17 December 2007

the varied carols I hear

Occasionally I come across strange subcultures – not inherently strange, but previously unknown to me, and largely unacknowledged by the mainstream. Years ago I had a co-worker who gradually revealed to me her real life – the United States, it seems, is divided into a series of medieval kingdoms, each with its court and attendant social structure, and she was the devoted cook for one of the Northeast kingdoms. She spent huge amounts of time, effort, and research on her work (one of the things she used to do was examine banquet scenes from art of the period to discover how thick their pie crusts were). She candied her own ginger in traditional medieval fashion, and she used to stuff it into dragon-shaped spice cakes. She brought me some ginger once; it was very tasty.

Sometimes these subcultures go mainstream almost by accident (as when Best in Show suddenly made dog shows events that could be televised). This is obviously a desirable result for artistic subcultures, which are constantly struggling for money and attention. I’ve been to small theaters where I’ve realized I was the only one in the audience who wasn’t related to or sleeping with a cast member. It’s a shame so many smaller groups struggle in obscurity, because some of them do work that is consistently higher quality and of greater interest than a lot of what the big established institutions produce. When I lived in Boston I discovered groups like Emmanuel Music or the Cantata Singers through the Boston Globe’s extensive arts coverage; out here, I’ve become dependent on people who are involved in various groups to alert me to things worth attending, which is why I took the suggestion of The Standing Room’s multi-talented M. C- and went to the Volti Concert last November.

I dodged the crowds of drunken students and soon-to-be drunk alumni on their way to the football game and headed for St. Mark’s Episcopal on Bancroft. All those years in Berkeley and I had never been inside. The Spanish mission-style (Carmel, if you want the specific mission) exterior led me to expect more extravagant splendors inside. It’s very handsome in a stripped-down way, just not what I had expected. As usual I arrived absurdly early, despite walking around the block four or five times, so early I thought I was late – the chorus was singing when I stepped into the vestibule, and I thought I had the time wrong. It turned out to be a final rehearsal. A couple of helpful people came out; one sold me a ticket and a CD and I resumed waiting. A woman commented on how early I was – since it was around 7:20 by then, I didn’t think I was that early for an 8:00 concert, but what do I know of the ways of small choral groups? It's been quite a while since I've been exposed to that subculture. The chorus left and the church slowly filled up with choristas.

Music audiences tend to have different conglomerate personalities, even if some of the audience members are the same – the vocal crowd is different from the piano crowd, and they’re different from the string quartet crowd; the early music people rarely see a mainstream opera audience, and the valiant band of modernists is a different set altogether. But small choral groups have some of the intimacy and intensity of chamber music, and their aficionados are similar. Many of them had the sense to bring their own cushions. I’ve been to enough concerts in churches so that I should have known better than to trust to wooden pews, even in an Episcopalian church, but there I was, unpadded. Murmured conversations flew around about who was running which group now and what auditions were being held when. Some velvet-clad couples were just a turkey-leg away from full Renaissance Faire drag; I half expected them to try to sell me handmade scented candles.

The concert itself was wonderful, and I’m glad I bought a CD. Volti does lots of new music; in fact, there were four world premieres at that concert, which puts it about four world premieres ahead of the San Francisco Symphony’s entire season (it would be accurate to note that the Symphony has several North American premieres scheduled, one of which is of a new Magnus Lindberg piece, and also accurate to insist on the larger truth of the Symphony’s lack of commitment to new music). At most concerts you get used to listening in a comparative way; since you’ve heard the pieces so many times before, you can’t help but measure the performance against some ideal, recorded or imagined. With new music you’re out in deep water, and you have to listen in a different way, for different things – it’s kind of like being a novice concert-goer all over again, and that’s a useful place to be. Listening is a skill that needs to be practiced.

All of the pieces were in English except for Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali, which was in Italian. For that number they projected the translations onto a screen, which I’m all in favor of – I have long wished recitals used these projections. In fact, they might have done it for the pieces in English as well, since choral singing is by its nature more diffuse than solo. I particularly liked Stacy Garrop’s Sonnets of Beauty and Music (part of a series of thematically grouped poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay; I would love to hear the whole series when it’s completed), but that’s not at all to dismiss the other pieces (by Howard Hersh, Richard Festinger, Wayne Peterson, and Alan Fletcher as well as Lauridsen). Many of the composers were there and spoke before their pieces, which I pretty much could have done without. One of the composers turned out to be sitting behind me, and apparently he agreed with me, but he did say to his companion that it gave people a different way into the work, so fair enough, though I find such prefaces tend to the obvious, and are mostly of a “human interest” nature, and we all know that human interest is what you give people who aren’t really interested in the art form. I think there’s too much emphasis on the creative process instead of on the created object.

I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and contentment doesn’t really lend itself to comment, other than saying I’m looking forward to Volti’s next concerts (March 1, 2, and 3 – go to http://www.voltisf.org/ for venues, CDs, and other information). Afterwards I had the great pleasure of meeting in person both Sid of the Standing Room (and Volti’s bass section) and Lisa of Iron Tongue of Midnight. I would urge you to check them out immediately (blogroll to the right), but if you’re reading this you probably have been reading them already (with one or two possible exceptions – Hi Mom!). So before Clash of the Choirs makes choral singing the next big thing, jump into that subculture and subvert the dominant corporate world of rock/rap/pop by hearing the real live thing from singers who can actually sing. You have now been officially urged to check them out.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Ah, this is great. I agree with you about the hardness of the pews, and about spoken program notes. The reverberant acoustics of St. Mark's make speeches just about useless unless you're within ten feet of the speaker.

I wonder if I know your former co-worker. I used to be a member of that particular subculture.

pjwv said...

Hmmm. I'm trying to remember her name -- she was very nice, but it was at the worst job I've ever had and I'm afraid my usually excellent memory has blanked a lot of the experience out. I usually avoid mentioning where I've worked, but this was long ago and far away, so I guess it's fair game -- it was at Lotus Development Corp in Cambridge; I was there from about 1990 to 1992, when I moved back home to California. She worked as a proofreader. Sound familiar?
I'm a little embarrassed it's taken me so long to post about Volti,what with actually having a job again and dealing with the endless headcold, especially since you were so quick to post afterwards -- of course, I'm almost in time for next March's concert. By then I really need to get one of those portable cushions.

sfmike said...

Oh dear, you've been totally co-opted by blogger relationships. Your paragraph on Bay Area subcultures opens up a whole can of worms, so to speak, and I think I have a maxim for you.

As I think of the Other Minds Music Festival and 42nd Street Moon and Volti and the Kronos Quartet and Chanticleer and The Boxcar Theatre and The Noir City Film Festival and Pocket Opera, what they all seem to represent is groups that have arisen out of one person's obsession which requires other people to be fulfilled. Which is part of what makes them interesting.

pjwv said...

Hey Mike,
Well, I guess that's just how we hear about things these days. To your listing of local groups (some of which I know and some of which I have never heard of, though now I have to check them out, and some of which I have long meant to check out) I would add groups like The Cutting Ball Theater, which I started going to because a friend of mine said, "Come see my show." He moved back east several years ago but I still follow that theater. As for being co-opted by blogger relationships or local performance groups, no one's ever offered me any free tickets, so I'm still just a guy in from the street. You know me -- the voice of the people. Having been to Bayreuth, I know what the obsessive visionaries can manage.

And back to you, Lisa - did you get your Marston Edison discs? I haven't listened to mine yet but they arrived the other day. The great mystery release creeps ever closer, however slowly.