March 1, 2016
On Sunday our dear friend, tenor Jonathan Blalock was in town as a soloist with the Washington Chorus at the National Presbyterian Church just up the street from our home, and we had to attend. The fact that the program was dedicated to new music and specifically the works of composer, Luna Pearl Woolf, who just had such a huge success with her world premiere of BETTER GODS at Wash Natl Opera made it even more of a treat.
On arrival, we also discovered that some other friends and acquaintances were in the program: baritone Jim Shaffran, tenor Peter Tantsits, pianist Joel Ayau and not the least, soprano Marnie Breckenridge. They were all under the baron of Julian Wachner and joined by Ms. Woolf’s husband, the esteemed cellist Matt Haimovitz.
The program began with Odas de Todo el Mundo, based on the ode by Pablo Neruda and scored like a concerto for piano, cello and soprano.
Of all the works, this was indeed textually the most fun, but musically the hardest for me to get my ears around (if that makes sense). I don’t ever pretend to be an educated musician, indeed, I am very limited in my knowledge, but sometimes I have a lot of difficulty trying to explain how this music really sounds in words. Sorry.
“Apres Moi, le Deluge” with text by Eleanor Wilner, was the second piece for chorus, cello and soprano and truly gave the two soloists a major workout, not to mention the chorus with the jazz, blues and so many more influences in this work written as a result of Hurricane Katrina. It was quite a moving work and I think we all got into this music a little easier as it somehow was easily relatable to our own experiences with that horrid disaster.
After the break, Ms. Breckenridge returned yet again with the huge chorus to sing “Rumi:Quatains of Love” based on the writing of Jalal ad-Din Muhammed Rumi which I was indeed a bit clueless about. Luckily, the text was given to us so we could follow along. The verses are merely protestations of love by the writer and I have to say I was quite stunned by the starting words sung INTO the piano loudly by the soprano, “Do you think I know what I’m doing?” which made me laugh. The music was lush and lyrical and really conveyed the texts well.
The final work was indeed the highlight of the afternoon with a semi-world premiere of Ms. Woolf’s Opera, “The Pillar” with libretto by David Van Traylor based on the book “The Wizard of Lies:Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust” by Diana B. Henriques. Ms. Woolf explained that Bernie Madoff and the scandal surrounding him were indeed operatic events with such reverberations throughout the country and indeed the world, that it was a worthy subject. The work deals more specifically with the trust between him and his wife and sons as well as the public, rather than the scandal itself. The work featured chorus and all the soloists mentioned above and consisted of completed scenes from the work in progress, envisioned as a full length opera.
The first scene is chorus with the Madoffs (Ms. Breckenridge & Mr. Shaffran) at a gala event where Bernie is being honored. This scene is constructed to show what the world thought of him and how humble he was prior to any scandal. The chorus was superb as were the soloists in relaying these feelings. The remainder of the act is unwritten and ends with Bernie’s confession to his family.
Act II is a year later and Bernie is in prison and his son Mark has attempted suicide. A financial analyst, Harry Markopolos (Peter Tantsits) brags in scene 4 about how he prophesied this entire event. This scene has some of the highest tenor notes I can recall practically causing Mr. Tantsits to go red in the face, but he somehow managed this most difficult singing with the chorus as a crowd of unhappy victims and reporters. Mr. Blalock is in the scene as well as the words are layered by the three groups as he stands nearby in his apartment looking on the scene. Scene 5 has the Madoff couple again in layered levels as she has just left him in prison and stands outside her son’s window trying to understand why she must choose between her son and her husband of so many years. The wrenching drama is so moving as while we can understand her feelings for both her husband and son, it seems clear to us as the audience that there is only one choice. As she sings, her son says that he can not go on. The opera ends with her turning to go to her son as she sees a silhouette of him hanging by the neck. I am SOOO looking forward to seeing this work completed and performed as it really is not only a statement about our age, but also about relationships and how hard they are. Indeed, the singing can be difficult, even treacherous, but this team won us over easily and made the day; all we wanted was more than thirty something minutes!
By: ALAN SAVADA of Washington, DC
Read at: OPERA-L