Critic’s Notebook: Bay Area alive with new music


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In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Bay Area was a new music mecca. Minimalism was forged there. East mingled with West. Electronic music came of age. Such European avant-garde composers as Luciano Berio, György Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen joined the scene. After graduating from Harvard, John Adams hopped in a Volkswagen bus and headed for Northern California.

Our current century rejects headquarters. San Francisco is now but one of many centers in a multi-centereduniverse. But pick a good weekend and the Bay Area still hops. Last weekend was a good weekend -- as well as something of a preview of upcoming concerts in Southern California -- and here is a diary of a writer trying to get a handle on it all.


Thursday: I pull into the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, where security searches my car before I’m allowed to park. The annual Other Minds festival opens here tonight, and I wonder if perhaps scissors are forbidden as articles of musical terrorism. Fifty years ago in Germany, the artist Nam June Paik ran from a stage into the audience and cut John Cage’s necktie in two.

Other Minds is a Bay Area specialty. Each year composers -- young and old, from near and far –- are invited to spend several days in private conversation as a prelude to public performances of their works.

The main attraction tonight is the premiere of Ben Johnston’s “The Tavern,” a cycle of songs to poems by the Sufi poet Rumi for baritone (Paul Berkolds) and specially tuned guitar (John Schneider). Johnston, who will turn 83 in a few days, writes scores with pure intervals that can sound out of tune to modern ears. But the resonances have extraordinary powers: I’m coming down with a cold, but for 26 minutes my sinuses are clear.

These new songs, sung and declaimed, are tales of drunks and children and lovers who all touch the divine. No one writes music as gracious and winning yet unusual as Johnston’s. The long program includes a recent string quartet, Cambodian composer Chinary Ung’s “Spiral X: In Memoriam,” commemorating the holocaust that was unleashed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. The members of the Del Sol String Quartet sing as well as play. The music is chilling yet strikingly beautiful.

Quiet, strange, haunting pieces by Danish composer Bent Sorensen are also on the long program, as are booming recent works for cello octet by Mauricio Kagel and Arvo Pärt. Everything is gripping. And all of it will eventually be streamed on RadioOM. Johnston’s new piece will be repeated at CalArts on Wednesday.

Friday: Michael Tilson Thomas’ program with the San Francisco Symphony tonight is truly odd. It features four rarities, each rare in a different way. I’m drawn to it by the scheduling of Ligeti’s Requiem, written in 1965, seven years before he began teaching at Stanford. The half-hour score for two vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra presents Death taking a madcap but ultimately horrid holiday. Esa-Pekka Salonen has conducted this theatrical and hugely complex work twice with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but, until now, no other major American orchestra has dared take it on.

The program begins unusually with early Baroque music by Giovanni Gabrieli. After intermission, Martha Argerich makes one of her infrequent dazzling appearances, playing Ravel’s jazz-tinged Piano Concerto in G (as she will again this week with the L.A. Philharmonic). After over-excessive bravoing for Argerich, Tilson Thomas returns to the stage excitedly exclaiming to the audience that if they think Freddie Mercury or Brian Wilson invented the concept album, they should forget it. “This is where it all began,” he says -- this being Liszt’s symphonic poem “Tasso,” which Tilson Thomas then makes sound as amazing as everything else on the program.

Saturday morning: Many in the Bay Area have grown up listening to the Kronos Quartet, a local new music institution for three decades. Many more will. This Herbst Theatre matinee is for eager youngsters and their parents. The music is from a variety of continents, some of it sad, much of it happy. Violinist David Harrington brings children onstage to ask questions. We learn that his favorite color is green, because he has a thing about frogs.

Despite a worsening cold, the concert leaves me feeling good about the world, but only until I find that my car has been towed. Parking in San Francisco can be confusing, and the new music police are alert. At least I left no scissors in the front seat.

Saturday night: In the last two years, Stanford Lively Arts has begun to live up to its name. It is a hotbed of new work, and this evening it is premiering “Schick Machine,” a theater piece for percussionist Steven Schick by composer Paul Dresher and director Rinde Eckert. Schick does a routine with a group of back-to-the-future percussion instruments artfully littering the stage.

He bows a bicycle wheel. He sets large pendulums into metronomic motion. He blows into organ pipes. He swirls a large hoop on the floor. A teapot whistles by itself. Everything is amplified. The sounds are fresh and surprising as layers and textures change. The show doesn’t hang together as a staged work, but the 70 minutes are diverting and surprising. Schick’s playing is often mind-blowing.

Sunday afternoon: Mills College in Oakland has restored its Spanish-style 1928concert hall. Lavish yet primitivistic murals on the walls have been cleaned. The acoustics have been given a going-over as well. This afternoon, as part of a festival of music celebrating Mills’ unique role in American music, the Arditti String Quartet is playing a concert devoted to composers with a connection to Mills.

A persistent cough forces me to make this half a concert. But I hear enough to know that this is now a great venue, visually and aurally, for a string quartet. Everything is crystal clear. The balance between immediacy and resonance is perfect.

Alvin Curran’s “VSTO,” Chris Brown’s “Arcade” and Fred Frith’s “Allegory” all explore eccentric harmonies and textures and eerie string sounds in fascinating ways. In Frith’s piece, the composer, who is chair of the Mills music department, improvises on his electric guitar at low volume along with the quartet. Two sonic worlds merge without clashing.

Two eras merge as well. It feels like old times in the Bay Area with some very new music.

-- Mark Swed