In 1991, then-Berkeley Symphony Music Director Kent Nagano conducted the premiere of Berkeley composer John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer in Brussels. The opera, who relates the hijacking of the Achille Lauro ship, was accused of being too sympathetic to the Palestinian terrorists who killed Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish-American tourist on the boat. When the Met revived the opera last Fall, protestors succeeded in getting it off the Saturday radio broadcast. Tonight, it's Nagano's successor, Joana Carneiro, who leads her orchestra into the choruses from the opera, followed by Mozart's Requiem, with four Adler fellows in the soloists part, and the University and Chamber Choruses of the University of California, Berkeley. Joana has been music director of the Berkeley Symphony since 2009 and has been collaborating with John Adams all over the world, recently conducting his passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary with the English National Opera.
Your next concert pairs John Adam's Choruses from the Death of Klinghoffer with Mozart's Requiem. What made you program these pieces together?
Joana: The departure point was John Adams' piece. Of course, John Adams is a resident of Berkeley. I am fortunate enough to have performed many of his pieces in the past. During my tenure here, it seems very natural to program him. I think it's the third time we do one of his pieces. We did the Chairman's dances, his violin concerto, and now this vocal work. This piece is a wonderful choral piece, and again we have a collaboration with the Berkeley University chorus, and their conductor Marika Kuzma. It was a combination of reasons that led us to this piece.
Then the Mozart Requiem is a piece that would be a wonderful pairing, not only because of the contrast. They are two hundred years apart. In a very different way both are a vision of death in a religious context. It just seemed a very simple connection between themes and a great contrast between two amazing composers each in their own time. It's not difficult to come up with this program. We wanted choral works and the pairing of a contemporary with an older piece. They both talk about religion, but in a different way. One is an operatic work, the other is a Mass. Mozart's Requiem does not have texts that come from secular context, it's a different context in terms of the way it is set.
There was a huge controversy when the Met programed the Death of Klinghoffer, which offers what some described as a point of view that is too sympathetic to the Palestinian terrorists. And in the Bay Area, not a peep!
Joana: Nobody has to my knowledge, nobody has said anything controversial. I wasn't expecting any controversy. I didn't think about that when we programed the piece, over a year ago. I just think it's beautiful music. Of course, I knew it was going on at the Met. But I never had an hesitation because of that. John Adams and everyone involved were clear about it. Honestly I didn't think that would be an issue. It's a work of art that is showing a different perspective on one issue. It reflects that. As an artist, I think about the piece. It's a difficult subject of our time. I didn't think about it in these terms.
Is it related to the fact that you are not doing the whole thing, but only excerpting the choruses?
Joana: I remember hearing John Adams talking about the role of the chorus in this piece specifically. The choruses that we have in the piece have a structural role. Sometimes they are expressing a commentary, sometimes they describe the action. They have this structural role. John talks about the confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians being contemporary, but also having a biblical feeling. The choruses have a role in this context.
The opera does not have an overture, it starts with a prologue tin which there are two choruses: the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of the Exiled Jews. Then the action starts. Then we are playing the Night Chorus which is completely different at the end of first act, it has a completely different intensity from the Prologue. It's after the ship has been taken, it goes back to some of the music in the Prologue, it's after a very important scene between the terrorists and the ship captain; there is a great intensity in this Chorus. John said something about the image of terrible fear and hunted person. It's a very different Chorus from the beginning. After that, we are not doing the Ocean chorus. There is the Chorus of Hagar and the Angel, it goes back to a Biblical story at the beginning of the Second Act. It's a completely different story about Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael. We finish with the Day Chorus, we don't do the Desert Chorus. There are seven choruses in the opera, and we're doing five of them. The Day Chorus takes place right after the Death of Klinghoffer. It has a morning and memory feeling to it. The choruses are all very different in content. Sometimes it's more meditation, it's more telling a story, sometimes it' s more a reaction to something that's going on.
The choruses are often performed by themselves. John Adams has always said that all seven can be performed or part of them. They have been performed like this many times, and they have been recorded as one piece.
You have worked with John Adans on his Flowering Tree or more recently on his Gospel According to the Other Mary. Do you see an evolution in his writing style?
Joana: I think all pieces are different. Death of Klinghoffer is form 1991; a Flowering Tree is from 2006; the Gospel According to the Other Mary is two years old. They are also very different in the subject matter and inspiration. For instance, Flowering Tree has this dimension of magic, it's an Indian tale that is magical and fantastic and you hear that in the music. Gospel According to the Other Mary has a great deal of an oratorio feeling. It's more of an oratorio like El Nino. It's a different piece in nature. I think that creates a musical imagination. It is difficult to talk about how his style has changed just taking these pieces. They are different in nature, in what the story tells and what the content is. All are fantastic.
You recently announced your next Season, and three of the four programs feature a living composer. How do you compose the season?
Joana: There are composers and relationships that start years in advance. For instance, the co-commision with Mark Grey is something we've talked about for a few years. And we found a date and time to do the piece. A good pairing to have this with the Creatures of Prometheus by Beethoven.
Sofia Gubaidulina, it's a relationship I have established in recent past. I have performed her pieces in Europe, but she's not performed in the US as often. Who we pick comes a lot to the living composers that I enjoy, that Rene enjoys, and we talk to them and what piece would they like us to perform. Once we find a piece that we want to do and a time frame, that's one piece of the puzzle. Then there are the soloists, who are also established relationships. For next season, we're lucky to have four very wonderful soloists. All of them I've worked with before. Then we find pieces in their repertoire that would be a good pairing. That's how we do the programming, we have the composers we're interested in and we find good matches. That's really how the process works. I really want to work with these composers and these young soloists, and making the the availability and artistic idea come together.
I like the title of Mark Grey's Frankenstein Symphony. What is it about?
Joana: The reason is literally because of the subject matter is Frankenstein. Mark Grey is writing an opera called Frankenstein for La Monnaie. He was commissioned to write a symphony from the opera for La Monnaie. It's like John Adams' Dr Atomic Symphony.
The Marriage Contract: Like the New Century Chamber Orchestra last year, the Philharmonia Baroque partnered with the SF Opera Center to borrow a gaggle of Adler Fellows to sing into a rarely perform short opera, this time a seventeen year old Rossini's La cambia di matrimonio. Staged at the SF Jazz center on a basic set composed of a few chairs and a few props, the opera describes a bunch of caricatural characters: a pair of servants; a dad who wants to sell his daughter to a rich Canadian; a daughter who of course loves and is loved by a handsome but poor boy; and the rich Canadian, trying to figure out these strange European customs.
While the libretto is over the top and relies on a lot of cartoonish comedy, it's a delicious little bonbon, especially through the excellent performance of the singers and of the orchestra. It does not have the bravura arias nor the clockwork ensemble pieces of Rossini's more mature works, but it is pleasant enough throughout for the work of a teenage composer.
The singers were wonderful all of them. As the daughter, Jacqueline Piccolini brought a tone of innocence and sweet candor to her voice; Edoardo, her lover, also sounds effortlessly lyrical and we wished he had a larger part. As the wealthy Canadian, Efrain Solis had fun with the role and his interaction with Matthew Stump (the dad) were hysterical. Nian Wang, as the maid Clarina, delivered the most wonderful aria. The time stopped as she ethereally describes the power of love; and her interaction on the stage with Anthony Reed (the other employee) oozed a very tangible desire.
The orchestra, who plays on period instruments, met the singers at the highest level. Maestro Nick McGegan paced the thing with his usual vivaciousness. The acoustics of the Jazz Center are somewhat dry, but the sound of the period instruments had a lot of liveliness. And this orchestra can attack a note with a precision and a color that impressed us throughout. We do not notice as much the edge of each entrance with an orchestra that uses modern instruments, whose sound is more blurry. And McGegan fully makes us of the clearer sound to shape the phrases in a variety of ways.
The first half of the program was dedicated to Mozart Arias and contredanses; a particularly fun aria teamed up Anthony Reed with the double bass of Kristin Zoernig in some virtuosic exchanges. Two other Adler Fellows, Julie Adams and Edward Nelson, participated in those arias as well, both of them as good as the rest.
The Demo: The odds are that today, you sat down at a computer, waved your mouse around, clicked on hyperlinks and edited collaborative digital documents. Fifty years ago, all these steps were science fiction. Yet in December 1968, Doug Engelbart sat on stage at Brooks Hall, in our Civic Center, to demonstrate the On-Line System (NLS). What he showed then still defines human-computer interactions today, even though the video of the event is in black and white. Engelbart wanted to augment the human intellect. At the time, before BuzzFeed, externalizing some cognition into computers seemed like a good idea. Engelbart also experimented with LSD to expand the human mind, because, 1968.
Engelbart milestone work happened at the Augmented Human Intellect Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute, in Menlo Park, where he led a team with Bill English, another computer scientist. So it is fitting that Stanford Live presented on Wednesday and Thursday this week an operatic re-creation of the demo combining that original video, running continuously on a giant screen, and layering on top of it some quotes and observations and some video projections. In front, the two creators of the show double as performers. Mikel Rouse impersonate Engelbart, who gave the demo, while Ben Neill is Bill English, who toiled behind the scene to make it work smoothly.
Succinctly, while Engelbart's Demo changed the way we interacted with computers, the operatic Demo does not add as much to our body of knowledge. Mikel Rouse on stage imitates Englebart on the screen with an outstanding mimicry and pinpoint accurate lip-synching. The video plays unaccompanied at the points Rouse and Neill deemed important: the initial overview of the system, the description of the mouse, etc, and is submerged by some techno-pop music in between. Unfortunately, the music is not as breathtaking as its subject matter. We heard some techno drum machine play over some relatively straightforward tonal chord sequences, mixed with sounds reminiscent of those of migrating whales, and we felt like we were shopping at some trendy union square shop. Zara? The projections also came in and out, showing the bare demo video, or its influence on future computer generated stuff like video games, flight simulators, CAD or even some darker images that represented, we guess, the threats of computers upon our world: they augmented our human intellect, but with some associated risks, quickly glimpsed.
The lyrics, when there were some, took from the terms on the screen on the demo, using such sentences as "word, word, word, word" or "skinless bananas" as Englebart modifies a shopping list. This has a slightly surreal quality. But not enough to sustain our interest, and our mind drifted to contemplating the MacBooks used by the performers and how Apple were the first ones to make Englebart's mouse a commercial success; to the iPad on the stages, and how touch screens and speech recognition finally took our interactions with computers beyond Engelbart's vision. We were thinking at how social mores stopped us from interacting with the computer in our pocket during a show on exactly this topic. And we felt there was a missed opportunity, either in coming up with a music that matches the breakthrough of the topic; or in changing the way the audience interacted with the scenic material. Neill came the closest to illustrate how technology could change music, with a weird synthesizer build into a trumpet.The Demo at Stanford's Bing Auditorium. Photo credit: Cedric Westphal/SFist.