Friday, March 19, 2010

O’s, Lots of O’s

Faces, beautiful with the smooth perfection of youth, in grotesquerie. Grimacing, writhing, wrung-out in over-the-edge extremity. Mouths, lips, pervasively shaped as screaming, moaning O’s, crying out, Oh, Oh, Oh! Endless Oh!!’s. Oh!’s from the sheer agony of pleasure and pain, contorted by Orgasm, the Ominous, Oblivion. Gripping, shrieking Oh! ’s return again and again throughout the video, emblazoned by burnished brass, burning those images into the brain, defining the distorted underbelly of blighted life come of age.

Mesmerizing music, pulsating throughout with rock and jazz elements, pop and rap, R&B and electronica. Music urbanly street-sinister, darkly noir, thrillingly full of men and menace, the saxophones so like the human voice, anguished or exultant. Music sharp and synchronized, on cue with the searing video, the one emphasizing the other, magnifying the riveting, arresting impact of the production. Music composed and performed with the technique and precision, aplomb and mastery that come from conservatory training, classical tradition, and evolved into the myriad breakthrough, modern directions of the twentieth century, its legacy becoming the music of our times, today’s contemporary artistic expression that transcends former, formal musical distinctions. Music as multi-media expression in performance, the new composer’s art.

On a Sunday afternoon, 14th of March, at McKenna Theatre on the campus of San Francisco State University, the New Century Saxophone Quartet presented Heartbreakers (2004, for saxophone quartet) by Dutch composer, Jacob ter Veldhuis, an unforgettably haunting, stunning, highly dramatic work that archetypally encapsulates urban realities in a powerful, in-your-face, yet compassionately consciousness-raising splendor, if such a modifier can be used for so disturbingly tight, tense, and terse a work.

Yet, Heartbreakers is a creative work wholly satisfying. Using snippets of isolated and composite words flashing on the screen, and imagery conveying the general anonymity of the asphalt jungle, of hip city life, booze and after-hours joints, joints and crack, disjointed comments by friends and family, strangers and agencies, a montage self-assembles from the melange. Buttressed and intensified so ineluctably by Veldhuis’ music and its devoted performance by the NCSQ, with special guests David Cutler (piano), Jeff Grubbs (bass), and Tim Adams (drums) on the completing soundtrack, the montage is a virtual template of the tortured soul as independence and free will gone horribly wrong.

Veldhuis, for whom English is a loved yet “foreign” language, being also a composer in language, has taken the alphabetical centrality of “O” to symbolize the centrism of the unreasoned, destroyed life: Oh! the Orgasm, the Ominous, the Oblivion. Snips and snatches of dialogue tell the wearisome, inevitable hard-core reality: She’s 18, she can do what she wants . . . Oh! prostitution. the. big. O. shack-up. joints. crack. abuse. child. Oh! neglect. real. he-man. loser. crying. tears. up. suicide. hell. Oh! There are men, menace, memory. The one and only thing in the world that he feels any connection to, but: She took my kids away from me . . . Oh! his poignant weeping, so heartbreaking . . . or is it his sinuses and tear ducts, wrecked from years of snorting and sniffing . . . .

Concise, terse, a generality of human angst deftly handled, and ultimately more elastically meaningful than a textually and specifically through-written vehicle such as opera or film, Heartbreakers was yet created by Veldhuis with the 360-degree inspired control of the auteur, carried out with the videographics of Jan Boiten As such, composer Jacob ter Velduis (or Jacob TV, his clever and catchy ‘stage name’) and the NCSQ have succeeded magnificently in their collaboration (Heartbreakers had been originally composed for jazz sextet, 1999). Gratefully, Heartbreakers is recorded and the CD is available on the Quartet’s website, where one delightedly sees that on the big baritone sax, it’s not ol’ Gerry Mulligan but the diminutively pert, lovely Connie Frigo, holding up the ‘continuo’ foundation for the group. What we eagerly anticipate with bated breath is Heartbreakers as a DVD, which then would, in addition to the audio, do full justice to the visual.

On the NCSQ website, the same CD also contains John Fitz Rogers' Prodigal Child (2007), which preceded Hearthbreakers on the March 14th program. An absolutely thrilling concert work challenging to perform, Prodigal Child ’s technix incorporate most of the ‘new’ and very sophisticated metrical, rhythmic, and harmonic compositional devices developed in the 20th century, to express an emotional range rich and varied in response to world and national politics, at once subtle yet outspoken. Jointly trio-commissioned (including the San Francisco Saxophone Quartet), Prodigal Child is an important work meriting investigation and CD purchase by sax and brass fans who are lovers of contemporary music. A superb performance, a stunning program. But the splendiferous surprise was that this fabulous concert was FREE! We’re simply full of appreciation and happily whelmed by such gift and grace, indeed!

D. Ch’an-Moriwaki
San Francisco, CA. USA

Note: Robert Moon accompanied Dianna Ch'an-Moriwaki to this amazing concert and asked her to write about it. Many thanks to Dianna for this brilliant review.

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