"Contemporary Musicians' Guide to Modern Love"
It's clear from the outset of "Contemporary Musicians' Guide to Modern Love" that this isn't just a standard recital presentation.
As the program opens with composer Jake Heggie's musical scene "At the Statue of Venus," the camera gradually pans from pianist Yoshiko Arahata to mezzo-soprano Jessica Ann Best, who is walking toward center stage of Hochstein Performance Hall, not in a gown or other concert attire, but as the character Rose, who is dressed in street clothes to meet a blind date at the art museum.. Multiple camera angles are utilized, and images of Venus and other art works in the gallery fade in and out of view. In a sense, this is a vocal recital-as-concert opera, in the sense that Best isn't merely singing the song, she is living the role in the moment.
With "At the Statue of Venus" Best effectively demonstrates the nerve-wracking nature of dating, and going on a blind date in particular. It's all too easy to get caught up in one's own head and overthink things. And in the character of Rose, that's just what Best does.
Her performance is a sophisticated one. She sings with a clarity of tone that is direct and accessible, and without any pretenses that would distance her emotionally from the audience. She communicates a variety of feelings in short order — anxiousness, excitement, happiness, and hesitation — as if she's talking to a good friend, and not singing on a stage.
Arahata goes beyond merely fulfilling the role of accompanist, shining in her own right without overshadowing Best. The pianist possesses an exacting facility at the keyboard, playing with a vibrancy not often heard from the supporting musician in a vocal recital.
The second act of the program, consisting of selections from William Bolcom's "Cabaret Songs," begins with an unconventional but brilliant choice to film Arahata in the foreground of the shot. Best enters in the background, before interacting directly with her accompanist at the piano for the song "Over the Piano."
The second of the songs in the Bolcom set, "Amor" is particularly fun and lighthearted, and it's obvious that Best is relishing the performance, as she recounts numerous flirtatious interactions with various strangers about town, including a policeman, ice cream vendor, court judge, and even a church choir.
Best’s interpretation of Bolcom’s compositions shows how equally at home she is in the worlds of classical and jazz. Whether the singer is employing the dramatic trappings of art songs or taking a more casual aesthetic stance, she is vocally at ease and projects a spirit of generosity. Beyond sheer vocal ability, this latter quality is paramount in a voice recital.
Another highlight was an all-too-brief song with arguably the best title I’ve ever heard: "At the Last Lousy Moments of Love." Best recalls the end of a relationship with incredulity. "He wanted to tell me the truth — about me, of course!" she sings with slight bitterness.
This expertly executed recital even concludes with an encore of "Losing My Mind," from Stephen Sondheim’s musical "Follies," as the credits roll. In addition to consummate performances from Best and Arahata, video director Jonathan Lowery, editor Michael Sherman, and performance coach Mary Tiballi Hoffman helped put the presentation over the top. Classical musicians, take note: this is how you stage a virtual performance in a pandemic.
"Contemporary Musician's Guide to Modern Romance" is available on demand via rochesterfringe.com through Sept. 26. $10. Ages 5 and over; 50 minutes. After expenses, all ticket sales are being donated to Black Lives Matter, Hochstein School of Music, and Blackfriars Theatre. — Daniel J. Kushner
"Etched Glass Decanter"
Radio drama has been a surprisingly popular medium during this year's virtual Rochester Fringe, with companies performing and producing works to various degrees of success. NYC-based Evening Crane Theatre’s original work, "Etched Glass Decanter," is an ethereal, riveting example of radio drama done well. Bonus? It's free and streaming on demand.
Poetry, music, scripted scenes and sound effects create this journey of haunted characters on various quests in strange lands. It seems the piece is meant to be the first in a series (there are a few more episodes on the company’s website, accessible by password only), but this installment stands on its own.
After listening, it makes sense that "Etched Glass Decanter" received a "Best New Writing" award in the 2020 Paris Fringe Festival and the New Writing Laurel from Binge Fringe Magazine. There's a level of nuance and mysticism in the writing reminiscent of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Edgar Allan Poe, with touches of the podcasts "Lore" and "Welcome to Nightvale."
Of the handful of free shows on the 2020 docket, the hour-long "Etched Glass Decanter" is one that audience members may have gladly paid for considering the high-quality production, seamless writing, and fluid voice actor performances. "Etched Glass Decanter" streams for free via rochesterfringe.com throughout the festival. Appropriate for 13 and over. — Leah Stacy
"Push Physical Theatre’s Trunk Show"
During the last six months of quarantine, Rochester's own PUSH Physical Theatre— which uses a mixture of dance, athletic movement, acrobatics, and mime to tell stories — has been hard at work on a new hour-long piece specifically for Rochester Fringe. The YouTube-based performance hinges on the use of a black vintage trunk, once belonging to co-founder Heather Stevenson's grandmother. As a thematic device, the trunk threads together individual vignettes developed by the PUSH team. As the voiceover narrative indicates, it's a powerful visual representation of the stories we carry through our lives.
Before each vignette is artist commentary, lending context to the inspiration for the following piece. The topics range from current events to interpersonal dynamics, and, of course, PUSH’s signature slapstick banter is present (especially for anyone who’s familiar with co-founders, the husband-and-wife team Darren and Heather Stevenson). Guest artist Hassiem Muhammad contributes a particularly powerful piece that sends chills even through a digital medium, and newer team members Sydney Burrows and Ashley Jones provide poetic and comedic pieces, respectively. There’s also a fun cameo from locally based Airigami balloon art.
The full enjoyment of PUSH in a digital medium is possible due to excellent videography from the Stevensons' son, Darren Stevenson, Jr., who has not only filmed several angles, but edited the performances with applicable music and sound effects as well.
"Push Physical Theatre’s Trunk Show" streams via rochesterfringe.com through Sept. 26. $10. Appropriate for all ages. — Leah Stacy