Berkeley’s New Music portion of their Noon Concert Series kicked off today with a work by Dan VanHassel called Lush Intrinsic. Hopefully it wasn’t that great as I didn’t make it to the show in time for this piece. Rain and my poor judgment of how long it really takes to get to Berkeley from San Francisco both served to create a personal obstacle course between myself and aural bliss. Persistence paid off in that I didn’t miss the next two bits of music.
Babylon was composed by Liza White for trumpet and percussion. At first, with only Scott Macomber on stage, playing very drawn out descending pitches, it appeared that the music was going nowhere. At one point he even stopped to clear his spit valve and I assumed he was either warming up still or this was going to be one of those heavy-on-the-theory-weak-on-the-implementation sort of pieces. Either way, it was a bit awkward, especially as someone else walked on stage to, seemingly, move parts of a drum kit around. It wasn’t until drummer Jordan Glenn started to actually play said drum kit that I realized this was all part of the piece. Well, possibly not the spit valve part, although there was more “play acting” of sorts later in the performance as Macomber and Glenn both stopped and pointed back and forth at each other as if confused about who’s supposed to go next. According to White, the piece is about “personal restlessness” and “struggling to assert oneself in an honest way”. That being the case, I could see how these little bits of stagecraft would fit into the theme. The actually music was quite nice once it got going. The drums managed to echo White’s hip-hop influence without injecting hip-hop into the classical backdrop in a gimmicky way. The trumpet lines didn’t do as much to grab my attention and, in a way, seemed almost arbitrary. That being said, the piece worked quite well.
Matt Schumaker’s Tintinnabula for soprano and two pianos was last on the program. The title of this piece immediately made me think this was going to be some sort of tribute to Arvo Part until I remembered that the word is also Latin for “bell”. Come to think of it though, it was very clear that the work had anything to do with bells either. Apparently, Schumaker had funeral bells of sort in mind, possibly as a metaphor for the voice of a dead loved one, but even the program notes were a bit confusing on what exactly the intention was. So, I ignored the programmed notes and listened to the music as that’s probably the most important part of the whole experience. David Milnes conducted the work but I’m not too sure why. He didn’t do much to offset the balance issues between the pianos and soprano Julia Hathaway and pianists Ann Yi and Keisuke Nakagoshi were so focused on what was clearly a very complicated score that they rarely looked up to see the tempo that Milnes was calling for. It seemed they had it together anyway, which was amazing. The work had some clear rhythmic cues in the piano playing but there were so many chaotic flourishes throughout the piece that it’s hard to believe that anyone could keep a regular pace going in their head while playing them. The interplay between these two chaotic forces, the pianos that is, created some lovely textures and, after a while, started to sound solidly structured in some vague way. The piano playing also served to all but completely mask Hathaway’s singing. Possibly, assuming that the voice in the work is that of the deceased, this was the point. I’m hoping this is the case as the only alternatives would be poor writing or an inability to properly project on the part of the soprano. I did, overall, enjoy Mr. Shumaker’s music even if I did find myself wishing that he had written for two pianos by themselves.
Let’s hope that Berkeley continues to give the spotlight to people like these more often. Afterall, the sun was out by the end of the concert. I’m not a superstitious man, just saying..