Four Note Opera
Music of David Sawer
Song for Achilles



Creo Provides a Delightful Evening of Music by Tom Johnson

      Tom Johnson, who composed all the pieces on Creo's concert on April 24th and 25th, was asked "What is the difference between theory and practice?" He replied "Theory is when you know everything about it but it won't work. Practice is when it works but you don't know why." (Quoted from The evening worked, and I'll try to tell you why. I can, because I'm not a composer. These are serious compositions with a light heart.

      The performers were from the Tidewater community and proved once again that not all fine performers must be imported from somewhere else. The opening piece was Kientzy Loops (2000), written for saxophonist Daniel Kientzy, who premiered it in Paris. The piece won a French prize for contemporary music. A taped alto saxophone loop, recorded earlier by James Nesbit, opens the piece and is soon joined by a live James Nesbit on baritone saxophone. The live saxophone voice gives the loop a run for the money but then drops out. Think of the loop as a train and the live saxophone as trees, houses and light poles as you pass rapidly by - snatches of sound, melodious fragments, a jazz riff here and there. With Nesbit now on alto sax, his "voice" begins to fuse with the loop, all the while working toward the great relief of silence. Jim Nesbit currently teaches at Old Dominion University and had an active career as a woodwind instructor at the Armed Forces School of Music. He has played in symphonies and for top jazz and R&B performers such as Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, All Jarreau and others.

      Eggs and Baskets was written in 1987 and performed for enthusiastic grade school children but later the composer realized that perhaps the piece is more appreciated by adults. This piece is an exploration of mathematical permutations as music, narrated by Carin Cowell. The composer did not specify specific instruments, but here the two baskets are percussion (Bryan Maurer) and viola (Natalia Kuznetsova). The notes they play are the eggs. One egg, two baskets, two eggs, three eggs and on up to six, creating all possible combinations. This music does not carry the players along, it pushes them to improvise. The theory is a formula but the musical experience was exhilarating.

      The first half of the program closed with Verses for Percussion (1979). Tom Johnson has said "Most contemporary music is quite asymmetrical, and often we seem to have lost our appreciation for simpler and more symmetrical forms." In 1974 he began a series of pieces that are highly symmetrical "verses" for various media. On stage were Andrey Kasparov, David Walker, Kevin Kelleher and Bryan Maurer with an array of percussion instruments. With long silences between angry bursts of sound, then whimsical bursts, the piece was cut into tiny fragments. Ringing overtones filled part of the silences. The composer's notes tell us that he used eight-bar phrases as an absolute restriction. Variety results from subtle differences in each phrase and the symmetry of the phrases is always maintained. Long fermatas (pauses) create sharp separations between verses. Xylophone, triangle, snare drum, vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel each had a bit of the action. The piece pushed the limits of how long a silence can hold an audience's attention.

      Minimalist composer Tom Johnson was born in Colorado, received his B.A. and M.M. from Yale University and studied privately with Morton Feldman. He lived in New York for fifteen years and since 1983 has lived in Paris. The Voice of New Music, Johnson's collection of articles written between 1971 and 1982 for the Village Voice and published by Apollohuis in 1989, is now in the public domain and can be downloaded at

      The stage at Chandler Hall is hung with long, vertical translucent banners of sheet music and there are black velvet curtains - a black and white set. Singers and tech people come in and tweak this and that and then exit. It is ten minutes to eight. We have been hearing about Tom Johnson's Four Note Opera for months now and have been told that the opera has no plot and the story line is new in each production. Johnson has said that every director should do it differently. Intrigued and puzzled, we wait. What we do know is that the singers are all excellent. I've written glowing reviews of each in the past. The characters are the prima donna Soprano, (Elizabeth Medeiros Hogue) and her rival, the carping Contralto (Lisa Coston), the unhappy Tenor (Michael Dailey) who is stressed because the Baritone (Walter Swan) has all the long arias. The rich comedy that ensues as the four big egos vie for our attention is the story here.

      With piano accompaniment by Oksana Lutsyshyn (the frustrated Pianist) and only four notes (A, B, D and E), the piece is minimalism at its best. By removing layers of harmonic complexity, musical points become clearer. The Baritone's 156 measure aria illustrates subtly altering repetitions, a major component of minimalist composition. The other characters put on night caps and lie down with their stuffed lambs while he sings on and on. Only the tenor is distressed; he knows that, traditionally, long arias belong to him!

      The Contralto in her tiara holds long notes, messing about with the musical line as it suits her whim. The Soprano Cover (Johanna Groot Bluemink) wants to sing and competes with the Soprano while we wait breathlessly for the fast aria. The musicians sing their stream of consciousness as they perform. The audience is invited into their inner world; their humanness is both luminous and petty by turn. It is a wonderful experience.

      The music is fast paced, then drags along slowly. There are bel canto vocals, then pop blues. The chorus goes into balletic movements. Oh, I forgot to mention that all the understudies have joined in the action, adding a complexity that the four member cast would have lacked. This was a decision by stage director Carin Cowell, following the composer's notion that each director should do the piece uniquely. The director and producer, Andrey Kasparov, was uneasy at this turn of events, but it allowed Contralto Cover (Suzanne McGuire), Tenor Cover (Orson Van Gay), Baritone Cover (Wes Mason) and Bass (Paul Danaher) to become an important part of the show. In conversation, Dr. Kasparov pointed out that there was a tremendous risk involved since understudies are there to fill in for the principals in an emergency. Because we have not seen it in its simpler casting I can not evaluate the change. But I can say that we enjoyed the richness.

      In conversation with Dr. Kasparov and Ms. Cowell we learned of some of the challenges to bring this enormously successful performance to the stage. Chandler Hall is designed for recitals, not an opera production, so there were limits on lighting, the amount of rehearsal time in a busy venue and even accommodating the musicians of the first half in the same space as the opera stage set.

      Doing an opera with stage design, costumes (Elisa Richards) and lighting (Sara Lyon) added to the challenge of new music. Fred Bayersdorfer, executive producer, played a pivotal role in bringing together the director, stage director and set designer Amy Repak to come up with a unified conception. In the three weeks of rehearsals the understudies were available for working out all the details while some of the principals were away with other engagements. For Creo this was an unusual challenge but was great fun for the audience. They achieved a sense of ensemble. Giving the understudies the professional setting gave them a showcase for their best work.

Music of David Sawer in the Context of Contemporary British Music

With Jamestown's 400th Anniversary we have heard much British music, most of it works by Henry Purcell and his contemporaries from the seventeenth century. Now comes an evening planned by Andrey Kasparov, director of CREO, Old Dominion University's modern music group, showcasing contemporary music of Britain: "Music of David Sawer in the Context of Contemporary British Music," February 26th and 27th at Chandler Recital Hall.

David Sawer's (b.1961) three solo pieces and a piece for ensemble were presented. The "context" included works by other British composers: Eric Cook (b.1956), Peter Maxwell Davies (b.1934), Philip Sparke (b.1957), John Taverner (b.1944) and Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998).

Tippett 's art song cycle, Songs for Achilles (1961), was sung by new music faculty tenor Kerry Jennings accompanied by Timothy Olbrych on guitar. Tippett wrote his opera King Priam in 1958-1961 to his own text adapted from Homer's Iliad, the story of the fall of Troy. The song cycle was composed in 1961 and uses both music from the opera and additional material. The first song, In the Tent, is in the opera and is accompanied by guitar. Achilles is sulking in his tent when he sings to Patroclus, his younger male companion, of their homeland. The homosexual subtext is subtle in the text but not in the visuals of the video of the powerful production by Nicholas Hytner of Kent Opera's King Priam led by Roger Norrington (Kultur 0081). Patroclus puts on Achilles' armor and goes out to battle and is killed. The text of the second song, Across the Plain, recounts this part of the story and Achilles cry of horror and his vow of revenge as he becomes aware that his lover is dead. The cry is unnerving and the singing is declamatory rather than lyrical. It is bleak, stark music that is hard to listen to but emotionally very effective. Part of the text for the third song, By the Sea is used in the opera when Achilles is with Priam reflecting on both of their losses in this war leading to the fall of Troy. The text completes the story that tomorrow Achilles will fight with and kill Priam's beloved son Hector. "I will mutilate the body, then await my death at Paris' hands." This powerful performance by Jennings and Olbrych served the music well, capturing the pathos of loss in war. Tippett was a gadfly of the British intelligentsia, a pacifist, liberal, agnostic and homosexual. His works and personal stances often aroused violent reactions from the public and government.

The opening piece was Song of Ina by Philip Sparke from New Zealand, part of the British Commonwealth. Sparke is a longtime friend of euphonium soloist Riki McDonnell who commissioned this piece in memory of a friend's wife. The intent is to celebrate her life. The opening has a romantic feeling. There are jazzy interludes in this sentimental dialogue of piano (Oksana Lutsyshyn) and trombone (Mike Hall). Mr. Hall, a new ODU faculty member is professor of trombone, euphonium and director of the brass choir. Bolivar (2000) by Eric Cook (b.1956), also played by these two fine musicians, replaced this piece in the February 27th performance which we did not hear.

Ms. Lutsyshyn gave us the first experience of Sawer's music, playing the solo piano piece The Melancholy of Departure, inspired by De Chirico's painting of the same title. We heard something surprisingly new from the piano based on contrasts of low bass notes with high treble notes, center keys with dramatic bursts of treble tones like the sound of rain coming down on soft, green grass. Meditative sections contrasted with very dramatic ones. Heavy percussive chords in both hands, silence, the right arm extended to the end of the keyboard, one quiet note and it is over.

The postcard announcing this program had a quote from Allied Artists, London: " David Sawer's music frequently possesses a wit which can mask more disturbing elements. Extended passages are built up from the repetition or gradual transformation of tiny melodic fragments, and propelled forward by rhythms of compelling ingenuity." Often his pieces have a connection to visual arts. Mute for Solo Trombone is both music and theatre. Several music stands are set in a semicircle and Mr. Hall is both performer and actor. Mutes are props that alter the sound of his instruments. The change of position from one music stand to another is coordinated with shifts in the mood of the music from whimsical to raucous as if he is several players, each contributing to the musical dialogue. At one point he exits, then returns and plays shorter phrases. Using the bell of a plunger he creates sad, distant notes with a bass quality. He turns, runs off the stage then returns for a curtain call. It was fun and interesting.

Jennifer Snyder was featured in Parthenope for Solo Viola (2003). It is like a Baroque piece that has jumped forward in time getting a bit off key in the process. There were plucked strings that accompanied bowed sections that sawed out Sawer's repeated phrases. The piece is non-sequential and never predictable. A pleasant melody is followed by a raucous tremolo as if he is constructing a sound sample, a catalogue of possibilities for the viola, all masterfully played by Ms. Snyder.

Winterfold (1986) by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (b.1934) for instrumental ensemble and mezzo-soprano featured Lisa Relaford Coston singing the poem by George Mackey Brown, The Keeper of the Midnight Gate. It is the story of the Bethlehem gatekeeper who greets all the cast of the Nativity as they arrive. The music is Davies' first use of medieval plainchant. The opening music sets a somber tone but sweetens as the story unfolds. There is a feeling of reluctant possibilities as cello (Mike Daniels), alto flute (Bonnie Kim) and guitar (Timothy Olbrych) join together. The rustic gatekeeper is gruff but friendly to the Wise Men. We hear vibraphone (David Walker), piano (Lutsyshyn), viola (Natalia Kuznetsova) and clarinet (Gerry Errante). Guitar and celesta and quiet strings are enlivened by the flute when the soldiers come to enquire of recent births. "This gate is open always for King Herod's heroic hooves and swords." The sad end of piano overtones dies away as we reflect on the slaughter of the innocents. I love this piece of music. CREO introduced it several years ago and I am always happy to hear Ms. Coston sing it again. Andrey Kasparov conducted these complex musical procedures with clarity and passion.

The second half the program opens with two selections, The Lamb and Village Wedding by Sir John Tavener (b.1944), sung by the Virginia Chorale led by Robert Shoup. A gentle poem by William Blake, "Little Lamb, who made thee?" was set to gentle music with a hint of atonality. The musical line was passed around from one vocal range to another with each repetition. The music sounds simple but there are subtle and difficult to sing rhythm changes that create the sound of natural speech. Village Wedding, with text by Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos (1884-1951) in an English translation, is a celebration. The line "O Isaiah dance for joy, for the Virgin is with child" is repeated after each line of narrative of a wedding story with quickening awareness of depths of meaning as the events unfold. Musically the challenge seems to be to create sound that keeps the listener's attention by using counterpoint and vocal range variations with the repeats. Tavener has described the piece as a series of musical and verbal images that show that everything in the natural and visible world can be seen as an expression of a supernatural and invisible order of reality. Certainly these pieces are an intriguing use of this fine vocal ensemble to make his point.

Another new faculty member at ODU, Lucy Manning, who teaches orchestra and violin, conducted the last piece. David Sawer's Hollywood Extra (1996) is music to accompany the 1928 silent film Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra. Continuing his fascination with visual art, Sawer succeeds in underlining the tragicomic aspects of this cubist/expressionistic film, a satire on the Hollywood star system. Reminiscent of the paintings of Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), the cityscape of the black and white film, with its heavy shadows, is the backdrop for a silly, star struck young man in a suit with his film extra number 9413 written on his forehead. A supernova appears as a star shape on his forehead and he dreams of eating, climbing steps (stairway to stardom?) accompanied by a demented ragtime, a mask, Hollywood success written on the face of the building, his being shot, tombstone, in casket with shadow play, figure in a car riding to heaven are some of the images. It is a bit dopey, stylized exercise that comes at the audience without engaging heart or mind. The music was well-played and appropriate. What I don't understand is why Sawer would lavish such effort on this dated and didactic film. Errante and Hall returned to play with Amanda Halstead, piano; Bryan Mauer, percussion; David Savige, bassoon; David Vonderheide, trumpet; Christopher White, double bass; and Yun Zhang, violin.

It was a full evening of excellently played British music. The commitment of the performers, organized by Andrey Kasparov to have adequate rehearsal time, offered the audience polished performances of new music. Although not always to everyone's liking, it was an enriching experience nonetheless.

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