Thursday, January 22, 2015

On This Muddy Water: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel

On Wednesday, my husband and I went to see the fourth and last performance of On This Muddy Water: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel, put on by the Houston Grand Opera under the auspices of their HGOco's "Songs of Houston" project. With music by D.J. Sparr and words by Janine Joseph, this program consisted of a series of seven vignettes set on the Houston Ship Channel in order to commemorate its centennial. It was based on hours of oral history records, and accompanied by a Ship Channel exhibit in the adjoining room that in my opinion was a terrific use of space, with looped camera footage and audio recordings throughout.

The performance itself was given by baritone Heath Martin and mezzo-soprano Lauren Pastorek, who were accompanied by only four instruments: violin, cello, clarinet, and percussion (mainly marimba, I think). The instruments were used to great and often unusual effect, producing some very evocative music. By far, my favorite piece was "Let It Roll", performed by Heath Martin, because it felt like I was listening to a seaman. Even while I was still listening to it, I felt a little sad that there's a very good chance I will never hear that piece of music again in my life. Of course, I imagine that this was all recorded either in rehearsal or another of the performances, but it won't necessarily be widely available. I would like to hear the entire program again so I can absorb more, but especially that piece.

I also loved "He Said, 'Nyet!'", a piece for both of the singers in which the American seafarers tried to share Christmas presents, or make that New Year's presents since the Russian sailors didn't celebrate Christmas, with their Russian counterparts. The Russians initially wouldn't accept the gifts because they had nothing to give in return, but someone helpfully pointed out that they wouldn't mind a little of that vodka.... The vignette both started and ended with bits of one of the oral history recordings, which was a wonderful touch. Part of the reason I loved this piece was that it reminded me of being introduced about ten years ago to the concept of shoeboxes for sailors at Christmas. My employer only did that for one year while I was there, but I still remember the pleasure I took in putting together a box of small gifts for some foreign sailor who happened to be in the port over the holidays.

Those were my two favorites, but I enjoyed the rest of the program as well. I did find it a little hard to reconcile the mezzo-soprano role with the rest. I think it's absolutely right and necessary that stories told of the Ship Channel include the women, whether sailors or dockworkers or simply the families of such, but the formality of female opera vocals made this seem, well, opera-like. That's certainly isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but when the baritone was singing, he really could have just been a seaman with a gorgeous voice, and I was able to think of it as more authentic and less of a trained performance. This isn't meant as a criticism of Ms. Pastorek's voice or performance; it's just that the female operatic style was a little incongruent to me within the visual and aural picture I was building. At the same time I would not want to exclude women's stories, so it's a dilemma I wouldn't know how to solve myself.

According to the program, since 2007, "HGOco has commissioned 16 new works along with countless innovative community projects and has reached more than one million people in the greater Houston area." This particular performance took place in the gorgeous Julia Ideson Library, which was restored in 2011 as part of the Houston Public Library. That was my first time in the building and I thought it was stunning.

I am looking forward with great anticipation to October 2015, when Houston Grand Opera will put on another HGOco-commissioned work, O Columbia, celebrating the exploratory spirit that leads us to continue even in the wake of tragedies such as the Columbia shuttle disaster. Paul and I were allowed to participate in one of the development workshops for this opera, and I think it will be stunning.

On This Muddy Water: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel
Music by D.J. Sparr
Words by Janine Joseph
Lauren Pastorek, mezzo-soprano
Heath Martin, baritone
Melissa Wilmot, violin
Erik Wheeler, cello
Eric Chi, clarinet
Lindsey Höhn, percussion

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