dramatic aspects of musical structure helped him find common threads in a mixed program of lesser-heard works: Resphigi’s third suite of Ancient Airs and Dances, Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de estiô for violin, and Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony. Throw in the bonus of BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney having a great time playing solo in the  Rodrigo, and you’ve got yourself a concert well worthy of attendance, at the Meyerhoff on Saturday or Sunday.

But you should still come back and read the full review, as it will have witticisms and stuff.

Handel, With Care: The City Choir of Washington, April 11, 2010

April 14, 2010

Robert Shafer, artistic director of the City Choir of Washington, suggested at the group’s Sunday concert in the National Presbyterian Church that their Handel program was part of the “Easter season.” Immediately, the text-sensitive noted that the God featured in the two little-heard choral works the City Choir performed doesn’t seem like the same guy who sacrificed his only-begotten son so that he who believes in Him would have eternal life. The concert’s God was all about making “your enemies your footstool,” as in the Psalm 110 text of “Dixit Dominus,” and letting “the ungodly perish at the presence of God,” in “Let God Arise,” from Psalms 68 and 76.

The sound of the concert never quite matched the aggressiveness in the texts. The concert opened with Georg Friederich’s Organ Concerto in F, Op. 4, No. 5, with William Neil, organist and harpsichordist of the National Symphony, tooting the reeds alongside a pickup orchestra under Shafer’s direction. Rather than a sharp Baroque sound, the Nat Pres organ has the rich sound you normally want to hear in Romantic rep, and the resonant acoustic of the chapel inflated and blurred the string accompaniment, making for much less incisiveness than we have become accustomed to in Baroque performance. The plusher, less distinct sound had its own wallowing appeal; the performance itself would have had more appeal were it not for some second-movement slips in coordination between Neil and Shafer.

Neil stayed at the keyboard for “Let God Arise,” the last of the Chandos Anthems, in which the headliners took over. Shafer sure does know how to prepare a chorus, and he had the City Choir singing all the words clearly (I know I tend to go on about this) and with great gusto. The homophony of “Praised be the Lord” felt deep and wide enough to wallow in, while the two closing choruses of exaltation lifted to the roof of the church. (While Nat Pres is not a great venue for instrumental music, it has flattered every chorus I have heard perform in it.)

Yet the whole thing felt like an appetizer when the CCers presented the main course that was “Dixit Dominus.” In his remarks, Shafer expressed a special fondness for this score, written by the ambitious teenage Handel and subsequently deemed unperformable. (Shafer, equally ambitious in his realm, first essayed it with a high-school chorus.) The difficulty derives from sudden meter changes, splits of the choral forces into opposing groups, and perhaps the free ‘n’ easy mixture of styles that helps make the work pretty much a nonstop cavalcade of interesting music. The City Choir’s performance occasionally reminded one how the work got its rep, with clots of sound and messy transitions. More often, though, they showed why folks should have been trying to perform it anyway, with a fearsome remonstration to open “Juravit Dominus” (“The Lord has sworn”), some nimble, hushed polyphony in “Judicabit in nationibus,” and a Doxology massive and forceful, like an icon carved of stone, to close it out.

Shafer described the solo vocalists as young artists transitioning between school and a professional career, and each made pretty noises but has some crucial stuff to work on. Mezzo Kelly Tice let the ends of many phrases languish and sang into her scorebook occasionally. Sopranos Robin Smith and Sarah Shafer conveyed to my seat no consonants at all in their “Dixit” duo. Tenor David Merrill and bass Drew Colby both had trouble projecting above the massed forces and, when they could be heard, sounded as anonymous as mayo on white.

After the final “Amen” in “Dixit Dominus,” Shafer left the stage and had to be reminded to come back for the promised “Hallelujah” Chorus. It would have been something of an anticlimax except that here the audience got to participate. Finally, a good reason to stand, because the fact that some English king did it 300 years ago does not count as a good reason. In America, of all places, we shouldn’t be kowtowing to Brit royalty. (As a bonus, the performance served as a welcome reminder that we all should be hearing the “Hallelujah” Chorus in spring, not winter, since “Messiah” is really an Easter work.) I pretty much sang whatever part felt most interesting at any given moment and had a grand old time, though I can’t promise that my seat-neighbors felt the same way.

Why Don’t I Like Opera? Random Thoughts on the Washington National Opera’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Kennedy Center, April 1, 2010

April 5, 2010

In case you are wondering, I had a good marathon. I am now recovered, and regular updates will resume here.

I’m not into opera, despite the self-evident accumulation of great music in that genre. My latest theory regarding why not: Opera has too many conventions to which I’m not accustomed, not having grown up an operagoer. Nevertheless, I went to the Washington National Opera’s “Porgy and Bess” last Thursday, eager to see this American masterwork in full stage bloom and reacquaint myself with tunes I hear most often when Miles Davis’ Porgy suite is in my CD player. I found the following impediments to my full enjoyment:

An opera in English should not require surtitles. From Alyson Cambridge’s opening “Summertime” lullaby, in which expansive vowels drowned all consonants in their wake, I spent most of the opera looking up at the words over the stage simply to hear what people were singing,.  For a dramatic art, it would seem to be imperative to enunciate the sung words so they can be heard by the audience, thus communicating what’s going on in the plot by.

Actually, I don’t understand why original English-language opera is not performed more in the United States.  It seems to me that, by removing a hurdle the audience must surmount to enter into the narrative, performing in the native tongue of the audience would make the resulting dramatic experience more immediate.  Translation of the best-loved classix would be tougher, since so much of drama is wrapped up in the sound of the words, but it would also seem to be worth a shot given the huge gains to be reaped. (And yes, I do prefer my foreign-language movies subtitled rather than dubbed, but opera is a re-creative art, not a duplicative art. I would argue that all these modernist productions I read about on Anne’s blog do more violence to the original intention of a composer than presenting the libretto in the local tongue.)

I like the original intermission break better. The synopsis indicates an intermission after everyone leaves for Kittiwah Island for their awesome Bible picnic/party and Porgy reprises “I Got Plenty O’ Nuthin’.” Cheery! In this production, intermission came after Crown has beaten up Bess and prevented her from getting on the boat off the island. Right before the curtain comes down, Crown has Bess slung over his shoulder, doubtless ready to rape her. Then we go into the lobby and hang out for 25 minutes. (Want some Junior Mints?) The reason for the change was not self-evident in the performance. And speaking of incongruities…

Weird socioeconomic things occur at a performance of an opera about poor people. Tix for this performance were advertised at $60 to $300; discounts were available, but let’s estimate that folks paid an average somewhere in that range to hear Eric Owens’ Porgy sing “I Got Plenty O’ Nuthin’.” So the best song in the opera (and Owens sung it well) was a nostalgia trip at the very best for the audience, certainly unlikely to reflect its current situation.

Also, in the program notes, it was noted that the original producers of “Porgy and Bess” experienced “some difficulty…in finding enough skilled African-American actors for the play’s large cast.”  The notes did not go on to explain, “This is because white people systematically oppressed African-Americans from slave times up to (and past) the date of the premiere; the resulting material and social deprivation limited African-American outlets for creative expression in the wider cultural realm.” It might have been useful to note that. (Wikipedia handles the discussion of the stereotypes that populate the opera better than I could, but such thoughts were going through my mind too.)

Inappropriate clapping. So near the end of the opera, the drug dealer Sportin’ Life gets Bess back on his “happy dust” and induces her to abandon the only man who’s ever been good to her (i.e., Porgy), instead heading with Sportin’ Life to New York City. This transpires in the aria “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon,” the rousing tune of which only makes what’s happening more horrifying — Bess is losing herself, literally, to the promise of glitz so well embodied in the song. At the end of the song, a bunch of people clapped. Both Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life and Morenike Fadayomi as Bess performed admirably, but I sure didn’t feel like clapping, horrified as I was at what had just happened. Why did people clap? Is that just what you do after a well-performed, rousing aria, no matter how what’s going on dramatically?

The hardest-working man onstage. Smith’s Sportin’ Life had some amazing dance moves, including pelvic thrusts of vigor and depth that I’m pretty sure would have sent 1930s audiences and townsfolk into unassuageable fits of offendedness. Though I appreciated the showmanship, the other aspects of the production seemed to be stuck in the 1920s, making me wonder where Smith had gotten the idea to swing it like James Brown. Another incongruity, tearing at the dramatic fabric. (At one point, Sportin’ Life also appeared to be makin’ it rain.)

And yet, that said, I enjoyed a whole lot about it. Owens sang tremendously well, giving Porgy the gravitas he deserves and making an effective mockery object for his foes Crown (Terry Cook) and Sportin’ Life. Serena’s lament for her dead husband Robbins, from the pipes of Lisa Daltirus, broke through the wall of convention and artifice and tapped into genuine emotion, as did the title duo’s “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Most of the comic numbers were actually funny, particularly Smith’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” And the tunes remained in my head for the entire time I was awake after seeing the show, and said tunes were still rattling around between my eardrums as I showered and brushed my teeth the next morning.

It didn’t compare to my affection for my all-time favorite operatic perfomance I’ve attended — WNO’s Peter Grimes, baby! — but there’s at least a hint that I might one day acclimate to the conventions (and the vagaries of productions and performance) and enjoy a wider selection of operas. A hint that I might.

Real reviews: Anne Midgette, Sophia Vastek.