A wry, quirky take on hypochondria and a theatrical retooling of Schubert’s “Winterreise”

Sun Mar 14, 2010 at 2:29 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Corey Dargel performed his “Thirteen Near-Death Experiences” Saturday night at The Velvet Lounge.

One can glean some idea of the riches of Chicago’s music scene with the pair of weekend events on successive evenings presented by two of the city’s most audacious new-music groups. Each offered a distinctive take on the traditional song cycle, one a theatrical retooling of the most famous work in the genre by Schubert, and the other a genre-traversing new work by a greatly gifted young singer-composer making his Chicago debut.

Saturday night brought the local premiere of Thirteen Near-Death Experiences by Corey Dargel at The Velvet Lounge on the near South Side, an event presented by ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble).

Dargel is an artist clearly attracted to the darker side of life ranging from sexual incompetents (Sexual Side-Effects) to voluntary amputation (Removable Parts).

Hypochondria is the leitmotif for Dargel’s Thirteen Near-Death Experiences. Consisting of twelve songs and a Prelude for the backing instrumental sextet, Dargel’s vocal settings play off his own divers worries about his medical conditions, (racing heart, pain in the ribs, black spots on his tongue). Yet rather than a morbidly clinical self-absorption, Dargel’s songs are wryly witty and often hilarious, crafted with a charming, angular lyricism, the deft lyrics recalling the best work of Warren Zevon and Randy Newman.

The first song, Twelve -Year-Old Scotch tells of a nurse who supposedly plied Dargel with alcohol as a baby (“I need a constant supply just to get by.”) In What Will It Be for Me, Dargel muses on how his demise will come (“Cardiac arrest or clinically depressed? . . . there’s no mystery given my family’s medical history.”)

Other songs explore the hazards of atomic halitosis (Impotent Teeth), overfriendly doctor examinations (Touch Me Where it Counts) and a realization that obsession with imaginary illnesses can be self-defeating (Sometimes a Migraine is Just a Migraine). Yet despite the pervasive darkness of the themes, Dargel’s cycle is self-effacing and gently ironic, even ending on a touching optimistic note with Someone Will Take Care of Me.

What lifts these songs from merely comic throwaways is their graceful charm, mixing a lyric delicacy with an unsettled rhythmic line that reflects the hypochondriac’s nervous tension. The musical style is a hybrid, closer to pop than classical, but Dargel’s scoring for sextet shows great skill and ingenuity as in the opening instrumental neo-Baroque Prelude.

Dargel’s natural yet flexible voice (discreetly amplified Saturday) and crystal-clear enunciation, allowed every lyric rim-shot to register. The humorous effect of the texts was enhanced by Dargel’s expressionless, deadpan delivery. The ensemble of ICE stalwarts (flutist Eric Lamb, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, keyboardist Jacob Greenberg, percussionist David T. Little, violinist David Bowlin and cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman) provided airtight backing to Dargel, allowing every displaced accent and slow fade to register precisely.

Corey Dargel is a unique, clearly gifted young artist and kudos to ICE for bringing Dargel and his quirky music to Chicago.


Brad Jungwirth is the solo protagonist in Chicago Opera Vanguard’s staged version of Schubert’s “Winterreise.”

Bryant Manning reviewed the opening of Chicago Opera Vanguard’s theatrical take on Schubert’s Winterreise. As he noted, not everything worked, but in the performance I caught Friday night, I was as struck by Brad Jungwirth’s no-holds-barred intensity in his powerful delivery of these twenty-four death-laden songs as I was by the thought and care that had gone into the theatrical presentation of Schubert’s cycle.

Presented in the round, Eric Reda’s staging, complete with dancers, video projections and sound effects is not for lieder purists. For the most part, I found the production encouraged one to consider Winterreise in a fresh light, and the jarring intimacy of the venue makes the unremitting bleakness of the protagonist’s fateful winter journey come across even more powerfully.

Chicago Opera Vanguard’s Winterreise runs through March 21 and I strongly encourage all open-minded Schubertians to catch one of the final performances. www.chicagovanguard.org

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment