Search This Blog

Friday, October 12, 2018

Tales from the Crypts

“THE LOVE OF ANOTHER will destroy the causes of my hatred!” The hulking figure is shadowed, his dark-rimmed eyes suggesting both ugliness and torment. He appeared suddenly, lit only by a flashlight, the beam of which turned on the audience to silhouette the keening monster. His voice wove pain and anger into a sound of heartbreaking beauty, as baritone Joshua Jeremiah gave life to the world premiere of composer Gregg Kallor’s “Sketches from Frankenstein” in the Catacombs at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

Joshua Jeremiah in "Sketches from Frankenstein"
Photo by Kevin Condon
Audacity informed everything about this performance, which took place on the chill evening of October 10. The cemetery itself sports a knoll that gives a panorama running from the Battery to Bayonne, and we began the journey there with a whiskey-tasting that continued in a nearby columbarium. Among the distillers: Pugilist Spirits, whose Prizefight Irish Whiskey is a transatlantic creation; Virgil Kaine, which shared a ginger-infused bourbon; and Brooklyn’s own Van Brunt Stillhouse. While such lubrication is always welcome, the dusk-spangled view was also an integral part of the experience. It made the trip into the Catacombs all the more oppressive.

Oh, it seems delightful at first. Here’s this 19th-century crypt hotel, tunneled into a hillside, intended to assuage those worried about being buried alive. Which seems an absurd worry – until you enter the world of Edgar Allan Poe. His “Tell-Tale Heart,” also set by Kallor, was another item on the musical program.

The long hallway of the Catacombs is flanked by crypts (there are thirty in all) that bear the names of the families reposing within. Each crypt sports a skylight, and skylights open above the central passageway. There’s space enough for a couple of dozen rows, each four seats across with an aisle down the middle. And space enough was left for the monster to burst from one of the crypts, making his way past the instrumentalists to ascend the stage.

“It’s hard to remember the beginning,” he sang at the start. He faced upstage at first, but Jeremiah’s voice is so clear and the acoustics so lively that not a word was lost. Even when he turned, his face remained obscured by a hood. As he made his way as an outcast, he tells us, “I discovered the names for things.” It was a long, slow climb to literacy.

Kallor’s music is more motivic than melodic, but those motifs accumulate. He likes to spin long musical phrases out of the words he sets, often with a busy accompaniment revealing the emotional turmoil lurking beneath. Harkening to the Baroque continuo tradition, Joshua Roman played a cello line that wove through the proceedings, adding harmonic richness and an extra sense of motion.

Jennifer Johnson Cano and
Brian Cheney | photo by Kevin Condon
After illuminating much of the monster’s story, the flashlight-bearer reveals himself as Victor Frankenstein. Tenor Brian Cheney nicely captured the sizzle of conflict that torments the man, in his own way now as much of a pariah as his creation. Although mention of the title typically prompts images of crowds with pitchforks and torches, much of the story of “Frankenstein” takes place on desolate ground as the monster and his creator face off in bitter reckoning. “I would give anything to be loved by others,” the creature insists, pleading with the other to create a companion. But, as Frankenstein confides, he’s scared of the consequences.

These were sketches, of course, which the composer terms a work in progress, but I hope the final shape of the piece keeps the terrifying intimacy that we witnessed in Brooklyn. As Victor notes the luster of the nature he has sought to control – “The stars are so beautiful, but their light is oppressive” – we meet Elizabeth, his longtime love and now new bride. “All I want to do is take your pain away,” she offers in comfort.

Jennifer Johnson Cano is a dynamic soprano who heads to the Met shortly to sing a couple of Verdi operas, but here she gave herself fully to two very contrasting roles. As Elizabeth, she’s a standard-issue comforting wife. (“I want you to be happy – with or without me.”) As the unnamed narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” she becomes plaintively demonic. Costumed in institutional drab, she appears in an upstage crypt entry behind a curtain that she tears from its mooring.

“Above all was the sense of hearing acute,” she sings at the start, giving an added emphasis that there’s troubling music accompanying her song. What follows is a 25-minute piece of virtuoso work on the part of all concerned – Cano, Roman, and Kallor as pianist, composer, and lyrist of the piece. This is also a good time to salute director Sarah Meyers, who made excellent use of the confining space, and lighting designer Tláloc López-Watermann, who snuck fixtures in the unlikeliest of niches.

By the end of the Poe, Cano was bathed in red, a red that flowed throughout the space. It was as chilling in its way as the phrase that climaxed “Frankenstein”: “I will be with you on your wedding night,” echoed by the monster as he taunts his creator and warns of certain doom.

Jennifer Johnson Cano
Photo by Kevin Condon
Kallor presented another premiere during the event: “The answer is: Yes,” inspired by and a tribute to Leonard Bernstein (interred nearby), drawing its title from one of Bernstein’s dazzling Harvard Lectures, this one addressing Ives’s “Unanswered Question.” It’s a brief work for solo piano, capturing Bernstein’s unique ability to flavor his work with jazz-inflected licks, with outer sections of impish drive and a hint of blues in the middle.

The Catacombs concert is the brainchild of Andrew Ousley, who founded Unison Media, a marketing company taking the cobwebs out of classical-music promotion. His first concerts in this style were presented in the crypt under the Church of the Intercession in Harlem. “I
found that taking people out of a traditional concert experience context helped make them more open to the music and the artists performing it,” he explains. After the initial publicity, he was invited to look at the Green-Wood Catacombs, and now runs a series at each space, which you can investigate here. Be warned: they sell out fairly instantly. “I get a lot of hate mail,” he laughs.

Ousley met Kallor when the latter was composer-in-residence at Manhattan’s SubCulture, a performance space on Bleecker Street, and he “was instantly taken with his incredibly complex, yet deeply lyrical and communicative compositions.”

Kallor has recorded his “Tell-Tale Heart” with Roman and soprano Melody Moore, who also performs eleven other Kallor settings, most of which were SubCulture commissions. They include a quartet of poems by Stephen Crane, two by Sara Teasdale and William Butler Yeats, and a particularly memorable contemporary poem, “A Prayer,” by Clementine Von Radics, which was commissioned by Moore, who sends you shivers as she sings it. This is a composer – and a concert series – I look forward to following.

Gregg Kallor: Sketches from "Frankenstein"; "The Tell-Tale Heart"
Directed by Sarah Meyers
With Jennifer Johnson Cano, soprano; Brian Cheney, tenor; Joshua Jeremiah, baritone.
Gregg Kallor, piano; Joshua Roman, cello.
The Catacombs at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY
10 October 2018

No comments: