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David Amram at 85: Distilling his multiple personalities

He doesn't look much older than when he was 60. But he's showing his age in a way that true artists do. His 2014 piece, Greenwich Village Portraits, is one of his very best. David Amram has led multiple lives simultaneously. He's a jazz musician able to improvise an actual song on the spot, the master of many ethnic and folk musics who plays at Farm Aid concerts (and fits in), but most importantly, is a composer of classical concert music. Maybe I was too bewildered in past years to put it all together. Then I was asked to work on the … [Read more...]

Bach at the Armory – with gongs, noise-canceling headphones and deck chairs

Every concert should be as comfortable as this. Goldberg, a new performance art piece created by Marina Abramovic that involved a full performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations, was a marriage made in ... well, the drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Abramovic was quoted as saying she would make audiences suffer for their Bach - a scary prospect: one of her pieces had her combing her hair until her head bled - but I'd love to hear any concert in these circumstances, with the pianist in the center and four large rectangular … [Read more...]

John Luther Adams makes the earth speak (while tourists cover their ears)

John Luther Adams often seems like an Alaska Impressionist - or so I've said in the past, perhaps misleadingly. The implication of that moniker implies pretty-sounding Arctic Debussy, something more descriptive than Sibelius and surely full of more bears than lions and tigers. In fact, Adams (who lived in Alaska for years) has an all-embracing attitude toward sound that could only have come in the wake of John Cage. His Strange and Sacred Noise, which I caught at a free lunchtime concert at Trinity Wall Street in New York, was performed with … [Read more...]

The Pope, the music and the evacuation

A pope without music is like a ship without a flag. It's part of the papal aura - but, unlike incense, it doesn't send your sinuses into spasms. At the Festival of Families Saturday night on Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the music at a gala concert in Pope Francis's honor was quite secondary - almost a footnote that was all-too-easily ignored, even with big-personality artists such as Jackie Evancho, Andrea Bocelli and the Philadelphia Orchestra onstage. Among the things you maybe didn't see in the televised version (including … [Read more...]

Harry Partch’s sonic cathedral – and what others have built around it.

Harry Partch's biggest and most accomplished work,  Delusion of the Fury, long stood alone like some singular Gaudí-designed cathedral in a desert. But now, 46 years after its premiere, it appears at Lincoln Center Festival with a like-minded artistic community having grown up around it. Strange no more, the music maintains its singularity while feeling familiar. Long considered the ultimate American maverick composer, Partch (1901-1974) resisted the typical compositional norms of the mid-20th century, inventing his own instruments - often … [Read more...]

Handel for hipsters: Revolution or red herring?

Small scale revolution might be fitfully brewing in operatic theater amid a current trilogy of Handel productions by the director R. B. Schlather in the White Box Gallery at New York's Lower East Side. The second installment was Orlando, premiered on Sunday April 26 with superficialities many of us have all seen before - a small-scale, modern-dress production with sexy, punky, hyperphysical  theatricality as well as many cuts made in the service of de-cluttering typical Baroque-era narrative and circumventing any possibilities of … [Read more...]

The Prototype Festival’s Scarlet Ibis (and the day I almost ate glue)

When I was a kid, my older brother tried to feed me a tube of airplane glue. I'm sure he thought it was for my own good. Perhaps the glue resembled toothpaste? It made a great story over the years: Mom caught brother in the nick of time though with so much glue flying around that nearby furniture had to be re-varnished. Now, this micro-confession is a disclaimer for my hopeless capitulation, really from moment one, to The Scarlet Ibis.. This new opera with words by David Cote and music by Stefan Weisman created a quiet sensation at the … [Read more...]

The weirdest day of my recent life

The invitation sounded innocent enough. Somebody had died, leaving a massive classical record collection. Would I take a look to see if it's worth donating to a school or something - despite the formats (LP and 78s) being out dated? "Sure." "You'll have to wear a haz-mat suit." "Really? Who was this guy?" "He was a morbidly obese shut-in and lived in squalor." The sketchy story that unfolded - nobody wanted to talk details - is this: The man was the son of opera aficionados, was one himself, but had few if any relatives, and … [Read more...]

The Henry Mollicone underground operas

Who ever said that opera had to be grand? It wasn't in the original mission statement when opera was invented more than 400 years ago with composers setting out to recapture the power of once-sung Greek drama. And they did so in royal courts that couldn't have been very large. But even as opera became gargantuan, smaller chamber works have been written, performed and loved over the centuries but rarely embraced with the fervor of bigger, louder Elektra and Turandot. The starting point of this grandeur-challenging train of thought was the … [Read more...]

Curlew River: Britten’s madwoman as samurai

Never do I listen to Britten's Curlew River as an opera-goer. Partly because I've always had to travel considerable distances to hear the piece live, I am, in effect, a pilgrim - and one who happens not to be inclined toward pilgrimages. More than that, Britten's 1964, 80-minute piece about a madwoman looking for her lost son is a confluence of so many things that my expectations about well-made lyrical drama are left far behind. It's an aesthetic vacation of sorts. With ritualistic deliberation and allegorical formality, Curlew River … [Read more...]

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