RPO sets program, travel packages for Carnegie Hall concert

04:20 PM, Nov 22, 2013

Buffalo native and Minnesota Opera music director Michael Christie will conduct the RPO at Carnegie Hall. (Krista Campbell/ / Photo provided by RPO)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

Returning to Carnegie Hall for the first time in 29 years, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is filling the nation’s most-prestigious concert venue with sex, kidnapping, arson, murder and cult fanaticism.

The RPO is one of six orchestras selected to play the week-long Spring For Music Festival in New York City. The event calls for imaginative programming that is also representative of its community, and the orchestra responded by offering a performance of legendary Eastman School of Music Director Howard Hanson’s 1933 opera Merry Mount.

I can’t think of a more emblematic choice,” says RPO President and CEO Charles Owen. Indeed, it is a choice that recognizes the relationship between the orchestra and the Eastman School of Music.

We could have chosen a more familiar Mahler, something along those lines,” Owen concedes. And there is some Debussy and Mozart being presented during the week of Spring For Music. But the bulk of the work is by modern composers: John Adams, the ecology-minded John Luther Adams, Christopher Rouse, Derek Charke’s 13 Inuit Throat Song Games.

The Rochester presence at Carnegie Hall will be further escalated by plans to send bus loads of area opera enthusiasts to New York City for the May 7 performance. A set of ticket packages went on sale Friday morning. Included are hotel rooms, backstage tours and a lilac-colored hankie for everyone to wave before the start of the show.

Merry Mount is also an ambitious choice, a coordinated production involving the orchestra, the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, Nazareth College’s Bach Children’s Chorus and a handful of solo vocalists. About 250 musicians and cast members will be making the trek to Carnegie Hall.

The event’s guest conductor is Michael Christie, a Buffalo native who’s now music director of Minnesota Opera.

Merry Mount will be streamed live worldwide on the Internet, where it will remain available for a year, and will be carried here on WXXI-FM (91.5). Two preview performances are scheduled for April 10 and April 12 at Eastman Theatre. Tickets for those shows also went on sale Friday.

Although Merry Mount is eight decades old, William Weinert, director of the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, says Hanson’s music has “a freshness, directness and charm that always connects with listeners.”

Commissioned by New York City’s Metropolitan Opera to write a libretto — the text and lyrics for the piece — based on the Nathaniel Hawthorn short story “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” Richard Stokes contacted Hanson about composing the music. Hanson was already one of the world’s established contemporary composers, and was in the midst of building the Eastman into a world-class music school, but he took on the challenge.

Hawthorne’s “The Maypole of Merry Mount” was only a starting point. Stokes almost completely re-wrote the story of 17th-century Puritans, coming up with something that more closely resembles Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or perhaps Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible.

Merry Mount’s world premiere was in 1933 at the May Festival of the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Mich. The following year, the Met brought it to New York City. The lavish Merry Mount production was awarded 50 curtain calls from the audience, still the record for the Met. The critics were equally enamored.

Eight more performances of Merry Mount followed, including a sold-out show at the Eastman Theatre. Then it seemingly disappeared, the few revivals ranging from a 1964 production by the San Antonio Opera — Beverly Sills, then unknown, had a major role — to a 1976 offering by Rochester Opera Under the Stars.

What happened? A bias against American opera, Christie says.

When it’s in your own back yard, things seem to suffer,” he says. “Telling a great story dramatically, it’s not just the Italians doing that.”

In fact, American-composed operas are now slowly winning audiences, he says.

By and large, they’re telling stories of the 20th century,” he says. “I’m sure there will be 21st-century operas as well.”

And where does that leave the story of Puritans clashing with Native Americans and hard-partying Cavaliers in 1625?

Christie defends its relevance. “They had lives, loves,” he says, “and were formulating answers to big questions.”

If you go

If you go

What: Howard Hanson’s opera Merry Mount.

When: 7:30 p.m. May 7.

Where: New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

Tickets: $25, available at the Eastman Theatre box office, 433 E. Main St., rpo.org and (585) 454-2100. Travel packages ranging from $295 to $1,595 per person are available, with details available at rpo.org.

Preview performances: 7:30 p.m. April 10 and 8 p.m. April 12 at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets ($22, $10 for students) are available at the theater box office, Wegmans, rpo.org and (585) 454-2100.