Thomas and Beulah | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Thomas and Beulah 

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Hardly anybody has really taken on the challenge of updating the art song. Academic composers seem willing to let the conventions of the 19th century govern the setting of poetry or prose to music, and whether in a salon or on the big stage, the roles seem set in stone: the singer sings the text, the pianist accompanies, colors, frames, supports. But Amnon Wolman's Thomas and Beulah both extends and defies the tradition. It's a song cycle that uses Rita Dove's book of poems about her grandparents as its text, and the accompaniment, as you'd expect, is played on piano--at this performance by Ursula Oppens, one of the foremost international performers of new keyboard music and Wolman's colleague at Northwestern University. But anyone expecting an African-American Winterreise has another thing coming. Seating for the staging is in the round, and the audience is separated into intimate groups by hanging cloth; the sections are lit according to cues that correspond to the shifting perspective of the poems. Using a sort of computer-aided piano called a Disklavier, Oppens controls a second layer of accompaniment--a shimmering, echoey metallic soundscape with faint murmurs of half-decipherable words derived from the electronic manipulation of Dove's own voice reciting the poems--and stranger still, she also sometimes subjects soprano Cynthia Haymon's voice to computer adjustment in real time. Based on the rehearsal tape I've heard, most of the fancy footwork is in the execution, not the score itself, which Wolman kept relatively straightforward so as not to obfuscate Dove's supple, historically detailed poetry. The overall effect is the sort of feathery, free-associative disorientation one might experience in a particularly rich daydream. Thursday, January 18, 8 PM, and Saturday and Sunday, January 20 and 21, 4 PM, theater, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago; 312-397-4010.


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