Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Through an Eastern filter: Nathan Davis' striking dance-opera 'Hagoromo'

Nathan Davis - Hagoromo - New Focus Recordings
Nathan Davis Hagoromo; Katalin Karolyi, Peter Tanstits, ICE, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Nicholas DeMaison Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A striking sound-world encompasses Davis' dance-based opera with its percussion inspired score

Nathan Davis is an American composer and percussionist whose output includes a number of works for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). This disc on New Focus Recordings' Tundra lable features the live recording of Davis' opera Hagoromo performed by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) [Claire Chase, flutes, Rebekah Heller, bassoon, Daniel Lippel, electric guitar/lap steel, Jennifer Curtis, violin, Ross Karre, percussion, hammered dulcimer], with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (artistic director Dianne Berkun Menaker), Katalin Karolyi (mezzo-soprano), and Peter Tantsits (tenor), conducted by Nicholas DeMaison. The work was recorded live at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Next Wave Festival in performances produced by American Opera Projects.

Despite the presence of singers in the cast, words are not of prime importance in the piece and it is described as a dance-opera, with the two leading characters, the Angel and the Fisherman, performed by two former New York City Ballet dancers, Wendy Whelan and Jack Soto. Hagoromo was inspired by a Japanese Noh play some 500 years old which was re-imagined by David Michalek who directed and choreographed the work.

The story of Hagoromo links to the European tradition of the Swan maiden (think Swan Lake), and the other common theme of a man stealing a magic garment. Here the Fisherman, Hagoromo, finds a feathered mantle and wishes to keep it, not caring about the fate of the angel to whom it belonged. Unlike the tragic ending to many related European stories, here the two reach a bargain.

Davis' music is quite spare, and austere at times with texture playing a large role, what with the significant percussion part alongside the way he uses different textures from his instruments. Pitch plays a small role in this music, for much of the time. And his writing for voices is often quite instrumental too. Without seeing the work it is difficult to ascertain quite how music and movement aligned. The images of the first performance in 2015 show the youth chorus and musicians placed above and behind the dance area, so that they become almost part of the visual commentary.

The video excerpts on Vimeo, see below, show a very striking piece which uses quite a large cast including puppets and with quite Japanese inspired imagery, with music and movement interlinking well.

HAGOROMO: a Chamber Dance-Opera from ICE on Vimeo.

Whilst Davis' music is not explicitly Japanese (when he does use pitch and tonality they are generally in the Western tradition), the spareness of the writing and the way he writes for the instruments, particularly the flutes played by Claire Chase, make the music appear to be coming through a sort of Eastern filter.

As might be expected from a percussionist, the percussion part is quite significant but integrated into the whole, so much does Davis concentrate on the timbres and textures of each instrument. The two solo vocalists have relatively contained roles, and Davis' writing for them can be quite instrumental. Both Katalin Karolyi and Peter Tanstits give strong ensemble performances, though the timbre of Tanstits voice can be rather distinctive. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus gives a super performance, bringing a very human warmth to the drama.

Slightly frustratingly, the CD booklet does not give a full synopsis so that though the piece divides into fifteen scenes we have no real knowledge of what is happening in each. On first hearing, perhaps, the music can feel a little distant and austere despite the richness of some of the writing, but with gradual acquantaince the striking aural landscape that Davis creates and his feel for dramatic pacing rather engage. This was a work I would certainly love to encounter in the theatre..

Nathan Davis - Hagoromo
Katalin Karolyi (contralto)
Peter Tanstits (tenor)
International Contemporary Ensemble (Claire Chase, flutes, Rebekah Heller, bassoon, Daniel Lippel, electric guitar/lap steel, Jennifer Curtis, violin, Ross Karre, percussion, hammered dulcimer)
Brooklyn Youth Chorus (artistic director Dianne Berkun Menaker)
Nicholas DeMaison (conductor)
Recorded live at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Next Wave Festival, 5-7 November 2015
NEW FOCUS RECORDINGS/TUNDRA tun009 1CD [70:00]

Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A very modern spectacle: Ponchielli's La Gioconda at La Monnaie  in Brussels (★★) - opera review
  • Engaging first thoughts: A reconstruction of Mozart and De Ponte's initial ideas for Cosi fan tutte (★★) - CD review
  • Strong, muscular yet tender and very direct: Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ alongside Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary (★★★★) - concert review
  • Semele and beyond: Harry Bickett talks about the English Concert's latest Handel opera tour  - my interview
  • Of arms and a woman: Blondel late medieval wind music inspired by Christine de Pisan (★★½) - CD review
  • 1769: a year in music from Ian Page & The Mozartists  (★★★★) - Concert review 
  • Requiem Masses for murdered royalty: HerveNiquet & Le Concert Spirituel in Requiems for King Louis XVI & Queen Marie Antoinette by Cherubini & by Plantade (★★★) - concert review
  • In transcription: Berlioz arranged Liszt and Richard Strauss arranged Willner at Conway Hall (★★★★)  - concert review
  • A powerful journey: Sir Colin Davis complete live Berlioz recordings on LSO Live  - CD review
  • Faure's Requiem from the Schola Cantorum of Cardinal Vaughan School (★★★) - CD review
  • Something of a discoveryReverie, Icelandic art songs (★★★★) - CD review
  • Home

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