Wild Hilarity and Ravishing Lyricism?

Get ready for another crazy Present Music concert. It's entitled "Hilarious," but that may be just the half of it.

By - Apr 21st, 2015 02:09 pm
John Adams. Photo from Present Music website.

John Adams. Photo from Present Music website.

On Friday, April 24th, Present Music offers concert entitled “Hilarious.” At first glance, the program appears to be simple parody: “Garland Hirshi’s Cows” laughs at the life of a Utah cow herder,  “In the Alps” seems to parody Heidi and “Road Movies” brings a cartoonist’s attitude toward the open road, not a new perspective for composer John Adams, who admits to being inspired by Tom and Jerry. “Elvis Everywhere” pokes fun at the Elvis phenomenon that will never die.

All four works can be found online. But after a closer look, I have concluded that “Hilarious” has been misnamed.

Composer Phillip Birnstein‘s deconstructed narrative, “Garland Hirshi’s Cows”, has been described by National Public Radio as “a kind of concerto for cow and rancher (that) blends the rancher’s voice, his cows’ moos and musical notes derived from both.” The four-movement composition seems at times to be rap, at other times dramatization or only whimsical band music. Birnstein’s bio provides perspective on his work. “After further studies at UCLA in composition, he took a hiking trip to southern Utah and never left.” Having fallen for his new home, Birnstein served two terms as mayor of the small town of Springdale, Utah – a bit west of Lake Wobegon.

And the “Heidi” parody? With “In the Alps”, Richard Ayres has not written a parody, but a whimsical romantic opera that pours from the heart of a creative, clever and innocent soul.

A girl – known only as the Soprano – isolated from other humans and raised by goats at the top of an “unclimbable” mountain, gains her voice when she connects long distance with a mute boy in the valley who can only communicate through his trumpet. The story unfolds within a magical world suggested by musical soundscapes. Brief dance episodes feature carpenters, cow herders and monks but recall elements of “Nutcracker Suite.” Grand moments with Alpine horns echo Richard Strauss.

“In the Alps” was immediately attractive to Jill Anna Ponasik, Producing Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Opera Theatre who collaborates with Present Music Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim as stage manager. Ponasik recalls, “One of my first questions to Kevin was ‘You know this ends tragically, right?’ (The work raises) some serious existential questions about desire, about longing, about whether the universe cares about us.”

The story will be semi-staged. Only the Soprano sings. A narrative strings the story together through printed slides as in a silent movie. This is a theatrical adventure told through music. Ponasik recognizes a “really important naivety … stealing from everything … to propel the music forward… flipping quickly back and forth from clever to innocence.”

Given Ponasik’s past transformations of such standards as Bernstein’s Candide and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado I look forward to how her creative mind will intersect with Ayers’.

Critic Stephen Eddins reviews the recording of “In the Alps” and offers this take:  “It’s not ‘normal’ for the silly and the beautiful to be thrown together with such apparently inchoate abandon, but ultimately, for listeners who can let go of conventional expectations, Ayres’ music can be exhilarating, even thrilling, in its promiscuous embrace of wild hilarity and ravishing lyricism.”

Although light-hearted, John Adams’ “Road Movies” may be heard simply as great contemporary chamber music. The work for violin and piano bears little resemblance to the massed sounds Adams draws from the full orchestra in works Edo de Waart has introduced to Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra audiences. Adams describes this work as “total whimsey, probably suggested by the ‘groove’ in the piano part .. in ‘swing’ mode.”

Jill Anna Ponasik. Photo from Present Music website.

Jill Anna Ponasik. Photo from Present Music website.

In recording notes, violinist Midori observes that “Road Movies” is  “quintessential John Adams, the more lyrical passages rich in sentiment and hauntingly beautiful, setting off music of remarkable wit, that spins, sways, croons and jives.” Asymmetrical rhythms define an opening movement. A contemplative bluesy middle movement is followed by a final movement that Adams describes as “a giddy, bouncy ride, somewhere between an Ives ragtime and a long rideout by the Goodman Orchestra, circa 1939.”

As for Michael Daugherty’s “Elvis Everywhere,” perhaps it’s a parody. This work seems more like Weird Al Yankovic than any substantive compositional effort. Perhaps it’s impossible to take the Elvis myth seriously.

So is this concert “Hilarious”?  Better perhaps to call it another Present Music “happening.” Expect a contemporary music concert with creative staging, great music, assured entertainment and some unexpected twists and turns.

Present Music will perform at a familiar venue, Turner Hall Ballroom (1040 N. 4th Street) at 7:30 PM on Friday, April 24. Single tickets ($15, $25, and $35) are available at or at (414) 271-0711. Students are always 50 percent off.

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