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16.3.12

Lori Laitman Retrospective

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

We have had occasion to write about the music of composer Lori Laitman, who happens to be based here in the Washington area. She is primarily a vocal composer, and her name came up on the rather extraordinary concert by baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton last month at the Austrian Embassy. As in that concert, I have generally had the impression of Laitman as a miniaturist who specializes in the small-scale and light. This sense -- almost of studied triviality -- was confirmed by a concert led by the composer herself, on Wednesday night at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Laitman made a selection of her own songs, representing the sweep of her output from the 1990s to the present, and a few excerpts of recent operas. Presented with that much Laitman, one had the sense of a body of music that was rather unvaried -- sensitive to textual setting but too much of the same color and overly sentimental; perhaps a descendant of composers like Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem, but in a too-derivative way.

Almost all of Laitman's songs, in a massive cluster on the first half, were through-composed. Laitman had obviously thought about how to set words and phrases to a melody, often in too literal or speech-driven a style, but one rarely had the sense that she had revealed a hidden or new meaning by transforming the poem into song. All of the poems -- Sara Teasdale, William Carlos Williams, Dana Gioia, Petr Ginz (and others featured in Laitman's Holocaust oratorio Vedem), even Emily Dickinson -- were treated in a sing-songy style with echoes of music theater that came dangerously close to cheapening some of the words. With a repertory of ninth chords, sharp elevenths, and a few cocktail piano progressions, one can improvise a relatively accurate imitation of her style. After five songs, this was not in the least disagreeable, because the craftsmanship is at a high level; after twenty, it was exhausting, too much sweet nostalgia. If one could wish Laitman any one thing, it would be more bitter flavors of vinegar, salt -- anything but sugar.

Two of the singers on the program -- soprano Megan Monaghan and tenor Vale Rideout, who both have much to appreciate vocally -- did not have the air of natural song recital performers, lacking the subtlety of tone variation and delight in words that one needs. They both came alive, however, in the opera half. The best performances on the first half came from baritone Randall Scarlata, who has impressed me before as a Lieder singer. Scarlata used his story-telling skills to bring life to the whimsical songs Men with Small Heads and Refrigerator, 1957, set to light-hearted poems by Thomas Lux, two witty performances that broke the sentimental monotony of the programming. At the keyboard, Laitman was on the heavy-handed side, pushing the singers too much in volume at times.

A brief respite came with the more sensitive playing of Andrew Rosenblum, who accompanied the brief operatic scene The Act, from 2010. This was the best of the opera selections, again likely because Laitman chose lighter material, a poem by H. L. Hix that features the back-and-forth, not really dialogue, of a circus knife-thrower and his wife -- and target. Laitman has collaborated with David Mason, the Poet Laureate of Colorado, on two recent full-length operas. One of them, an adaptation of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, will receive its premiere at Opera Colorado next season, with Elizabeth Futral (who was in the audience) in the title role. Neither libretto ("she is so beautiful, an elvish spirit of the forest" was one memorable line) nor musical setting impressed much in the two excerpts performed, a lullaby sung by Hester to her baby and a confrontation involving Hester, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale. The experience of this recital, including excerpts from Laitman's new opera, Ludlow, makes the prospect of a full-length Laitman opera much less palatable.

The next concert at the National Museum of Women in the Arts will feature violinist Caroline Goulding (April 11, 7:30 pm). Concerts at the museum are free, but you are required to make a reservation in advance.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Downey - your review is quite inconsistent. You start off by saying that you have the impression of Laitman as a composer who specializes in the "light," - yet you later state that Laitman's "light" selections, "The Act" and the two songs from "Men With Small Heads" were the best selections on the program because their lightness helped to break up Laitman's "sentimental monotony." As a pianist who has studied and played much of Laitman's work, I can assure you something is very wrong with your ear if you think that her music exclusively or even mainly consists of 9th chords, sharp 11ths, and "cocktail chord progressions." I'm pretty sure there are just as many triads, sus chords, quintal chords, quartal chords, and all different manner of chords built on different structures. If someone has ever sat down and improvised the music of Lori Laitman I am unaware of it. So how did the emotional content of the concert come across as an unvaried pile of sugar? Was the content, both musical an poetic of songs like "Pentecost" and songs by Holocaust survivors in Vedem, all sweetness? Did these not contain some element of tragedy, wailing, "bitterness" if you will. Perhaps the bitterness you were seeking was the bitterness in your soul which does not exist outside of it. Or you were craving a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips. Your review was particularly maddening as Laitman is an expert of a variety of musical and poetic styles and crafts each song to convey many layers of subtlety in the poetry. The music is not through composed, it is composed to reflect the emotional and dramatic structure of the poem. I don't think her music sounds like Bernstein or Rorem, but I can assure you she doesn't sit down with scores of Bernstein and Rorem and copy its structures or try to derive from that music. That was a purely ignorant and unfounded statement on your part. Laitman is a composer who puts her all into her craft. There is no excuse for calling this "studied triviality" whether you like the music or not. Your review was as musically ignorant as it was unconscionable. Please do not try to dissuade people from seeing one of Laitman's operatic masterworks either.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for adding your perspective.