It’s never good to live in the past, but sometimes we have to, even though as our latest catch phrase would have it “it is what it is.” These are some of the thoughts which came to mind when I caught the last performance of San Francisco Opera’s revival of its 2010 production of Leos Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case ” (1923-26) which received its American premiere at this house in 1966. German soprano Nadja Michael, who as the over three-hundred-year-old opera diva Emilia Marty has traveled with more aliases than you could count on several hands, was its star. But the problem here wasn’t that Michael dominated the stage as every diva should do, but that her lovers, especially her principal one Baron Jarosalv Prus (baritone Stephen Powell) hadn’t the looks much less the presence of Tom Fox, who sang Prus in the 1990 SFO Lofti Mansouri / Elisabeth Soederstrom directed production I saw with Stephanie Sundine as Marty, who owned the stage just by walking across it. And that’s a major flaw because this opera if it’s about anything — and it isn’t about much — is about sex and how its myriad illusions about “love” have driven its “heroine ” and us through her multiple couplings. But come to think of it this might be THE perfect piece of music theatre for our tired but true 2016 US (s) election cycle.
Janacek (1854-1926) may have been a great Czech composer, but his book for The Makropulos Case (which is based on his fellow Czech Carel Capek’s play which he saw at its 1922 Prague premiere) is problematic, and even Capek doubted — and he told Janacek this — that it could be made into an opera. Its flaws are there from the get go. Act 1 scene 1, which is set in the law office of Dr. Koletany ( bass-baritone Dale Travis) goes on far too long. Janacek should have established his points quickly, and should have made this scene and many others a play within music instead of a play with music, and the only really theatrical juice it gets is when Ms. Michael enters and in 2016 fashion drapes her everything in sight over the office furniture, and with that decision almost every possible ambiguity, forget subtext, goes out the window. It’s the madonna/whore complex all over again, but this time we just get the whore, which is, if not an outright insult to Janacek and his source material, but a cheapening of his obviously earnest efforts to breathe life into it. Carmen may have been a girl who can’t help it, but at least Bizet supplied seductive and yes, entertaining music for her and her suitors, and Berg, while not writing exactly entertaining music for his doomed heroine Lulu in his eponymous opera, did at least give her the benefit of the doubt.
Olivier Tambosi’s staging with production designer Schollsmann’s mostly black and white look, save the completely literal bookcases-to-the-ceiling set for the law office, added very little. Ms. Michael’s transcendence/apotheosis in the very last scene didn’t work either, because neither book, music or direction, as played here, made her vulnerable for more than, say, twenty seconds. Marty may have made lots of mistakes in her three century plus life, but she must have had a few moments of real reflection or regret — don’t we all ? — and she did have some here, but these alas came and went all too quickly. She was after all “human all too human” in Nietzsche’s pregnant phrase, and if that doesn’t come across the boards we get next to nothing. Russian conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov, who made his house debut here, kept everything in sync with his precise no-nonsense stick technique, and the SFO orchestra responded with clear, vivid and vibrant playing throughout.
Leos Janacek The Makropulos Case ( Vec Makropulos )
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco California
29 October 2016
Nadja Michael; Joel Sorensen; Charles Workman; Julie Adams; Dale Travis; Stephen Powell, and supporting cast
Director: Olivier Tambosi
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson
Conductor: Mikhail Tatarnikov
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It used to be that you could pick up the phone and call someone, and they would answer. And so it was perhaps a decade ago that I called Gunther Schuller’s Manhattan publicist John Gingrich innumerable times to see if Schuller was available for a date with the San Francisco branch of The Duke Ellington Society, which I headed at that time. John was forever patient–he told me he’d noted all the times I’d called– as he went over Gunther’s schedule to see when he’d be free, and after many calls we arrived at a date when Gunther could talk to our little band of Ellingtonians.
A date was set, a room rented, and an upright piano arrived, tuned, for, if memory serves, a Friday evening appearance by Gunther at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. And he arrived, enormously tall and utterly charming. He told us things about Ellington. How this fiercely private man wept when he said that “they”– the whites and the musical establishment– wouldn’t let him compose and premiere his opera Boo- La, which eventually became his Black Brown and Beige , which caused such a stir and negative slurs when it premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall., though of course now it’s a classic.
Gunther held the audience in the palm of his hand, and the only thing he did with our rented upright was play an augmented fifth as his hair went dramatically up.
My friend Peter Bodge and I drove Gunther to his favorite San Francisco restaurant Fleurs de Lys where Gunther’s very presence seemed to produce the most delicate desserts out of thin air almost.
” San Francisco is the only place I know where you have to go up one street to come back the same way.”
Which may have been metaphoric–probably yes– but here we are, and Gunther’s gone.
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We like to think that chamber music is an acquired taste but what is chamber music but music played in a room by a few people for a few people or for thousands? So it’s not just the Mexico- founded Cuarteto Latinoamerico, or the American Patricia Barber and her band, or the American quartet Brooklyn Rider, and the Australian Dead Can Dance, or the late lamented Beatles, because all of these groups are playing chamber music. Syrian clarinetist-composer Kinan Azmeh was the headliner on the last installment of Lenore Davis’ St Urban’s poets cum musicians series at Subculture’s handsome downstairs room on Bleecker in New York’s West Village. And the music, by four completely different composers from two different continents, seemed to address the hidden source of sound. We like to think we’re in the light but we’re mostly in the dark, even underground.
Program director/ pianist Lenore Davis noted in her opening remarks that Robert Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style for Cello and Piano, Op.102 wasn’t the usual German romantic Sturm und Drang, but something fun. And what emerged was a charming, entertaining, and very solid performance by Davis and cellist Nicholas Canellakis of a minor piece by a major composer, though I kept thinking — did Brahms steal from Schumann, and was that why Schumann walked into the Rhine or was it all the sour and inveterate Clara Schumann’s doing? My late composer friend Virgil Thomson used to say that “the dead do not rest easy in Vienna” but could that also include northern Germany?
Aram Khachaturian’s three – movement 1932 Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano didn’t add up to much either, though it was vividly played by Azmeh, violinist Yevgeny Kutik, and Davis. But the real star of the piece was Kutik with his strenuous but effortlessly dispatched virtuoso fiddling, with Azmeh providing careful but decidedly in the background wind support.
Things improved immeasurably with three songs from Arabic Lieder by the renowned Syrian composer-pianist Gaswan Zerikly ( b.1954 — ) whom I had never heard of, but Azmeh’s soprano Dima Orsho, with whom he has worked for fifteen years in their chamber group Hewar (Arabic for “dialogue “) sang Zerliky’s settings of one poem by Abu Khalil al-Qabbani, Badr Shakir al -Sayyab, and the late great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Zerikly is Europeanized but clearly his own man, and his rapprochement with the Western art song tradition proved that there was new wine in those old European bottles. Still, do we have to model our art on “the Old World ” to feel validated? But Zerikly bridged the European – non-Western “divide” with musical settings which respected and enlarged both supposedly opposed traditions. Formal metrical demands were happily married with melodic gestures inherently ‘”non-Western” but obviously shared with “ours” because the audience was clearly moved despite the fact that Orsho sang everything in Arabic, with great expressivity and consummate taste. Sound is emotion and emotion sound, and this superlative singer heightened the attention level in the room to an extraordinary degree.
Azmeh’s Songs for Days to Come (2015), which St Urban commissioned, and which received its world premiere here, was the centerpiece of the concert, and though it came last, one could hardly imagine a more beautiful or moving end to a program. The piece, for the same players — Orsho, Azmeh, Canellakis, and Davis — showcased Azmeh’s extraordinary skill at embedding words in music so that the words seemed to come out of the instrumental music and vice versa. It was Azmeh’s first try at making songs from words, all of his other “settings” for Orsho being deeply emotive yet “only” vocalese, Yet the five songs, all in classical Arabic, but the last, which Azmeh chose from five Syrian poets, including his uncle Hazem al-Azmeh, were, he notes. intended to “reflect and document the contrasting feelings a Syrian might have experienced in the last four years ” before many countries and their proxy mercenaries colluded and launched a war to erase his people from their land and their history. Azmeh’s settings are direct but very evocative, and his clarinet sound seemed to emerge from “almost ” silence, and end in “almost” silence, like but not quite like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (1907-09 ) which links a Western European with a non- Western Chinese. And he preceded his settings with recordings of all five poets reading their words, beautifully, as stand alone things.The other participants in this very touching piece gave it their all, and the audience responded with steady and more than welcoming applause.
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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 2pm 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–19,20,23 Sept–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 2011 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,” and Eshima 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, and 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 Iwonder 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, timpan , 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 is oboe arabesque over a string drone which suggests the piercing mixed winds in gagaku ( itals )–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, are obvious. We are going into another world, and this is the key to the door.
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The gulf between pop music and “serious” or “new music” can be a big one, and the first concert of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players 2014-15 season TenFourteen set this in high relief. Put another way, the pleasure principle tends to be the guiding light in pop music which isn’t always the case with new music which often tries to be dark or “profound”, or as my late friend Virgil Thomson once observed ” composers look at the history of music as leading up to them,” so it may as well be “heavy.”
George Crumb is an obviously gifted and highly regarded composer whose place in music history seems secure today, and his SFCMP’s commissions “Yesteryear “( 2013 ) and “The Yellow Moon of Andalusia ” (2012) were strong entries in his catalogue. The first was compact and mysterious with sudden eruptions of violence from extra busy percussionists William Winant and Nick Woodbury, and impressive contributions from Kate Campbell on amplified piano, and soprano Tony Arnold whose vocal text was a singularly dull fragmentation of Francois Villon’s eponymous poem. The second, which continued Crumb’s vocal/ instrumental settings of the poems of Garcia Lorca, which began with his landmark 1970 “Ancient Voices of Children” had a wonderful, timeless sense of space, and was beautifully realized by Arnold and Campbell, though his 1962 “Five Pieces for Piano ” came off as a stale and unmotivated codification of new techniques — playing within the piano — which were novel and exciting when Cage first used these gestures.The young Lebanese pianist-composer has absorbed this now common performance practice into his own work which is always vital because, though he’s very cerebral and knows the standard piano rep backwards and forwards, he doesn’t write “thinking” but emotional music.
And speaking of thinking Georges Aperghis’ solos “Recitation 9 ” and ” Recitation 10″ ( both 1977-78) , though perhaps trying hard to be a sort of emotional breakdown ala Artaud’s “La Peste”, which Nin recorded in her Diary, came off as “thought” music, despite the obvious complexity of the writing and Arnold’s spectacularly engaged performance. It was like Gertrude Stein without her wit and gift for multiple /ambiguous meanings.
Things didn’t get much better in Elena Ruehr’s SFCMP commission written for clarinet, violin, cello, harp, guitar, and percussion “it’s about time” (2014) which sounded superficially “pop”, meaning accessible, but didn’t add up to much despite the players’ obvious enthusiasm for its quasi classical-baroque sound and SFCMP’s Steven Schick’s alert conducting.
Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz’s 2014 SFCMP four-movement commission “Corporea” was dedicated to her country’s diplomat Gilberto Bosques Saldivar, who helped save thousands of Jews, exiles from Franco’s Spain, and those escaping the Third Reich, from certain death. It had a welcome but unforced gravitas and lightness and seemed to easily inhabit both the pop and new music worlds. Solidly grounded in colorful yet expressive popular gestures — think Revueltas, or Julian Orbon — yet classical-modernist in layout and content, with a very affecting yet contained third movement adagio. And the audience which was more or less forced to sit on their hands for most of the concert rose to their feet and gave it rapturous and much deserved applause.
You don’t have to wear a hair shirt to be “serious. ”
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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! “
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.
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.
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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.