BERKELEY, CA—-Readings and live music, a format once avidly pursued in various cities, is making a comeback. In the past month, local concerts have featured small musical ensembles with a live interview of Meredith Monk, or a discussion about Philip Glass, or simply readings of poetry and prose. We’ll see if it develops into a broader trend.
That pairing is the meat-and-potatoes of the five-year-old Circadian String Quartet, an inventive local group focusing on music “with folkloric or cultural significance.” They assembled a skillful program of (musical) Chiaroscuro built around music of Reich and Shostakovich which spotlighted despair over wanton deaths of civilians in wartime within their Feb. 3 mixed-format concert.
Shostakovich had been horrified by a visit to Dresden, which had one of the highest civilian casualty counts from any bombing raid anywhere. In addition he was contemplating suicide after a negative medical diagnosis. The Soviet composer peppered his highly tragic Eighth String Quartet (1960), with his initials in music to show that this is a highly personal message of protest not to be overlooked.
The Circadians conveyed the drama with keen sensitivity and hard bow strokes in their electric reading.
The contemporary piece was “The Weight of the World” for narrator and string quartet by Iranian-born composer Sahba Aminikia, 36. This meditative opus is laid out like a verdant landscape, but one that picks up momentum as it goes along. The urgency of Shostakovich gave way to the repose of Aminikia. The texts woven in are by Allen Ginsberg and Hafez, the 14th century Persian poet, and the effect was, yes, poetic and serene.
Other atmospheric poems were recited with wispy music written by quartet member David Ryther.
The piece de resistance was by New York minimalist Steve Reich, termed one of the greats of the 20th century by musicologist Richard Taruskin, no less. Reich’s “Different Trains” (1988) is a true mixed-media effort. You get the hypnotism of old trains going clickety-clack behind puff-puff-choo-choo engines with irresistible rhythm. One string quartet plays live, another is prerecorded and a canned voice, rhythmically coordinated, utters sharp cadential phrases about trains—even a notorious train hauling children to death camps.
The present 110-seat Hillside Club with proscenium was built after the devastating Great 1923 Berkeley Fire, one of nearly a dozen intimate venues around S.F. Bay where I encounter such imaginative ventures, often tucked away in quiet residential neighborhoods.
Hillside Club Concert Series, with heterogeneous events. 2286 Cedar, Berkeley. For info: go online.