Last month, New York Polyphony strayed outside of its artistic comfort zone. Willingly! As part of a two-week residency at Stanford University, we participated in the premiere of Jonathan Berger’s opera cycle Visitations. This wasn’t New York Polyphony’s first foray into [*ahem*] opera—in 2007 we performed Der Jenaische Wein und Bierrufer, a comic cantata by Johann Nicolaus Bach (1669-1753)—but in terms of modern opera, Berger’s two one-acts, Theotokia and War Reporter, were uncharted territory.
It’s no secret: we’re an early music ensemble. The core of our repertoire is comprised of unaccompanied vocal music written before 1640 or so. We deviate occasionally (sometimes we’ll go crazy and sing something from 1643**) but for the most part we maintain a singular focus. The modern music we do perform tends to be commissioned works from composers who draw inspiration from or pattern their compositional style after medieval and Renaissance music.
So when we were approached by Stanford University to be involved in this project, we were flattered, yes, but careful to remind them of what I just outlined. Luckily, composer Jonathan Berger was one step ahead of us: not only did he want our ensemble sound intact, he wanted to write something that was congruous with the type of music we make.
Read The New York Times review.
Read The Los Angeles Times review.
The planning process took some unexpected twists and turns, and there was a border skirmish or two over artistic expectations, but, in the end, New York Polyphony was part of something really cool. More importantly, the experience challenged us to take musical and dramatic risks that our core repertoire doesn’t demand. As an ensemble, this was an invaluable exercise. We emerged with a heightened awareness of our strengths and limitations, and at the same time gained more confidence in our artistic identity.
I doubt there are many more operas in New York Polyphony’s future. But Visitations was a satisfying and worthwhile excursion. Plus we got to work with the formidable talents of director Rinde Eckert, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, conductor Christopher Roundtree, the staff and crew of Stanford Live, producer Beth Morrison (of Beth Morrison Projects), and, lastly, the luminous (and totally irreverent) soprano Heather Buck.