RECENT REVIEWS: Cantus at the Harriman, Asher Fisch at KC Symphony, ‘American Buffalo’ at KC Rep

NINE FOR THE NINE THAT DRESSED SO FINE: Harriman-Jewell Series presents Cantus

Cantus is an all-male a cappella ensemble consisting of nine singers who perform a most eclectic mix of music from all eras and genres. The group’s Harriman-Jewell Series debut on May 16th – bumped from its February date because of mounds of snow – displayed this variety to a dizzying degree, and at the same time showed off the ensemble’s delicious, highly refined choral blend. The Minnesota-based choir was founded in 2000 and has become one of the most peripatetic groups in the United States. In 2011 it won Chorus America’s Education Outreach Award for its work in schools, and indeed a vital part of its residency here was a choral master class at Eisenhower Middle School in KCK. But public performances remain at the heart of Cantus’ activities, and the Folly Theater audience was treated to music from early polyphony to Randall Thompson, from Middle Eastern music to Michael Jackson.

Cantus

Unlike Chanticleer, the all-male chorus that has uses sopranos and altos to sing high parts, Cantus has only tenors, baritones and basses and sings arrangements that fit that complement of voices. They perform some of the same repertoire as other all-male choruses but often transpose them downward. They’ve become established enough that they’re able to commission works by major composers, the likes of Nico Muhly and Lee Hoiby. The issue of whether they are the “premier men’s vocal ensemble in the United States,” as their official bio suggests, I will leave up to individual listeners to decide.

The singers of Cantus do not stand stone-still, and this is refreshing: They move and sway as they feel the spirit or the need, often glancing at one another as much out of camaraderie, perhaps, as musical necessity. Their first set of three selections (meant to be performed as a “group,” though unhappily every single number through the evening was applauded) served as a representative display of what the group is about. The rough-hewn Medieval polyphony of Pérotin’s Sederunt traded on a rich, piquant sound that was not devoid of playfulness; in strong contrast, Victoria’s O Vos Omnes was imbued with a suave polish, with cadential chords that were amazingly in tune. Randall Thompson’s ubiquitous Alleluia was a low-key affair, all smoky incense and candelabras. In these three selections we felt we had already traversed the history of choral music, but Cantus was just getting started.

Grieg’s “Båden-Låt” tells the tale of a cat trying to find warmer climes, and features one singer who does nothing but meow. Schubert’s “Die Nacht” was warm and sensuous, avoiding full immersion into the song’s inherent schmaltz. Tim Taakach’s operatic-sounding bass seemed at odds with Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” but it is a lovely voice. The Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’ Incantatio, with its texts from the Kalevala legends, mixed minimalist polyphony with sudden breaks into homophonic whispers. It’s a tad gimmicky but not bad. Luceat Eis received a sensitive, sensible arrangement by Takach, while Cantus’ version of U2’s MLK transformed the song into a ballad.

A.R. Rahman’s “Zikr” had a Middle Eastern flavor, complete with drum and tambourine, while Ysaye Barnwell’s somewhat drawn-out “Wanting Memories” divided the singers into three trios, each with its own role. Mohammed Fairouz’ “A Source of Light” featured words of Sir Isaac Newton (the “shoulders of giants” passage) and a witty poem by Charles Bukowski of all people – his “A Sickness,” which details deaths and tragedies of great artists through the ages. The composer has plenty of fun here, aping different styles as he refers to various artists’ drastic means of demise – as for instance when the basses rumble low, Russian-liturgical-style, when Tolstoy’s voluntary poverty is mentioned.

The final group of four numbers included Pavel Chesnokov’s terse “Salvation is Created,” Kodaly’s brief “Mountain Nights, Mvt. 1” and Jester Hairston’s soulful “In Dat Great Gittin’ Up Mornin’, in which the group sounded like nothing so much as “a buncha white guys singin’ spirituals.” Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World,” in an arrangement by Cantus member Paul Rudoi, seemed to belabor the song’s simple sentiment. But the encore of Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” was quite beautiful: lush and disciplined. At program’s end we were left with a memory of lovely singing, but also with a sense that it really is possible to take eclecticism too far, and when you do, a concert can easily take on a “kitchen-sink” feel.

 

DOUBLE DUTY: Asher Fisch guest-conducts the KC Symphony, at times from the piano

Conductor Asher Fisch has become perhaps the favorite guest conductor of KC Symphony audiences, and he always has surprises in store. The Symphony’s concert of May 17th-29th, which I attended on opening night, was actually a make-up for an appearance Fisch was scheduled to make here last season, performing the same program. It was well worth the wait. Fisch’s Blumine movement, which Mahler originally composed for his First Symphony then omitted, was breathless and stealthily paced, full-bodied oboe passages and solid trumpet solos (though principal trumpet Gary Schutza’s lonely placement way upstage left made for an odd acoustic and visual effect.) I’ve always questioned the use of this as a concert piece – it seems random and out of context – but this was sweet, refined Mahler.

Asher Fisch

Fisch was conductor and soloist for Mozart’s K. 453 Piano Concerto in G major, which he led at times standing in front of the orchestra, at times seated at the piano. His Mozart is tender and distinguished – somewhat Romanticized but not too much, clear in concept, more like chamber music than like a symphonic score. The performance gave some of the highly capable associate principal winds a chance to shine. Asher didn’t do a lot of arm-waving from the piano, and even when he did it only occasionally improved the orchestral attacks. As nearly always in these affairs, orchestra and piano strayed from each other more than once: I’ve never been a big fan of “conducting from the keyboard,” as experience shows us that even a small orchestra seems to need someone up front waving a baton or something.

The real treat of this concert was Arnold Schoenberg’s extraordinary orchestration of Brahms’ G-minor Piano Quartet – not just a fascinating experiment in color and texture but also a loving homage to Brahms by one of his greatest admirers. One often hears this as a muddy second-hand version of the original, but under Asher’s direction it had incredible transparency and logic. He made virtue of leisure in the first movement, playing it indeed at an Allegro but savoring each moment. It seemed more like a chamber work than a symphonic one, which is perhaps as it should be. The winds were a bit heavy at the beginning of the Intermezzo, but as it moved along the balances became more suave and natural. Raymond Santos’ clarinet solos in the Trio had texture and character, starting almost hesitantly and even drawing out a bit of whimsy; wind solos and those by concertmaster Noah Geller were at a high level indeed. Schoenberg’s voice comes out frequently here, as in the string “sheen” in the Andante con moto, reminders that this piece is not just reprocessed Brahms. The finale was bracingly quick: We just held onto our seats and rode out this playful alla zingarese with its jaunty Gypsy fire-breathing.

 

WOODEN NICKEL: KC Rep mounts feverish production of problematic Mamet play

Since its premiere in 1975, David Mamet’s American Buffalo has mustered a certain reverential aura as a “great American play” that everybody has wanted to be in. Robert Duvall and Al Pacino both performed the choice role of “Teach” on the stage (first at Chicago’s Goodman, then on Broadway) and Dustin Hoffman took it on for the 1996 film adaptation; a 2008 Broadway revival featured John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and (yes) Haley Joel Osment. The Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production these past few weeks on the Copaken Stage had much going for it, including one of my favorite local actors, Brian Paulette, as Teach and two powerful cohorts, Robert Elliott as Don and especially Robbie Tann as the young Bob. Jerry Genochio KC Rep’s producing director since 2008 – made an impressive Rep directorial debut with a production that was sharp, detailed and well-oiled. Donald Eastman’s set design depicting the interior of Don’s junk shop was deliciously scrappy, with walls filled to the brim with clutter, lit craftily by Jason Lyons. Patrick Holt’s costume design was vintage ’70s cornball. Still, nearly 40 years down the road this play doesn’t appear to have weathered as well as expected: Its “shocking” outbursts seem tame, its language pedestrian, if still humorous.

American Buffalo

Even the purportedly “over-the-top” profanity, as it was characterized in the ’70s, didn’t strike me as all that strong by today’s standards, and the explosive penultimate scene where in which a raging Teach completely destroys the junk shop is ratcheted down several notches in this production. More to the point, though, in 2013 the substance of this play seems, well, slender. “Friendship, trust, betrayal, greed” – American Buffalo is supposed to have them all. The reality is humbler: The aggressive Teach and his supervisor in crime, Don, want to steal a coin collection from a customer of the junk shop, and Teach gets worked-up over suspicions Bob has already pulled off the job behind his back with the (unseen) Fletcher. Teach slugs Bob, whose ear starts to bleed. Teach feels remorse, and abandoning the heist they discover Bob was telling the truth – that he and Fletch didn’t do the job after all. All is forgiven, and in a jolting about-face, the stage is filled with warm and fuzzy feelings, as the childlike vulnerability of these tough guys comes bubbling up. That’s pretty much it. Perhaps the play had the look of “working-class Albee” in 1975, but today despite its incisive grittiness it seems as dated as Teach’s sideburns.

Brian was suitably hyperactive as Teach, tense and shrill and pacing the floor of the tiny shop until you wanted to go upside his head. Don was more stable as the shopkeeper but not by much; his voice had an exaggeratedly gravelly quality that was perhaps intended to convey a sort of paternal air. The standout, for me, was Robbie Tann as Bob, a hangdog young junkie trying to clean himself up but not doing so well. He plays the dim bulb in the room but has his own quiet cunning, which comes out when he hits up others for cash. Robbie’s fire burned coolly, but it captured Bob’s gentle nature with flair.

5_4 Bravo WEB (1)

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (#phorsleycritic).