Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.
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On a recent afternoon, Dresher was in the studio — which takes up three large rooms on the upper floor of an old West Oakland warehouse — working on his latest music-theater production, Schick Machine. The evening-length work makes its world premiere March 7 at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on the Stanford University campus. Percussionist Steven Schick will be the solo performer. But, with a score by Dresher, text and stage direction by Rinde Eckert, and original instruments created by Dresher, Matt Heckert, and Daniel Schmidt, the production is a decidedly collaborative effort.
Schick Machine, which was commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts, is written for a solo performer, but features two characters: an inventor of musical instruments, and the musician who discovers them after the inventor’s death. The musician, not surprisingly, is a virtuoso percussionist — a character, says Dresher, who is “very much like Steven Schick.”
“He’s the person who can play all these things, who can actually discover sound in almost anything,” says the composer. “He comes across this trove of arcane instruments, and his task is to find out whether it has any value. That’s the question we’re asking: What is the value of sound?”
Dresher, whose previous works include the large-scale Soundstage and the chamber opera The Tyrant, says that Schick Machine has evolved into a larger meditation on the relationships between sound, memory, and emotion.
Still, Dresher fans might suspect that the production will transcend by virtue of sheer sonic invention. The instruments on display in the composer's studio offer a tantalizing glimpse of what the audience at Stanford (and, in the fall, at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis) will hear.
At one end of the studio sits Dresher’s latest creation, an enormous hurdy-gurdy. The instrument has a traditional crank, but at nearly 10 feet long, with seven strings and an electronic soundboard, it produces an eerie, one-of-a-kind singing sound.
Five Heckert-built instruments are nearby. One, called the Big Disc, is a large metal wheel powered by a high-velocity motor; Dresher activates it, and it spins and clashes, sending sound spiraling through the room. Others — a thrusting piece they’ve dubbed the Fencer, and an elegant construction called the Bird that, when set in motion, flaps in avian rhythm — add to the mechanized chorus.
Most intriguing is a large sound sculpture that Dresher calls the Field of Grass. It’s a grouping of wood blocks perched on metal rods. Inside each block is a ball bearing (“from tractors,” says Dresher); given a nudge, the blocks wave back and forth, tocking like metronomes. With its sculpted shape and hypnotic motion, the piece is as beautiful to watch as it is to hear.
In the next room, meanwhile, Schmidt is working on an old pipe organ that the group recently acquired and dismantled. He’s rebuilding it with new circuitry that allows the pipes to be played by mallets hitting strings, rather than the traditional keyboard.
It’s an impressive collection, much of it made from found objects. “A lot of it comes from Dumpsters, junkyards, or weird industrial suppliers you’d never deal with for traditional instrument-building or music-making activities,” says Dresher. The organ and hurdy-gurdy will provide melodic texture, says the composer, while text will be spoken and projected on a rear screen. But Schick Machine is all about percussion, and Dresher says that Schick — a virtuoso performer, percussion scholar, and veteran of the New York–based Bang on a Can All-Stars — will supply the work’s “X” factor. “That’s the world of percussion,” says Dresher.
“These aren’t instruments in the way a violin is an instrument. But when you hear them played, they’re no less interesting. A drum does a limited number of things, but a good musician can make a drum do anything.”
Which is why, as March 7 approaches, Dresher says he still isn’t sure exactly how Schick Machine will sound. “This kind of piece can’t come together in advance,” he says. “You can’t know what you have until you are literally doing it.”More »
Even in these tough economic times, the Bay Area’s regional opera companies continue to spread their wings. Midway through its 53rd season, West Bay Opera presented its first Orfeo ed Euridice last weekend in a well-conceived production that caught much of the radiant splendor of Gluck’s 1762 masterpiece.
Così fan tutte is often described as an effervescent comedy, but beneath the froth is a deliciously dark and poignant vision of the human heart. There’s a happy ending in the 1790 Mozart–da Ponte dramma giocoso about a pair of besotted naval officers who enter into a wager to test the fidelity of their girlfriends. But observers can’t help feeling that resolution comes at a price; these young lovers, once they’ve emerged from the fire, may never love, or trust, quite so deeply again.
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One of the charges frequently leveled against regional orchestras is that they program only the tried and true. While this may be on point in some instances — particularly in these tough economic times — the Santa Rosa Symphony's November program was both adventurous and free of filler. Nothing on the program was new (the most recent offering was composed in 1967), yet the works included were an appealing and substantive departure from the usual fare.
Aida isn't Verdi's longest, or most ambitious, opera, yet it's become the opera most often associated with big productions. Audiences have come to expect the elephantine (if not the elephants themselves) from Verdi's 1871 melodrama, and directors often oblige by applying the glitz with a trowel.
That way lies disaster, as anyone who has ever seen an overblown, overburdened staging of this popular masterpiece will tell you. Strip away the excess, though, and Aida's virtues shine through — which makes it a good choice for production by regional opera companies.
The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra opened its 28th season in an amorous frame of mind last weekend in Berkeley. Instead of one of the large-scale Handel oratorios that have traditionally launched the early music ensemble's seasons in past years, Music Director Nicholas McGegan conducted a double bill of beguiling 18th-century works composed for the stage, each depicting the pleasures (and folly) of love. The results were aptly seductive.
Santa Fe Opera is presenting its first Billy Budd this season. The company, which was founded just five years after Benjamin Britten premiered the first version of the opera in 1951, waited an inexplicable five decades to stage this haunting 20th-century masterpiece. Yet the new production by Paul Curran (seen Friday), which features superb music direction by Edo de Waart and a vibrant cast headed by Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the title role, makes it worth the wait.
The third annual Festival del Sole came to an impressive conclusion Sunday afternoon at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under its dynamic new music director, Jaap van Zweden, performing an all-Mahler program capped by a forceful, streamlined performance of the composer's Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor.
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It’s been a great month for Donizetti aficionados in the Bay Area. Even as the San Francisco Opera was mounting its revival of the composer’s Lucia di Lammermoor with the incandescent Natalie Dessay in the title role (see review), Pocket Opera revisited Roberto Devereux in three performances at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
Judging by the programming choices of many of our major musical institutions, choral music belongs strictly to the past. Fortunately, forward-thinking music lovers can always turn to Volti. Under founder and Music Director Robert Geary, the San Francisco-based ensemble is one of the Bay Area's most consistent musical treasures, one that maintains high standards of excellence in the present while vigorously developing the repertoire of the future.