Camelot Requiem performed by the Figaro Project

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Growing up outside of Dallas, Texas, one of the traditional middle-school field trips was rather chilling: a visit to the book depository where those fateful shots were fired nigh on fifty years ago, on November 22, 1963. Part of the exhibit included a visit to the very window were Oswald was situated, looking out upon Dealey Plaza. My father, a minister at First Presbyterian Church in Dallas (whose parishioners included the newscaster who first announced the assassination) frequently drives that same route to visit parishioners. The most chilling aspect of the field trip, in retrospect, was its matter-of-fact nature: terrible events can happen anywhere, as we are all too frequently reminded. In the exhibition, the video of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, captured in black and white, repeats ceaselessly, Jackie Onassis reaching back across the car, over, and over, and over. And, between repetitions of the stark black-and-white reality film, lingers the grey, where art, or poetry, or music, can seep in to take hold of our memory.

Caitlin Vincent

Caitlin Vincent
Photo Credit: Samantha Nandez

This is where the ambitious Camelot Requiem–composed by Joshua Bornfield, with libretto by Caitlin Vincent,  direction by William Schaller, and presented by the Figaro Project–begins: at the grey crossroads between Presidencies, between life and death, art and history, stage performance and religious ritual. Vincent has created an ambitious standard for her troupe in commissioning new music. I had the great honor of collaborating with them in 2011 as part of their Contemporary Opera Trio, when they premiered Bornfield’s Strong Like Bull,  Peabody Academic Dean Paul Mathews’ Piecing it Apart, as well as my chamber opera Lux et Tenebrae. Vincent’s productions epitomize both the flexible spirit of guerilla new music, as well as the high standard of artistry and professionalism that is the driving force of so many East Coast musicians (particularly, in this case, the Peabody alumns of the Requiem cast). The conceit of the operatorio (as Vincent describes it) is the combination of the Requiem mass for the dead and an operatic meditation upon the twenty-four hours following the assassination. The presence of religion, specifically Kennedy’s Catholicism, is clearly demonstrated from the opening sonorities of Bornfield’s score, the repeated bell-like (or are they sirens? or failing heartbeats?) dissonances heralding the procession of the Rev. Oscar L. Huber (Stephen Campbell), who introduces the mass text (and other troped texts) in a supple, lyrical chant. From this emerges an opening turba, a crowd scene that builds to chaos. Performed at historic First and Franklin Presbyterian Church’s Spire Series, the high ceilings of the spire’s inverse sometimes swallowed even careful diction. In these crowd scenes, however, the acoustical crush of words seemed to heighten the sensation of disbelief that threatens to carry away the individuals. The liturgical setting served to further blur the lines between ritual, reality, and performance.

The chaos breaks with Jackie Kennedy’s “I Keep Waiting,” sung by Vincent, the troupe’s able and ever-creative impressaria. In this opening number, Bornfield displays his impeccable ability to work with text, sculpting lines that are at once natural and expressive, without mannerism or forced feeling. Vincent also gave a stunning rendition of Bornfield’s unsettling and heart-rendingly beautiful setting of “So many roses coming out of the hole in his head,” undergirded by hollow sounds from the ensemble that ultimately dripped away.

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Blair Skinner

This is one of Bornfield’s gifts: he has a way of extending vocal lines into the instrumentalists that creates the sensation of a unified continuum, allowing the orchestra to function as true musico-dramatic subtext (and not just accompaniment) for the singers. The orchestra was passionately led by Blair Skinner, who seems to be diving into challenging contemporary scores on a weekly basis, having just conducted a portion of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre last Friday with the Sonar New Music Ensemble. The ensemble included violinist Lauren Rausch and cellist Peter Kibbe (who could evoke on command a viol-consort-like-tone that underscored the ancient text of the mass), clarinetist Jennifer Hughson and flutist Melissa Wertheimer (whose florid interactions and blend were each balanced and expressive), and percussionist Terry Sweeney (who just appeared on the Evolution Contemporary Music Series concert with John Luther Adams, below) and pianist Michael Sheppard (pianist extraordinaire).

Joshua Bornfield

Joshua Bornfield
Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker

Bornfield and Vincent not only bring to life the major players, such as Bobby and Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson, but also characters who do not often have the historical spotlight shone upon them, nurse Patricia Hutton (Kate Jackman), for instance. Hutton, who is portrayed as one of the Christian faithful, emphasizes that thie assassination must all be “part of God’s plan,” with the word “plan” striking a notable dissonance with the orchestra. Jackman’s truthful and diligent performance of Hutton’s unwavering faith is chilling in light of the tragedy that surrounds it; indeed, Hutton’s presence can not be sustained for too long in the emotional space, as she finally recesses from the scene, bearing a flickering candle, and introducing the Requiem’s “Kyrie” fragment. The trio of secretaries Evelyn Lincoln (Leslie Proctor), Nancy Tuckerman (Melissa Wimbish) and Pamela Turnure (Jessica Hanel Satava) were resplendent in their Act II scenes, effecting the two devastating trios that record, first through telegrams and then through recollection, the memory of John F. Kennedy. (The audience members were each given replicated telegrams as well, so that we, too, could hold memories of the President in our own hands.) These sections also displayed some of the most inventive orchestration of the opera, with high tangled woodwind lines continually collapsing into lower, breathy registers underscored by marimba. Jeremy Hirsch, playing Dr. George Burkley, gave a performance that was truly genuine, a characteristic that seemed to embody the whole production: there seemed to be an unwavering dedication to the vision of librettist, composer, and director.

William Schaller

William Schaller

Here, a shout-out must be given to director William Schaller, who had the distinct challenge of realizing a story line with no available set changes, minimal lighting, and a stage made up of a church chancel. His deft staging clearly delineated between the realms of history and ritual (the sometimes-symmetricality of the players’ placement serving to announce the recitation of the Requiem), and his direction of the cast clearly helped to create a feeling of ensemble that no doubt was a significant part of the genuine nature of the  whole endeavor.

Bornfield necessarily has a similar chameleonic ability, not only moving between history and ritual, but between different styles as well. Take the Southern ballad sung by Lady Bird Johnson’s (radiantly realized by Lisa Perry, who is readily making her mark on the Mid-Atlantic new music scene, and performs with Great Noise Ensemble next week), “They want him,” with bluesy riffs against a dial-tone-like texture in the orchestra reminiscent of the opening chimes. This is shortly followed by Lyndon B. Johnson’s (performed with solid resonance and resilience in the face of tragedy by Alex Rosen) swearing-in, in “I do solemnly swear” and “Members of the House,” emphasized dramatically by the full ensemble. Though these numbers are strikingly different, one of Bornfield’s many talents is his ability to create the sensation that these disparate styles are necessary parts of a single dramatic fabric.

The Cast of Camelot Requiem

The Cast of Camelot Requiem

Indeed, this particular dramatic fabric could be problematic in the hands of a different creative team. Here, action conglomerates at the edges, peaking at the beginning and end of Act I. Camelot Requiem is not, however, an opera of action (despite the alternation between expository pseudo-recitatives and meditative or focused arias/numbers), but rather one of reaction and recollection. This work is not driven by plot, but by mythology. When we hear Jackie’s rose-lament, describing her reach back across the back of the car to grasp the very fragments of her husband, we are drawn to reach back to our own memories, whether we lived through the 60’s, or were inculcated in the mythos through videos and exhibitions. We are invited into the experience of memory by the secretaries, as we too grasp our own telegrams; their recorded thoughts offer their own fragments of Kennedy. Our memories are challenged by Nurse Hutton, whose uncompromising belief in a divine plan opposes reactions of outrage and injustice at such remembrance. The final recessional of the entire cast (sans Jackie), led by Bobby Kennedy (played by the potent Tanglewood fellow baritone Nathan Wyatt) strides into the future, but out of the frame of the opera; for, in memory,  future has no meaning. Within this space, we are rapt, trapped, alongside Jackie in the aftermath of the shooting, the bells (sirens? heart-beats?) sounding again and again throughout the work. The final moments of the opera focus upon an emergent cello solo followed by Jackie’s “And when he dies, take him,” ultimately leading to a closing “Lux Aeterna,” which caps the many beautiful settings of the Requiem text by Bornfield. Even here, we are in a time-out-of-time: Kennedy is yet living (“when he dies”), yet just passed recently, and yet dead to us for fifty years. Within the space of the Camelot Requiem, time stands inescapably still, as it did on that day in 1963.

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John Luther Adams at the Evolution Contemporary Music Series

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013, Baltimore, Maryland

“Cranks, Iconoclasts, Rugged Individualists”

If I were to be straightforward, I like music that is in some way iconoclastic: individualistic, perhaps with a hint of the bizarre, or with a sense of commitment to a personal truth. For an iconoclastiphile, the opportunity to hear an all-chamber-music concert of music by composer, writer and activist John Luther Adams––presented as the eighth season closing concert of Judah Adashi’s phenomenal Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An Die Musik in Baltimore––was a feast.

“I write to figure out what the music wants of me.”

JLA (not to be confused with John Adams of Dr. Atomic, nor with the Justice League of America) points to other iconoclasts as early inspirations–Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, and John Cage–that ultimately diverted him from his cover-band days (playing in such groups as the delectably titled “Pocket Fuzz”). Throughout his preconcert conversation with Dr. Adashi, Adams emphasized the importance of questions and questing in his life and music.

Adams dropped out of graduate school to pursue environmental activism, ultimately taking him to Alaska, where he met his wife and lived for many years before becoming something of an itinerant, bardic figure. (He and his wife now travel exclusively, home being wherever Adams’ trademark hat is.) Though he pursued activism and politics for in his early years, Adams ultimately returned to composing music out of a feeling that many could carry on the fight for the environment, but only he could write the music that was his. In his words, “I only compose when the state of not composing is more unbearable than the state of composing.” For many of the Peabody Conservatory composition students in the audience, this likely rang true in the midst of the seemingly endless plunge to the end of the semester.

JLA-tooIn moving to Alaska, Adams pointed out that he was escaping from the consumer culture of two-car-cat-and-a-dog-and-two-point-five-kids urbia and suburbia; but, in escaping, he found that he was seeking, and, ultimately, questioning, “reinventing, rediscovering the world.” “If I know what I’m doing,” he emphasized, “then I’m probably not doing my job.” In the commodity culture that has overrun much of the “Western” world, surety is inevitably prized: surety is necessary for value, exchange, and production. But the act of artistic creation seems to exist in opposition to commodity, particularly such creation that has at seeking and questioning at its core. Rather than embracing a postmodern aesthetic that questions meaning by fragmenting it, Adams seems to follow Rilke’s suggestion in attempting to “live the questions themselves.”

“Political art is ineffectual art and ineffectual politics”

When the audience had the opportunity to ask their own questions, one young composer (full admission: my brother, Benjamin Buchanan, now a Master’s student at Peabody) asked concerning balancing activism (particularly environmental) and artistic creation. Adams’ wholeheartedly positive response was to “keep asking the question,” that this was the essential act for an artist who is in the world, but not of the world, and yet cares for the world. Adams’ caveat, however, was that “political art is ineffectual art and ineffectual politics.” This echoes James Joyce’s breakdown of art into “kinetic” and “static,” where “kinetic” art sought to move people in some public or political fashion, whereas “static” art sought to attain the realm of aesthetic arrest.

While Adams’ music is certainly kinetic, sometimes fiercely so, it is not political (at least, it does not seem to have specific activist policy or propaganda at its heart). Indeed, Adams purports that he has “no interest in expressing [him]self.” Though his music can often be heard to utilize a harmonic palette that could be characterized as “Neo-Romantic,” his pacing of form and structure seems to be more that of a gradual wilderness than an expressive ego.

Part of Adams’ compositional quest is “protecting the music against the bad taste of the composer.” It seems that this abandonment of ego is central to Adams’ process, as “music is worthy of a lifetime’s devotion, because it’s bigger than us.” It is worth it, it seems, to give oneself to the completion–or, more likely, the questioning–of something that is beyond one’s ken. Indeed, his music, so often evocative of emptiness, seems the larger for it, a music of mountainous emptiness and glacial climax.

“My teachers, my native neighbors;

       My family, the wild animals;

             My school, the wilderness.”

Ken Osowski opened the program with a firm and impeccably timed performance of the solo piano work Nunataks (Inuit: “exposed peak”) which gradually unfolded with expanding upward gestures controlled with intent potency. Despite Adams’ own admission that the piece is a “sleeper,” it seemed the perfect opener for the program by establishing a sense of both place and pace. The Farthest Place, for violin (Lauren Rausch), vibraphone (Terry Sweeney), marimba (Ian Rosenbaum), piano (Ta-Wei Tsai), and double bass (Joe Magar), opened with depth and richness, proceeding through five large-scale arcs of lustrous harmonies that belied the slow affirmation of glorious melody, resonating with Adams’ own assertion that he writes a “polyphony of harmonic clouds,” and that “no matter what we do, sooner or later, it all sounds melodic.”

Among Red Mountains was one of the highlights of the concert, featuring Ta-Wei Tsai at the piano. The score, which realizes five different time-streams with sustained intensity, is rhythmically daunting and potentially invites a metronomic approach. Tsai’s performance, however, felt entirely natural, offering the glimpse of an approaching mountainous horizon. Whereas Brahms writes the melody of the mountains in his double concerto, Adams seems to be writing the mountains themselves, with enrapturing harmonic changes between glacial passages and pillars of stony sound. Adams seemed duly impressed by Tsai’s performance, offering a Popeye-like, strong-man arm-flex to call attention to the sustained prowess needed for the forceful work.

Equally vertiginous, yet with a completely different character, violinist Lauren Rausch offered Three High Places, written wholly for open strings and natural harmonics. The first movement flirted with silence, to the degree that the performer’s breathing merged with the gentle rasp of bow and harmonic bell-tones. The second movement proceeded with a moto perpetuo, arpeggiando virtuosity, leading to the last movement’s opening of confidence and surety, before receding into silence once more. Adams seemed pleased, offering a gentlemanly kiss of Rausch’s hand as she exited the stage. The concert ended with Red Arc/Blue Veil, for piano (Tsai), keyboard percussion (Rosenbaum), and electronics. The combined forces created an eventual textural crescendo, an arpeggiated apotheosis that, like Three High Places, submerged again into quiet.

 “Art is a spiritual practice…an act of faith…the belief in the future of humanity”

Though Adams may have eschewed the America that consumes and commodifies, his aesthetic champions the America that embodies the do-it-yourself spirit. His music is pioneering, not in any colonial sense, but insofar as he seems to see and seek wonder in the world about him, and to explore that sense (though not necessarily translate or express it) in tones, in numbers, in words and gestures. His music reminds us of the America that explores knowledge and that continually questions, and reminds us to (occasionally, at least) reject surety for the potential of art that is true to oneself.

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Evolution logo designed by ycArt Design. Photo of JLA by Donald; accessed here, 5/9/13.