Other Minds: Kafka Songs

March 5, 2010 at 1:48 am 1 comment

So, I really did make it to the first night of the Other Minds festival. Very nice experience.

Rather than describe the show in sequence, I’m just going to cut to the end: Carla Kihlstedt was terrific, and Lisa Bielawa‘s Kafka Songs is a very interesting and involved piece. It consists of seven segments, each one a violin-and-vocal combination to be performed solo (written with Kilhstedt in mind).

Each song opened with Kihlstedt reciting the short Kafka text. That was good, because it let us catch the mood of the text and mentally encapsulate it, enhancing the mood of the music that followed. It also guaranteed that we knew what the text was; as with most vocal classical works, Kafka Songs stretches syllables into long tones, making it difficult to keep track of sentences or even words.

The piece began life as a single song and gradually expanded into seven movements. That explains why the first two songs seem to be the most athletic. There’s a lot of bow trickery, such as having Kihlstedt draw the bow for one note and pluck a left-hand note on another string (something I think I’ve seen her do in concert, but it’s still a good effect).

Not that things calm down after that opening. “Ghosts,” the fourth song, consists of ukelele-like strumming, if the ukelele were a harsh, forceful instrument. It was hard on the strings; Kihlstedt had to retune before moving on.

It does not look like an easy piece. I don’t know if “counterpoint” is even the right word to describe the diverging vocal and violin paths; they swoop and cross like independent diving birds. And the violin parts show off Kihlstedt’s rich mix of techniques well.

As for the rest of the program: Varied, and challenging in a good way.

Eva-Maria Zimmerman played a short 53-year-old piano piece by 87-year-old Chou Wen-chung (pronounced “soo-wen-sung” by Other Minds Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian). Titled “The Willows Are New,” it made impressive use of the high register, putting those skinny high notes to menacing use, like poisoned darts alongside the dark, bombastic low-register cannons. The piece comes to a quiet ending where the high notes are their usual, quiet selves, but most of it is dark and spiky. (Test my memory: Listen to the piece on Wen-chung’s site.)

A longer Wen-chung piece, Twilight Colors, was performed by a double trio of Left Coast Chamber Ensemble members — three strings and three woodwinds. It was a dynamic piece in three or four movements, full of serene overlapping lines and frequent passages of fun intensity. There were some sublime moments where a gently drawn-out note from one instrument would be handed off to another imperceptibly — bass clarinet into cello, or low flute into low violin.

The concert opened with the 30-minute Streichquartett II by Jürg Frey, performed by Quatuor Bozzini, a Montreal-based string quartet. It’s a minimalist piecewith an engaging premise: All four members play unison whole notes, using the edges of their bows so that the tones are a scratchy whisper. Tones change from one note to the next, creating a series of drifting chords that start mostly sublime, but drift toward more dissonant territory. It’s a bit of an endurance test. But one thing I appreciate about minimalism is the commitment to a structure that, even for quiet pieces, is sometimes daunting in scope.

In addition to this being my first Other Minds festival, it was my first time at the Jewish Community Center. I didn’t know the place was so huge. At least one class was taking place in a remote corner of the first floor. There’s also a cafe that includes wine, beer, ice cream, and, if the hour is early enough, food.

Other Minds 15 continues with shows on March 5 and 6 at 8:00 p.m.  Check out the program.

Entry filed under: Bay Area music, shows (past). Tags: , , , , , .

Other Minds Playlist: March 5, 2010/Other Minds

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Richard Friedman  |  March 5, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Glad you could make it, and hope you make it thru Friday and Saturday’s concerts.

    As always, it’s a mixed bag covering a wide field from minimalism to avant garde jazz improv.

    If you can find me, stop by and say hello.

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