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Yeats, Moonstruck

Compser Roland E. Martin

The Buffalo Chamber Players continue to explore the effects of moonlight

The Buffalo Chamber Players opened their current concert season last October, with a memorable performance celebrating the 100th anniversary of Arnold Schoenberg’s groundbreaking chamber work Pierrot Lunaire, highlighted by the dazzling vocalism of the Grammy-nominated, UB-based soprano Tony Arnold.

Building on the success of that event, BCP artistic director Janz Castelo decided to program a pair of one-act operas, based on plays by the Irish poet and playwright W. B. Yeats that noted the importance of the moon as a metaphor, as echoed in Schoenberg’s masterpiece. Their next concert, on Wednesday, March 20 at 7:30pm in the Buffalo Seminary on Bidwell Parkway, will feature the area premiere of John Harbison’s 1977 Full Moon in March and the world premiere of Buffalo composer Roland E. Martin’s The Cat and the Moon.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for musical composition, and also of a prestigious fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, Harbison has enjoyed a prolifically successful career as a composer, highlighted by a commission from the Metropolitan Opera that resulted in his critically acclaimed 1999 opera, The Great Gatsby. Harbison’s earlier work, the 1977 Full Moon in March, is composed in an edgier idiom than his Gatsby, reflecting the slightly crazed storyline of Yeats’s play, which was itself a 1935 reworking of an earlier play. When a self-proclaimed “cruel” queen proclaims that she will marry the man “who best sings his passion” to her, she is most drawn to a ragged, filthy swineherd, almost succumbing to his sexually confident singing, before abruptly terminating his serenade in the most direct way imaginable.

Singing the role of the queen is soprano Colleen Marcello, who has already forcefully demonstrated the dangers of tangling with a queen in her vocally and dramatically vivid portrayal of Queen Elizabeth of England, in Opera Sacra’s production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda last November. Joining Marcello will be three talented vocalists from the faculty of the Fredonia School of Music, soprano Angela Haas, tenor Joe Dan Harper, and baritone Alex Hurd, as well as dancers from the Buffalo Seminary. Eastman School of Music pianist Alison d’Amato will be at the keyboard of the “prepared” piano. She brings insider knowledge as to exactly how the composer wants to have the piano prepared, having accompanied Harbison to a local hardware store in Boston, preceding a performance of his opera, to select the right number and size of bolts with which to prepare the piano.

Martin, a member of the music faculty of the Buffalo Seminary, Canisius College, and the University at Buffalo, where he is professor of organ and harpsichord, also serves as organist/choirmaster and director of music at St. Joseph University Church in Buffalo, artistic director of the Freudig Singers, and conductor/music director for Opera Sacra. He somehow still finds the time to compose prolifically, with well over 100 published compositions in print. Just last season, Riders to the Sea, a drama in music based on the play of the same name by J. M. Synge, and Calvary, based on the one-act play by Yeats, enjoyed successful premieres under his baton as part of Father Jack Ledwon’s long-running, innovative Opera Sacra series. So when Martin was approached by Castelo as to suggestions of which possible one-act, operatic works might work best on a double bill with the moon-themed Harbison work, Martin offered to write a one-act work based on Yeats’s 1917 play, The Cat and the Moon.

While Martin demonstrated his affinity for the dark side of the modern Irish theater in his treatment of Synge’s tragic Riders to the Sea, and in Yeats’s passion play Calvary, he has long wanted to tackle a lighter aspect of the Celtic revival, such as that treated in The Cat and the Moon. Martin describes his new work as a fable in music, a retelling of the legendary tale of a blind man carrying a lame man to the sacred Well of St. Colman, where both are transformed, physically and spiritually, through the curative powers of the holy water. Tenor Jeffrey Porter will sing the tale of the black cat Minnaloushe, an excerpt of his play which Yeats later included in his 1919 book of poetry, The Wild Swans at Coole, while actors Christian Brandjes and Kevin Leary are featured in the non-singing roles. Martin, who has amply demonstrated his command of melodic and harmonic musical elements in his large body of published work for the human voice, takes a somewhat different approach in this work, which initially incorporates elements of atonality before eventually working its way towards a tonal center, quoting snippets of traditional themes such as the “Ave Maria” and “Dies Irae” along the way, while making extensive use of the very baroque form of the Passacaglia.

Tickets are $15 genera; admission, $5 for students. Visit www.buffalochamberplayers.org for more information.

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