Monday, February 01, 2010

Athletics, Aesthetics in Music: Rite and a Doo Wop Marathon

(reflections on two performances at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta during the past week: "Avenue X" with book and lyrics by John Jiler and Music by Ray Leslee, performed by the Alliance Theater, and "The Rite of Spring" by Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Spano.)

Photo by Greg Mooney | Pasquale (Nick Spangler), Milton (J.D. Goldblatt) and Rosco (Lawrence Clayton) in the a cappella musical Avenue X, Jan. 13 – Feb. 7, 2010 on the Alliance Stage.

For two hours, eight actors perform a cappella music with hardly any dialogue to speak of. We watch and listen in a state of wonder and excitement in the moment. What voices! What mastery! What stamina! Athletics added to the aesthetics.

The plot is Romeo and Juliet, more or less, only it's a talent show and not marriage that joins the star-crossed buddies. One's of Italian descent, and his ilk see their Bronx neighborhood and their kind of music in decline; the other is black, his family having just moved up from Harlem. Each escapes the oppressive realities of his neighborhood into the comforting echoes of the sewer under the street, and they harmonize before they meet. It's clear from the way that "Milton" embroiders his soulful melismas over "Pasquale's" tenor lines that the two are destined to be friends.

But it's the musical numbers that sustain our interest. Besides doo - wop, the story gives us occasions to hear other kinds of a cappella singing. There's a pastiche of schmaltzy Italian pop songs of the early 1900s, accompanied by a band of vocals. There's Roman Catholic chanting, with the word "Gloria" tipping on the edge of the old doo - wop song of the same name. There's soul train singing.

Next door, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra played a program of luminous and dreamy works by Vaughan Williams (Fantasia on Tallis) and Golijov (film music from YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH). But after intermission, it was time for Stravinsky's biggest hit, which I've often heard and never seen live. We see the conductor's irregular beats with the right hand, sudden accents cued with the left. We see the string players growing red, lunging forward to turn pages, trembling their bows, beating the strings, plucking and, at odd moments, sawing their instruments with savageness. I couldn't see the woodwinds and brass, but I know that they were playing at the outer edges of their instruments' ranges. The drummers at the back were pounding furiously, as hard as they could.
Maidens cut down in the full bloom of ancient Russian springtime? Teenage boys longing to get out of the Bronx? Sure, sure, whatever. Heard live, the focused energy and virtuosity of the performers added pleasure to what the composers had conceived; and it strikes me that the composers probably knew what they would be forcing their performers to do.

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