Angel’s Share closes first season with an aptly monstrous double bill

Thu Oct 11, 2018 at 12:29 pm
Jennifer Johnson Cano and Brian Cheney in Gregg Kallor's "Sketches from Frankenstein." Photo: Kevin Condon

Jennifer Johnson Cano and Brian Cheney in Gregg Kallor’s “Sketches from Frankenstein.” Photo: Kevin Condon

The Angel’s Share is the most inventive and welcome new concert series on New York’s classical scene. As other ensembles are gearing up for a new music season, Angel’s Share is ending its first season this week with a run of music that can only be described as uber-seasonal. As the days grow shorter and head toward Halloween, Angel’s Share seems most fully in its element.

As dusk fell on Green-Wood Cemetery Wednesday night, audiences enjoyed a whisky tasting followed by two dramatic pieces from composer and pianist Gregg Kallor: his Poe-inspired monodrama, The Tell-Tale Heart, and a quasi-world premiere of the first completed scenes from his in-progress Sketches From Frankenstein. (Kallor also played an energetic, jazzy tribute to Leonard Bernstein at the keyboard between the two.)

Angel’s Share performances are set in the cemetery’s Catacombs, located not only underground but deep within Green-Wood’s grounds. The unique dimensions—a long corridor—and resonance of the space create constructive challenges for any staged event. 

Director Sarah Myers had the singers—baritone Joshua Jeremiah, tenor Brian Cheney, and soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano—stalking up and down the aisles between the close-packed audience, and appearing from and disappearing into the family crypt spaces that lead off from the central corridor.

Accompanied by Kallor and cellist Joshua Roman, the singers produced just the right volume for the space—everyone was in full, rich, attractive voice—filling it without ever overwhelming the instrumental playing beneath nor the listeners around them. 

Joshua Jeremiah in "Sketches from Frankenstein," Photo: Kevin Condon.

Joshua Jeremiah in “Sketches from Frankenstein,” Photo: Kevin Condon.

Jeremiah and Cano had the bulk of the music—the former as Frankenstein’s monster, the focus of two of the three scenes presented, and the latter as both Elizabeth in Sketches and the solo narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart. Both were excellent. Jeremiah brought sincerity to the awkward libretto of Sketches and Cano captured, without theatrical exaggeration, the narrator’s shifting madness in Poe’s story.

Kallor himself, who apparently has only recently turned to opera (which he wrote in a program note was inspired by reading Mary Shelley’s novel), is a story-teller, and judging by what is an incomplete work, his ideas are much closer to musical theater than opera. His setting of a long solo from the monster, in which he expresses his loneliness and anger, and a duo in which he demands Frankenstein make him a mate, are straightforward recitals of text—the singers deliver exactly what’s going on while the music adds dramatic color without itself being dramatic or characterful.

There were lyrical and absorbing moments, specifically when Kallor repeated instrumental material that gave some form to what was otherwise through-composed. But the vocal music struggled to cut through the libretto. (Kallor adapted the text from the novel, while adding his own embellishments.) The monster was verbose without being eloquent—Kallor modernized Shelley’s original language, which has elegance and rhythm that any composer would admire. 

This made for a modernist vocal style in terms of intervals, rhythms, and phrases that never meshed with the music’s resolute tonality. Nor does Kallor’s sentimentalization of the story add anything; for example adding Shakespeare to the list of books that the monster read—which is not in the novel—so he could sing that the Bard “ennobled me.”

The Tell-Tale Heart, on the other hand, is a terrific piece of music given a dominating performance by Cano. The music has a simple and powerful idea, a dotted rhythm, minor chord going to one note, that is both the sound of the heart and that of impending collapse and doom. 

Cano, standing in an alcove at the back of the Catacombs, was at first calm, reasonable, sweet, and charming, then grew more agitated and then out-of-control step by subtle step. Tiny inflections in her voice expressed multiple dimensions of character without ever distracting from the beauty of her sound. Where the first piece was distracting and frustrating, The Tell-Tale Heart was gripping and even more crepuscular than the Catacombs themselves.

Sketches From Frankenstein and The Tell-Tale Heart will be repeated 6:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Green-Wood Cemetery.

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