Opera has done much during the past few decades to shed its elite, high-art credentials. In many ways, children's opera ticks all the right boxes in terms of accessibility, communication and participation, yet it's a genre that remains somewhat neglected. The American composer Tobias Picker's adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel Fantastic Mr Fox could change all that.
Elsewhere in this iuue I reviewed David Stanhope's opera of Dracula. lamentlng in essence that it was bland, given its subject matter. I also think it has somethlng to do with being able to compose an opera. Tobias Picker knows how to compose an opera and has written a number of excellent works for the stage. Fantastic Mr. Fox (adapted from the Rolad Dahl stories) is delightful from beginning to end. The music is hummable, expertly crafted, and a joy to listen to. There are arias, duets, trios, and even more complicated ensembles.
Tobias Picker's operas have had a varied reception in major venues, with Emmeline (Santa Fe, 1996) and An American Tragedy (Met, 2005) having more initial success than Therese Raquin (Dallas, 2001) and Dolores Claiborne (San Francisco, 2013). Fantastic Mr. Fox was premiered by Los Angeles Opera in 1998, with a cast including Gerald Finley, Jill Grove and Charles Castronovo.
Lei LIang (b. 1972) seeks to "create music as if painted with a sonic brush." Painting seems to be among Mr. Liang's dominant interests. These works consist of abstract strokes of shape and color, inspired by his Chinese heritage. Growing up as his musicologist mother was shipped out as a farmer in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, he eventually settled in America, where he became involved with Chou-Wen Chung. He later earned his PhD at Harvard and now teaches at University of California-San Diego (a hotbed of America avant-gardeism.)
How wonderful it is that the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and conductor Gil Rose recently honoured Michael Colgrass (1932-2019) by dedicating a full album to works by the American-born, Toronto-based composer, who passed away on July 2nd at the age of eighty-seven. Not only does the recording showcase the exemplary playing of the ensemble, it provides an excellent sampling of Colgrass's maverick sensibility.
Lei Liang (b1972) was born in China then in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, but left to study in the US and has remained there ever since, taking citizenship in 2006. The alto saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang was composed shortly
afterwards (2009, though based on an earlier piece for saxophone and electronics); it is given here in its 2014 revision. A concentrated (ten-and-a half minute) concerto-cum-tone poem, its single span was derived from an
Tobias Picker: Fantastic Mr. Fox is the official title of a new compact disc release of the opera by Picker, the current Artistic Director of Tulsa Opera, who pulls off the almost impossible feat of composing an opera that is aimed directly at families, not just children; that is, children of all ages. With his welcome use of melodic tonal lyricism, even though a modern piece, and the caustically witty Libretto by Donald Sturrock, this work is sure to charm listeners of any vintage.
Charles Ives you can look to as the father of disparate conjoinings and aural collages when Modern North American composition styles developed and flourished in the last century through to today. Others have followed of course, people like Henry Brandt and, lest we forget, Michael Colgrass. The estimable Boston Modern Orchestra Project gives us the music of the latter with the three-work offering Side By Side (BMOP/Sound 1064). On these works one can note the back and forth one gets from the concerto in Western Classical.
Afro-American composer David Sanford shows a musical Modernism with a healthy admixture of "Jazz" influences on his recent recording of orchestra works Black Noise (BMOP Sound 1063). The three works so nicely captured by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, along with the cello solo vibrancy of Matt Haimovitz for the "Scherzo Grosso" work.
In relation to music, noise occupies a particularly complex position in the history of African American musical cultures. Historically, white listeners musically and culturally disenfranchised enslaved African Americans by characterizing their drumming and spirituals as noise out of fear
of violent revolt. The descendants of these same listening practices have labelled certain jazz idioms, rap, hip-hop, and their stylistic progeny as forbidden and dangerous, but these characterizations neglect the validity and reality of African American experiences expressed in
Three pieces choreographed by Martha Graham. These are all ancient tales set in Schuman's advanced Americana style with tall chord harmony and Schoenberg-inspired lines.
As the Miller Theater at Columbia University begins to wrap up its 30th-anniversary season — a Composer Portrait concert featuring David T. Little’s music comes next, on Thursday — I’ve been thinking about some of the best concerts I’ve heard there in recent years.
Chinese-born composer Lei Liang brings to us a completely lucid sensibility and a most articulate and evocative syntax. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project album of three recent works shows us glowingly the vitality of his invention. A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams (BMOP Sound 1061) gives us the title work recently (2017)
commissioned by BMOP, plus his "Xiaoxiang, Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra" (2009, rev. 2014), and "Five Seasons" (2010, rev. 2014).
American composer David Sanford (b. Pittsburgh 1963) came from a highly musical family. He always had a keen interest in jazz, big and music, and played the trombone. He attended the University of Northern Colorado, The New England Conservatory of Music, and Princeton. Now he is a faculty member at Mount Holyoke College. After studying in Italy in 2002, he formed the Pittsburgh Collective which included both classical and jazz musicians.
Over the last several seasons, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) has featured concerts devoted to music by members of that greatest generation of late-20th-century American composers. Three years ago, they presented David Del Tredici’s Child Alice; two years past, it was a Philip Glass evening; last winter brought an engaging Joan Tower survey. On Saturday night at Jordan Hall, the ensemble and conductor Gil Rose turned their focus to the music of John Corigliano.
Those of you who are faithful Schmopera readers will likely recall that, when I reviewed Brokeback Mountain at the conclusion of last year’s New York City Opera season, I pointed at the paradox of Wuorinen’s highly dissonant score used to depict a romance, and the ways that paradox works in that opera’s favor. At the time, I figured it was a logical choice, considering how Annie Proulx’s prose worked to set up such a paradox.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s innovative semi-staged concert production of the complex, rich and fanciful two-act opera, Haroun and the Sea of Stories deserved more than the single Boston premiere performance Saturday at Jordan Hall. The multiple levels and nested plots of the story have so much depth that listeners need multiple iterations fully to appreciate the work. Based on the children’s novel by Salman Rushdie, with 12-tone music by the contemporary American composer Charles Wuorinen and intricate libretto by James Fenton, a renowned British poet and friend of Rushdie, this satirical 2004 work was created in the post 9-11 era, yet it is even more than relevant to our times. Opera News entitled a conversation about the New York City Opera’s opening night as a “Fearsome Fairyland;” their writer Leighton Kerner had interviewed Wuorinen and Rushdie together, and that seems apt. Gil Rose made use of all of the score’s electricity, eerie sounds, fright, joy and fancy to go along with a production replete with bright costumes, mechanical birds, water genies and beautifully bizarre beasts.
The orchestral and chamber music of Chinese composer Chen Yi is atmospheric and extravagantly colorful, full of delicate percussion showers, swooping glissandos, and shivery bent notes. Much of it is chant-like, some of it is songful, and sometimes it is relentless and brutal. It is full of adventure, eschewing the Yellow River Concerto cliches that bedevil a fair amount of contemporary Chines music.
Once again, my list includes a release from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s ongoing and indispensable series of recordings. I’ve long enjoyed Peter Child’s excellent music and have reviewed a past album of his chamber music. This release of his orchestral works is anchored by a particularly strong piece, Shanti, which gives the album its title.
Selling recordings has never been a strength of classical music. In fact, now it’s not strength of any kind of music. But classical music ensembles have found a way — with limited pressings, direct sales from web sites, recording live performances, touring and selling disks like the entrepreneurs they are — to make the economics of recording feasible.