By guest reviewer Jack Gabel
In 2009 the Astoria Music Festival won an Ovation Award, given by the Oregon Festivals and Events Association, for Best Performing or Fine Arts Festival of the Year. Having never attended, tonight I learned why the festival is deserving. Artistic Director, Kieth Clark is dedicated to meaningful engagement, development and education of the Festival's audience and he's determined to build that audience into savvy lovers of fine performing arts.
The Astoria Music Festival is taking on a significantly ambitious project for it's 2010 Festival, the staging of Alban Berg's legendary opera "Wozzeck," albeit in a chamber orchestra version. Nevertheless, I'm sure my initial reaction is not unique: WHAT! "Wozzeck" in Astoria, Oregon, who'd have thunk it? Indeed, quite a leap from last season's "Fairy Queen" staged and "Phantom of the Opera" on screen with live music. The big question: will the audience follow Clark's artistic direction into Berg's dramaturgical Freudian depths and lyrically musical dodecaphony?
Tonight I witnessed maestro Clark figuratively "parting the waters." He opened the free-and-open-to-the-public series of soirees titled The Road To Wozzeck, at the Clatsop Community College Performing Arts Center; the first stop: "Vienna City of Dreams." Clark's roughly 30 minute accessible, engaging lecture/demonstration laid the groundwork on fin de siécle Vienna and its collapsing imperial culture in which was forged the so-called Second Viennese School of musical composition and attendant modernist developments in the plastic arts, science and medicine, not to mention the founding of modern psychology. And, his audience stayed with him, all the way to the promised land — a mostly graying but enthused near-full house — through the searching tumult of Mahler and on to the expressionism of Schöenberg and introspection of Berg.
After the lecture, The Bergamo Ensemble (a band of young professionals, just breaking out of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music) took the stage to deliver first, one of the most extremely aggressive interpretations I've ever heard of Claude Debussy's "Sonata for Cello and Piano" (1915). Before delivering a sharp, warm and incisive performance, pianist Ian Scarfe briefly introduced the work as that of Debussy's he finds most closely reflective of Schoenberg and Berg. Cellist Anne Suda read so much contrast into the score, intermittently I felt I wasn't hearing Debussy at all, but discovering his lost contemporary genius; not to suggest a misreading, rather the freshest I've heard.
Next, Alban Berg's "4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano" Op. 5 (1913) were rendered in striking tonal colors by clarinetist Anna-Christina Phillips, to reveal a side to Berg, more like Shoenberg's other legendary student, Anton Webern: angular, edgy, mercurial. Again pianist Scarfe hovered over every phrase with full corporeal engagement, convincingly of one mind with the composer.
At intermission the audience was invited to examine a framed original page from Schoenberg's "Die Glückliche Hand" before rejoining to hear The Bergamo Ensemble tackle perhaps Shoenberg's most renowned work, "Pirrot Lunaire" Op. 21 (1912). And tackle it they did; wrestling it into submission and rendering it a thing of beauty before an awestruck audience. My cohort told me she thought she'd probably heard the piece before, but now knows she really has and will never forget this performance. It's hard to imagine how an ensemble could wring more detail and clarity from the alternately dense, fleeting and fidgety score. Violinist, Kevin Rogers punctuated the mass where it was called for and stretched out to linger gracefully on his lyrical lines. Flutist, Justin Lee took his instrument instantly and effortlessly from dulcet to piercing as the score often demands. Soprano, Amy Foote gave the audience the definitive lesson in hyper dramatic sprechstimme und sprechgesang. Her hysteria was as artful as it was giddy, fitting perfectly the text and delivered with flawless technique. The vocal world labels voices Puccini and Wagnerian; Ms. Foote may be setting the standard for Pirrot Sopranos, should the label ever catch on. Sung in German, the presentation was accompanied by projected lyrics and the technology was fully utilized to offer a brief slide-show preparation to the work, outlining the history of the commedia dell arte and its migration from Italy to Vienna. All in all, an evening, overflowing with historical content, both educationally fulfilling, artistically rewarding at every level and well worth the 2-hour drive both to and from Astoria.
Next stop on The Road to Wozzeck: "Opera Preview and Movie Wozzeck" — a sneak peak at the first stages of the summer's production in progress and a screening of Werner Herzog's 1979 film, based on Buchner's 1836 play "Woyzeck." This presentation will take place on Friday, April 16th at the Clatsop Community College Performing Arts Center, and again, admission is free. If it's half as engaging as tonight's memorable performance, demonstration and lecture, you too may find the drive worth it. Moreover, local producers of fine performing arts might find it instructional, considering the widespread desperation to grow and enthuse audiences. Keith Clark is on to something, and let's hope it's catching.
Jack Gabel is a Portland-based, composer, sound engineer, producer, record label owner, currently serving as Resident Composer and Technical Director to Agnieszka Laska Dancers.