Electric Root’s version of “The Sound of Music” and BlackBox Ensemble’s newly translated version of “Borrowed Landscape” each separately gave one-night-only performances this week. These are just the sort of theater concerts that don’t get much attention, but help make New York not just the cultural capital of the country, but a more livable city — not least because such shows are affordable, even free.
In Electric Root‘s “The Sound of (Black) Music” at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, five vocalists and six-piece band performed the overture and ten of the songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “The Sound of Music” at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall tonight, in arrangements by Mathis Picard that reflect musical styles pioneered by, and associated with, African American musicians. Replacing the nun’s habits, lederhosen and blond tresses with dashikis, silk dresses and head wraps, “The Sound of (Black) Music” rendered the songs as gospel or funk or jazz – heavy on grooves and percussion, sometimes stretching, or flattening or effectively erasing the familiar melody. The highlights for me were two drastically different numbers back to back.
A duet by Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade turned “The Lonely Goatherd” completely unrecognizable, replacing the yodeling and the tuba-filled Austrian folk melody of the original with Ella Fitzgerald-like scatting and soul-tinged vocal runs. It was thrilling.
This was followed by C. Anthony Bryant’s rendition of “Edelweiss,” which was quiet and gentle and slow. Ok, there was spectacular melisma near the end, but the melody in this case was king.
Last night, BlackBox Ensemble performed an unusual play in an unexpected venue, involving a series of startling journeys. “Borrowed Landscape,” with a book by a duo calling themselves tauchgold (Heike Tauch and Florian Goldberg) and music by Dai FujiKura, was inspired by the true story of a piano that survived the bombing of Hiroshima, while the pianist who owned it did not. She was a 19-year-old American-born woman named Akiko Kawamoto, and she kept a diary, excerpts of which are included in the play, which is expanded to include four “Voices” – that of a pianist, a violinist, a double bass player, and a choral voice. Four actors portray the characters; three musicians play their instruments. The pianist (portrayed by Melani Camille Michiko Carrié) is a present-day Japanese-American pianist invited to Hiroshima to perform on Kawamoto’s piano. The bass player (Michael Bertolini) tells the story of how his father was a bass player for the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, but was Jewish and had to escape to Israel, where he gave up music to work as a fisherman; now his son is determined to fix the beat-up old bass. The violinist (portrayed by Liz Dutton) tells the story of the precious 1726 Stradivarius she feels privileged to play and how it was once owned by Jenö Hubay, a Hungarian musician and composer who died in 1937, and whose relatives a decade later walled it up in the cellar of the Hubay Palace to protect it from the shelling and the approaching Red Army. Three stories of musical instruments and of trauma and of survival.
The startling journeys are not just the ones performed in the hour-long “Borrowed Landscape,” but the one the play itself took. It was originally a radio play written in German, which BlackBox Ensemble’s cellist Jordan Bartlow heard on German radio, and thought would make sense, in an English translation, for his ensemble in New York.
The hour-long musical theater piece that BlackBox brought to New York (along with a trio of related shorter compositions) was presented at the Noguchi Museum In Long Island City, Queens,, because in the same gallery in which they performed, called Area 6, is the model created by sculptor Isamu Noguchi for a Memorial to the Dead, Hiroshima, which he had hoped would be built in the Hiroshima Peace Park, but it never was. That’s the place, though, that houses Akiko Kawamoto’s piano.