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Songs for a Drizzly Evening

New York
The Cell, 338 West 23rd Street (between 8th-9th Avenue)
12/02/2009 -  & December 3, 4, 2009
Center for Contemporary Opera presents “Accord/Discord”: Cabaret/Music-Theatre
Franz von Suppé (Arranged by William Schimmel): Overture, Poet and Peasant
Janis Ziemelmieks, Aleksandra Èaks, Gunars Saliòs, Oskars Stroks (Arranged by Laila Salins): Latvian ballads and drinking songs
Eric Salzman: Accord: Solo for Schimmel – Brecht Suite, from The Good Woman of Szechuan
Osvaldo Pugliese: (Arranged by William Schimmel): Five Tangos

Laila Salins (Mezzo-soprano), William Schimmel (Accordion), Machiko Ozawa, Mark Levine (Violins), Lee Grishanz (Cello)
Kira Simring (Director), Sarah Elzondo (Stage Manager)

L. Salins (© Maris Cinitis)

The answer, of course, was the rain.

The question was: How does an audience sitting on hard chairs, listening to doleful Slavic-Mitteleuropa bar songs sung by a flamboyant and brilliant Latvian-American mezzo-soprano react without feeling confined and uncomfortable, unable to react, to sob, to light a cigarette to order another schnapps?

Fortunately, the 20-foot-high windows of this 23rd Street salon looked out on drizzly West 23rd Street. Taking one’s eyes off Laila Salins was not easy, but looking out at the rain, the soaked passers-by, the emptiness of the dreary night……. Well, it brought me out of the auditorium, and back into the drab Budapest bars to which I would repair late at night.

And that was the only way to hear Ms. Salin’s extraordinary Latvian songs, with exactly the right accompaniment. Two splendid violinists and a cellist (each young, but playing like some old musicians who happened to be in the bar), and William Schimmel, the famed accordionist.

My apologies to Ms. Salins. I have never been to Latvia, but living in Hungary for a year, I “knew” the songs, one of which had lyrics written by her father. Ms. Salins has a voice ranging from the upper mezzo ranges of opera through the growlings of real gypsy music, and the songs reflected a variety of styles. The introduction could have been Arabic (her dark legato lines were like the legendary Egyptian Oum Kalthoum), but soon launched into the doleful–and in Hungary, frequently suicidal–melodies which slithered out of the ages.

In the second half, Ms. Salins finished with another culture, Argentina. Yet the tangos of Osvaldo Pugliese, while not as familiar as those of Piazzolla, had the sparks, the jumps that almost impossible combination of superb melody, painfully slow meters yet the percussive beat which made one wish to do a Valentino on the floor here.

Ms. Salins is such a passionate performer that her “cabaret” transcended mere show. This is a voice which jumps up almost three octaves. But not for showing off her talents, but because the emotions call for the agony and the ecstasy together.

And while she carried the songs (and the evening), the nuanced string accompaniment was exactly what was needed to complement the oh so blazing singing.

W. Schimmel (© Mr. Schimmel)

Mr. Schimmel is another story. Here is the confession that I too have been an accordionist. Not in great concert halls, not as an exponent of Accordion Philosophy, but in North Korean schoolrooms, Damascus bars and a teahouse on the Iran-Afghan border. And still I loathe the sound of the instrument.

I mentioned that once to Dick Contino, another legendary accordion player, who told me the secret of good accordion playing. “Make it sound,” he said, “like anything but an accordion.” Mr. Schimmel never took that advice. He uses virtually no changes of sound (the accordion has buttons like organ stops to change the timbre). His keyboard technique is flawless and sometimes staggering. The left–hand chord buttons were used as bass melody or oom-pah but always right.

Yet it still sounded like a bagpipe with asthma……er, an accordion. His fantasia on von Suppé’s Poet And Peasant overture was clever but still had that unlikeable grainy sound. The one real disappointment is that the first of Eric Salzman’s works was written for Mr. Schimmel, and frankly it was simply boring. Mr. Schimmel doodled around the keys, took a peripatetic walk, sobbed a little and finished. Perhaps I missed something.

Fortunately, Mr. Salzman redeemed himself triplefold with the music for Brecht’s Good Woman of Szechuan. Mr. Salzman, as critic, musicologist and composer, is virtually synonymous with “music theater”, and when he found Brecht’s second working of the drama in Los Angeles, he was ecstatic. No music had been written for it (Kurt Weill was on the outs with Brecht), so Mr. Salzman took it in his own hands, resulting in a Quebec performance.

The five excerpts here were splendid, with a typical Salzman surprise. The middle three songs did have that biting Weill-type melody. Ms. Salins didn’t have to do a Lotte Lenya: her own drama was fascinating enough. But the first purely instrumental work was eerily different. It had the resonance of 18th Century modal American church music, or like Virgil Thomson’s film music of America

What was it doing here? Not until the final song did we find out. The same music was used as background for a Weill-like ersatz anthem, performed beautifully by all five musicians.

After the music, a reception was held, but I couldn’t bring myself to attend. Thinking back on Ms. Salin’s homages to smoky European bars, I wandered onto the drizzly empty New York streets recalling Budapest, the slow-moving moonlit Danube and ancient unsung music.

Harry Rolnick



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