The San Francisco Giants won the World Series and a rogue group of fans left the city in a state of disrepair. Crazy times. Mitt Romney’s threats notwithstanding, at least we will always have art to make sense of it all. And this past weekend’s adventures in Bay Area culture do nothing if not underscore what a weird and wonderful world we live in. I’d like to share some brief thoughts about my experiences…
Friday: Salon97, a refreshingly unstuffy organization which organizes listening parties for classical music fans, among other wonderful things, threw a Halloween Party. As soon as I arrived (very late, sadly) host Cariwyl Hebert thrust a kazoo at me and I joined a room of about 30 people, all of them armed with the small, plastic pipes. We instantly formed a kazoo orchestra and tootled our way through Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I’d never played a kazoo before, but I apparently have some natural talent for the instrument. The picture above comes from later in the evening, when Cariwyl lent me her Mozart wig and I performed snatches from Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bald Mountain for anyone who would listen. The evening was scary in the best way. Oh, and speaking of Mozart, check out Salon97′s YouTube Channel which features fun, short videos of the great composer engaged in everyday activities like building a couch fort, taking a shower and rocking out to his iPod.
Saturday: I sobered up enough to attend Cal Performances’ co-production of Einstein on the Beach at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. The four and a half hour experience flew by and I was so emotionally moved by it that I just had to walk out, jump in my car and head home when it was done. I didn’t have it in me to find my friends and discuss the experience, as had been planned. I don’t mean to sound glib when I say that there might be about as much “meaning” to be extracted from Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Child’s iconic 1975 work as there is from a kazoo orchestra. It’s the rhythm and shape of Einstein that are completely overwhelming. I just surrendered to the waves of repeated sounds and movements and shapes that whirled before my eyes. It was a little like sitting in a room staring at the paintings of Mark Rothko for a while. I had never seen the work before, and I was surprised to see how well is has stood the test of time. MIDI keyboards and saxophones are not new today as they were when the piece first premiered in France in 1976. And abstract, choreography-forward operas are equally entrenched in our culture. But somehow Einstein still feels fresh. I’m still trying to figure out why. Perhaps this has something to do with the focus and concentration of the performers and production team. It’s such a monumental undertaking. I’m still in a state of wonder at how the dancers manage to hold their arms in one position for half an hour without dying from lactic acid build-up and how the chorus members can remember such complex micro-patterns of notes for such extended periods of time. Their concentration and flow has a Zenlike effect on the audience. My body and mind were in a buzzing trance throughout. The whole abstract work ended with a simple, heartfelt love poem that went straight to the heart, which instantly dissolved any feeling of pretension and abstraction that I might otherwise have harbored if I had not been so swept away by the whole thing. I left feeling totally cleansed and quite strange.
Sunday: Clerestory is a ten-member men’s vocal ensemble whose singers have sung with some of the most prestigious groups in the country. Many of them used to be in Chanticleer (dubbed “the world’s reigning male chorus” a few years ago by The New Yorker). Having experienced the ensemble’s latest concert series featuring music inspired by the sea, I have to say that Clerestory is every bit as musical as Chanticleer, and has two crucial advantages over the more well-established group: wisdom and age. There are no leaders in Clerestory and the singers figure out a way between them to put an innovative program together and sing the pants off it. The SeaSongs concert series, performed yesterday in a cavernous, sunlit old Ford automobile plant on the water at Point Richmond in the East Bay, reflected Clerestory’s maturity and sense of togetherness. Old tunes by the likes of Dufay and Brahms sailed elegantly alongside Paul Crabtree’s rapturous “Lovely on the Water” and a newly commissioned work by Eric Banks, “These Oceans Vast.” The Banks piece was the high point of the concert. The six-movement song cycle, which traces a sea voyage (both physically and metaphysically) through easy and turbulent waters, showcased the singers’ ability to listen carefully to one another, bring out key lines in dense textures and make every word of the poems by Herman Melville upon which the cycle is based, heard. I should also add that despite their maturity, the men of Clerestory have not lost sight of their sense of fun. These guys might be older than most of the members of Chanticleer by at least ten years at this point, but they still know how to have a laugh, as the encore piece — a hilarious version of “What Shall we do with the drunken sailor?” — proved.