With retrospective vision, I could have seen this coming had I read the press release with a more jaundiced eye. However, as a listener with a particular interest in new music, I’ve learned to suspend my disbelief: often have I attended a concert with a work I thought was dubious only to be surprised by one with unexpected charm. So I only later noticed one of many warning signs: the announcement of a work that combined “Jazz with Classical” music (yes, those capitalizations were another warning, but I didn’t notice them at the time). However, we live in Boston, home of Gunther Schuller and the Third Stream, and the work in question, Rising, by Julie Lavender, touted itself as the premiere of a “modern cantata.” Why not give it a try?
While standing for 20 minutes in the lobby of the David Friend Recital Hall at Berklee, I might again have noted what was coming my way. Despite being encouraged to come early to get a “good seat”, I found the doors resolutely closed, giving the vestibule experience all the romance of waiting for the bus to Albany. But this was a premiere, right? Best to give all involved all the time they needed to get it right. While passing the time, I didn’t read the program closely; if I had, I would have been less surprised. I was too much astonished by the composer/performer’s extravagant program prose; her note opens with:
Sitting here contemplating this release of a sweeping swath of music, poetic prayer and art, I muse in quiet awe about how one such as myself became the creative womb for what has turned out to be quite an ambitious and unexpected body of work—a “modern cantata,” no less!
But in the actual event, my disbelief failed of suspension, and resolved into disappointment: despite performer/composer Julie Lavendar’s attractive, dark-hued voice and above-average work in a jazz/popular idiom, I left after only four of the promised twenty songs. The material was clearly unsuited to a report in publication: had the opening song’s religious material been sung in Portuguese rather than English, it would have paired well with a caipirinha in a quiet bar. But I left mostly because there were no live musicians involved. Lavender had invited the Intelligencer and the public to essentially listen to a CD. The recording was not even a live event: vocal/guitar tracks recorded by Lavender were shipped to Los Angeles, where “twice Grammy-nominated” (this point was repeatedly insisted upon) arranger Kim Richmond added orchestral jazz stylings. It was then again mailed back to Boston, where another instrumental track was added. It was Richmond’s contribution, broadly in the style of Nelson Riddle and Antonio Carlos Jobim, that apparently earned the work its “Classical” heritage and helped justify the “cantata” label. The songs I audited made no compelling argument; Richmond’s writing is competent and attractive but intentionally subservient to Lavender; and the playback proved less than ideal, sounding dense and claustrophobic.
To be fair, there were some feeble live additions. The lighting on the empty stage changed from track to track and was attractive. A collection of paintings credited to Lavender and Susan Burgess hung along one wall. Four dancers each danced to one track (I saw only Cheryl Horbert, whose contribution was brief and anodyne). Lavender spoke between each track, telling in her inimitable prose a story of a dream-like epic pilgrimage, filled with masses of people filing through castles to worship mighty kings on powerful thrones, a kind of Middle Earth hejira. Rising, you may be interested to learn, sets poems from the Hebrew Amidah, although Lavender is not a Jew, but in her own words, “a follower of Yeshuah ha Notzri, aka Jesus of Nazareth.” The actual, um, “performance” was prefaced by two long speeches, one by Richmond and one by Rabbi Rich Nichol of Congregation Ruach Israel, which he described as a “Messianic congregation” (go ahead and Google them now if you don’t know what that means). About a third to a half of the audience raised their hands when asked by Rabbi Nichol if they were part of the Congregation. And finally the penny drops: Lavender seemingly directed her vanity project to her supporters and votaries (of whom there were many), rather to the inexplicably invited press and its followers.
As our calendar listed this happening, let me extend an apology to any BMInt‘ers who might have wandered in. The press release addressed to the “live classical music” editor refers to the concert in ambiguous Newspeak as a “listening event.” This later quotation almost gives the game away, but not quite:
The Rising music/recording features the compositions, voice and Classical/Jazz (sic) guitar of Julie Lavender and the arrangements of twice Grammy-nominated Jazz orchestra composer and arranger, Kim Richmond, and a cast of highly acclaimed musicians from the East and West Coasts.
“Music/recording” is an odd term that leaves open the possibility that the event was itself being recorded; and the use of the word “cast” is a pretty weasely way to avoid mentioning the fact that no live musicians materialized. In any case, nostra culpa, nostra maxima culpa.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.