Musical excellence is not everything, even in a concert. Beth Morrison Projects, the esteemed Brooklyn-based opera producer / curator, collaborated on the first of two different song programs from her superb stable of songwriters. His presenter partner in 21c Liederabend Op Senses was Paola Prestini, the founding composer and artistic director of National Sawdust, the innovative little performance space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was the first public performance there since March 2020.
Morrison has presented song nights over the years. This was an intimate version of that series, and perhaps to make up for it, all kinds of extra ingredients were added to the ladle: a standing supper before the performance, a post-performance of music made up of musical sounds. ‘everyday objects, narrator Helga Davis also filling in the chatter time during the set-ups and visual artist Kathryn Hamilton provided cute’ sensory objects’ to complement each song.
The music was excellent and the 11 composers for both evenings were women, as was the conductor from Wednedsay (Kamna Gupta), where pieces were needed. But with everything else added, it was too much. And confusing. Despite a detailed digital program, the best way to enjoy the evening might have been to let the music take over.
The music itself was sort of a star line-up from Morrison’s greatest hits. Wednesday’s parade kicked off with Prestini’s âDistance to the Marketâ, followed by Missy Mazzoli’s evocative âWhile We Liveâ, based on a poem by Walt Whitman; the haunting “East River” by Molly Joyce on the text by Christopher Oscar PeÃ±a; and Ellen Reid’s “Lumee’s Dream”, libretto by Roxie Perkins, from their Pulitzer Prize-winning opera prism. Ending the evening was Constellation by Morrison’s Next Generation contest winner Emma O’Halloran with a newly commissioned opera on next month’s Prototype Festival in New York City.
The singers, all recent graduates of the Juilliard School, were also excellent. The strongest was the Mikaela Bennett, who covered three songs. A soprano trio composed of Yvette Keong, Mer Wohlgemuth and Katherine Whyte sounded superbly in “Letras Para Cantar” by AngÃ©lica NegrÃ³n. Chance Jonas-O’Toole, a soft-spoken tenor, performed Du Yun’s âZolleâ, an Italian extract from his 2005 opera of the same name; and Nicole Thomas, a mezzo, recounted in the Reid. Strong baritone Adam Richardson sang the Prestini.