When I asked Allen Shearer how he got the idea for an informal concert by local poets, composers, singers, and instrumentalists, I expected to hear the familiar lament: that composers of new music have few opportunities to have their works performed.
But he surprised me: “Well, it sounded like great fun. Not to form an ‘organization’ or anything. Just to get together a group of composers and performers and a small audience. So I called Peter Josheff and broached the idea, and Peter said, ‘Let’s do it.’ That was in 2001. This year will be our fourth concert.”
Allen Shearer, (as if you didn’t know) is the renowned baritone, composer, and teacher at UC, Hayward State, and the SF Conservatory. (Check the Internet for a list of his compositions and awards, too many to list here.)
Peter Josheff has played clarinet with most of the new music ensembles in the Bay Area (helping to found some of them), often playing works dedicated to him by new composers. He is known for his solo improvisations as well as multi-media performances. His compositions have been performed in many concert series, including by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. He teaches at SF State University.
Why choose the Berkeley Art Center as the venue for this kind of concert? “It was perfect,” Peter says. “An intimate place with an established, ongoing series of art events. We wanted to form a special kind of performing community. You know, most composers have an institutional base, usually academic. We wanted to form another kind of communit y—poets, composers, performers, audience—with a local feeling, a neighborhood feeling.” He laughs. “An institution of friendship.”
“Intimate,” adds Allen, “and affordable. We get an unusual audience, mature, knowledgeable people who have a lot more savvy than money. You know, the East Bay, I think, does better than San Francisco in offering a variety of the kind of small concerts that we all love to do.”
“After last year’s performance,” says Peter, “a player told me it had been her favorite performance of the whole year.”
And how do they choose composers and performers? “Oh,” says Allen, “it just happens. You know, in the Bay Area, we have the pick of the best performers, and, like Peter, they sometimes compose as well, or know composers who want to write for them. For instance, Peter asked Loretta Notareschi if she’d like to write something for him to play, so she composed a piece called ‘Liquid Sings.’”
“Don’t forget Mary Watkins,” says Peter. “She’s going to present scenes from her opera based on the life of Clara Barton. And, of course, Allen always throws in a dramatic surprise that isn’t newly composed. This year he’s going to sing an aria from a forgotten 19th century opera called The Vampire, by a German composer, Heinrich Marschner.”
Anothe r special offering this year will be music by Peter to accompany a poem by Dorothy Cary (Peter’s mother), and spoken by poet Jaime Robles.
Jaime’s name came up several times. Not only has she participated as poet and performer from the beginning, but, drawing on her background in book design, she produces a program that prints the words of all songs, “like a chapbook,” says Peter. “Worth the price of admission,” says Allen. (Jaime is also the publisher of Five Finger Review, available at Cody’s Books.)
What are the difficulties of putting together a concert like this? Neither man had any complaints, only noting that “at the very end, it gets hectic because we do everything ourselves.”
The audience for Harvest of Song is growing. “Last year we were really full, about 100 people, so this year we’ll do two performances.” Do they ever think of moving to a larger venue? In unison, they said, “Never.” Then Allen: “We don’t want to lose that intimate, neighborly sense of community. That’s the whole point!”
Last question: In what way have these concerts changed you or changed the way you work? Interestingly, although I asked Allen and Peter separately, in different phone calls, they gave almost identical answers, that they approached composing for these concerts in a different “lighter, quicker, relaxed, personal way.” Peter cited a more simple, quiet, less virtuosic style the series has helped him develop, and Allen said he felt “liberated by the close relation to performers and audience. Free to try th ings I never would have dreamed of.”›t