New York classical music institutions are in a period of economic challenges. This season, the Metropolitan Opera is dark more nights than in the past. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the historic Next Wave Festival is a shadow of its former self.
Yet if you know where to look — at venues large and small — the city still has plenty to fill a calendar. Just on Thursday and Friday, for example, there were back-to-back premieres of ambitious song cycles by living composers.
On Thursday, Paul Pinto’s “The Approach” — a multimedia, dramatic work written for the treble-voice quartet Quince Ensemble — was unveiled at Merkin Hall. And the next night, at Zankel Hall, Ted Hearne brought his “Dorothea,” built around poems by Dorothea Lasky, to New York for the first time.
To my ear, Pinto’s music for Quince was the stunner of this pair. But after a slow start on Friday, Hearne’s cycle also flashed some of the refinement of his earlier works. He has been adept at using chamber music, rock and electronic instrumentation, and in the oratorio “The Source,” found poetry even in material from WikiLeaks. But the first half of “Dorothea” felt strangely static for a composer-performer of such successful eclecticism.
This was due, in part, to an overreliance on the composer’s own singing voice, his tenor electronically altered. Past projects, like “Place” and “Outlanders,” have seen Hearne writing for multiple singers, not to mention multiple facets of himself. But the early portion of “Dorothea” was dominated by steady Auto-Tune style.
The effect could be appropriately lovelorn, or weary, as guided by Lasky’s texts. But this digital sheen also eclipsed the contributions of the other artists onstage. Outside of a few choice moments, his fellow performers — like the electric guitarist Taylor Levine or the vocalist Eliza Bagg — could seem sidelined by the digital tweaking of Hearne’s voice.
There was a breakthrough, however, with “Complainers,” the eighth of about a baker’s dozen songs, sung by Bagg. Hearne’s comparatively spare, effective setting showed off this vocalist’s luminous sound in Lasky’s sardonic poetry, beginning with the line “Some people don’t want to die/Because you can’t complain when you’re dead.”
When Hearne returned as lead singer, in “Another World,” his vocals were less futzed- with, and for the better. He and the band channeled some of Depeche Mode’s booming goth glamour. From there, the balance of the evening did not merely suggest R&B grooves or rock energy from one moment to the next; instead, the songs claimed those textures more sturdily.
Thursday’s performance, of the first three “episodes” of Pinto’s “The Approach,” was, at just over 40 minutes, about half as long as “Dorothea.” But it still felt like a full meal, and an inspired one.
Conceived as an “episodic, magical-realist song cycle” that is also a “love story for and about the women of Quince,” Pinto’s narrative has a winking, fourth-wall-breaking quality. In his libretto, the Quince singers experience a meet-cute with a female sailor on the subway after a rehearsal. (The flirting commences with a stretch of mysterious, brazen blinking.)
When not making use of Quince’s polyphonic skills, Pinto also gives each member of the quartet subjective space for solitary meditations similar to arias. His conceit carries traces of the comic-philosophic operas of Robert Ashley. The aesthetic tends toward the chatty, and is strewn with drone-style phrases. And Pinto comes by this influence honestly: As a vocalist, he has been a key part of recent revivals of Ashley’s stage works.
But “The Approach” also displays Pinto’s own innovations. For one thing, his texts tend to move with blitzing speed. (The score specifies 220 words per minute at select frenetic junctures.) And although Ashley’s operas include stray pop-song interludes, Pinto pushes for more songfulness; in excerpts that Pinto has posted online, you can hear him reveling in the gleaming harmonic interplay made possible by Quince.
At Merkin Hall, “The Approach” was staged — modestly, yet stylishly. The Quince singers wore gowns that seemed to line up with the moody sobriquets of their respective characters. Kayleigh Butcher, a mezzo-soprano and Quince’s executive director, wore a dress of green and brown bordering on burnished-gold, a color pattern that seemed to fit her character’s designation as “The Sad One.” Lyric-quoting videos of Pinto’s design also helped the audience to keep track of the swift moving text.
Quince’s sound, though, was appropriately the true star. And the group offered more in Thursday’s program: “her lover’s hand,” a satisfying, folk-inflected three-song suite from composer Annika Socolofsky. Pinto sang as well, preceding “The Approach” with “On Shaller Brown,” his arrangement of the much-adapted work song.
He accompanied himself on piano, while singing with rich textural depth. At one point, video art on the screen behind him instructed audience members to imagine a big chorus joining him, before noting that such a large cohort was beyond this project’s budget.
There was knowing laughter in the audience. Nothing, though, felt cheap about this ecstatic, richly rewarding show. Pinto’s music proved that tough times of leaner budgets don’t require reduced ambitions.