SC Chamber Players “Madness”

By Scott MacClelland

THANKS TO PIANIST IVAN ROSENBLUM the Santa Cruz Chamber Players ended their 40th season in the loony bin.

Titled “Madness & Music: From Concert to Cabaret,” and sporting an amusing program cover photo by Steve DiBartolomeo of Rosenblum, clarinetist Jeff Gallagher, flutist Kathleen Purcell and soprano Lori Schulman (pictured left) all wrapped up in straitjackets, the program layout itself was ‘slightly mad.’ The inclusion of Schumann’s Three Fantasy Pieces for clarinet and piano, which disclosed no evidence of madness, forced Rosenblum and Gallagher to admit that mental illness was no laughing matter. But that caveat certainly did make sense for the three songs by Ned Rorem from Ariel: Five Poems of Sylvia Plath written only days before her suicide. These were deeply grim and troubling verses; Rorem even eschewed his familiar lyrical style in favor of dark, angular voice writing, which was divided between Schulman and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Neff (right). Gallagher’s clarinet added an even darker character to the pieces.

Schulman and Purcell joined Rosenblum to open the concert with the scene from JS Bach’s “Coffee” Cantata in which a coffee-addicted daughter defies her father’s advice and, in this case, makes cheeky love to a large mug of the stuff. (Coincidentally, the full cantata will appear this Saturday on the SC Baroque Festival season finale.) Then the two winds joined Schulman and Rosenblum for the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a coloratura tour de force that contains a laughable call and response between soprano and flute. Ophelia’s Song by Elizabeth Maconchy lent a pastoral melancholy to the tragic heroine of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this time showing off another facet of Schulman’s craft. The three instruments then danced the tarantella in Saint-Saëns’ youthful setting.

So far the “concert” set paraded obsession, hallucination, fatal melancholy, hysterical dance and desperately suicidal examples on Sunday afternoon at Aptos’ Christ Lutheran Church. The Schumann, unlike the above, didn’t belong in this company.

After a break, and a change of costumes, the “cabaret” half took over with zany impact, announced by a large sign reading “Café Slightly Mad.” It began with “I’m Going Slightly Mad” by Queen—think Bohemian Rhapsody—arranged by Rosenblum, and with Gallagher’s alto sax joined by the cabaret vocal quartet of Schulman, Neff, tenor Steven Guire Knight, bass-baritone Michael Vojvoda and their straitjackets. Then, with ‘jackets’ tossed into the corner, the four voices fearlessly tackled Glenn Gould’s bizarre “So You Want to Write a Fugue?” Somehow the singers managed to remain on pitch. (Yes, this was the same Canadian pianist, cum hypochondriacal drug addict, about whom the conductor George Szell once said, “The nut’s a genius.”) Enter Rosenblum now to play two short Gould pieces described credibly as a cross between Bach and Schoenberg, the second piece enhanced by a vertiginous LSD high.

Knight then took front and center in full flower for Noel Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” and “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” the latter echoed by the other voices. Neff followed in like manner for William Bolcom’s hilarious “Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise.” (You can hear the original by Joan Morris and Bolcom on our Weekly Magazine.) Purcell then joined Rosenblum for “Acrostic Song” from David Del Tredici’s Final Alice, which didn’t quite come into its intended focus, no fault of the players.

Leonard Bernstein concluded the fun, with Neff and Vojvoda in “Carried Away” from On the Town and Schulman back in the spotlight for “Oh, What a Terrible Movie” from Trouble in Tahiti, a fully enflamed finale with all hands—including Purcell briefly trading her flute for maracas.

SCCP’s 2019-20 season will be announced within a month.