San Diego Opera’s Production of Kaminsky’s Moving, Brilliant ‘As One’

November 11, 2017

original review posted at:

The subject of Laura Kaminsky’s unabashedly topical opera As One easily stirs up controversy. But even if you subscribe to that dated Louis B. Mayer sneer about “leaving the messages to Western Union,” this one-act opera that recounts the self-discovery of a transgender woman is a gorgeous and emotionally compelling opera. And San Diego Opera has paid Kaminsky’s 2014 work the highest compliment by mounting a transfixing production featuring two magnificent singers and the ebullient Hausmann Quartet.



Kelly Markgraf & Blythe Gaissert with violinist Isaac Allen [photo (c) Karl Cadel]

In this abstract but highly energized production directed by Kyle Lang, baritone Kelly Markgraf and mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert embody Hannah, the opera’s protagonist, as the conflicted, passionate youth whose coming of age is complicated by a growing awareness that her outer physical identity and her interior psychological identity are in conflict. And although we hear more of Markgraf in the first part of the opera and Gaissert dominates the second half, Kaminsky has deftly interwoven the voices so they are not reduced to mere before and after representations.

Markgraf and Gaissert could not have been more ideally paired. Each displayed a rich, alluring instrument that easily commanded the capacious Joan B. Kroc Theatre. Markgraf’s resonant baritone combines the darker hue we associate with strong bass-baritones with a penetrating tenorial edge that splendidly articulated both the text and its potent emotional drive, and Gaissert’s creamy mezzo-soprano took on a delectable brightness in the ecstatic melismas Kaminsky gave Hannah in her most joyful moments. I pray that the company’s General Director David Bennett has signed up these accomplished singers for many return visits to San Diego Opera!



Blythe Gaissert [photo (c) Karli Cadel]

I must confess that the artistic decision to reduce a chamber opera’s accompaniment to a mere string quartet did not excite me—but I had seriously underestimated Kaminsky’s consummate skill handling instrumental texture and color. In her complex yet miraculously varied orchestration I heard the brilliant structural architecture I associate with Dmitri Shostakovich’s great string quartets modified by a more ingratiating melodic line that American composers such as Ned Rorem and John Corigliano have cultivated.



Hausmann Quartet: Isaac Allen, Bram Goldstein, Alex Greenbaum, Angela Choong & Conductor Bruce Stasyna [photo (c) Karli Cadel]

Under the astute direction of Bruce Stasyna, the Hausmann Quartet gave an exciting, muscular account of this amazing score. In a laudable series at the San Diego Maritime Museum on San Diego harbor, Hausmann is presenting the complete canon of Haydn string quartets, but Kaminsky’s score revealed this ensemble’s blazing virtuosity in a way that the staid classical repertory cannot. Hausmann has given glimpses of this capacity performing works by Thomas Adès and short pieces by other contemporary composers, but the extensive, kaleidoscopic As One score revealed the quartet’s potential as major proponent of contemporary music.

The librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed tell the story of As One in a chronological series of flashback songs that begins with the teen-aged Hannah working a paper route and ends with her self acceptance on a solo vacation to a remote Norwegian forest, but because there are no other characters, the staging possibilities are severely limited. Lang has solved this challenge keeping his singers in constant movement around Jonathan Gilmer’s simple but effective abstract stage design that allowed the singers both to circle behind the onstage instrumentalists and to come quite close to the audience at the edge of the stage. At times the singers worked in intimate proximity, but even when they were placed at opposite sides of the stage, they vividly communicated their strong connection.

Large video projections, also the handiwork of Kimberly Reed, on five asymmetrically placed screens at the back of the stage helped focus both mood and location for each segment of Hannah’s journey, from a close-up of the paper route bicycle’s front wheel to the brightly-colored streetcars of San Francisco’s Market Street to the idyllic Norwegian nature stills.

It would be easy to credit the 14 and counting different productions of As One presented since its 2014 debut on the economy of the work’s compact dimensions. But the depth of its emotional journey and the dramatic immediacy of Kaminsky’s music are its winning calling cards. Unlike too many new operas, it is easy to feel as one with this amazing musical production.

-Ken Herman

San Diego New Music on the move and ‘In:Transit’

October 27, 2017

original review posted at:

San Diego New Music turned to that emblematic chamber music ensemble born in the 18th century, the string quartet, to assemble its season-opening concert Thursday night in the Jacobs Music Room at La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music and Arts Library. The Hausmann Quartet is one of a handful of string quartets — all of them American — that move with fluent ease from Classical-period works (Haydn is one of their specialties) to contemporary works by living composers.

San Diego New Music’s 2017-18 season is built around an evocative theme it identifies as “In:Transit.” And it’s not just territory that will be covered, but feelings, dreams, the breakdown of language, the disappearing past — in short, the thing we humans face with dread and excitement: change.

Belgian composer Linde Timmermans’ “Cante de Ida y Vuelta” fragments melodies and rhythms across the oceans between Spain and its colonies, each end of the exchange affecting the other. These “round-trip songs,” permeated with raw dance-like energy, eventually coalesced into an ancient Moorish-sounding melody singing to itself.

Here as everywhere else on the program, the Hausmann players gave an immaculate performance. Since their San Diego debut in 2010 in SummerFest’s Young Artist Fellowship program, they’ve enriched musical life in San Diego and Southern California with increasing artistry. Their outstanding virtue is a rare one: the ability to disappear into and behind whatever they are playing, leaving only the music in view.

This meticulous self-effacement does not preclude virtuoso solo work, as violinists Isaac Allen and Bram Goldstein displayed in four of Bartok’s “Duos for Two Violins.” Cellist Alex Greenbaum — a San Diego New Music program curator last season — made his cello speak missing words in Luciano Berio’s “Les mots sonts allés…,” animating its whispered, somewhat tortured intimacy with a kind of crisp, forthrightness. Violist Angela Choong didn’t get a solo turn, but her vibrant presence was the indispensable inner voice that made phrases into statements.

Juxtaposing Tina Tallon’s “selective defrosting” and Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte” to end the first half was, in a word, brilliant. A master of timbral and instrumental layering to create vivid imagery, Tallon also possesses subtle wit. Her straight-faced empathy for the frozen objects enduring the transit from solid to liquid, from cold to warm, eventually yielded a small elegy for their former icy life before their ultimate sublimation from liquid to gas. Shaw’s “Entr’acte” was everything we mean when we talk of “warm” string playing, as rich and thick as a cup of Barcelona hot chocolate.

Missy Mazzoli’s “Quartet for Queen Mab” took us not into Mercutio’s speech from “Romeo and Juliet” but into the dreams he describes. Brimming with hints, allusions, dreamy repetitions, vanishing just when we thought we knew where we were, every note was played with light-fingered, superlative grace.

Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” is almost impossible to describe. It is a kind of musical transubstantiation: everything is the thing that it is (a frightened little boy, a gleaming streamliner hurtling through night, a lost past) and it is other things, other people, other places at the same time. Nearly 30 years old now, its instantaneous grip on our feelings is as strong as ever. It was played with a kind of ecstatic abandon, which is just right.

Music is always “in transit” from one place, one world, one universe to another. San Diego New Music’s “In:Transit” is a kind of boarding pass to that future: Don’t be left behind.

-Marcus Overton

The Hausmann Quartet Unleashes Humor and Profundity in Haydn

September 19, 2017

original review posted at:

Adjacent to the ticket table at the Hausmann Quartet’s Sunday (September 17) Haydn Voyages concert stood a chalkboard marking the string quartet’s progress: 17.6% of the composer’s 68 string quartets performed thus far. That our local string quartet—Hausmann is in residence at San Diego State University—is serious about traversing Haydn’s complete string quartet repertory and wants its loyal audience to keep score could not be more charming.

And charm abounded in Hausmann’s account of Haydn’s F Major String Quartet, Op. 74, No. 2, one of those particularly extroverted works the composer wrote for his successful, late-in-life concert tours of London. Hausmann suffused this F Major Quartet with a robust spirit that remained elegantly transparent throughout. I particularly appreciated the wistful edge they gave the contrasting minor mode transformation of the slow movement’s main theme and their evident satisfaction in Finale’s exuberant flair.

First violinist Isaac Allen’s supple, driving line energized the ensemble without overpowering it, and cellist Alex Greenbaum complemented Allen’s approach with welcome hints of humor. Violist Angela Choong contributed sonic warmth in the mid-range, as well as deft, persuasive phrasing. Although second violinist Bram Goldstein proved to be a reliable team player, he could strengthen the quartet’s profile with a less deferential stance.

Hausmann’s Haydn Voyages are performed on the upper deck of the Berkeley, the Maritime Museum of San Diego’s historic ferryboat moored at the edge of San Diego Bay. In the opening movement of Haydn’s F Major Quartet, an adjacent cruise ship left its berth with a few mighty blasts of its horn, adding a color and countersubject to the Haydn that John Cage would have relished. The Hausmann performers simply smiled and kept playing with relish.

For stylistic contrast, Hausmann chose early 20th-century works by Igor Stravinsky and George Antheil as well as a recent piece by the contemporary Serbian-Canadian composer Ana Sokolović. Sporting astringent progressions and gossamer counterpoint, Sokolović’s short, three movement “Commedia dell’arte” displayed surprising similarities to Stravinsky’s 1914 Three Pieces for String Quartet, even though they were produced nearly a century apart. Perhaps the half-life of musical neoclassicism is longer than most musicologists have allowed in their snappy chronologies of western music since “The Rite of Spring.”

Given George Antheil’s reputation for writing boisterous avant-garde works that provoked riotous reactions from his audiences—the composer proudly titled his 1945 autobiography The Bad Boy of Music—I found his 1919 “Lithuanian Night” surprisingly tame, although he did end the piece with an aggressive, dissonant chord.

To their credit, Hausmann approached these modern pieces with the same animated transparency that graced their Haydn quartets.

The ensemble opened their program with Haydn’s buoyant E-flat Major Quartet, Op. 33, No. 2, a less probing offering that the F Major, Op. 74, No. 2, but a playful work that stressed the composer’s good humor and ability to tease a musically sophisticated listener.

-Ken Herman

Haydn and Adès Sail with Hausmann Quartet at the Maritime Museum

May 31, 2017

original review posted at:

Continuing its admirable Haydn Voyages series at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, the Hausmann Quartet offered a cannily varied program Sunday, May 28. Contrasting the series’ requisite Haydn string quartet on each half, Hausmann included works by Antonín Dvořák, Anton Webern and the contemporary British composer Thomas Adès.

Hausmann Quartet: (from left) Alex Greenbaum, Angela Choong, Isaac Allen, Bram Goldstein [photo (c) Samantha Zauscher]

In addition to the wit and graceful architecture of Haydn, we experienced the arch-Romantic sighs of Dvořák, the bucolic intimations of Webern, and the sardonic edge of Adès.

I thought Dvořák’s two contrasting “Cypress” offerings were   Hausmann’s strongest suit on this program. These short pieces required a fuller, more rounded sonority from the quartet, which they supplied with alacrity, and they played the composer’s readily communicated emotional states—plaintive remorse in “Cypress” No. 2 and frothy satisfaction in “Cypress” No. 11–with enviable candor.

Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” (“Slow Piece”), written in 1905 before his studies with Arnold Schoenberg took his style in a completely different direction, moves in the creative tension of a glistening surface that barely conceals the restless chromatic harmonic tension beneath it. Hearing Hausmann perform it with such clear focus and exquisite intonation brought to mind Webern’s “Im Sommerwind”—written a year earlier in similar style—that the San Diego Symphony performed so splendidly earlier this month under guest conductor Matthias Pintscher. Perhaps the next time some musical friend makes a disparaging comment about Webern’s austere and unfriendly 12-tone music, you might suggest they audition these two early works of the Webern canon.

This marked the second time this season I have heard Hausmann play the Adès “Arcadiana,” Op. 12, from 1994. And each time, it gives a different impression, a sign either of a subtly written piece or of the critic’s wandering attention. The composer teases us with Venezia notturno, the picture postcard opening movement: over eerie, gossamer rocking motifs, the viola intones a slightly distorted theme, played with accomplished ease by Angela Choong. In spite of poetic titles for the remaining three movements, Adès avoids obvious pictorial suggestion in favor of clever abstraction: turbulent, densely layered textures in the second movement and short, flickering motifs in the third, surrounded by pizzicato clusters. In the final movement, cellist Alex Greenbam deftly maneuvered the twisting main subject through a maze of wispy scratches from the other strings, until the music simply vanished.

Hausmann is owning this engaging piece, and I hope they perform it frequently. It has much to give audiences on multiple hearings!

Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5, like his symphonic works in minor keys, displays rich, varied harmonic adventure, although Hausmann did not bring this out to the extent more aggressive string quartets do, and their dynamic range remained on the lighter side throughout the string quartet. First violinist Isaac Allen pleasured us with effusively ornamented melody in the Andante, delivered in his usual dulcet tone. The clean articulation of the fugal Finale completed this quartet with just the right flair.

Because the Sunday afternoon San Diego Symphony concert at the Jacobs Music Center lasted longer than usual, and it took more than a few minutes to get across downtown to the Maritime Museum, I did not hear enough of the program opening Haydn String Quartet in G Major, Op. 17, No. 5, to write about it.

-Ken Herman

Hausmann Quartet at Berkeley Chamber Performances

October 21, 2014

Original review posted at:

Looking for faith in unexpected places.

The Berkeley City Club, a building designed by Julia Morgan and dedicated in 1930, is the jewel-like scene of a monthly chamber concert series, conceived and run by Joanne de Phillips as the Berkeley Chamber Performances. They inaugurated this year’s concerts on Tuesday, Sept. 21 with the Hausmann Quartet, an accomplished young foursome with a luscious sound and an experimental bent.

Their program put together a twentieth century rebel, a nineteenth century romantic, and a lovely contemporary work for an evening that began with a prank and ended with a prayer.

There was a sizable turnout despite some bad timing. Tuesday’s first game of the World Series put a small damper on this sophisticated event, with concertgoers furtively checking their cell phones as the lights dimmed. But as the quartet exploded into jazz scales and carnival flair in Louis Gruenberg’s Four Diversions, our imaginations left the Giants and the Kansas City Royals behind.

In Gruenberg’s work one could hear bits of ragtime, bits of Stravinski, a burlesque of bright colors in an everyday kind of madness. Isaac Allen played first violin with sharp top notes and rich depths. In the eerie and slightly sinister second movement his notes slurred and leaned on each other and then collapsed in a pile.

High violin scribbles were etched against the lowest notes of cello, amply supplied by Alex Greenbaum, who proved equal to the varied and exceptional demands of the program. After a slow pseudo-rhumba, the spotlight shifted to violist Angela Choong, whose exceptionally warm tone proved to be the heart of this ensemble.

Hausmann Quartet - by Adrian BonifacioPhoto of the Hausmann Quartet, from left: Isaac Allen, Melody Chang, Alex Greenbaum and Angela Choong; photo by Adrian Bonifacio at Noe Valley.

And if Choong was the heart, newcomer violinist Melody Chang proved to be the flair, taking the first violin part in difficult Schumann runs and then in Kevin Puts’ stirring Credo. This violinist was surprisingly edgy in a quartet of long romantic gestures. Schumann’s less-performed Quartet in F-Ma Op. 41, No. 2 was a workout for the foursome, with gorgeous lines and unexpected joins.

And then came a present day masterpiece. After intermission (and an announcement that the Giants had hung onto their lead!) the Hausmann Quartet performed a work that will surely endure, and performed it powerfully. It began with harmonics and the sounds of tuning, high gestures and low simple chords, and then slowed to balance on that knife-edge between hope and devastation.

In a letter read by cellist Greenbaum, Kevin Puts described his choice of Credo for a 2005 commission, a composition that was meant to be “the lighter side of America.” He wrote the piece, he said, while “young lives and billions of dollars poured into a hopeless war [in Iraq] and millions marched with an appalled understanding that America was ceding its role as the best hope of mankind. Around this time a disturbed loner finally enacted his plan to gun down a record-breaking number of his fellow students at Virginia Tech.”

“One day I noticed the word ‘Believe’ emblazoned across a building. I later learned this was part of a campaign by the City of Baltimore, where ten percent of its population is addicted to either heroin or cocaine. Sometimes it seems all you can do is believe.”

“I have found solace in the strangest places,” wrote Puts.

Pieced together with modern daring amid quotes from Bach and the Latin Mass, his Credo was birthed in the pain of our history. But as I listened to the Hausmann Quartet perform its haunting last movement, I could also hear the song that Jews sang in the concentration camps, Ani ma’amim: “I believe with perfect faith/ in the coming of the Messiah/ And though he tarry/ Still I believe.”

After slow-bowed phrases finally stilled, there was a long minute of silence before people began to applaud.

For information on their next concert, see

—Adam Broner

Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera Haunts San Diego Museum of Art

November 21, 2012

Original review posted at:

Life and death. The really big topics. Once religion had the monopoly on this conversation, but in our essentially secular culture, the arts increasingly carry on the discussion.

Art of Élan staged Tan Dun’s evocative, recondite “Ghost Opera” Tuesday (Nov. 20) at the San Diego Museum of Art’s Copley Auditorium, the second installment on the company’s avant garde series “in your dreams.” A theater piece that weaves aspects of ancient Chinese funeral rites with the warm sounds of the string quartet and the piquant edge of the pipa (a traditional Chinese lute), “Ghost Opera” creates an esoteric but mesmerizing 40-minute ritual.

“Ghost Opera” starts with the strings quoting softly the opening of J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor (BWV 849) while the pipa player intones a fragile, traditional Chinese folk song; later, a snippet of Shakespeare’s “Tempest” is recited in fragments. These three elements, according to the composer, represent the past. The string quartet and the pipa represent the present, and the sounds of stones, paper and water (those who attended Tan Dun’s “Water Passion” at SummerFest 2012 in August know how important illuminated bowls of water are to the composer) represent eternity. As these elements comingled in various combinations and textures, friendly spirits were conjured with plaintive wails; demons were routed with fierce shouts, and the walls that separate past and future were penetrated.

The Hausmann Quartet, a resident ensemble at San Diego State University, and pipa virutosa Jie Ma gave a riveting, sympathetic account of this 1994 piece originally written for (and recorded by) San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet and Wu Man. Not only are the “Ghost Opera” musicians required to move around the stage, sometimes playing as they stride, they must also play various percussion instruments (bells, gongs, cymbals, rocks), and the single-stringed lute, as well as occasionally sing and frequently shout “Yao,” a Chinese exclamation that startles demonic powers.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Tan Dun’s musical language is his use of time. Western composers use rests in varying degrees, but rarely without loosing the underlying pulse. Tan Dun often abandons continuous pulse, suspending the forward direction, making the movement from instrument to instrument or from one musical idea to the next unpredictable. The listener is engaged more by the actions and movements of the performers than by the flow of the music, which is why “Ghost Opera” is more ritual than string quartet with obbilgato lute.

To that end, members of Hausmann and Jie Ma proved masterful. First violin Isaac Allen protrayed a ferocious monk pantomime; second violin Eric Chin played confidently while striding around the stage, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw executed precise hand percussion patterns when not encumbered with his instrument. Jie Ma sang delicately while punctuating her phrases with deft finger cymbals.

This is the first time I have heard the Hausmann Quartet, and I was favorably impressed with their beautifully matched ensemble in the quiet sections of this work. I imagine them playing a delicious Ravel F Major String Quartet or Janacek’s “Intimate Letters.” I was also impressed with the massive, rich sonority that violist Angela Choong poured out in the opening movements as a kind of pedal tone around which the other elements gathered.

Jie Ma’s pipa solos bristled with an articulate, singing tone, and she turned tartly percussive beginnings into deftly shaded resolutions. I prescribe listening to the pipa for those who—like me—who have heard one too many Rodrigo guitar concertos.

This program opened, appropriately, with Ines Irawati’s serenely balanced account of the Bach C-sharp Minor Prelude and Fugue that “Ghost Opera” quotes. Her keyboard technique was admirable, although the harpsichord on which she performed was the most bland, feeble harpsichord I have ever encountered in a concert.

Violinist Pei-Chun Tsai offered Bright Sheng’s “The Stream Flows,” a taut, asymmetrical pair of contrasting portraits for solo violin. The relaxed, sinuous melody of the first, tempered by frequent bent tones, contrasted well with the throaty, raucous peasant dance of the second. Sheng, another Chinese composer who has found acclaim in North American musical circles, is particularly skilled at fusing Asian musical gestures into tonal musical contexts. It made a winning prelude to “Ghost Opera.”

—Ken Herman