Electroacoustic Music in Philadelphia: Live/Wire Ensemble & Opera Company

Live/Wire Ensemble and Opera Company, performing at Temple University, presented an innovative festival of electroacoustic premieres to a packed audience on July 29, 2018. The Festival, which opened on July 26, btought to Pressler Hall at Temple University, a program including,  Radiance  (Jon Paul Maysee), The Sun Gate (Carlos Johns-Dávila) and Pacamambo (Zack Settel). Each of these three works utilized technology in a distinct way. Besides showcasing computer orchestration, amplification and visual projections, these pieces also complemented each other in their inspiration and narratives. (Check Deslumbrar for interviews with the composers last week)

Radiance, which featured bassoonist Dominic Panunto, is based on Christian scripture passages: (Genesis 1:2), (1 Kings 17), (Luke 9:28-36), (Revelation 21:19) and (Exodus 34:35). Lighting effects were generated by the bassoon which were filtered through a computer program. Most of this composition consisted of long sustained notes played by the bassoonist, with corresponding flashes of colored lights in discs and a large space on the ceiling above the musician. For both Radiance and The Sun Gate, performed in the orchestra practice room, the audience was invited to sit on three sides, either on chairs or on the floor. In Radiance, the sole instrumentalist and the visual projection were the center of attention.

In contrast, the audience seemed to become part of the performance of The Sun Gate. There was a lot going on and so much to watch in this piece. The mirrors, projections, and 360 degree camera, bounced images on the walls AND on the people sitting on the floor or in chairs, who surrounded the “stage” where the dancers and musicians performed. Two flexible and engaging dancers, Morgaine A. De Leonardis and Elisa Hernandez, starred as the Incan gods Viracocha and Inti. In addition to the movements they did on the floor, I also found myself watching their shadows on the wall, which intersected with the geometric patterns that were projected. This created another depiction or layer of the story, which had been carefully researched and based on Incan mythology. I interviewed Carlos beforehand, so I was excited to hear and see him play the Quenacho flute that he had purchased in Perú. The flute provided a sense of authenticity to the piece, and I would have liked to have heard more of it. The melody played on the piano near the end recalled Andean tonality and reminded me somewhat of indigenous music I’d heard played on panflutes in the past. This mix of the European and indigenous is key to Carlos’ approach and inspiration. The world created in sound and image (human and geometric) was definitely creative and otherworldly and something I would like to experience again now that I know what to expect. I felt teased by the actual live music included in The Sun Gate and wanted to hear more. The colorful moving geometric patterns, the live dancing and the careful positioning of real roses on the floor were entrancing.  Vishaal Ravikumar (Lighting/Projections Designer) and Sarah Celona (Set Designer) are to be commended for their work on this multifaceted production.  Here is a clip from its New York premiere:

Pacamambo rounded out the trio with another spiritual narrative, this one about death and the afterlife. This comtemporary opera focuses on a young girl Julie (Carly Baron) and how she handles the death of her beloved Grandma “Marie-Marie” (Gillian Booth). Other parts were sung by Max Avery Vitagliano (The Psychiatrist), Andrew Shaw (Le Chien) and Julia Bokunewicz, (La Lune). Isaac Dae Young was the Music Director/Conductor, Carolyn McDemus (Assistant Music Director), and Jon Paul Mayse handled the electronics. Pacamambo utilized computer technology in a more subtle way than the other pieces. It consisted of additional instrumental parts and harmonies. These were programmed by the composer and passed on to the Live/Wire Ensemble and Opera Company to use in their performance. Since I also sing opera, I try to avoid reviewing operas and singers (conflict of interest) but I must say that the conductor and cast were astounding in their commitment to render this score and their performances were exquisite. Pacamambo was sung in French and they never missed a beat. It was obvious to any musician in the audience, that this was a challenging score  but the cast and conductor handled it with aplomb. The subject as well was quite a departure from traditional Western European grand opera and I was impressed that these young singers held their own in a genre that they probably have not had much experience in (since it is not mainstream) or regularly performed in opera companies or conservatories. The chamber environment suits it well and the audience recognized the dedication and skill of the cast and production crew with a standing ovation.

In my opinion, the score should be revised a bit, cut and pared down, swapping some of the “rap” for a more lyrical accompanied recitative. The “rap” idea was fun at first, since it was different, but the composer definitely could write some harmonies and melodies, and did that well in Act 9. The constant raps tended to slow down the action. The story itself is compelling and although it is a short opera, of only 1 hour, the lack of dramatic tension and release in the music, as well as dynamic and tempi changes, made it drag in some places.  That was not the fault of the singers or the conductor. A revision of course, is a task for the composer, not the singers or conductor, to consider.

All in all, Live/Wire Ensemble and Opera Company is to be congratulated for taking a risk and staging three relatively new electroacoustic works to an enthusiastic Philadelphia audience. I welcome your comments and discussions about these performances! Please write something if you were there at one of the performances and want to contribute your thoughts. 

For more information on Jon Paul Mayse, please visit: https://jonpaulmayse.com/
To more on Carlos Johns-Dávila: https://www.newperuvian.net/


Electroacoustic Music Extravangaza at Temple University, July 26-29 in Philadelphia!

Recently, I conducted an interview via e-mail with Jon Mayse, composer and artistic director of Live/Wire about the upcoming show, “Pacamambo/The Sun Gate/Radiance” on July 26-29, 2018. I’ve recently learned through interviews with Jon and his colleague, Carlos Johns-Dávila, that this type of music is a blend of computer generated music and acoustic (traditional) instruments. This program struck me as unique and also very fitting for Deslumbrar, because of  The Sun Gate written by a Peruvian-American composer.
Deslumbrar:  How did the Live/ Wire Opera Company get started? What kinds of productions do you do?
Jon Mayse: Live/Wire started because I saw so many great electroacoustic works that weren’t getting performed, so I figured I’d simply do them with friends. I ran the idea of doing an electroacoustic opera by Isaac Young, the Opera Company Music Director, who somehow convinced me that it was possible for us to do (which was a total lie! I am waaaay too busy!). Initially, we wanted to do a major festival with guest artists, workshops, panels, etc and promote it with solo house shows or gallery shows. Then we saw how much that cost, so we scaled back to just an opera, Pacamambo, and some installations, Sun Gate and Radiance. This is our first production, but we have programs set up for solo sets with bassoon, trombone, organ, and piano that we would love to get performed in the future!
Deslumbrar:  How did you get started in music?  Tell me about your composition process and inspiration.
Jon Mayse: I was originally a blues guitarist, but I got into “classical” music a few years ago, then got into electronic music when I was a member of the Boyer Electroacoustic Ensemble Project (BEEP) at Temple University. My process differs from project to project. For Radiance, there has been a lot of programming, so I haven’t sat down and written any music out. Instead, the bassoonist (Dominic Panunto) has some general guidelines (techniques, gestures, sounds) that he will realize on his own. My faith is my main inspiration. Radiance depicts different moments in scripture in which God’s presence is made manifest. Musically, I tend to use lots of extended techniques on instruments (such as bassoon playing multiple notes or cellists using the cello as a percussion instrument). I’m also inspired by visual artists, such as Olafur Eliasson and Cai Guo Qiang, and sound artists like Samson Young.

Deslumbrar:  There is an upcoming performance of three music works at Temple University this month. Tell me about these works and your role in this event.
Jon Mayse:So, the works are an opera, Pacamambo by Zack Settel, and two multimedia works, The Sun Gate by Carlos Johns-Davila, and Radiance, by myself.
Pacamambo explores grief, friendship, and innocence through the story of a young girl, Julie, who is found in a basement with her dog and the body of her grandmother. Through discussions with a psychologist and dreams/flashbacks, we learn Julie is waiting to confront Death and about a fictional afterlife called Pacamambo, in which everyone is with their loved ones. The opera is wonderfully vibrant, with great rhythmic action and a French language rap.
Here is a clip from a performance of PACAMAMBO by another opera company:

The Sun Gate, by Carlos Johns-Davila, is a modern realization of an Incan Sunrise Festival, Inti Raymi. Viracocha, the Goddess of Creation, walks among the animals on the Celestial River, realizes dawn is coming and wakes the Sun, Inti. The work is for Quenacho (a South American flute) which is played by Carlos, two dancers, and projected lights. The two dancers depict the Sun and the Moon. I’ve only seen some footage from the premier in June, which only made me more excited to see it in person!
Radiance is for Bassoon, Live Electronics, and Lights. The piece depicts various scenes from the Bible in which God’s presence is revealed, from the Spirit coming over the Deep to the reveal of New Jerusalem in Revelations. Four speaker/light stations react to the bassoon, creating an expressive, spatialized dynamic. For example, a crescendo from the bassoonist, Dom, will be matched by brighter lights or maybe by subtle hue changes.
Overall, I am doing the administrative, marketing, technology, and financial work for the Opera Company and the Ensemble. For the opera performance, I am performing the electronic parts. I also wrote the music and electronic part for Radiance.
Deslumbrar:  Congratulations to Jon, who has been accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in London to pursue his master’s degree! He plans to create a “portable version” of Radiance and work on some commissions.  To follow this emerging composer’s career check out his website at: https://jonpaulmayse.com/
Coming up next is a detailed interview with Carlos Johns-Dávila, the composer of The Sun Gate.
Purchase tickets for this musical event (July 26-29 at Temple University) online. For more information check out the website, and Facebook.

Spanish Baroque Opera: A New Old Discovery by Tempesta di mare.

“Vengan las flores, el jazmín y la rosa,

la azucena, que a Juno, suprema deidad

del Olimpo, consagra del orbe

la más noble reina.”

(Bring forth the flowers, the jasmine and rose,

the white lily, dedicated by the world to Juno,

supreme goddess of Olympus,

the most noble queen.)

Sings Dido in the baroque zarzuela “Destinos vencen finezas” (Destiny Trumps your Vows), by Lorenzo de las Llamosas (Perú) and Juan Francisco de Navas (Spain). This bucolic aria, full of nature, describes the effect of each flower: jasmine, rose, carnation and the white lily. A far cry from the familiar aria “When I am Laid on Earth”, which occurs at the end of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, before Dido’s suicide. It is also quite different from the romanzas of the more familiar romantic zarzuela, which comes into full bloom in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Tempesta di mare includes a rendition of this zarzuela in its concert (sung by mezzo-soprano Maren Montalbano) within a Western European baroque context.


The concert, “Purcell, Charpentier and ¡zarzuela!” was presented at the Perelmann Hall in the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on Saturday, March 7 at 8:00 pm. This baroque orchestra is to be commended for finding this piece, last performed in Madrid in 1699, and featuring it in this venue. Spanish music is slowly becoming more main stream in the United States in classical musical circles, but has been usually programmed alone as an anomaly, or alongside Latin American art music.

Considering the era, this baroque zarzuela has more in common with baroque music from other European countries, than it does with later “romantic” zarzuelas and other well known Spanish pieces. The poetry in the baroque zarzuela is based on classical themes: gods and legends of antiquity, rather than folklore, local and national politics, and every day events. Two baroque zarzuelas that have been performed recently in staged productions are La púrpura de la rosa and Viento es la dicha de amor.

The regional dialects and dances of Spain, so prominent in the zarzuela grande and género chico are missing from Destinos. After 1492, with Castile and Aragón united, Granada conquered, and the Catholic Monarchs on a quest for exploration and expansion, it took some time before composers would insert strong and obvious reflections of regional identities. Flamenco, so employed in the work of Spain’s most famous musical son, Manuel de Falla, is not yet much of a factor in 1699. Although the Roma had settled in Iberia by the time this zarzuela was composed, the flamenco music was not heard much outside of Roma communities until the 1800s.

On Saturday, Destinos vencen finezas, the final piece of the program, was sung by one singer, even though there are multiple characters in it. It is short and the singer handled the music well, so this concept worked. Ms. Montalbano took much care to differentiate the characters in her expression and acting. Her pronunciation did not include the [θ] for c and z, which was how people spoke in 1699 in Madrid.   The librettist was Peruvian, so perhaps that entered into the pronunciation choice. She sang with conviction in baroque style and vocally was very consistent. The work has a lot of musical texture, created by the different instrumental parts, and the vocal line was part of that weave. I did miss a fuller and more multi-colored vocalism, but some would consider that inappropriate in baroque style. It was clear that Ms. Montalbano was passionate about this music and enjoyed performing it. Here is a video in which she talks about the learning process:

Tempesta de mare played with gusto during the zarzuela and the other selections, without a conductor waving a baton. Also characteristic of the baroque practice is that some of the instrumentalists play standing: violins, violas and winds. It was lovely to hear the period instruments including:  the baroque recorders, harpsichord, viola da gamba, baroque guitars, violone and theorbos. Castanets were used in the zarzuela and additional percussion in other pieces.

Without the internet, this performance of Destinos vencen finezas, would likely have never taken place. They found the piece via internet and for centuries the score has languished in the National Library in Spain. This particular zarzuela has been written about in literary and theatrical studies, but how many scholars actually had any idea what it sounded like? (Even if they could read music, they probably were not musically trained enough to hear the orchestra, the full effect, in their inner ear). Over three hundred years after its debut, a new audience, new musicians, thousands of miles from Spain, experienced this discovery of an old work in Philadelphia.

IMG_3672For more information about the Tempesta di mare, please visit their website: www.tempestadimare.org

El gato con botas: An Adorable Production by Gotham Chamber Opera

Music, puppets, rabbits, fish, a lion, a monster and a super clever cat–all the ingredients for a charming and adorable show. El gato con botas by Catalán composer, Xavier Montsalvatge, was presented in Spanish on December 11 at 7:00 pm by Gotham Chamber Opera in New York City at the Museo del Barrio. This was a revival of their premiere in 2010. I don’t know how I missed that premiere, but I’m glad that I was able to catch the revival. It was a very delightful evening.

By far, the puppets upstaged all the human characters and the music, and the inanimate brought to life,  stole the show. Overall the singing of the 60 minute opera was well done. Andrea Carroll, the princess, displayed beautiful lush toned singing, perfectly appropriate for her role. Kevin Burdette, thoroughly embodied the ogre character, through his precise singing and parallel movements and expressions with the giant puppet.  As the cat, Karin Mushegain, delivered with gusto. In general I did not find the Spanish lyrics very idiomatic–I had to refer to the subtitles (and I am a fluent speaker of Spanish).  I could not tell if that was due to the way the lyrics were set or the singers familiarity with the language as everything was pronounced correctly.

Since the musical score includes some instrumental interludes, there were opportunities for stage business and dances among the puppets. The puppetry was nothing short of spectacular. The skill and preparation of those artistis working the strings was evident. The only weakness, from my vantage point (right orchestra seat) was that the cat singer, was too visible and upstage the cat puppet. It was difficult to concentrate on the cat when she was singing. I wonder if having the singers in the pit might have been less distracting.

Gotham Chamber Opera and the entire cast and production crew deserve kudos for this production. There were many partners involved in making it happen, from the Guggenheim Works in Progress, Museo del Barrio, Tectonic Theater Project and all of the generous patrons. El gato con botas is an obscure opera by an relatively unknown composer (really only familiar to those that study Spanish music). The opera is short and sweet and the Gotham Chamber Opera production is light and fun!

Luisa Fernanda: Encore!

One beautiful woman, 2 men–a triangle. The stuff of love stories. One of the men is young and flaky. The other is established and mature. Who will she choose? Then enter the duchess! Dangerous liaisons develop within this quartet. This flirtatious noblewoman captures the attention of both men, originally devoted to the serious Luisa Fernanda. 


COT (Concert Operetta Theater) led by Daniel Pantano in Philadelphia, boldly takes on a difficult challenge with one of the most famous (if not THE most famous) grand zarzuela, Luisa Fermanda, by Spanish composer, Moreno Torroba.  José Melendez as Musical Director and pianist, is the backbone of this endeavor. A big hurdle in producing zarzuela outside of Spain and other spanish speaking countries, has always been casting. In Spain zarzuelas are still done, even some of those composed in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is a tradition and a background knowledge of the cryptic historical intrigues and politics that comprise many of the libretti. In addition, the public and the performers are familiar with the genre and speak the language. In the United States at least, the performance of classical music (and zarzuela as a form of operetta floats between musical theatre and opera) in Spanish has lagged behind that in French, German and of course Italian. Even Russian works are done more often. Spanish diction has just started to be taught in some conversatories and music programs.

In addition to the language barrier, zarzuela  includes spoken dialogue and dance as well as singing. The nature of the lead roles especially, require an operatically trained voice (or at least one which attempts the training) and musicianship to learn the parts well enough to be able to follow an orchestral conductor.  The “comedy couple” in some zarzuelas (and there is none in Luisa Fernanda) is often cast with less glorious/less trained voices BUT, this couple must dance and act well since they deliver most of the laughs. In essense, for some of the zarzuelas, you need a triple threat opera singer (or zarzuela singer in Spain) who speaks and sings Spanish. These requirements make it difficult and expensive to produce a zarzuela. Remember, that there are full orchestras that go along with all this stage action and design, so in addition to a budget that can rival a fully staged opera, and assembling a qualified cast, there is the issue of marketing and getting “butts in the seats.” Outside of New York City, some parts of California, New Mexico, Texas and Florida, with strong hispanic populations, this requires much more work than getting people into an opera or a musical in English. The heydey of zarzuela in the United States, was in those areas, from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Plácido Domingo himself, and Pablo Zinger of New York City, were instrumental in promoting the genre during this time. Later, it seemed that people just ran out of funding, or  perhaps the energy, to produce as much.

COT is able to skirt some of these issues with a concert version. There are no sets or costumes, and acting while speaking is reduced to the minimum. The singers wear formal wear, suits for the men and gowns for the ladies. Since there are scores and music stands visible and the audience knows it is a “concert version,” they come prepared to enjoy the music without the elaborate sets, authentic costumes, dancing and dialogue. A screen was set up to the left of the stage, and titles were projected in English, facilitating comprehension for the non-Spanish speakers.

During the concert on Sunday, October 19, 2014, I missed at first, the costumes, movement and set, but then the voices in this production made up for it. In particular, tenor, César Delgado, delivered a rendition of “De este apacible rincón” that rivaled that of Plácido Domingo!

Laura Maria Reyes who played Luisa Fernanda, (and on 5 days notice!) and Jorge Espino as Vidal, also displayed solid technique, diction, beaultiful vocalism, and idiomatic expression. The rest of the ensemble, some not native Spanish speakers, held their own in the dialogue and navigated the somewhat awkward vocal lines that often plague zarzuela. Although the end results are very charming and sometimes cute, zarzuelas are not that easy to sing. One interesting change was to have mezzo Chrystal E. Williams sing the roles of Mariana and El Saboyano. El Saboyano is usually sung by a tenor, but she owned it! The best actor in the spoken dialogue by far was Valentine Fernández-Buitrago. He seemed at home with this kind of acting and with good reason as he began performing in it very young in Puerto Rico. As Duchess Carolina, Eugenia Forza embodied this persona. Although there were no costumes, she appeared to have stepped out of a Goya portrait–Cayetana in the flesh–and I mean that as a compliment. Her stance, her expressions, her “look” fit the character of quasi decadent nobility.

My favorite part of this zarzuela has always been the duet “Cállate, corazón.” To sing it or hear it is just heartwrenching. I had to stop myself from standing up and yelling “Can we get rid of the music stands??” This was the one point where I just wanted to see them be Luisa Fernanda and Javier and forget that this was a “concert.” That is the one negative about a well done concert version: It always makes you want more and to long to see the work fully realized. Hopefully, this is the start of something in Philadelphia. COT needs to do this show again and other local companies need to think about repertoire in Spanish. COT proved that this zarzuela’s music could stand on its own. Without all of the trimmings (and the expense and complicated casting), perhaps this is a way to still enjoy this unique genre.

To view a complete Spanish performance of Luisa Fernanda: