July 22 Cazenovia Counterpoint: Strawberry Fields

The iconic "IMAGINE" mosaic set in the Strawberry Fields section of New York's Central Park, which commemorates the life of John Lennon and serves as the setting for Michael Torke's one-act opera, "Strawberry Fields."

The iconic “IMAGINE” mosaic set in the Strawberry Fields section of New York’s Central Park, which commemorates the life of John Lennon and serves as the setting for Michael Torke’s one-act opera, “Strawberry Fields.”

‘Strawberry Fields’ adds a touch of Central Park, and John Lennon’s imagination, to Cazenovia

Torke’s one-act opera, the centerpiece of Wednesday’s Society For New Music’s Cazenovia Counterpoint program, draws a capacity crowd

By David Abrams

Cazenovia turned into Central Park Wednesday evening, if only briefly, as the Society For New Music (SNM) mounted Michael Torke’s one-act opera Strawberry Fields to the delight of a packed-house audience at Cazenovia College’s historic opera house, the Catherine Cummings Theater.

Strawberry Fields is the name of the 2.5-acre “shrine” in New York’s Central Park that serves as a memorial to Beatles’ songwriter-guitarist (and peace activist), John Lennon. At the center of the shrine lay a magnificent mosaic with the word “IMAGINE” radiating from its center.

Set to a libretto by A.R. Gurney that is funny yet poignant, Torke’s 38-minute opera received its premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival in the summer of 1999, part of a trilogy of one-act operas thematically linked to the park. It tells the story of a gentle but neglected elderly lady on the cusp on dementia who comes to the park on a warm autumn afternoon and takes her usual seat on a park bench.

For this life-long opera buff, the boundaries between reality and fantasy begin to blur, as she imagines she is perched in her usual seat at the opera house awaiting a matinee performance. The odd assortment of park-goers within her field of vision has now become characters playing their roles in the “opera.”

Some of the people begin to humor the old lady, a Verdi aficionado, including a graduate student ostensibly skipping class. Struck by her gentle and inviting disposition, however, the student stops mocking and begins to bond with her. She, in turn, bonds with him. Together, they proceed to analyze the characters and the drama unfolding “onstage.”

What’s an opera without a villain? This one has two — the elderly woman’s yuppie son and daughter. The self-absorbed offspring approach their mother in the park, clearly annoyed at the inconvenience she has brought upon them. They insist she leave and head to a nursing home, where she can no longer cramp their busy lifestyles. The old woman resists, and the student — now clearly taking the role of the loving son the poor old woman deserves, springs to her defense. The park crowd comes to her aid, as well.

As I see it, Gurney treats the old woman as a sort of modern Don Quixote — who with the help of her Sancho Panza student battles the unloving, uncaring forces of society embodied in the woman’s selfish children. The result is an opera within an opera that pokes some good-natured fun at the art form — and those of us smitten by it.

Part of the backdrop and set from the Society For New Music production of "Strawberry Fields" (photo: David Abrams)

Part of the backdrop and set from the Society For New Music production of “Strawberry Fields” (photo: David Abrams)

If Gurney’s storyline in Strawberry Fields is appealing, Torke’s musical style — which borrows from both classical and contemporary pop cultures — is even more so. Like the foliage of Central Park’s trees that populate Set Director David Harper’s stage, Torke’s music here is full of vibrant, beautiful colors — further punctuated by exciting rhythmic flavors.

One can hear the serene, pastoral beauty of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 gently permeating this work, along with more lively effervescent splashes of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. But Torke’s voice in this work is his own, guided by his gifted imagination and Gurney’s touching drama.

The major roles in Strawberry Fields are the old lady (a distasteful term, but Gurney’s — not mine), sung by Gayle Ross; and the student, sung by Daniel Fields. Torke gives these two the lions’ share of the singing and at times tests the limits of their high registers.

In her manner of appearance and stage movement, Ross —neatly and formally attired in a blue dress, fur coat and fashionable hat and shoes — projected a character one might expect to see in a film about opera-goers in the 1950s. That she looked a like striking anachronism in the wacky environment of the Central Park crowd is precisely what Gurney had in mind for this role.

Ross stayed in character at all times, whether threatening to call the usher when her son begins to pester her, or confiding with her new friend, the student, about past amorous encounters. She remained a sympathetic and vulnerable figure. We could feel for her, and perhaps pity her as well.

Ross sang with an agreeable soprano, and her high notes remained silky and firm — though it took a bit of time for her to harness the generous vibrato and adequately project her voice. She nevertheless sprang to life at the final chorus, her voice rising strongly over the thick texture of the others. (Might this have been the moment she had been saving for?)

As the student, Daniel Fields sang with a dependable tenor and was well in-tune in the high register, which Torke tests repeatedly. Though his voice may lack some of the nuances one might expect in a mature voice, Fields — soon to be completing his bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University — delivered the goods in his lengthy monologue early in the opera and made dramatically plausible his growing emotional attachment to the old lady.

Steven Stull’s baritone in his role as the son proved strongest voice in the production, and he injected a degree of edge that served to define his role as the odious offspring who regards his aging mother more of a liability than a human being. Stull sang his duet in thirds with Fields well, and provided depth in the quartet ensemble numbers.

I was very impressed with Danan Tsan, as the daughter. An Eastman School of Music graduate, Tsan’s experience in both musical theater and opera helped craft a convincing character. (Hint: It rhymes with “witch.”) Tsan’s soaring and consistently dependable high register, which did wonders in the choral numbers, belies the fact that her voice is classified as a mezzo. Moreover, her voice added the necessary degree of treble to complement Stull’s bass in the ensemble numbers later in the opera.

Among the smaller roles, Michael Chellis as the panhandler used the weighty depth of his baritone to add resonance during his scene at the park. When the old lady gave him a $100 bill, Chellis roared, “Now I can get thoroughly and gloriously smashed!”

The chorus was well prepared for its numbers, and I dare say the folk-rock anthem chorale near the end of the production would surely have pleased John Lennon; whose tacit spiritual presence seemed to hover over the stage.

Credit Director Victoria King with squeezing the most from this modestly financed production. Movement onstage was well coordinated and orderly, and the placement of the characters and choral numbers provided a consistently handsome visual experience. The last scene, in which the old lady peacefully reaches her final curtain while sitting in her “opera seat,” was a real tearjerker.

David Harper’s scenery, with its trees sprouting colorful foliage and several suitably placed park benches, was especially attractive.

The instrumental chamber ensemble, playing without benefit of a conductor, was remarkably adept — navigating the tricky asymmetrically metered passages with alacrity and providing a solid degree of ensemble that put the singers at ease. Though it took the players a bit of time to find a level of balance that properly suited the voices, the ensemble of eight — playing a chamber arrangement of Torke’s original orchestral score that I am told was arranged by one of the composer’s graduate students — deserves much of the credit for the success of this production.

Prior to the opera, which occupied the second half of the program, the Cazenovia Counterpoint program opened with a pair of works that began with Ping Jin’s Three Folksongs from the Blue Lake, written in 2012.

Scored for clarinet, violin and piano, Ping’s strongly diatonic set of folksongs opens with Love Song — a gentle tune with strong pentatonic flavors that begins in the clarinet, buoyed by John Friedrich’s well focused tone and sinuous legato. The middle movement, Lament, is a slow and contemplative interlude whose diatonicism is peppered with mournful pitch-bends in the violin. The concluding Drinking Song, though still very much diatonic, is much livelier than the preceding movements and spiced with folk-like hints of Bartok. A rather wild coda, with strong dance rhythms, brings the work to a satisfying conclusion.

Mason Bates’s The Life of Birds (2008) is a set of five miniatures scored for flute, clarinet, violin and cello with the addition of dancers.

As a composer, Bates, whose credits include composer-in-residence stints with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center, is at the top of his game. Best as I can tell from this work, his writing draws from several styles, including shades of Stravinsky’s ballet, Petrushka (at the opening of the first miniature, Moving Parts); flavors of the French neo-classicism in the second movement Parakeet Daydream; and touches of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro in the incessant double-tongued clarinet and flute passages of the third movement, The Caged Bird Sings.

The final two movements include popular idioms, as well — including the cool strains of the jazzy fourth movement pas de deux, On a Wire: Mating Dance, and the sparkling jazz-riffs of the lively Old World Flycatcher, a highly syncopated number peppered with touches of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. Although the absence of a conductor on a work with this degree of syncopation created a few rough spots with the four instrumentalists, I was amazed at how well the ensemble held together throughout this challenging work.

Bates’s colorful writing provided an abundance of fodder for choreographer Cheryl Wilkins-Mitchell’s talented dance troupe, a quartet of teens who played the roles of a grasshopper, praying mantis, butterfly and ants. The two standout dancers here were Margaret Falcone and Arthur Sicilia. Little wonder: Each will begin studies this fall at the Boston Conservatory, majoring in contemporary dance performance.

A gracious and clearly enthused audience provided the final link in what proved to be a wonderful program of singing, playing and dancing. Credit SNM’s indefatigable Program Director Neva Pilgrim for assembling such a program and cast. And credit her, too, for bringing an annual summer music festival to Cazenovia  known from here on in as The Central Park of Central New York.

Details Box:
What: Strawberry Fields, music by Michael Torke on a libretto by A.R. Gurney; also, chamber works by Ping Jin and Mason Bates
Who: Society for New Music (SNM), Cazenovia Counterpoint series
Where: Catherine Cummings Theater, Cazenovia, NY
Date of review: July 22, 2015
Disclaimer: The reviewer is currently a member of the SNM Board of Directors

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *