The New Music Theater Ensemble gives its debut performance!

And what, you ask, is a “New Music Theater Ensemble?” And for that matter, what’s “new music theater?”

This week, I’m in the throes of final preparations for the first-ever performance of the New Music Theater Ensemble, an ambitious undertaking of the University of the Arts’ School of Music. An intrepid band of ten vocalists and five instrumentalists will perform on Wednesday, December 3 at 7 pm in the Caplan Recital Hall, located on the 17th floor of 211 S. Broad Street in Philadelphia.

To tackle the second question first: “New music theater” is the term used to refer to a broad and diverse array of works that combine music and theater in ways unlike traditional opera, operetta and musicals. It is “the wide and evolving territory that lies between opera and the musical,” according to Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s The New Music Theater (2008). These authors describe new musical theater as “theater that is music-driven (i.e., decisively linked to musical timing and organization) where, at the very least, music, language, vocalization and physical movement exist, interact, or stand side by side in some kind of equality but performed by different performers and in a different social ambiance than works normally categorized as operas (performed by opera singers in opera houses) or musicals (performed by theater singers in “legitimate” theaters).”

Interestingly, Philadelphia was a center of innovation for new music theater in starting in the mid-1980’s, primarily due to the pioneering efforts of the American Music Theater Festival (which later changed its name to the Prince Music Theater). For over twenty years, AMTF and the Prince helped to make Philadelphia into a major center for innovative, ambitious musical theater productions. Often working in partnership with other major regional festivals and institutions like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Grand Opera, the Spoleto Festival and the Walker Arts Center, AMTF brought major artists and new works to Philadelphia. Works by prominent creative artists like Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Lee Breuer, Meredith Monk and William Bolcom were featured by AMTF, while earlier works by historic artists like Duke Ellington, Harry Partch, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen received thoughtful reconstructions. Most significantly, the Festival produced work written, composed and staged by early-career artists who have gone on to make important contributions to the field, including Julie Taymor, Elliot Goldenthal, Diane Paulus, Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon, Tina Landau, Anthony Davis, Paul Dresher, Rinde Eckert and Ted Sperling.

I envisioned the New Music Theater Ensemble as an ensemble where singers, instrumentalists, composers and writers could work together to create performances of new music theater. The repertoire we’ve programmed includes original works by students as well as recent work by professionals, adapted and arranged for performance by the ensemble. It had been part of my original vision to give ensemble participants the opportunity to function variously as singers, instrumentalists and creators, regardless of their prior training and expertise, but, at least in this initial outing, those ambitious goals have been trumped by considerations of rehearsal time and student interest and expertise.

This has been an excellent opportunity for students whose previous theatrical performance experience was limited to gain some valuable practical on-the-job training. The work we’re presenting is challenging and detailed, requiring strong musicianship as well as confident and meticulous execution, and the ensemble members are doing their best to rise to the challenge. I’m eager to share the fruits of our labors, and to see how this initiative can continue to evolve in the months ahead.

Come On All You Ghosts – Gabriel Kahane

“Composer Gabriel Kahane blurs the boundaries between popular and classical idioms with “Come On All You Ghosts,” his setting of three poems by San Francisco-based Matthew Zapruder, for voice and string quartet. In each of the songs, Kahane seeks musical equivalents for Zapruder’s exploration of spiritual and philosophical concerns as expressed in the mundanity of contemporary life. The result is a song cycle that is at once adventurous and accessible, with language both naturalistic and absurd – much like life.” – from UCSD.TV site

In “Come On All You Ghosts,” the three-part song cycle that opened the concert, Mr. Kahane set poetry by Matthew Zapruder for baritone and string quartet. Mr. Zapruder’s verse — a learned, attentive everyman’s train of thought — couches subtle profundities among mundane observations.

Mr. Kahane’s interpretation mixes pop-song directness and amplified singing with string writing that attains a whorled density and includes an embedded reference to a Thomas Adès piece. Mr. Kahane’s smoky, earnest baritone suited both the words and their setting, and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider was strikingly alert to matters of nuance and mood.

From “Boundaries? Don’t Bother!” – the New York Times’s review of a subsequent performance of this work at Zankel Hall.

But enough footnotes – just listen to the damn thing.

In Memoriam: Dr. Mari Kathleen Fielder

Dr Fielder and studentsPhoto left: Dr. Fielder and students, courtesy of Shelvy Paredes

Wednesday June 25 – It’s been a week since Mari Kathleen Fielder passed, though the obituary was just published today. It was amazing to see Facebook light up today with passionate, emotional tributes from former students and colleagues at UArts. It reminded me of the special qualities that make a great teacher and an unforgettable human being.

I had several different relationships with Mari over the years – colleague, boss, friend, collaborator. As her boss, I quickly acquired an appreciation for her dedication to her students and their learning, and for her passionate love of the theater. She wasn’t the most up-to-date of teachers – it wasn’t unusual to get a multi-page handwritten letter from her instead of an email – but she had old-fashioned virtues that remain timeless and valuable: compassion, high expectations and vivid intelligence. Continue reading

The Opening Act

kahaneLet’s say you’re a singer-songwriter in your early thirties. You’ve premiered work at Carnegie Hall and the Public Theater, you’ve been signed to a major label, and your new CD has gotten positive reviews on NPR and the New York Times. As you load up your instruments before a show, you might be entitled to expect a good turnout from the local cognoscenti.

Perhaps those thoughts went through Gabriel Kahane’s mind last weekend during the drive from Brooklyn to Philly. But there’s no way he could have anticipated the impact of his opening act – Saleka Night Shyamalan, the 17-year-old daughter of film director and Philly-area resident M. Night Shyamalan.

Kahane was booked into Underground Arts, a gritty basement venue with plenty of hipster cred, but the crowd that gathered before the show was more suburban and upscale than its scruffy bouncers and bartenders were used to seeing. Nearly everyone in the audience knew Saleka: Grandma and Grandpa, friends and family, neighbors and business associates. As the room grew quiet, Saleka took a seat at the piano and Dad switched on his video camera, peering into the viewfinder with the intensity of a practiced, successful filmmaker.

Of course, the crowd was warm in its response to her original songs, and they crowded around her with loving praise after her set ended. Except for the fact that nearly everyone there was Indian, the vibe was very bat-mitzvah, and Saleka’s set seemed like an ultra-hip haftorah recitation.

However, the Shyamalan entourage clearly had no intention of staying for the main attraction, even though he was an artist more than worthy of their attention. As Kahane made his way to the piano, Saleka’s posse swept out of the room, leaving the handful of audience members who’d come to see Kahane free to occupy the front tables.

Kahane opened his set with a wry quote from Henry IV – “we few, we happy few” – and proceeded to offer an intimate, thrilling performance for the small but appreciative group of fans. It was like he’d invited some friends to his living room; he casually sipped a can of beer as he wandered from piano to guitar to banjo and made easy jokes with the crowd about Joan Didion and the Tony Awards. Though his plan was to showcase songs from his new release, “The Ambassador,” he was gracious (if a little surprised) when an audience member requested one of his Craiglistlieder, which he performed with an uncharacteristic degree of animation.

Without a doubt, it was an enchanting show, and yet there was a strange topsy-turvy quality to the evening. The nervous teenager who opened the evening, a local lass with a famous father, attracted a substantial crowd of effusive well-wishers, while the talented headliner, a remarkable artist whose work has earned praise from the national media, performed for a handful of fans in a nearly-empty venue.

After the show, Kahane could only shrug. “I pretty much knew what was going to happen,” he said. “It keeps a guy humble, I guess.” Perhaps thinking back wistfully to his own teenage years, he said, “She’s just seventeen. When you’re seventeen, you don’t have much of a clue.”

But it’s a shame that someone didn’t clue young Saleka and her entourage in to the bigger picture. The evening was a chance for her not only to present her own songs to her friends and well-wishers, but to show that she understood something about the art of songwriting, the “dues” a beginner needs to pay, the respect owed to one’s betters. How cool would it have been for her to say, “I’m just a beginner, and you should stick around for the headliner if you want to hear the work of a real genius?” Or if Dad had used his wealth and celebrity not just to support his daughter but to give a small boost to a worthy artist, a bona-fide genius? Or if she’d shown a little interest in how a real virtuoso does the singer-songwriter thing?

It was the perfect opportunity. But the opening act had a dinner reservation, and the most talented guy in the room was left to perform for the leftovers.

Though I haven’t written about Gabriel Kahane since this 2008 post, everything I’ve heard since then confirms my original opinion of his promise. If you haven’t heard his music yet, “The Ambassador” is a great place to start!

The Last Thirty Years, or Saturn Returns (with apologies to Adam and JRB)

Above my desk hangs a poster commemorating the “premiere season” of the American Music Theater Festival, bearing the dates June 27 – July 15, 1984.

That year, I was a young man in the midst of what astrologers call the “Saturn return,” a coming-of-age that occurs between the ages of 27 and 29, coinciding with time it takes the planet Saturn to make one full circuit in its travels around the sun.

Gertrude Stein writes of this transition in her 1904 novel Fernhurst, written at the time of her own “Saturn return:”

It happens often in the twenty-ninth year of a life that all the forces that have been engaged through the years of childhood, adolescence and youth in confused and ferocious combat range themselves in ordered ranks – one is uncertain of one’s aims, meaning and power during these years of tumultuous growth when aspiration has no relation to fulfillment and one plungers here and there with energy and misdirection during the storm and stress of the making of a personality until at last we reach the twenty-ninth year the straight and narrow gate-way of maturity and life with was all uproar and confusion narrows down to form and purpose and we exchange a great dim possibility for a small hard reality.

Decades later, composer and lyricist Adam Guettel would write a song entitled “Saturn Returns,” and that song provided the first title for a work that would later become known as “Myths and Hymns” when it was produced at the Prince Music Theater in 2002. The end of his 20’s gave Guettel an opportunity to reflect, and inspired this work’s title. “SATURN RETURNS refers to the completion of Saturn’s 28-year cycle around the sun,” his program note explains. “It is thought to be, for many of us, a time of profound reassessment. What have I done with this first cycle of my life? Who have I become?”

I don’t know what I hunger for,
I don’t know why I feel the hunger more
And more with every passing day…

In 1984, I felt “the hunger,” both personally and professionally. As a composer and lyricist, I had tried my hand at writing for the musical stage on several occasions, creating three original musicals, including one called “Assassins” that was produced at Theater Express in Pittsburgh in 1979, and another called “B.G.D.F.” which I self-produced in New York City in a 1983 showcase production. It was exciting to see and hear the work I’d imagined brought to life on the stage, but my work had received little attention, and I remained hungry, filled with a passionate desire to create original musical theater.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I was thrilled to discover a new producing organization had been established in Philadelphia, just up the interstate from my then-home in Wilmington, Delaware, called the American Music Theater Festival, “in search of a new vision of American musical theater.” I recognized the Festival’s founders, Marjorie Samoff and Eric Salzman, as kindred spirits, and offered my services in support of the launch of their daring venture.

At the time I am presently writing this, it is the summer of 2014, thirty years later. Saturn has taken another lap around the sun, and in the midst of my second “Saturn return,” I find myself in the midst of another time of reassessment. In the years since 1984, I penned another seven musicals, helped establish the musical theater training program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, climbed the academic ladder to the rank of Professor, spent a number of years at the forefront of an international organization of musical theater pedagogues, and somehow found time to be a husband and raise two remarkable sons (one of whom is in the midst of his first “Saturn return”).

During that time, I found myself at the American Music Theater Festival (which became the Prince Music Theater in 1999) on countless occasions in a variety of roles: composer, lyricist, director, music director and, with great frequency, audience member. AMTF brought guest artists like Adam Guettel, Ricky Ian Gordon, Tina Landau and others to develop new work at my school. The Prince commissioned me to write Gemini the Musical and hired my younger son, Kerry, to perform in several of its shows. Many of my students booked their first professional work at the Prince. In 2009, my school presented a concert version of the musical Follies on the stage at the Prince, with my wife and me in leading roles.

And now the Prince is gone. Not the building, which remains in operation as a kind of performing arts center, presenting music, theater and film attractions. But the Prince as an organization dedicated to a “new vision of American musical theater?” The curtain’s come down on the final act of that ambitious endeavor, and the Prince has exchanged “a great dim possibility for a small hard reality.”

Long ago, I left myself
And now I try to return
As a stranger to a strange land and to the burn.
But the hollow inside me
might be there to guide me home again
back to something sweet…