Monday, June 19, 2017

The Daily Californian: ‘Ojai at Berkeley’ unites trailblazing musicians in celebration of diverse classical styles [Contralto Gwendolyn Brown in "Afterword, an opera"]

Gwendolyn Brown

June 19, 2017

“Ojai at Berkeley,” in partnership with Cal Performances, is an extension of Southern California’s annual Ojai Music Festival. The concert series ran Thursday through Saturday, hosting a broad selection of talented musicians trained in a wide variety of musical acumens. The program is musically directed by Vijay Iyer, a UC Berkeley alumnus and accomplished pianist and composer.
There were four events in total as part of the festival, each one offering a unique musical reinvention of genre — samplings of Iyer’s original work, pairings with fellow esteemed composers and musicians and collaborations across mediums were all included under the umbrella of “Ojai at Berkeley.” On Friday night in Zellerbach Playhouse, attendees were treated to “Afterword, an opera,” a new piece from innovative composer George Lewis. The following afternoon, Iyer himself took the stage in Zellerbach Hall for “Vijay Iyer and Friends: Confluence,” in which he performed with a group of other musicians in an exploration of the intersection between Carnatic music and jazz. 

George Lewis’ “Afterword, an opera”
Composer George Lewis’ “Afterword, an opera” is based on the afterword of Lewis’ book, “A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music,” which traces the founding and history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM. The AACM is a well-known organization that seeks to promote the production of original, avant-garde music created by Black musicians — including improvisatory jazz and experimental classical music. The story is told by three singers — soprano Joelle Lamarre, contralto Gwendolyn Brown and tenor Julian Terrell Otis — and the work is not only musically unconventional, but politically relevant.

George Lewis’ compositions are, in a word, formidable — deliberately discordant and cacophonous, a creaking jumble of piercing flute and distressed violin that is deceptively precise.


The choice to tell the story of experimental African-American music as an opera was certainly not arbitrary — the juxtaposition of a such a traditional, classical style and a narrative exploring the groundbreaking achievements of musicians of color was brilliantly executed — the disparity never quite acknowledged, but nevertheless powerfully present. Opera is well known for both its musical stringency and its racial and economic exclusivity, but Lewis is able to subvert these traditions with his unusual orchestrations and progressive subject matter.

The three characters sing again and again that they long to empower themselves and honor their ancestors with original compositions, yet they are confined to expressing these desires in traditional operatic style, reflecting the restriction from self-expression and cultural celebration that they must overcome within the narrative. It’s a politically potent artistic choice, one that Lewis leverages to his advantage; in the act of challenging opera’s limitations, “Afterword, an opera” becomes as inventive and revolutionary as the AACM itself.


No comments: