Thursday, July 8, 2010

Oh, Honey, I Just Love Your Ensemble!

Each year, hundreds of aspiring musicians graduate from conservatories around the country. Few, however, aim to become soloists. Safety in numbers will, for many, mean joining a symphony orchestra or getting a job in academia (where a steady paycheck and employee benefits package can indeed be a wonderful thing).

While it's easier to keep a low profile in an orchestral work environment, some musicians prefer more intimate challenges, such as performing with a string quartet or vocal ensemble (where the repertoire is different, there is a greater sense of artistic control, and one's co-workers become a closely-knit extended family). Of course, working with a smaller number of people shines a brighter spotlight on a person's musical talent and ability to be a good team member.

When performing in a quartet, singers and instrumentalists must not only pay close attention to what their colleagues are doing, but adhere to the stresses and musical balances contained within the score. Although this clip from an updated version of Gilbert & Sullivan's popular comic opera, The Mikado, may stray from the traditional style of dramatic presentation, the musical balances in Act II's Madrigal have been carefully rehearsed and preserved in performance.

Sometimes an ensemble specializes in a particular type of music. Barbershop quartets like the Buffalo Bills (which first received national attention when Meredith Willson's hit show, The Music Man, opened on Broadway on December 19 1957) can seem so incredibly in tune with each other that their performances are almost flawless. Take a moment to savor their cohesion as a vocal ensemble in this clip from the 1962 film version of The Music Man:

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Earlier this week, the Kinsey Sicks made their long-awaited Rrazz Room debut just in time to celebrate the release of their seventh CD, "Each Hit and I" (say it out loud several times to get the full effect). The group is also celebrating their 16th anniversary as the nation's leading "dragapella beauty shop quartet."

While many artists shine in rehearsal and performance, the business side of their careers can prove to be their downfall. Some have ended up suing their managers for embezzlement, others have seen their careers fade as they became old news and their agents started pushing younger, hotter talents.

The Kinsey Sicks, however, have a built-in advantage due to the fact that two of the group's founders (Ben Schatz and Irwin Keller) were attorneys in their previous professional lives. These two men know how to read and negotiate a contract and protect the copyrights on their song parodies. While the Kinsey Sicks has never been shy about promoting themselves, they understand the importance of branding and rolling out new product on a regular basis. A perfect example is their series of video greetings, such as the following birthday card:

In addition to Ken Bielenberg's two films (2006's I Wanna Be A Republican and 2008's Kinsey Sicks: Almost Infamous), the group markets T-shirts, autographed posters, and its seven CDs on its website. Added bonuses for fans include video specials like the following:

After Jeff Manabat joined the group as Trixie in 2004, he took over the responsibilities for costume design and vocal arrangements. Schatz handles the writing for most of the parody songs and continues to come up with new material (like this parody of Waltzing Matilda for their trip to the 2009 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras).

The play list for Each Hit And I includes songs like
The Kinsey Sicks at the Rrazz Room (Photo by: Pat Johnson)
The Kinsey Sicks at the Rrazz Room (Photo by: Pat Johnson)

Listing the numbers performed during their set does little to capture the full spirit of the evening (Trampolina had trouble understanding that the Hotel Nikko was not in Nikkoragua). Not only are the Kinsey Sicks talented ad-libbers (they occasionally crack each other up), they won't hesitate to tell someone in the audience to "shut the fuck up." Their show begins with Winnie's announcement that, if anyone's cell phone starts to make noise during the show, a member of the Kinsey Sicks will come out into the audience and shove the cell phone up the offending person's ass.

Each Hit And I is crude, rude, deliciously lewd, and most certainly not for prudes. One of the group's strongest shows in recent years, it highlights their ability to keep creating provocative material and interesting vocal arrangements that will keep loyal fans coming back for more. Two audience participation numbers -- Rachel's game entitled "Things You Shouldn't Say" -- and a song entitled "He's A Sheep Fucking Guy" effortlessly bring down the house with sustained laughter.

However, Each Hit And I's piece de resistance is a new song entitled "See You When Tea is Drinkable", which tells the tale of how Rachel (Ben Schatz) met a former TWA stewardess and fell in love. The words T-W-A-T and C-U-N-T keep getting spelled out in the lyrics as the audience is convulsed with giggles. Add in Rachel's big number "Beaver Hair" (a spoof of Liza Minelli's performance as Sally Bowles in the film version of the 1966 Kander & Ebb musical, Cabaret) and you've got one helluva new show.

Each Hit And I continues at the Rrazz Room through July 17 (you can order tickets here). If you can't make it this month, the Kinsey Sicks will be back in town for Thanksgiving weekend, performing their holiday show, Oy Vey In A Manger at the Herbst Theatre.

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In sharp contrast to the the solid business footing on which the Kinsey Sicks find themselves as they celebrate their 16th anniversary, a new documentary by Erik Anjou focuses on an older and larger ensemble that has been performing together for nearly 25 years. The Klezmatics On Holy Ground (which will be screened as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival ) also depicts the famed ensemble struggling to maintain control of their destiny.

The Klezmatics

Through their music, the Klezmatics have offered audiences a vital bridge between the lost shtetls of Eastern Europe and Jewish-Yiddish culture’s continuing force and relevance in the 21st century. However, as they age, the Klezmatics' musicians find themselves facing financial challenges (not everyone has a second job) as well as coping with the usual tug-of-war between wanting to spend time with their real families and wanting to travel the world with their musical family.

The ensemble has recently faced some unexpected challenges. Several months after their album Wonder Wheel (which includes many songs by Woody Guthrie) won the Grammy award for Best Contemporary World Music Album, the record company that produced their album went out of business. With decreased record sales and little if any marketing, their bookings started to dry up.

Trumpeter Frank London

In his director's statement, Anjou writes:
"My belief is that The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground is fueled by the profundity and passion for authenticity and a good story (alongside the skills of editor Lisa Palattella). A movie can take one year, four years (as in this case), maybe ten years to forge. But, to date, the Klezmatics have been coming together for twenty-four years to create a dynamic, impassioned, and eternal stripe of world music. The essence of a surviving tradition is its ability to re-examine and reinvent itself. Their work has spanned from the LP to digital downloads to the demise of the record industry, from Moscow to Millbrae, and affected three generations of Jews and gentiles alike, many who wouldn’t know Yiddish from rugby. As a filmmaker, observer, and now friend, I’ve found the band’s adherence, determination, and talent in the face of many, many obstacles to be nothing short of heroic."

While performances by the Klezmatics are exhilarating, Anjou also shows the group coping with botched travel arrangements in Poland, arguing over rights and responsibilities during meetings, and struggling to forge a future with enough bookings to keep the ensemble functioning on a lucrative basis. The Klezmatics On Holy Ground offers a candid look at the triumphs and tribulations of being the musical equivalent of a long-distance runner. Here's a brief trailer:

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Last month, Theatreworks presented the regional premiere of Michael Hollinger's dramedy, Opus, which deals with the internal struggles of the fictional Lazara string quartet after a key performer is voted out of the ensemble a week before the group is scheduled to perform at the White House. As directed by Meredith McDonough, the play shows how conflicting tensions within the quartet can be expressed in near-musical formats: solos, duets, quartets, etc.

Hollinger trained as a violinist at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and subsequently performed in a string quartet, but found that he hated practicing. His experiences, however, bring a very real touch to the challenges facing his cast of characters:
  • Elliot (Richard Frederick) is a control freak and intellectual bully with a bit of a Salieri complex. A closeted gay man who was formerly Dorian's lover, he has huge self-esteem issues. The cruelest and most unforgiving problem for him is knowing that his talent is nowhere near Dorian's and never will be. Elliot, who plays first violin, likes to describe a string quartet as "a discourse among four reasonable people." That idea blindly assumes that Elliot is a reasonable person.
  • Dorian (Mark Anderson Phillips) has been the group's eccentric and difficult musical genius, who occasionally refuses to take the medications for his bipolar disorder. He has a habit of referring to Elliott as "Nellie" and has tried (albeit unsuccessfully)to flush his medications down the toilet without taking them out of their bottles. Dorian, who plays viola (and secured the gifts of the famed Lazar violin and viola after which the quartet was named), thinks of a string quartet "at its best, when everyone is open to it, it's... lovemaking."
  • Carl (Kevin Rolston) has just passed the five-year mark after being diagnosed with cancer. A recent checkup, however, has revealed that his cancer has returned. Carl, who plays cello, says that a string quatet consists of "one good violinist, one bad violinist, one former violinist, and someone who doesn't even like the violin."
  • Alan (Jackson Davis) is the second violinist who always tries to be the peacemaker. A good natured soul who is happy smoking dope and avoiding confrontation, Alan is forced into an uncomfortable position after Elliot gets the group to fire Dorian. Alan claims that a string quartet is "like a marriage, only with more fidelity."
  • Grace (Jennifer Le Blanc) is a brilliant new violinist who auditions for and is invited to join the Lazara Quartet (even though she is still waiting to hear back about her audition for a position with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra).
Grace (Jennifer LeBlanc) and Elliott (Richard Frederick)
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Hollinger knows this dramatic turf like the back of his hand and does a good job of depicting the pressures and conflicts between art, business, and clashing personalities. Cellist Kris Yenney's work as a consultant paid off with all the actors effectively bowing their instruments to the recorded sound of the music they play and rehearse.

I particularly liked the unit set design by Erik Flatmo, which allowed for quick and easy transitions between scenes. Together with Chris Studley's lighting, the design team was able to enhance and support the changing rhythms of Hollinger's script. As the playwright explains:
"Opus gave me the opportunity to deliberately enjoy the parallels between language and music. And by extension, it encouraged me, on a larger level to look at musical forms. So: solos, monologues... Four parts: quartet, where the four men discuss the same subject with their interviewer or ... where four characters speak heatedly at the same time. In a string quartet, that can be exciting and utterly harmonious at the same time. In the theatre, where characters are speaking text, it's inherently disharmonius, because they obscure each other."
Elliott (Richard Frederick) and Dorian (Mark Anderson Phillips)
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Nevertheless, this is a drama in which seething passions explode over personal, professional, and territorial issues. Whereas a group like the Kinsey Sicks is lucky to have strong leadership, the cohesion of a group like the Lazara Quartet is easily undermined by jealousy, insecurity, and issues of reliability.

Although the ensemble performed beautifully (both in terms of acting and trying to imitate proper bowing techniques), I was particularly impressed by Mark Anderson Phillips as Dorian. Richard Frederick did a pretty thorough job of making Elliot a contemptible closet case while Jennifer Le Blanc added a sense of balance and freshness as Grace.