Tag Archives: Brooklyn Academy of Music

‘You Us We All,’ well … I am very disappointed

I wanted to love “You Us We All,” the celebrity-citing, pop culture-driven modern opera in Baroque form — in its music, theatrical arc, staging, and costuming — that had its first performance Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. (You can judge for yourself. Performances continue through Saturday. Buy tickets here.)

After all, I think Shara Worden, a classically trained singer who performs in the pop world as My Brightest Diamond and works the New Music circuit under her given name, wrote the music and is one of the singers.

I didn’t know anything much about Andrew Ondrejcak, who wrote the text, directed, and designed the production or about B.O.X. (Baroque Orchestration X), which commissioned the piece and provides the first-rate instrumental ensemble, but had high hopes.

I’ve frequently enjoyed Worden’s work in pop and New Music. And I’ve been itching for a new work to come along that as exciting and challenging as, say, Thomas Adès’ “Powder Her Face.” But this piece isn’t up to that task.

In fact, “You Us We All” ultimately left me wondering whether I had wasted my evening.
It isn’t without merit. The music is lovely, some of the singing is delicious, the chamber orchestra is splendid, and the text is wickedly funny at times. But all those positives created more of a pastiche than a written-through show.

I chalked up my discontent at first to being tired. I found the piece very difficult to follow, and the poorly projected supertitles almost impossible to read from my upper orchestra seat. (You might think supertitles wouldn’t be crucial for an English-language production, but you’d be wrong.)

But then I saw members of the opening night audience slipping out early. It’s not unheard of at BAM, but audiences there are generally more tolerant and attuned to avant garde work than audiences at, say, the Metropolitan Opera.

I realized I wasn’t just being cranky about this when I read  Zachary Woolfe’s review in The New York Times review, which declares the piece “earnest and eventually tiresome.”

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Neutral Milk Hotel feels right at home in Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre

The hoi polloi weren't allowed to take photos of Neutral Milk Hotel during the performance, at the artist's request. So this image of the stage, set up for the band, is all I got. (© 2014, Steven P. Marsh)

The hoi polloi weren’t allowed to take photos of Neutral Milk Hotel during the performance, at the artist’s request. So this image of the stage, set up for the band, is all I got. (© 2014, Steven P. Marsh)

It’s time for a confession: I never saw Jeff Mangum or his legendary band, Neutral Milk Hotel, perform back in the day.

Sure, I heard the songs then, and I’ve listened to the recordings obsessively in recent years.

But seeing Jeff’s gradual return to the spotlight at the NYC benefit for Chris Knox at 2010, and at various shows he’s done since then, I feel like I’ve gotten to know him. Continue reading

Stew stirs things up with fantastic new songs at Barbès

The hat was more crumpled at Barbès on July 25, but Stew's energy was at a peak. (Photo © 2012, Steven P.  Marsh)

The hat was more crumpled than this at Barbès on July 25 and Stew’s energy level seemed higher than usual. (Photo © 2012, Steven P. Marsh)

By the time his latest gig in his musical living room (aka Park Slope, Brooklyn, boîte Barbès) rolled around Thursday night, July 25, singer-songwriter and Tony Award winner Stew had dumped his original staged plan to play versions of his songs from Passing Strange and other numbers from his extensive repertoire.

Instead, he launched into a tight song cycle “inspired by recent events.” In other words, songs about George Zimmerman and the Trayvon Martin case. If yoy don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s time to get out from under that rock where you’ve been living and catch up on the news!

If you’re a Passing Strange fan who passed on the show for one reason or another and are thinking now that this make you feel OK about missing, hold that thought. I’m here to tell you differently. Continue reading

How Stew and Heidi took on Iowa City

Stew & Heidi Rodewald at Joe's Pub in New York City. (Photos © 2012, Steven P. Marsh)

Remember Stew & Heidi Rodewald of The Negro Problem‘s theatrical show, Brooklyn Omnibus at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2010? It made a lot of sense. Both of these creative people had spent time living in the County of Kings and knew it pretty well. And the songs reflected their experiences there.

Jacob Yarrow (Photo by Tom Jorgensen)

It was a bit of a surprise when Stew, in the middle of a Jan. 23 CD-release show at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, asked the audience: “Remember Brooklyn Omnibus? We’re doing an Iowa City Omnibus.”

The Englert Theater, one of the University of Iowa's performing arts venues in Iowa City. (Photo courtesy Jacob Yarrow, Unversity of Iowa)

Thanks to the magic of Twitter, we quickly found out who was behind this Iowa City venture, and took some time to get the lowdown for you.

It turns out that Jacob Yarrow, programming director of the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, saw the Spike Lee film version of Stew and Heidi’s Broadway show, Passing Strange. That was enough to give him a real hankering to bring some of Stew and Heidi’s music in the Midwest, tailored to the flood-ravaged city. So he got in touch and commissioned the duo to do an Omnibus for them.

It takes the stage on Thursday, Feb. 2. As of last week, Yarrow hadn’t heard a note of Stew and Heidi’s work, but was looking forward to hearing it. As he explains after the jump, the Iowa City commission pretty much gave the duo free rein.

My guess is that Iowa City and the University of Iowa will never be quite the same again after Stew and Heidi’s visit.

Continue reading

Stew just can’t shed his Negro Problem

Stew in his breakup show, "Making It," at St. Ann's Warehouse in February 2010. (Copyright 2010, Steven P. Marsh)

Three shows at Joe’s Pub mark Tuesday’s release of Stew & The Negro Problem’s new album, Making It

The cover of Making It features a photo by Stew's daughter, Bibi.

First of all, let’s say “welcome black” to Stew & The Negro Problem.

It’s been 10 long years since Stew (born Mark Stewart in 1961) and his band The Negro Problem made a proper, official album: 2002’s Welcome Black. But on Tuesday, Jan. 24, the wait is officially over when Making It gets its official release.

Thank goodness. It’s long overdue. But you’ll surely find it worth the wait.

It’s a crazy, creative look at the breakup of Stew’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend and musical collaborator Heidi Rodewald. The breakup came in the run-up to the pair’s amazing theater project,  Passing Strange, which briefly thumbed its nose at the Broadway establishment from the Belasco Theatre over six months in 2008. (It also lives on in a Spike Lee film of the show’s final performances.)

Heidi Rodewald and Stew. (Copyright 2009, Steven P. Marsh)

Stew and Heidi managed to survive the breakup and continue their artistic relationship, albeit not without some problems. This album documents the breakup, and in some ways, the promise of their continued collaboration.

This is Stew’s fourth album under the rather provocative name of The Negro Problem, though on  this release on TNP records, the band is billed as “Stew & The Negro Problem.” And even though Stew seemed to abandon the band name in favor of his own moniker, Stew and Heidi haven’t released a rock album since 2003’s Something Deeper Than These Changes, billed simply to Stew. (Yes, there was a Passing Strange soundtrack in 2008, but that wasn’t a Stew record, let alone a Negro Problem record!)

Let’s just say it’s about time! It’s always seemed to me that Stew needs The Negro Problem to fuel his angry-not-as-young-as-he-used-to-be-man persona. (Truth be told, he’s used The Negro Problem name occasionally in recent years, but this seems to be a definitive return home.) Continue reading

The Long Count: From baseball saga to creation story

Long Count Dessners Ritchie

Stereogum Senior Writer Brandon Stosuy, left, interviews The Long Count creators Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Matther Ritchie at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Copyright 2009, Steven P. Marsh)

What did I learn from the artist talk for The Long Count at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last weekend?

For starters, that twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (of rock band The National) wanted to write a baseball saga when Joe Melillo, BAM’s executive producer,  invited them to create a show for this year’s Next Wave Festival. They wanted to work with acclaimed writer and baseball fanatic Michael Chabon, but that didn’t work out. Then the teamed up with British visual artist Matthew Ritchie, who persuaded them to adopt the structure of the Mayan Popol Vuh creation story, which involves a heroic set of ball-playing twins. It was a good move.

The resulting show, which ended its run at BAM on Halloween, was a treat for the eyes, ears and mind.

The Dessners chose to work with a great orchestra, many of whom, like violist Nadia Sirota, are very active in the same contemporary classical-rock crossover circles they are. And their featured collaborators, Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Kim and Kelley Deal, twin sisters from The Breeders.

Check out great photos and info about the performance at Brooklyn Vegan.