New York Times

Where Drums Glow, and Dreams Go Dark

By: ANTHONY TOMMASINI, Sept. 19, 2014

For centuries, the archetypal characters of commedia dell’arte have been mined so thoroughly by composers, dancers and dramatists that you would think that there is nothing fresh to uncover. Thankfully, the composer Amy Beth Kirsten did not feel this way.

After talking with Eighth Blackbird, the brilliant and adventurous six-member instrumental ensemble from Chicago, Ms. Kirsten was inspired to do a 21st-century fantasia on commedia dell’arte. Working with the director and stage designer Mark DeChiazza, Ms. Kirsten wrote “Colombine’s Paradise Theater,” a 60-minute work that combines instrumental music, singing, speaking, sputtering, movement, dance and all manner of comedic and intense physical gyrations.

This dark, wild and engrossing piece, completed last year, had its New York premiere on Thursday night to open the 26th season of Miller Theater, which under its executive director, Melissa Smey, continues to be a hotbed of bold programming and contemporary music. The 688-seat theater, on the campus of Columbia University, was sold out for this performance, which was, alas, the only one.

The overall program was titled “Heart & Breath,” after a short instrumental duo by Richard Reed Parry, of the indie-rock group Arcade Fire, that opened a set of four works presented before the intermission. Mr. Parry’s pensive, wistful piece required the pianist Lisa Kaplan to play recurring long-short patterns of notes and chords in sync with her own pulse, for which she needed to wear a stethoscope, while Yvonne Lam played sustained violin tones following her own cycles of breathing. The effect was haunting and set the mood for the entire evening. It was followed by inventive new arrangements of vocal works by Monteverdi and Gesualdo, concluding with a fractured, hazy arrangement of the Bon Iver song “Babys.”

The insight Ms. Kirsten brings to the heritage of commedia dell’arte was fostered by her respect for the game musicians of Eighth Blackbird. Like members of a commedia dell’arte troupe, all musicians, in a sense, don masks when they play, becoming myriad characters.

In Ms. Kirsten’s fantasia, Ms. Kaplan portrays the archetypal Colombine, traditionally a feisty servant, as a woman caught in a “haunted repetitive loop,” to quote the composer’s note, lingering between life and death. While pursued by the manic Harlequin, who is determined to have her, she hears warnings from the meek Pierrot, the percussionist Matthew Duvall, who mostly appears in a monklike white frock.

The story of these entangled characters, such as it is, is driven by the cellist Nicholas Photinos as the Harbinger, who begins and ends the work with an insistent, rising three-note riff, and plays ominous stirrings throughout.

With Ms. Kirsten’s wondrously eclectic score, which combines spiky modernism, breezy pop, hints of Indian music, percussion wildness and more, this fantasia blurs the distinctions among the characters. Harlequin is mostly played by the charismatic flutist Tim Munro, a lanky, physically agile performer who dispatches the gnarly, alluring and frenzied music, but also sings in a piercing falsetto and struts about the stage. At times, though, his character is also played by the clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri and by Ms. Lam, wearing similar masks and checked Harlequin coats.

An especially intriguing element of the work is the way it taps into the interpersonal dynamics of chamber music. During whole stretches, individual performers are just that: musicians playing their instruments. Then someone will put on a mask and start trailing, serenading or needling a colleague.

In Part 1, when Mr. Munro’s Harlequin sings a pining song to Colombine, with words adapted by Ms. Kirsten from the 16th-century poet Isabella Andreini, his innocent falsetto phrases are creepy. The episode explores the subtext of players in an ensemble, who, through music, alternately support, rattle and even seduce one another.

In the concluding section, titled “she comes undone,” Ms. Kaplan, just in concert wear and seated at the piano, played oscillating chords and plunked notes and aimless-sounding fragments. She was both Colombine trying to make sense of what has happened, and a musician taking refuge at her instrument after an arduous performance. She stopped and looked expectantly at the Harbinger playing his cello. I will not soon forget that final image.