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The essence of the “Scheherazade” tale is not sweeping romantic music, a la Rimsky-Korsakov; composer John Adams outlived that phase of his long ago. Here the essence is the gruesome fate of a heroine faced nightly with becoming murder-victim unless she is a master story-teller on every one of the 1,001 nights. So contends Adams, who introduced his bigger-than-life “Scheherazade.2” (2015) at the S.F. Symphony. This winter the SFS has offered multiple celebrations of his 70th birthday.

Call it a dramatic symphony, like Adams, or call it one of the longest violin concertos ever (at 49 minutes). Either way, this is a testament to the activism, suffering and “heroine-ism” of modern-day women around the world. It is a very large-scale opus, indicative of how deeply felt these issues are to the composer.

The spiky piece is a furious outpouring for a virtuoso violinist, who is playing virtually nonstop in an admirable marathon feat. It’s also a high-energy rhythm-driven opus, going unrelentingly like a race car with throttle wide open all the way. Even in the love music of the slow movement, which Adams says is perhaps the most tender he has written in his 70-year life, there’s an enigma. He has endless well-crafted legato phrases, but they are never quite endearing, never overtly affectionate; you look in vain for a memorable theme or moment of true repose and contentment. Overall he is enmeshed in various musics and jagged lines that are moving farther and farther away from his central audience’s taste. Evidence: accolades where his on-stage bows get greater applause than the music itself.

And the same high-energy frenzy dominates most of the work, where greater contrasts would have been both welcome and refreshing.

Adams’ Scheherazade is clearly a stormy personality, a woman of action and dynamism, of conflict and persecution. The best clue to his content comes in the four movement titles: The Wise Young Woman, Pursuit by the True Believers; love scene; Scheherazade and the Men with Beards; Escape, Flight, Sanctuary.

If you think that these ultra-dense pieces are unplayable, clearly you’ve never heard Southern Californian violinist Leila Josefowicz, for whom these virtuosic solos were intended. Attacking the score like a demon, the explosive and tireless Josefowicz relishes every last 16th-note, every rapid run and every last double stop in this supreme challenge, playing it all from memory. She meshed exquisitely with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who of late has been downright addicted to Adams music. You may not recognize the latest incarnation of virtuoso Josefowicz, who has cut her long hair and adopted a gamin look, perhaps facilitating her mobility for immensely challenging opus in myriad venues.

The big orchestral sound obscures some smaller instruments. Some 20 visible tamtams were barely audible, and the cimbalom at front and center was not heard at all, at least from where I sat in Row J. If Adams so loves the instrument and its unique timbre, he needs to amplify it, much the way that solo guitar or harpsichord is routinely amplified in concertos.

Adams had personally introduced the work at the Feb. 24 performance, intent to voice the social-action message—-not on behalf of a timeless fairy tale of “1,001 Nights,” but rather of the tribulations of modern-day women, a cause in which he believes fervently. Yes, there is one similarity between this and the Rimsky-Korsakov version: In both, the solo violin is Scheherazade.

THE MOST NEGLECTED INSTRUMENT—May just be the cimbalom, which looks like a small piano without keyboard, with strings struck directly by mallets. It is encountered in repertory symphonic pieces only in Kodaly’s “Hary Janos” Suite. However, every gypsy ensemble in Hungary and neighboring lands has a cimbalom, with players all learning by ear, not by score. The SFS’ soloist Chester Englander is a self-taught performer, who had mastered the instrument with each string pitch identified by a letter written on paper directly beneath it. Adams also called on him for “The Gospel According to the Other Mary.”

The concert under MTT concluded with MTT’s arrangement of a long suite from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” 38 minutes long. Rather than match the chronology of the segments in the ballet, he resequenced them instead for concert-hall effectiveness.

S.F. Symphony under MTT’s baton in John Adams’ “Scheherazade.2,” and MTT’s arrangement of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” Davies Hall, S.F. Through Feb. 25. For SFS info: (415) 864-6000, or go online.



Treasure that 1936 Studebaker! Stash the old brake drums in the safe!

Composer Lou Harrison, a lover of “found instruments” and new sound timbres, called for percussionists to strike resonant brake drums in pieces like “Canticle No. 3.”

But not just any old brake drum. “The ’36 Studebaker had the best ones,” he told me in an interview over 20 years ago. “After that, the car factories all changed the metal (alloy), and the drums wouldn’t ring any more.”

A mini-festival is underway for the centennial of the innovator and beloved local icon Harrison (1917-2003). The Feb. 18 opener of earlier Harrison opuses featured his lively percussion-dominated “Canticle No. 3” and his esteemed brake drums which, considering the rarity of their provenance, should be locked in a vault every night. It’s the least we can do for this jolly and eclectic musical adventurer, who visibly delighted in his innovations and departures.

This one work also features a humble ocarina, perhaps bought at a five-&-dime store years ago, and guitar strums by a non-guitarist. It evolves as an exuberant jam session for the humblest of music-makers.

Was he versatile? You need to pen a fat volume to summarize his diverse achievements: Early atonality in the 1940s mode, four symphonies, a gay puppet opera about Julius Caesar, gamelans, music in the mode of various Far-Eastern cultures, anti-war pieces, tin-can percussion, and pianos retuned to less orthodox tuning systems. And he achieved these via his wide-spread travels, his long residence in Aptos, CA, and faculty posts at Mills College and UC Santa Cruz. All of this accomplished after his nervous breakdown in mid-20th-century, prompting his salutary move west out of the hothouse of New York.

Perhaps his longest-lasting breakthrough was in linking Western and various modes of Far-Eastern music, in part through the introduction of gamelan music & ensembles on the West Coast.

That part of his post-1960 creativity is rendered in the closing festival concert May 20 (detailed below).

The opening concert also featured a pianist in the Grand Duo using the “octave bar,” something akin to a blackboard eraser which, when struck on the piano keyboard, depresses exactly one octave of white keys. Conductor-pianist Dennis Russell Davies, who had been an avid Harrison collaborator in his decade at the Cabrillo Festival, returned to work this device with fast-flying hands at the piano, adding a funky and delectable jarring note in otherwise orderly music. In the Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra (1951) he marshals a “tack piano,” an upright with a tack stuck into the hammers, giving a sound more like a harpsichord. (Don’t try it on your upright: After doing the tack routine, you might well have to remove the stressed hammers along with the tacks.) Other works were expressively performed by violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams.

Another centenary was also noted simultaneously in the fest, a propos the Korean composer Isang Yun from Berlin (1917-1995). Yun was a theoretician with an austere approach who introduced traditional Korean music and style, but on Western instruments. A tragic figure, he was imprisoned by two different authorities: First, by Japanese occupiers for underground activities in the 1940s on behalf of Korean independence, and again in 1967 when South Korean agents abducted him, put him on trial for treason—for his having visited North Korea, a no-no—and given a life sentence. A concerted lobbying campaign by musicians and others in the West brought about his release in just two years. His violin and piano pieces performed here showed his aphoristic formality and aloofness not easily transferred to Western audiences.

The mini-fest presented by Other Minds was given at the Mission Dolores Basilica, a church that had on display for the first time a portrait of an unfamiliar celestial figure, “St. Lou” (Harrison, so labeled).

The highly resonant acoustics of the mission church provided a very unfamiliar ring to the soloists and ensembles.

Festival of Pacific Rim Centennials by Other Minds, opening Feb. 18 at Mission Dolores Basilica, Dolores St. at 16th, San Francisco, marking dual commemoration of Harrison and Yun. Closing all-Harrison concert here May 20 with American gamelan. For Other Minds info: Go online.



Contempo Singer/Composer Neuburg Stellar

By Paul Hertelendy, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of June 26-July 3, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 75

What impresses me most about Amy X Neuburg is not that she’s an exquisite lyric soprano who can even dip down to the baritone register, nor that she’s always in pitch, nor that she’s a techno whiz, nor that she animates contemporary repertory as though written for her. Not even that she’s also a damned good composer of song. Yes, she’s all of that.

It’s her hands—-as expressive as any actress’s, opening up like flowers coming into bloom, complementing a low-key vocal manner, constantly shifting. Never a show, ever  enriching, ever radiant.

This gifted Bay Area singer interpreted 10 commissioned songs from the past two years, backed by the Paul Dresher Ensemble Electro-Acoustic Band in a dazzling multi-media program heard June 25 at Z Space in the Mission. She is a mesmerizing presence, lucid and luminous, with real warmth of voice to unreel the expressiveness. She invites comparison with trail-blazing artists heard earlier such as Dawn Upshaw, Laurie Anderson or Diamanda Galas.

This set of “Songs and Images of Now” launched by the Neuburg-Dresher pairing, from 10 different composers, has to go down as one of the Bay Area’s top contemporary-music experiences of 2016.

These are songs of detachment, not of love or passion. Texts are syllabic fragments torn out of some mosaic, or multiple repeats, or overheard conversations. One of them is a 1,300-word philosophical treatise analyzing photographs. Ultimately, I believe Neuburg could make music out of reading from the Chicago phone book, or from a catalogue of farm machinery.

Her own texts involve delicious juxtapositions, such as
“Then the deal was sealed with a covert kiss,
But no animals were harmed in the making of this.”

Reflections on obsolescence run strong in works by Jay Cloidt, Pamela Z and Dresher, and on the “me” society by Melody Sumner Carnahan and Lisa Bielawa.

In a stimulating assignment, Dresher asked each of the composers to tie in to one or more photo projections, in the candid, unvarnished manner of photographer Diane Arbus.

These were accompanied by Paul Dresher’s septet, a mix of electronic and natural-sound instruments, often providing a gamelan-like pitter-pat accompaniment, with Dresher on electric guitar.

Once again, Dresher pushed the boundaries of contemporary concerts and brought off a laudable night—with major partnering by singer Neuburg.

Paul Dresher Ensemble Electro-Acoustic Band and singer Amy X Neuburg. With projections, in recent songs by 10 composers. June 24-25, at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. For info on Dresher: go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.



Other Minds in Unusual Vocal Music

Zounds! A contemporary concert takes up sacred music along with a satirical work highly critical of Church history. If you hate the one, you might LOVE the other!

Such was the opening event of the unique Open Minds festival, which brings in close to a dozen living composers for residencies and three tightly-packed concerts over three days—then often goes dormant for another 364. It’s a dizzying, high-quality whirl that can and should attract a much wider audience than the gathering March 3 at the acoustically vibrant SF Jazz Center.

The concert put on display an a cappella vocal group from Europe called Nordic Voices, an exceptional Norwegian ensemble as dazzling as the Swingle Singers of old, and just about as versatile. The three women and three men without conductor exhibited an amazing sense of rhythmic unity and true pitches most of the way, along with a variety of effects and textures worthy of study. Their lucid enunciation of text put to shame most of our own choruses around here.

The sensational work in the mix was the historical “Dead Pope on Trial,” based on the “cadaver synod” of Pope Formosus, who died in the year 896. Intense political rivalry within the Church prompted his being accused, exhumed then put on trial in a bones-only appearance. In a very crude form of justice, he was found guilty without mounting a defense, his body mutilated and decapitated, then thrown into a river—all of it twice over, according to one account. (But what if the court had found him guilty and ordered a life sentence???)

All of this is reeled out in this 23-minute choral world premiere by composer Cecilie Ore, 61. This narrative makes for grand and comic satire in English, delivered with exaggerated delicacy. Ore produces many changes of pace, sometimes scrambling the texts and highlighting the contrasts: Showing the sanctity of Formosus’ (last) burial in St. Peter’s, offset against the ludicrous trial and retrial of a skeleton as defendant in court, as ordered by later popes.

Even more impressive was the “Himmelske Fader” (Heavenly Father) prayer by Lasse Thoresen, 66. He offered dense, complex harmonies as well as 15th-century faux bourdon effects (where the 3rd degree of triads is missing, giving a ‘hollow’ feeling to the music). The voices even produce hurdy-gurdy textures (!), and at times soft whistles—a compendium of very new and very old. The piece is haunting, at times giving us an intriguing blend of overtones.

Recorded recitations by the late Beat poet William Burroughs, who may or may not have been under the influence of controlled substances when he recorded the repetitive text, were the highlight of Phil Kline’s “Last Words,” with perfunctory string-quartet accompaniment. Michael Gordon’s “The Sad Park” also involved recordings, but of innocent young children talking about the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. And an overly generous clutch of Petrarch sonnets had been set, in Italian, by Gavin Bryars, 73, from England.

The remaining concerts in this 21st Other Minds fest unfolded the successive days, again with a vocal emphasis.

Other Minds festival No. 21, Charles Amirkhanian director, at the San Francisco Jazz Center March 4-6. For info on OM: Go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.