Trent Johnson - Concert Reviews
Kenyatta Opera Review
Classical New Jersey
Sunday, November 19
Kenyatta, by Trent X. Johnson, Richard Welsley librettist. Premiere presented by Trilogy: An Opera Company. Julius Williams, conductor; Kevin Maynor: Kenyatta; Rod Dixon: Oginga Odinga. Victoria Theater, NJPAC, Newark.
By Paul Mack Somers
The "stars" of Trent Johnson's new opera Kenyatta were for many the djembe, the African drums in the pit played enthusiastically by Wilson Torres and Jimmy Musto, which set the tone throughout the three act evening. Their tempo and rhythms changed for each dramatic situation, but always they reminded us that this was an African drama set in the context of Kenya having shaken off British rule. Even as an orchestra of western instruments was supporting the singers and the drama, those drums in between scenes and opening acts reminded the listener that this was about African independence from a European nation.
In the lobby before the performance, conversation with staff and volunteers, all African-American, revealed that they had no idea that the subject of the opera was factual, that Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga were real historical figures whose children at this very moment are still in conflict over the future of Kenya. So this drama served as an opportunity to teach Americans of any background about African history in a world in which all of Africa, not just Kenya, is vitally important.
Other works by Johnson contain a healthy dose of modernist dissonance and extended harmonies—his two concerti, one for trumpet, the other for viola, come to mind. But in this opera he quite purposely downplays that spicy harmonic language in favor of the far more triadic harmonies found in modern sub-Saharan African music. The sound was familiar, especially in the well-sung choral scenes.
Though there are ten solo roles in the opera, only the two protagonists are major. They dominate the drama with the others as small, though effective adjuncts.
Bass Kevin Maynor as Kenyatta was hampered by his constant need for a quite audible prompter. He seemed to have the notes memorized, but needed help to get through the lengthy text. His voice is less dominating than it once was, though certainly still up to a major role in this theater. His resonant voice, which decades ago filled Newark's Symphony Hall as Frederick Douglass in the opera of that name by Ulysses Kay, now has less power. Perhaps because of this, his diction was at times less than optimal. Never the less, he conveyed the dignity and the humanity of Kenyatta, the nation's first president, with musicality and drama.
Odinga was sung with great power by Chicago based tenor Rod Dixon. When the previously announced tenor had to step aside for personal reasons only two weeks before the premiere, Dixon learned to sing the role in that short time. Though he carried the open piano/vocal score with him on stage, it did not get in the way. His ringing tenor and immaculate diction won over the audience very quickly. His Act II solo scene praising his pro-Soviet version of nationalism with its climactic high C, elicited cheers from the audience.
Librettist Richard Welsley has created a drama which is in most respects a two-man show. There were no other roles but Kenyatta and Odinga which were key, no women as even minor protagonists. It was Maynor and Dixon alone driving the drama.
For this it would have helped to have more effective stage direction. Too often there was a shyness from really letting the inherent drama loose on the audience. In one example, Kenyatta tells Odinga that they should be together hand in hand, united before the nation. And Odinga forcibly rejects this idea. This calls for in-your-face, only-inches-apart confrontation, Kenyatta grasping Odinga's hand and holding it high in a victory gesture. Then Odinga violently pulling his hand away in the midst of the raised salute to the people. Show us the passion of both men! But what we got was far less: the two were practically a stage-width distant from each other for much of the scene. Finally Kenyatta slowly walked over to Odinga and reached toward him, touching him briefly, at which Odinga merely pulled his arm away as if slightly annoyed.
The fight scene for chorus versus dancers, however, was quite effectively stylized against the newsreels of the real thing projected on the rear of the stage. In fact, the rear projections used for settings and for photographic reminders of the historic events were always on point, as were the varied costumes, both traditional and modern.
Kenyatta is an effective presentation of history with an orchestral score which ably supports the story. Johnson uses the standard operatic devices of scena,orchestrally supported recitative, and big arias. There are, however, no duets, for the characters never seem to have enough in common to show any reason for vocal unity.
Saint Augustine - A Sacred Cantata
Oratorio Singers’ ‘St. Augustine’ Paves Road to Redemption
WESTFIELD — On March 30, Westfield’s Oratorio Singers gathered in the First United Methodist Church in Westfield to perform a classic Mozart mass, and to debut a new composition, “Saint Augustine,” a cantata composed by longtime Oratorio Musical Director Trent Johnson. “I decided to do this both as an experiment in [dramatic writing for voices], and because there isn’t really a major piece on Augustine,” said Mr. Johnson. “His story is about being a sinner and all the mistakes he made, yet he still redeemed himself at the end. It is a message that I think is important for people to hear.” Mr. Johnson spent seven months composing his work and studying Augustine’s confessions. That hard work was in evidence on Sunday, as the Oratorio Singers brought it to life with a full orchestra and soloists behind them.
The singers themselves brought powerful choir voices to the piece alternating between dark tones and gentle undercurrents. The soloists were also impressive, each bringing strong voices to the characters of Augustine (tenor Rufus Muller), his devoted mother (soprano Rachel Rosales), and [Bishop Ambrose] (bass Kevin Maynor) that helped him find salvation.
Mr. Johnson’s music was also a strong factor, as his words fit with the story progression. The bassoons emphasized the darkness of Augustine’s lament, while the tone brightened afterwards as he thanked his mother for always supporting him (an impressive switch in only two movements). Mr. Johnson even added a slight marching beat when Augustine announced his journey to redemption.
By Eric Nierstedt, Specially Written for The Westfield Leader and The Times
Cantus Avium Solamen Est, or Birdsong Brings Relief,
a concerto for clarinet, bird whistles, chorus and orchestra
"... The next work on the program – conductor Trent Johnson’s Cantus Avium Solamen Est (Birdsong Brings Relief) – was the most interesting and innovative of the day. Written for, and in consultation with, clarinetist Andrew Lamy, (whose passion is ornithology) the three-movement work featured both rhapsodic bird-like passages on the clarinet (and sometimes the flute and oboe) and actual birdcalls played on both the bird whistles hung around Mr. Lamy’s neck and a dozen or so bird-whistlers seated at various places in the audience. The orchestral and choral parts are mostly impressionistic, mildly dissonant and very atmospheric. The first and third movements – Birdsong (Rumi) and I Live My Life in Growing Orbits (Rilke) – have clear bird references in their poetry. The second movement – Eletelephony (Richards) – is a cute child’s poem about an elephant who gets tangled up in the phone cord. No bird references there, but Mr. Johnson explains that these are the first three movements of what will eventually be a longer work, based on various animals, not just birds. Both the choral and orchestral writing is effective and engaging, but it is the bird-like clarinet and the bird calls themselves which capture the attention. The work ended with all the bird-whistlers in the audience playing their distinctive calls along with Mr. Lamy, in a moment that sounded like twilight in the forest. Gorgeous."
Barbara Thomson, The Westfield Leader and Times
Concertante for Organ and String Quartet
"The [AGO] convention commission, Concertante for Organ and String Quartet by Trent Johnson, a splendid new work in three movements, received a spellbinding premiere by Dr. [Marilyn] Keiser and the Shanghai Quartet."
*CD Review - Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano
"... We noted that we had obtained a copy of the CD Halcyon Trio, recorded by the ensemble of the same name. After a year and a half of frequent listening, we regard this CD as a real find. Trent Johnson's Trio is well matched with the works of the two composers who are far better known, the Austrian Alfred Uhl (1909-1992) and the German Max Bruch (1838-1920). To our ear this program is well executed in three dynamic performances. The CD is a hidden gem, available only at the website of the Halcyon Trio."
William J. Zick, Africlassical blog
Concert Variations on The Carnival of Venice, for Organ
"The Beckerath organ in St. Stephen’s Church [in Milburn, New Jersey] is elegant, stylistically quite distant from the giant Wurlitzer which resides in Radio City Music Hall. Yet Trent Johnson, who has played the Christmas Show at Radio City, as well as concertized on other large organs around the world, was anything but baffled by the comparatively small size of the St. Stephen’s instrument. He, like any fine artist, made the most of what he was given, and lo and behold, there were times when the audience heard the sounds of a theater organ emerging from the classically designed Beckerath.This "magic" was worked in the concert’s grand finale, the premiere of Johnson’s own Concert Variations on "The Carnival of Venice".
Johnson is a highly regarded composer of chamber, orchestral, and choral works which have been played around America and in Europe. It was the opportunity to hear his take on that old standard tune, so beloved by composers of variations, that drew this writer to the concert. The Concert Variations proved to be a clever and witty piece filled with bravura playing and composing, featuring most of a virtuoso organist’s technical abilities. Perhaps the most vivid, because the audience could see it happen, was the florid variation for feet alone in which the tune emerged from the welter of pedal work in the same manner that Liszt often gave the illusion of a third hand at work in his piano music. So one joke that surfaced after the concert was that this was a piece where having the proverbial "two left feet" was a great advantage. So amazing was the effect that at that variation’s conclusion the audience broke into loud applause.
Other variations featured conversations between hands and feet, rhythmic-metric excursions into 5/4 (think Brubeck’s "Take Five"), an amusing — even sweet — bow to theater organ style for silent movies, and Johnson’s concluding homage to all those late 19th century French organists with a brilliant, flashy toccata in their style. The response was an immediate standing ovation and cheers. Most listeners never would have guessed ahead of time that this particular instrument could have produced so many distinct "voices" and such power, but there was the elegant Becherath surprisingly revealing its un-guessed ability to be wantonly garish if called upon.
A few long-time fans of the St. Stephan’s recital series enthusiastically told this writer that this was one of the best recitals they had ever heard in the church. Praise indeed, considering the list of acclaimed artists who have given recitals on the Beckerath over the years."
Paul Mack Somers, Westfield Leader and the Times
Celebration Overture for orchestra
Ukuthula, for the Mixed Flock Orchestra Project
John Hammel, Maurice River Music News - World Music
The New Colossus, for orchestra
" ... Mr. Johnson opened his composition with bird-like flutes, which suggested dawning, and a luxurious harp to create waves lapping on an American shore. Three section of his piece gave listeners a snippet of a European [Irish] jig, an African song and a Korean tune. One's imagination could soar envisioning the diversity of people standing before Lady Liberty as the magnificent strains filled the air." Susan M. Dougherty - The Westfield Leader and the Times
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey
Petite Suite for Orchestra
when one hears a Johnson work, ones knows they are listening to a Johnson work."
Domecq Smith - organist and colleague
*CD Review - The Halcyon Trio
Trent plays an organ concert at the Organ Hall, Chelyabinsk, Russia
Trent accompanies Handel's Messiah on the organ
"... The star of the evening was organist Trent Johnson, who played the notoriously difficult accompaniment with energy and accuracy, providing the good rhythmic underpinning vital to a performance of this work."
Barbara Thomson, The Westfield Leader and The Times
"... An encore after said shenanigans found Johnson continuing in an antic mood as he played that favorite of the blue-grass fiddler, Orange Blossom Special, in a wild and wooly arrangment that had everyone laughing as his fingers and feet flew around as busily as a fiddler knocking off the whirling tune at a party. Needless to say, cheers erupted again. A few longtime friends of the St. Stephen's recital series enthusistically told this writer that this was one of the best recitals that they had ever heard in the church. Praise indeed, considering the list of acclaimed artists who have given recitals on the Becherath over the years."
Paul Mack Somers, Westfield Leader and the Times
"Johnson is a virtuosic player ... but always sophisticated."
His [P.D.Q. Bach's] Missa Hilarious includes parts for Bargain Counter Tenor (Mandelbaum), Basso Blotto (Negron), and some contraption made out of a long piece of bright yellow tubing attached to the end of a penny whistle, played with magisterial aplomb by Andrew Lamy. The text was full of silliness.
Conductor Trent Johnson seemed fully in command of the situation, be it serious or silly, and the chorus and orchestra were attentive to his every nuance. All in all a good job.
Barbara Thomson - The Westfield Leader and the Times
Sam Juliano - Westfield Leader and Times
Elgar’s The Music Makers
Mendelssohn’s Symphony #2 Lobgesang
Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces
Dello Joio’s To Saint Cecilia
"New to nearly everyone was ... To Saint Cecilia ... It is for chorus and brass ... The obvious worry is that the brass will cover the chorus but this performance was surprisingly well balanced. Surprising because the potential power of the brass was supplied by top-rate players, many from the NJSO ... The a capella sections were clearly well rehearsed, for they were without any hint of insecurity ... the text "bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher" was sung by the four-part women with angelic lightness and clarity. The men’s response was at an equally high level."
Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms