by Michael Caruso
The Ann Stookey Fund for New Music has awarded The Crossing a grant of $11,250 to support the creation of a composite commissioning project celebrating the legacy of choir co-founder Jeff Dinsmore. The singer passed away unexpectedly last year while the choir was in rehearsals for performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The project has been named “Jeff Quartets.”
Chestnut Hillers have a two-part connection with the giving of the grant. The Crossing, a professional chamber choir that focuses on commissioning and performing new choral music, both rehearses and performs at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The Ann Stookey Fund for New Music is a companion fund with the Ann Stookey Fund for Music at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill. Its principal focus is on raising money to maintain the parish’s incomparable Aeolian Skinner pipe organ.
The grant to The Crossing will enable the choir to commission a series of vocal quartets written by composers whose lives Dinsmore touched. These include Benjamin Boyle, Williams Brooks, Robert Convery, Eriks Esenvalds, Paul Fowler, Ted Hearne, Garbriel Jackson, David Lang, Lansing McCloskey, Santa Ratniece, David Shapiro, Kile Smith and Lewis Spratlan.
Stookey was a longtime member of both the parish and the choir of St. Paul’s Church. Upon her death several years ago, her husband, Joe Waz, established both the Ann Stookey Fund for Music at St. Paul’s Church and the Ann Stookey Fund for New Music in her honor. For the former, he presented the parish with a $250,000 matching grant. Last week, the church reported that it had raised the necessary funds within the time frame of the grant.
Regarding the New Music Fund, Waz (a former chairman of the board of Settlement Music School), said, “We are pleased to remember Ann’s love for choral music again this year by supporting new works that will engage artists and listeners in fresh and exciting ways.”
Donald Nally, founder and artistic director of The Crossing, said, “This grant from the Ann Stookey Fund allows us to move forward with this beautiful concept that will be an everlasting memory of a friend we miss every day. That this list of composers would commit to such a project, including an omnibus edition of the collection of all the commissions, is a testament to Jeff’s importance to the new music and choral music communities.” Nally added that sales of the edition of “Jeff Quartets” will support The Jeffrey Dinsmore Memorial Fund @ The Crossing.
Both Opera Philadelphia and the Academy of Vocal Arts Opera Theater opened productions this past weekend, and the two couldn’t have been more different. The former premiered its mounting of the new opera “Oscar,” based on the life of Oscar Wilde, Friday evening, Feb. 6, in the majestic Academy of Music; the latter opened its production of Puccini’s perennial favorite, “La Boheme,” Saturday night, Feb. 7, in its intimate Warden Theater.
“Oscar,” with music composed by Theodore Morrison to a text by John Cox and Morrison, based on quotations and writings by Oscar Wilde and his contemporaries, tells the story of the trial, conviction and imprisonment of the Irish poet and playwright in late 19th century England. Initially accused of sodomy, Wilde brought suite against the Marques of Queensbury, the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as “Bosie.” Wilde lost and as a consequence, was charged with gross indecency. Upon his conviction, he was sentenced to two years at hard labor in Reading prison. Once released, he spent the final years of his life in France.
The real test of an opera’s score is its ability (or lack thereof) to deepen the narrative of its text and to more fully reveal its cast of characters and engender more sympathy for their plight than words alone could ever accomplish. On that count, “Oscar” is a failure. Morrison’s score, though not particularly challenging harmonically, is almost totally bereft of legitimate lyricism and is at most effective when it is purely instrumental, such as while accompanying the choreography given the dancer portraying Bosie, a non-singing role in the tradition of Tadziu in Britten’s “Death in Venice.”
The only memorable vocal music is that composed for Wilde’s friend and newspaper editor, Frank Morris, splendidly sung and acted by tenor William Burden. Soprano Heidi Stober gave a fine performance as Ada Leverson, perhaps Wilde’s closest friend, but her music was mostly comprised of leaps and bounds not particularly prone to a revelation of personal warmth and generosity, which were obvious hallmarks of Leverson.
Morrison set the role of Wilde not just for a countertenor. He created it for a particular countertenor, David Daniels, and he couldn’t have made a better choice. Daniels sang Morrison’s challenging and not especially idiomatic music with technical agility, surpassing power, eloquent lyricism and crystalline clarity of diction. Through intelligently chosen gestures and sensitively conceived inflections, he came as close as possible to softening Wilde’s tendencies toward condescension in order to, in the end, turn him into a figure deserving of both sympathy and admiration.
“Oscar” continues at the Academy of Music through Feb. 15. For ticket information, visit www.operaphila.org.
Even if Giocomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” isn’t the greatest opera ever written, it’s certainly among the most nearly perfectly composed. Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica’s libretto gave Puccini the inspiration to create a distinctive musical universe that raises a somewhat tawdry tale of young love gone wrong into a towering masterpiece of tragic proportions for anyone and everyone who has ever been in love. Puccini’s score is simply so transcendently beautiful and viscerally impassioned that even the most jaded of hearts cannot successfully resist its hypnotic power to overwhelm your common sense misgivings, no matter how hard you may try.
It’s possible that somewhere there can be found a better conductor/stage director team than the Academy of Vocal Arts’ Christofer Macatsoris and David Gately. It’s possible, but it’s not likely. Despite a few opening night glitches, both musical and theatrical, their mounting of “La Boheme”rang true with dramatic truth and vocal and instrumental intensity. Gately elicited exciting and convincing characterizations from his young cast while Macatsoris drew evocative playing from the AVA Opera Orchestra and thrilling singing from the emerging artists at AVA.
Chief among these were soprano Marina Costa-Jackson as Mimi, the doomed seamstress, soprano Karen Barraza as Musetta, the flirt with a heart, and baritone Jared Bybee as Marcello, the headstrong heartsick painter. All three sang and acted with impressive maturity and youthful exuberance.
“La Boheme” continues through Feb. 14 in the Warden Theater and Feb. 17 and 19 at the Haverford School’s Centennial Hall. For ticket information, visit www.avaopera.org.