Ambiguous Insanity in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw

March 2, 2013 - Leave a Response

New York City Opera @ Brooklyn Academy of Music
Thursday, February 28, 2013
7:30 p.m.

Benjamin Britten – The Turn of the Screw

Jayce Ogren, Conductor

Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw, offers itself to interpretation both as a the tale of a madwoman and as a true ghost story. Under the direction of Sam Buntrock, New York City Opera’s production carefully and elegantly maintains the mystery.

The indeterminacy begins when the Governess (Sara Jakubiak) sees a figure — or is it an apparition? — through the window. The Governess’s description reminds Mrs. Grose (Sharmay Musacchio) of the former valet, Peter Quint (Dominic Armstrong), now deceased.

When the Governess takes Flora (Lauren Worsham) to play by the lake, it is unclear if the child sees the same ghostly figure that the Governess sees: the former governess, Miss Jessel (Jennifer Good Cooper), who died with Peter Quint’s unborn child.

Flora denies she saw anything, but exhibits odd outbursts of aggression. Is she repressing the trauma, or is she acting like the spoiled child she is, only to be transformed in the insane Governess’s eyes into a little girl possessed by an evil spirit?

For each scene, lighting designer David Weiner creates an eerie mood with various-sized orbs of light, lowered and raised slowly, dangling ominously from long cords rising out of sight.

Even the ending gives no clear answers. After Miles (Benjamin P. Wenzelberg) collapses in the Governess’s arms after an encounter with Peter Quint, another boy, dressed exactly as Miles, opens the upstairs door and walks out onto the landing.

Does the shock of seeing a ghost kill Miles, whose own ghost will haunt the Governess? Or, has the actual Miles stumbled upon the Governess who has hallucinated the entire episode?

The delicious ambiguity is at the heart of James’s novella and of NYCO’s production.

Jakubiak’s strong and confident voice gave the performance a stable center around which the unknown and undecided could revolve.

Except for Musacchio, whose lowest notes are warm caramel, Jakubiak was the only one who had the power to project when not very far downstage. The hall was too large for the chamber setting and for the child voices.

As the only adult male voice, Armstrong fills an integral space in the tonal landscape. He handled the role with dramatic nerve, but his glissandi where unconvincing.

Worsham’s and Wenzelberg’s performances were overwhelming, uncanny, all but infecting the audience with the same madness the Governess’s suffers — seeing what was not there.

The thirty-year-old Worsham inhabited the body of a young girl, frolicking and pestering her brother. In the second act, as Miles plays the keyboard, Wenzelberg mimics what the pianist in the pit is playing. His precision made the illusion real, as if his fingers were holding the puppet strings that controlled the orchestra.

Britten’s orchestration sets the ill-omened tone. For example in the beginning, Britten juxtaposes the Governess’s self-reassuring optimism against the dark, spectral chords in the strings. Britten’s opera, however, offers few memorable melodic lines. Even the imagination, expression, and intensity of the orchestration cannot hide that weakness.

The short run (four performances) ended today, Saturday, March 2, at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in the Peter Jay Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217.

Free Jazz at Vision Festival (Part 2)

June 21, 2012 - Leave a Response

Rob Brown and Daniel Levin
Kidd Jordan Quintet
Vision Festival 17 @ Roulette
Brooklyn, NY
Sunday, June 17, 2012

After Burnt Sugar’s army of musicians, Rob Brown and Daniel Levin stood as a gentle comment on minimalism’s freedom. Their duo of tenor sax and cello engaged in an elaborate dialogue, not afraid to leave space, or let their interlocutor speak at length, enjoying a momentary monologue.

Their melodic lines intersected in the air like the imaginary trails of two insects flitting about, demonstrating the beauty of chaos theory.

At other times, one would accompany the other. Levin detuned his C-string, turning his cello into a bass. He plucked strings with both hands to give a more layered accompaniment, more orchestral but still with a rounded levity.

Brown accompanied by playing one note, repeatedly, in differing, jarring rhythmic patterns, using tonal shifts to alter the texture and add additional movement. Brown’s method was effective, but he returned to it too often, and at times, it sounded as if he retreated to this repeated note technique when he was at a loss.

Brown and Levin’s brilliant conversation was the prize of the evening. And perhaps the most impressive aspect of the duo is their ability to improvise form. Each piece they began struck out into new territory, and they negotiated together the direction and shape of the piece, giving cues to each other and the audience signaling when the life of this music was reaching its end.

The Kidd Jordan Quintet closed the evening with a ferocious set. Jordan was a powerhouse on the tenor sax, ripping through phrases until the scales themselves were enervated, and his piercing squeals soared like rockets.

J. D. Parran filled the bottom end with a strong bari sax tone. He doubled on bass clarinet and wooden flute, adding a new spectrum of colors to the group’s already saturated sound.

Charles Gayle twisted atonal lines on the piano and pounded away in high and low registers, mashing the keys with full palms, pushing his own body off the bench. Gayle switched to tenor sax for the last song, joining Jordan’s wild sound.

The raw strength of the quintet, however, was also their weakness. The muscled force of the group was simply overwrought.

On drums, Hamid Drake played on top of everything. His creative spirit continually wrestled with his juggernaut style. Eventually, Drake’s playing was like adding too much fuel to the fire — it snuffs it out. I had trouble hearing anyone else, especially William Parker on bass.

The excitement of the first three minutes became stagnation. Without dynamics, loud is meaningless.  But then, that seems to be Kidd Jordan’s message, the reason for his quintet. The contrast is the silence after the music.

Free Jazz at Vision Fest (Part 1)

June 19, 2012 - Leave a Response

Ingrid Laubrock
Burnt Sugar
Vision Festival 17 @ Roulette
Brooklyn, NY
Sunday, June 17, 2012

Ingrid Laubrock’s quintet explored a broad but detailed soundscape. Painting with a wide palette of sound, Laubrock used subtle tonal changes and percussive, breathy rhythmic figures.

On drums, Tom Rainey controlled many of the textures. He created literal textures of sound by rubbing his hands over the drum heads, the dry friction producing squeaks that gave a new element of physicality to the drums. He held multiple drum sticks loosely over the snare and shuffled them as they rattled continuously as if in free-fall.

The rest of the band, Mary Halvorson (guitar), Kris Davis (piano), John Hébert (bass), played cautiously and judiciously, almost hesitant at times, from Laubrock’s complex charts. They altered their instruments’ tones, Davis with a John Cage-esque prepared piano muffle and Halvorson with a slide as if bending beams of light.

Laubrock was at her best playing eruptive melodies mixed with pops and squeals. The intensity of these lines contrasted like a horizon of fire against the conservative, almost sullen shapes that formed the bulk of her compositions.

Next on stage was Burnt Sugar, an ingenious project that combines free improvisation with more traditional forms in a variety of styles, funk, R&B, soul, swing, bebop, and groove rock.

The personnel was vast: Greg “Ironman” Tate (conductor, guitar), Lisala, Abby Dobson, Mikel Banks (voice), Lewis “Flip” Barnes (trumpet), Micah Gaugh (alto sax), V. Jeffery Smith, Avram Fefer (tenor sax), Dave Smith (trombone), Jason DiMatteo (bass), Jared Nickerson (electric bass), LaFrae Sci (drums), and others, a sax player, a keyboard player, two more guitarists, and a percussionist.

This throng of musicians is Tate’s playland. In snazzy duds, he directs the band with fluid arms and hands as if he is throwing clay, sculpting a giant urn on the potter’s wheel of sound.

Tate’s mind is a premiere arranging mind, full of creative surprises, lifting the horns up, defining a rhythmic figure for them, cutting out percussion, leading the singers through harmonies of liquid vowells, dropping everything down to a capella.

While their size enables them to touch every color in the sky, when the whole band improvises together, they reach a critical density and their sound turns into an unpleasant overload.

I heard the keyboard player only once. I never heard the third guitar player. And, Tate would do best to lay down his guitar and conduct the whole time.

Lisala stole the show when she started the fourth song with a series of yearning blues lines punctuated by huge hits from the band. The song transitioned into a 60s spy-themed uptempo, and then out of nowhere dropped into a low, dirty swing, Lisala’s lusty vocals soaring over the band.

Check back soon to hear how Rob Brown and Daniel Levin and the Kidd Jordan Quintet finished off the evening.

Roots Rock in Brooklyn

June 16, 2012 - Leave a Response

Otsego
The Pete Sinjin Band
Bar 4
Brooklyn, NY
Friday, June 15, 2012
9:00 – 11:00 p.m.

Otsego took the stage with a variety of instruments, acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, violin, harmonica, piano, electric bass, and drums. Their textured folk rock instrumentation could have been improved perhaps only by substituting upright bass for electric.

By the second song, Otsego settled into a steady tempo, the strong bass drum inspiring foot stomps on every beat. Though a little tentative, you could tell they were having a good time. Even band members who were not mic’d were singing along at times, taken away with their own music.

The six-piece band demonstrated the breadth of their talent by switching instruments. The fiddle player picked up the banjo. He traded the banjo for the acoustic guitar. The harmonica player jumped on the piano. Four of the six sang.

Yet, the variety of instruments was somewhat undermined with a rhythm guitar-heavy mix. The color of accompaniment is in the banjo and harmonica. The intrigue of counter-melodies is in the fiddle and lead guitar. Partly the soundman is to blame, but better equipment, for example, using pickups instead of mics, would have helped.

The true potential of Otsego is in the song-writing and the vocals. Several songs wound themselves into a circular repetition of memorable and heart-heavy lines: “I would still take a bullet for you.”

The up-tempo songs featured back-up vocalists doubling the melody and shouting back, call-and-response style, approaching the Avett Brothers’ paradoxical mixture of violent cheer — that aggressive, almost dangerous, slap-happy drunken revelry. The highlight was the three-part harmonies on the ballads.

Otsego crafted their set well, ending with a genre-bending cover and a drinking song. The lead singer and rhythm guitar player went “Mutemath” at the end of the show, pulling out drum sticks and doubling on toms and cymbals.

Pete Sinjin and his band followed with a four-piece country rock set. The lead singer played acoustic guitar and sang with confidence about hard-won love: “My mouth is full of blood, but my heart is full of poetry.”

The bass player was solid and so was the drummer, although he could have backed off on the snare during the more gentle moments. The lead guitarist was a heavily bearded gentleman who had that desirable tone, gritty overdrive with bright reverb.

What set The Pete Sinjin Band apart was the lead guitarist’s work on the electric slide guitar. He could solo, play counter-melodies, accompany, and explore the soundscape with effects, all of it tasty and tasteful.

On the corner of 7th Ave. and 15th St. in Brooklyn, Bar 4 offers a conservative but solid list of beers on tap and hosts music events many nights of the week. It’s a cozy place and boasts a piano on the modest stage. Friends and family gathered on couches in the front while others lined the bar and stood in the back by the foosball table. Take the F or G train to 7th Ave.

On Twitter:
Otsego
Pete Sinjin
Bar 4

A Rare Musical Experience with Ahyonz at TePhejez

March 27, 2011 - Leave a Response

Ahyonz
TePhejez
Dallas, TX
Friday, March 25

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here. It’s also been a long time since I had a musical experience like the one I had last Friday night. Random wanderings led a friend and me to one of those elusive night clubs that seems to disappear by the next morning like a dream. The $10 cover almost kept us away, but we risked it, and boy, did it pay off.

The band that night was a soul, funk, R&B combo called Ahyonz (pronounced: EYE-ahnz). Drums, bass, keys, guitar, and singer fit together like perfectly shaped pieces of a puzzle, like entwined fingers of two lovers’ hands.

The bass player had that fat, rich, round, warm tone, which he complemented with some bright, punchy, percusive funk slaps. One extended solo took him into a Victor Wooten styled tremolo. While his five-string kept the group grounded, the guitar player and keys player comped with dexterity, originality, flair, and precision.

The guitar player especially had his own vibe going on. Wearing a tie and vest and gold and silver shining slacks, topped off with a puffy, cabbie hat, and playing a cheap, left-handed Fender Squier, the right-handed guitar player somehow managed a super funky tone with a variety of pedals and strumming techniques. His solos were spot on. A double-octave pitch-shifter added a touch of an astro-synth sound to his counter-melodies.

The drummer, Tony Smith, was solid. Rock-steady. There was never a moment when you didn’t know exactly where the beat was. Lightning fast dynamic changes worked like counter-balances against the band. As everyone else softened, he crescendoed until the breaking point. And then: silence.

Smith’s laid back placement of the beat was most impressive on Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.” I don’t know how he did it, but I swear the song was slowing down the entire way through. Laid back. Way back.

The spot light of the band, however, was the gorgeous Kenya Crawford. The sexy front-lady is a performer extraordinaire. Honest, entertaining, she connected directly to the audience. Her voice ranges from the tender and sensual to the raspy and lusty to the rip fire, screams that’ll take off your head.

Crawford showcased her vocal flexibility on Ahyonz’s version of Prince’s “Do Me Baby,” which was also the band’s best number, and which held all of the orgasmic energy of the original. Spine chills.

After a little research, it turns out that the nightclub is called TePhejez (prounounced: ta-FEE-gheez), and it even exists during the day. It’s at 2226 Elm St. in downtown Dallas, and Ahyonz will be back on Friday, April 15.

It was a rare musical experience when clapping is not enough; the music controls you. I found myself reacting to the music vocally, in the moment, shouting back at the band. I wasn’t the only one.

Spectacle Upstages Drama in TDO’s Don Giovanni

October 24, 2010 - One Response

The Dallas Opera
Friday, October 22, 2010
7:30 p.m.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Don Giovanni

Nicolae Moldoveanu, conductor

Don Giovanni seemed like a perfect choice to open the Dallas Opera’s second season in its new home, the still new and stunning Winspear. Mozart’s masterpiece is a plenitude of human expression, reaching comic highs and tragic lows, exploring inexhaustible lust and selfless love, celebrating hubris and moral didacticism. All of these contradictory but essential human experiences are not only in the story and the libretto, but in the music.

The Dallas Opera’s production gave only a one-sided view.

As the overture began, the curtain rose to reveal Don Giovanni with arms upraised amid a swarm of dancers representing the souls of the women he had seduced, wearing short, white, wispy dresses. The activity on stage detracted from the orchestra. An overture tells the story of the opera in music by introducing the themes to the audience. The overture of Don Giovanni is immaculate, but the premature action on stage turned the prestige of the opera into a mere trick.

The characters were oversexed, especially Zerlina and Masetto who ought to be a chaste, pastoral couple. Without their naïveté, there is no contrast to make Don Giovanni’s lasciviousness meaningful.

The libretto allows for double entendre, especially in “Vedrai carino,” when Zerlina offers her special balm to a wounded Masetto — “feel it beating, touch me here” — but with his hand up her dress, the playful words are flattened into a single meaning.

Moments before, the shenanigans on stage doubled a word’s meaning into an unintended bawdy exclamation, misleading the audience. When Don Giovanni (disguised as his manservant Leporello) reveals himself and beats Masetto for his plans to kill Don Giovanni, he kicks Masetto in the groin. Masetto cries out “la testa mia” (“my head”), but the audience hears something else. Clever, perhaps, but once again, the movement on stage acts as a substitute for the brilliant artistry of the music…

…and the singing. Paulo Szot as Don Giovanni was energetic and entertaining. Morris Robinson as the Commendatore was literally bigger than life. Claire Rutter as Donna Anna was solid in “Or sai chi l’onore.” But no one came to the forefront as the prize singer.

The one-sided interpretation confused the audience concerning the plot. After Hell swallows up Don Giovanni, the audience clapped as if the opera were over, some people even standing up and leaving.

The preference for spectacle on stage over drama in Mozart’s music prepared the audience for the anti-hero ending. At least they could have been bold and cut the moralizing epilogue like the Romantics.

Preparations for the World Premiere of Moby-Dick

May 1, 2010 - Leave a Response

Moby-Dick, the opera.

The concept is appealing and even fitting on some levels. Herman Melville’s magnum opus is an epic adventure story on the high seas that confronts the relationships between good and evil, knowing and inscrutability, and God and humanity. The prose is lyric, boisterous, and wide, creating a world unto itself. The characters have a spiritual existence beyond the text. Best of all, there are grog-filled sea shanties to be sung. Moby-Dick is both about life and larger than life. Just as opera is.

Why has it taken 149 years for someone to adapt Moby-Dick for opera? For seventy of those years, the book lay fallow. No one paid much attention to Melville’s “ill-compounded mixture,” as one contemporary reviewer named it, until literary critics revived the book in the 1920s.

Since then, however, Moby-Dick has inspired at least four movie adaptations, a handful of stage productions, and many works of music, ranging from W. Francis McBeth’s five-movement work for wind orchestra Of Sailors and Whales to the concept album Leviathan by heavy metal band, Mastodon. The aura of Moby-Dick is in pressed into the social consciousness, especially the megalomaniacal Captain Ahab. Why is it, then, that not until 2010 did a composer and librettist pair up to bring us Moby-Dick the opera?

The answer is not simply that Moby-Dick is a daunting task. There are some basic problems, both artistic and practical, that make Melville’s book simply a rotten choice for an opera adaptation. The two most fundamental problems relate to the plot and the characters. While there are some action-packed adventure scenes, the majority of the story describes Ishmael’s path that led him to the Pequod and a sailor’s life aboard the fated ship.

Even more troubling is the fact that the majority of the book does not deal with the plot, at least not directly. There are poetic chapters like “The Whiteness of the Whale” that dance in the metaphorical mode. There are the cetology chapters that classify whales and describe in rich language their anatomies. There are also the philosophical chapters that meditate on meaning and power and the nature of existence. Action is what drives a stage production; musing renders actors and singers immobile.

The range of characters is the other major difficulty. An opera needs a mixture of voices. Moby-Dick is made of men. There are still other problems. Part of Melville’s genius was to draw life aboard a ship as a microcosm for the world, but on stage, the single setting would be monotonous. A major source of the drama comes from the narration. Ishmael tells the story sometimes focalizing into other minds. Allowing his narrator to enter other characters’ minds, Melville writes an odyssey that is not only physical but psychological.

Yet, opera, like music and love, is about immediacy. The breakthrough of the novel as a new genre was its ability to express consciousness in new modes, for example, the retrospective glance and the nostalgic understanding of the present. In an opera, there is no past or future. The singers on stage bring the audience to dwell in the now. Opera’s demands for the present would destroy some of the dramatic tension of Moby-Dick.

Before reviewing Jake Heggie’s and Gene Sheer’s work and the Dallas Opera’s performance, I wanted to share some preliminary thoughts that was working through to prepare myself for the experience. Look soon for the review.

One more concern that is one of the most practical and therefore crucial: how the hell are you going to represent a 60 foot-long, 50 ton whale on stage?

Bach’s Adventure through Every Key

April 4, 2010 - Leave a Response

Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
Caruth Auditorium, SMU
Dallas, TX
Thursday, April 1, 2010
8:00 p.m.

The title of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier refers to a tuning that allows musicians to play in all twenty-four keys, major and minor, unlike the “just tuning” that stacks Pythagorean fifths (intervals of a 3:2 ratio) on top of each other to produce the twelve notes of the Western scale, which subsequently makes some keys sound out of tune. Yet, because the distance between each note is not equal in the well-tempered tuning, as it is in modern “equal tempered” tunings, each prelude and fugue of Bach’s WTC has a different disposition.

“Color” is the staple word to describe the different characters of each key, which is the origin of the word “chromatic.” The WTC has a clear design, then, as it is organized chromatically, one prelude and one fugue in every key. The triumph of Bach’s masterpiece is not limited to the colors that the well-tempered tuning allows, but the range of styles, tempos, and emotions is astonishing and what gives this collection its staying power.

Nine piano students and teachers from the Meadows School of Music joined together to give an audience the rare experience of listening to the first book of Bach’s WTC in its entirety.

Each piece has its own character: the C major prelude is a beautifully simple; the F minor fugue is intriguing and cerebral, the G Major prelude is a whirlwind of sparks; the D Major fugue is stately and proud; the B flat minor prelude is haunting.

And each performer had his or her own character, too. Hannah Payne played sensitively while using full, broad lines. Thomas Schwan’s style was serious and formal, while Alberto Peña’s was bold. David Karp played in a more Baroque style, simplifying the dynamics and letting the harmonies of the interweaving lines speak for themselves, until the F minor prelude, which was too saucy.

Lucille Chang played too much in the Romantic style for my tastes. Worse, her resolutions at the ends of phrases were harsh and sometimes downright ugly. Alessio Bax was the star performer, playing more preludes and fugues than anyone else and playing them better than anyone else. He was the only performer who could maintain three simultaneous voices with three different dynamics. His technique coupled with his imagination made the E major fugue the highlight of the evening.

On Monday, April 5 at 8:00 p.m. in Caruth Auditorium in the Meadows building on SMU’s campus a similar group of  pianists will perform the second book of Bach’s WTC. The concert is free. I will be there.

My Salon, A Thank-You (Part II)

March 11, 2010 - Leave a Response

Salon: An Evening Celebrating the Arts
Saturday, February 13, 2010
7:30 p.m.

Now for the humorous and charming conclusion of the Salon.

Mr. Hoppe continued the Valentine’s theme with a dramatic reading of a 1936 pamphlet by no-name Hugh Morris, entitled “How to Make Love.” The guide is as unlikely as it sounds, and it delivers exactly what you would hope: mockably out-dated advice about courtship, lacking sufficient details to live up its title. Mr. Hoppe’s reading had people laughing and gasping for air. He paused; he licked his lips; he unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt; he caressed the piano. He made everything that is frighteningly funny about the text in 2010 uncomfortably hilarious for everyone. A success.

Mrs. Walker Edin provided the audience with a seventh-inning stretch. Chairs were struck and an open space was made in the salon. She led the group in some yoga poses for expecting mothers. With right hands on our hearts and left hands on our stomachs, we breathed and energized and calmed. As the poses became increasingly difficult, some of the audience members tacitly competed to be the most flexible, especially the men. Mrs. Walker Edin’s demonstration of the poses was even more impressive since she was the only one who had the “handicap” of actually being pregnant.

After a short intermission, I picked up the guitar and played a song called “Love and Life,” which is the title song of the album I had the fortune to record in Ecuador in 2006. I wrote the song to get over my weakness for forgetting lyrics; in the song, I spit out words at Jason Mraz speed. My kind “fans” (i.e. friends) then requested “Red, Red” and “Love My Rock.” The first is a little more “country” and part of my on-going acoustic project. The second is a parody song I wrote for The Taste, a band project inspired by the great hard rock hair bands of the 80s. I’ve usually been a bedroom guitar player, but with the encouragement of a generous audience, I played and sang these songs better than I ever have.

Ms. Luttrell read a selection from her short story “Down in the Well,” which tells of the vapid life of Jeff, a young cowboy coming to terms with his mother’s death, his father’s projected rodeo dreams and his own fear of riding bulls. The phrase “down in the well” refers to the deadly situation a rider faces when the force of a spinning bull’s vortex pulls him under. With its natural prose, Ms. Luttrell’s story transported the audience to a small Texas town where a lingering desperation and fatality haunt Jeff’s life.

The western scene now set, Ms. Cherones and I led the group in an old-fashioned, campfire-styled sing-a-long with Stephen Foster’s classic “Oh, Susanna!”. Carrying on a Salon tradition, Ms. Cherones revealed her secret talent on the harmonica; I accompanied on guitar. Everyone sang. After several leisurely rolling choruses, we sped up, kicking the song into high gear. There were at least four “one more time!” calls.

Although this was the last performance of the evening, the party did not end here. And will not end here! Thank you to everyone who performed and attended. Let’s do it again soon.

My Salon, A Thank-You (Part I)

March 4, 2010 - Leave a Response

Salon: An Evening Celebrating the Arts
Saturday, February 13, 2010
7:30 p.m.

As promised by word of mouth, below is the review of the Salon I hosted almost three weeks ago. I have given myself a two-fold difficult task. One, I am reviewing my own performance. Two, I am commenting on non-musical performances–various demonstrations and readings. The event was a blast, and I hope that this post will act less as a review and more as a remembrance of what happened and as a thank-you to all who performed and attended.

I opened the evening with the first prelude, a fitting beginning, from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I tried to focus on the clarity of the five-note voicings of each chord. With the repetitive rhythm and arpeggiated pattern, the temptation is to create variety by swelling dramatically in a Romantic style, but I aimed for a more subdued and gentler line of minimal crescendos to let the harmonies themselves create the drama.

After last year’s five serial sketch installments, the Mike Anderson Players returned, featuring Mr. Anderson performing a piece called “Dear Fellow Virginian.” He read an email exchange between novelist Richard Bausch and Senator John Warner of Virginia regarding President Clinton’s impeachment. The email exchange slowly reveals that Senator Warner’s responses were automated. Mark Twain once gave a lecture in which he told the same humorous anecdote five times in a row. The audience was nonplussed after two and three iterations, but by the end, they were in stitches. Like America’s literary jester-king, Mr. Anderson left us laughing.

Mrs. Williamson played Brahms’s Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 in A Major. I thank her for carrying on a private goal of mine to have Bach and Brahms performed at every Salon I host. This piece is one of the most beautiful melodies I know, and I find myself physically unable to play it because I linger on every note, every harmony, my ear never fully satiated. Mrs. Williamson played excellently, especially careful to voice the melody and balance the counter melodies of the middle section. She negotiated the terribly stiff action of the piano, a difficult feat when playing the delicate and intricate Brahms intermezzi.

Mr. Robbins gave a bibliophile’s show-and-tell. He presented five of his hand-made books and explained some of the more striking features like the Coptic binding. After a descriptive bibliography and a mini-biography of each book’s author, he passed the books around for a full sensory experience. Mr. Robbins then read a selection from his chapbook Crass Songs of Sand & Brine, which transported us to the east coast, smelling of the stale beer and sea funk of his yesteryears.

I returned to the piano to introduce a Valentine’s theme, playing Prokofiev’s “The Montagues and Capulets,” a transcription from his ballet Romeo and Juliet. The piece requires orchestral thinking to bring out the colors of the various instruments and to render the full scope of dynamics. In other words, the piece is as challenging technically as it is fun to play in its dangerous gravity. The first section was well-executed, but the coldly formal dance in the middle had flubs that sounded as if Juliet had taken a golf club to the knee and limped back into the first theme. She and I recovered, but the initial magic was lost in the ending.

Part II promises a less tragic ending. Check soon to see the hilarious and charming conclusion of the Salon.