Music from Deep Space


Così fan Tutte
Governor’s School for the Arts
University Theatre, March 29, 2014 (also March 28 & 30)
Directed & Conducted by Vocal Music Chair Alan Fischer
Review by John Campbell

Mozart’s Così fan Tutte is a long (200 minutes) opera. Two ensemble casts of six students each sang and acted a completely staged performance from memory with a sixteen member chorus. It was a sparkling, lively experience for all.

The setting was mid-1950s Norfolk where two sailors, very much in love with two sisters, take a secret wager with a cynical, older bachelor who has no faith in female virtue, that their girlfriends will remain faithful. Raiquan Thomas sang with velvety precision the sardonic bachelor, Don Alfonso, in all three performances. He becomes puppet master for the action, manipulating the sailors—tenor Ferrando (Joshua Ross) and Guglielmo (Bradley Fielding)—to test the fidelity of the sisters by any trick he could devise. He bribed the sisters’ maid Despina (Anyeé Farrar) to aid him in his trickery and she does so with superb comic timing and singing with an open, clear tone.

The sisters are informed that their boyfriends are going off to war which leads into a trio by Fiordiligi (Sarah Yaden), Dorabella (Stefany Spencer) and Don Alfonso: Gentle be the winds/tranquil the Waves, sung with a lovely blend of voices. There are sad farewells. Shortly after, two exotically dressed young men arrive and try to hit on the two sisters, only to be vigorously refused. Later there is a scene where the men pretend self-poisoning because they were turned down, only to be revived by Despina in disguise as a doctor.

From the sailors’ excellent opening duet praising their girlfriends, What Women, we knew that this was an up-to-date English translation. Joshua Ross’ big tenor voice, unusual in one so young, joined by the rich, smooth baritone of Bradley Fielding, gave us all their youthful ardor. The sisters offered thrills of their own. Sarah Yaden’s Firmly Founded (Come scoglio) and Stefany Spencer’s Smanie implacabili (Implacable restlessness) showcased their fine, young voices.

The kind-hearted (and a bit bored) sisters decide that a little flirtation is harmless. The two switched couples pair-off and it is all downhill from there. A fake wedding is planned and Despina, now disguised as a notary, has the girls sign a wedding contract. Immediately after we hear military music, their suitors leave and their sailor boyfriends return. The deception is clear to all and Don Alfonso collects his bet. The closing scene leaves unresolved the question of who will remain paired with whom.

GSA alumnus Kelley Vaughan was pianist for the performance; Stephen Z. Cook, rehearsal pianist. Jim Lyden’s flexible, colorful sets worked well. Elwood Robinson’s lighting heightened the fun. Tenor Joshua Ross prepared the chorus; Director Fischer’s assistant was Caroline Landrum.

GSA Chamber Concert: Music from Deep Space
Studio 317, Governor’s School
April 26, 2014
Review by John Campbell

The renovation of the Governor’s School for the Arts new home at 254 Granby Street is almost complete and this was the first public performance there. Faculty Stephen Coxe and Jeffry Phelps, with students, presented a fascinating evening of instrumental music—some comfortable old friends and some new music very challenging for performer and listener.

To the left of the piano was a chair and a cloth-covered table with a small table lamp. Student pianist Chelsea Holt sat and listened as Dr. Coxe played Preludes, Book I (1910) Delphic Dancers by Claude Debussy (1862-1912). Then they exchanged places while Ms. Holt played Prelude, Bruyères (Heath) from Book II. It is a moody, intriguing piece and her firm, cleanly played notes served it well. Nocturne, Op. 24, No. 8 (1904) by Jean Sibelius is mercurial, Romantic music and offers a forceful conclusion, part of the European power piano school.

Next Stephen Coxe played Étude No. 5: Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow) (1985) by György Ligeti. Born in Transylvania, Ligeti was educated in Budapest and eventually became a citizen of Austria. His three books of nineteen études extend the possibilities for the instrument and the interpreter. The gentle fifth étude is a slow, jazzy ballade-like piece with six beats per bar, 3x2 beats in the right hand against 2x3 in the left, giving the impression of music slightly off center. Later in the three and one-half minute piece the length of phrases in the right hand is varied freely. The upper keys played near the end lost all resonance, a limit of the Kawai piano, not the performer.

GSA student Madeline Brass played Williams Kraft’s (b. Chicago, 1923) French Suite for percussion with three of four movements named for early Baroque dances: Allemand, Courante and Saraband. The drum set was on the far side of the large room from us and was loud and clear, never distorted. She played with a commanding surety, rhythms were precise and balances were well conceived in this popular solo percussion showpiece.

Pianist Kayla Cummings is a fourth-year senior at GSA and was heard in March, 2014 in Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op. 20 (1896) by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) at the Sandler Center with the GSA Orchestra. In that lushly romantic concerto her playing offered both power and subtle quiet as needed. In this concert she played three short pieces, the first two by Scriabin: Prelude, Op. 11, No. 4 (1896) Lento, a simple and melancholy piece with barren textures that created a desolate mood. Prelude, Op. 11, No. 10 was more energetic and had a big, dramatic ending. Philip Glass’ (b. 1937) Truman Sleeps (1994) rounded out her set. The slowly shifting notes of repetitive chords created a beautiful flow of emotion-provoking music. Since sixth grade Ms. Cummings has studied with Michelle Holst, Oksana Lutsyshyn and Stephen Coxe, all at GSA.

Stamping in the Dark by Daniel Goode (b. 1936) followed. Once the lights were turned off a semi-circle of thirteen figures with their backs to the audience appeared and jumped on the rubber-covered sprung floor, the impact of landing creating random patterns of sound. It was both interesting and confusing and we never did detect a rhythmic or melodic pattern. The group, calling themselves the GSA Stampers, wearing black, took a bow and walked away before the lights came back on.

Student cellist Tyler James, with Steve Coxe at the piano, played Anton Webern (1883-1945) Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op.11 (1914). In the one-minute first movement Webern so condensed his expression that each wispy phrase of the shared melodic line evaporates into silence after a short-lived climax. Every note in the piano part has a different dynamic or kind of attack and every cello phrase has a different method of production: harmonics, pizzicato, arco, on the bridge or the fingerboard. The mood of suppressed agitation is created by breathless phrasing that breaks out in a violent allegro of the second piece lasting less than half a minute and then retreats into serenity in the third piece which fades into silence in an almost motionless adagio. In a piece where there is so little to hear, a live performance is essential. Even the finest of recordings cannot give a valid sense of this music. This piece prepared the audience to hear what was coming after intermission.

From Untitled Composition for Cello and Piano (1981) by Morton Feldman (1926-1987), we heard an excerpt, measures 252-682, played by Jeffry Phelps, cello and Stephen Coxe, piano. Feldman’s music may be making its Hampton Roads premiere with this performance. Mid-twentieth-century New York saw the rise of an experimental school of composers that included Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, John Cage and Morton Feldman. “His preoccupation with vast, quiet, agonizingly beautiful worlds of sound opened up yet another unmapped space in American music.” (Alex Ross).

A sad, sawing cello opens, then stops before the piano alone plays some slow notes, sometimes expanded by the tones of the cello. A brief flow of duet music retreats back to the sawing cello sound. There are rich, ambient phrases, and an almost waltz-time duet follows sour repetitive sounds. Like an astringent, Feldman releases the expressive power of the space around the notes—sounds animate the surrounding silence. “Rhythms are irregular and overlapping so the music floats above the beat. Harmonies dwell in a no-man’s-land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion” is the way New Yorker critic Alex Ross describes it.

As repeated fragments from the opening music are played I feel suspended in a timeless soundscape. My desire for a shift back into time feels painful but I endure, hoping for an ending soon. Piano figures offer almost enough substance to build a tune but soon it is over. As I write this I feel willing to return to his sound-world for more exploration. Alex Ross again: “Feldman periodically stops to let his sonorities reverberate for a while in the listener’s mind.” This was true to my experience.

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