Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Volume 17, Number 6
Fresh Voices X / Phillip George
Atomic Power / Mark Alburger
Chronicle of April 2010
Illustration / Thom Yorke
Harriet March Page
Patti Noel Deuter
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This year San Francisco Opera will present no new operas, but Goat Hall Productions / San Francisco Cabaret Opera will produce ten this month alone.
Billed as Fresh Voices X, the extended weekend of June 17-20 features contemporary works "xploring" the dark sides of life yesterday and today in two programs styled as X at the Heart of America" and X in the Soul of Europe and Beyond.
The former theme, while including stories of loneliness and alienation, celebrates the spirit of adventure and the will to survive. The latter entails re-tellings of classic tales with new twists. All performances feature a panoply of talented singers, accompanied by pianists Hadley McCarroll and Keisuke Nakagoshi, under the direction of Harriet March Page.
Program A (8pm, Thursday, June 17, and Saturday, June 19) presents the world premiere of Trifles by John G. Bilotta, to a libretto of John F. McGrew, after the story and play by Susan Glaspell. The soulful five-member cast (Michael Desnoyers, Alexandra Jerinic, Nathan Kondrat, Nathaniel Marken, and Maria Mikheyenko) and six-piece chamber orchestra will be conducted by Martha Stoddard. The instrumental ensemble is additionally featured in Mark Alburger's Job: A Masque, where God (Nanette McGunness) and Satan (Crystal Philippi) play dice with human lives (Marilyn Pratt, Kate Bautch, Sarita Cannon, and Heather Lauren Klein)
The evening also includes a fantasy re-creation of an "Xpresident" in Chris Whittaker's George Bush: The Last Hundred Days,with Meghan Dibble, Chelsea Hollow, and Marken; the irony-soaked one-woman (Raina Simons) show Life is Fine by Edward Knight; and the Daniel Felsenfeld / Elizabeth Isadora Gold role reversals of The Bloody Chamber, where Bela Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle gets a new ending from Jo Vincent Parks, Indre Viskontas, and McGuinness.
Program B (Friday, June 18, 8:00 pm & Sunday, June 20, 7:00 pm) will leave one yearning for more in The Hunger Art, by Jeff Myers / Royce Vavrek, with a lean-and-mean cast of Joshua Beld, Justin Marsh, Eliza O’Malley, Sophia Santulli, and Dibble. David Garner's Medea Alone, with Kristen Brown, and Mark Narin's Theresa Kren, featuring Katherine Howell and Tristan Robben will give new meaning to danger, while the Alden Jenks / Frank Polite Letter from Linda (Viskontas and Cannon) and Robert Denham's Sutter Creek (where Wayne Wong is joined by Bautch, Cannon, and Klein) will provide poignancy and humor.
All performances will be held at Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Advance tickets sales are $20 general admission and$15 seniors, students, and Theatre Bay Area members. Tickets at door are $25 and $20. Seats may be reserved online (goathall.org) or by calling 415-289-6877 or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sometimes the weight of history can be oppressive. What can be done that hasn't already been done? Well, in science, in the 20th- and 21st-centuries, the answers have been easy (if also quite hard). How about the atom bomb? How about computers? And on and on. So it's nice to see and hear sometimes in the classical music realm, the young (comparatively speaking) ones trumping the old (in this case, living composers vs. the dead).
That's the way it went with the St. Louis Symphony, under the direction of the relatively young (b. 1958) David Robertson, on April 17 at Davies Hall, where renowned Berkeley composer John Adams (OK, maybe not so young - b. 1947) had at it with his explosive Dr. Atomic Symphony: a symphonic implosion of his 2005 opera, premiered just across the street that year at the War Memorial. Adams's symphony -- first given in 2007 by the BBC Orchestra, with its American premiere the next year under Robertson and the St. Louis -- is arresting and taut, arguably an even more cogent argument of ideas than in the somewhat discursive dramatic form. From the downbeat of the first of three movements, entitled The Laboratory, the music is a hair-raising event, pummeling like a minimalist Edgar Varese (an acknowledged influence), and oh-so-Joh-Adams throughout, in tricky crossrhythms and colorful orchestrations.
Panic kept the the energy up, and the concluding Trinity, includes the accoladed John Donne "Batter My Heart" section, now given, mostly successfully, to trumpet, with quizzical doublings on clarinet and oboe. If this music comes a bit late in the overall proceedings, Adams redeems once more in resounding energetic punches to a convincing finale.
So listeners were battered, but in a good way. A cathartic way. The rest of the program was a preparation, much of it apparently muted, at least from our back box seats. Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 emphasizes a restrained atmosphere, in its light scoring for double winds (minus trombones and tuba), two percussionists, and strings. Soloist Gil Shaham played his heart out, in a dedicated performance that featured close interaction with the ensemble. Yet, it all seemed in a box, at least from our distance -- and, at times, uncharacteristically "un-Prokofievian" (a composer, rather than performer, issue).
This brings up the notion of "voice." We all take it for granted that we have our own voices as people. But, as composers, the development of a characteristic voice is not to be taken lightly. The fact that many isolated passages of Prokofiev sound instantantly as this composer (and not, say, his slightly older and younger contemporaries Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich) is quite a remarkable matter, hinging as it is on melodic, orchestrational, and harmonic touches that in many ways are simply felt rather than clearly apprehended or articulated.
Jan Sibelius is another case in point, heard here in his Symphony No. 7, which the composer himself was not even sure was a symphony, having originally titled it Fantasia symphonica. Maybe he was right, but nonetheless, every measure rung as true to this composer, if again, muted.
The program opened with Rapture, a pleasant and colorful enough work by Christopher Rouse, who is two years younger than Adams. Well, then again, the weight of history can be oppressive, as noted.
Thom Yorke and Atoms for Peace. Roseland, New York, NY. Rhythm ruled the music of Atoms for Peace, the band Thom Yorke led. . . . It’s a side project with unspecified goals for Mr. Yorke, who also leads Radiohead, but one effect was immediate: he danced through nearly the whole set. Twitching, strutting, pivoting, hopping, jittering and gesticulating, he let the music propel him in ways that were anything but cerebral, even in songs for which he sat at the piano. Where Radiohead’s music is the triumph of thinking much too hard, Mr. Yorke on his own got sweaty and physical. . . . Of course, there was deep thought behind the rhythm. Atoms for Peace includes Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass -- who danced constantly himself, staying in one place without upstaging Mr. Yorke -- along with Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s producer) on keyboards; Joey Waronker (from Beck’s band) on drums; and Mauro Refosco (from David Byrne’s band) on percussion. They easily turned Mr. Yorke’s idiosyncratic, odd-meter riffs into funk. Most of the concert was a complete run-through of Mr. Yorke’s 2006 album, The Eraser (which was also produced by Mr. Godrich, and which includes the song “Atoms for Peace”). In the studio its songs are purposefully sparse and sterile, using dry electronic glitches and inhuman loops to set off Mr. Yorke’s tidings of alienation and futility: thoughts like the ones in Analyse, in which he sings, 'There’s no spark, no light in the dark / It gets you down.' The album is a marvel of isolation and bleak solitude. And Mr. Yorke’s band deliberately turns it inside-out, replacing synthetic sounds with handmade ones, reworking nearly every arrangement. Sometimes those were equally stark: “Skip Divided” used just a drumbeat below and a vaguely Arabic melodica line above Mr. Yorke’s chanted lyrics. But more often they traded claustrophobia for carnival. Mr. Refosco’s percussion redefined the songs from their first beat, as when he used the twang of a Brazilian berimbau to start “The Clock.” Mr. Yorke’s voice, a harried high tenor that rises into falsetto, was still the sound of dread clinging to melody, but his body, and the beats, spoke otherwise. Mr. Yorke brought newer work too. He had solo ballads with guitar (the utterly vulnerable song A Walk Down the Staircase) and piano (the bitter crescendo of Daily Mail). And he had songs with the band: the glumly lilting Judge, Jury, and Executioner and, as he described it, the 'freakout' of his two-sided 2009 single, The Hollow Earth and Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses. As lyrics gave way to mutable, African-flavored funk, he was dancing again, with the music pushing away every anxiety. Opening the concert, the disc jockey and producer Flying Lotus burrowed into dance music’s darker crevices: slow, swampy, distorted bass lines to be topped with restless doubletime chatters, blips and bits of vocals to be steamrollered by looming beats and, finally, a sample of Radiohead’s Idiotheque -- a reminder that Mr. Yorke’s other band loves rhythm too" [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 4/7/10].
Alan Gilbert conducts the Juilliard Orchestra in Gyorgy Ligeti's Atmospheres and Arnold Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra. Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY. "An early measure of Mr. Gilbert’s success with his alma mater’s orchestra was the ease with which he pulled Ligeti’s Atmospheres out of the orbit of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which brought this harmonically dense score an unlikely popularity. Readings of the work almost inevitably bring the film to mind, but Mr. Gilbert’s focus on texture and topography -- the many levels of pianissimo within certain chaotic, whispered violin and viola passages, for example -- kept the association purely musical. By beginning with the Ligeti, Mr. Gilbert also quickly put a spotlight on the ensemble’s virtuosity: producing the score’s muffled string clusters; shrill, fortissimo woodwind dissonances; and tactile, buzzing brass chords calls for technique beyond the normal requirements of orchestral performance. The program’s other 20th-century work, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 16), from 1909, poses different challenges. This is late Romanticism at heart; Schoenberg still had a way to go before perfecting his 12-tone method. But it has its share of complexity. The trick here is to cloak its thorny touches in the beauty of conventional timbres without removing their bite entirely. Fleeting problems of ensemble unity, particularly in the opening Vorgefüle (Premonitions), created only a slight distraction. Mostly, Mr. Gilbert drew a lush, precise performance, shaped with a flexibility that made these pieces intoxicating" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 4/14/10].
At least 14 radio stations stop broadcasting music, heeding an ultimatum by an Islamist insurgent group to stop playing or face “serious consequences.” Mogadishu, Somalia. "The threat left radio stations scrambling to scrub even the briefest suggestion of music from their daily programming. 'Bam! Bam! Bam!' -- the sound of gunshots that Somalis in Mogadishu have grown accustomed to hearing -- was played by Radio Shabelle on its news broadcast to replace the music it usually uses to introduce the segment. Similarly odd sounds -- like the roar of an engine, a car horn, animal noises and the sound of water flowing -- were used to introduce programs on some of the other radio stations that stopped playing music. 'We have replaced the music of the early morning program with the sound of the rooster, replaced the news music with the sound of the firing bullet and the music of the night program with the sound of running horses,' said Osman Abdullahi Gure, the director of Radio Shabelle radio and television, one of the most influential stations in Mogadishu. 'It was really a crush,' he said. 'We haven’t had time to replace all the programs at one time; instead, we have chosen these sounds.' The insurgent group, Hizbul Islam, issued its ultimatum 10 days ago and set [April 13] as the deadline to comply, saying that music was 'un-Islamic.' In other parts of the country, insurgents have taken over or shut down some radio stations. Last week, the Shabab, the country’s most powerful insurgent group, said it was banning foreign programs like those broadcast by the BBC and Voice of America, calling them Western propaganda that violated Islam. The radio stations that stopped playing music . . . are based in both insurgent and government-controlled areas of the ruined capital. Those located in insurgent-held territory seemed to have little alternative, but some of the managers at stations in government-controlled territory argued that the lack of security and the loss of advertising income led them to comply as well. . . . 'The government cannot guarantee our security, and we have to make our first priority the safety and security of our employees,' said Abdirashid Abdulle, director of the newly established radio station Tusmo, which is based in Hamarjajab, a government-controlled area. Many residents expressed dismay at the new restrictions. 'We are really losing all hope of life,' said Hashi Abdullahi, who said he liked to listen to music. The insurgents have 'punished our life with bullets, and today they are punishing us with a ban on all types of music,' he said. . . . 'I think that this was a test to terrorize the media in Mogadishu, and it’s seems like a justification to confiscate the radio stations that fail to comply with the order in the areas under their control,' said Ugaas Mohamed Bashir, vice chairman of the Somali Traditional Elders Council. At least two radio stations did not heed the ban. The government-owned Radio Mogadishu and another station, Radio Bar-Kulan, which is mostly produced in Kenya, continued playing music" [Mohammed Ibrahim, The New York Times, 4/13/10].
La Commedia, Louis Andriessen’s operatic dissection and reconstruction of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "La Commedia . . . is the centerpiece of a series of concerts devoted to the composer . . . this month and next. The opera, heard in a concert version . . . was created as an elaborate production in which important musical and dramatic elements take place on film, projected on multiple screens. It occupied Mr. Andriessen from 2004 to 2008, and when Carnegie offered him its Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair this season, La Commedia was the first work he said he wanted to present. It is easy to see why Mr. Andriessen was so intent on having his latest grand project heard. He has assembled a spectacularly idiosyncratic libretto that draws not only on Dante’s epic tour of hell, purgatory and paradise, but also on the Bible (fragments from Psalm 107 and Song of Songs), works by the 17th-century Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel and other sources. He has reconfigured Dante’s triptych as five panels, and kept the first three — roughly the first hour of the 100-minute work — in hell. He has set this deliberately motley text to a driven, often intensely dark score that, like so much of Mr. Andriessen’s music, brings together starkly contrasting styles and makes the juxtapositions sound natural. Dissonant, sharp-edged woodwind and brass chords are accompanied by almost minimalist arpeggiation; jazz moves pop out of nowhere and evaporate just as quickly. Shards of standard-repertory works -- Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Orff’s Carmina Burana -- make passing appearances. Recorded electronic sounds, used sparingly, suggest the present world (the score opens with distant traffic noise), the bubbling cauldrons of hell and the sparkling shimmer of heaven. But the score’s most memorable aspect is the pounding, often lurching chord progressions that evoke different corners of the underworld. Still, you found yourself wishing that Mr. Andriessen had held out for a full production in a hall with the facilities to show La Commedia in all its glory. An army of instrumentalists and choristers filled the stage, and four soloists clambered around the open space near the podium or sang from various perches (a riser at the back, a lower balcony to the right of the stage). But no attempt was made to include the film component. And though Carnegie distributed a text booklet, supertitles would have been a far better idea for a new work in four languages (Latin, Dutch, Italian and English), in which the singers, even heavily amplified, could not always project the words clearly over Mr. Andriessen’s dense orchestration. Midway through the work, streams of listeners began to parade out of the hall, and you had to wonder whether they would have stayed if they had had something to look at: staging, film or titles that closely followed the action and offered them a clearer sense of where they were in Mr. Andriessen’s narrative. Not that it was that difficult to follow the action, or more accurately, the philosophical musing and, in the case of Lucifer’s big aria, the corrosive malevolence of the Devil’s metaphysical plotting. Claron McFadden, as Béatrice, who led us into the journey and rejoined us in the finale (“Eternal Light”), sang with an alluring, honeyed tone that perfectly suited the soaring vision of faith and purity that her music conveyed. Jeroen Willems used his theatrical voice powerfully as Lucifer, and in several narrative sections. Cristina Zavalloni, an earthier soprano with flexibility in a wide vocal range, gave powerful accounts of the arias sung by Dante, and Marcel Beekman gave a lovely account of the work’s only traditional aria, which opened the “Garden of Earthly Delights” section. Reinbert de Leeuw drew a rich-hued, high-energy performance from Asko|Schoenberg, the newly merged Asko and Schoenberg ensembles, both expert interpreters of Mr. Andriessen’s work. Synergy Vocals and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus also contributed formidably: the choirs, in a way, personified Dante as much (and as vividly) as Ms. Zavalloni did" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 4/16/10].