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Forget Gonzo Journalism…Philly’s got a Gonzo Cantata!

Rob Deemer of Sequenza21

It’s not often that Sequenza 21 gets scooped by the likes of Rachel Maddow – but that’s a good thing for composer Melissa Dunphy and the group of 30 musicians that are all performing Dunphy’s The Gonzales Contata with text directly taken from former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ testimony before Congress. Written in a neo-Baroque style, Dunphy has inverted the genders of the primary characters in the story, with Gonzales and Sen. Specter, Leahy and Hatch sung by females and Sen. Diane Feinstein sung by a tenor. The work is being performed this weekend in Philadelpha at the Rotunda (4014 Walnut Street) at 7pm tonight and tomorrow at 2pm with tickets being sold at the door for $20.

A composer, cellist, actress and model, Dunphy is currently a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. She first performed the Gonzales Cantata at West Chester University and instead of shopping it around to other choirs, she decided to apply for performance at the Philly Fringe Festival, which she did – late – but it was still accepted. Funded completely out of her own pocket and sharing profits with al the performers, Dunphy seems to have single-handedly created a demonstration of how to create a “big splash” with her work…the weekend before she starts her graduate studies at UPenn.

By creating a website dedicated to the work, complete with html tags from The Drudge Report (seen below), and utilizing Twitter to garner notice within the political journalistic ranks (completely outside of the circle of music critics, I might add), Melissa is creating a PR model for any composer to learn from. From the recording of the entire work (!) on the Gonazales Cantata website, it’s obvious that she’s got the neo-Baroque thing down, and she does a nice job of threading the needle between creating something so dissonant that it would turn off the general public and something so über-tonal that it wouldn’t interest new-music types.

From the YouTube videos – not of just a performance, but music videos utilizing visual mash-ups of the politicians in the cantata – it’s evident that Dunphy and her crew have a firm grasp of how to work in our Brave New Digital World to ensure that the world knows about and is interested in a new musical work. Take heed, folks, not only should you go see this work – you should examine how this 29-year-old graduate student has received more press about her cantata than most major composers do when they win the Pulitzer Prize (Rachel Maddow, HuffPo, Fox News, WSJ, TPM, Atlantic).

UPDATE: Here’s a quick quote from Dunphy herself – “The performers and I were so thrilled with the audience response to our opening last night. The energy in the room (a beautiful but decrepit unoccupied church called the Rotunda) was electric. We need to fill the house for the next two nights, though – all the performers are being paid in a percentage of the profits, so the more people who come, the more I can give to these incredibly deserving singers and instrumentalists who have traveled on their own dime from five states to be in this show.”

Reader Comment: Tom Makeig

Yesterday I downloaded and listened to the West Chester University performance of the cantata (Feb. 2009). It’s really a wonderful piece. How many composers tackle a contemporary subject with a strictly Bach instrumentation? Might seem an academic exercise, but the music comes across as fresh and entirely appropriate to the subject. I have many fond memories of the Bach cantata cycle that played (still plays?) every week at Emmanuel Church in Boston, and this new work is very consistent with this repertoire, right down to the satirical element (did not Johann Sebastian himself compose a Cantata in praise of coffee?). It happily departs from period conventions with spoken dialog, scripted laughter and lots of dissonance – costumes with beauty queen sashes, and pomp, too, from what I read about the Philadephia staging. I wonder if Melissa Dunphy didn’t get inspiration for her self-confident resurrection of this ancient form from her many Shakespeare roles, which teach today’s artists how alive and well – nay, youthful and exuberant – 17th Century theater can be. Hers is a wonderful new voice. It’s great to know that it is being heard far and wide, thanks to the political content. I hope the music world notices, too.

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