Saturday, January 27, 2024

three concerts and an art museum

I've been out the last three nights attending the Pivot Festival, which is an annual new-music event in SF's Herbst Theatre. This year the curator is Gabriel Kahane, who is a singer-songwriter (mostly with piano) who's also a classical composer. The SFS performed a mixed-genre song-cycle/oratorio of his last year. I don't find Kahane's songs very appealing (unlike, say, Vienna Teng and Richard Thompson), but I do like that he does classical work, and I really wanted to hear the performers he'd brought in to collaborate with at Pivot: the Attacca String Quartet, whom I first heard at Menlo when they were starting out two decades ago, and Roomful of Teeth, the avant-garde a cappella vocal group which came to attention a decade ago when a piece written for them by one of their members, Caroline Shaw, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Shaw, who is still with the group, has gone on to become a leading young composer of instrumental as well as vocal music, and a favorite of mine.

For the first concert, on Wednesday, the Attacca interleaved the movements of Ravel's String Quartet, which they played in a soft and pillowy manner, with the movements of a heavier and more emphatic quartet by Paul Wiancko, the new cellist of the Kronos Quartet, and some songs by Kahane, which he sang at the piano with obbligato accompaniment by the quartet. The Attacca also played a quartet by Kahane, a succession of a variety of postmodern styles: traditional modernist, minimalist, pointillist, spectralist ...

For the second concert, on Thursday, Roomful of Teeth sang several works, one of them by Caroline Shaw, with abstract piping sounds of various kinds. Some were a cappella, some had light accompaniment. Some were wordless, but if there were words they were completely unintelligible. The last and longest piece, however, was a song cycle by Kahane, Elevator Songs, which was more conventional in style and worked somewhat better. The songs were written for the individual members of the group. Most were serious and not easy to make out the words of, but a couple that were intelligible were deliberately funny and quite amusing in performance.

The third concert, on Friday, brought in both groups and reverted to Wednesday's interleaving style, alternating Roomful of Teeth singing the movements of Shaw's Pulitzer-winning Partita with keyboard pieces by Fran├žois (and Louis) Couperin crisply arranged for Attacca by Kahane. The alternation of entirely contrasting styles turned out to be quite refreshing, and this evening, by far the best-attended, was also the most successful musically.

One afternoon before the concert, I ventured into the Asian Art Museum two blocks away at the recommendation of Lucy H. to see the exhibit of notoriously cutesy1 Japanese artist Takashi Murakami's entirely contrasting monsters. Some, with giant bulbous heads and rows of huge pointed teeth, reminded me of drawings I'd made as a child, and of course there was a Godzilla wreathed in flames, but the most impressive was a mural maybe 50 feet long featuring, among other weird things, knots of a dozen wrestlers each, clad only in loincloths, their limbs and hideous heads all entangled, watched by a cluster of observers with various odd features like pumpkin heads, long rope-like necks, and so on. Murakami's work is of course closely akin to manga and anime, and the captions say his strongest Western influence is Francis Bacon, but this mural made me wonder if he's seen any Hieronymus Bosch, because the impact was very similar.

1. He's the guy who does flowers with little faces on them surrounded by multi-colored petals. Some of these showed up in the background of the works with the big-teeth monsters.

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