Friday, July 30, 2010

A preview of "Rappahannock County"

"We're merely protecting
State's rights.
State's rights
Have been attacked."

One would be forgiven for thinking that quote is from a state Attorney General in 2010 challenging the Federal government's actions to halt Arizona's controversial immigration law.

They are actually the first lines of the third song in the triptych that opens Ricky Ian Gordon's and Mark Campbell's "theatrical song cycle" based on the Civil War, Rappahannock County.

I have been in Norfolk all week attending workshop rehearsals that culminated in a preview performance last night at Virginia Opera's Harrison Opera House. The program describes the project:

"In conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, a new musical work by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Mark Campbell will have its world premiere performance beginning April 12, 2011, the same day the Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter in 1861."

After its premiere, it will travel to the other co-producing centers of the project:

"Rappahannock County will premiere during the 15th Annual Virginia Arts the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, Virginia, from April 12-17, 2011. These shows will be followed by performances in Richmond at the Modlin Center, September 9-16, and at the Texas Performing Arts in Austin, September 18-25."

The piece is more than merely a "theatrical song cycle" and combines elements of musical theater and opera.

"Rappahannock County is a fictional song cycle inspired by diaries, letters, and personal accounts during the period of the Civil War and explores the war's impact, from secession to defeat, on a community of Virginians--black and white, rich and poor, soldiers, nurses, widows, and survivors. The production is a multimedia event, enhanced by projections of Civil War photographs, illustrations, documents, and other moving visuals, and features five principal singers performing more than 30 roles, backed by an ensemble of 15 musicians."

The five singers offered affecting and nuanced portrayals of 14 of the 21 songs in the well-received preview performance (all the more impressive for the scant three days of rehearsals the artists had to assimilate Ricky's new songs).

I have written on my "Musings" blog about the unique joy of commissioning and premiering new works. This week was another reminder why everyone invested in music should participate--at whatever level possible--in such generative processes.

One of the exciting aspects of this process is the tabula rasa starting point for such premieres. The "blank slate" is a universal given before any premiere (for example, if a recording exists of the work it's an mp3 file the composer has generated from his computer). The 5 singers, 2 pianists and the conductor, Rob Fisher, had some time to prepare their scores in advance, but met for the first time just the day before the first workshop with the creative team.

I enjoyed the first read-through of the score as much as the preview performance. Not only are the artists bringing this music literally to life before its creators, the authors are experiencing the live totality of their work for the first time. The electricity of the creative process is palpable, underscoring the fact that music exists to be sung, played, heard and experienced. As the poet Anna Kamienska wrote, "music teaches the value of a moment by giving that moment value."

The vibrancy of the process is all the more charged when you have Ricky Ian Gordon bouncing, dancing, and demonstrating along for the singers what he heard in his head while writing his songs. Both Ricky and Mark repeatedly stressed the vignette-like scenes they were creating to tell stories through snapshots of real people. Rather than a grand operatic "Gone with the Wind" narrative, the solos and small ensembles give us miniatures: landscapes, portraits, and character sketches. Ricky mentioned his affinity with Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, and the analogy is apt. Most of the songs are monologues, and the authors deftly alternate between ironic satire and profound emotion (ie: comedy & tragedy) in presenting what has the cumulative effect of being both entertaining and engaging, provocative and moving.

The gifted young director, Kevin Newbury demonstrated how less can be more when it comes to stagecraft. Using a handful of props, a table, and a pair of crates, the "set" changed from pulpit to plantation to hospital ward to embalming table to raft and more.

The "Seccession" triptych opens with a preacher intoning Bible verses claiming slavery to be "Sanctified by God." The aforementioned "States Rights" bookends the twisted "logic" of "A Noble Institution." As happens throughout the work, the music changes as quickly as the perspective. The stentorian tenor, Dan Snyder, shifts from the polemic of "State's Rights" to the vulnerable human voice of the abolitionist, Clement Davis, in "Farewell, Old Dominion." In one of many lines laden with layers of meaning, Dan's character sings

"I don't own slaves,/Won't own slaves,/I'm a teacher--/Reading, ABCs, division."

The final "subject" lingers after the phrase ends, haunting as a specter.

In another arresting transition, the elegaic "Farewell" segues into the song of the young slave boy, Reuben Lark. "Being Small" is a showcase for the gifted young baritone, Charles Jason Freeman, who had the audience in the palm of his hand before he sang a note. Reuben, an illiterate 11 year old, eavesdrops on the owners of a plantation as the "Master" reads the headlines aloud. After repeating those headlines to his "friends and kin" he ends the jaunting song with double-edged wit:

"And one thing I/have learned from this:/'Bout ignorance,/It sure ain't bliss."

The pointed irony and satire drives another pair of songs and is a reminder the Greek root of the wood sarcasm, sarcasmos literally means "to tear the flesh off."

You get the sense that mezzo Margaret Thompson would like to do just that to her "enemies" in "I listen." The song is a colorful character study of a Southern peddler who sells pies to the Union soldiers and then reports to a Rebel spy. This jaunty tune has echoes of ragtime and Tin Pan Alley, and Thompson's portrayal of Violet Fitzsimmons is a cousin of Mrs Lovett (Sweeney Todd), mischievous, more than a little devious and endearing at the same time.

Mr Freeman has another show-stealing number in "Bound to Be" in which the sarcasm hits so close to home the line between genuine and uncomfortable laughter is obliterated. Campbell's rhythmic verse is matched by Gordon's tuneful music as Joe Harris sings "When we get to that promised land,/Old Abe himself will shake our hand./And all them folks they gonna cheer,/"Gee we glad to have you Niggrahs here."

His contempt reaches a pitch with "The Emancipitation Proclamation...Makes it so us folks will never again be put upon./(And it's worth as much as the paper that it's scribbled on.)"

And Campbell's lyrics turn from biting punchline to sobering revelation:

"Ain't no more whips and auction blocks.
No chains, no cuffs, no reins, no stocks.
But those won't leave the human race,
They'll just take on a different face."

And one of the most provocative stanzas in this timely evocation of American history closes with

"So we'll be equal by and by,
When hens have teeth and pigs can fly,
Or when them devils all repent...
Or the day they name me President!"

The other African American characters are exceptionally portrayed by soprano Aundi Marie Moore. She has two of the most affecting ballads in the show, the elegaic "All I Ever Known" and the haunting lullaby to her dead infant, "Hallie-Ann." She and Freeman sing the eponymous song which depicts--in words and music--the "temp'ramental" waters of the Rappahannock. Gordon's music--in the complex meter of 10/8--vividly evokes the unpredictable surge of the current and the acute anxiety of the escaping slaves.

"Rappahannock" first appears following another vivid character sketch, "Making Maps." By being particular (to person & place), art performs the unique feat of transcending specificity with universal resonance. The rich-voiced baritone, Mark Walters essays the Cartographer, Jed Hotchkiss in one of the most poignant songs in the score. As elsewhere, Gordon's rippling accompaniments evoke the varied and beautiful Virginia landscape, atop which Walters sings of Jed's rendering of "fine maps" from his God-given skill. "The yielding valleys, the verdant forests,/the crystalline rivers, the wind-sculpted ridges," are transformed before the actor's--and the audience's--eyes as the cartographer realizes his maps are being used "not to orient a man,/But parcel to a plan/For spoiling valleys, for torching forests,..."

Listening to "Making Maps" last night I was struck by a parallel situation in the novel (and film) The English Patient, in which the archeologists realize their life's work in the North African deserts has become a pawn in the machinations of WWII. In my notebook during the first workshop rehearsal this past Monday, I jotted down the words "gorgeous, sweeping, and poignant" after Mark's rendition of "Making Maps."

Those words could be applied to the whole of Rappahannock County, whose current is made more engaging by the satires and asides that enliven and vary the song-cycle's flow.

Thanks to the Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Opera, the Universities of Richmond and Texas at Austin for pioneering this project. And kudos to Ricky Ian Gordon and Mark Campbell for creating an original piece of musical theater that transcends boundaries and engages a central chapter in our history with a resonant and original voice. The cast & production team offered an impressive look at what promises to be an important and vital new work of American music for the stage.

I know I'll be there next April. I hope Rappahannock County will make the rounds around the Commonwealth during these Sesquicentennial commemorations.

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