Frost offers survey of composer Cuomo’s eclectic music

By Lawrence Budmen

Douglas J. Cuomo’s music was featured Monday night at UM’s Frost School of Music.

The University of Miami’s Frost School of Music saluted composer Douglas J. Cuomo on Monday night. Cuomo, a Frost graduate, has achieved considerable success writing television and film scores and arranging for such pop stars as Britney Spears. He has also written opera, chamber and jazz works while maintaining an active performing career as a jazz guitarist. Cuomo and Frost Opera Theater director Alan Johnson shared the Gusman Concert Hall stage, conversing about the pieces being performed.

The two most striking works on the program were deeply influenced by Eastern music. Highlights from Cuomo’s chamber opera Arjuna’s Dilemma mixed Indian idioms with minimalism and New Age meditative strophes. A video of the central Vision scene from the premiere at the 2008 Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival preceded performance of the opera’s final scenes.

Based on an episode from the epic Mahabharata, the opera tells the story of the warrior Arjuna’s crisis of conscience when faced with battle and the god Krishna’s attempt to persuade him to go to war. Set to texts in both Sanskrit and English, the score combines long, flowing a capella lines for female vocal quartet, a luminous arioso for the title character and whirling instrumental motifs from a ten-piece ensemble. The juxtaposition of Eastern and Western influences never seems contrived, and, while eclectic, the score is wonderfully fluid and skillfully crafted.

Tony Boutte, Arjuna in the New York premiere and now a Frost vocal professor, gave a remarkable demonstration of vocal control and musicianship. A splendid Baroque singer, Boutte assayed the high vocal writing with the same purity of tone and ease in winding roulades that he brings to Bach and Handel. Special props to the vocal quartet (Kathleen Hollingsworth, Kathryn Kelly Longo, Lucy McVeigh and Alissa Roca) whose ethereal harmonies were a serene contrast to the throbbing orchestral palette. Johnson, who has recorded the score, conducted with authority.

…And Disbelievers, a 2008 solo cello work, combines Middle Eastern chant and Indian raga in a bravura vignette. Cecilia Huerta was an assured soloist, displaying rich tone and fearless technique. A Far Playground (2009) was a less impressive cello score, too often repeating loud and soft cello tremolos and chord progressions in the accompanying piano line.

Of three excepts from the song cycle A Winter’s Journey (based on the same text as Schubert’s Winterreise), “Three Suns” proved haunting, the evocative vocal part accompanied by a poignant solo trumpet. Robynne Redmon, a visiting Frost professor, has sung leading roles at the Met, La Scala and major European opera houses. Redmon’s large, voluminous mezzo, silvery timbre, superb English diction and sense of drama impressively scaled Cuomo’s wide vocal leaps.

The garden scene from Cuomo’s recent opera Doubt, based on the John Patrick Shanley play and film, seemed like musical background to the text. Mundane recitative and soapy accompaniment failed to rise to distinction, at least when bereft of orchestration. Jeffrey Williams, impressive in recent Frost Opera Theater productions, brought a commanding baritone and oily characterization to Father Flynn’s attempt to convince a young nun that he was innocent of the accusations against him. Redmon powerfully embodied the nun’s uncertainty and vacillation, and Johnson valiantly tried to substitute for an orchestra at the keyboard.

How to Survive in the Woods, a brief choral work in an arrangement for vocal quartet, was an entertaining novelty replete with jazz harmonies in the manner of the vocal group Manhattan Transfer. T.C., a jazz score from Cuomo’s student days, gave the composer a chance to display his bona fide chops on electric guitar with Brian Lynch’s brilliant bop-inspired trumpet and Angel Versace’s hard-driving piano along for the ride.

Posted in Performances

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Tue Apr 9, 2013
at 12:05 pm
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