Classical Music Review: New Releases

Other Minds Festival 8.  Palace of Fine Arts Theater, San Francisco, CA. Mar 9, 2002.

Program making is an art, like planning a meal. You want each dish to be tasty, yet complement the whole. The same thing applies to music programs -- each piece should be distinctive, yet mutually contributory, otherwise what's the point? I only caught one program of last year's Other Minds Festival 7, a decidedly mixed bag of works by Ezra Pound, George Antheil, James Tenney, and Hi Kyung Kim. This year's OM8 -- again, I only heard its closer -- was far more nourishing, even fun. And the "theme" of this concert was the blues, meaning both the lamenting and the rejoicing kind.)

This was certainly obvious in the opening piece, Ellen Fullman's Stratified Bands: Last Kind Words, for Long String Instrument and Kronos Quartet (2001-2), which took its material from a song of the same name, a Delta blues on a 1930 recording by Geeshie Wiley. The composer walked between the two halves of her gleaming instrument -- yes, it was long   -- 90 feet --and the gimmick of the festival -- and produced a variety of bent pitches, both metallic and soft. A lot of the sounds resembled those made by a water glass being bowed, and there were big, sustained tones, which were exotically Asian and beautifully expressive. Kronos' parts contributed to the internal, yet expansive effect of the whole -- it aimed at transcendence -- and they projected them with refinement and grace.

New Zealander Annea Lockwood's Immersions, for quartz bowl, gong, tam-tam, and prepared tam-tam (1998), which followed, was a more passionate affair, and a more successful one. Ace percussionists William Winant and Ches Smith used a variety of playing techniques -- the gong, stroked in a circle, the tam-tams touched forcibly or softly -- to achieve Immersions' ends. Lockwood is an imaginative composer, and her sometimes sinister -- but in a good way -- piece ( it's got loads of what Garcia Lorca called duende ), also has a sense of subtly controlled drama. It's "irrational" -- it abruptly vanishes -- but seems perfectly logical, like a dream.

Brazilian composer Ricardo Tachucian's Estruturas Gemeas ( Twin Structures ), for piano 4-hands, was performed by keyboardists Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer of the renowned Manhattan new music group Continuum. Composed in memory of Esther Seliar, it features a tune suggestive of the "Dies Irae" chant, standard issue pointillist writing, hammered South American Indian rhythms, and tone clusters. The duo gave a pointed, passionate, and nuanced performance.

Cuban-American Tania Leon was represented by two works -- Arenas d'un Tiempo (Sands Of Time, 1992), and a five-song song cycle, Canto (2000), to poems by five different poets. The first piece, played by Continuum members David Gresham, clarinet; Kristina Reiko Cooper, cello; Tom Kolor, marimba; and Cheryl Seltzer, piano; was inspired by beaches Leon saw when she was in Rio. It had a wide coloristic range, and was most interesting as it got faster, with different rhythms jutting up against each other. Canto, sung here by baritone Tom Buckner, was impressively atmospheric, and most telling when simple. The composer's setting of Iraida Iturralde's Cancion de Cuna, for example, got its poignance from a strong expressive line which perfectly matched the words. Leon's song, from Jose Kozer's poem, Epitalmio, was also distinguished by a tango figure in the piano which perfectly evoked its mood -- an old couple making love vigorously while being "watched" by their wedding pictures taken 40 years ago. The tango is always emblematic of memory and desire -- how could it not be? -- and Leon's use of it here made perfect emotional sense. Her musicalization of Alina Galliano's XXIV was sensitively set, and driven by a suitably mechanical, syncopated rhythm. A meditation on time through time, which seemed to be the hidden scenario of the entire cycle too. Buckner sang with great élan; and he was ably partnered by the Continuum quartet, conducted by Joel Sachs.

After this came another intermission -- the first was after the Fullman -- during which the stage was re-set, and a sophisticated monitor sound system set up, for Randy Weston's jazz quintet African Rhythms. And the phrase --saving the best for last, was completely appropriate here. Contemporary music, especially the hardline modernist kind, is often supra-rational, and directed solely to the mind. But Brooklyn-born composer-pianist Randy Weston -- he turned 76 this April -- writes music which engages the whole person. And he charmingly introduced his band -- music director-saxophonist-flutist T.K. Blue; trombonist Benny Powell; bassist Alex Blake; and African percussionist Neil Clark; from the bench of his shiny Yamaha grand. Their set began with the very powerful and evocative "African Cookbook", from the band's 1991 album The Spirit of Our Ancestors, which gets its juice and its resplendence from Weston's completely thought-out yet deeply felt, and thrillingly voiced chords. These are frequently parallel, and Weston makes them sound either monumental or lyrically delicate, without the slightest show of strain. There was a world of nuance here, and the band contributed beautifully gauged sonorities to the total affect. Other numbers in the set were just as impressive, especially "The Shrine", from African Rhythms' CD Khephera, which is based on a mysterious blues-redolent figure from Weston's piano; and T.K. Blue's solo flute added to the primeval effect of this great tune. The set also included deeply poetic versions of "African Sunrise " (c. 1989, but probably composed much earlier ), which Weston wrote for Dizzy Gillespie and Machito, and Bobby Benson's seductively rhythmic "Niger Mambo." He also played his festival-commissioned piece, "Blues For Langston Hughes", which he wrote to observe the centenary of the poet's death, and to honor his personal friendship with him. Weston also dedicated it to his actor friend Mel Stewart (1929-2002), who has impersonated the role of the writer, and died this February. The composer performed this short, delicate, and deeply moving piece as a duet with bassist Alex Blake. And the audience, realizing, that the whole set was, to put it mildly, one from the heart, went crazy. This, obviously, was music for a reason, and a fitting end to an evening of blues of all kinds.

Michael McDonagh