Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley Rock the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts


Ritorna vincitor!  I paraphrase from Verdi’s Aida but Charles Amirkhanian introduced this concert telling us that Other Minds held its first concert here 25 years ago.  Indeed this was a victorious return (though the first visit was also victorious)  featuring, as Amirkhanian correctly emphasized, musicians with a decidedly west coast aesthetic. In fact Mr. Riley was on the board of the nascent Other Minds organization founded under the loving and watchful eyes of Jim Newman (now president emeritus) and Charles Amirkhanian, executive and artistic director.

Charles Amirkhanian, 25 years later and going strong with Other Minds.

Gloria Cheng is a California native and is now professor of contemporary performance at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.  She is a Grammy winning artist and has, for many years now, been a champion of Terry Riley’s music among many others.  

Cheng deeply focused.

Terry Riley (1935- ) is also born and educated in the Golden State and is a world renowned composer and performer.  His 1964 piece, “In C” pretty much represents the beginning of the “minimalist” style and remains his most performed work.

Terry Riley at 84 still going strong as both composer and performer.

This was your reviewer’s first time hearing Ms. Cheng live and it is an experience not to be missed.  Cheng’s command of the piano and of the wide range of musical styles she demonstrated on this night was nothing short of stunning.  In particular her command of the varying styles that are Terry Riley including ragtime, barrel house, jazz, classical, modernism, virtuosic romanticism, etc.  In addition to that she demonstrated a truly profound command of the keyboard which left the audience so deeply enthralled that they (we) almost forgot to applaud.  

The concert began with Ms. Cheng’s performance of Riley’s early Two Pieces for Piano (1958-59).  Here she seemed to be channeling Pierre Boulez and that whole school of post-Darmstadt pointillism with an ever present sense of trying to maintain equality for each of the twelve tones used in these pieces.

The uninitiated might have been put off by these early pre-minimalist works that are not generally the sound image conjured by the composer’s name.  Rather they represent Riley’s grasp of and subsequent working through of this material that preceded the compositional insights that characterize his mature style.  As a serious fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a useful source for a metaphor.  On this 50th anniversary of  that film’s debut it seems that Riley, like astronaut David Bowman, steps through the star gate and is transformed beyond even his own wild and creative imagination.

By all appearances this audience seemed to be well-prepared and, as the young man who won the little drawing at intermission stated (I’m paraphrasing), Terry Riley’s concerts are always a good bet.  While  there may have been people who knew less it is clear that no one was less than entertained and many, this writer included, were positively delighted.

The next work, “The Walrus In Memoriam” (1991 rev. 1994) was originally commissioned for Aki Takahashi, one of several pieces based on Beatles tunes, this one a sort of elegy for John Lennon (1940-1980).  The CD is well worth seeking for its creative music and Takahashi is always worth hearing.

As if building to a climax, Cheng really put her performance into high gear with the next set of pieces from 1994 entitled, “The Heaven Ladder Book Seven”.  Don’t get me wrong, she was focused and in fine form for those first three pieces but when she sat down to perform the Heaven Ladder pieces one could feel an intensity such that the audience seemed hypnotized, paying attention to Cheng’s every gesture.  Despite a few stifled coughs (no doubt residue from our recent awful fires here) the audience was laser focused on this performer as she made Riley’s charming pieces come alive.

Intermission was an opportunity to stretch our legs and breathe again knowing that when we returned we would be hearing both Cheng and Riley.  It was a gathering of like minds for the most part and many people validated some of my perceptions that Cheng had transfixed the audience.  

During intermission there was more talk about the upcoming Other Minds 24 with programs scheduled on March 23rd and June 15 and 16.  More on that in future blogs.  And now on to the second half of the concert.

Terry Riley’s energy belies his age.  Riley will turn 84 in June and continues to compose, perform and travel extensively.  And when he sits down at the piano he is magical.

Riley opened with “Simply M” (2007) written in honor of the late Margaret Lyon, a longtime chair of the Mills College Music Department and one of the people who brought Terry Riley there to teach composition.  She had previously presided over teaching tenures by Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud.

The music had a quasi-improvisational feel (like much of Riley’s music) but channeled classical composers along with ragtime, jazz, ragas, and Riley’s usual eclectic mix of styles.  It was a free flowing piece going through abrupt changes in character at different points but the piece seems to rely on some basic classical composition techniques which function as a sort of scaffolding or mold into which the composer pours his creative ideas.  The piece was highly virtuosic but gave off a charming hypnotic flow.

He acknowledged the appreciative applause and moved right into the second piece on this half, “Requiem for Wally” (1997).  This piece is written as a memorial for Riley’s ragtime piano mentor, Wally Rose.  In the very useful notes, Riley states that he combines elements of ragtime with the Hindustani Raga Nat Bhairav.  In this piece we got to hear Riley’s distinctive tenor trained in raga singing by the late Pandit Pran Nath.  It is this ability to combine and synthesize various musics into a coherent style which this audience clearly knows well, Terry Riley.

Following these performances Riley left the stage and came back joined by Gloria Cheng again for the newest music of this evening, “Cheng Tiger Growl Roar” (2018).  It is, by the composer’s description, a four movement suite.  Like much of Riley’s music, it involves both notated and improvised material.  

Riley’s musical training has always involved a great deal of improvisation and that is true in this work.  Cheng, a classically trained pianist, mentions feeling challenged by Riley’s music as it asks her to move out of her comfort zone as an artist.  Well, except for Cheng mentioning this in her notes, there was no evidence of discomfort on the part of either artist.  They played as though they had always played together and their playing was ecstatic suggesting the depth of both artists’ grasp of the material and the affection they shared performing this piece for piano four hands.

Composer Terry Riley warmly greets fellow pianist Gloria Cheng at the end of a wonderful evening of Riley’s piano music from the last 50 years.

The audience, with their laser focus still intact, came out of their trance to share their warm applause.  What a transcendent evening!  What amazing artists!

Thomas Jefferson Anderson, II: American Composer Turns 90 This Year


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T. J. Anderson (1928- )

Born in Coatsville, PA August 17, 1928 Thomas Jefferson Anderson, Jr. is an American composer, conductor and teacher.  He earned a B.A. in music from West Virginia State College in 1950  and an M. Ed. in music education from Pennsylvania State University in 1951.  He studied at the esteemed Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1954 and earned a Ph. D. in music from the University of Iowa in 1958.  He subsequently also studied with Darius Milhaud at the Aspen School of Music in 1964.

I first encountered his name in the American Music series (Volume V) which came out on Nonesuch records.  His work, Variations on a Theme by M. B. Tolson (1969) was paired with works by Anderson’s contemporaries Milton Babbitt and Richard Wernick.  I later encountered his  Squares (1965) for orchestra on volume 8 of the wonderful Black Composers series (released 1975 on Columbia Records) curated by the late great Paul Freeman.  The same disc contained works by Olly Woodrow Wilson and Talib Rasul Hakim.  (That entire 9 volume set remains available on vinyl in a nice box set through the College Music Society and distributed by Amazon for only $55.00)

Anderson was awarded an appointment as composer in residence with the Atlanta Symphony beginning in 1968 and ending in 1972.  This coincided with the beginning of Robert Shaw’s tenure as conductor.  Shaw’s affinity for contemporary music (including black composers like Anderson and Alvin Singleton).  Anderson prepared a performing version of Scott Joplin’s only extant opera Treemonisha resulting in the first full staging of that 1911 work (premiered by Shaw with the Atlanta Symphony and broadcast via NPR) during this time and premiered several of his own works with the orchestra along with his educational and outreach duties.

His teaching appointments have included Langston University in Oklahoma, Tennessee State University, Morehouse College, Tufts University, the University of Minnesota, California State University, Northwestern University, the University of Michigan, and Ohio State University.  He is as of 2005 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is the recipient of a long list of honors.  Dr. Anderson is the author of numerous academic publications and is the past chairman (1972-76) of the Black Music Caucus which is now known as the National Association for the Study and Performance of African/American Music (NASPAM).

Sadly his discography is rather limited (discogs lists only five) but there is a wonderful set of download links on the composer’s web site where you can download complete recordings of no fewer than 37 of his works as of the time of this writing.  Trust me this is a cornucopia with recordings from about 1974 to as recently as 2006.  Here’s hoping that his large catalog of compositions can get the attention they deserve in the near future.  His works include solo, chamber, orchestral, concerto, choral, art song, opera and other arrangements and orchestrations.

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Dr. Anderson lives in Chapel Hill, NC with his family (his son Thomas Jefferson Anderson, III is a poet and professor at Hollins University in Virginia).  He will be turning 90 at the end of this summer.

 

 

 

Impossible, you say?


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The first scene

 

I had the pleasure of seeing the recent production of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson “opera” ‘Einstein on the Beach’ in Berkeley on October 28th.  I had seen the production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music 20 years ago and have loved the music since I first bought the recording issued on the short-lived Tomato record label (this is the performance now available on Sony).  It is clearly a work which compels me and has insinuated itself into my world view.

The production was beautiful.  The musicians as always played well under the precise and confident direction of Michael Riesman who has apparently conducted every performance of the opera (that alone is an astonishing feat).  The dancers were spectacular in their execution of Lucinda Childs’ unusual choreography.  And the solo violin played in this production by violinist Jennifer Koh breathed a new virtuosic life into the familiar solo part.

Dance with spaceship

The set design and lighting were about as good as it gets and the performers appeared to be well rehearsed and operated as well oiled parts of the unified whole of the machine that is Einstein on the Beach.  It was a production that was loving and well received by the audience (a genuinely appreciative standing ovation followed the performance) in this, the west coast premiere of this landmark piece from 1976.   It is certainly worth noting that it took 36 years for this to be produced in even this most liberal of musical places.

I have hesitated to write about this performance partly because I didn’t want to simply report my attendance and geeky satisfaction.  I wondered if everything has already been said ad nauseam about this piece and adding yet another adoring review would be pointless and dull.  But the performance (all 4.5 hours of it) left me with a renewed appreciation for the music and the visuals.  It reinforced my belief that this is a truly significant work of art and that it will continue to be revived.  However it is likely that this is the last revival we will see which has been supervised  by the original creators.  Philip Glass is 75 and Robert Wilson is 71.  Lucinda Childs is 72.  And there is at the time of this writing no heir apparent for the Philip Glass Ensemble.

The vaguely apocalyptic themes provide a sort of commentary for our times.  Like any great work of art it continues to take on meaning for subsequent generations.  It is both a response to the milieu in which it was created and a mirror in which is reflected the present time of its performance.  Don’t get me wrong.  This avant-garde masterpiece is hardly easy listening or easy viewing.  In addition to its length it is non-linear, devoid of plot and devoid of most of the conventions by which we normally judge and appreciate both theater and music.

But it has been embraced by many.  Mark Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2012 Fashion Show featured models walking up and down the runway to the sound of the opening “1, 2, 3, 4…” of the solo chorus which opens the work.  A Pepsi commercial from 2008 titled ‘Einstein’s Choice’ also featured that same chorus.  And the incidental music to any number of nature programs are frequently infused with the now familiar arpeggios endemic to Philip Glass’ compositional style.

Spaceship scene

Combine these things with the fact that revivals of this opera play to nearly or completely sold out houses in New York, France, Berkeley, Mexico City, Amsterdam and Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Granted the revivals are infrequent, the last being 20 years ago, but the draw of this work apparently remains strong suggesting that it is now and will likely remain in the repertoire.

I came away from this production with a sense of exhilaration that I feel when I encounter a great performance of a masterpiece by Mozart, Beethoven or John Coltrane, a sense of connection to a greater meaning such as one finds in all great works of art be they music, theater, painting, literature, film, etc.  And I don’t think I am alone in having felt that.

When I first began listening to this piece in the aforementioned Tomato recording I was both fascinated and perplexed.  I felt compelled to listen again and again and was perplexed at what I was hearing.  But history tells us that few seem to fully appreciate great art at the time of its emergence, that such appreciation takes time.  With time and repeated listenings I began to find the work grow on me, become familiar.

Seeing the 1992 revival in Brooklyn only further reinforced my sense that this is a very significant work and it remains one of my favorite pieces of music.  It is one of the pieces of music that feels to me like a personal discovery, one which I seem to have appreciated to some degree from my first encounter with it.  And my understanding as well as my affection for this work has only increased with time.

What remains to be seen is whether this work can continue to be successful in subsequent productions done by people whose connection to the work is less direct and whether it can continue to speak to subsequent generations.  The majority of the crowd at Zellerbach hall for this performance appeared to be in the 40 to 50+ category which may be in part due to the cost of a ticket.  I hope that it is not lack of interest.

For years, until the new recording was released on Nonesuch Records in 1993, I listened to the 1979 release which, due to the length of the music, abbreviated some of the repetitions to allow the recording to fit on 4 vinyl discs.  It is this recording which I know best and is most deeply imprinted on my memory.

Of course the experience is quite different with the accompanying visuals.  I had learned to appreciate the music alone with just of few still photos to kindle my imagination as to how the full production would appear.  And, not surprisingly, my first encounter with the full production in 1992 exceeded my expectations and provided a new and richer perspective on the meaning of this opera.

When I say “meaning” I am referring only to the meaning which I experience.  I don’t lay any claim to any special knowledge here.  And I think that this and all great works of art sustain their worth through their ability to mean and be associated with a variety of things.  Einstein has different meanings and associations for each individual and perhaps no ultimate “meaning”.

Even the texts associated with the piece are intentionally non-linear, make few concrete references to culture as a whole.  There is no story here, there are only visual images, sonic images and a variety of spoken words which, while in English, have mostly vague meanings.  The issue here is the emotional impact.

Epilogue (Knee Play 5)

‘Einstein’ has clearly affected me emotionally and I am witness to the its effect on the audiences of which I was a part.  When I tell people anything about the meaning of the work I invariably refer to it as “post-apocalyptic” metaphor which ends quite simply with a poignant little love story, if you will, a bedtime story for our times.  After some 4 hours of having presented it’s audience with a plethora of images the opera ends with two lovers on a park bench who sit silently while the bus driver, his vehicle moving slowly from stage right to stage center, narrates the scene.  The lovers sit quietly until, we are told, one speaks up and asks, “Do you love me, John?”  This other’s answer speaks from the throes of youthful optimism and love at first affirming his love and then, when asked, “How much do you love me?”, he answers, “Count the stars in the sky.    Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon.  Number the grains of sand on the seashore.”

This epilogue seems to suggest that, in the end, all that matters is how we experience each other, how well we succeed in communicating on a one to one level.  And perhaps that is also a metaphor for the work’s ability to communicate with subsequent generations.  While we try to communicate we succeed only sometimes.  Great art succeeds only sometimes.  The salient issue is having tried.  Despite the difficulties in communication, in love, in life, we try.  The opera ends in that 1979 recording with the chorus, two speaking voices, violin and organ all ending softly and definitively at the same time as the narration,  “Impossible, you say?”