Production Pretense Unsettles Maya Beiser’s All Vows at Yerba Buena

Yerba-Buena-center-for-the-arts-logoOn the weekend of March 21, 2014, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts hosted the debut of “All Vows,” a new program by acclaimed cellist and new music luminary, Maya Beiser. The concert featured Beiser on cello, Ryan Brown on bass, and Glenn Kotche on percussion, with works by Kotche, Michael Gordon, David T. Little, Mohammed Fairouz, Michael Harrison, Chinary Ung and a string of (mostly) rock arrangements by Evan Ziporyn. The ambitious program was divided into two halves, each of which really constituted a concert in itself. Both were intensely produced to the point of being more like a rock show rather than a chamber music concert. This sense of production was a distraction from the music-making onstage and created a sense of distance that was more alienating than engaging.

Maya Beiser (photo:

Maya Beiser

The first half consisted of mostly the full trio, each on their own individual riser (further adding to the “rock show” feel, and separating them from both the audience and each other). Ziporyn’s crossover cover tunes for Beiser and company  including Zeppelin’s Black Dog, Joplin’s Summertime, Howlin Wolf’s Moanin’ at Midnight and Nirvana’s Lithium – made crafty use of the source material and were thoughtfuly arranged, but ultimately a bit overbearing. Although it might have had more to do with the oppressively bright light show, positioned right at eye level, or the effect-drenched cello and whispered vocals (think Robert Plant’s opening lines from Black Dog in this context), the artistic statement, while tightly executed, felt dated in a world where classical music no longer needs to prove itself as “for the cool kids.”

Composer and percussionist Glenn Kotche (photo:

Composer and percussionist Glenn Kotche

The highlights on this set were the world premieres by Kotche and Little. Kotche, who has recently donned his “composer” hat almost as frequently as his “percussionist” crown, explored a wide range of material in his piece for Beiser and prerecorded cellos, Three Parts Wisdom. The first section was active, but harmonically stagnant and rhythmically cluttered – something that, given his natural intricacy with rhythm, might have been attributable to the performance. The sections following consisted of layered motives remeniscent of Bach’s cello writing. While Kotche’s score was not without it’s bumps in pacing and consistency, it was definitely intriguing, beautiful, and a welcome addition to his ever-expanding catalogue of concert music.

David T. Little’s work Hellhound had the energy of rock music without too much of the cultural baggage. Inspired by the haunting lyrics of Robert Johnson’s delta blues tune, Little’s work featured throbbing rhythms and grinding electronics interacting with the trio, with just enough quintuplets and thorny harmonies to keep it from sounding like the film score to an action movie (I decided on Ghost Rider afterward). Kudos to the composer for successfully toeing that “crossover” line.

Composer Michael Harrison (photo: OP Studio)

Composer Michael Harrison

After intermission, Beiser performed a set of (almost) solo music on her center riser, surrounded by battery-operated tea candles. The music on this half leaned more toward the contemplative and spiritual, featuring two multimedia works with original films by Bill Morrison. Michael Gordon and Michael Harrison’s All Vows and Just Ancient Loops (it’s ok, Beiser got them mixed up too) were stunning minimalist pieces featuring equally stunning visual counterpoint from Morrison’s faded, archival-quality aesthetic. Harrison’s work, as Beiser noted beforehand, was a true “epic,” moving through a variety of worldly and otherworldly images and sonorities throughout its 25 minute duration. The shorter works on this half by Ziporyn, Fairouz and Ung were quite moving, utilizing Beiser’s voice in harmony with her cello.

While it was less glaring in the second half than the first, there was still a sense of musical distance between Beiser and the audience. Because her cello was amplified, often processed, and frequently layered with other cello tracks that seemed to drift in and out freely, there was an unsettling, almost untrusting quality about the musical experience that I felt difficult to shake, even when the music was beautiful (and it often was).

The concert hall was packed and it was in many ways a star-studded event with Ziporyn, Little, and other new music heavyweights like Steve Schick in attendance. The applauses were deafening, and the post-concert chatter seemed generally positive. The music was well-crafted and well-performed, and there were some seriously wonderful moments, but the pretense of the production itself was too distracting for me to get any real artistic meaning out of the program in its entirety.