Sunday, December 2, 2007

University Chorus and Chamber Singers, Jackson Hall

A choral concert can transform a space and the listeners in it, as Jeffrey Thomas, the UC Davis Chamber Singers, the University Chorus, vocal soloists and instrumetalists demonstrated in Mondavi Center's Jackson Hall on Sunday evening. Works by Dietrich Buxtehude (ca. 1637-1707) set the tone. As Jeffrey Thomas writes in the program notes, Buxtehude changed and popularized the concerts called Abendmusiken at the Marienkirche in Lubeck. They became events that attracted people of all ages, includiing crying babes and rambuntious children. The evening at Mondavi was not rambunctious, although when an usher, helping me to my seat, said ''Enjoy the show'', I wasn't sure I'd come to the right hall.

Although Mr. Thomas suggests in the notes that Buxtehude is less well known than his younger contemporary, J.S. Bach, his work was famliar to me from childhood church attendance. While others may have been listening to the sermon, I was reading and re-reading the program; Buxtehude's works were performed by organist, choir or quartet far more often than Bach's.

Anyway, for a time on Sunday, Jackson Hall became Lubeck's Marienkirche.

Mit Fried und Freud, BuxWV 76, featured vocal and instrumental soloists, instrumentalists, and, for the fourth part, the UCD Chamber Singers. Countertenor Ian Howell has a rare and glorious voice---not that I've heard many countertenors for comparison, only three in my life---but his notes ranged far above the ceiling, very likely reaching the stars. Bass-baritone Robert Stafford was soloist for the second verse, and the two voices also joined in a duet. Stafford provided just the right depth and balance. The text, moving from peace and joy through death and dying, certainly needs both voices and, for the fourth verse, with it's emphasis on dying and pain, the soprano voices of the Chorale as well. They were an angelic blessing at the end of a suffering human life. Meanwhile, the instrumentalists---two violins, two violas, a viola da gamba, a violone, and a dulcian---created a sound that added to the emotional impact of the music. (Instrumentalists were: violins, Katherine Kyme and Carla Moore; violas, Lisa Grodin and David Daniel Bowes, viola da gamba, William Skeene; violone, Steven Lehning; and dulcian, Kate van Orden. The organ was played by Thomas but later in the concert by David Deffner.)

For Jesu meines Lebens Leben, BuxWV 62, instruments and sopranos opened, altos and men's voices soon joining to add texture, harmony and volume. Again, emotion---this time regarding Jesus' suffering, the scourges he experienced, and heartfelt thanks from the poor people whom by this means he saved---was overwhelming. I particularly loved the clarity of the separate choral voices, echoing each other, with each voice especially distinct during a capella passages. The Chamber Singers showed that they are carefully selected---could they possibly be recruited?---and admirably prepared.

Jubilate Domino, omnis terra, BuxWV 64, added an exultant, joyous note---and again the excellent Mr. Howell---to the concert. Organ and viola da gamba were accompanying instruments, Mr. Skeene and Mr. Howell often in duet. It is a song of praise to God, the King, and I felt we were privileged to hear it.

A three-verse choral cantata, Herzlich lieb hab ich dich o Herr, BuxWV 41, concluded, in magnificent fashion, the first half of the concert. With chamber orchestra and Chorale, sopranos with strings captured one's ear; the text, ''From my heart I hold you dear, O Lord,'' could capture one's heart. The legato---voices and instruments blending at all times smoothly as lines moved from one voice to another---was remarkable. Organ and voices, joined, made a touching, prayerful conclusion.

Yes, Buxtehude was expert in counterpoint in all its uses and variations, but structure seemed less important than feeling in this remarkable performance. Like many in Sunday's audience, I've been hearing UCD choral concerts for years. The Chorale singers are better than ever, and the exquisite soloists---who have sung almost everywhere---and instrumentalists could surely not be excelled anywhere.

I cannot say as much for the second half of the concert, featuring carols for Christmas by the University Chorus. It was overpowered by a production number, Bob Chilcott's Canticles of Light. With the chorus and organist onstage, a secondary choir sang from an upper balcony to the right of the audience with bells opposite to it. From my seat in the orchestra, these geographically separated voices did not blend at all. The choir needed more volume, the organ considerably less. From my seat in the orchestra, I felt I was in the belltower with the choir miles away. When the bell rang the hours, I wanted to close my ears. The voices in the upper balcony also seemed unpleasant and loud. The organ? Well, the composer must have written an elaborate part, and Mr. Deffner was giving it his all. It has been said that sound in Jackson Hall can be carefully managed. Experiencing this piece of music, you'd never know.

Eric Whitaker's Lux Aurumque charmed me by the sustained soprano part, but it was mainly an opener. John Rutter's arrangement of O Come, O Come, Immanuel, with Mr. Skeene and the viola da gamba, was a lot more than pleasing; it was beautiful. And with the closing Fantasia on Christmas Carols, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the University Chorus made music that sent everyone home enriched and in the spirit of Christmas.

---Marilyn Mantay

Sunday, November 18, 2007

UC Davis Symphony Orchestra

Commencing the weekend listening to the orchestra from St. Petersburg, I was enchanted by feeling and precision. On Sunday, that is just the performance the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra (UCDSO) delivered as well.

I was as thrilled as a mother I met accidentally at a UCDSO concert in the old Freeborn Hall days. She told me at intermission that her daughter had been playing with youth orchesras in her home county---dare I say Marin?---for years. She was delighted to see her playing at last with a ''real orchestra''. On Sunday night in Jackson Hall, unusually for a season opening, we were hearing a real orchestra. The musicians were ready. Did they, like university athletes, practice during the summer?

Director D. Kern Holoman opened the concert with Beethoven's Egmont Overture, in which themes and phrases, introduced by various voices---particularly woodwinds---are heard in turn. When voices joined, individual voices---or was it their echoes?---the music had a grain to it. It was a performance with a backbone, and the strong individual instruments that created it were always present in the total sound.

Violist Kimberlee Uwate, with Phebe Craig at the harpsichord, led a chamber orchestra in Georg Philipp Telemann's Viola Concerto in G Major. Ms Uwate is an extraordinary performer, maintaining tone quality and volume, whether with scale passages or leaps, throughout her instrument's range. Like Ms. Uwate, the chamber players maintained a remarkably even tone, even as changes in tempo in the second of the four movements made it particularly demanding. In the third movement Andante, the restrained viola was plaintive; in the Presto, orchestral energy and the viola's rapid, elaborate arpeggios added up to a triumph.

From early 18th to late 19th century might seem like quite a musical leap for one evening, but somehow the variability, individuality and color of Telemann and Beethoven led easily to Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D major.

Opening tranquilly, with at one point a barely audible trumpet fanfare, then leading to the low smoldering sound of double basses, then cellos, then all the other instruments, the music was mostly legato, even gentle, but seemed at the same time lush. As with the Telemann, voices remained distinct. The second movement rumbles too, but we heard a new theme and an emphasis on brass. There were fleeting solo bits---flute, trumpet, strings---and an eloquence that, toward the end, changed to defiance.

Throughout, there recurred the call of the cuckoo by different instruments, but most memorably the longer song of the flute (Susan Monticello).


The third movement, with slow drum and a reflective solo by bassist Eric Price, quickly brought in more instruments---bassoon, trumpet, horns---playing a melody with real forward motion. Briefly, the music became pretty and pastoral---twilight?---although almost always had a sustaining low tone like a dark undercurrent. In contrast, there was a lyric trumpet solo (Nick Antipa).

The stormy fourth movement began with a crash, a melody in trombones, stuttering violins, and the soft steady beat of a drum. A quiet melody by strings was likewise abruptly punctuated. From high to low, crescendo to diminuendo, bird calls and flutter to crash, there was still repetition and reminiscence. When the distant fanfare was heard again, we knew a terrific performance had come full circle and was reaching its end.

---Marilyn Mantay

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Empyrean Ensemble

I intend to write here mostly about concerts by the UCD Department of Music. The first, Sunday night's opening by the Empyrean Ensemble conducted by Mary Chun, ''celebrated,'' as Laurie San Martin said in her introduction, ''the woodwind octet.'' The audibility of each instrument---whether in octets, duet by clarinet and flute, or solo with snare drum and high hat---was remarkable. Of course the musicians---an octet of woodwinds and brasses, but a double bass instead of the tuba in the second half---could not have created such distinctive musical sounds had the composers not heard them first. Those five men, all present on Sunday night, might well have taken inspiration from Edgard Varese's 'Octandre', from 1923, which closed the program.

Hearing the voices separately and noting changes as each was paired with a different instrument made the concert particularly exciting.

For this premiere of Jerome Rosen's 'Moment Musical' (1986) Peter Josheff's clarinet paired with Tod Brody's flute, with Hall Goff's trombone or Eric Achen's horn. Carla Wilson's bassoon, Laura Reynolds' oboe, Scott Macomber's trumpet and Zachariah Spellman's tuba came to the fore when a melody was created by instruments alternating notes. Even with eight voices to listen for---that is, if you tried to listen that way---the result was continuity. The music was also fun, especially the tuba solo near the end.

Jonathan Russell's 'Fanfare for Varese' (2007) began calmly but, reaching the short, quick theme, used notes that were separate and sudden, but, as in Mr. Rosen's piece, how well they were joined. A combination of trumpet and trombone, and big splashes of sound were exciting; the woodwinds added variety and color.

Allen Shearer's seven 'Bagatelles' for flute and clarinet (2006) had Brody and Josheff relating instrumentally in special ways, at first by echoing the same theme, then by echoing with themes related but different. The third short piece was lively; one instrument completed the other's line or emphasizing it. From this fast bagatelle, the music became slow and beautiful; in the fifth part, a rising theme with triads and scales had one musician again following the other. A mingling of voices made the sixth piece especially pleasing. A light, bright final piece had the flute sounding sometimes like a piccolo, and the clarinet becoming soft as a whisper, quietly bringing this charming work to a close.

Kenneth Froehlich's octet, 'Clog' (2007) introduces the double bass (Michel Taddei) in place of the tuba. Mr. Froehlich attributed title and music to the hours he spends at the computer. At first Mr. Taddei seemed the center of rhythm and melody, but there was also a combination of sounds that reminded me of street noises, maybe a traffic jam, in a big city. Oboe and bassoon (Ms. Reynolds and Ms. Wilson) had leading roles too; I heard their parts very clearly. And Mr. Brody pulled out his piccolo. 'Clog' was an exciting piece; too bad we have to isolate Mr. Froehlich with his computer so he can write another.

Chris Burns's 'Second Language' (2005) was written for timpanist Chris Froh, whose performance was mesmerizing. Picture him brushing the snare and the high hat, with tiny variations in shimmering sound and in motion, but with sticks introduced to make an occasional sharp impact. Much music can be enjoyed on CD, but for Chris Froh and his performance of 'Second Language,' you really have to be there.

Going backward, Varese, in 'Octandre', set a tone more than 75 years ago that composers value today. 'Octandre' opens with oboe, adds flute, bassoon and loud brass. There is what I call 'city sounds' but with the charm of separate instruments, like the piccolo and b-flat clarinet, the bassoon, and extensive use of oboe. The double bass and its recitation of the theme, and the rhythmic patterns by horn, trumpet and trombone, were particularly striking.

The next Empyrean Ensemble concert, Celebrating Merce Cunningham: in tHe sPirit of CAGE, is set for Sunday, January 13 at 7 pm. Tickets for this concert are $14.50 students and $29 adults. Concerts on April 15 and June 2 are priced at $9 and $18. All are set in the Studio Theatre, and pre-performance lectures begin an hour before each concert.

---Marilyn M. Mantay

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

New Music from Davis: Empyrean Ensemble

When the Empyrean Ensemble performed its annual concert of compositions by UC Davis graduate students on Wednesday, May 30, the Mondavi Center's Studio Theater was sparsely occupied and the excitement came mostly from students. Contemporary music has a limited audience among the general public. I myself listen, marvel at the musicians, and mostly learn. Someday I expect to listen, learn and thoroughly enjoy.

The music involved quick shifts from one volume, istrument, instrumental sound, or theme to another. The music seemed jumpy and lacking in flow; it occasionally assaulted the eardrums by its volume. But what might/should I have gained from attending this concert? The question needed pondering, even a little historical thought.

This contemporary music is not attached to religious ritual or to dances or other celebrations. For the most part, it is not attached to song, although a vocal part might have a role equal to other instruments. Some segments might suggest a dance but only briefly; there could bed hints of bird calls or street sounds. But the music is far removed from that of 20th century composers, for whom these sounds were still---as in earlier music---embellishments. Today, discrete sounds are not ornaments: they ARE the music. Aha!

From composers' advance comments, I knew there were themes. But I heard fragments of themes, as through a briefly opened window or a radio with stations being skimmed over. I could not decide whether these sounds were inspired by real life or by web-surfing experiences. Yes, life has changed, and certainly differs greatly between generations.

So what did this 21st century music attempt? I waited for it to carry me along, as by a melody or a steady beat. There must have been some tempo: conductor George Thomson conducted the six musicians who played Nathan Davis's `After Joyce' and Jonathan Wilkes's `Inner Movement'. And flutist Stacey Pelinka---for Ching-Yi Wang's `Strain, Strive, Struggle'---took the lead, nodding to keep violist Ellen Ruth Rose and Leighton Fong together on their entrances.

But rather than continuity, I experienced different kinds of change: from soft and smooth to loud and abrupt, a theme cut off only to be resumed some time later, and certainly many unexpected and unfamiliar sounds from the instruments. Would the piccolo shriek or play a light quick melody? Would a cello sound as low as thunder with a drum enhancing its growl? I concluded that I was to enjoy this variety---that these sounds, discrete as they seemed to me, comprised the music.

Pelinka's flute and Peter Josheff's clarinet seemed to be joined by electronics in Stuart Miller's opening `Zephyr'. From soft and distinguishable voices, the music came to sound garbled before it returned to lovely, assured solos.

Sue-Hye Kim's `Trio' featured Pelinka, Anna Pressler on violin and Michael Seth Orland, piano. At first I could not hear anything but the piano, but when its discordant chords became soothing and calm, the other instruments, with their changeable tones, were clearly audible. There were constrasts, as in leaps from low to high pitches, a pattern of sound that seemed weird, inventive---from frantic screeches to bright, light passages that seemed attenuated echoes of what had gone before.

Wang's `Strain, Strive, Struggle' is a long, impressive piece that begins in abrupt staccato and softens to a smooth cello solo. The second part opened with those abrupt leaps, and then veered between softness and agitation. The plucks and puffs of the third part made for exciting listening; contrasted with sustained passages they were quite thrilling. The startle effects of part four were followed by soothing sounds, as of woodland with birds, in what could have been a sustained farewell. But that would not do, not these days. The last movement was strident and abrupt, ending suddenly.

Davis's `After Joyce' was played by Fong and Josheff, and by Tod Brody, flute; Terrie Baune, violin; Chris Froh, percussion; and Karen Rosenak, piano. In two parts, sustained is not a word one could often apply to the music; I'd choose fragmented and errant. Also sometimes distressingly loud. Drums blasted and piano banged. The winds play melody, as do violin and clarinet. Grand variety for percussion. Allthough there are quiet bits, the closing volume makes it difficult to decide whether to return after intemission. ''Pretty awesome'' was a congratulatory phrase I heard being offered to the composer. Wish I could have felt that enthusiastic.

Karen Sunabacka's `Tecla for clarinet, violin, piano and percussion' had a discernible 4-note theme echoed and extended with repeats, in a performance by Josheff, Pressler, Rosenak abd Froh that found me writing underlined in my notebook, ''VERY nice.”

Carolyn O'Brien's 'Electrum for violin, cello and piano' had Pressler, Fong and Orland returning to perform unusual music: sustained notes would fall gradually giving an eerie quality; the piano had a dramatic quality. I found myself wondering not so much where music was going as how it was getting there. Perhaps that is the point!

Wilkes's `Inner Movement' featured Brody, Josheff, Baune, Froh, Fong and Rosenak. After an opening piano trill, the theme is introduced. To reveal my age, it sounds every bit like that 4-note 'Here comes Cantor' theme from old radio days. Amid the rapid shifts and changes, the great variety in percussion especially it gave me a baseline, almost the only one of the whole evening. The shrill trills and clashes were not easy to take. My ears were aided by a melodic piano at the end,

-- Marilyn Mantay

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Carmen, the Bizet opera with SF Opera Adler Fellows, UCDSO and UCD Chorus

On Sunday, 6 May 2007, at Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall, UCD musicians joined Adler Fellows from the San Francisco Opera to create one of the outstanding musical events of this or any musical season. Did you think ‘Carmen’ needed elaborate sets? A costumed chorus? Well, when it has leads like these, a few tables and chairs, and a chorus lined up anonymously behind a scrim, you have an opera. In the pit was the UCDSO with D. Kern Holoman, musical director for this opera, conducting. It was a splendid collaboration. Jackson Hall looked to be sold out, and the audience was spellbound.

Remember the Carmens you have seen, and you may feel as I do that none was as good as Kendall Gladen. Her Carmen was not a changeable woman trying different men for variety or gain. Watching Ms. Gladen’s moves and hearing her voice, it seemed that her Carmen lived deeply and profoundly in each moment. Change required effort: rooted in one situation, she had to pull hard to move; then she’d become as bound down, and in time as unhappy, again. Ms Gladen’s portrayal clarified Carmen’s demise. Absorbed in life, she found herself miserable; could death be any worse?

(Of course I know all about the card readings, but the fateful cards didn’t cause anything; they only confirmed Carmen’s misery. Or so I think after seeing Ms.Gladen’s Carmen.)

The buzz was about Ms. Gladen, but Noah Stewart was a remarkable Don Jose, especially as his voice warmed and the demands of the plot became more dramatic. No lovers could contrast more: Jose had had a happy childhood; it took Carmen to ruin his life. Jeremy Galyon, Escamillo, was as upbeat, thrilling and resplendant (credit Lynne Giovanetti for costumes that otherwise looked contemporary) as a bullfighter could possibly be. His plea to Carmen in Act IV was his tender, introverted moment.

Of the women, Ji Young Yang as Frasquita and Katharine Tier as Mercedes, contrasted soprano voices and combined lively acting to create a sort of ensemble for their friend Carmen. I haven’t heard such a charming high soprano as Ms Yang for a long time. Rhoslyn Jones’s Micaela left a little to be desired. She didn’t seem so much tender and persuasive with her message---Don Jose’s mother wishes he would leave the army and come home---as demanding. Perhaps her style was well-chosen, for soon enough Don Jose succumbed to Carmen. Micaela was the loser.

Paul Corujo sang Lt. Zuniga, who tried to tame Don Jose, but whose task overall was to maintain order outside the cigarette factory when Carmen and her comrades came out for lunch. Althugh his was the first demise, there was nothing to foretell such an end; Corujo remained military and in charge---wasted effort though it turned out, in this case, to be.

Baritone Eugene Chan sang the Corporal but also, in the last two acts, joined tenor Matthew O’Neill as a smuggler. In the sextet and the quintet, they were excellent, but I especially enjoyed their acting and would trust the rascally guys with my smuggling enterprise any time. Special praise for her attention to acting and detail must go to stage director Isabel Milenski. Stage Manager was Philip E. Daley and lighting was by Thomas J. Munn.

The production came about through the good auspices of the SF Opera, of opera-lover Barbara Jackson, and the UCD Departments of Music and of Theater and Dance. But think primarily of D. Kern Holoman, who acted as music director, and who also saw that the UCDSO got to San Francisco for rehearsals many times over a six-week period. Rumor had it that directors from the SF Opera and from the Los Angeles Opera were present on Sunday evening. I stand in awe at the work involved in producing any opera. But in this remarkable achievement, Professor Holoman and student singers and orchestra members were not intimidated by a new work to learn or even by distance. The opera program, which I’ll keep, is an achievement in itself; have you ever seen all the arias listed in an opera program? For fascinating program notes, also credit Professor Holoman.

----Marilyn Mantay

Add this: Mondavi Center presented the Cincinnati Symphony on April 21. Leonidas Kavakos was soloist for the Brahms Violin Concerto in D; other works were Erkki-Sven Tuur’s ‘Zeitraum’ and Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4. It was the best concert I’ve ever heard at Mondavi, or maybe anywhere. Did I review it? No, but that reminds me that for Davis Classical Review, this labor of love, I’d welcome comments, discussion, whatever you’d care to send.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Empyrean Ensemble, Double Trouble

Double Trouble, the title of Sunday evening's Empyrean Ensemble concert at Mondavi Center's Studio Theatre, brought to mind several possible meanings as the concert went on. 'Double trouble', applied to twins, means two independent persons; with this music, independent voices, whether instrumental, rhythmic, melodic, or a combination, were very clear. The Ensemble, directed by Laurie San Martin and Kurt Rohde, presented another superb program. Judging from questios asked of the composers' panel before the program, the audience seems comprised of contemporary music afficionados; where are people who like to chance something new?

As for two voices, there could be a C flute, played with notes alternating high and low, as Tod Brody did with The Heaven of Animals, the second part of composer Harold Meltzer's Rumors. The ear heard separate soprano and alto melodies. The first part, Trapset for Alto Flute, had the flutist, it seemed, communicating with the flute. Brody huffed into the mouthpiece, then depressed keys sets to make a rhythmic clicked response; this rhythmic exchange continued throughout the piece. Artist/instrument acquaintance established, near the end the flutist essayed familiar musical sounds. The third piece, Focus Group for piccolo, again had two voices, one higher one lower, alternating notes and thus creating, as with the C flute, two melodic lines. The creation of this complex music, by both composer and flutist, stands as a remarkable musical accomplishment.

Another contrast: viola (Ellen Ruth Rose) and percussion (Chris Froh) opened the evening with Peter Josheff's Viola and Mallets, composed especially for the Empyrean Ensemble and this occasion. Not only were there two instrumental voices but the contrast of lyricism and percussion. Rose's viola opened with a long, lingering line, like an eloquent sentence in no hurry to reach a period. Froh, with his mallets, played quick notes between viola notes but sustained some with a pedal, making the duet as rhythmic as it was lyrical. Returning the compliment, Rose created percussive sounds with her viola. Did we hear two women with violas and two men with mallets? It almost seemed that way.

Lee Hyla's We Speak Etruscan featured another amazing duo: Peter Josheff on clarinet and Kevin Stewart on baritone saxophone. Nobody, of course, speaks Etruscan, so why not imagine it as these two reed instruments? In Hyla's composition, the conversation ranges from unanimity and mildness to low growls, squawks and high-pitched screams. Sometimes they played together melodies with different time signatures, as (I think) ¾ and 4/4, creating not only intriguing rhythmic patterns but also unusual passing chords. A slow duet had notes that shimmered, and the rambunctious clarinet played against an imperterbable melody by the sax. One part of the piece sounded like city traffic, another like a visit to a jazz club. Ancient Etruscans visit New York? Whatever, musicians and composer infuse the piece with that essential ingredient: imagination.

After intermission, the earliest composition on the program, Sheila Silver's 1988 work, G Whiz, almost seemed like old familiar ground, in terms of structure if not of instrumentation. Violinists Terrie Baune and Anna Presler opened the first theme one after the other---think Three Blind Mice---and that man with the mallets, Chris Froh, entered with chords and percussive tones but melody as well. The violins could be soft and pretty, but the marimba gave the music a beat and a forward push. In the last section, Froh was agile and athletic, and the music full of excitement.

Kurt Rohde's three part Double Trouble brought together an ensemble of seven musicians---Brody, Josheff, Baune and Rose, plus violist Kurt Rohde, cellist Thalia Moore and pianist Karen Rosenak. Conductor was Mary Chun.

In keeping with the idea of duality, the first part, Obsessive Compulsive, opens with sounds---plinks, planks and plunks---and with extreme tempos, one very fast and one slow. The piano introduces the melody, taken up by the strings, and even by piccolo and then the violin. It all seemed rather cacaphonous, tamed by the piano and melodious violas. Sharp chords brought this movement to a close. Double opened with atonal sustained chords; the theme began in the violas, which took the lead throughout. Spaziod opened like a frenzied hoe-down, clarinet and flute leading and strings emphasizing rhythm. At one point, clarinet sounded like a foghorn, and the fast-paced, noisy section sounded less like a dance than a melee. The violas played the theme in unison, there were melodic gestures from other instruments, then a special flourish from the piano...and an abrupt end.

I loved this concert not only for the remarkable music but also for what it taught about listening and hearing. The music is complex, but the way notes and voices are distributed---spread out, divided, not so much smoothed out or intertwined---you can pay attention and hear, say, a melody developing one note at a time and another, with alternate notes, doing the same thing. You hear an atonal chord emerge, stabilize, change and disappear. I do not have the expertise to appreciate total structure, but I always heard what was going on.

The closing Empyrean Ensemble concert, New Music from Davis, is set for Wednesday, May 30, at 8 pm in the Mondavi Center Studio Theatre.

---Marilyn Mantay 3 April 2007

Thursday, March 1, 2007

University Symphony Concert

On Sunday evening in Jackson Hall, D. Kern Holoman and his UC Davis Symphony Orchestra opened their concert with the world's great crowd pleaser, the Prelude and Intermezzo to Bizet's opera, Carmen. And for solos to come later in the program, this was a good warm-up for flute, piccolo, harp, trumpet, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and no doubt a few more instruments I missed. The fervor of the opener also prepared for the combination of romantic and contemporary music in Laurie San Martin's elegant Cello Concerto (2006) composed especially for the UCDSO and cellist David Russell. I doubt that any composer could have been happier with a premiere performance.

For the Cello Concerto, the orchestra was small and select; esides strings there was a single flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet and trombone, two each of trumpets and horns and a dazzling array of timpani. San Martin's orchestra, with easily discernible separate voices, seemed light and quick, keeping one's ears alert to the erratic and the unexpected. The contrast of winds and timpani with the sonorous depths of solo cello and its orchestral counterparts made exciting music indeed.

The clarity and variety of orchestral instrumentation did something else: underscored and emphasized that David Russell's cello also had many voices. He played charmed melodies, sustained or shimmering tones. He emphasized tempos with plucked strings. And sometimes his attackes upon his instrument were vigorous to the point of being vicious.

To give an example, toward the end of the second movement of Ms. San Martin's two-movement concerto, the flute played an ascending/descending melodic line; the clarinet played higher, and the piccolo highest of all. Well, not quite. Mr. Russell , challenged by that rise in pitch, sustained a tone but brought the pitch higher and higher by sliding his finger up a string. As his very high note faded into silence, I was still trying to decide whether cello or piccolo had the higher ceiling.

The first movement was 'pensive and steady' as the composer indicated, but the second was more excited than 'vibrant.' For a moment, the trombone squawked and the cello screeched, as though one were suddenly on a busy, noisy boulevard. Evenutally, the voices mellowed and melody returned, but not forever. Sustained tremulous notes of the cellos seemed to set the world aquiver, and Russell's low register could make one weep. With all this agitation, the bright, quick gestures of the timpanists were hopeful flickers of light.

In other words, this was a thrilling performance that I'd like to hear again. Will there be a CD?

After intermission, the orchestral cello still reigned in Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G Major, opus 88. (Yes, there was Mr.Russell sitting in.) It was still a marked shift from 21st century magical elegance to this full-bodied romantic work. Opening, the cellos predominated in introducing the solemn theme, then trumpers raised the volume and violins the pitch. The second movement had a gentler, slower quality as strings and winds played the theme. But the accompaniment was almost too loud. (Given the possibility, can young musicians wake up too much?)

The sweep of violins and flutes with a descent to cellos and basses gave the third movement a sobering opening. Then duets of flute and winds were beautiful songs. Violins also elevated the pitch and the mood, and lively tempos captured one's interest. The fourth movement featured cello and bass sections in a resumption of the theme, but a trumpet opening suggested we were celebrating something. The strings and brasses that entered seemed loud and harsh. String players seemed to hammer their instruments. Trombones, surprisingly, became a softening influence. A duet of low and high strings was more mellow, but the orchestra turned the volume up for the last repetitions of the theme.

Bravos and applause were, not surprisingly, much louder than the orchestra had been. The lesson: composers like Dvorak and San Martin offer such variety in their work that no audience will fall asleep!

Marilyn M. Mantay, editor and critic

Monday, February 5, 2007

Cello Shots--Opening evening concert of UCD's 2007 Cello Festival

From lyric melodies to thunderstrokes and low growls to mouse-like squeaks, the cello, as heard on Friday night in UCD's Studio Theatre, had many voices. With piano added for two pieces and taped speech for a third, the musical sounds were multiplied, transporting the capacity audience to a new auditory world.

The cello was celebrated that evening with compositions dating from 1922 (Manuel Maria Ponce) to 2004 (Karen Sunabacka). The featured musicians are well-known and exceedingly popular. Cellists were Jennifer Culp, Jean-Michele Fonteneau, Leighton Fong, Andrew Luchansky, David Russell (Artist-in-Residence) and Susan Lamb Cook (Director of the Festival). Pianists were Betty Woo and Natsuki Fukasawa.

Playing Alexander Tcherepnin's First Sonata in D Major, Op. 2, (1924), Ms Culp and Ms. Woo shared, contrasted and exchanged themes, tempos and moods. They seemed often to move independently, but sometimes they clearly supported each other, as though simultaneity were the goal of their performance. The cello could, of course, sustain notes and project torment or sorrow while the piano with speed and arpeggios projected excitement. At the end, a staccato piano and plucked strings were united.

David Russell's interpretation of Jonathan Harvey's Curves with plateaux (1982) began with his explanation: the music would rise to a plateau and then come down again. When he began to play, I heard an 8-note theme but then a pounding, shrieking, plucking, sliding kaleidoscope of sounds. The theme would fade in a high-pitched whistle as Russell slid a finger up a string. Sustained two-note chords, low dramatic tremors, and finally, ecstatic bounces, ended in sudden silence, which was, even though it concluded the piece, still part of the music..

Mr. Fonteneau's approach to Henri Dutilleux' 3 Strophes sur le nom de Paul Sacher for solo cello (1981) seemed in the first movement thoughtful, as though the artist were testing different effects, listening to a gentle bouncing of his bow then an energetic bounce; then scales; then quiet tones interrupted by plucking. He played a melody slowly in each register, his elaboration on low tones felt the most exciting. As he approached the end of the work, his playing was a fast scramble, then melody and scale passages were plucked, like perhaps a 'kitten on the strings'. The melody, softened, returned, and a scale swept softly up the strings. A sustained note was the close.

Mr. Fong's cello and and the electronic voices of young girls---recorded at summer camp by composer Karen Sunabacka---contrast and only toward the end seem to interact. 'And then I crow' has a first clear voice saying 'And then I cry', but soon many voices are talking, high-pitched, chattering; the speed is fast, speeches are fragmented, but all seems cheerful if incomprehensible. 'And then I crow' one girl speaks with clarity, but chatter and giggles return. Meanwhile, Fong's cello is slow, serious and lyrical. A girl crows like a rooster. After that, words are clear and slow, fitting the mood of the cello. No sooner has that happened than the cello is plucked three times and the music ends.

Mr. Luchansky played the most moving work of the evening, Henry Cowell's Grave in Memory of John F. Kennedy, Jr., for Cello Alone. This cello voice was reverent, somber and mournful, certainly as the composer intended. The theme was long, played smoothly, but sometimes the cello became a vigorous, even angry voice. Loss is not experienced peacefully. But Mr. Luchansky's quiet close left the audience silent, living, or re-living, a tragic time.

Ponce's Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (1922), performed by Ms. Cook and Ms. Fukasawa, took the audience to a concert hall in a time when music was ornamented, romantic, colorful, sometimes percussive, often shimmering---no doubt very difficult to play but a great pleasure to hear. Piano and cello were full partners and began by presenting a slow, gorgeous melody.

For the allegro, the piano is sprightly and the pianist magnificent. She clearly has need for her page-turner. The cello is in a romantic mode.

The arietta is soft and pretty, the two instruments echoing each other. The piano charms with its lightness and trills, the cello with a quiet closing theme.

The fourth movement, allegro burlesco, opened with sharp, sudden chords, and the cello, too, was jumpy and fast. Contrasts abounded: loud and soft, enchanting and turbulent, lyrical and abrupt. The duo came together in a slow melody, but then it became fast, staccato, loud---returning, it seemed, to the movement's brilliant opening.

Yes, I loved this concert and look forward to every celebration of the cello that Susan Lamb Cook, the UCD Deparrment of Music, and fine musicians like these can bring to Davis.

---Marilyn M. Mantay 5 February 2007

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Empyrean Ensemble

Professor Andrew Frank was honored on Sunday at a concert, 'Night Music,' by the UC Davis Empyrean Ensemble. Not only did the program---in Mondavi Center's Studio Theatre---include performances of two of Mr. Frank's 21st century compositions but also works, by other composers, that represented the 35-years he has been a member of the UCD music department. This 'Night Music' could not be confused with slumber songs. As Kurt Rohde, co-director with Laurie San Martin, explained in his introduction, this would be night music for grown-ups.

The concert was musically and theatrically appealing. Grown-ups being offered such an involving and exciting experience? Even in restrospect, a thrill remains.

Au bout de la nuit, Mr. Frank's Nocturne, opened the program, and his Matinee d'Ivresse was the closing work. In between was a show-stopper, double-bassist Michel Taddei's musical and gestural performance of Jacob Druckman's 'Valentine' (1969); then a remarkable ensemble work, George Crumb's 'Night of the Four Moons' from the same year; Arlene Zallman's Variations for Piano on a Villanella by Marenzio (1992); and Andy Tan's 'Madiola' (2006) for viola and piano.

The Nocturne, composed for the Empyrean Ensemble first in 2001 and revised in 2006, sounds like the music of imagined woodlands, whether the composer's or mine, I don't know, but the music at times evokes birdcalls, gentle winds or trembling leaves. With Stacey Pelinka, flute, and Florian Conzetti and Loren Mach, percussion, the mood ranged from bright to melancholy and the interaction from affectionate to argumentative. The trio sometimes became a duet, with flute seeming separate from percussion, briefly dominant. How does music of nature end? As it's imagined anyway, it can simply, abruptly, stop.

The Nocturne looks back, it seemed to me, to Mr. Frank's earlier work. In decided contrast, his Matinee d'ivresse has its focus on the music as it is to be played here and now. It celebrates the instruments: flute (Tod Brody; clarinet (Peter Josheff); violin (Terrie Baune); cello (Leighton Fong); percussion (Chris Froh) and piano (Karen Rosenak).

Not all instruments were equal---the flute and its frequent partner the clarinet took the lead---but in Mr. Frank's through-composed plan, every instrument had at least one solo and also played in combinations. The full-voiced sections near the end were particularly striking, but I don't have a word for the effect. Each voice was still too independently audible, not only because of differences in tonality and resonance but also because of timing and even pitch, to call their joining harmonious. To maintain a voice while still performing together: Mr Frank, in his attention to instruments, is still creating evocative music---perhaps an exhilarating, but realistic, view of the world today.

The other new work, Mr. Tan's 'Madiola,' suited Ellen Ruth Rose and Karen Rosenak so well that it could have been written for this excellent viola-piano duo. Initially, the piano is the rhythmic instrument while the viola is the melodist, but the roles soon reverse. The fast opening is followed by a meditative second section. But Mr. Tan is good at compression, or perhaps shorthand. One hardly has time to become thoughtful before he takes his audience to a third section marked by leaps and volume and speed. He finally seems to reduce the melody to two notes, giving those to the viola. From repeated single notes to a short melody that expands and back to single notes again: the piece seems almost one of musical evolution and decline.

If the 21st century music ruefully reflects today's world, George Crumb's work from 1969 magically recalls the Apollo 11 flight and is full of longing, wonder and moments of sheer delight. The origin of instruments, from Asia to Africa, makes this music for the world. The vocal part is incredible---Katharine Tier, alto---and the thumb piano (mbira)---Chris Froh, percussion---has an important role. With Karla Lemon conducting, the musicians, in addition to Ms. Tier and Mr. Froh, were Tod Brody, alto flute/piccolo; Leighton Fong, electric cello;

and Brendan Evans, banjo.

From the opening La Luna Esta Muerta, Muerta, Ms. Tier's remarkable voice captured not just the ear but the soul. She sounded plaintive and sorrowful against flute, banjo and cello, and her voice was a whisper against the flute at the end. Cuando Sale La Luna opened with a tiny kitten cry from the cello. A melody, rising by short leaps, began with the flute and was taken by the voice, perhaps less immaculately clear than with the opening, and ended in a fading whistle. The third verse, Otro Adan Oscuro Esta Sonando, opens with finger piano and piccolo and a voice. Soon there are more voices, childlike, the finger piano and other percussive instruments, and always a sustained cello. The last verse, in which the child cries out to the moon to fly away (Huye, Luna, Luna, Luna), had the musicians departing one by one, the singer leading the way. The cello, with sustained tones, remained. Then, from an unseen room, came music of an entirely different kind, as though from a party where grown-ups were dancing. If you were the child (or the cellist), you'd hear it as though a door were opened, closed, open, closed. You'd hear that romantic music but remain alone with the moon.

Crumb's music and these fine musicians totally engaged the senses, the mind, and the heart.

Arlene Zallman's Variations for Piano on a Villanella by Marenzio, composed in 1992, was played by Karen Rosenak---a tribute to the composer, who died in November. Throughout, the music changed from rapid to thoughtful, from deliberate and soft to deliberate and fast, from sustained and wavelike to sustained and slow. Two notes---only two---played not quite as a chord, seemed somehow romantic. Then, sustained and slow, a lovely, long (I think, 10-note) melody closed an absorbing piece that was varied and adventurous throughout.

--Marilyn Mantay 23 January 2007