A Harvest of reveries and nocturnes
This year’s Sonic Harvest Festival evoked the turning of the season with songs set to autumn winds, the wintry distance of stars, and the dreams and nightmares of the young. Held Sunday, Nov. 5 at the Berkeley Piano Club, this celebration of chamber works for instruments and voice featured works by three composers and a librettist.
Ann Callaway’s Three Pieces for Piano was written in 1994-95, but this was their West Coast Premiere. The first movement, “NGC2997,” held a cool beauty, with hands crossing and recrossing the keyboard in a dance that was distant and inward, and then exploded out like the spiral galaxy for which it was named. Sharon Lee Kim performed with measured restraint, her hesitant notes turning insistent, and then developing into lower and middle voices. Her arpeggios combined a Liszt-ian gentleness with the slow busy framework of minimalism.
“Saturn” was stern and declarative, with low discordant chords that were measured like pronouncements, aptly named for the God of the Underworld. The third movement, “The Work of Sun,” was playful and a little creepy, distant and brightly tinkling like the soundtrack for a British child-horror film (before the heavy stuff happens). Kim polished it off with huge flourishes, exhausting the keyboard.
Composer and baritone Allen Shearer followed with two works. The first was also instrumental, Soliloquy for solo viola, performed by Emily Onderdonk with a deeply felt approach, even though it was built on odd intervals and weird techniques. There was something small and alive in this, with short phrases echoed and elaborated in an almost biological unfolding. Onderdonk gave us thick double stops and ghostly harmonics, then bloomed into rich mid-tones.
Shearer followed this with November Gold, his new setting of seven poems by Robert Francis. He sang the baritone line accompanied by Jeffrey Sykes on piano, and each poem held its own kind of delight. Piano and vocal lines would sometimes echo each other or play tag, but just as often they had their own agendas. I later congratulated Shearer, then quipped that voice and piano were so different that if he hadn’t been the composer, I don’t know how he could have sung it! But a more accurate truth was that he crafted each instrument by its own rules and on its own ground, weaving the feelings as much as the motifs, and the result was solid.
These were spare poems from Amherst, sharp-etched as the scenes and moods they described – chill winds and the golden leaves of willows, light rain and light casualties, the undiluted sun of winter and blue chimney smoke and the wisdom to appreciate just that.
“November Willows” combined slow chords of transcendental colors with smooth vocal patterns and sudden disconcerting intervals. “Rain” evoked a random pattering with a piano’s arpeggios and low mutterings, while the voice swaled and leaped.
There were falling motifs, to fit soldiers falling as quietly as leaves, and the baritone sang that text in gently rising questions, and there were heavy-footed rumbles, a setting for texts on big winds and the fear of war.
In this intimate space, Shearer’s slow-cooked vowels and Syke’s immediacy were magic.
After intermission, pianist and writer Claudia Stevens announced that she was performing Baudelaire’s Uncle by Francis Schwartz, “…a work from 1980 that is Surrealist, lewd and zany!” Her staccato flurries on the piano were separated by interruptions like rasping breaths and odd vocalizations (and she led the audience in a chorus of “dik dik dik!”). It was as silly and serious as John Cage, poking fun at art and expectations. But it had a surprising integrity. Steven’s breaths began as wheezes and exhortations, and then became a gasping of sexuality, and finally turned to the rales of a death bed. Unexpectedly deep!
Peter Josheff closed the night with Dream Spaces & Recurring Nightmares, freshly written for this festival. This fine composer and clarinetist chose spoken voice to deliver a long and obsessive work on young and persistent fears, his own text on the dreamscapes of his youth. He was accompanied by Kate Campbell on piano, and she brought a hypnotic and limited palette to engage that sense of obsession. The texts circled and repeated in that space of memory and shrill fear until we were almost groggy from our immersion into his unconscious.
After, we walked into the darkness and shivered in a November night.
Photos, from top: Ann Callaway, Claudia Stevens with Allen Shearer, and Peter Josheff; photos courtesy of the artists.