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Winter Brings Array of Eclectic Musical Theater

By C. Suprynowicz Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 02, 2003

Mortgaging the Earth is the name of John Halle’s new work for two sopranos and chamber ensemble, being presented tonight [Tuesday Dec. 2] in a program by Composers Inc. The text is a doozy, an internal memo from Lawrence Summers (then chief economic advisor to the World Bank, now president of Harvard). “Just between you and me,” Summers wrote,” shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Less Developed Countries? I can think of three reasons.” Those reasons, and the music they inspired, comprise the piece.  

Halle is a homeboy who’s done good. Once a UC Berkeley undergrad in composition, he’s now teaching at Yale. Composers on the rest of this program are Alejandro Escuer, Arthur Krieger, Kevin Beavers, Paul Barsom, with Berkeley Opera’s own Jonathan Khuner conducting. The performance is tonight at 8 p.m. in the Green Room of the Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Real darn soon, in other words, so stick this paper in your pocket and get on the train. Composers, Inc. is an illustrious Bay Area enterprise, teaming up first-rate composers with equally stellar performers. 

If you subscribe to the theory that scrappy arts venues are a precursor to big-time gentrification, downtown Oakland may be ready for its oft-rumored, oft-postponed real estate boom. The logic is that when deserted storefronts give way to theaters and rehearsal space, optimistic developers cannot be far behind. What then happens to the artists we will cover at another time. 

Out in front of the speculative curve, not only do we have the Oakland Box Theater at 20th and Telegraph (previously cited in this column), and the Oakland Metro at the base of Broadway. Now there’s Café Van Kleef at 1621 Telegraph, a classy bistro with live music, art on the walls, and espresso at the bar. Mayor Jerry Brown may be seen from time to time, wafting in from his new digs up the street where Sears once was. Meanwhile, any direction you go, developers are throwing money at buildings that have been vacant for years. 

At the South end of the strip, courtesy of the Oakland Metro (201 Broadway; tel: 763-1146), you have a chance to see Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts, running Dec. 5-14. Stein left Oakland for Paris while still in her teen years, and in 1926 teamed up with another American expat, composer Virgil Thomson. Eight years later, their opera Four Saints became a sensation, an infamous cultural event in its time, and the longest-running opera in Broadway history to date.  

There seems to be some sort of low-level Stein revival underway. The San Francisco Opera put up Mother Of Us All earlier in the season, and the Metro (also known as Oakland Opera Theater) did Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters last year. Lori Zook, executive director of O.O.T., has been struck by the strange, canny craftsmanship of Stein’s text and lyrics. She recalled to me her disorientation at early rehearsals, then the pleasure of hearing correspondences emerge between lines, phrases, themes. Stein can be seen (though credit is rarely given her) as a forerunner of John Ashbery, James Tate, James Merrill—those contemporary poets who “Tell it slant,” as Virginia Woolf used to say. As for the folks at the Oakland Metro, god bless ‘em for conjuring this peculiar and wonderful show, in this case with a live 11-piece orchestra and digitally projected scenery. Give them your money. 

Still in Oakland (we’ll get to Berkeley in a minute), Arthur Blythe is at Yoshi’s with his quartet on Monday, Dec. 15. It’s nice that Yoshi’s is continuing to work with Jazz In Flight on their Monday night series; this writer hopes they will reconsider their jitters when it comes to booking local artists at the venue. There are some powerfully good jazz musicians around here without many places to play. 

While we’re talking jazz, can we get straight, if possible, what is going on with these Berkeley High kids? Is it something they’re putting in the water? The players are so good they’re scary, and they keep coming up with the goods year after year. Charles Hamilton, head of the program, certainly deserves credit, but let’s give the kids their due. A list of shining stars from recent years would include Peter Apfelbaum, Will Bernard, Dave Ellis, Rodney Franklin, Kito Gamble, Benny Green, David Murray, Lenny Pickett, Josh Redman, Michael Wolff, and Hitomi Oba. The next scheduled concert for the Berkeley High Jazz Band and Combos is not here in Berkeley, but will be the CSUS Winter Jazz Festival in Sacramento on Saturday, Dec. 13. For information, cal (916)691-7170.  

Lastly but not leastly, Larry Ochs, Fred Frith, and Miya Masaoka will be at the Free Gallery, 2575 Bancroft Way between College and Telegraph in Berkeley at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday Dec. 4. As we’re all soon to be awash in Messiahs and Requiems, this is as musically provocative a combination as you’re likely to find for the duration of the holidays. And I believe in supporting any venue I’ve never heard of just on principle.  

Remember, go in peace. And if you can’t go in peace, just go.