Sep 5, 2009

"I Don't Recall ..."

So, it's been a while, hasn't it? I left off blogging because, well, I thought that it was mostly me nattering away into thin air. That's the case, sure - but why not pick it back up when I have something (hopefully) a mite interesting to say? Why not, indeed. So I'll jumpstart the Labor Day weekend with shout-outs and a review.

I. Mad Props -

To Diego the Dreadful, for finishing his MA thesis, and to Enrico, for pulling down a Fulbright! Hi to stalwart Pedro, and to the lovely Rev. Also, hi, Mutti und Vatti, if you're reading this.

II. My Cats are Adorable

That is all. Except for this cartoon, which I find amusing:

Finally, the meat of the matter.

III. "The Gonzales Cantata"

So many different things went through my mind as I listened to this work, composed by the talented Melissa Dunphy, and performed at the Rotunda (on Walnut & 40th) for the Philly Fringe Arts Festival.

First and foremost, I had a fun time hearing bits & pieces of different composers in this work. An obvious influence is Handel - I had pegged the French overture at the beginning as almost a Matthew Passion reference, but with the much faster middle section, I changed the ID to the overture to the "Messiah." There was a moodily arpeggiating violin that almost cried out: "Albinoni's Adagio in g minor!" Really, though, the entire piece read as quite original; my penchant for identifying "references" is simply that: a penchant. I blame last year's spots exams.

Secondly, there were some really talented musicians at work! One particular standout performer was Mary Thorne, the soprano, with a crystalline voice, who sang Alberto Gonzales. (More on the gender reversal later.) In a fabulous aria, "I Don't Recall," Gonzales' 72-fold iteration of that same phrase was given full coloratura treatment. It. Was. Awesome. Later in the cantata, Gonzales trills that "this" (i.e., the hearing) is "not about Alberto Gonzales," rather, it is about "performance." Ironically, the very virtuosity of "I Don't Recall" highlights the *lack* of virtuosity in Gonzales' own performance before the irate senators. A more capable, or, at least, more Machiavellian politician could have slithered around quite a bit more in attempting to get off the hook. (An excellent companion to "The Gonzales Cantata," in the 18th-century practice of linking short works - see Strohm, "Dramatic Dualities: Metastasio and the Tradition of the Opera Pair," 1998 - would surely be a musical setting of Clinton's impeachment trial. Perhaps with an aria di bravura on: "It Depends on What the Meaning of "Is" Is.")

OK, one last point. Interestingly, Dunphy states that "In protest of male domination of American politics, the genders of the performers have been reversed in relation to the characters they play." (See one of the headline quotations on the cantata's website.) Now, anybody who knows me knows that I have no beef with pointing out gender disparities wherever they occur. However, I thought it ironic that this reversal should take place in a Baroque work. What it does is highlight one vast difference between 21st-century audiences and late 17th and 18th century ones: namely, that the latter would have *expected* treble and alto registers for the "heroic" roles. This was mostly because of the prominence of castrati in opera seria of the time. (Scholars and opera-goers alike have wrestled with understanding this phenomenon; for as interesting and sensible an explanation as any, see Freitas, "The Eroticism of Emasculation: Confronting the Baroque Body of the Castrato," 2003.)

The audience's reaction to the three patriotic songs, arranged by Dunphy and sung before the cantata, was quite telling. The songs themselves were crafted quite ... craftily. :) The first was "America the Beautiful," sung over the first prelude (C major) from the WTC. That *or* the Gounod backing for "Ave Maria" (which is itself that same prelude, with one measure added or taken out, I forget which.) The third was "God Bless the U.S.A./I'm Proud to Be an American," set over the ritornello-form "Sheep May Safely Graze," from Bach's BWV 280 (the secular Hunting Cantata.)

Now, one drawback of the artful wedding of the Baroque instrumentation with the patriotic texts and tunes was this: I had to bite down hard on my cheek to keep from snickering out loud. Particularly awesome was the third: various Baroque flourishes on "stand up" and the long fermata on "land." The movement to flat-VII in the verses posed no problem; in fact, some other harmonic variation in the chorus caught my attention even more! (I'm sad to say that I lost what it was as the audience guffawed. It's definitely not in the original song, though.)

But the audience guffawing is the most intriguing part. I laughed to myself because it was ingenious - but how many people laughed because the singer was a countertenor? Again, during the Baroque, this range and tone color (albeit one with even more force, perhaps, though the singer, Dan Williams, projected well) would have been *accepted* as heroic - as supernatural, powerful, and erotic. I wasn't quite sure whether or not Dunphy intended it as a joke; the third song made me lean a bit more toward the "intentional" side. In it, the singer starts out in the "normal" male range on the second verse, then zooms up an octave to belt out the final chorus. Hoots of audience laughter and applause accompanied this; I was disconcerted.

I'm pretty sure the audience appreciated Williams' voice, as well as the joke. I just thought it was interesting to reflect on how this shows changing musical conceptions of heroism over the centuries. If Farinelli had sung "God Bless the U.S.A."/"Sheep May Safely Graze," he would have inserted a long cadenza (or "division") on the final "land" - one that would have brought down the house, and led to the audience calling "One God, One Farinelli!!" (as an 18th-century lady is said to have shrieked at one of his performances.) One nation, under God, full of sheep? Perhaps - but full of excellent music, too.


Mormolyke said...

Hey! Composer Melissa Dunphy here. Your blog post came up on a Google search, and I absolutely loved reading it! Thank the lord for like-minded music nerds - I was wondering whether anyone in the audience would get some of the geekier references (Yes! A French overture - that's why it's called a "Freedom Overture" in the score/program/CD liner!).

I really love your discussion of the countertenor voice as well. I knew while writing the songs that there would be inevitable cheap laughs because of the voice type - "God Bless the USA" is such a "masculine" song, but modern social constructs judge a countertenor voice to be feminine or emasculated. However, for me, it was also a chance to explore why that is, so your reaction to the crowd's reaction was spot on. It's a little fascinating to me how uncomfortable we are with anything outside of our predefined concept of gender. At the same time, it seemed like a good chance to poke fun at the songs themselves - particularly the Sousa and Lee Greenwood numbers - which are bombastic to the point of being ridiculous.

Anyway, thank you so much for coming to the show and for your great commentary.

Mormolyke said...

Oh, AND thank you for comparing the fact that the genders are switched to the original voice-casting of Baroque operas. I also act in a lot of Shakespeare, and I've often been cast in male roles, so evolution of acceptable gender roles in theatre over the last 400 years has been interesting to me for years. You're right, it's ironic - to people who know anything about Baroque opera.

AND yes, my decision to mash a blindly patriotic song into a song about sheep was very intentional :D