Upshaw and Aussies promise…
Ojai North! came to Berkeley the week of June 13 in a new partnership between the Southern California music festival and Cal Performances. Monday’s concert at Zellerbach held jazz/classical fusions by festival artistic director Maria Schneider. I got to hear Tuesday’s concert, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Dawn Upshaw in a program of modernist miniatures and poetic gesture.
Led by violinist Richard Tognetti, the ACO spent the first half of the program underlining the significance of serial composer Anton Webern on George Crumb, by interleaving movements from Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 around four of the movements from Crumb’s Black Angels.
Both written for string quartet, Tognetti’s arrangement for the larger ensemble was fuller without sacrificing line. The eleven strings consisted of bass, played by Maxime Bibeau, which doubled the two cellos for a rich bottom, two sonorous violas, played by Christopher Moore and Nicole Divall, and six violins. While the violins easily floated across the high expanses of Zellerbach, the depth of the violas was a surprise, allowing us to hear the intricate center of the sound, a quality often lost in large halls.
Webern’s pithy movements had an autumnal austerity, middle-register browns and grays with sharp single plucks, and nimble dynamics shadowed his tone rows.
Written in 1970, Black Angels was based on several influences. Like Pythagoreans before him, Crumb infused his music with numerology, hanging pitches and tone lengths on the numbers 7 and 13. While Crumb uses 13 as a reference to a fallen angel, tonally, it completes the octave. And where seven refers to God and heavenly harmonics, it also creates the tritone, or “devil’s interval.” Paradoxically, this infusion of good into evil and vice versa created broader contrast, like the way a painter picks out shadows on a warm subject using cool hues of the ground.
Over this tension Crumb suspends sere images from the Vietnam War, a fiery angel come to purify our world.
In Threnody I: Night of the Electric Insects, high tremolos and amplified scrabbling of strings created a menacing portrait of evil. The ACO brought it down to pianissimo and through Crumb’s rabbit hole into a realm of sorrow. Then, sharp focus and shouted “Tok! Tok!” had us on the edge of our seats.
In the next Webern segment, slow chords created and deconstructed a churchly processional. Those slow chords led back to Crumb, where water glasses carefully tuned to minor triads were bowed for celestial harmonies. Over this a cello sang high, amplified notes, as woody and sensuous as a clarinet. Crumb described the cello line as his “God-voice.”
Through both approaches, severity of line and deep emotion spoke a common language.
Dawn Upshaw then joined the stage for nine vignettes, the poems of Ted Kooser to music by jazz composer Maria Schneider. Set to a blend of jazz and contemporary, Kooser’s poetry was the moving result of early morning walks during his convalescence from cancer.
“Our finch feeder, full of thistle seed” borrowed Kurt Weill’s gutsiness, with violent piano arpeggios and sharp slap of bass string. Upshaw was gritty and a little nasty, then dropped to a burnished finish.
But the big surprise came after intermission when she returned for Bela Bartok’s Five Hungarian Folk Songs for Soprano and String Orchestra. Upshaw’s voice was big and intimate, real star power. The lament, “Régi keserves,” used a full range for sharp and mournful, sarcastic and heartfelt, as strings mimicked the scrape of tree branches.
The long program was rounded out by the huge romantic sweep of Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27, arranged for the ACO by Tognetti. The thick skeins of sound gave this “quartet” density without sacrificing acuity, and I noticed both cellists broke hairs from their bows.
They encored with a Piazzolla potboiler and a fun Finnish hoedown.
If this was a sample, next year’s Ojai North! festival deserves to be a sell-out.
Photo top of Dawn Upshaw, courtesy of Cal Performances. Photo bottom, Australian Chamber Orchestra, photo by Stephen Oxenbury