The King Regrets

Michael McDonagh on June 12, 2007
Most summer music festivals program only the tried and true. But not Cal Performances’ Berkeley Edge Festival, which offered three programs in its third biennial festival June 7-10, featuring two composers — Frederic Rzewski and Paul Dresher — in two venues on UC Berkeley’s night-jasmine-scented campus. Rzewski was represented at Hertz Hall on the June 8 concert I attended, and also on June 10, both of which Jeff Dunn covered for San Francisco Classical Voice (see his review in this issue). On Saturday afternoon at a talk hosted by Sarah Cahill, I heard Ursula Oppens play Rzewski’s famous and influential 1975 work, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, which clocked in at 50 immensely varied minutes. Then Rzewski played his own 1977 Four Pieces for Piano, which is even stronger, and often more lyrical, and which took some 32 minutes. Both pieces seem to extend the 19th-century piano virtuoso tradition of such composer performers as Liszt and Chopin. Both are technically demanding, with rapid changes of musical texture and rhythm. Oppens and Rzewski made each one speak loud and clear. Rzewski has been a musical force of nature since the 1960s, and it’s easy to see and hear why. His ideas are powerful — and sometimes political (are you glad someone is?) — and they connect both viscerally and intellectually with an audience.
Frederic Rzewski and Paul Dresher
Political content was both text and subtext of Dresher’s solo chamber opera The Tyrant, written for tenor and six instruments, on Saturday night at Zellerbach Playhouse, next door to Zellerbach Hall. Dresher and his collaborators — tenor John Duykers, who has worked with him a great deal over the years, and who commissioned this piece; librettist Jim Lewis; director Melissa Weaver; and set designer Alex Nichols — all took full and sophisticated advantage of the commodious and intimate 547-seat nonproscenium stage.

A King — Who Listens?

Dresher and Lewis’ political parable of paranoia and guilt, based on Italo Calvino’s 1986 story “A King Listens,” is right up Dresher’s alley. His solo piece for Rinde Eckert, Slow Fire (1988), caused a huge stir in San Francisco and on tour. The Tyrant is similarly focused on an alienated individual. In the latter work, the central nameless character is under a form of house arrest of his own making, locked within his palace on the eve of the 20th anniversary of his bloody ascent to power. Everything haunts him — the place, his father, the people, even his own role as head of state. Calvino’s story, as much as Lewis, Dresher, and Weaver’s reimagining of it, makes the tyrant experience everything through sound. This is, of course, a natural fit with music. Dresher’s composition is scored somewhat thinly for the Paul Dresher Ensemble, which consisted of Karen Bentley Pollick, violin; Alex Kelly, cello; Tod Brody, flute, piccolo, and alto flute; Peter Josheff, clarinet and bass clarinet; and Joel Davel, percussion. The choice of orchestration appears to have been a wise decision, for it both shows off and supports Duykers’ remarkably varied performance. Virtually every word in the English text was audible and comprehensible. The transitions between speech and song, though hardly in the class of opéra comique, helped the pacing along. You wouldn’t know it from reading the text alone. The secret had to be Dresher’s sense of timing and rhythmic flexibility. He has created an updated sort of sprechstimme, a speech-song that is not as annoying as, say, Schoenberg’s much-lauded but hard slog Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and the same composer’s monodrama Erwartung (1909). The extensive inner monologue provided solid backing for Duykers' highly theatrical performance (madness always plays well, whether onstage or off). Dresher’s music for his intermissionless 65-minute Tyrant, which seems modeled a bit after Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) — the English George, that is, not our present stateside one — made his loneliness come alive. He’s caught in an open-air cube on a high Robert Wilsonish chair, and lighting designer Tom Ontiveros and sound engineer Gregory Kuhn show how trapped he feels. Director Weaver had the good sense to stay out of Duykers' way. Directors can sometimes do more by appearing to do less.