COOPERSTOWN

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 A JAZZ OPERA ABOUT BASEBALL BY SASHA MATSON— ENHANCED BY THE SUPERB QUALITY OF THE RECORDING.

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The word opera conjures up images of large casts, a huge orchestra and chorus and massive logistical issues. Not Cooperstown! A jazz opera in nine innings, Cooperstown utilizes five solo singers and a 1950s modern jazz quintet. Based on A. Bartlett Giamatti’s essay, “The Green Fields of the Mind,” composer Sasha Matson has, with librettist Mark Miller, used baseball as an art form, with the capacity to express the deepest emotional truths about individuals and society. Matson reflects baseball’s own specific historical musical attributes in his composition. One is the sound of the stadium organ, which led him to score the music for a “Miles” jazz quintet. This particular grouping of instruments is as capable as any large orchestra of realizing music in all its potential variety. The musical materials boil down to the rising three-chord “Charge” fanfare still heard in stadiums everywhere. Sasha Matson graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and UCLA, where he received his Ph.D. He has scored music for feature film and other multi-media in addition to own his compositional work. He writes about audio and music and is an associate editor for Positive Feedback Online.

FEATURING:

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Top Left – Julie Adams; Top Center – Carin Gilfry;

Top Right –Daniel Montenegro; Middle Right – Rod Gilfry; Bottom –Daniel Favela

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REVIEWS:

Stereophile: Record of the Month, April 2015 — read the complete review through this link: http://www.stereophile.com/content/recording-april-2015-matson-cooperstown

Stereophile review


 

Baseball as a Metaphor for Life: Sasha Matson’s New Opera Cooperstown

BY CARLA MARIA VERDINO-SÜLLWOLD

‘Baseball more than any other major league sport is deeply woven into the fabric of American culture. It is a metaphor for life,’ says composer Sasha Matson, talking of his latest recording of his ‘jazz opera in nine innings,’ Cooperstown, just released on the Albany label. Matson, who is actually a resident of the upstate New York community which is home to baseball’s Hall of Fame, has enjoyed a long, productive career as a composer of songs, chamber music, symphonic works, and film scores. He took time to speak to Fanfare about this latest project and his diverse musical interests.

 

CMV-S: What inspired you to undertake writing and recording Cooperstown, which you have said is ‘one of a kind’ work for you?

SM: Cooperstown is obviously not something I am going to repeat. It has a very specialized subject, but living in Cooperstown as I do, it is very hard to ignore the presence of the Hall of Fame. The back door of our home is literally across the lawn from the museum, and since I came here in 2000 to teach at SUNY, this Othello-like story intrigued me. Then there was the singular sound of the stadium organ that is still out there. It’s a culture that’s vanishing but you can still hear it in baseball stadiums. The sound led me to the idea of a jazz quintet.

CMV-S: You called the work ‘a jazz opera in nine innings.’ How does Cooperstown’s structure compare musically and dramatically to traditional operas?

SM: I took the idea for structure from baseball itself. The average game runs about the length of a Wagner opera [chuckle], and it has its form in nine innings with a seventh inning stretch. When we did the workshop production at the Hall of Fame, we broke the piece into two acts to reflect that “stretch,” but for the recording we kept the through-flow.

CMV-S: You collaborated with Mark Miller on the libretto. How did that collaboration come about and what were the influences on the story and text?

SM: Mark Miller is a friend whom I have known for a long time. He knows about baseball technically, and he brought that kind of texture and background to our work. Then there was the beautiful essay by A. Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind, which is about as eloquent a piece of writing about baseball as you will ever find. We got permission to quote from that and used his poetic words in the last aria, “It breaks your heart.” We worked backwards from that.

CMV-S: And musically, what were your inspirations?

SM: For anyone who tries to write any theatre music, Puccini looms large. Act I of La Bohème is one of those musical lessons that inspires me. Then, too, I am a kind of guerilla guy, so the jazz setting appealed to me.

CMV-S: How did the workshop production at the Hall of Fame and subsequent recording come about?

SM: The workshop was only a single performance, but then we decided to try to produce a recording. I am an audiophile from a tradition with roots in the late 80s. I am a fan of high-end audio, and it is important to me when I make a recording that it meets those standards. For a jazz recording, the standards are those Blue Note and Riverside LPs from the 1950s and 60s, so I wanted to make a quality recording along those lines. I was spending some time in Los Angeles where I was put in touch with Stephanie Vlahos, who assembled the cast of singers for the recording. Interestingly enough, Rod Gilfry [who plays Dutch] had been in Cooperstown the previous summer in Annie Get Your Gun, but we didn’t meet at that time. My producer was John Atkinson, who is Editor of Stereophile Magazine, so I knew the work would be in good hands.

CMV-S: What was the recording process like?

SM: We were tracking, so the band got recorded first in Brooklyn. They were so good that we didn’t have one complaint from the singers when we asked them to match their vocal performances to the instrumental ones already set down. The vocal sessions all took place in Los Angeles, and the singers had great intonation and were able to match the recorded tracks in real time.

CMV-S: What do you see as the symbolic layers of opera Cooperstown?

SM: Baseball is a metaphor for life. Turn on the television or listen to a Hollywood movie, and you will hear baseball metaphors. It is part of the fabric of our media culture. Whether or not you like sports, the images surround us. Americans like to be winners; we play the game to win. My opera is set within an imaginary major league team where there is an internal clash with pitchers who come from other countries.  All of this is reality, which I have not made up.

CMV-S: Take us back a little to your earlier career. What drew you to music and art history when you were a student?

SM: I grew up in Berkeley in the 60s. My dad was a professor of philosophy at University of California, Berkeley. I experienced everything you could possibly experience in music during those years, and in a way I came at some kinds of music from the wrong end of the telescope, as it were. For example, I first heard traditional folk music from the Grateful Dead and jazz from the psychedelic bands of the time. I had to work backwards to the sources. Blues was also a big part of my musical life, almost as much as classical music was. Coincidentally, Phil Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead and I had the same music teacher in school. When I went on to University of California Santa Cruz, I had an art history professor who was from Cambridge, and he turned me on to visual art, so I majored in both music and history of art. After that I went to the San Francisco Conservatory, where I studied composition with John Adams and Elinor Armer. Elly was one of the few female composers on the West Coast in those days, and she is still teaching at the Conservatory.  I recently wrote a piece for her seventy-fifth birthday. I also undertook some private study with Andrew Imbrie.

CMV-S: After your formal study, you moved to Los Angeles, where you worked in the film industry and wrote scores for a variety of performing organizations. How do you view those compositions within the entire body of your work?

SM: I am, by nature an eclectic artist, and I also am a programmatic kind of musician; I am not ashamed to say that. I need an image to inspire me. So, I undertook quite a variety of commissions. I wrote a symphonic piece called Spell for Kent Nagano, who had just founded the Berkeley Symphony at the time. I also wrote music for some dance companies, and I began doing some media scoring in the Bay area.  I fell in love with some really great film scores like Vertigo and Chinatown, and I thought that I would like to do something like that. I spent ten years in the vineyards of Hollywood. The experience taught me to write quickly, to learn to throw things out, and to be flexible. I formed my own production company, because composers are usually on their own and have to pull things together themselves.

CMV-S: Before Cooperstown, you had written for the voice in your very beautiful song cycle for mezzo-soprano, Range of Light, which is inspired by the Sierra Nevadas. What drew you to that theme and how has nature been important to your compositions?

SM: That piece was something I put a great deal into. Growing up, I had backpacked in the Sierra Nevadas and Yosemite. I was inspired by the journals of John Muir, the great conservationist. I found his writing very musical and poetic in the Transcendental vein, and I read that as he wrote, Muir would conduct with the other hand. I started with the image of the granite and tried to mimic that musically with strong open chords and fifths and extended triadic harmonies, which I love. I was also fortunate to be able to have the cycle recorded by the Canadian mezzo Catherine Robbin. Her diction and intonation are incredible!

CMV-S: Guitar has also been another favorite instrument in your work. . .

SM: Yes, the steel pedal guitar in particular, which I used in Steel Chords. It is a totally American instrument played with volume pedals to blend the attack of the note. The sound can be very lovely or spooky even, but its glissando from one chord to another makes its unique. I first was attracted to the instrument because I had a friend who played it in Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen band.

CMV-S: Since getting your doctorate, you have also taught in Georgia and in Oneonta, New York. How has teaching enhanced your own work?

SM: I have taught all kinds of music courses, including one about the music business at Oneonta because of my film business experience.  Of course, you are always energized by your students. When I teach music theory I work to correct some students’ notions that music theory is the music police. I try to get them to see that theory is a path into the music itself.

CMV-S: What other compositional or recording projects do you have brewing?

SM: I am working on a piece for keyboards and strings called Tight Lines, which is about fly-fishing. The phrase comes from George H. W. Bush and suggests good fishing luck. I am going to use fishing reels in the piece as well. They make a clicking noise when you reel them in, so at some point the conductor will “play” the fishing reel. I plan to record Tight Lines with a few other shorter pieces on a small, limited run high quality vinyl LP. I think there is a future for vinyl. The demand is growing every year, and while it may never be huge, the people who buy these recordings are motivated listeners and consumers.

CMV-S: As a contemporary musician, how difficult has it been to make a living in music?

SM: I have lived a life with music at its center. It is not an easy one. I am married, and we have two grown sons. We moved around a great deal, and I have paid my dues. Even academia is not a safe haven, because it is now so competitive in terms of jobs. And Hollywood and Broadway have always been very competitive. We live in a schizophrenic culture in the United States because we have educational programs which encourage young people to follow creative paths, but we have a culture that is begrudging about funding those pursuits. Leonard Cohen wrote a wonderful line that sums it up: “I came so far for beauty.” A creative life demands a great deal, not only from yourself, but from the people around you. My hat is off to anyone who does carve out a life in music, especially in this country!

 

Sasha Matson has, indeed successfully built a life nourished by music. His varied voices and imaginative experimentation, as well as his essential gifts for melody and harmony, both classical and jazz have contributed to a rich and varied output.

 

This article originally appeared in Issue 39:2 (Nov/Dec 2015) of Fanfare Magazine. Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

MATSON Cooperstown: Jazz Opera in Nine Innings • Sasha Matson, cond; Julie Adams (Lilly); Carin
Gilfry (Jan); Daniel Montenegro (Angel); Daniel Favela (Marvin); Rod Gilfry (Dutch); Jason Rigby (sax);
Russ Johnson (tpt); Rich Mollin (bs); Gernot Bernroider (dr); Sean Wayland (pn, org) • ALBANY 1553–54
(2 CDs: 104:04)

Sasha Matson’s jazz opera Cooperstown, to a libretto by the composer and Mark Miller, is an inventive and winning chamber opera scored for a jazz quintet and five soloists, in which baseball provides both the setting for the action and the metaphorical context for the various relationships and romances of the characters.  Cooperstown is a conventional operatic love story articulated in jazz instrumentation that underscores traditional lyrical vocal writing. It is dramatically predictable, but fascinatingly offbeat in musical terms, and as such it manages to hold the listener’s interest throughout.

Composer Sasha Matson, who hails from California but now makes his home in Cooperstown, NY, has written an infectious score, inspired by 1950s jazz quintet sound in which the nine scenes or “innings” of the opera are each introduced by an instrumental prelude, seguing into the dialogue and solos. Matson’s vocal writing is largely melodic and grateful for the voices, often sounding like Argento, Corigliano, or even late 19th-century models with a dusting of blues, cabaret, torch songs, and Latin jazz thrown in. He conducts the excellent quintet with an astute feeling for both the transparency of the work and the compelling rhythmic thrust.

Mark Miller, together with Matson, has created the tight libretto, which uses a mixture of rhyme and prose, together with a palette of symbols and images drawn from America’s national sport. Some of these are poetic, such as the act I love duet for Angel and Lilly, in which the baseball diamond symbolizes the diamond with which he would pledge his love; others, such as Jan’s repeated references to playing and losing, become a little trite. Overall, he shapes some romantic and emotional textual moments that come to life in the intensity and sincerity of Matson’s music. The chief reservations about the plot structure are that the central romance of Angel and Lilly, even accepting it as opera logic, has a sense of not being developed sufficiently and Marvin’s jealousy not given enough of a backstory to make the ending as tragic as one might like.  Even though it is likely that both composer and librettist wanted a shorter work, another scene or two might remedy these quibbles.

The performance recorded here, however, is first-class, with excellent instrumentalists, especially pianist Sean Wayland, and luxury casting for the five roles. Rod Gilfrey uses his rich, warm, chocolate baritone with his customary incisiveness to give a commanding performance as the team manager Dutch Schulhaus.  The young tenor Daniel Montenegro displays a secure, even lyrical range and enough ardor to make the superstar pitcher Angel Corazon believable. Tenor Daniel Favela takes on the role of the jealous catcher, Marvin Wilder, with a musical theater approach that works for the scheming character. Carin Gilfrey endows the sports agent, Jan, with a creamy mezzo of remarkable beauty that runs the gamut from romanza to
torch song. Julie Adams brings her lovely coloratura soprano to the delicate and dreamy Lilly. All five singing-actors are comfortable in the mixed idioms of their music and in the moments of dialogue, and they work together to make a formidable ensemble.

Vocal highlights of the opera include the Inning Two duet for Lilly and Angel, Marvin’s Inning Three Arioso “There’s the game in their heads, ” Jan’s poignant Inning Five solo, “I will not lose my final chance,” Dutch’s wistful and knowing aria in Inning Six, “We live in a meadow of green,” while Angel’s final inning solo “What can we believe in?” and subsequent paean to love, “A golden autumn evening,” makes his collapse all the more wrenching. Finally, there is Dutch’s mellifluously sung last aria that sounds the requiem for the characters’ loves and for the frail Angel, “It breaks your heart.” Instrumentally, one especially enjoys the onstage jazz band improvisation which opens Inning Two in the sports bar, the melancholy saxophone accompaniment to Jan’s nostalgic musings in Inning Three, and the bluesy introduction to Inning Eight.

The recording is something of a miracle of modern engineering and producing, set down without always having all five singers together at once and recording the band in a New York City studio and the vocals in a California one. Despite these realities of modern studio recording, the project has a unified sound and aural ambiance. It is intimate, rounded and resonant and captures the bloom and velvet of the voices as well as the textured playing of the musicians. Albany accompanies the album with helpful notes, artist biographies, and the complete libretto.

Cooperstown offers a captivating listening experience, and there are enough delights in the recording to wish that some venue might wish to mount a live production! Highly recommended to jazz and opera lovers alike—not to mention baseball fans! Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold


This article originally appeared in Issue 39:2 (Nov/Dec 2015) of Fanfare Magazine. Colin Clarke

MATSON Cooperstown: Jazz Opera in Nine Innings • Sasha Matson, cond; Julie Adams (Lilly); Carin
Gilfry (Jan); Daniel Montenegro (Angel); Daniel Favela (Marvin); Rod Gilfry (Dutch); Jason Rigby (sax);
Russ Johnson (tpt); Rich Mollin (bs); Gernot Bernroider (dr); Sean Wayland (pn, org) • ALBANY 1553–54
(2 CDs: 104:04)

Sasha Matson’s opera Cooperstown is described as a “jazz opera in nine innings,” a description that immediately sent me into (pardon the pun) a spin. I thought, with not a little horror, that this was an opera about cricket—hence the pun, which simply had to stay in even after I learned the cruel truth—and I thought that this had been foisted upon me because (a) I live in England, where we all spend our Sunday afternoons either playing or watching that game, and (b) I reviewed (positively) a cricket-themed disc in these very pages ( Songs of Cricket in Fanfare 35:4).

How wrong can a boy be? The opera is about baseball. Obviously. Not so obvious is that the present writer knows about as much about baseball as he does about cricket—that is to say, virtually nothing. So then, please bear with me in that there is no game-based analysis or anything of that ilk here. I’ve probably embarrassed myself terribly already in just that one statement.

The carefully chosen instrumental line-up (that of a 1950s modern jazz quintet) is inspired. Sasha Matson’s music is new to me. His biography states that he studied composition in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles to work in film and multi-media. The harmonic, melodic, and orchestral modes of expression in the current piece allow for both intimacy and more outgoing moments. The organ is used to invoke the world of the stadium organ, and indeed the musical materials of the opera may be reduced to fanfares heard at games e.g., (the three-chord “Charge” fanfare). The piece is inspired by The Green Fields of the Mind, an essay by A. Bartlett Giamatti, and by the music of the Blue Note recordings of the 1950s. One might sum it up as “operatically complex love story meets jazz,” but that would be to do it a disservice, as the art lies in the mixing and melding of languages. The instrumental interludes provide some of the most memorable musical experiences here, as do the disjunctive gestures of the opera’s closing scene.

The playing of the accompanying quintet is, throughout, as tight as a snare-drum, magnificently bold and wonderfully stylish. The singers are uniformly exceptional, closely recorded to add to the sense of involvement, and one positively starts to look forward to the purely instrumental sections. Act II (which kicks off, or whatever the baseball term is, at the “Sixth Inning”), begins with two minutes of pure jazz bliss, five jazzers perfectly occupying the same wavelength. The sense of a concerted effort to do full justice to Matson’s score is remarkable, especially given that the band was recorded in Brooklyn while the vocal sessions were done in California. Producer John Atkinson’s notes go into laudable depth about the recording’s gestation, including microphones used and studio layouts.

There are some lovely numbers here, not least of which is Angel’s “pre-war Cuban love song” in the Second Inning, beautifully delivered by Daniel Montenegro. Similarly Julie Adams as Lilly gives a superb rendition of her reflective song in the Fourth Inning (“Not only boys love the smell of new-mown grass”) and the wonderful “Never in my life have I lost my way” in the Eighth Inning; and there is a lovely sense of warmhearted pride in Dutch’s “We live in a meadow of green” that concludes the Sixth Inning. Carin Gilfry’s wonderfully free voice glides through her “For the love of a Single-A boy” from the Seventh Inning.

The libretto (by Matson and Mark Miller) is sharp as a pin and often striking: the Fifth Inning finds Marvin observing as he is serving Jan, who is drinking alone: “In a thicket of barstools, Blooms the thorniest rose.”  This is just one example among many of a striking use of English; the concerted result of libretto, score, and performance is a winning one. The piece is rewarding over multiple listenings, as more and more subtleties make themselves clear. A most fascinating release. Colin Clarke


This article originally appeared in Issue 39:2 (Nov/Dec 2015) of Fanfare Magazine. Barnaby Rayfield

MATSON Cooperstown: Jazz Opera in Nine Innings • Sasha Matson, cond; Julie Adams (Lilly); Carin
Gilfry (Jan); Daniel Montenegro (Angel); Daniel Favela (Marvin); Rod Gilfry (Dutch); Jason Rigby (sax);
Russ Johnson (tpt); Rich Mollin (bs); Gernot Bernroider (dr); Sean Wayland (pn, org) • ALBANY 1553–54
(2 CDs: 104:04)

If you listen to just one baseball-themed jazz opera, make sure it is this one. Yes, such works don’t come my way (or anyone’s, for that matter) often, but Sasha Matson’s “opera in nine innings” has quite a pedigree.  With a libretto by journalist and writer Mark Miller and a high caliber cast, including star baritone Rod Gilfry and his daughter Carin, this is a classy affair. Although premiered in 2007 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Grandstand Theater, its unusual setting is perhaps what makes it a work better suited to the studio, where it was recorded in 2011–12.

The story is a slight but still operatic tale set in and around the Metropolitan Stadium. Angel, a young, cocky baseball pitcher with a secret heart condition, quarrels with catcher Marvin, and the piece charts their rivalry for Lilly’s affections while sports agent Jan longs for Angel from afar. Marvin is the Iago of the story, seeding doubt in Lilly’s mind and driving Angel to heart failure on the pitching mound. From the sides, the wise team manager Dutch tries his best to protect them from themselves.

The score is mostly very good, with melodies bleeding in and out of the restless jazz beat. At times its conversational libretto recalls Michel Legrand’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in the way ordinary dialogue is given real swing and momentum throughout. But there is far more than bitty banter. The duet between Jan and Lilly discussing the life of being a sportsman’s girlfriend is very droll and well written, and there is a real sense of foreboding in Angel’s final words before he throws for the last time. The work feels far bigger than its small cast and quintet backing might suggest. The performance is excellent, not just from the fabulous band but from the cast of classical singers who seem at ease in this idiom. Rod Gilfry is in excellent voice and I will look out for more from his daughter Carin, whose light expressive mezzo is a delight. Daniel Montenegro, too, is ideal for the fresh-faced Angel with his light, flexible tenor.

The sound is excellent: full, forward, and detailed in keeping with the vivid Blue Note recordings the producer wanted to recall. Although the vocals were added a year later to the band tracks (a practice I generally hate), there seems little sense of detachment or artifice. Albany, as usual, produces exemplary documentation with full notes, bios, and printed libretto. My only criticism is that it helps to know and love your baseball, but Cooperstown remains an intriguing and successful oddity. Barnaby Rayfield