Sellars, Upshaw and Crumb’s Berkeley Commentary on Afghanistan

Crumb, traditional Afghan music: Dawn Upshaw (soprano), red fish bue fish (percussion ensemble), Stephen Schick (percussion), Gil Kalish (piano), The Sakhi Ensemble, presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Playhouse, Berkeley, Calif. 16.6.2011 (HS)

For director Peter Sellars and soprano Dawn Upshaw, the temptation must have been irresistible to turn George Crumb’s anti-war gloss on American Civil War songs, “Winds of Destiny,” into a theater piece railing against America’s presence in Afghanistan. Certainly that would play well in ultra-liberal Berkeley, where Cal Performances offered it Thursday. It was part of the one-week Ojai North!, a series of programs repeated from the previous week’s Ojai Music Festival, where Upshaw is this year’s music director.

The piece got spirited playing by the percussion ensemble red fish blue fish, guest soloists Stephen Schick and Gil Kalish, and dramatic acting by the soprano as a tormented U.S. Army soldier suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder after a stint in Afghanistan. Sellars made effective use of the small black-box theater Zelleberbach Playhouse, one floor down from Zellerbach Auditorium, the usual site for musical events. Lighting effects, shadows projected on the back wall and occasional use of Kalish as an actor to interact briefly with Upshaw, made effective use of limited resources.

But in the end there was little payoff to Crumb’s diffuse nimbus of plinks and plunks of softly dissonant percussion. The instrumental music served to create an anxious mood around mostly slow, gently inflected vocal renditions of songs such as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” ” Lonesome Road ” and “Shenandoah.” The nine songs, ultimately, had a sense of sameness to them. Not enough drama came from Upshaw’s portrayal of the disturbed soldier, either. Confined to a bed and the small space beside it, she resorted mostly to general gestures, but with no real arc to the musical drama there wasn’t enough to build much of a climax.

For the second half of the concert, to drive home a point involving the effect long years of war have had on Afghan cultures, Sellars and Upshaw introduced a group of immigrant Afghan musicians who have made the Bay Area their home. (Fremont, actually, has the largest Afghan community in America.) Like the Crumb, the nine pieces shared a sense of sameness, except for some electrifying solos by Homayun Sakhi on rubab, a mandolin-like instrument that sounds like a cross between a banjo and a sitar. Pervez Sakhi on tula, a drum that looks like a an oversized Irish bodhran mated with a cheese wheel, created an amazing array of percussive sounds. Zmarai Aref contributed deft tabla playing and singer Ustad Farida Mahwash seemed to bring emotions and finesse to the texts in Pashto and Dari. If only we could have understood them, no doubt the repetitive nasal vocal sounds would have had more meaning.

Harvey Steiman