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William Kentridge's SIBYL at Cal Performances

Cal-performances-william-kentridges-sibyl-by-stella-olivier-1* Notes * 
William Kentridge's SIBYL (scene from Part 2 pictured, photograph by Stella Olivier) had a US premiere at Cal Performances this weekend. The music composed by performer Nhlanhla Mahlangu and pianist Kyle Shephard was nothing short of mesmerizing.

The presentation started with a short 22-minute film by Kentridge entitled The Moment Has Gone with a male chorus (four singers) lead by Mahlangu and Shephard playing the piano. The work showcases charcoal drawings of Kentridge's alter ego Soho Eckstein and has many images of an art museum and of a mining area. A meditation on time, everything eventually collapses and dissolves, the artworks in the museum, various items made from what came from the mines such as a metal coffee pot, and even the museum itself. The chorus sang syllables that were certainly not English or Afrikaans, but I was not sure if these were words in Zulu or another Southern Bantu language, as my skills beyond Indo-European or Sino-Tibetan languages are sadly lacking. There were sections that were entirely clicks, and there were some beautiful and startling harmonies along with the percussiveness of the aforementioned consonants.

The second part of the performance was the chamber opera Waiting for the Sibyl, which premiered at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma in 2019. Again, the music pulled everything together, Shephard played piano and nine other performers either sang or danced or both in the case of Mahlangu and Xolisile Bongwana. The six scenes reveal the story of the Cumaean Sibyl, who I remeber best from Ovid's Metamorphoses and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, but also shows up in Virgil's Aeneid where she writes her prophecies on oak leaves and in Raphael's fresco in Santa Maria della Pace.

The action never stops, the music continues throughout the scene changes as the front curtain drops and projections continue. The work with shadows, whether made by the bodies of the dancers, by props, or by the videos, are all artful. Sometimes the shadows seemed to take on a solid quality and be three-dimensional.

It was unclear if the vocalizations were in Zulu or were based on the sounds of that language, and there were no translations, but there were plenty of English words written on leaves of books. There was much leaf imagery, books and trees. The some of the sayings were more serious than whimsical. "But no place will resist destruction," "Tie every guilt to your ankle," and "I no longer believe what I once believed" all were dark, though "Resist the third cup of coffee/ the third martini" and the like definitely garnered laughs. The vibrancy of this work that deals with mortality and futility is both very jarring and beautiful.

* Tattling * 
There was not much electronic noise, perhaps it was drowned out by the performance, but it was really nice to be able to focus in on this music. There was some light talking, which I totally did not understand as the performance clock in just over an hour total plus the 20-minute intermission, and there was always so much going on whether it was visual or aural.

William Kentridge's Ursonate at Cal Performances

William-kentridge-ursonate-2023* Notes * 
William Kentridge performed the Dadaist sound poem Ursonate (ovation pictured) at Cal Performances last Friday in Berkeley as part of his UC Berkeley residency this school year. The piece involves Kentridge intoning Kurt Schwitters' nonsense words at a podium as images flash in the background on a large piece of paper. The effect is almost meditative, at least until Kentridge was joined by soprano Ariadne Greif, trombone player Danny Lubin-Laden, and musical saw player David Coulter toward the end of the performance.

Ursonate or "Primeval Sonata" is a poem written by the German artist Kurt Schwitter from 1922 to 1932. It has movements, as with a piece of music, and there are recurrent sound patterns such as "fümmsböwö" or "rakete." As the parent of small children, it reminded me of the insectile language in the 2016 picture book Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis. 

Kentridge's version, which premiered at the Performa 17 festival at the Harlem Parish, features his art, there are images of dancers, soldiers, and even Kentridge himself walking over a chair. There are the words of the piece projected and also the odd sayings that often appear in Kentridge's work. Most of these seem to be projected over various book pages, sometimes we see the pages of a book flipped through from cover to cover.

In the finale soprano Greif and trombonist Lubin-Laden enter from the audience, Greif seems to converse or even argue with Kentridge using the same syllables from Schwitters' libretto. The saw player Coulter enters later, from upstage, it was fun to see him play the saw with a drum stick and a bow.

* Tattling * 
The audience did not talk, but there were two ringtones noted from unsilenced mobile phones, one in the middle of the 45 minute piece that seemed based on "Bad to the Bone" and one closer to the end.

The performance was sold-out and was performed in the intimate Zellerbach Playhouse, which only has 400 seats.

Mells' Symphony No.1 in D Minor

Herbert-franklin-mells* Notes *
One Found Sound, a musician-run orchestra without a conductor, launched its Herbert Franklin Mells Project with a premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in D minor last Saturday night at Heron Arts in San Francisco. Dr. Mells (1908-1953) was prevented from publishing his work in his lifetime, despite the fact that he received a Ph.D. in composition with a focus on orchestral music, the first black man to do so.

The piece, from 1938, is tuneful and comic. Things start off neatly with a Moderato, showing a sense of humor from the beginning. The Adagio that follows is pretty, though I was distracted a bit by the unfocused brass, the space, an art gallery, makes the instruments both very loud and diffuse. I enjoyed the amusing Scherzo, that had lots of pizzicato. The final Allegro was bright. The woodwind and string soli all were strong, I particularly liked hearing the first cello. The orchestra has a great sense of fun and playfulness. It certainly piques one's curiosity, and it's worth the effort to hear Mells' other works in the coming years.

The parts for the orchestra were put together by Dr. R. James Whipple, professor of music theory at Carnegie Mellon University and his students, and they will be published, along with recordings of this piece and future ones as part of this project.

The orchestra also played Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Op. 62, which was played with both drama and urgency and Quinn Mason's Reflection On A Memorial, which was contemplative and viola-heavy, always of interest to this former violist.

The venue lent the performance a more informal and intimate feel than most classical music settings, we were on the same floor as the standing musicians, and there were almost as many people "on stage" as off. There was paper sculptures on the walls by Zai Divecha, the current exhibition at Heron Arts. One Found Sound also had projections above the orchestra and on the sides, mostly of candle flames for the Mason, and a painting of Mells for his symphony.

* Tattling *
We were encouraged to respond as moved to by Sarah Bonomo, co-founder and clarinetist of the orchestra. So laughing, clapping, taking pictures or video were all allowed.

Dr. Mells' grandson, bass-baritone Eugene Perry, was in attendance, as were other members of the family including a daughter of the composer and a granddaughter. Perry addressed the audience and gave us an introduction to the piece.