Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Curious Flights: The Age of Flight

Over the weekend I attended the final program of Curious Flights' 2015-2016 season. Artistic Director Noah Luna briefly introduced the evening & proudly noted that we would be hearing the West Coast premiere of Marc Blitzstein's Airborne Symphony, first presented by Leonard Bernstein in 1946 in New York. The 1st half of the concert provided context with works from the 1930s & 40s.

Tenor Brian Thorsett sang 3 yearning & lyrical love songs by Korngold, composed for Hollywood films. Mr. Thorsett's high, clear voice was controlled, even & caressing, & he elegantly shaped the songs & gave each a full range of dynamics & vocal color. The high notes of "I Meant to 'Say I Love You'" were beautifully clean & full, & he ended the song with a wonderfully gentle falsetto. Pianist Miles Graber's accompaniment was soft-edged & unobtrusive.

Copland's Sextet got a fun, perky performance. There was good communication between the musicians, & Brenden Guy's clarinet sound blended well with the strings. It felt like a lively conversation among friends. Closing the 1st half, a male chorus of 16 performed Barber's grim Stopwatch and an Ordance Map, based on a poem about the death of a solider in the Spanish Civil War. Bobby Chastain's conducting was orderly, & the chorus sounded ghostly & somewhat attenuated. Amusingly, the distracted timpanist did not notice when Mr. Chastain singled her out for a bow during the applause.

For the WWII-themed Airborne Symphony, Curious Flights fielded an oversized orchestra with plenty of brass & percussion, a male chorus of 24, a narrator & 2 vocal soloists. We also got a wind machine & a harp. Maestro Alasdair Neale's conducting was clear, precise & calisthenic. He often rose up on his toes. Ensemble was impressively tight, & the performance progressed confidently. The hammer blow chords were pointed, & cutoffs were exact. The piece is loud, & the orchestra sometimes drowned out the other performers. The music felt vaguely like a big Russian symphony. I was puzzled by the ending, which balked at its triumphal coda.

Mr. Thorsett's voice was overwhelmed by the heavy orchestration of the 1st section, but he got to provide comic moments when he interjected commands about electrical cords. Baritone Efraín Solís sounded robust in the choral numbers then created an intimate dramatic scene when he portrayed a bombardier writing a love letter home, his voice soft, tender & warm.

The chorus, positioned on the terrace, sounded distant but sang gamely. They often represented soldiers, both barking Nazis & griping American airmen. It was entertaining to hear "fubar" in the libretto. An amplified David Latulippe delivered the narration with great earnestness, though the demotic & self-assured tone of the text has dated rather badly. It was also just plain weird when he read lines with a German accent & gave a fascist salute.

The audience was supportive, & many gave the performers a standing ovation. The stage crew were fast in resetting the stage for every number. I was in an aisle seat, & during the Blitzstein a teenager in my row left the hall & came back twice, forcing me to stand up 4 times.

§ The Age of Flight
Curious Flights

"Sweet Melody of Night" from Give Us This Night (1936)
"I Meant to 'Say I Love You'" from Give Us This Night (1936)
"Tomorrow" from The Constant Nymph (1944)
    Brian Thorsett, tenor
    Miles Graber, piano

Sextet (1937)
    Curious Flights Chamber Ensemble
    Brenden Guy, clarinet
    Tess Varley, violin
    Cassandra Bequary, violin
    Ivo Bokulic, viola
    André Vera, cello
    Miles Graber, piano

Stopwatch and an Ordance Map, Op. 15 (1940)
    Curious Flights Chorus
    Bobby Chastain, conductor
    Lily Sevier, timpani

The Airborne Symphony (1943-44)
    Curious Flights Symphony Orchestra
    Curious Flights Chorus
    Alasdair Neale, conductor
    Brian Thorsett, tenor
    Efraín Solís, baritone
    David Latulippe, narrator

May 28, 2016 | 8:00 p.m.
San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall