“Vladimir in Butterfly Country” Premieres at Berkeley‘s Hillside Club


Sonic Harvest began in 2000 to share musical and dramatic performances of work by local composers and writers, many of whom create new work specifically for the event. On October 30th at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, the organization presented its eleventh annual concert of chamber and vocal music.

Peter Josheff
Pianist Claudia Stevens started the evening with the spritely Medallion by Allan Shearer. Commissioned by Stevens in 1983 to honor Elliot Carter’s 75th birthday, it was the only piece on the program which was not a premiere. Shearer employed the piano’s full range with many leaps to and from different registers, in a brief, satisfying exploration.

Next up was Peter Josheff’s two-movement Sextet for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano, conducted by the composer. Josheff made excellent use of a quirky glissando/pizzicato motif in the first movement, which managed to be both pastoral and dramatic. The second and final movement was searching, reflective, and less tonal.

The opening scene of an opera in progress based on George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch rounded out the first half of the concert. This adaptation of the famous “jewel box” scene which opens the novel, in which the heroine and her sister divide their late mother’s jewelry, was simultaneously thought-provoking and very droll. A trio of instrumentalists (Karen Rosenak on piano, Thalia Moore on cello, and Mr. Josheff on clarinet) supported soprano Ann Moss as Dorothea, mezzo soprano Erin Neff as Celia, and the opera’s composer, Allen Shearer, in the humorous basso role as the girls’ uncle, the absurd Mr. Brooke. Claudia Stevens’ witty libretto, incorporating many verbatim lines of Eliot’s dialogue, was matched well by the music of Shearer, her long-time collaborator.

Hadley McCarroll took the stage next to play Four Pieces for Piano by Frank Lin. The harmonies of Lin’s short vignettes, by turns lively and pensive, were at times reminiscent of an avant-garde George Gershwin.

1324157622Ann and Jaime small.jpgFinally, a one-act chamber opera, Vladimir in Butterfly Country, was presented in its entirety. Inspired by author Vladimir Nabokov’s passion for lepidopterology (the study of butterflies), the opera by composer Ann Callaway and librettist Jaime Robles has only two characters: Vladimir himself, and a newly hatched Sonoran Blue butterfly which he yearns to add to his collection. The butterfly, of course, would prefer to live out her brief natural lifespan without his interference. The pentatonic-tinged overture, performed by piano, flute, bassoon, and bells, evoked the sense of a wild, open space. Ms. Callaway’s tonal color choices and shimmering, delicate-but-not-fragile aesthetic continued to charm for the duration of the opera. In an evening packed with excellent musicians, it is difficult to single out any individuals for special praise. However, both flutist Tod Brody and soprano Erina Newkirk as the Blue Butterfly shone in their performances.

Thea Lawson

Photo: Peter Josheff (above); Ann Callaway (below left) and Jaime Robles.