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.