Monday, February 6, 2017

Of Music and War (Mozart and An Iliad)

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
A Weekend of Challenge

Of Music

John Adams’ 1996 duet for two pianos titled Hallelujah Junction is named after a truck stop on the California-Nevada border near a cabin owned by the composer. The challenging (all the way around) minimalist work capped Anne-Marie McDermott and Christopher O’Riley’s Mainly Mozart Spotlight Series two piano recital in La Jolla’s Auditorium at TSRI February 4. Before they played the notoriously fraught work McDermott urged the audience, “Wish us luck.” Such is the difficulty of the relentlessly demanding work, which repeats dense patterns rhythmically based on “ha-le-LU-jah” (as the composer says, not so much “ha” at first, but eventually it encompasses the entire iteration of the word.
Christopher O'Riley
Courtesy of Mainly Mozart

The repetitions progress tonally and motifs are tossed back and forth, yet so tightly interwoven that woe betide any pianist who gets lost. If either artist got lost Saturday night, it was imperceptible to this listener, awestruck that they could possibly play the work at the end of such a challenging program, which included Camille St. Saëns’ Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, Robert Schumann’s intensely conversational Andante and Variations, Opus 46; and Sergei Rachmaninov’s lusciously operatic Suite No. 1, Opus 5.

Anne-Marie McDermott
Courtesy of Mainly Mozart
Curator of the Mainly Mozart Spotlight Series since 2012 and affiliated with Mainly Mozart since 1996, McDermott is both impeccable and fierce, a brilliant artist who wears many musical hats, among them artistic director of Colorado’s Bravo! Vail Music Festival. She and O’Riley played a two-piano recital last season and it was so popular that patrons insisted on an encore performance. Both Avery Fisher Career Grant recipients, they are perfect foils for one another in passion, precision and personality. The engaging O’Riley, host of NPR’s From the Top, was recently named director of the Tipper Rise Art Center, a 12,000-acre center outside Fishtail, MT. His first season of concerts took place last summer.

For those who wondered: O’Riley’s “page turner” is a foot pedal connected to the score-containing laptop he set up on his piano. McDermott’s page-turner was a human being.

The Meandering Quartett
Courtesy of Mainly Mozart
Next up at Mainly Mozart: The Mandelring Quartett from Germany returns March 11 and 12 playing two individual programs that feature works by Haydn, Victor Ullmann, Dvorak, Mozart and Brahms. The TSRI concert is at 7:30 Saturday, with Sunday concerts at 2:30 pm at St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Carlsbad and at 6pm at the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club. Saturday and Sunday concerts are not identical. Each evening program is preceded by a wine reception an hour before the concert. The concert, played straight through, is followed by a brief Q and A.

Of War

An Iliad at New Village Arts
Linda Libbey as Poet
Photo by Daren Scott

In their preface to the script of An Iliad (based on Homer’s epic tale as translated by Robert Fagles) co-authors Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare say it’s a play about war, and that the Poet/Storyteller is a “compendium of war” that has been telling the story of the Trojan War and others for centuries. Apparently, the Poet was there. They caution not to take the play as pro-war or anti-war, that the piece is neutral and concerns humankind’s proclivity for war and fascination with (addiction to?) the rage inherent in conflict. As the poet says, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it will be the last.”
The Poet and her Muse (Gunnar Biggs)
Photo by Daren Scott

War weary Poet
Photo by Daren Scott

Nonetheless, I believe that each who witnesses this one-person narration takes a side and terms it what he or she will. I call it a great anti-war piece, and I came home with severe battle fatigue, immediately passing out in my recliner, having fought at least this 9-year war with the Poet (profoundly splendid Linda Libby).

Serious San Diego theatregoers last saw An Iliad at La Jolla Playhouse in August 2012 with the estimable Henry Woronicz (marvelous actor and former artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as the Poet. The gender change matters not at all. In fact, the authors encourage it. To have seen two such superb actors in the role of the Poet in one lifetime is indeed a privilege.

That is not to say the piece makes for an easy evening in the theatre. It is relentless, compelling and devastating. Libby and director Jacole Kitchen’s collaboration bears wondrous fruit, and the enlistment of bassist Gunnar Biggs as the Muse is brilliant. Melanie Chen is sound designer; Alex Crocker-Lakness, lighting designer; and Mary Larson, costume designer.

The Poet is as war weary as the thousands of Greek warriors camped or anchored at Ilium. The Trojan Horse and the return of the raped Helena to Troy (her abduction was said to have launched these thousand ships) are yet to come. The Poet limns each hero, fallen soldiers, and in so doing celebrates and mourns heroes throughout history. In one telling sequence, the Poet names earth’s wars, which stack upon one another as they are projected upon the ships’ sails in John Anderson’s scenic design. How long till the singing is not needed is the question.

Libby fans rejoice in the “singing,” passionately delivered narration, which utilizes all ranges of her voice as pertains to pitch and intensity. She plays upon her own vocal cords with reasoned discipline, for the play is about rage. It is a stunning performance, clearly the pinnacle of the actor’s craft.

Achilles, Hector, Priam, Patroclus, Andromache, and Helen are just a few of the characters to whom the Poet gives voice, abetted by her Muse (Biggs) as she relates the
vital and timely tale. They represent all the lost sons, husbands and lovers of our eternity. Especially now.

An Iliad
By Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare
8pm Thursdays-Saturdays; 3pm Saturdays; 2pm Sundays through February 26
New Village Arts Theatre, 3787 State Street, Carlsbad Village or 760-433-3245

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