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Present Music's Insightful 'Buffalo Nation'

Apr. 18, 2012
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Is Buffalo Nation (Bison bison), premiered at Present Music last weekend, an opera? An oratorio? A song cycle? Live accompaniment to film? Or an unstaged, multimedia morality play with incidental music?

With music by Jerome Kitzke and a libretto by Kathleen Masterson, Buffalo Nation uses a baritone soloist, four actors, a chorus that primarily utters sounds and plays simple percussion, and a 10-player ensemble of musicians. As the title implies, the subject matter is the buffalo of the American plains, its practical and spiritual relationship to American-Indian peoples, the animal's near extinction in the 19th century and the cultivated return of the species. Sung and spoken poetry, historical narrative and musical interludes are mixed as the rambling 90-minute piece unfolds, almost always with film playing. I heard the Sunday afternoon performance at Lincoln Center of the Arts.

Kitzke's music seems rooted in modal and native sounds. At its most attractive it is elemental and straightforward. The instrumentation is often thick, with too many doublings, creating balance issues. Overall, I found Buffalo Nation inefficient in its design, both musically and textually. Less would have been more. I began to feel restless with a tendency toward moral heavy-handedness. It is not difficult, after all, to create sympathy for innocent animals needlessly slaughtered.

Baritone Kurt Ollmann brought sensitive authority to his songs, even when the words were not set in the most graceful manner. The four actors (Alison Mary Forbes, Lisa Golda, Joel Kopischke, Norman Moses) had much to do in this wordy libretto, and all made the most of the material given to them, adding lively touches to the performance. The enthusiastic young chorus of 20 constantly created sounds and effects in its busy part. As is always the case, the musicians of Present Music played with confidence and style, conducted by Kevin Stalheim.

Despite its shortcomings, Buffalo Nation is certainly thought provoking. In an obtuse way it reminded me of Present Music's "Water" concert of last August. Both these events invited new insights into topics that, on the surface, seem self-evident, but are rich with complexity.


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