When it comes to making music, conductor Jason C. Tramm throws himself into a little bit of everything. I don’t bother asking him why. It’d be like asking the sun why it shines. He’s just doing what he was born to do.
His calendar has returned to pre-pandemic levels after nearly three years of COVID-19 cancellations. “There’s so much going on and I can barely keep up with it, but it’s a thrill,” he says. “Everything’s incredibly back to live music-making with colleagues I’d missed so much.”
He wraps up this busy month with a concert version of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” presented by Seton Hall University Arts Council at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Nov. 30.
He just returned from Italy for concerts cancelled during the height of the pandemic. In Rome and Florence, he led Lucca-based EstrOrchestra in David Boldrini’s “Missa Brevis” and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater.”
“It was fantastic to make some music with a wonderful professional orchestra from Tuscany and some wonderful soloists,” he says. “It’s really a pleasure to make music with people I don’t necessarily know, and it refreshes and inspires me to work with new musicians, and to be in a different culture. It really broadens your music-making.”
With those Italian tempos fresh in his mind, he delves into Verdi’s 1853 warhorse of tragic, star-crossed lovers, which was inspired by the stage adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ “La Dame aux camélias,” a 1848 novel about the author’s lover, Marie Duplessis.
“It’s one of my favorites and it’s the opera I’ve connected to the most,” Tramm says. “I looked at my score and realized this is the 30th performance I’ve done of it.”
The production is co-sponsored by two Seton Hall University entities: the Charles and Joan Alberto Italian Studies Institute and the Arts Council Classical Concert Series, which advance Italian and Italian-American history and culture through visual, literary and performing arts.
“It’s about the 12th year we’ve done this,” Tramm says of the series. “We focus on Italian opera and we’ve done everything from ‘Madama Butterfly’ to ‘Don Giovanni’ to ‘Pagliacci’ to ‘La Bohème.’ ”
He traces the series’ success to its director, Dena Levine, and to Gabriella Romani, director of the Alberto Italian Studies Institute. Both are Seton Hall colleagues of Tramm, who is on faculty as assistant professor of voice and conducting, and choral activities director of the choral and orchestra program.
“They’ve been such incredible partners to make these performances possible,” he says of Levine and Romani. “They bring so much to the Seton Hall community, and for the people who come to these productions who aren’t part of Seton Hall, there’s really nothing like great art to bring people together.
“It’s ambitious to do these grand operas but I find it’s such a joy to watch the students learn, and to bring in the professional singers who are always energized by the students because they’ve been in their shoes, too. So we have this multi-layered learning environment that’s so inspiring.”
Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto tells the story of the Parisian courtesan, Violetta Valéry, and the young romantic bourgeois, Alfredo Germont. After falling in love and swapping their swanky Paris home for an idyllic countryside cottage, Germont’s father Giorgio pushes Violetta to break it off with his son to avoid dragging down his aristocratic family name. She reluctantly agrees and her heartbreak (and tuberculosis) plunges her into squalor, misery and death.
Violetta is sung by South Orange native Molly Dunn, fresh from singing the same role earlier this month at the Palau de la Música in Barcelona.
“She’s a fantastic rising soprano and a great colleague,” Tramm says. She sang under Tramm’s baton last year as Mimì in “La Bohème” for the Basking Ridge-based Light Opera of New Jersey, where he is executive director.
“I’m very excited to do this ‘Traviata’ with her because it’s such an incredible role,” he continues. “There’s this vocal evolution throughout the piece that’s so beautiful through her character. You start as a coloratura with Sempre libera, in the second act you become more of a lyric soprano and, by the end, it’s almost a dramatic soprano.
“No one puts musical characterization forward like Verdi. It’s always so personal. The tragic love story between Alfredo and Violetta is such a beautiful journey that we go on with them.”
Jeremy Brauner sings Alfredo, Violetta’s pure-hearted beau, who wins and loses her. The New Jersey-based performer holds a bachelor’s degree in musical theater from Montclair State University.
“He’s a fantastic tenor,” says Tramm. “He just won an Olga Forrai Foundation grant and he’s a rising star.”
Germont, the interfering father with a strict sense of modesty, is sung by baritone Jason Detwiler, an Idaho-based singer who trains in New York City. “We’ve worked together on several projects before, and he’s a wonderful colleague,” says Tramm.
Tramm streamlined the stagecraft to fit the SOPAC stage. Media projections make up the scenography and English-language subtitles. Soloists wear their own tuxedos and gowns, evocative of the manuscript’s grand ballroom bashes.
“In a concert version, you want to trim down what you can,” he says of minor cuts to the score. “So there are some trims, but even when I conduct the full opera in a theater setting, there are small cuts, like some repeats or the cavatinas you do once instead of twice. But that’s traditional and often done that way. We don’t have a ballet company, so I cut the gypsy and matador chorus. It’s not a long opera so, other than that, it’s all there.”
The Seton Hall University Chamber Choir sings onstage and interacts with the action. They wear all black in the Greek chorus fashion.
“They just did ‘Candide’ so they’re in the opera swing of things this semester,” Tramm says of his vocal students. Last month he conducted them in the 1956 Leonard Bernstein operetta for Light Opera of New Jersey. He cast a mix of Broadway and opera stars in the lead roles to reflect the quintessential Bernstein spirit.
“Bernstein is such a consummate musician, and his humor and sarcasm was a great challenge, very spiky and interesting. I love that spikiness that Bernstein does — jazz meets classical meets … anything goes!”
As a music educator, Tramm mixes his knowledge with passion to inspire his students to connect with the works.
“It’s wonderful to watch the next generation embrace opera,” he says. “Every year we do one and many of them have never even seen an opera before. When I introduced ‘Traviata’ to them, they just loved it, the singing and the style.
“When I tell them what the story is about — the love story between Alfredo and Violetta and the complexities of Germont as the aristocratic father — I think it’s very relatable to them. That’s the great thing about great art and its universal human themes. And it’s just a matter of connecting with these themes of love and loss, and Violetta’s journey and the redemption arc.”
Verdi’s three-act score of romantic high color and sparkling melodies will be played by 25 members of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, which is part of MidAtlantic Artistic Productions, a company he founded, and for which he serves as artistic director and principal conductor.
“It gives me the flexibility to do a lot of different projects: symphonic, operatic, choral, etc.,” he says. “I just started the MidAtlantic Chamber Choir, which is a professional choral group, and we just had our first series of recordings. It’s new and exciting, and I love to surround myself with as much great music as possible, like a well-balanced diet of different types of musical experiences. I love to bring all of these to my students and to my community at Seton Hall, and they’ve been incredibly supportive over all these years.”
With degrees from Rutgers University, Crane School and Hartt School, Tramm’s post-graduate career has been a journey of self-discovery and reinvention. Creativity comes to him naturally. At the height of the pandemic, he started a podcast, “Music Matters with Jason Tramm.”
“Podcasts was my COVID innovation,” he says. “All live performances stopped and everything went virtual. With everyone’s careers on pause, we all had to find different directions to go and try different things … The podcasts was my chance to connect with all my colleagues, to find out what people were doing to innovate during the most challenging of times. And I learned so much from some of the greatest musicians in the world.”
He created almost 300 podcasts since the series began in mid-2020. In addition to classical music artists, he interviews indie rock bands, rap artists and singer-songwriters.
“We try to identify the most interesting people we can in order to bring forward and highlight musical innovation during challenging times,” he says. “It’s interesting to have this cross-genre conversation and to hear how they all inspire each other and to learn from each other.
“I’ve been in the business for 25 years now and I’ve always enjoyed finding great talent and performing with them, and watching them go on to international acclaim. It’s quite a blessing. I love that combination of bringing people together, whether it’s community choruses or professional ensembles. It’s an incredible rewarding thing.”
Tramm has four children ranging from 17 to 23, including a set of twins. They all have inherited his artistic sensibilities with passions in photography, media and the performing arts. Tramm’s oldest son, skilled in digital video and media production, handles his social media.
“It’s so nice to have a team that you can work with,” Tramm says. “We did 100 virtual choir and orchestra projects during the COVID era, which is so much work and so different than what a conductor normally does. But it was something we had to do to keep our communities solvent and intact.
“I always program things that I’ve never done that are interesting and challenging, things that keep me learning and exploring. For me it’s always about seeing what’s possible and finding synchronicities between organizations. I’ve always been someone to dream up projects and come up with big ideas and to find out how to do that. Even in challenging times, there’s still a lot of room for innovation and we still keep that torch burning.”
Jason Tramm will conduct “La Traviata” at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m. Visit sopacnow.org.
For more on Tramm, visit jasontramm.net.
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