Tag Archives: Peak Performances

New York composer Matt Marks dies at 38

Composer Matt Marks died Friday, May 11, 2018.

Composer Matt Marks died Friday, May 11, 2018.

Talented young composer Matt Marks  — really a quadruple threat, given his beautiful singing ability, high-level horn playing (he was a founding member of leading contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound), and arranging — died Friday, May 11.

He was 38.

He died in St. Louis, Missouri, where Alarm Will Sound had performed on May 9 and had been doing some recording, the band’s marketing director, Michael Clayville, tells NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog.

Related: Fundraiser for Matt Marks’ fiancée

Learning of the sweet, funny, and sometimes acid-tongued Marks’ death under any circumstances would have been gutting. But my first clue came when composer Ted Hearne’s heartfelt tribute turned up in my Facebook feed Saturday night. I was in New Music setting that was such a familiar part of Marks’ life: at the Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, for a Peak Performances presentation of Julia Wolfe and Maya Beiser’s “Spinning,”with composer David Lang and artist Suzanne Bocanegra among the members of the audience.

The context — Peak Performances has a track record of incubating powerful new works, including David T. Little’s “Dog Days,” which springs from a well that also nourished Marks’ work — made the news of his death that much more of a gut punch.

Marks’ passing was announced on Facebook by his fiancee, Mary Kouyoumdjian.

No cause of death was given.

Alarm Will Sound posted an announcement hours after Kouyoumdjian, which precisely repeated her parting admonition: “We appreciate your sensitivity during this difficult time.”

The always funny Marks — he frequently offered random, wry, witty commentary on Twitter, lately as “Matt Marks (aka JonBenét Gramsci)” and for many years, simply under the childlike moniker “Mafoo” —  died the morning after he tweeted news that the National Endowment for the Arts had approved a $10,000 grant for the staging of his splendid opera, “Mata Hari” (seen last year at New York’s Prototype Festival) at the West Edge Opera in Berkeley, California, in August.

WATCH: An excerpt from composer Matt Marks’ opera “Mata Hari”:

I saw and was impressed by “Mata Hari” at Prototype —  where the composer, as always made a point to offer a cheerful hello —  Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? last posted about him in 2010, after a performance of his earlier work, “The Little Death: Vol. 1,” which he also performed with soprano Mellissa Hughes.

So, I couldn’t say I knew him well, and don’t wish to take anything away from his close friends and family. I simply knew him through his often brilliant and usually funny work, and his public persona of a down-to-earth person who was consistently pleasant and friendly.

Composers Ted Hearne, far left, and Caroline Shaw, far right, were in the chorus for a performance of Matt Marks'

Composers Ted Hearne, far left, and Caroline Shaw, far right, were in the chorus for a performance of Matt Marks’ “The Little Death: Vol. 1” at Galapagos in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood in 2010, with Marks and Mellissa Hughes in the lead roles. (© 2010, Steven P. Marsh/willyoumissme.com)

Marks had only begun to reveal the full extent of his ability. He’s a composer who always held a special place in my heart because I got to see him and his work early on and watch him grow and blossom.

R.I.P. Matt Marks.

WATCH: The Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9,” arranged by Matt Marks:

David T. Little’s ‘Dog Days’ will blow you away

John Kelly as Prince and Lauren Worsham as Lisa in the world premiere performance of "Dog Days." (Photo: James Matthew Daniel)

John Kelly as Prince and Lauren Worsham as Lisa in the world premiere performance of “Dog Days.” (Photo: James Matthew Daniel)

Be prepared to hold onto your seat if — as you really should — go to see “Dog Days,” the new opera from composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek now in its world premiere run at the Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, N.J.

Composer David T. Little (Photo by Merri Cyr)

Composer David T. Little (Photo: Merri Cyr)

While the extremely dark, comedic piece is clearly a team effort (Jim Findlay‘s scenery, live video and video design lend the piece extra oomph), it’s Little’s powerfully dramatic music that makes the tale so compelling. The emotional score, with spiky, jarring moments, never loses its lyrical bearings. “Dog Days” signals Little as one of the great compositional voices of his generation.

(Click here for a video preview.)

Focusing on one American family that has, so far, survived a vaguely described apocalypse, the opera grapples with questions of human relationships, their limits and even what it means to be human.

The opera is based on a short story of the same title by Judy Budnitz. While the opera makes the story arc understandable, I regret not reading the story before seeing the sold-out first performance at the Kasser, a jewel of a theater on the campus of Montclair State University.

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Two storms collide: Hurricane Katrina and Josephine Baker

PeakPerfs josephine_boa MAIN

The narrator of Looking for Josephine, the joyous Josephine Baker revue that ended its American premiere run Sunday afternoon as part of the ambitious Peak Performances series at Mointclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater, explains why the American singer was not fully appreciated in her home country: She was too much of a clown. She was too African.

At Saturday night’s performance, I realize that even though Josephine died more than three decades ago, some things haven’t changed. At least one person in the audience last night was put off by the story — its French-ness (“It’s not in English”) and Josephine’s whirlwind free-spirited-ness (“He’s going to strip her?”).

The production by La Compagnie Jérôme Savary is that it is rather conservative. Josephine, played splendidly by Nicolle Rochelle,  is never actually nude — even at her least-dressed she appeared to be wearing pasties. Yet the suggestion of nudity was bothersome to at least a few.

Jérôme Savary

Jérôme Savary

The book is rather slight. It offers a sketch of the life of Josephine told through the eyes of residents of New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. The show opens with three characters in an inflatable boat, waiting for the floodwaters to recede. A French theatrical producer, Slap Goldman (Michel Dussarrat, who also designed the costumes) shows up, seemingly oblivious to the damage and human suffering around him, looking for someone capable of playing Josephine in a production of La Revue Nègre that he is staging back in France.

Slap’s eyes light upon Cindy (Rochelle), who’s in the boat with Old Joe (Walter Reynolds) and Tom (Allen Hoist). One thing leads to another, and Cindy goes off to France, where she plays Josephine. The story comes full circle when Cindy gets a break in her performance schedule and returns home to Nola to find that Old Joe died while she was away.

The show is entertaining and has spectacular singing and dancing. But at times it goes off the rails when it tries to tap serious themes, as it does in a disconcerting scene of devil-may-care dancing performed in front of a projected backdrop of filmed Ku Klux Klan demonstrations and cross burnings.

The show is not entirely ven informative at times. After all, how many of us remember Josephine as a paragon of Civil Rights? Yet she was. For instance, a photo of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flashed on the backdrop serves as a reminder that King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, offered Josephine a leadership role after King’s assassination.

If you missed this show, Peak Performances has plenty of other music and dance offerings this season, including a one-off concert by pianist Mario Formenti this Saturday evening. . All the productions tend to be first rate, and, with tickets priced at a rock-bottom $15 this season, the value is high. Check out the schedule here.