When we think we already know the story, youth and innocence can help us read the signs.
After months of effort and collaboration, an enthusiastic audience gathered at “Grand Arts” (aka the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, part of LAUSD) in downtown LA on Friday night, February 21st. This was the second performance of Frankenstein: Of Monsters and Men, and the house was nearly full to the brim with family and friends, excited at the prospect of hearing a new work written by the school’s students. This “oratorio” is the result of one of this year’s residencies as part of Voices Within, the songwriting program provided to local schools by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The resulting work is charming and thought-provoking, and included laudable performances, as well as valuable lessons in how to build unique music education projects.
This Frankenstein was created over the course of a whopping twenty weeks, under the watchful eye of teaching artist Alice Kirwan Murray. After choosing a literary subject with the school’s teachers, the participating students were divided into small groups to create the melodies and text for eight different sections of the story of Frankenstein, the gothic masterpiece by Mary Shelley. The novel was first published in 1818, and has been credited with creating the science fiction genre. It remains one of the most revered books in Western literature, and is one of the best-selling books of all time.
Composer Jonathan Beard and lyricist Doug Cooney created the score, including solo and choral parts and accompaniment for piano, percussion and synthesizers (for a retro monster-movie sound). The resulting “oratorio” is about an hour in length, and explores the grand themes of human experience within the scope of the monster classic. In Shelley’s story, young Dr. Victor Frankenstein (played with vision and convincing naivete by James Centano) pursues his scientific dreams, falls in love, makes magic in his lab by building a pieced-together Creature, and then faces tragic consequences of his actions. Raymond Martinez portrayed The Creature, in a heartbreaking performance that asks: is the creator the real danger, for having created?
This question is presented to Victor, but truly pondered by Mary Shelley, played as a stage aside with gravitas and a sweet, promising voice by Cheyenne Munaweera. The simply stated lyrics express the characters’ thoughts and frustrations in a refreshingly straightforward way, and Beard’s music reflects this with highly accessible, theatrical style, showing us plain emotions punctuated with sections of “crunchy” chords that increase drama. LAMC’s Chamber Singers offered additional flexibility here, the right ensemble of eight pros performing the more difficult musical sections and doubling some of the students’ lines, but never stealing focus.
The concert was deftly conducted in tag-team fashion by two of the school’s faculty members: Stormy Sacks, director of the Chamber Choir, and Desiree Fowler, director of the Mixed Choir. There are many smaller solo parts that were performed beautifully by student participants. The combined choral forces looked elegant and were obviously very excited about the project, bringing great energy to a lovely sound.
Every arts nonprofit seems to have an outreach program of some sort, often simply because it makes them more attractive to funding organizations. Voices Within is unusual in its scope and in its results. Not all of the residencies are quite this extended, but each results in a “culmination concert” that shows off what teachers and students have been creating, and these concerts are often open to the public. This program was an excellent model of how an extended project can result in an entirely original work of art, supporting, but maintaining the focus on the students. Even the concert’s introduction seemed to strike the right tone, as Sheri Henderson, the Music Academy’s assistant principal, offered one of the best quick primers for classical concertgoing I’ve seen: she welcomed everyone, gave us some things to look for in the story, and some tips on how to behave at a classical occasion, all with an air of levity that didn’t seem to dampen enthusiasm a bit.
Bravo to all involved — thank you for an inspired evening!