Forgive the shameless plug – the poetry of Langston Hughes set to exhilarating contemporary music, how better to spend a little time this weekend?
Details below, tickets available HERE or at the door.
I have spent this past week heartsick at the loss of Gabe D’Abruzzo, who died this past Monday in a drowning accident in New Jersey.
I first met Gabe in 2012, when I joined the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh, for which he was the insanely talented accompanist. Gabe was a master pianist who could sight-read virtually anything, and for whom it seemed no piece of music was too difficult. Allegro runs of thirty-second notes with key changes every other bar? No sweat. Play a 2/4 rhythm in one hand against a 6/8 rhythm on the other? Bring it on. Take on the jarring, dissonant accompaniment to modern compositions with unexpected chord configurations and multiple tempo changes? Piece of cake. And no matter how devilishly difficult the score, Gabe made it all look effortless and easy, as if his fingers were merely a conduit to the keyboard for the notes on the page.
In so many ways, Gabe was part of the glue of the Bach Choir – he helped teach us all, by both example and through occasional observations and notes, how to be better musicians, and through his virtuoso musicianship he incentivized us all to rise to his level of excellence. Gabe was a musician in every fiber of his being. Although he never told me so directly, I believe he had perfect pitch – at the very least, he often amazed us all by being able to determine that, for example, the bass section had sung an E flat instead of an E in a given measure (something he’d somehow managed to hear while playing accompaniment on a grand piano). I remember vividly one time we didn’t have a tenor soloist in rehearsal, and when none of the choir members felt confident enough to sight-read the solo, Gabe volunteered to sing it himself, and proceeded to play the piano score and sight-sing the vocal line (much to the shame and embarrassment of us mere mortals in the choir) with a clear tenor that rivalled anyone in the choir. Gabe also had a compendious memory for music – at times we would encounter a melody or chord progression that seemed vaguely familiar, and suddenly Gabe would bust out a bar or two of the classical or popular music it resembled from his internal music Rolodex. He was, in short, the definition of a prodigious talent.
I came to know Gabe more closely a few years ago when my daughters began singing with the Fox Chapel Area High School choirs – he also served as their accompanist, and after hearing him play my oldest daughter arranged to take piano lessons from him. Gabe was as brilliant a teacher as he was a musician, inspiring his students to take on challenges they didn’t know they were ready for and generous in his sharing of both technical skill and musical theory.
The last time I saw Gabe, it was at a “Summer Sing” held by the Bach Choir. We were singing the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, which begins with something like fifteen minutes of a wickedly challenging and absolutely gorgeous piano solo. I had listened to the piece on youtube earlier in the day before rehearsal and had been impressed by the difficulty of the piano concerto that starts the piece. Because the purpose of the summer sing is primarily to give vocalists a chance to try out new music, I had assumed that we would only be singing the choral part when we gathered together. But to all our surprise, Gabe played the first half of the piece, and he didn’t merely play it – he performed it, stunningly, breathtakingly, masterfully. Five minutes in, I wished I had realized what was about to happen and pulled out my phone to get a recording, because not only was his performance vastly superior to the youtube version I had heard earlier that day, but it was also a little surreal to be present as this musical genius – in shorts and flip flops – absolutely slayed the Choral Fantasy for an audience of a hundred volunteer singers in the chapel of Rodef Shalom. It was a gift I wanted to share with others somehow.
Now I wish I had taken that video because it was the last I would ever hear Gabe play.
We will miss you, Gabe; we will miss your humor, your grace, your genius, and, above all, the music you brought into our lives.
It’s been a busy theater-going week for the Tatler. Watched rehearsal for Good Person of Sezuan on Monday, saw Race on Wednesday, was at rehearsal for the upcoming Jacques Brel piece on Thursday, opening of Camino on Friday, and Midnight Radio on Saturday. And Tuesday night was spent singing with the Bach Choir. So here it is, Sunday morning, and the Tatler’s finally got a chance to pen her review, with apologies to the good folks at PICT for taking so long to get this out.
I’m not sure what I think about David Mamet’s work anymore. I teach Oleanna nearly every year, and I think it’s in many ways a masterful bit of writing; ditto Glengarry Glen Ross (which I haven’t included on a syllabus in years). Those two plays hold the same kind of fascination as an awful car wreck (do I need to elaborate on that)? But ever since Mamet “came out” as a conservative a few years ago, it’s been more and more difficult to give his work the benefit of the doubt; for example, where I used to see the potential for ambiguity in how the actions and motivations of Oleanna’s Carol might be understood, now I find it more difficult to defend Mamet against the charges of misogyny students bring against him. That is, in retrospect, given Mamet’s cranky repudiation of things progressive because of his dismay at the culture wars, I’m more inclined to read his vicious portrait of the radical feminist Carol as early turf-defending. I’ll still teach the play; I may not defend the playwright as vigorously, though.
With Race Mamet wants to be equally incendiary about the sensitive issue of race relations, and he seems to believe that his play will provoke strong reactions in his audience. Before the play began we were told that Mamet’s contract stipulates that a theater may not hold any kind of audience talkback for at least two hours after a performance, presumably to give us a chance to chew on what we saw and come back with more fully-staked out positions — (?) Whatever the reason, it backfires: two hours after I saw Race my mind had blissfully moved on to other concerns, and now, four days later, I’m hard-pressed to think much at all about the issues the play presented. It’s not so much that the issues themselves are inconsequential or irrelevant — on the contrary, I think the subject of race is as charged as ever, and as much as I disagree with some of Mamet’s politics, I also think that his exposé of liberal pieties when it comes to thinking about race is a good thing. Liberals tend to be pretty good at self-critique and self-doubt, and I suspect many would admit to the ideological uncertainty, bordering on hypocrisy, that Mamet’s play accuses them of possessing.
The problem here is that the play is awfully lightweight, and doesn’t do a whole lot to move us out of our comfort zone or make us angry. The story takes place in a lawyer’s office; the partners, Jack (John DeMita), who is white, and Henry (Alan Bomar Jones), who is black, take on the near-impossible case of defending the rather clueless, extremely rich Charles (played by Michael Fuller) against accusations of raping a black woman in a hotel room. The fourth player in this conflict is Susan (Casiha Felt), a young black lawyer who has been hired by Jack against Henry’s better judgment. We’re told in the opening moments of the play that white people can’t say anything about race (which may be Mamet’s confession of his own inadequacy to the task). From then on, as the revelation of Charles’s guilt or innocence unfolds in the background, the play foregrounds the dissection of both the white characters’ inability to treat blacks equitably from fear of being labeled racist, and the black characters’ manipulation of that fear to climb the social, economic, and political ladder.
The dual hypocrisy Mamet identifies here is undoubtedly worth thinking about and reflecting upon, particularly given popular claims that we’ve suddenly become a “post-racial” society with the election of Obama; but the play doesn’t sell this dissection in any kind of realistic way. In his single-minded focus on race as the primary divisive issue, Mamet downplays or ignores other factors that determine success and access to power in the real world — like class, wealth, age, and gender. For example, I don’t believe for a moment that, given the power differential between the young Susan and her boss Jack, she would confront him over the conditions of her hire; nor do I buy that Henry would treat one of the richest men in the country with the kind of utter contempt he aims at Charles. And (reminiscent of Oleanna, now that I think of it) Mamet loads the deck by making Charles — whose wealth has been inherited, not earned — the kind of super-entitled dimwit we’d love to see hoist on his own petard. The character whose actions spark the conflict of the play is utterly dismissable.
Given the flaws in the play itself, PICT’s production does its best to serve it: Andrew Paul’s direction is brisk and clean, set and costume designers Gianni Downs and Rachel Parent establish the slick professional air of an upscale law firm nicely, and the lighting and sound design (Allen Hahn and Erik Lawson) are excellent — in particular, the sound bites from past civil rights speeches and news events nicely put the play into a larger context. And Alan Bomar Jones stands out in the cast, bringing a force and intelligence and anger to the character of Henry that feels absolutely right for the character’s situation and status.