Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Short and Shorter / Michael McDonagh

Theme programs are always fun, especially if the pieces glance off each other, or conjoin in interesting ways, and irrepressible and imaginative composer-conductor Mark Alburger's latest installment in his Opus series -- 12, on December 28, at Berkeley Arts Festival -- engaged both ear and mind.  Famous -- even seminal -- names abutted the scarcely known, and the collision of the big time and the small fry was instructive.  What makes a great composer and what makes a minor one? Well the evidence was here if you're into judging, and who isn't these days?

Central and Eastern European composers have usually been the bread and butter of American concert programs and this one featured lots of them, though there was a sprinkling of Americans and Brits.

The main fascination of this one seemed to be atypical rarities by heavy hitters like Arnold Schoenberg whose 1907 setting of Heinrich Ammann's poem Jane Grey was typically overwrought and I was minded of the composer's retort to David O. Selznick when he showed him a cut of The Good Earth replete with earthquakes and revolution. "With all that going on what do you need me for?" Well, this was chromatic melodrama big tim,e which soprano Heather Klein grounded with her clear and supple tone.  Igor Stravinsky's 1919 Three Pieces for Clarinet, which specifies one in A, and one in Bb, was a more substantial effort -- transparent, fluid, often plaintive, and derived no doubt from Russian folk sources objectified.  Michael Kimbell gave a rich and rhythmically secure account of it and the audience responded warmly to this supposedly "cold " composer.  Bela Bartok's II. Scherzo from his 1912 Four Pieces for Orchestra sounded like a dry run for The Miraculous Mandarin with its chopped up ostinatiand extreme contrasts in tone, which the Opus band projected with accuracy and verve. 

Humor's in short supply in the works of most high modernist composers, who always seem to replay the tired old cliche of the Western neurotic artist, so Sergei Prokofiev's IX. Humoresque Scherzo, from his originally-for-piano Ten Pieces (1913 ), was a breath of fresh air -- cheerful and exceedingly well made, though we went back to the suffering artist model with Shostakovich, and a video projection of Lilya Zilberstien's account of two movements from his 1926 Piano Sonata, written when he was just 20, struck me as dry and overly-complex, afflicted with the "notice me, I'm important" persona which was to drive his whole career.  And speaking of careers, I found the IIa. Nocturne from Kurt Weill's 1925 Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra odd, oddly scored, and completely underwhelming, with none of the snap and polish of his later justly-treasured works for the musical theatre. Paul Hindemith's introduction to his first opera Murder, Hope of Women (1918) -- Alburger announced from the stage that its librettist was Oskar Kokoschka -- was, however ,a real find, with vibrant thick sonorities and a true sens du theatre.  I've always found it strange that Hindemith has often been considered an "academic" composer, but, hey, fashion -- and I don't mean what people are wearing -- and gossip have always ruled the day.

The pieces by Britten -- in his 100th anniversary year -- were predictably tepid British entries (it must be the food) -- and Oliver Knussen's "I just wanna be German" Trumpets (1973), which was shown as a video with Linda Hirst soprano and the Oliver Knussen Ensemble, was a dull-as-dishwater Brit version of Sprechstimme .

Why must everyone fall to their knees before the Germans ?  I've never bought Richard Wagner's Holy German art -- who are you kidding ? -- though I had a wonderful time in Berlin this fall making a film version of my Sight Unseen -- a theatre piece for one performer -- with my lovely German actor friend Hermann Eppert.

And lest I forget, Alburger's 1978 Procession 1 -- Vivace-- from his Four Processions -- has the infectious charm and vitality which runs through his subsequent work.

The Opus Project Orchestra, though obviously underrehearsed and in a deeply unwelcoming venue -- they were squeezed to one side of an incredibly unresonant wall -- played with enthusiasm and commitment throughout.