"King Gesar" is the first opera in Peter Lieberson's so-called Tibetan Buddhist "Ring" cycle; the second will be "Ashoka's Dream," set to receive its first performances at Santa Fe Opera this summer. "Gesar," a 55-minute instrumental octet with narrator, has been dubbed by its composer a campfire opera, perhaps because it is a series of heroic tales regarding Gesar of Ling, moral fables suitable for outdoor, under-the-stars retelling.
At its West Coast premiere by the Southwest Chamber Music Society Thursday night at the Museum of Tolerance, "King Gesar" exerted considerable power and charm in a tight format.
Not that the venue helped matters. In the three-story atrium-lobby of the museum, the work sometimes sounded over-loud and mushy of text. But even with narrator Michael Ingham's words only partly reaching the listener, these inspiring stories could still be savored.
Conductor Jeff von der Schmidt told the pre-concert audience that he had been surprised when the composer revealed to him that the musical materials of the opera are strictly serial; what the ear perceives in this brief hour seems like a compendium of many 20th century idioms; Messiaen, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and many others come to mind.
In any case, the score is solidly and steadily descriptive, heavily percussive, with two pianos, flute-piccolo, clarinets, cello, horn and trombone as well, and aggressive in its instrumental colorations. Overall, it's tiring but attractive, and it bodes well for the next three installments of the Tibetan tetralogy.
The nine Southwest performers handled their complex, note-rich parts without apparent strain. The resourceful Ingham, called upon regularly to sing, did so with strong and handsome tone; this despite the fact that his myriad speaking parts seldom leave room for catching his breath. Schmidt's authoritative conducting held all things together.
Before intermission, Vicki Ray and Susan Svrcek sailed delightfully through the exposed wonders of Stravinsky's Concerto (1935) for two solo pianos. The connection here is that Peter Lieberson's parents, Goddard Lieberson and Vera Zorina, were for many years professionally associated with Stravinsky.
* Southwest Chamber Music Society closes its season with a repeat of this Stravinsky/Lieberson program tonight at 8 at Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd. (800) 726-7147. Tickets $10-$20.