For an “old ensemble,” Volti always performs new music — and that’s without quotation marks. On Nov. 3 in Oakland, Nov. 4 in San Francisco, and Nov. 5 in Healdsburg, when it opens its 45th season, the vocal ensemble will offer contemporary music by a diverse group of composers and, as always, present a premiere.
Underscoring Volti’s new-music brand is the inclusion of these November concerts in the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music, created by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and San Diego Symphony and featuring more than 50 organizations from across the state.
Since its founding in 1979 by Artistic Director Robert Geary, Volti has performed numerous commissioned works and world, American, and California premieres, as it did during COVID and as is the case with this upcoming program, “Great Poets, Contemporary Composers.” At these concerts, Volti will give the Bay Area premiere of Livro das Cores (The book of colors), a 2022 work by Brazilian composer Marcos Balter that sets texts by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.
Currently a professor of composition at Columbia University, Balter may be familiar to Bay Area audiences as the composer of Pan, presented by the SF Symphony in Soundbox concerts last winter with flute virtuoso Claire Chase.
Pessoa wrote prolifically under some 75 names he called “heteronyms” rather than pseudonyms. He gave each name a full personality and an independent intellectual life and writing style. The corresponding texts are oblique and intriguing.
An example is “Rainy Day” from The Book of Disquiet (under the heteronym Bernardo Soares): “The air is a hidden yellow, like a pale yellow seen through a dirty white. There is barely any yellow in the grayish air. The pallor of the gray, however, has a yellow in its sadness.”
Also on Volti’s November program:
— Being: Two Collins Songs, a 2010 Volti commission from Yu-Hui Chang, setting two poems by Billy Collins
— Words Cast Shadows by Volti’s resident composer, Mark Winges, which sets poetry by the “eloquent and exacting” Jane Hirshfield
— Attired With Stars, in which British American composer Freya Waley-Cohen explores extracts from John Milton’s “On Time” and Alexander Pushkin’s “A Little Bird”
— a carol called love, a new work from LJ White, a graduate of Volti’s young composer program, in which each singer chooses what words to sing from a large “text bank” of phrases all beginning with “love”
— nanuniku, in which Singaporean composer Emily Koh remembers Teochew lullabies and nonsense words her grandparents used with her when she was a young child
Geary says of the program:
“This is some of the most intense music we’ve ever worked on, and singing in Portuguese is new to us as well. Balter is not in the least constrained by the conventions of tonality. He creates his own harmonic world, with skillful use of dissonance and rhythm.
“Assimilating that world is a huge challenge, but it’s so much more creative, another whole level of experience. The composer has something to say. The poet has something to say. Getting exposed to other cultures, other voices, is part of the excitement of new music.”
When asked about Volti’s tight-knit members, who are exceptionally loyal through thick and occasional thin, defying even Pandora’s jar (not box), Executive Director Barbara Heroux explains why she is still on the job after decades in similar careers:
“Having retired from Lamplighters [Music Theatre] after 15 years, I am still with Volti because it opens my ears to new things over and over again, and it’s a great group of bright, inquisitive, funny, and kind people.”