9/20-22/16 – Theater Lieder, Daniel Bennett Group, TableTopOpera

I review a handful of shows, Theater Lieder and TableTopOpera are from the First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival, and the Daniel Bennett concert was apart of Roberts Wesleyan's 150th Anniversary celebration.

9/20-22/16 – Theater Lieder, Daniel Bennett Group, TableTopOpera

Some to reviews to catch up on, so let’s get to it.

On September 20th, mezzo-soprano Andrea McGaugh and accompanist Shichao Zhang (along with fellow actors Henry Benson, Jennifer Lawrence – no, not that J-Law – and Galen Otten) put on a staged display of Schumann’s song cycle “Frauenliebe und-leben (A Woman’s Life and Love), in the Lyric Theatre’s Prince Street Chamber.

The 25 minute song cycle covers a woman’s life and her relationships in it McGaugh played the narrator, and was the only one singing throughout. Benson played the object of her affection, and Lawrence and Otten filled out some other roles, from the narrator’s friends and daughter.

McGaugh has an excellent voice, a perfect light and lyrical sound for art song, and it was a great fit for the small space. She approached each song with a clear emotional range, and the delivered the material extremely well, given the incredibly intimate nature of the performance setting. “Du ring an meinem Finger” (Your ring on my finger) and “Traum der eigenen Tage” (Dream of a past day) were the musical highlights. Zhang is also a solid accompanist, evoking the soft touch of Romantic piano effortlessly.

The other actors added much to the performance, as it allowed the audience to follow the story of the cycle without burying their noses in a translation. They all conveyed their parts without speaking, Benson in particular stood out.

This was a lovely little show, with a great idea that was executed very well.

The following day in Shewan Recital Hall, Rochester native Daniel Bennett and his group came back to his alma mater to release their new album “Sinking Houseboat Confusion” to the ROC.

Bennett, who plays alto sax, flute, piccolo, and oboe, is influenced by folks artists – like Peter, Paul and Mary, the Weavers, Pete Seeger – and takes that melodic quality and translates it into jazz. His earlier music was much more “folky,” but with this lineup of rocker Nat Janoff on guitar and Cali drummer Matthew Feick, the sound is something that Bennett has dubbed “Brian Wilson jazz.” Bennett using all his reeds differently, but effective, ranging from fife and drum sounds with the piccolo, to some dreamy pastoral settings with the flute and oboe, and modern jazz with the sax.

This band loves 7/8, but isn’t afraid to rock or swing a bit in good old 4/4. Feick is an incredibly solid drummer, and was able to play perfectly tastefully in the acoustics of the hall. Janoff’s rock side definitely showed through, but his looping parts and his chord (some great bottom-up voicings) and bass line construction gave an awesome intellectual complement the rocker.

Bennett’s music is undeniably humorous – with titles of “Nine Piglets” and “John Lizard Comes Home” it was easy to see – and is whimsical and melodic approach makes this quirky music incredibly fun to listen to. The positivity seeps into the rest of the band; the way they musically and verbally support each other (they seem to have copied Daniel’s patented “yeah, man!” in words and in notes) is tremendously fun and refreshing.

These guys are based in NYC, and make sure you look them up at http://www.danielbennettgroup.com/ for dates when you’re in the city.

The best show of (my) Fringe so far was the TableTopOpera, led by Eastman faculty member Matthew Brown. This chamber ensemble, this time consisting of Albert Kim and Elinor Freer on piano, Dariusz Terefenko on organ, David Ying on cello, James VanDemark on double bass, James Thompson on trumpet, and Griffin Campbell on alto sax.

The show features live musicians that tackle social issues, and Brown and Christopher Winders trigger the computer slideshow/ movie. This time, they examined the effect of World War I on French composer Claude Debussy, in “Scarred by the Somme.”

The ensemble plays “reduced” versions of fuller orchestral pieces, and the arrangements by Terefenko and Winders capture the essence and impact of each piece, and the audience doesn’t lose a thing. The “Sonate for Cello and Piano” was played in its original arrangement, and served as the backdrop for the story of Debussy’s biography section.

The music and the “movie” developed year by year, and the pieces played also followed the chronological order. The images included battle plans, fighting and injured soldiers, and monuments and shots of the Somme after the battle, that resulted in over one million deaths.

In what was an incredible and evocative performance, the TableTopOpera took the audience on an emotional tour throughout Debussy’s life, with details including his own quotes (“When will be exhausted?” served as a touchstone quote at the beginning and end) and original manuscripts.

Asking us the same question, and alluding to the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars, TableTopOpera explored the issue without pulling punches.

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