The unique pairing opens with Adriano Banchieri's Barca di Venezia per Padova. The classic piece is billed as "one of the key works of early music theater that preceded opera, a raucous, rollicking work that takes place on the ferryboat connecting the island republic of Venice with Padova on the mainland. During the voyage a motley cast of characters _the boat captain, fishermen, courtesans, a music master, davening Jews and five singers representing Naples, Florence, Venice, and Bologna along with a drunken German _ pass the time by flirting, drinking and singing songs by their favorite composers. It is all in the witty, bawdy and elegant spirit of late Renaissance Venice."
Jukebox, commissioned as a companion piece by the Western Wind, has a libretto by Valeria Vasilevski and an a capella score by Eric Salzman. The story "takes place in a New York bar during a huge storm and blackout. Six strangers _ a bartender, a dancer, a rabbi, a nun, a poet and a utility worker‹have gathered to seek refuge, each with a story to tell about life and love. As the lights go out, the bartender lights candles and, in a manner that is both contemporary New York and yet harks back to the Renaissance, he evokes singular and touching tales from each of his unexpected visitors. In the end, when the lights are restored and the strangers depart, their voices blend just one last time in an evocation of the intoxication of wine and love."
Composer Eric Salzman recently discussed his career and the development of the new piece.
Q: How would you describe New Music Theater?
Salzman: Having just written an entire book on the subject, it's not easy to produce a simple answer in a few lines. Music theater is a term that can include every type of performance work in which music plays a dominant role. But "New Music Theater" is the big and largely unexplored area that lies between (but does not include) opera on one side and the popular musical on the other. In between these two extremes, there's a wide and fertile area of work in which music and the other arts intertwine in all sorts of novel ways. The range goes from Kurt Weill to Meredith Monk to highly experimental work to work that is media- and technology-driven to non-traditional vocalism to site-specific works and installations. Opera and Broadway musicals are big and expensive. "New Music Theater" is often small-scale and user-friendly _ the off-off-Broadway of opera one might call it.
Q: How did you get into contemporary music?
ES: I started writing music when I was 11 years old and was teaching myself to play the piano (I was trained as a violinist). I came across a minuet that Mozart wrote at the age of 5 and I was shocked to realize that I was least six years behind. That inspired me to write a new minuet in Mozartean style which I then showed to a friend of the family who had just had a piece performed by the New York Philharmonic. He looked at my feeble Mozart imitation, told me (rather idiotically) that "we don't write music like that any more", and sent me away to write a piece for clarinet and bassoon. Apparently I've been writing contemporary music ever since. I studied at Princeton with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt and my post-Mozartean work was initially quite dissonant and atonal. But by the Sixties I began to create multi-media and theatrical works, collaborating with choregraphers, writers and other composers and my style started to change and broaden out. I also organized and directed a music-theater ensemble (Quog Music Theater) that was active in the 1970s and a major festival of new music-theater (American Music Theater Festival) in the 1980s and early '90s. Since then, I've worked with the Center for Contemporary Opera but also abroad (in France, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Norway, Canada), always in new music theater.
Q: What inspired you to write Jukebox in the Tavern of Love?
ES: Jukebox was a commission from the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble for a modern madrigal comedy to go on a double bill with a 'real' madrigal comedy from 1605. Since the 1605 work was set on a commuter boat traveling from Venice to Padua, I got the idea for a modern version that would be set on the #7 train from Manhattan to Queens as it stalls in the tunnel under the river. I took this idea to my librettist, Valeria Vasilevski, and we changed the locale to a New York bar during a big storm and blackout.
Q: Which composers inspired you to write music?
ES: Mozart (see above but also because of his operas), Rameau, Kurt Weill, Charles Ives.
Q: Who are some of your favorite contemporary composers?
ES: Meredith Monk, Heiner Goebbels, Tom Waits.
Q: What is your new book, The New Music Theatre: Hearing the Body, Seeing the Voice, about?
ES: See the first question above.
Q: The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble performed the premiere of Jukebox in the Tavern of Love in 2008, is returning to perform the work at Bargemusic in July, has recorded the work and has plans for future performances. How did your relationship with the Western Wind develop?
ES: I have had a long-term relationship with William Zukof, the countertenor and the leader of the Western Wind. He was a lead singer in the Nonesuch Ensemble and sang a major role in my Nude Paper Sermon, the second Nonesuch Records commission (after Morton Subotnick's Silver Apples of the Moon). He was also a founding member of my Quog Music Theater and, more recently, he appeared in Victoria Bond's Cutting Edge performance of my True Last Words of Dutch Schultz. When Valeria and I began work on Jukebox, we spent a good deal of time working with the members of Western Wind so that the roles in the piece were, to a great degree, molded to the personalities and musical talents of the performers.
Q: Aside from writing and composing, what are some of your other interests?
ES: I'm a passionate birder and have a very wide interest in natural history and ecology.
Q: What are some of your favorite instruments to write for?
ES: Since the Sixties, I have focused almost all of my composing efforts on various forms of music theater and I usually use small and unconventional musical ensembles in these works. For example, The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz uses acoustic and electronic keyboards, a mistuned (scordatura) violin, tuba and a percussion score that includes a Foley table of live sound effects. My music for the French-language production of the Brecht Good Person of Sezchuan is scored for two violins, accordion and percussion. My only recent instrumental work is an orchestral suite based on the Gershwin Strike Up the Band commissioned by a French orchestra.
Q: The characters in Jukebox are quite eclectic and range from an Italian bartender to a Rabbi. What was your reasoning for such a mix and how did you choose them?
ES: That's really a question that should go to Valeria. Part of the answer had to do with writing for the personalities, musical and otherwise, in the Western Wind Ensemble. The impulse behind the work was the idea of what would happen if six very different people, who would never mix in real life, were thrown together by circumstance and each encouraged to tell their own stories about love and life. In short, a Renaissance idea in modern guise and therefore perfect for a 'modern madrigal comedy.'
Bar La Barca -2 Madrigal Comedies, 400 Years Apart
Wednesday, July 8 at 8 PM
Friday, July 10 at 8 PM
Western Wind Vocal Ensemble
Michele Kennedy, soprano
Laura Christian, soprano
Todd Frizzell, tenor
Richard Slade, tenor
Elliot Z. Levine, baritone
William Zukof, countertenor
Valeria Vasilevski, stage direction/librettist
Fulton Ferry Landing
Brooklyn, NY 11201
For tickets (priced $20, $35 and $40) call 718-624-2083 or visit www.westernwind.org.
The Western Wind, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, embraces a repertory that includes a huge range of music from Renaissance motets to rock 'n' roll, from medieval carols to early American music to the avant garde. They have been extensively seen and heard on various media.