“This is My 16th Street Too” – The Director’s Vision and Voice

We had a really interesting discussion yesterday during tech about the use of music in the show. Tech has allowed me to hear, for the first time, all the extraordinary work that director John Vreeke and Sound Designer Matt Nielson have been assembling. The music of Dmitri Shostakovich dominates the show now, and it’s a pretty perfect marriage of his Russian/Soviet modernism, using quotations of Jewish melody, artfully arranging dissonance and traditionalism, all rolling into an eclectic, cohesive soundscape.

And yet the adaptation has also demanded a different kind of music; the music of “16th Street” which is to say, the American pop music we listen and refer to, be it the songs of Michael Stipe and R.E.M. (we have the character of Yakov singing “Shiny Happy People,” “Losing My Religion,” and “This One Goes Out To The One I Love” to open each respective act), or the other pop throw-aways we hear. In Chekhov’s Seagull, Sorin and Dorn sing snippets of popular art songs of the day (“In France, two grenadiers” by Schumann, or “The Moon Floats Through The Night Sky” by Shilovsky). Our version provides a more contemporary soundtrack. Sorin sings Joni Mitchell (“I Was a Free Man in Paris”) and Dorn hums Neil Sedaka (“Breaking Up is Hard To Do”) Don McLean (“Castles in the Air”), and the Sha Na Na (“Blue Moon”); song poems of our time.

That’s a little bit of the music of 16th Street we’re referring to as we discuss the modernist touch points of our production. But more than that, of course, “16th Street” refers to all the issues of Jewish and artistic identity that we’re negotiating as Treplev, Arkadina and company fight over artistic traditions and artistic identity in the original.

So back to yesterday’s conversation with John.  As we were teching the top of Act III, coming out of the intermission music, as we were hearing 15 more minutes of Shostakovich — admittedly, according to John, “everything we couldn’t fit into the show itself” — I said, “You know, we have to be mindful that Shostakovich’s Russianness doesn’t overwhelm the idea of 16th Street.” And John, who’s really quite brilliant and astute at using music and finding just the right classical composers to bring out the voice of a production (and I’ll never forget his use of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” to bring such intense illumination to the underscoring of “Born Guilty” back in 2002), said, “You know, the Shostakovich; that’s my 16th Street too.”

John indeed has discovered a musical motif that expresses his deepest connections to Chekhov’s world.  In our program, he writes about the use of music:

“In our adaptation, we hear the underscoring of Dmitri Shostakovich, Russian composer (1906-1975), heavily influenced by Russian and Jewish Folk music, who embraced the idea of humor as a means of expressing overwhelming tragedy and despair. His music emphasizes relationships filled with emotional significance, passionate contemplation and expressive voices. Much like Chekhov’s comedies, this intense duality of “laughter and tears” leads to a rich and complex experience, filled with subtext.”

Sound Designer Matt Nielson, who’s had a wonderful first season with us, also designing Honey Brown Eyes and The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall, has been good enough to provide us with a rather complete listing of all the Shostakovich works that are used in the production. He shares a little bit of his thinking about using this underscoring throughout the show.

“I love the idea of using one composer as a through line for any production. When John and I first talked about The Seagull on 16th Street, he mentioned that he wanted use one of his favorite composers, Shostakovich, who just happened to be one of my favorites as well. Since then everything has clicked into place as if his work was always meant to be in our production. In a refreshing change of pace, the problem on this show has been trying to narrow down the abundance of perfect choices for each cue. Here’s what we’re using as of right now:

· Piano Trio #2 in E Minor, Op. 67: (Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio)
o I. Andante
o IV. Allegretto

· String Quartet #2 in A, Op. 68: (Emerson String Quartet)
o II. Recitative & Romance
o IV. Theme with Variations

· String Quartet #4 in D, Op. 83: (Emerson String Quartet)
o IV. Allegretto

· String Quartet #11 in F Minor, Op. 122: (Emerson String Quartet)
o VII. Finale: Moderato – Meno Mosso – Moderato

· Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57: (Borodin Trio)
o I. Prelude
o II. Fugue
o III. Scherzo
o IV. Intermezzo

· Sonata for Violoncello and Piano in D Minor, Op. 40: (Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio)
o II. Allgro

· Sonata for Viola and Piano in C, Op. 147 (Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio)
o III. Adagio

My advice is to begin listening and reading about Dmitri Shostakovich now. And what better place to start than Wikipedia!?