Both Homage and Nostalgia for Sergeant Pepper at the UC Theater


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Creative, practical staging and lighting was a unifying factor in this triumph from Undercover Presents.

There was a full house at the UC Theater on this Saturday, June 3rd in Berkeley.  It was the only performance of this homage to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album which was released 50 years ago (actually June 2, 1967).  Most of the performers were not even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes when this landmark of music came on the scene.  The “Summer of Love” was happening in the Bay Area and this album was unquestionably an influence then.  Tonight’s show demonstrated how that influence continues.

The audience was a mix of aging hippies (and non-hippies) and younger hipsters (is it OK to use that term and have no negative connotation?).  Some, no doubt, came for a bit of nostalgia remembering where they were when they first heard the original.  Some came to hear the creativity of local artists meeting such a challenge.

It would have been easy to simply do average covers of the songs and cater only to the nostalgia but Lyz Luke’s Undercover Presents, as usual, aimed higher than that (and hit their mark).  They, under the direction of guest producer Joe Bagale, curated a show of creative interpretations of each of the 13 tracks utilizing some of the finest of the massive talents that call the Bay Area home.  The end result was a true homage from another generation of marvelously diverse artists who put their stamp on the iconic songs without losing any respect for the power of the originals.

Simple but effective stage design by Bridget Stagnitto was reminiscent of the iconic album cover with creative lighting and functional information integrated into the tableau.  Ryan John and Brendan Dreaper were lead sound engineers.

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As is customary for these shows the bands played the tracks in their original order beginning with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra’s instrumental cover of the opening track.  Principal trombone Rob Ewing’s arrangement captured the essence of that opening and effectively set the stage for what was to follow.

(Correction:  Per Joe Bagale the opening number was arranged by soprano saxophone player Michael Zilber.)

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Vocalist Dublin sang a bluesy solo version of “With a Little Help From My Friends”, those friends being the Jazz Mafia Accomplices

Guitarist Jon Monahan takes responsibility for this arrangement which veered just a bit off of nostalgia to deliver a very effective solo vocal version (the original you may recall had that call and answer thing going on) of this, one of the best known tracks on the album.  Though it was not obvious, perhaps there was some homage intended to the late Joe Cocker who first saw the bluesy potential here when he presented his justly famed version at Woodstock in 1969.

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Raz Kennedy made effective use of backup singers in his soulful take on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  He shared arranging credit with Nick Milo.  The spirit of the Supremes, Gladys Knight (and of course the Pips), and maybe a touch of James Brown seemed to be present in the house and this arrangement got a great review from the audience.  What a voice!

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Eyes on the Shore shared arranging credits in their digital synth inflected take on Getting Better.  They went further afield with the material than some and may have briefly lost the pure nostalgia seekers but the arrangement clearly succeeded in pleasing the crowd. One would expect that psychedelia be transformed by the digital world, right?  And so it was.

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The Avant Jazz Funk duo of Scott Amendola on percussion and Will Blades on Hammond Organ (how’s that for nostalgia?) and Clavinet turned in a very intense and rich improvisational battle in their purely instrumental version of “Fixing a Hole”.  Sometimes the melody was there and sometimes it was transformed in a musically psychedelic way that went quite a distance from the original.  But the use of the Hammond Organ and Clavinet themselves provided reassurance that they wouldn’t go too far.  The performances were blazingly intense and the whole house felt it.

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We again were treated to soul with backup singers as Nino Moschella transformed the innocent ballad of adolescent alienation, “She’s Leaving Home”, into a more darkly hued version that seemed to reflect an understanding of the loss of that innocence that we all must face eventually.  Nothing somber here but clearly a different understanding consistent with the overall mission of having another generation’s way of remembering this material.

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South Asian music and philosophy are inextricably linked to the psychedelic sounds of the mid to late 1960s and nowhere is this more obvious than with the Beatles whose study of Transcendental Meditation with their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (born Mahesh Prasad Varma 1918-2008) while George Harrison studied sitar with Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920-2012).

Rohan Krishnamurthy (Mridangam, Hadjira frame drum), Prasant Radakrishnan (saxophone), and Colin Hogan (keyboard) share credits for their creative instrumental arrangement of “For Mr. Kite”.  Eschewing lyrics (which are etched in most of the audience’s minds anyway) they performed a stunningly unique rendition of this familiar song. Interestingly these musicians trace their influences to the southern Indian Carnatic tradition (somewhat different from the Hindustani traditions which influenced the Beatles) adding yet another layer of richness to the evening’s goings on.

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Colin Hogan indicts himself yet again in his arrangement of “Within You Without You”, that spacey Hindustani inflected song.  The Hogan Brothers (Steve Hogan, bass; Colin Hogan, accordion; Julian Hogan, drums; Moorea Dickason, vocals; Charlie Gurke, baritone sax) turned in a marvelous world fusion rendition of the tune (lyrics and all) to a hugely appreciative response.

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Iranian born Sahba Minikia, steeped in both Iranian and western classical traditions provided a touching arrangement of the classic, “When I’m Sixty Four”.  Featuring Mina Momeni on guitar and vocals (on video) accompanied by the Awesöme Orchestra in a song whose premise looks to the future as far as this evening looked into the past to ponder the endurance of romance.

In retrospect it is almost surprising that the marvelous diversity didn’t generate a presidential tweet of dissatisfaction.  Indeed a woman singing would produce more than a tweet of dissatisfaction in Tehran, birthplace of photographer and singer Momemi who also teaches visual arts in Canada.

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Vocalist Kendra McKinley practically turned “Lovely Rita” into a feminist anthem with some retro pop group choreography and background vocals to boot.  The visuals and the energy of the performance practically had the whole house dancing.

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Soltrón added Latin percussion and energetic dance to the already electrified atmosphere with their arrangement of the raucous “Good Morning”.  Kendra McKinley could be seen and heard tying in her energy from the previous performance as backup singer here.

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Lyz Luke stepped in to introduce the penultimate Sgt Pepper Reprise.

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The dancing energy was carried on by the colorful and energetic dancers of Non-Stop Bhangra.  They accompanied Rohan Krishnamurthy and Otis McDonald in Joe Bagale’s rocking arrangement (replete with lyrics) of the reprise of the opening.  It was like a live action version of the studio executed original performance with a stage filled with ecstatic musicians and dancers.

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Joe Bagale in his Sgt Pepper duds sings the lyrics hoping we’d enjoyed the show.

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The apocalyptic, “A Day in the Life” concluded the mission of homage and nostalgia in a bigger than life tableau of talent and diversity that connected the “there and then” to the “here and now”.  The famous extended last chord crashed in a peak of energetic music making to bring the performances to a close.

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The visuals were strongly reminiscent of the iconic album cover.

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There was no need to encourage the audience to sing along to the encore of “All You Need is Love”.  Fifty years hence we still need it and if we still don’t have it everywhere at least we had it here this night.

 

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End of an Era and a Summation: In the Mood for Food Dinner/Concert Series


Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland's Chapel of the Chimes.

Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes.

For a variety of reasons I have not been able to spend any time with this blog for the last month or two but recent events tell me that I must find the time to get back online and publish.  My apologies to all who are awaiting reviews and such.  They will now be forthcoming.

This past Saturday night June 27, 2015 is among the last of this East Bay series which has been with us for the last 10 years.  Philip Gelb, vegan chef extraordinaire, shakuhachi player and teacher has announced that he will be relocating to New York in the next few months.

I personally discovered this series shortly after I moved to the bay area.  In a nondescript West Oakland neighborhood in a modest loft live/work space I found a vegan dinner which also featured a performance by Bay Area composer/performer Pamela Z.  One concert/dinner and I was hooked.   The opportunity to meet and hear many wonderful musicians and enjoy the amazing culinary magic was just too much to resist.  I have been a regular attendee at many of these concerts and they all are valued memories.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre at one of his dinner/concerts.

Philip Gelb with Joelle Leandre at one of his dinner/concerts.

Phil, who studied music, ethnomusicology and shakuhachi has been a familiar performer in the Bay Area.  In addition to performing and teaching the Japanese bamboo flute, Phil has run a vegan catering business and began this series some ten years ago modeled on a creative music series founded in part by the late Sam Rivers.  As a musician Phil has gotten to know many talented and creative musicians who performed on his series.  Phil is a friendly, unpretentious man with great talents which he successfully combined here.

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Phil and sous chef Cori preparing the evening’s feast.

The 20 seats were sold out for the annual Masumoto Peach dinner.  At the peak of the harvest each year Phil has put together multiple course dinners featuring locally grown organic peaches from the now four generation Masumoto family orchard near Fresno .  In fact a recent film (information on the Masumoto page linked above) has been made about them called, “Changing Seasons” and one of the filmmakers was in attendance.  There was a short discussion with Q and A at one point.

Happy diners anticipating the next course.

Happy diners anticipating the next course.

No music this night but wonderful food and friendly conversations filled the evening.  The meal began with, of course, a taste of the actual peaches.

sous chef Cori serving the peach halves that began the dinner.

sous chef Cori serving the peach halves that began the dinner.

The next course, a peach tomato gazpacho.

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Followed by a grilled peach salad with cashew cheese balls, arugula radicchio,, pickled red onions, and a cherry balsamic dressing.

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Oh, yes, a nice Chimay to quench the thirst.

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And then tempeh char siu wontons (from the local Rhizocali Tempeh), flat tofu noodles, a really great hot peach mustard and peach sweet and sour sauce.

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The main course: peach grilled seitan, peach barbecue sauce, roasted corn and peppers, and some crunchy fried okra.

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And, for dessert, peach rosewater cake with peach walnut sorbet.  As is his custom Phil went around offering more of that sorbet which most folks, present writer  included, availed themselves.

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This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

But, as I said, this tradition is coming to an end.  Not to fear, however.  Phil is in the process of writing a cookbook sharing the secrets of his culinary mastery and the book will also document some of the many musicians whose talents graced many an evening here.

La Donna Smith and India Cooke playing an improvised duet.

La Donna Smith and India Cooke playing an improvised duet.

Bassists Mark Dresser and Barre Phillips play together for the first time at In the Mood for Food.

Bassists Mark Dresser and Barre Phillips play together for the first time at In the Mood for Food.

The amazing Stuart Dempster at Phil's loft a few years ago.

The amazing Stuart Dempster at Phil’s loft a few years ago.

Gyan Riley, Terry Riley and Loren Rush attending the dinner/concert which featured Stuart Dempster.

Gyan Riley, Terry Riley and Loren Rush attending the dinner/concert which featured Stuart Dempster.

Pauline Oliveros and her partner Ione performing at a recent dinner.

Pauline Oliveros and her partner Ione performing at a recent dinner.

So this little sampling of photos provides some idea of the scope and significance of this series.  Happily it is being documented in a book for which an Indiegogo campaign is presently in process.  You can donate and receive any or many of a variety of perks ranging from a copy of the book for $40 and perks including an invitation to celebratory dinners planned in both New York and Oakland.  My copy and my dinner invite are reserved.

There are 34 days left in the campaign at the time of this writing and the project is now at 106% of its funding goal.  This is a piece of Bay Area music and culinary history that will please music enthusiasts and those who appreciate creative vegan cuisine.

Here is a list of musicians taken from the campaign site to give you an idea of the scope of the series:

Tim Berne – alto saxophone (Brooklyn)

Shay Black – voice, guitar (Berkeley via Ireland)

Cornelius Boots shakuhachi/bass clarinet

Monique Buzzarte – trombone, electronics (NYC)

Chris Caswell (2) – harp (Berkeley)

Stuart Dempster – trombone (Seattle)

Robert Dick (flute) NYC

Mark Dresser (2) – bass (Los Angeles)

Mark Dresser/Jen Shyu duet – bass, voice/dance

Sinan Erdemsel – oud (Istanbul)

Sinan Erdemsel/ Sami Shumay duet – oud, violin

Gianni Gebbia – saxophones (Palermo, Italy)

Vinny Golia- winds (Los Angeles)

Lori Goldston – cello (Seattle)

Frank Gratkowski (2) – clarinets, alto sax (Berlin)

Daniel Hoffman/Jeanette Lewicki duet violin, voice/accordion (Berkeley, Tel Aviv)

Shoko Hikage – koto (Japan-San Francisco)

Yang Jing – pipa (Beijing)

Kaoru Kakizakai (4) – shakuhachi (Tokyo)

Marco Lienhard shakuhachi (Zurich-NYC)

Mari Kimura – violin, electronics (Tokyo-NYC)

Yoshio Kurahashi (5) – shakuhachi (Kyoto)

Joelle Leandre – contrabass (Paris)

Oliver Lake – alto sax (NYC)

Riley Lee (2) shakuhachi (Australia)

Jie Ma – pipa (China, LA)

Thollem Mcdonas Jon Raskin duet piano/sax (wanderer/Berkeley)

Roscoe Mitchell – alto, soprano saxophones (Oakland)

David Murray – tenor sax (Paris)

Michael Manring (5) – electric bass (Oakland)

Hafez Modirzadeh – winds (San Jose)

John Kaizan Neptune – shakuhachi (Japan)

Rich O’Donnell – percussion (St. Louis)

Pauline Oliveros (2) – accordion (NY)

Tim Perkis/John Bischoff duet computers (Berkeley)

Barre Phillips solo and duet with Mark Dresser – contrabass (France)

Alcvin Ramos shakuhachi (Vancouver)

Tim Rayborn/Annette duet oud, strings, recorders (Berkeley/Germany)

Jon Raskin/Liz Albee duet sax/trumpet (Berkeley/Berlin)

Jane Rigler – flute (Colorado)

Gyan Riley (5) – guitar (NYC)

Terry Riley (2) – voice, harmonium (universe)

Diana Rowan (2) – harp (Berkeley/Ireland)

Bon Singer/Shira Kammen duet (voice, violin) (Berkeley)

LaDonna Smith/India Cooke duet (2) violin, viola (Birmingham, AL, Oakland)

Lily Storm/Diana Rowan – voice, harp (Oakland/Ireland)

Lily Storm/Dan Cantrell (2) – voice/accordion (Oakland)

Howard Wiley – tenor Saxophone solo and duet with Faye Carol voice

Theresa Wong/ Ellen Fullman duet

Amy X (3) – voice, electronics (Oakland)

Pamela Z – voice, electronics (San Francisco)

Certitude and Joy, the World of Wold


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This is one of those operas whose title evokes irony right at the start.  Like Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Rustic Chivalry) and Virgil Thomson‘s “Four Saints in Three Acts” the title Certitude and Joy hardly seems to evoke the right emotions in this harrowing story taken right from the headlines of a case in 2005 in which a mother kills her children and dumps their bodies in San Francisco Bay.  This is contrasted with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in which God tells Abraham to slay his son.  Of course God stopped Abraham in the bible story but that was not the case with the more recent story.

English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, pai...

English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, painted by Lynne Rutter. oil on panel, 2002 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erling Wold (1958- ) is a composer of whom I had been only distantly aware.  He is a California native and has studied with Andrew Imbrie, Gerard Grisey and John Chowning.  That right there gives you a clue to this man’s compositional range and skills.  He completed a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in 1987 and has worked for Yamaha creating new synthesizer programs in addition to pursuing his musical interests.

The San Francisco Bay Area has such a rich and varied musical culture that it is not all that surprising to me that I hadn’t come to know this fascinating composer.  And it’s taken me a while to absorb enough about Mr. Wold to feel that I could write something intelligent about this CD.

The composer’s web site (click here) contains a plethora of scores and sound recordings of this prolific and interesting composer.  And there are numerous offerings on You Tube and there is a blog linked on his web site in which he discusses a variety of topics not the least of which is his own music.  It seems that he has created several operas including one based on William S. Burroughs’ early but long suppressed novel, Queer.  His chamber operas, A Little Girl Contemplates Taking the Veil and his opera on Pontius Pilate illustrate his interest in both religious and political themes.

I won’t even try to get into his orchestral, chamber and solo piano works.  That is the job of a future blog which I can assure you will happen.  But the main point of this blog is to look at this most recent offering of his chamber opera Certitude and Joy.

As best as I can describe in words, Wold’s accompaniment figures remind me of Philip Glass or John Adams at times but he is not a simple derivative  of these composers.  His vocal lines, almost all sung as opposed to spoken, are more like recitatives than arias and  suggest a more ensemble feel as opposed to the grand opera style of arias, duets, etc.

Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words

Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His libretto, ripped from the headlines so to speak, is a combination of philosophical musings, imagined dialogue and commentary from texts as diverse as Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelics and the more pedestrian musings of newspaper columns.  I think there is some affinity for Robert Ashley’s mysterious texts but again nothing derivative.  The work is perhaps political as social commentary but not as social protest.

What is important is that this work, thinly scored (though hardly thin in sound) for two pianos and a cast of singers, speaks directly and affectingly to the audience.  He manages to tell this tale in a fairly straightforward manner with occasional digressions for philosophical commentary.  But he never loses control of the narrative which flows on drawing you in to this sad story and leaves you with the questions he raises, albeit rhetorically, about the nature of religious revelation, mental  illness and the current state of our society and our world.  This is a tall order but Wold manages to fill it with just the right amount of drama and music that leaves the listener (and viewer if you see it live in person or on You Tube) seemingly with exactly the emotions I think the composer wrestled with in writing it.

Like the aforementioned Four Saints and Cavalleria, Certitude and Joy is a listener friendly opera with messages that are disturbing and go to the core of what it means to be human.  The performances by the fine duo piano team of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman (ZOFO) and singers Laura Bohn, Talya Patrick, Jo Vincent Parks, Kerry Mehling, Tranvis Santell Rowland with Bob Ernst, speaker and a cameo by the composer (I’ll leave that for listeners to find).  The beautiful recording on Paul Dresher’s MinMax label is distributed by Starkland and is available on Amazon and other outlets.  A worthwhile experience for all lovers of contemporary opera and drama.

Impossible, you say?


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The first scene

 

I had the pleasure of seeing the recent production of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson “opera” ‘Einstein on the Beach’ in Berkeley on October 28th.  I had seen the production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music 20 years ago and have loved the music since I first bought the recording issued on the short-lived Tomato record label (this is the performance now available on Sony).  It is clearly a work which compels me and has insinuated itself into my world view.

The production was beautiful.  The musicians as always played well under the precise and confident direction of Michael Riesman who has apparently conducted every performance of the opera (that alone is an astonishing feat).  The dancers were spectacular in their execution of Lucinda Childs’ unusual choreography.  And the solo violin played in this production by violinist Jennifer Koh breathed a new virtuosic life into the familiar solo part.

Dance with spaceship

The set design and lighting were about as good as it gets and the performers appeared to be well rehearsed and operated as well oiled parts of the unified whole of the machine that is Einstein on the Beach.  It was a production that was loving and well received by the audience (a genuinely appreciative standing ovation followed the performance) in this, the west coast premiere of this landmark piece from 1976.   It is certainly worth noting that it took 36 years for this to be produced in even this most liberal of musical places.

I have hesitated to write about this performance partly because I didn’t want to simply report my attendance and geeky satisfaction.  I wondered if everything has already been said ad nauseam about this piece and adding yet another adoring review would be pointless and dull.  But the performance (all 4.5 hours of it) left me with a renewed appreciation for the music and the visuals.  It reinforced my belief that this is a truly significant work of art and that it will continue to be revived.  However it is likely that this is the last revival we will see which has been supervised  by the original creators.  Philip Glass is 75 and Robert Wilson is 71.  Lucinda Childs is 72.  And there is at the time of this writing no heir apparent for the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The vaguely apocalyptic themes provide a sort of commentary for our times.  Like any great work of art it continues to take on meaning for subsequent generations.  It is both a response to the milieu in which it was created and a mirror in which is reflected the present time of its performance.  Don’t get me wrong.  This avant-garde masterpiece is hardly easy listening or easy viewing.  In addition to its length it is non-linear, devoid of plot and devoid of most of the conventions by which we normally judge and appreciate both theater and music.

But it has been embraced by many.  Mark Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2012 Fashion Show featured models walking up and down the runway to the sound of the opening “1, 2, 3, 4…” of the solo chorus which opens the work.  A Pepsi commercial from 2008 titled ‘Einstein’s Choice’ also featured that same chorus.  And the incidental music to any number of nature programs are frequently infused with the now familiar arpeggios endemic to Philip Glass’ compositional style.

Spaceship scene

Combine these things with the fact that revivals of this opera play to nearly or completely sold out houses in New York, France, Berkeley, Mexico City, Amsterdam and Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Granted the revivals are infrequent, the last being 20 years ago, but the draw of this work apparently remains strong suggesting that it is now and will likely remain in the repertoire.

I came away from this production with a sense of exhilaration that I feel when I encounter a great performance of a masterpiece by Mozart, Beethoven or John Coltrane, a sense of connection to a greater meaning such as one finds in all great works of art be they music, theater, painting, literature, film, etc.  And I don’t think I am alone in having felt that.

When I first began listening to this piece in the aforementioned Tomato recording I was both fascinated and perplexed.  I felt compelled to listen again and again and was perplexed at what I was hearing.  But history tells us that few seem to fully appreciate great art at the time of its emergence, that such appreciation takes time.  With time and repeated listenings I began to find the work grow on me, become familiar.

Seeing the 1992 revival in Brooklyn only further reinforced my sense that this is a very significant work and it remains one of my favorite pieces of music.  It is one of the pieces of music that feels to me like a personal discovery, one which I seem to have appreciated to some degree from my first encounter with it.  And my understanding as well as my affection for this work has only increased with time.

What remains to be seen is whether this work can continue to be successful in subsequent productions done by people whose connection to the work is less direct and whether it can continue to speak to subsequent generations.  The majority of the crowd at Zellerbach hall for this performance appeared to be in the 40 to 50+ category which may be in part due to the cost of a ticket.  I hope that it is not lack of interest.

For years, until the new recording was released on Nonesuch Records in 1993, I listened to the 1979 release which, due to the length of the music, abbreviated some of the repetitions to allow the recording to fit on 4 vinyl discs.  It is this recording which I know best and is most deeply imprinted on my memory.

Of course the experience is quite different with the accompanying visuals.  I had learned to appreciate the music alone with just of few still photos to kindle my imagination as to how the full production would appear.  And, not surprisingly, my first encounter with the full production in 1992 exceeded my expectations and provided a new and richer perspective on the meaning of this opera.

When I say “meaning” I am referring only to the meaning which I experience.  I don’t lay any claim to any special knowledge here.  And I think that this and all great works of art sustain their worth through their ability to mean and be associated with a variety of things.  Einstein has different meanings and associations for each individual and perhaps no ultimate “meaning”.

Even the texts associated with the piece are intentionally non-linear, make few concrete references to culture as a whole.  There is no story here, there are only visual images, sonic images and a variety of spoken words which, while in English, have mostly vague meanings.  The issue here is the emotional impact.

Epilogue (Knee Play 5)

‘Einstein’ has clearly affected me emotionally and I am witness to the its effect on the audiences of which I was a part.  When I tell people anything about the meaning of the work I invariably refer to it as “post-apocalyptic” metaphor which ends quite simply with a poignant little love story, if you will, a bedtime story for our times.  After some 4 hours of having presented it’s audience with a plethora of images the opera ends with two lovers on a park bench who sit silently while the bus driver, his vehicle moving slowly from stage right to stage center, narrates the scene.  The lovers sit quietly until, we are told, one speaks up and asks, “Do you love me, John?”  This other’s answer speaks from the throes of youthful optimism and love at first affirming his love and then, when asked, “How much do you love me?”, he answers, “Count the stars in the sky.    Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon.  Number the grains of sand on the seashore.”

This epilogue seems to suggest that, in the end, all that matters is how we experience each other, how well we succeed in communicating on a one to one level.  And perhaps that is also a metaphor for the work’s ability to communicate with subsequent generations.  While we try to communicate we succeed only sometimes.  Great art succeeds only sometimes.  The salient issue is having tried.  Despite the difficulties in communication, in love, in life, we try.  The opera ends in that 1979 recording with the chorus, two speaking voices, violin and organ all ending softly and definitively at the same time as the narration,  “Impossible, you say?”

Cançonièr at the Berkeley Festival Fringe


Full moon presides over exsanguinous tales.

Last night, local early music ensemble Cançonièr performed in what was their last appearance until next year.  In the somewhat noisy parish hall of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church this four member ensemble played a slightly condensed version of a program they have been touring for the last year or so.  It was a program called ‘Black Dragon’ with music from the first half of the 15th century, the time of the reign of Count Vlad Dracula, the historical antecedent of the vampire character.

Cançonièr is a four member ensemble co-directed by Tim Rayborn and Annette Bauer.  The other two regulars are Shira Kammen and Phoebe Jevtovic.  All are amazing instrumentalists and scholars in their own right and all play in other ensembles and groupings.

Tim Rayborn is a medieval scholar , multi-instrumentalist, singer and performer.  Annette Bauer is a recorder virtuoso, multi-instrumentalist and singer.  Shira Kammen plays vielle (antecedent of the violin/viola), medieval harp and sings.  And Phoebe Jevtovic is a singer who also does double duty by playing a small bell set in some of the pieces.

Annette Bauer demonstrates her virtuosity on the recorder.

Tim Rayborn

Tim Rayborn providing context and performing.

The group goes beyond their scholarship (which is excellent) and puts their performances in context.  They provide translations of the words they sing (frequently in dead or antiquated languages) and they connect with their audience with a pleasant sense of humor as well as drama.

Shira Kammen playing the vielle.

They clearly enjoy playing together and seem very connected, deriving great pleasure from making music.  And they produce a beautiful sound with their intricately crafted replicas of the instruments of the time.

Phoebe Jevtovic sings accompanied by Tim Rayborn on the lute.

One complaint.  The location of this church at Bancroft and Ellsworth makes for a bit of urban distraction provided by sirens and traffic.  And there were apparently other activities going on in the church complex which could be occasionally heard.  But the musicians and audience handled the distractions in a good-natured manner consistent with the rest of their performances.

They began and ended their intermissionless program with a narrative drama with music partly sung, partly spoken or intoned but performed with characteristic flair by Tim Rayborn accompanied by himself on frame drum and the ensemble.  This was a jaunty upbeat sounding piece at the outset that gives way to the narrative talking/singing about the infamous subject of this performance here called Dracula of Wallachia.  The language here sounded like an old German dialect and after the brief but harrowing telling of the story in speech and song (the speech gratefully rendered in English) the jaunty music of the beginning returns to conclude the piece.  One can imagine this being performed in a tavern or inn by a troubadour or group of musicians for the guests.

Rayborn then spoke to the audience providing more context by explaining that tonight’s music is from the time of the Count’s reign but that it is not known if he indeed had musicians in his court.  And for those who do not know the story of ‘Vlad the impaler’, as he was known, this is pretty grisly stuff.  Reality programming from the dark ages if you will.

There followed two more composed songs, a folk song, a traditional Romanian dance,  a heart-rending Moldavian chant passionately sung by Jevtovic and a traditional Bulgarian dance.

I have not bothered to mention the composers’ names (which were listed in the printed program) because they are very little know and would likely clutter this little narrative.  My apologies to the composers and the scholars if I have offended in my omissions.

Left to right: Shira Kammen, Annette Bauer and Phoebe Jevtovic demonstrating their vocal collaboration.

But the next piece was by a composer familiar to anyone who has taken a course in western music history, Guillame Dufay (1397-1474).  The work of this composer, who provided a lot of sacred music for the church as well as secular pieces, was so successful that his work and his name have survived the ravages of history.  The ‘Lamentio Sanctae Matris Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae’ required the vocal skills of all four in the group as well as instrumental accompaniment.  And they did so beautifully singing, we were told, in two different languages as the piece is originally written.

There followed an Italian dance, a Byzantine secular court piece called a “kratima” (spell check is practically useless here), a medieval Russian pilgrim  song and an Ottoman Turkish piece followed by a very spirited reprise of the first piece.

The ensemble clearly enjoys their music making.

All in all a very satisfying evening and a clearly appreciative audience sent this writer out into the Berkeley night not with nightmarish images but with the tunes of this joyful performance ringing in his head (medieval earworms?).  And I popped one of their CDs in my car stereo for the ride home.  I could easily hear this again.