Musical Abundance

I attended three concerts last weekend, and if I could be two places at once I would attend three more this weekend, but I must make a choice.  Such is the nature of abundance.  “Abundance,” in fact, was the title of one of the pieces performed by the superb pianist Vijay Iyer, who performed with his trio (Stephan Crump, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, in Santa Cruz, last Saturday.  I discovered Iyer at the Monterey Jazz Festival a few years ago, and now make an effort to hear him whenever he appears in the area.  Iyer’s style is both thoughtful and intense, ranging from a kind of prolonged and spacious quiet to blistering rhythmic hooks that keep on digging deeper and deeper into the possibilities of sound.  It was a thrilling, generous concert.

That was Saturday.  On Sunday I drove to San Francisco for two events presented by San Francisco Performances: an afternoon vocal recital, with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, and an evening solo piano recital featuring Jonathan Biss.  Both Leonard and  Biss are young musical powerhouses who design creative programs that reflect their individual personalities and interests.

Leonard sang a selection of Spanish and American composers (her father is American, her mother from Argentina).  While I enjoyed the Spanish songs, especially the haunting “Sólo las flores sobre ti,” by Federico Mompou, and “Cinco Canciones Negras,” by Xavier Montsalvatge, which I performed with my friend Sally-Anne Russell several years ago, I found the second, American half of the program more interesting.  William Schuman’s “God’s World” is a rolling, yearning cry for life: “O World, I cannot hold thee close enough!” (The words are from a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.)  “When I Have Sung My Songs,” by Ernest Charles, is almost unbearable in its tenderness of feeling: “When I have sung my songs to you, I’ll sing no more.”  Leonard’s voice is remarkably rich and she conveyed the impassioned nature of her repertory with depth and conviction.

Biss’s program was unusual: Robert Schumann’s Phantasiestücke, Opus 12, interspersed with selections from “On an Overgrown Path,” by the Czech composer Leos Janácek.  Biss’s goal is to invite people to listen differently to Schumann, a composer many do not take seriously.  Biss plays Schumann as if in conversation with the music—a respectful dialogue with the tender beating heart that underlies all of Schumann’s music.  The performance was exceptional; I have rarely heard a pianist of such international stature play with such vulnerability.  Many top-level performers play with a self-protective mask of technical excellence.  To be openly emotional in one’s expression is not sloppy or self-indulgent sentimentality; there is nothing sloppy about revealing one’s tenderness to an audience. On the contrary it is courageous, authentic, deeply satisfying—and in my experience, rare.

On to this weekend.  Shall I choose the Ying Quartet, performing Haydn, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, with its ghostly slow movement, and a new work by Kenji Bunch, whose work is celebrated for its whimsical, playful nature?  Or do I want to immerse myself in the unique soundworld of guitarist Leo Kottke, whose music defies boundaries, drawing from jazz, classical, folk, and blues?  I’m leaning toward Kottke (that's him in the photo at the top of this post), who mostly performs without singing—he once described his voice as sounding like “geese farts on a muggy day”—but who can be counted on to share off-the-wall jokes and anecdotes along with his signature finger-picking style.  Both Kottke and the Ying perform Saturday March 23rd at 8:00 p.m. (see below for details).

Also this weekend, Hidden Valley, in Carmel Valley, is opening its barn doors to the public for two free concerts featuring teachers and participants in its chamber music workshop.  I have attended these concerts in the past, and have been impressed not only by the very high level of musicianship, but especially by the enthusiasm and sheer delight of the players.  Many of them have other lives and careers, and come together each year to satisfy their passion for music.  Witnessing this kind of exuberant play is a reminder of how much abundant joy is out there in the world—we just have to ask for it.

The Ying Quartet, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, Saturday, March 23, at 8:00 p.m., at Carmel’s Sunset Center.  Call 625-2212 for tickets or information.

Leo Kottke, Saturday, March 23, 8:00 p.m., Monterey Conference Center, Steinbeck Room, visit for information.

Golden Gate Chamber Players, at Hidden Valley Music Seminars, Saturday and Sunday, March 23 and 24, at 4:00 p.m.