Underperformed No More

Courtesy of Cantata ProfanaAs mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen launched fearlessly into “Malorous qu’o uno fenno” (wretched is he who has a wife), a grin that fell just short of laughter spread from her face to her bare feet, rooted firmly in the floor.

Behind her, members of Cantata Profana joined the arrangement, swinging and swaying wildly to the words as if their instruments were mere – and necessary – extensions of their bodies.

The lyrics brought to life the playful ninth movement of Luciano Berio’s “Folk Songs,” the final piece in Cantata Profana’s intimate and energetic performance titled “Root Music” on Saturday evening at the Off Broadway Theater in the alley behind Toad’s Place.

The choice of “Folk Songs” was in many ways a testament to what the ensemble stands for: a nuanced approach to complex, emotional and largely underperformed works of music. Not unlike the group – worldly performers culled from Yale’s School of Music and Institute for Sacred Music – Berio’s composition places folk songs from different corners of the globe – Auvergne, Sicily, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the U.S. and more – in conversation with each other

From the piece’s first movement, a variation on the Appalachian standard “Black is the Colour,” to its last, captioned only with “The transcription defies translation,” the ensemble engaged in a most amazing conversation, their instruments doing all the talking.

Harpist Antoine Malette-Chenier seemed to say I know, right? to flautist Jake Fridkis at the outlandish lyrics of “La Donna Ideale.” (The gist: if looking for an ideal woman, check out her appearance and her dowry.) Conductor and founder Jacob Ashworth was brought to the tips of his toes by percussionist Justin Haaheim. And each performer was carried by Rosen’s voice, which switches from honeylike to powerful and even frightening in seconds.

If she is a diva, she hides it well. Part of the group members’ appeal is their utter lack of pretension. As a highlight of their 2013-14 season, she meshed with them beautifully.

Each member is accomplished. Rosen is bound for the Metropolitan Opera this season; clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich is involved in about five musical initiatives between Baltimore, Washington, New York City and New Haven. Haaheim is the leader of New Haven’s own Dig Jazz. And almost all of the performers play in more than one ensemble.

They are all in complete sync with each other on stage. In Manuel de Falla’s earlier “Concerto for Harpsichord,” it seemed that Allan Hon’s cello finished spirited sentences that Kanasevich’s clarinet began. In Anton Webern’s “Two Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke,” the German poet’s weighted words were held up by the strength of Jean Laurenz on the trumpet, who led in the vocals. 

Perhaps because of this approach, the musicians weren’t the only ones to feed off the evening’s conversational energy. In the second row, New Havener and self-professed fan Joshua Safran leaned forward in his chair, his mouth spreading into a yes, this is it kind of grin. (His companion Omri Weisman added after the show, “It was terrific. ... Unlike anything I’ve ever seen in New Haven.”) In front of him, the floor vibrated slightly with the staccato bounce of tapping toes. Even as the audience exploded into applause, something just a hair short of music and the din of good conversation lingered for a moment. 

The secret to the musicians’’ cohesion is straightforward: they have a lot of fun together in the Elm City, which is their home base. “This is an astounding group of players; I trust them with everything,” Ashworth said after the performance. “We have a really fun time. It’s a lot of close friends. ... Rehearsals this week were a dream, getting to work with your buddies. And our New Haven audiences are family. We feel that [energy] too.”

Ashworth wasn’t the only one who felt at home in the black box. Members of the audience were slow to leave, perhaps hoping to catch a stray note before heading into the damp night air. Indeed, it seems very likely that they had found the source of New Haven’s temporary thaw.

Here’s to hoping the ensemble will be back as the city blooms into spring.

(Click on the video tos ample the ensemble’s work.)

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