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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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Musical programs come in all shapes and sizes, just like people. But getting a program to make sense is what separates the quick from the dead. The San Francisco-based new music chamber group sfSound usually puts on provocative programs, and their latest one, on Sept 19th at our town’s Community Music Center in the Mission, presented different kinds of musical energies, and made perfect sense.

It’s never wise to serve something heavy before the main course, and Swiss composer Beat Furrer’s 5 minute Ayer (1991), though not exactly lightweight, didn’t tax its audience unnecessarily. Sure, it was somewhat demanding–for the players–but also mercurial, with linear and disjunct material, plus a broad range of colors, which Matt Ingalls, clarinet, Christopher Jones, piano, and Monica Scott, cello, dispatched easily.  The succeeding 9 minute group improvisation by John Ingle, saxes,  Jones again on piano, and Kjelll Nordeson, percussion, was thicker in texture, but not especially memorable.

Hans Thomalla’s 14 minute Lied (2008), which the composer described in truly informative program note, made a far stronger impression. It didn’t sound particularly Germanic–meaning Angst-ridden or drily didactic–but was instead carefully balanced–the sections functioned like strophes in a song–and full of sonorous contrasts, especially in the tenor sax part–John Ingle again–which had a long slow sequence of closely related pitches. The piece wisely avoided closure–is anything ever really resolved?–which made it doubly poetic, with Ingle capably supported by Nordeson, vibraphone, and Jones, piano.

Matt Ingalls’ Improvisation for Solo Clarinet (2010) was both minimal–constructed from the most basic elements like scales and detached notes–and more complex musical ones like difference / combination tones, which thudded at unexpected intervals from the speakers on the stage floor.  And, like any good improv sounded both spur of the moment and composed, and Ingalls’ easy virtuosity held the audience spellbound for 17 uninterrupted minutes.

Philip Glass is famous–some would say notorious–for pieces of long duration, and his first opera with Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach (1975), which lasts over 5 hours,  is easily one of his most seminal works, and a landmark work in recent new music. And the entire ensemble here–with the addition of Stacey Pelinka, piccolo, Kyle Bruckmann, oboe, Matthew Goodheart, electric ogan, Hadley McCarroll, electric organ and voice–she served as Glass the conductor by nodding her head dramatically before the next complex figure–and Diana Pray voice, made Train 1, from Act 1, go by in a flash , even thought it lasted 25 minutes. Glass’ work requires perfect ensemble and the ability to play, evenly, at breakneck speeds –it begins at met. 92, and moves up to met.126. The carefully prepared modulations and textural changes were breathtaking, and joyful. And it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear the great composer working his magic, and the audience respond with way deserved cheers.

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“For me it’s very hard to see people who adore Mozart and then don’t appreciate what Keith Jarrett does. You know what I mean? For me music is really just music, and what separates? When you talk about Gershwin and Rhapsody in Blue where do you put that? Is it jazz or is it classical? But it really doesn’t matter this Third Stream or First Stream concept. Who cares if it’s Third Stream or First Stream? It really doesn’t matter as long as you go and enjoy the experience. “

Syrian clarinetist and New York-based composer Kinan Azmeh clearly has a mind of his own. And he’s off and running when we meet for mint tea at San Francisco’s Cafe Zitouna–we’re Nagib’s first guests–on a bright Sunday morning in July. He’s here for a concert of his latest album–his fifth–Complex Stories, Simple Sounds , with his Sri Lankan pianist friend Dinuk Wijeratne, who’s missed his flight from Nova Scotia, scant hours away from their date at The Legion of Honor’s Florence Gould Theatre. But Azmeh, who speaks rapidly in his distinctive mellifluous voice, is ready for anything, suggesting with a warm laugh, that he has enough pieces should he have to go it alone. But then he’s used to playing in different contexts and configurations. He’s in the Syrian jazz group Hewar (Dialogue); a chamber group in his hometown, Damascus; the Gilgamesh Project with Kevork Mourad’s done on the spot paintings; the NYC-based City Band, which is giving an NYC concert 1 September 1, and Neolexica, which he co-founded with Wijeratne when they were students at Juilliard. He has also played with many orchestras, including Daniel Barenboim’s Arab-Israeli West -Eastern Divan Orchestra, debuted a clarinet concerto written for him by his friend Zaid Jabri, with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, at the opening of the Damascus Opera House. Azmeh also writes film scores, like his incredibly moving one for Rigodon, and he plays the clarinet solos in his Boston-based friend Kareem Roustom’s score for Israeli Julia Bacha’s new set in the West Bank doc Budrus.

But is Azmeh’s openness to these varied musical experiences a generational thing? “You know I think what it is is–I’m talking about myself- is growing up in different places. But geography moves around you because San Francisco and New York are very open to lots of different cultures anyway, and I don’t think that one can be fascinated by one kind of music without appreciating other stuff. ”

And then we get into the subject of improvisation, which Azmeh’s very vocal about, though he approaches it somewhat circuitously. Read the rest of this entry »

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Putting a musical program together is always a challenge, but it’s one thing on paper, and another live, in front of people. The San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra’s Silence of the Wolves program, which it performed a couple of weeks ago at San Francisco’s Old First Church was a curious one. Was it about wolf tones, or the devil’s interval–the tritone –which has more or less been the foundation of modern music since Schoenberg and his school began to exploit it? Or was it about the West, and San Francisco’s being on the wild edge of the continent, which its music director and co-founder composer Mark Alburger implied in his opening remarks from the stage? It seemed to be vaguely and particularly about all these things, and its contents varied considerably in tone, content, and impact. But thankfully no one was thrown to the wolves.

Loren Jones’ Wolf Wood, which he described as ” a solo piano piece inspired by the music of Eastern Europe, ” sounded to these ears like one of Satie’s evocative miniatures, especially in its opening, which was followed by lush yet still transparent variations , which Jones, on piano, played movingly. John Beeman’s 2 movement  Fancy Free , with the composer on double bass, was carefully written and expressive; its most striking sound image being a sequence of unison rising fourths near the very end.

But what was one to make of Cindy Collins’ Kinesthesia which she described from the aisle — there were no program notes –as being about physical states of mind she’d felt? There’s nothing wrong with musical autobiography if the piece justifies it, but Collins ‘ didn’t seem to. We’ve all had vague or unfocused moments but these don’t necessarily make for an absorbing experience when made into music. Collins did however produce at least one arresting image — a viola/cello drone, played with great concentration by Nansamba Ssensalo and Areilla Hyman, which slowly changed pitch, and evoked an acute sense of disquiet. Davide Verotta’s  An Enticement of Silence, which began like an off pitch version of Ives’ 1906 The Unanswered Question, progressed into a series of reasonably varied harmonies and textures, but didn’t add up to much more than that. Our sense of our postmodern world as a chaotic place has produced some provocative music –John Zorn’s comes to mind–but Verotta unfortunately failed to make
anything as powerful, or succinct as his.

Lisa Scola Prosek’s Three Songs from her new opera Ten Days, Dieci Giorni, based on Bocaccio’s Decameron  was, as so often with this composer, full of surprises.  Transparently scored, clearly played, and vividly sung in English and Italian by soprano Shauna Fallihee, it said what it had to, then stopped . And the 16 person band — the largest complement of the evening — was obviously moved in several places. Conductor Martha Stoddard’s Cowgirl Rondo (with Stoddard sporting a Western handkerchief around her neck) for string quartet and double bass), was vigorous and fresh, though top honors in that department went to Darius Milhaud’s Chamber Symphonies #1 – # 3 ( 1917-22 ) whose polytonal moments barely disguised their very French folk-like structures.

The playing throughout –under Martha Stoddard and John Kendall Bailey–seemed both accurate and enthusiastic, though the more obviously complex pieces by Collins and Verotta suffered from Old First’s unforgiving acoustics — the walls are concrete, the outside brick. Maybe a an orchestra friendly adjustable partition behind the players would help?

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Music has always come from two basic sources, and served two quite different masters — thought and emotion. The Western tradition, especially in its modern and contemporary permutations, has given the upper hand to thought, as if it was superior to feeling, and therefore inescapably deep. Hence our worship of Bach’s “pure” architectural lines and use of forms, and Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School and their satellites’ obsession with 12-note sets, have driven the wedge between the two even deeper . And that’s why some composers have claimed that that their music is music better than it sounds because it exists as “pure” thought on paper.

But most of the music by the 10 Bay Area-based composers on sfSoundSeries “Small Packages ” at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s handsome and warm-sounding Recital Hall 23 January , which revolved around a rare performance of Ligeti‘s 1970 Chamber Concerto, seemed to focus on  feeling as not being divorced from thought, or vice versa. This wasn’t paper music. And one had the distinct sense, to paraphrase Dorothy, that we weren’t in Vienna any more.

Music always plays with time, and the 10 pieces here, which ranged from a little over 2 minutes to a whopping 6, teased one’s sense of duration as each filled its space with different kinds of weights, lines, and densities.  The physical character of sound , which is of course a central modernist concern, also varied widely from piece to piece. Tom Dambly‘s Chamber Concerto, op. 3 (second movement) for 8 players, including the composer on trumpet, even had 12-note stretches, as well as a delirious sense of shifting tonal anchors. Nick Bacchetti‘s String Trio, which obviously evokes Schoenberg’s late masterpiece in this form, was expertly delivered by Graeme Jennings, violin, Alexa Beattie, viola, Monica Scott, cello, and Christopher Jones, conductor. Canner MEFE‘s witty Pen and Pencil Drawer, played here by Kyle Bruckman, oboe, and Matt Ingalls, clarinet, with its rapid glissandi, sounded like a virtuosic series of hockets/canons both elegant and forceful.

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keplerPhilip Glass always does the unexpected. Or, as he said to me when we were talking on the phone about his subsequently Oscar-nominated score for Errol Morris’ 2003 The Fog of War, “I’m a bad person to interview because I never stay on the subject.”  Well, yes and no. Yes, because Glass’s  focus on the work in front of him is unflinching, and no, because his instincts always lead him to surprising solutions. His two-act 155 minute intermission-less new opera Kepler is yet another example of Glass’s wandering, yet disciplined, mind.  Premiered at the Linz Opera by  American conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his Bruckner Orchester Linz on September 20 2009 as part of that  city’s celebrations as this year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, Kepler made the trip to Brooklyn smoothly, carrying a bit of history.  Kepler lived in Linz,  Mozart’s Symphony #36  was dedicated to it, Bruckner was choir director there — and two of the Nazis’ death camps — Mauthausen and Gusen, whose specialty was getting rid of the intelligentsia, were scant kilometres from its city limits. But then darkness is rarely far from light.

And darkness, as distinct, or in contrast/opposition  to — light –is the motor that drives Glass’s Kepler, but not in a Manichean way.  Glass is far too subtle to put his cards on one table.  Instead, being a practical and practicing Buddhist, he seems to have chosen the unglamorous “Middle Way” which means seeing “things as they are” and in Kepler’s case this is war, strife, and people who dared question him. The mathematician-teacher-astronomer-astrologer and all-round provocateur, who lived from 1571 to 1630, seems to have been at the epicenter of cultural ferment, and of course, the first decade or so of  The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which began more or less as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants  and ended up devastating much of Europe, with a death toll as high as 11.5 million people.

Glass dramatizes these stresses  in a direct and indirect way. And Glass’s German and Latin libretto, assembled by Austrian artist Martina Winkel, from Kepler’s theoretical writings on the laws of planetary motion and other major discoveries, his enemies list, passages from the Lutheran Bible, and poems by Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), works both as reportage and evocation. The oratorio-like piece for the 79 member BOL was partially staged here with effective lighting and Karel van Laere’s costumes for its seven soloists — bass-baritone Martin Achrainer as Kepler is the only specified character with  Soprano 1 — Sadie Rosales who substituted for the indisposed Cassandra McConnell — Soprano 2 (Cheryl Lichter), Mezzo (Katherina Hebelkova), Tenor (Pedro Velazquez Diaz), Baritone (Seho Chang), and Bass (Florian Spiess) — who functioned as aspects of Kepler’s often beleaguered psyche. The 40 member Linz chorus moved incrementally through the work.

I’d have to agree with my “plus 1” friend that the first 20 or so minutes (after a wonderfully transparent orchestra only prologue with lovely chromatic figures for the strings) was pretty tough going. But things began to pick up when Kepler outlines his theories and his conflicts —  the notion that heaven’s not a place inhabited by “divine beings” but a “clockwork” – which, of course, suits Glass’s formal processes perfectly. The chorus, operating as both character and commentator, gave Kepler heft and vivid and enormously varied contrasts. Glass has always written superbly for massed voices — the choruses in Satyagraha (1979) are contemporary landmarks — and those here were both affecting and powerful, especially the “Vanitas! Vanitas!” , which the full vocal ensemble sang on the lip of the stage facing the audience, with the orchestra seated behind.  And wouldn’t you know it, my cell rang — being a neophyte in all things cell –which was the only sound in the house as the audience was completely spellbound — and how could they not be — by this arresting passage.  I promise to learn how to turn the damned thing off. Read the rest of this entry »

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baliOld age isn’t for sissies or the timid and I think the same thing can be said about writing for the stage, especially if it’s the operatic one. It took Verdi years before he produced something that worked on the boards. Evan Ziporyn’s no stranger to the stage–he’s written and performed Shadowbang–and his new two-act 140 minute amplified opera A House in Bali has much to recommend it. The story is drawn from gay Canadian composer Colin McPhee’s (1901-1964) 1946 memoir, with ancillary material drawn from the words of the two other main Western characters–anthropologist Margaret Mead and painter Walter Spies. A piece about a composer seems an odd choice for anyone but another composer, though McPhee’s success at combining Balinese gamelan sonorities and rhythms into a western orchestral idiom impacted Ziporyn’s work bigtime, The problem is there was little real dramatic juice in the piece, which is a shame because Ziporyn’s music for New York’s 6-piece Bang On A Can All-Stars and Bali’s 16-member Gamelan Salukat is striking, even arresting.

Drama means “action” and even interior action has to be explicit — we can’t take it on faith. But Ziporyn and his librettist Paul Schick have created a script that mostly tells rather than shows. The words have an “intellectual ” rather than emotional rhythm, and sometimes no discernible rhythm at all. And what is anyone, much less French tenor Marc Molomot, who sings the part of McPhee, to make of lines like ” But here / I feel suddenly shut in, / and I can hardly wait / for the end of the concert. ” It’s not as bad as ” the only saviors are the ham sandwiches and the hot coffee ‘ in Peter Sellars’ libretto for Adams’ self-important dud Dr. Atomic, but that’s not saying much. The book for a purportedly avant garde show like this should be as solidly built and serviceable as any for the Broadway stage where we’re rarely in the dark about who does what and why.  Jay Scheib’s direction didn’t clarify what was going on either, and any well-directed piece — no matter how complex it looks (say the party scene in La Boheme) should make its points simply and directly. But Scheib wasn’t content to leave well enough alone. Instead he did things that may have looked good on paper as “concepts” but simply didn’t work on the stage. Like having the gamelan players build McPhee’s house (the scenic designer was Sara Brown) as an angled well-lit room parked stage left which we could hardly see into, save through the lens of a videographer stationed inside. And there was never a sense of constriction when McPhee was supposed to be falling apart. How could there be on Zellerbach’s huge open non-proscenium stage which easily accomodated Ziporyn’s band in the center and Gamelan Salukat to its left.

But the biggest failure of the piece was portraying McPhee as just another alcoholic composer, which he was, and a repressed gay man which he most decidedly wasn’t. Yet Ziporyn would rather have it his way. ” I have no way of knowing,” he told interviewer Jonathan Leibovic, “whether he ( McPhee ) acted on these feelings ( for the young Balinese boy Sampih, played charmingly here by Nyoman Triyana Usadhi). I don’t ever suggest that he did and in fact I’ve always presumed that he didn’t in this case.” That contradicts what McPhee said in a letter to his psychiatrist . ” Many times there was a decision to be made between some important opportunity and a sexual relationship that was purely sensual. I never hesitated to choose the latter. This I did deliberately and would do again and again. The Balinese period was simply a long extension of this.” Which means that Ziporyn didn’t really do his homework regarding this important matter. But without this driving passion, or if you will, obsession, beautifully revealed in an ultra simple and very soft vocal line for Molomot, with transparent contributions from the All-Stars (the audience heaved a collective ” ah “), the piece had hardly any center, and hardly anywhere to go. It doesn’t have to be a male to male version of Butterfly but conflicts and/or misunderstandings between cultures have to be made in personal terms. But Ziporyn made his piece a tragic love story about two divergent cultures which got him off the hook of dealing directly with subject matter he’s obviously uncomfortable with.

But Ziporyn’s comfort level with the music is complete. And the sounds he devised for the All-Stars — hard driving or evocative, or the gamelan players with their gold hammers ever ready — clangorous, with complex layered rhythms and startling but perfectly logical shifts in timbre and dynamics, and a spectacular chorus for flutes — there even seemed to be some polytonal stretches in the score — held one’s attention when the words and stage action action didn’t. It was also strongly sung by the three Western principals and there was a startling passage, in falsetto for Molomot, who’s a counter tenor. Especially good was soprano Anne Harley ( Margaret Mead ) who had a highly ornamented passage — she does lots of Baroque music which makes similar demands — which she projected with refulgent warmth and charm. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov was also impressive and impressively tall as the confident, even arrogant Spies. All the other Balinese perfomers — Kadek Dewi Aryani, Desak Made Sarti Laksmi , I Nyoman Catra — made stong impressions, as did the choreography by Aryani and Catra. If only Ziporyn and company had built a house which was more than sum of its component parts.

[ed. note — corrected the spelling of Mr. Ziporyn’s last name.]

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