Sunday, June 16, 2019

Baumbusch’s Mashup has no “Up Side”

Last night the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater presented the second of the three performances prepared for Other Minds (OM) Festival 24. The program consisted of a single full-evening work structured in fifteen scenes with one intermission, the world premiere performance of “The Pressure (A graphic musical tale of horror)” by Oakland-based composer Brian Baumbusch. OM commissioned this piece with funding provided by the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation.

The Program Notes provided describe “The Pressure” as “a mashup of silent-film, comic-book, oratorio, shadow-puppetry, and story-telling.” This must have been written before the performance was finalized, since the closest the performance got to shadow-puppetry came from the performance on gamelan instruments by members of The Lightbulb Ensemble. As to that last descriptor, any coincidence between what was being performed and any basic elements of both narrative and the act of narrating was purely coincidental. Nevertheless, it was clear that creating “The Pressure” involved throwing a massive number of ingredients into a common stewpot and then subjecting them all to prolonged cooking. Sadly, all that emerged from the pot was an inchoate mass of sounds and images that never quite congealed around even the faintest shaping of narrative.

Ultimately, the problem boiled down to throwing too many things into the pot, beginning with the performing resources themselves. The Lightbulb Ensemble consists of a dozen percussionists playing a combination of Western and Eastern instruments. They were joined by the members of the Friction Quartet with Kevin Rogers in the first violin chair along with violinist Otis Harriel, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz. In the center of this array of instrumentalists, Margaret Halbig sat at the console of an electric organ, with Brett Carson doubling on a second organ and a toy piano off to the side. There was also a quartet of vocalists, all endowed with microphones: soprano Shauna Fallihee, alto Melinda Becker, tenor Ryan Matos, and bass Sidney Chen. Finally, there was an upright Disklavier without anyone sitting on a piano bench, apparently responding to cues provided by conductor Nathaniel Berman. All of these musical resources were then supplemented by Baumbusch himself, who served as narrator.

The program book provided a useful synopsis of a plot that involved an oppressive increase in atmospheric pressure (hence the title), hailstones as big as apples, a town in which a major figure appears to be the undertaker, and a couple of mysterious strangers thrown in for good measure. Sadly, Baumbusch turned out to be a thoroughly inept narrator. The better passages were the ones in which more that 25% of the words could be comprehended. Mind you, so many sounds were emanating from the stage, where they were amplified by a bevy of microphones, that it was a wonder that anything had even the slightest coherence. The management of those microphones may have had much to do with Baumbusch’s garbled utterances. It certainly can take the blame for the fact that most of the vocal work was evident only by the singers moving their lips, rather than any consistent audibility.

Fortunately, a few satisfying events managed to rise above this fray. Both Rogers and Warbelow had extended solo passages that involved some serious shredding with unmistakably dynamite results. (Machiz also appeared to have a solo; but, sadly, his was more seen than heard.) The clearest sonorities probably came for the auditory strength of the Lightbulb instruments, particularly through their solid command of the gamelan instruments in the ensemble.

On the whole, however, the entire production had less to do with what could have been the engaging juxtapositions of a mashup and more to do with much ado about nothing.

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