Anything written by Edgar Allan Poe is memorable, not the least of which is "The Masque of the Red Death." First published in 1842 in Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine, it has been adapted into everything from heavy metal by Crimson Glory to a film starring Vincent Price to the literary spice of Stephen King's "The Shining." So why wouldn't Poe's short story also make its way into the imagination of classical composers and musicians, both his contemporary and ours?
Tune in on July 19, when the Canandaigua LakeMusic Festival presents a concert titled "Gypsy Strings and The Masque of the Red Death." It turns out that French composer Andre Caplet composed a musical portrayal of Poe's eerie tale of the pervasive reach of death that he titled "Conte Fantastique." Now, at this year's festival, a harpist, a string quartet, and an actor will create a modern adaptation of the score and add narration to create a unique performance.
According to Edward Klorman, co-artistic director of the festival, Caplet was not a very well known composer, and he died when he was young (Caplet lived 1878-1925). Klorman says of Caplet's composition, "In the style of his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel, Caplet wrote an incredibly rich score in one, continuous movement that tells the whole story."
Poe's story, as it were, is that of Prince Prospero, who invites all of his guests into his palace to wait out the plague. Of course, the Prince differentiates between his invited guests and the uninvited commoners. With the ticking of the clock toward midnight, a masked figure appears, and, although the story reaches a predicable ending, Poe captures the allegory of fate that reduces us all to our base vulnerability.
Klorman says that this is the third year that the festival will feature a concert that is an original adaptation of music and literature. The festival is in its ninth year overall, and two years ago the first of these performances was based upon Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata" for piano and violin, which inspired Leo Tolstoy's novella of the same name. Then, last year, the festival created a performance of "The Song of Love Triumphant" by Ivan Turgenev, which Tchaikovsky later set to music.
And, for the third year, actor Tommy Labanaris will serve as the narrator. Klorman says, "Labanaris is a lot of fun. It takes someone pretty daring to jump in with a bunch of musicians and figure out how to make music and words into a show."
Labanaris describes these creations as "a really beautiful chance to have the story told in many different ways. It's also a way to tell a story to music lovers who come to hear music. They [Klorman and co-artistic director Amy Sue Barston] were taking a chance a couple years ago, and it paid off."
Among his many credits, Labanaris has toured with "Rent" (Japan), "The Full Monty," "A Year with Frog & Toad," "Copacabana," and "I Get a Kick Out of Cole." His credits in New York City theater include "Babes in Toyland" (Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall) and "Granola! The Musical" (New York Fringe Festival). His roles in regional musicals have spanned everything from Che in "Evita" to Jesus in "Godspell."
As the storyteller, Labanaris says the challenge is not to give away everything. "Poe doesn't do that either," says Labanaris. "He takes readers through a whole cycle of joy and beautiful lush rooms in the palace, and safety inside the walls of the abbey, in a continuous flow of emotions."
Labanaris will find his way through the challenge as each layer of the creative process is completed. A few days before the performance, Labanaris and the musicians will sit down and do read-throughs and play-throughs, concentrating on the transitions between words and music. "When all of the pieces are in the same room, it really tells us what the beast will eventually come out to be," says Labanaris.
Another layer is added when lighting is turned on. Then he throws in costuming. Then, of course, the audience is brought in.
"It's really born at the festival," says Labanaris. "It's a very unique presentation that not only surprises the audience – it's only been two years that they've been watching – but for us, too. We're very inspired by it, and that's why I've been drawn back every year and why they decide to do it. It is another way of bringing these classical pieces to life, tightening them up, and creating a different picture to the ear and the eye."
Klorman says the balance of the program will include other Central European folk music. The concert will open with a duet arrangement of Béla Bartók's "Romanian Folk Dances," which were originally written for solo piano. Klorman describes the pieces as "Peasant songs, unwashed music of the people."
The program ends with Antonín Dvorák's String Quartet, Op. 51, which Klorman describes as "slow, soulful Czech dumka dance music, growing from the same earth as the Bartók."
Listening to Klorman talk about the festival in general, and this upcoming concert in particular, one might find his mood the opposite of Poe's dour outlook. "Chamber-music festivals are a different animal than a symphony orchestra or a record label," says Klorman. "It's all about community and community building. A lot of people from our audiences who have been to the prior concerts have raved, saying that they haven't been to a performance like it."
2013 LakeMusic Festival Schedule
July 17: Free Pop-Up Concert No. 2 (2 p.m., Canandaigua National Bank, Canandaigua)
July 17: Classical Blue Jeans (6 p.m., Lodge at Bristol Harbour Resort; tickets $25/$50 with dinner)
July 18: Free Family Concert (10:30 a.m., Wegmans Marketplace, Canandaigua)
July 21: Season Finale: Franz, Friendship and Fantasie (7:30 p.m., FLCC Concert Hall; tickets $15-$180)