I heard two of the three “Edge Festival” concerts at Berkeley. I guess “avant-garde” has been relegated to the dust bin of history (which must be full to overflowing by now), since there is no garde to be avant, and even I recognize that touting “contemporary music” is not exactly like hanging out a sign saying Free Beer – I once knew a voice student in Boston who told me that classical concerts start on time (unlike stage plays, which for some reason start at ten minutes past the hour) except for new music concerts, which always start fifteen minutes late because everyone is hoping that a bus will break down outside and it will start pouring rain and lightning will shoot from the sky and everyone will have to come inside and listen. Sad to think that it’s so much harder to sell new music than new cell phones. At least Cal Performances didn’t use the ghastly term “emerging” (as in “emerging artists”).
I was sorry to miss Friday’s performance by Ursula Oppens, who is a goddess to me, and Frederic Rzewski, but I had already made plans for a farewell trip to the Giants/A’s game with a friend who is relocating. The A’s continued their usual pattern of getting hotter the later in the season it gets and the Giants continued theirs of just not quite doing it, but before the A’s walked out in triumph there was baseball weirdness aplenty, including the replacement catcher getting injured very late in the game, which meant they had to pull Pedro Feliz from third base to play catcher, which apparently he had done in college, and Randy Winn came from right field to take over at third, and Noah Lowry, a pitcher, went over to right, which apparently he had played in Little League. His convincing swagger out there hid any fervent prayers that the batter would hit to left. On entry we had all received orange bandanas which displayed logos for the Giants and Macy’s in roughly equal proportions. The Giants marketing department has tried to start an “orange Fridays” thing, undoubtedly because while most people have some sort of black T-shirt, an orange one would require a trip to the team store. It got so incredibly cold late in the game (despite my long-sleeved orange T-shirt worn under my black shirt, and that's June in the Bay Area) that I tried to wear the bandana. I asked my buddy how I looked. Once he stopped laughing at me, which took a while, he assured me that I looked great if I was planning to rob a stagecoach. Beauty knows no pain so off went the bandana. Happy trails to you, TS.
Back to the Edge (nope, don’t like that term either) in Berkeley. Saturday’s concert, The Tyrant, A Solo Chamber Opera for Tenor and Six Instruments, composed by Paul Dresher and starring John Duykers, actually started well over half an hour late, due to technical difficulties rather than some misguided hope for a rare California thunderstorm to bring in the milling crowds. The singer’s microphones were picking up another feed, resulting in a high-pitched humming. While waiting I read the program more closely and discovered that, though I thought I had never heard anything by Paul Dresher, he had composed the incidental music for Berkeley Rep’s To The Lighthouse. My heart sank and I wondered if I should have spent all my cash on quite so many of his CDs at the lobby sales desk without having heard the piece first. I didn’t object to his music for To the Lighthouse, but I didn’t particularly care for it either. One reason I don’t worry too much about my tendency to post late is that sometimes it takes a while for the corpse to start stinking, and by now everyone involved in that production has been tainted for me. The Tyrant did redeem Dresher for me, I’m happy to say. The program said the opera was based on Calvino; it reminded me more of Autumn of the Patriarch or I the Supreme, though the political aspect was fairly minimal – you could easily interpret the work more generally as an exploration of how we are all trapped in our own consciousness, and even the imagined voices of love also come from inside our head. Duykers sounded a bit strained at times to my ears, but easily held my interest for an hour. He’s a commanding performer, as I realized when I saw Young Caesar a few months ago. Ever since I realized he was Chairman Mao in Nixon in China I hear bits of that whenever I hear him sing. My only major complaint about the evening was the amplification – not because of the delay, but because I really was not sure why, in the intimate confines of the Zellerbach Playhouse, a singer and six instrumentalists needed to be amplified. If your voice/instrumental playing can’t fill that space. . . .
Sunday afternoon it was more Rzewski and Oppens, playing music by Gao Ping and Elliott Carter as well as Rzewski. I preferred the piano pieces; Rzewski’s percussion pieces, though interesting and enjoyable, didn’t seem as individualistic to me. William Winant declaimed To the Earth to his mellifluous gonging of clay flowerpots, and a young percussionist named Ben Paysen took care of the world premiere of The Fall of the Empire: Act 6: Sacrifice. During that piece Rzewski and Winant sat down in the front row, a few empty seats down from me. Damn! So close! In the space of a year I will have heard live performances from Thomas Ades, Rzewski, and (according to the plan) Philip Glass. Occasionally the Bay Area really does live up to its own hype. All four performers went on stage for the last piece, Bring Them Home, Rzewski and Oppens on piano and Winant and Paysen on percussion. I enjoyed the piece but frankly found it a bit meandering. Maybe late nights and decongestants were catching up with me, or maybe it does meander a bit. I think a problem with it is the source material, which is a fairly obscure (I am using the word in the standard sense of “something I have never heard of”) Irish folk tune, and though the lyrics have to do with soldiers going away, they aren’t really going to spring to most ears and resonate there, so the piece doesn’t have the emotional resonance that would come from familiar words or even a familiar sound, the way that works by Thomson and Copland sound like Protestant hymn tunes even if you don’t know the particular hymns, or even if they've simply invented melodies that sound like hymns.