BY HOLLY JOHNSON // Israel Nebeker, Arnold Schoenberg and so much more
On Tuesday evening, June 16, the Astoria Music Festival offered a musical toast to the dark hours in a program titled “Night Music.” The event was held in a lovely historic church that has served as Clatsop Community College’s Performing Arts Center since the mid-seventies. The 250-seat house was nearly full, with attendees coming to hear a program of both classical and indie-folk music, not necessarily a comfortable mix. But it appeared that part of the audience came for the classical and part for the folk-style ballads.
Songwriter/performer Israel Nebeker, leader of the band Blind Pilot, provided the indie folk portion, singing with some accompaniment from a marvelous string ensemble arranged byRichie Greene. Nebeker, from Astoria, was backed by talented festival apprentice artists, along with guest violinist Roy Malan, violist Jennifer Arnold and cellist Sergey Antonov, Russian-born world-class musician (hailed as “a brilliant cellist” by the legendary Mstislav Rostropovich). Antonov, who now lives in the U.S., also collaborated with Greene on arrangements.
A handsome, seemingly shy young man with a national reputation as a songwriter who has appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Nebeker accompanied himself on guitar and ukulele with the strings, offering his works, among them, “The Colored Night,” “It was Enough” and “Seeing is Believing.” Alas, there were auditory problems. It was heard to hear what he was saying due to his soft voice, and a challenge to distinguish many of his lyrics. Perhaps Nebeker is used to playting in more intimate venues. Also, most of his selections seemed to have the same cadence and the same key. One compelling story he did related that we could hear was a time when he was on a deadline to finish composing a song in Portland, and hopped on a stationary freight train for inspiration. When the train started moving, he said he felt it was more important to complete the songs before he hopped back off.
The string ensemble launched the evening with part of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nacht Music,” and afterwards, “Send in the Clowns” from Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” was performed by soprano Jocelyn Claire Thomas, a more technical than emotional deliver, but a pleasing one.
The evening’s highlight for me was Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” (“Verlarte Nacht”), a symphonic poem for string sextet in one movement composed in 1899. Created after a poem of the same title by Richard Dehmel, it was composed before Schoenberg invented the twelve-tone technique. Rich with chromaticism, it’s a lush, beautiful piece (mesmerizing, in fact) that Schoenberg composed in just three weeks.
The guest musicians, joined by apprentice artists Rebecca Yip on violin, Alexander Knecht on viola and Hye Jung Yang on cello, offered a marvelous interpretation (under the baton of conductor Olivia Tsui), with a focus on smooth ensemble work and superb dynamics. A haunting film commissioned by the festival by Takafumi Uehara to accompany the music consisted of closeups of the moon, moonlight through a forest and more, and it fits the story within Dehmel’s poem: A man and woman are walking through the woods during a brightly moonlit night. She has a dreaded confession to make to him, but love and forgiveness from him offer her sweet redemption. The music could have stood on its own, but the film augmented important images in the poem, despite a few technical problems with it. This final act earned a standing ovation, well-deserved.