Sometimes a phone interview is the way to go, even if you live in the same town. And so it was on a rainy Friday afternoon this past December that San Francisco-based composer and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and I “sat down” for a chat about her latest music theatre collaboration Your Body Is Not A Shark, which ran 7 11-13 January in San Francisco, and 17-20 January in Santa Cruz The celebrated and much sought after musician was the Kronos Quartet cellist from 1978 until 1999, when she “retired ” due to having been diagnosed with MS, which she’s been successfully battling ever since. With such a broad musical history behind her, plus a solo career as a composing and performing cellist and music theatre collaborator before her it’s hard to know how to begin. But how did it feel to play and record the second cello part in Vladimir Martynov’s Schubert-Quintet ( Unfinished ) ” after” Schubert’s Quintet in C D.956, with Kronos two years ago? ” We had so much fun. I really enjoyed playing with them again. It was like I’d never left, ” she recalls in a voice which still has a tinge of her Memphis, Tennessee roots. ” And I’ve always loved the cello because it’s such an expressive instrument, and composing–though I’d never thought of being a composer before–became a way of being really involved in music and playing.”
Her current music theatre adventure seems to have as many texts and sub-texts as music itself. And the focus of the project, which involves three other “gals –Cid Pearlman, choreographer; Denise Leto, poet; and Maya Barsacq, who conducts seven string members of the chamber orchestra, Cadenza, in Jeanrenaud’s score– is human fragility, in both body and spirit. That should be something everyone can relate to, or as the composer puts it “all of us have issues to deal with and the interesting thing is how you take that and make it your own,” which in her case means living with MS, which felled conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim’s cellist wife Jacqueline Du Pre, but also involves Leto, who’s disabled, and whose words will be projected as she writes. The piece casts the net even further by using a dance company of six, which ranges in ages from 18 to 62, and Jeanrenaud says that the navigation of Pearlman’s moves will naturally be more effortful for the 62 year old. The 10 section piece, which the composer calls ” a collage of interesting elements,” will also feature ace new music percussionist William Winant, “and there are a couple of sections of just me and Willy which are quite rhythmic.”
There’s a strong visual look as well. “One piece has the orchestra creating a bed of sound, and there are staging elements like a bed platform that moves around,. Stairs and chairs are used, and there’s a desk where Denise will be seated while the audience watches her.” Jeanrenaud has also added sound files to her score, which though not a visual element, will likely add both space and sonic weight to this intensely collaborative whole. It’s an ambitious and hopefully pertinent work for our increasingly fragile time where everybody either puts on a tough face or gets in touch with what’s really happening around and in them. But one thing’s certain. The composer-cellist is one of the most gifted musicians of her generation, and like any true artist, or human being for that matter, she’s here to learn. She put it this way in a firming up e-mail regarding her time with the great French cellist Pierre Fournier who was renowned for the elegance and depth of his playing. ” Working with Fournier was a great transition from being a student to becoming a professional musician.My lessons were very clarifying regarding technical issues I would be uncertain of in my own practice. It was wonderful working with him! “
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What becomes a legend most? Well, in the case of two legends–director/designer Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass, an international tour of their first and most famous of their five collaborations, EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH (1975-76 ), which began in Ann Arbor, Michigan in January ’12, goes on to Amsterdam in Jan’ 13., and ends in Hong Kong in Mar’13. But there’s an irony. The piece “that broke all the rules of opera “– there’s no story, and certainly no star-crossed lovers, murder, or even betrayal — is an endeavor on a par with the scale, ambition, and wor force of 65, onstage and off , a standard repertory work, with–according to lighting supervisor John Torres–800 cues, with about 75 each for its Dance 1 and Dance 2. And its incarnation at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, and Mexico City’s Palacio De Bellas Artes was the product of 4-5 days of technical– each scenic element and the actors and dancers are lit separately–and cast rehearsals, with about a week’s lodging for all at each stop. But did EINSTEIN exceed or even live up to its reputation as a seminal work of 2oth century music theatre? Judged by what I saw in New York and Berkeley, it clearly did, and it also drove home the simple fact that seeing it with others in a darkened theatre is a far more complete experience than hearing it at home alone on even the best sound system, and I’ve listened to both its original 1979 Tomato LP recording and its 1993 Nonesuch CD set many times over the years. But let’s face it . Music is as confrontational as anything else. It’s like meeting someone online. They may e-mail in a certain tone of voice, and may come at you differently if you speak on the phone, but encounters face to face are a different thing. It’s no longer an invention, but something implausibly real.
And much of EINSTEIN does seem implausible. Is the Train which inches forward and back in Train One to Glass’ rapidly shifting and rapidly modulating music really the Night Train and a Building–based on the Holland Tunnel–and is the white toy plane slowly gong up across the screen the one that triggers the final scene–The Spaceship–which seems to be about nuclear catastrophe? And are the two largely immbile and hieratic trials about something more than their exquisite tableaux looks? Glass has said that what you see is all–“that’s it” –while Wilson says ” Here, it’s a work where you go and can get lost. That’s the idea. It’s like a good novel. You don’t have to understand anything. ” One can easily come up on the side of either Glass or Wilson, but that’s not the point, and it certainly isn’t the matter because EINSTEIN is something to be encountered live. And it felt live in entirely different ways at BAM — where I was seated in Row L Orchestra Rt and at Zellerbach where I was seated Row L Orchestra Left with my friends Amy and Jeff. The full bore purity of the sound with large banks of black speaker monitors at the Gilman, and the thicker, sometimes muddled sound in the Art Brut concrete interior of Zellerbach which paradoxically allowed the music’s different lines with their combination tones to come through loud and clear. And the images were just as astonishing each time. The dancers leaping from behind the masked proscenium at The Gilman, and from the black curtained flies in Zellerbach. The Trial which looked even more epic and inscrutable at Zellerbach, and felt different too. Was it the wedding reception and cake for my actress friend Sophia Holman and her husband Nick Ellsberg the night before and not enough Juniors coffee that made me feel that Glass’ colors in Trial One–which he lays down as methodically but inelectably as Schonberg in “Farben ” in Funf Stucke Fur Orchester (1905 ) , was too little, too long, but felt just right here? But then, how long is long and how short is long?
Or maybe my response to Trail and other parts of EINSTEIN has more to do with what Glass experienced with his perception of what he did in his score for Mabou Mines 1965 production of Beckett’s PLAY ( COMODIE ) where the “quickening ” he felt was in a different place each tiime. And EINSTEIN. if it’s about anything, is about our experience of space , or time in different times when we experience ourselves and time in a fresh way. Time in the moment stilled, or perhaps open to another space, and time, in this present time. And I think if EINSTEIN questions anything, it’s this. Forget the critics saying EINSTEIN’s the new Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. It ain’t . It’s just “very fresh and clean. ” An eternal Gertrude Steinian “continuous present” in which nothing external obtrudes.
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Meeting someone out of cyberspace can be fun. And so it was after a flurry of e- mails that San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet double bassist and composer Shinji Eshima and I met on a brisk April Sunday just before his 2 pm curtain for its Balanchine Masterworks Program, to talk about his SFB commission RAkU which the company tours to Hamburg, 26-27 June, and to London’s Sadler’s Wells on 19, 20, 23 September, and to DC’s Kennedy Center 13-18 December.
Eshima is immediately cordial–“you’re on time”–and leads us through the underground maze of The War Memorial Opera House until we arrive backstage where several dancers are warming up, and sees principal Damian Smith–“you’re looking good “–who isn’t. And then we decamp to the lounge to talk about his Japan-set score for Yuri Possokhov’s RAkU, which the company debuted in February ’11 to immediate acclaim, and which I caught–the audience was spellbound–when it was revived this winter. The composer, who’s dressed in a black suit and snappy tie, speaks in a quiet, even tone about his work on RAkU.
“It’s based on the story of the monk who burned down The Temple of The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto which is the most famous temple in Japan,” says Eshima, who is quick to point out his Buddhist background. “My grandmother was the first ordained woman minister in America and my family was very involved in the Buddhist temple in Berkeley.” The Buddhist concept of attachment, or in Eshima’s case the burning obsession of desire, drives his score, while the San Francisco Zen Center monks in the pit chant “We’re here to listen to your suffering ” to the same 3-note cell–Eshima translates it as ” I love here”–which expresses the desire of the monk–Pascal Molat–for the princess–Yuan Yuan Tan–who’s in love with the samurai prince– Daniel Deivson. Eshima and I wonder if it’s possible to break free of desire and hence suffering, but musical matters are more pressing, and the composer, as I’d requested via e-mail, brings the score.
“I wanted to use the harp here,” he says, pointing to the opening bars of the “Prelude,” where it functions as both rhythm and color before darker hues are added by double basses and English horn. The sound is bare and heartbreakingly direct–the ” I love her” cell–and any composer who goes out this far at the very beginning risks not being able to keep his audience with him for the duration. But Eshima’s instincts are right on the money, and honed no doubt by his long service in the opera pit where he’s absorbed how masters like Verdi do it. And Eshima’s sense of musical space is impeccable.
“You want to give space to the performers”, he says, meaning, of course, the musicians, but any music theatre work has to factor in the performer on stage and off, and Eshima’s “Warrior” honors both with its dense bacchanal like dance in 7/8, with dramatically percussive writing not just for percussion–conch shell, non-pitched drums, timpani, bass drum, wood block, marimba, harp, piano– but also in the winds–flutes, clarinets, and brass–bass trombones. And Eshima keeps its steady met–135 pulse interesting by spelling a 14 beat count as 4+4+4+2, and 2+2+2+2+2+2+2. Eshima’s intimate use of space is equally striking in “Kimono,”with iys oboe arabesque over a string drone which suggests the piercing mixed winds in gagaku–Japanese court music–as Yuan Yuan Tan’s kimono, in a true coup de theatre, slips off her and disappears above the stage.
Eshima leads us back to the musician’s locker room to his locker plastered with photos, and takes out his Charles Plumerel 1843 double bass which figures famously in Degas’ painting The Orchestra of the Opera. He runs his finger reverently over its pen under enamel inscription, And then he plays the opening and reiterated for four minutes Eb with which Wagner began his Rheingold prelude, and the connections between his RAkU “Prelude” and Wagner’s, are obvious. We are going into another world, and this is the key to the door.
Life is competitive and composers are as competitive as anyone else–sometimes even more so. This thought came forcibly to mind when I heard two of the three composers–Stefan Cwik and Neil Rolnick (the third, Philip Glass, wasn’t even mentioned)–discussing their pieces with New Music Ensemble artistic director and conductor Nicole Paiment minutes before she and her musicians played three of their pieces as the concluding event of the BluePrint Transcending Senses Series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. When it comes to cattiness, composers often make the Beverly Hills Housewives look like fluffy little kittens.
Which is not to say that the music that followed didn’t have its charms. The opener Eight Miniatures for Chamber Ensemble (Hommage a Stravinsky) by Stefan Cwik (1987- ) was one of the winning works in the 2010 Bassoon Chamber Music Composition Competition, performed here by bassoonist Paula Brusky–who served as a midwife in its realization–Michael Williams, flute, Stephanie Bibbo, violin, and the always super Keisuke Nakagoshi, made a strong case for Cwik’s collage of Stravinsky pieces. These included bits from L’ Histoire du Soldat (1918), with Bibbo’s lean, mean, superbly dry fiddling — the Suite Italienne (from Pulcinella) (1932 ), with a kind of running commentary of stamping chords from Le Sacre (1911-13) beneath. The quartet’s playing of Cwik’s “appropriations ” from Stravinsky were elegant, witty, even touching. Stravinsky used to say that life, meaning manners, is artificial , and of course was famous for writing pieces from behind the mask of his own persona. What that means is anyone’s guess, though Cwik’s pieces, judged from a cursory look at his site, seems to look–and sound better–when he hides.
Neil Rolnick (1947 – ) came off as charming and extroverted while Cwik seemed academic and reserved–he wore a black suit while Rolnick wore a “work shirt” and blue jeans. His equally arming and transparently scored Ansomia for full forces was a big–over 30 minutes–well-constructed and well-performed piece which exploits the “congnitive dissonances” between the senses–in this case smell–to witty, though far from profound effects. Oliver Sacks and Michael Nyman have, of course, made mini-careers from their supposedly deep– i.e easily marketable “findings”–from the disjunction between “seen,” “remembered”, and “heard.” Rolnick’s effort was amiable–he manned his MAC stage right which interacted with the orchestra, orchestral soloists, and singers–Maya Kherani, soprano, Carrie Zhang, alto, and Daniel Cilli–baritone–in real time–though a planned 160 minute version with orchestra, singers, plus projections, sounds like a long, and not necessarily more enlightening adventure.
The New Music Ensemble’s reading of Glass’ Concerto for Harpsichord (2002) should have been the highlight of the program, but harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis’s reading lacked spirit and it didn’t help that Paiment’s obviously under-rehearsed band was clumped from middle to stage right. The first 2 of the piece’s 3 movements are in a reflective but never static–E minor, and C minor and its G major final movement should go off like a Mannheim Rocket and bring down the house. But Paiment’s ministrations failed to differentiate and bring out Glass’ charming , gracious and imaginative humors–he knows his Baroque from the outside in. The ensemble’s timid “projection,” if that’s the word–made Glass’ changes sound arbitrary, so that his quotes from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Arjanjuez and Bach’s D minor Fantasia–a steal from Muslim Spain–went up in smoke. It doesn’t matter whether Glass’ concerto is a “worthy successor” to the De Falla or Poulenc, or a competitor to the Gorecki, or Nyman. But you don’t treat the work of any composer, and especially one of Glass’ importance, like a side dish.
People love tragedy, at least, in the literary sense, and Mozart and Schubert’s early deaths were certainly tragic. The death of the talented gay and black composer Julius Eastman (1940-1990) has many of the same elements of classic tragedy. With Eastman, who was also apparently self destructive in both his professional and private life, those elements included crack addiction homelessness, and dying alone in a Buffalo New York hospital of cardiac arrest. It is certainly a juicy story. But none of this would matter if his work didn’t speak to people, and Eastman’s music, which was performed by Italian composer and pianist Luciano Chessa, Sarah Cahill and four other pianists, and two singers recently at the Berkeley Art Musician, spoke loud and clear.
Eastman’s case was certainly aided and abetted by the unique acoustics of Mario Ciampi’s concrete Art Brut structure which served Steve Reich and Musicians equally well when they performed and recorded his Four Organs and Phase Patterns there in 1970 for a long defunct Shandar LP. Eastman’s focus on the materiality of sound itself seemed to be both text and subtext of his music here. Two a capella pieces exploited this materiality in its most basic form. “Our Father” (1989), sung by tenor Kevin Baum and bass Richard Mix was a powerful evocation of the contrast between the eternal present–the open fifths they landed on–and the fleeting present of its shifting chromatic writing. The solo “Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc ” (c. 1981) (the succeeding “Holy Presence,” for ten cellos, is on www.youtube.com paired with Dreyer’s silent masterpiece) sounded like a starkly reiterative “De Profundis” with shades of the Stein/Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1927-1934) in some of its intervals, mood, and text –“St Margaret … ” and Mix’s voice was so powerful that it seemed to be coming out of the floor, and not just because I was seated two yards away.
The two large scale pieces for six pianos which rounded out the program were equally powerful, though their political agendas were hard to discern. All music lives or dies according to its sound, and Evil Nigger and Gay Guerilla (both 1979) were stunningly communicative without clearly discernible agendas, and they were subtle, vigorous, and highly imaginative throughout. The piano band–which also included Regina Schaffer, Chris Brown, Joseph M. Colombo, and Dominique Leone–were also kept in time by the cells on their arranged-in-a-closed circle Yamaha uprights which gave them parameters–say “1:10- 1: 30 seconds “–and the performative aspect of “new” or any other kind of music is what draws people in. The beating patterns here were regular and non-regular; the timbres opposed, unified, diffused, dissolved. Time present, time elastic moving in and out of focus–prominence–in time. And it was a pleasure to see Leone’s reiterated G naturals up close, and Chessa having lots of fun with his part. The music steady, ritualistic–the returning seven note cadence figure in Evil Nigger–fresh, and always surprising .
And the sound? The pianos, separately miked from the back brought one this side of heaven.
As many of you know, the composer Mary Jane Leach has been instrumental in getting Eastman work into the public eye.
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We in the West like to think that music is a series of narrative events about me. How did I, the composer or performer, feel today? Was I happy or sad? It’s more or less high drama all the time and the romantic tradition is, of course, all about the individual. In the East things are different. Or are they? These ideas came to mind when I caught the the Silk Road Ensemble Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor and his drummer Behrouz Jamali, on tombak, performing a demanding 88 minute intermission-less program of Persian classical music, which the California Institute of Integral Studies presented on a crisp February evening at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. Philip Glass performed a similar marathon feat when he gave a 70 minute interval-free recital of his piano pieces at the city’s Novellus Theatre last year.
In both cases the music was clearly about time and its uses. Persian music operates as a very specific and highly balanced calibration of time as a fleeting yet permanent force. The closest thing in our tradition is the Baroque which demands an acute sensitivity to touch and line from the performer. How one realizes the unfolding melodic gestures in Persian modes–one, as in raga, is explored up close–separates the men from the boys. Kalhor, who’s been performing his country’s music since age 7, clearly knows his way around this block. His smooth and sustained bowing exploited the music’s quarter tone resonances–each mode contains 24 tones–and suggested a viola da gamba at times, with harp-like and reedy effects which he played as ornaments near his instrument’s double pegged top. Slow passages alternated with infrequent vigorous ones, though Jamali, who spent most of the time on the rug-draped space they shared like an enthralled devotee, supplied no gravitas and precious little rhythmic charge. Contemplative music from the West or East can pull the audience in, as did Jordi Savall and late great singer Montserrat Figueras and artists from both traditions as they did in their astonishing concert DVD/CD Jerusalem–City of Two Peaces, recorded in Fes Morocco. Drama–meaning something that excites the nerves and awakens the heart–should not be relegated to the legit stage.
The program’s ostensible subtext was the great Sufi poet Rumi whose poems chart the soul’s separation from and desire to connect with human love in order to reach the all-encompassing divine. The audience here responded warmly though not with the same ardor with which they embraced the great Iraqi oud player and composer Rahim Al Haj at a previous CIIS concert. And audience response is always the litmus lest. As my late composer friend Virgil Thomson quipped when someone asked him what the best criticism is: “Loud and continued applause.” Music should take us to heaven, and if we don’t feel it fully we’re just on a smaller, less exalted cloud.
Nothing stays the same for very long these days, especially in NY. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when Brooklyn Rider’s first violinist Johnny Gandelsman and I meet at 11th and University Place–once Dean and De Luca, but now Argo Tea Cafe. Gandelsman approaches and we slip into the cool of the cafe on a warm afterrnoon two days after the 10th aniversary of 9/11. He suggests Armenian tea, which chimes perfectly with the quartet’s repertoire — they’ve recorded Komitas Vardapet’s Armenian Folk Songs on their Passport CD on their In A Circle Records label — plus they’re all members of the Silk Road Ensemble which focuses on the cultures linked by the Silk Trade Route, which included Armenia. Brooklyn Rider’s about that same kind of inclusiveness, and it’s no accident that we meet at the Argo. For wasn’t that the name of the ship which took Jason and his men across uncharted seas to get the Golden Fleece?
Brooklyn Rider may not be after physical treasure but their wide repertoire clearly shows their love for music old and new. Gandelsman, 34, serves as the spokesman for the quartet because second violinist Colin Jacobsen, 33, and his cellist brother, Eric, 29, and violist Nicholas Cords, 37, can’t make it .
“The availability of all types of music is not just a generational thing because anyone with an interest can access the internet which brings the world closer together, and it makes you realize that differences are not as big as they seem.”
Gandelsman, who speaks in a firm, but moderate tempo, with faint traces of his Russian and Israeli roots (he emigrated to the US as a child) sees other commonalities. He calls the Persian Kayhan Kalhor, who’s also in Silk Road, ” a master of his insrument,” the kamancheh ( itals ) fiddle, and thinks that Brooklyn Rider’s unique, nearly vibratoless sound is, in a way linked to “ethnic” traditions like Kalhor’s.
“We definitely go for a more immdediate sound, and our approach to sound in general is that we try to sound like one person. We stack things verticallly.”
And this of course lets each voice emerge with maximum clarity, as parts of a unified whole. But are their musical interests the same?
“We share the same aesthetic and all of us have known each other for a long time –we’ve been playing together for over ten years, and with the quartet for about six years,” he says. But that aesthetic and love isn’t limited to the masterworks of the quartet literature, but to historically informed performances in the field of “period music”, which he says has “flourished in the last couple of decades,” which includes the Catalan Jordi Savall, the Dutchman Aner Bylsma, and the Italian ensemble Il Giardino Armonico.
Gandelsman is also eager to talk about their new 2 CD Orange Mountain Music set, Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass.
“What’s interesting is when we tour people love hearing Philip’s music– they’re not fools,” he says about the popular and (itals ) ever controversial composer whose work is often embraced by young performers who confront its challenges head on. ” It’s so emotional. We wanted people to get the immediacy of the little patterns which put you into a certain hypnotic state, like seeing a Persian painting up close.”
He’s especially keen on Quartet # 4 (Buczack ), which Glass wrote for his artist friend Brian Buczack (1954-1987), who died of AIDS — his fellow in Fluxus partner Geoffrey Hendricks commissioned it from Kronos who premiered it at NY’s Emily Harvey Gallery on the second anniversary of the artist’s death – the July 4, 1989. The violinist calls the second slow movement — there are three — ” a standalone piece, ” and its floating interweaving gestures, and subtle ultra precise voice leading are high water marks in Glass’ writing for strings. Gandelsman says Brooklyn Rider has concentrated on “color and texture” here, and that it’s as “profound as most Messaien ,and as spiritual as Bach.”
And their recording brings out the dance-like partnering and shadowing in Movement 1 in ways I hadn’t heard before in Kronos’ Nonesuch CD of # 2- #5. The young Brit quartet Carducci, on Naxos, which I haven’t heard, covers # 1– #4, while the also Brit Duke, on Collins, which I have, covers only # 1 — a bit like Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, with its tenuous but equally beautiful repetitive gestures.
Any piece worth its salt should be able to take many different interpretations , and Gandelsman feels that Debussy’s only quartet — the justly famous and seminal 1903 g minor — is reflected in the Glass 4th. And Brooklyn Rider’s interpretation of the Debussy, which he says they’ve played a lot, brings out its headlong drive and murmuring intensity in ways that few others have — my Alban Quartet version is wonderfully yet predictably strict Viennese. My late friend Virgil Thomson’s quip that “the dead do not rest easy in Vienna” comes to mind. Colin Jacobsen’s hommage/take on the g minor –“Achille’s Heel” – a nod to Debussy’s middle name — with its exquisite trouvere-like opening melody, pungent inner voices, and focus on many different kinds of color and texture, is a fine “post modern” reflection on the great French master’s concerns in his quartet.
And speaking of any piece worth its salt, Brooklyn Rider will be performing one of the absolute summits of the quartet literature — Beethoven’s Op. 131 in C, on their October 31 Halloween concert at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. Gandeslman, who’s from the been there done that whatever generation, is quick to praise the virtues of the hardly on everyone’s lips now French quartet, the Capet, who played, and recorded, in various configurations, but always with founder, first violinist Lucen Capet, from the 1890’s to their 1928 disbanding.
“Some people would listen to a recording of them , and find it foreign and inappropriate,” Gandelsman says. But, he adds, what attracts him and Brooklyn Rider to the Capet’s sound is “the clarity of its style of playing, and their unique interpretation, and conviction.”
Which of course says a lot about this unique and utterly distinctive young group, which isn’t afraid of going its own way while still being mindful of the master quartets that have put their utterly unique stamps on what they knew and felt in their time.
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We like to think that concert music is something other than sound we hear with others in a room. Of course it is, but music is a physical fact we encounter first hand and try to wrap our minds around later. The large and attentive audience at Philip Glass’ San Francisco Performance’s program of his solo piano works seemed to know the difference when they gave him a warm welcome even before he’d played a note at his from-memory 8o-minute intermission-less recital at YBCA’s Novellus Theater. Real affection like that for a composer, especially a controversial and popular one like Glass, is rare, and that’s just for starters.
Glass has never been a virtuoso pianist–he once quipped that he writes the hard keyboard parts for his ensemble’s music director Michael Riesman–but he’s a thoroughly engaging and utterly sincere one. He began with 6 Etudes – # 1, # 2, # 3, # 6 , # 9, #10–from his first book of 10 (1994-99), which are deeply personal, listener friendly yet demanding for the player who has to keep a steady pulse while executing often rapid and shifting figures in sometimes irregular metres. His approach here was miles away from his 2002 recording of the set for Orange Mountain Music on a Baldwin grand. Here, he played on a Hamburg Steinway Model D, with its typically brilliant, hard Germanic sound. Glass has composed a lot since that CD, and the differences in how he hears now were everywhere apparent. # 1, with its fanfare-like opening which reappears in different contexts, sounded more dramatic, but not as smooth, the driving figures of unequal lengths in # 3, looser, almost improvisatory. But the real news was how the composer’s sudden attacks and releases, and frequent yet tasteful rubato– ritenuti and diminuendi–made these pieces in the moment fresh. And his pedalling exploited the massing overtones in a logical but non-systematic way, each sound adding sound to sound like rising floors in a house with interconnecting rooms. The repeated pull backs in tempo in # 9 like emotion refracted; the low hammered figures in # 10 like the insistent drone of an Indian harmonium, the ascending melismatic one an integral decoration in a complete structure. Glass’ Etudes extend the classical tradition of Chopin and Debussy’s 2- book sets in an entirely individual way, though unlike Debussy he gives no clues to what they’re about.
The other pieces here were just as unique. The 1980 series of alternately lyric–static and active–dramatic variations, Third Series Part IV, which Lucinda Childs renamed and choreographed as Mad Rush–its opening figuration suggests Schubert’s song “ Du bist die Ruh “–were less exploratory than the Etudes, but very affecting, especially in the soft slow parts. It’s as much of a standalone piece as Glass’ 1989 Metamorphosis #1-# 5 series which he made from 2 separate scores– 1 for for Errol Morris’ doc The Thin Blue Line, and one for 2 concurrent Dutch and Brazilian theatre versions by different directors of Kafka’s story Metamorphosis ( Die Verwandlung ). We heard #2–#4 –which picture its “hero “ Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning to find himself turned into a giant insect. Its fragile bell-like themes and suspended harmonies, which Glass played with great sensitivity, are a perfect transformation of Samsa’s spiritual state into sound.
Dreaming Awake (2006), which Glass wrote and recorded as a limited edition benefit for his Tibetan teacher Gelek Rinpoche’s Ann Arbor, Michigan retreat center Jewel Heart, is a logical yet rapidly changing lyric piece whose warm fluid harmonies draw on the discoveries the composer made in his BAFTA-winning score for Stephen Daldry’s 2002 film The Hours, which suggest the here and gone feeling of the heart’s many facets with consummate grace.
Stage / film / dance timings are ultra precise and Glass’ playing of his accompaniment to Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” which formed a part of their music theatre piece made from Gins poems Hydrogen Jukebox (1989), with his late friend Ginsberg reading it on tape, and Glass’ timings and reading was both precise and enormously affecting. And Glass charmingly offered 2 perfectly played encores–“Night on the Balcony” from his co-written with Gambian kora composer-player Foday Musa Suso score for JoAnne Akalaitis’ 1989 production of Genet’s play The Screens, and “Closing” from his deservedly popular 1983 CBS records debut Glassworks.
A packed house at YBCA’s Novellus heard a revival that same evening of Glass’ score for his 1979 collaboration with choreographer Lucinda Childs and late artist Sol Le Witt, Dance–he provided the film– which her newly formed company performed to a Philip Glass Ensemble recording of the 5 -part piece, though only Dance I and III – in different keys and combinations for solo voice, winds, keyboards, I bright with flutes and piccolo, III darker with saxes playing chords – and Dance V–for organ , mistitled here as Dance II , were done here. I’ve had Glass’ original Tomato Records LP of Dance I and III, and the full 2-CD 5-part set of Dance for years. And so it was a very great pleasure to see the general dances of I and III bracketing the solo of Caitlin Scranton in Dance II ( IV ) with Childs’ magisterial performance projected on a scrim over hers. The dancers rapid from the flies quick moments found and lost . Just like life.
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Life is about conflict, and so is opera. And what could be a more dramatic subject than the French Revolution when keeping your head wasn’t an abstract issue, but a life and death one. Francis Poulenc‘s 3-act grand opera Dialogues des Carmelites (1953-56) was acclaimed as a masterpiece at its 1957 La Scala premiere, and it’s easy to see why. It gets at the heart and soul of its subject through the person of a high strung girl from a rich family, Blanche de la Force, who decides to become a Carmelite nun to escape life, and her internal revolution – or enlightenment–from not knowing who she is or what she wants, to full knowledge and decisive action–is a perfect match for the external one. The inevitable is set in motion.
Why inevitable? Because from the first note to the last the forces of history drive the piece forward and, in Poulenc’s very Catholic view, God has preordained the outcome. None of this would matter if the music failed to make Georges Bernanos’ fine book and its characters come alive, and come alive they do, in an extremely varied yet conversational style not unlike that of the Debussy of Pelleas (1893-95, 1901-02). Dialogues is also the biggest installment in Poulenc’s series of sacred works, from the chorus only Litanies a La Vierge Noire (1936), to the chorus with large orchestra Stabat Mater (1950), and Gloria (1959), which an expert cast delivered here with power and point.
The role of Blanche, whose mood swings are all over the place–one moment she’s impulsive, the next calm, scared to death, childlike, sincere–can’t be easy, but soprano Sarah Meltzer, in one of several roles not doubled here, made these aspects fuse, her delivery solid, varied, her technique secure. The role of her best friend Sister Constance who’s cheerful, but not shallow, was superbly sung by light soprano/ soubrette Elise Kennedy, her clear as a bell tone, diminutive stature and strong stage presence a welcome contrast to Meltzer’s, and the rest of the cast in this great but largely dark piece. Read the rest of this entry »
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Music is as much of a time art as reading or looking at pictures because its subject, as John Ashbery once said about poetry, is always somehow about time. And composers, like writers, whether consciously or not, are always playing a game with time. A long piece can sound short, and a short one, long. Time can seem heavy, as in Dostoevksy, or Wagner, or light as in Proust, or Earle Brown. The four pieces on sfsound‘s most recent concert at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s elegant hall managed to be about all these things at once.
Anton Webern‘s pointillistic approach has often been remarked on, but this performance of his Quartet Op. 22 (1930) revealed other things besides his ultra precise and often very soft sound gestures. It’s characteristically brief, and clocked in at 8 minutes here (“the sweet succinct,” as Frank O’Hara once wrote–but also surprising, with scattered long tones in clarinet (Matt Ingalls) and tenor sax (John Ingle), and witty, almost whimsical. Hardly what you’d expect from the earnest, heavy breathing New Vienna School. Time seemed magnified, collapsed, the sound picture ably completed by violinist Graeme Jennings and pianist Christopher Jones.
Would that Jones’ Liquid Refrains (2011), commissioned by sfSound and the Koussevitzky Foundation, had the take it or leave it sense of style of the Webern. But the piece, conducted by the composer and performed by 12 members of sfSound said a lot less in its 13 minutes than the Webern. You always hope to hear a personal voice in painted, written, or musical art but you didn’t get much of one here, especially in the first part’s busy for no apparent reason, standard-issue modernist gestures. The second part, with its transparent writing and brief clockwork episodes–time standing still or at least examined up close–seemed to sketch a semblance of who this composer might actually be.
Improvisations usually have a way of speeding up our sense of time, and those by clarinetist Matt Ingalls, saxophonist John Ingle, and percussionist Kjell Nordeson sounded fresh and spontaneous, with Nordeson’s drum kit and assorted percussion making a joyful noise and providing lots of rhythmic and timbral interest.
Morton Feldman was famous – some would say infamous – for pieces of very long duration. His six hour String Quartet # 2 (1982), and For John Cage (1982), (which lasted 78 minutes when Jennings and Jones played it in San Francisco in ’08), atomize our perception of time, as does Clarinet and String Quartet (1983), which sfSound played for 45 minutes here. It certainly toyed with our expectations of what music should be, and bore not the slightest resemblance to the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets, which are from a tradition that Feldman was apparently hostile to, though his devotion to the passing moment makes him a kind of romantic, pursuing memory on his own very individual terms. Wisps–his term–of melody, through cells and figures varied and combined–is a more accurate description, with texture, and color always getting the upper hand. But does this make it unaccountably deep? Well yes–and no. I nodded off and on–the lack of rhythmic energy–is it going anywhere interesting –was both calming and aggravating. “Erased De Kooning”– well, not exactly, but perhaps this piece is a song that we can just barely hear, much less remember, which Matt Ingalls, clarinet, Jennings and Erik Ulman, violin, Ellen Ruth Rose, viola, and Monica Scott, cello, made present, but not quite near, with some wonderful invocations–the string harmonics from Lalo Schifrin’s 1979 score for The Amityville Horror near the beginning–adding a much needed theatrical juice.
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