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Cohen’s Opera Buffa and Musical Poetry


Evidence abounded — as if the enthusiastic audience needed proof — at Boston’s Old South Church on June 7 that Alla Elana Cohen is a musical force to be reckoned with. Since arriving in the U.S. in 1989 as a refusnik, with her mother, Cohen has composed a huge amount of music. As if this weren’t enough, she is an excellent pianist, a poet, and a good translator of poetry to boot.

The concert boasted one of the longest titles I can recall: “An Evening of Opera Buffa and Instrumental Chamber Ensembles, hosted by Joyce Kulhawik, featuring ‘The Cunning Housekeeper,’ a New Opera by Composer Alla Cohen.” I never figured out what the gorgeous Ms. Kulhawik was doing there, but she always lends things a touch of class. Here she basically smiled and read some of the program notes and tried to psyche up the audience, who needed little encouragement. Many seemed to be Cohen’s friends or just part of her musical universe.

Cohen, in black clothing setting off her long apricot-colored hair, explained in her notes that all of the evening’s works were composed in the past ten months, most of them in the past six. This is not a composer who suffers Music Writing Block. Explaining her system of making order out of this steady outpouring of music, she writes, “I like to unite my compositions into big cycles under one title. Twelve series of compositions under one and the same title form a volume.” For those who struggle writing a single good sentence, this profligacy is intimidating, indeed.

The first pieces from her cycle, Inscriptions on a Bamboo Screen for flute and harp, had four short movements. Its dedicatees, Bianca Garcia, flute and Marilinda Garcia, harp, gave a lovely performance, with a poem after each movement recited by the flutist. The writing for both instruments was good if not wildly challenging, with the third and fourth movements introducing a lovely dialogue between the two instruments.

Titles tend to be long — “Watercolors of the Master Who is Accustomed to Paint Oils Volume 1, Series 12 for violin and piano, in 4 movements, dedicated to Ethan Wood” – while the movements tend to be short and full of charm. Ethan Wood played extremely well, as did the next dedicatee, Bianca Garcia in the next piece with approximately the same title, “Watercolors of the Master Who is Accustomed to Paint Oils Volume 2, Series 3 for Solo Piccolo Flute [sic]” and piano, in 4 movements,” a virtuoso piece. Each of the piccolo’s short movements ended with a line from a poem. It is to Cohen’s and Garcia’s credit that this worked so enchantingly.

The next performer, cellist Sebastian Baverstam, is someone to watch. Cohen “discovered” this young cellist, now finishing at NEC, when he was twelve, and she seems to have served as his mentor. (They have a CD out in which they are called The Jupiter Duo.) He and Cohen gave a smashing performance of a six-movement piece from Six Inscriptions on a Bamboo Screen, (dedicated to Baverstam). This time, Cohen let her hypnotic low voice do the reciting, and the effect was quite captivating. For this listener, this music and this performance was the evening’s highlight.

Still before intermission, a piece in four movements for string quartet, Querying the Silence, featured Marissa Licata, Ethan Wood (violins) Laura Krenzman (viola) and Sebastian Baverstam (cello). The first movement, very intense, was followed by music of various moods, especially late Romantic. The cello had most of the good licks, and they were played with great panache. I’d like to hear this well-crafted piece again.

Sefer HaShirim (Hebrew for “A Book of the Songs”), for chamber orchestra (octet) in four movements, included deft writing for marimba (Yuko Yoshikawa), vibraphone (Jeffrey Means), and clarinet. No clichéd clarinet writing, just good writing, well played by Alexis Lanz. The timpanist was Michael Williams, and the virtuoso piano part was played by Cohen. I admire her for her attempts to elucidate her music through her detailed program notes, but I often disagreed with the moods she was trying to project. She described the second movement of this piece as “nostalgically sad and mysterious,” but I found it so energetic that it was hard to see it as either sad or mysterious. I did like it, though.

Finally, the operetta we all came to hear, “The Cunning Housewife,” (no relation to Janacek’s The Cunning Vixen). Scored for two men and two women, this little opera buffa is the first of three one-act operas that, according to Cohen, are intended to be performed in one evening. This operetta, based on Schwänke or humorous poems by the great German Meistersinger Hans Sachs (whom we know from Wagner) tells a tale of a housekeeper, Tina, a godsend to her master who regales her with compliments: she is obedient and honest, with the kindest heart, his devoted mainstay. What can she do, then, but fool him in an elaborate prank she devises with her hungry friend Trudy? It’s fun and silly, utterly charming, and the music and singers (Aliana de la Guardia, Jonathan Hussman, Aaron Styles) were all good. However, the cunning housekeeper, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Luttio, was downright terrific. What a beautiful voice!

Alla Elana Cohen, needless to say, played piano for her opera (for which she of course wrote the libretto). I am in awe. The audience gave her a standing ovation. She earned every note of it.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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