Monday, May 22, 2017

Vanessa Langer Sings Crumb and Coll

The soprano Vanessa Langer offered an adventurous, brilliant concert at the Center for New Music a couple of Saturdays ago. Collaborating with pianist Allegra Chapman, flautist Elizabeth Talbert, and sound designer/composer David Coll, Langer sang two chansons about birds by Messiaen, a five-movement song cycle by George Crumb using phrases from Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, and two works by David Coll himself. There was even an added duet for flute and piano by the contemporary Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu.

The 1979 Crumb piece, Apparition, is a virtuosic seven-movement marvel for the pianist who plays inside and outside of her instrument, sometimes simultaneously. The vocal lines are all over the place, from tender and delicate sighs to what are almost shrieks and Langer made all of it beautiful and compelling. I can't imagine a better performance.

The first David Coll piece was Refuse Collection, a work in progress setting of poem by the British poet Jeremy Prynne, written in 2004 in response to the Abu Ghraib horrors coming to public light. The poem and the musical setting are like one of Trump's word salads, a surreal mixture of disquieting specificity overcome by a torrent of banalities. Vanessa used just about every type of voice, speech, whisper, and cry imaginable in the short excerpt, and it made me look forward to hearing the completed work.

The 1982 Digital Bird Suite by Yoshimatsu is "extracted from fictitious music for a fictitious ballet, the hero of which is a mechanical bird named Digital Bird" and a conceit doesn't get any more Japanese than that. The music was sprightly, strange, and enjoyable, particularly the performance by Elizabeth Talbert on flute.

The finale was David Coll's Position, Influence, a setting of a speech given by Charles de Gaulle after the 1968 Paris protests, which Coll has collapsed and fragmented in an amazing sounding piece for a soprano who is orating, singing, screaming, and somehow guiding a whole wall of sheet metal pieces into action with her voice. I heard the piece a couple of years ago, without knowing about the political oration subtext, and was stunned by the excitingly different and expressive work. Hearing it a second time only confirmed how good it is, a French Political World Salad on steroids.

The level of musicianship all evening was extraordinary, and the playing of pianist Allegra Chapman, looking and sounding like a junior Sarah Cahill, was particularly astonishing.

Though I hate walking through the Tenderloin neighborhood on Taylor Street, the Center for New Music is one of the coolest spots in the entire world. For $15, we heard music that was basically all new for most of the audience, performed at a level of accomplishment that was dazzling. The space that Adam Fong and Brent Miller have built is a small miracle, and a template for others around the globe.

Vanessa Langer moved from the Bay Area to Italy on Thursday to live with her Milanese husband, but her career is international and I can't wait to hear what she does next when she returns.

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