The Roland Martin Machine
by Jan Jezioro
Martin's Riders to the Sea at Opera Sacra
Roland Martin is one of our busiest local musicians. Besides being on the music faculties of the Buffalo Seminary, Canisius College and the University at Buffalo, he is also the music director of the Freudig Singers of Western New York, and a prolific composer, with over one hundred published compositions. So it is not at all surprising, that when Opera Sacra opens its 35th anniversary season, at 8pm Friday, November 19 and Saturday, November 20, at St. Joseph University Church with An Evening of Music by Roland Martin, it will be featuring a program of music by its own music director and conductor, Roland Martin.
Martin originally composed his opera Riders to the Sea, based on the 1904 one-act tragedy of the same name by Irish playwright John Millington Synge, for performance last March by the young female students of the Buffalo Seminary. The play by Synge is a modern tragedy, the starkly told story of Maurya, the wife of an Aran Island fisherman, who has already lost her husband and four of her five sons to the sea, before her final tragedy unfolds.
It was only when he had nearly finished with composing his opera that Martin realized the piece had possibilities beyond its original intent. “It was unbelievable to me that high school students were able to pull it off, and to do it so well,” Martin says. “Our director, Toni Wilson, always had an attitude of ‘think outside the box’ and ‘let’s push the envelope,’ with the result that the acting was incredibly strong. Until the final weeks of production, however, I am not sure either one of us thought that it would come off. The students, on the other hand, never had any doubts. They learned it both quickly and so thoroughly, that it put our doubts to rest. They never gave a thought to how difficult the music is—they simply sang it.” The quality of the singing was somewhat variable, but at least one of the student vocalists, Isabella Dixon, who sang the role of the daughter Nora, proved more than ready for the challenges of her part.
Originally scored for oboe, doubling English horn, violin, viola, cello and piano, Martin completely re-scored the work for the new production. “My first goal in scoring it for an expanded chamber orchestra was to eliminate the piano, which I thought worked against the musical ideas, rather than for them,” he says. “I also wanted to score for a smallish ensemble for practical reasons: If I scored for full orchestra the work would become more expensive to mount and a performance therefore less likely to happen. The new version is very singer-friendly, as it is scored for single, rather than paired wind instruments, two French horns, harp, percussion, and 11 strings. The two violas and two cellos bear the bulk of the playing—that came from the low, rich left-hand piano sonorities. It’s a sound that’s easy to sing with, giving the singer a nice ‘cushion’ of sonority without overwhelming the voice.”
Martin also edited his original score extensively. “A few passages were transposed up for better resonance in the voices and I extended the chorus’s ‘keening’ at the end,” he says. “The chorus now has a lot more presence in the play, and that helps to dissipate the energy of Maurya’s final monologue, which I have also rewritten. It now has more purpose, more finality, and a better sense of benediction.”
Melissa Thorburn, a member of the music department at Canisius College, sings the role of Maurya, the mother; Colleen Marcello, who made a strong impression in the title role of Opera Sacra’s production of Puccini’s Suor Angelica a couple of seasons back, sings the role of Nora; while the role of Cathleen is sung by Fredonia faculty member Laurie Tramuta. Tenor Jeff Porter, the only professional singer in the original Buffalo Seminary production, reprises his role of Bartley, the last surviving brother.
Also on the program is Martin’s Such Glorious Gifts: Seven Poems by George Herbert for Chorus and Orchestra. The work was premiered at Westminster Presbyterian Church in October of 2009, in a concert that also featured a cycle of paintings inspired by Herbert’s poetry, by the Buffalo artist Catherine Parker. About the work, which features the Freudig Singers and singers from St. Paul’s Cathedral Choirs and the choir of Calvary Episcopal Church, Martin notes, “It is full of joy, optimism, yearning, hope, and even some dance—the polar opposite of the music for Riders. I think two or three of the movements are some of the finest writing I’ve done.”
Martin is working on a new piece that he describes as: “A new direction for me—it’s a rather gnarly work, based on a play by William Butler Yeats, for three singers, six actors, and three instruments, and it will be premiered near the end of April.”
Admission is by a free will donation at the door. For more information, call 833-0298 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org comments powered by Disqus
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