For years, Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz, artistic director for the Musicians of Ma’alwyck, has been trying to stage a work by Hawaiian composer Jerre Tanner that she happened upon in 1990. This afternoon and tomorrow night, she’ll get her chance.
“I was working for Albany Records as a publicist years ago when Jerre Tanner’s ‘Boy With Goldfish’ was being championed,” Barker Schwartz said. “But he’d written another work, ‘Kona Coffee Cantata,’ that I was taken with. It was a parody of Bach’s ‘Coffee Cantata.’ He’d followed the structure with recitatives, arias with instrumental obligatos, fugues . . . and those sturdy Baroque walking bass lines. On the Hawaiian side, there were hints of ancient chant and hula rhythms. Jerre really captured the essence.”
By chance, Tanner, who has lived in Hawaii since the 1960s, was visiting Albany and the two met. She said she found his work and him charming but it wasn’t until this year that Barker Schwartz decided was the year to stage the work. Part of that is because the current trend allows for programming music with a folk/classical style, she said. The cantata also required her to use 13 instrumentalists, plus three singers, which is a larger ensemble than MOM usually uses.
Musicians of Ma’alwyck
THURSDAY: noon, Grace Lutheran Church, Hillside Ave. Niskayuna. Free.
FRIDAY: 7 p.m., First Reformed Church, 8 No. Church St., Schenectady. $25, $10.
MORE INFO: 377-3623; www.musiciansofmaalwyck.org
Love story with a twist
Her big concern was whether to do the work as a serious effort or as an entertainment.
“It’s a love story with a twist. His instrumental parts are a challenge. He writes difficult technical, busy music. There’s a lot of counterpoint,” she said. “He imitates Bach in a contemporary setting incorporating Hawaiian rhythms using an ipu hula, which I found out was a big gourd used as a drum in sacred ceremonies with a resonant, deep pitch. It’s deceptive writing with word painting.”
Her board gave her the approval to stage it and Ralph Blasting, a board member and the dean of the performing arts department at SUNY Fredonia, will direct. Dan Foster will conduct.
Tanner was thrilled.
“People know about the work, and now and then I rattle my chains but nothing really happens,” he said with a laugh. “The last performance was at the Baroque Artists of Champagne Festival in 2008.”
Tanner, who has received numerous awards for his orchestral works and song cycles, wrote the cantata for what was supposed to be a tour of Hawaii’s islands during a Bach tricentennial in 1985. A woman, who’d been a former opera singer and who had attended San Francisco Conservatory during the same years when Tanner had attended San Francisco State, had opened a coffee shop in the Kona Inn and called it the Coffee Cantata, Tanner said. It was her idea to put the tour together.
“She was a great organizer,” he said. “But she died suddenly at age 32 and the tour didn’t happen. It was very frustrating.”
Eventually, a coffee house cum theater in Spokane, Wash., gave the premiere, much as Bach’s cantata (“Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” or “Be still, stop chattering”) had premiered in the 1730s at Zimmermann’s coffee house. In 1994, the Prague Chamber Orchestra recorded Tanner’s cantata (Albany Records, 1996).
Harvey Hess wrote the libretto about a decidedly Hawaiian kind of story. Coffee has been grown on Kona since the 1800s by family-run businesses that over generations have created their own styles of drying and roasting the beans.
“It’s the tradition to build a new house in front of the old family house, which usually was turned into storage,” Tanner said.
The plot revolves around one particular family in which the patriarch — baritone Jonathan Estabrooks — suspects that someone is stealing those beans, so he puts a lock on the door. But the beans keep disappearing. There’s also the daughter sung by soprano Sabrina Manna, and her lover, sung by tenor Tim Reno. Although it all ends happily, the libretto hints at Hawaiians’ deep moral base in which hubris is considered very wrong, Tanner said.
Tanner wrote music that is very tonal because the work was intended to be heard by audiences throughout the islands. He included at least six ancient hula rhythms — some are similar to the fast section of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” familiar to many as the Lone Ranger’s theme, Tanner said with a laugh.
Estabrooks was impressed with just how accessible the work is.
“The tunes will stick with you,” he said. “The aria construction has echoes of the Baroque but it’s a fun treatment. The Bach elements are very strong. There’s rich texture and some great moments for full-bodied singing and a lot of lyrical legato singing. They’re a gift to a singer.”
The work is about 90 minutes long and will be sung in English. Barker Schwartz said sets and props will be limited, but costumes will be Hawaiian-themed. Coffee will not be far away. Just as the venue at the work’s premiere provided coffee to the audience, and Tanner brought a pound of Kona coffee to give each member of the chamber orchestra in Prague when it was recorded, Barker Schwartz was not to be outdone.
Fred Cashmere, who runs Liquid Assets Coffee, Tea & Spice Co. in Averill Park, is making a special roast for the occasion. The Daily Grind of Albany/Troy and Ambition from Schenectady will bring their own roasts. They’ll give a pre-concert coffee tasting at 6:15 p.m. to audience members. (Today’s concert, which is only a preview, does not include this.)
Tanner said he’d loved to come, but Hawaii is far away.
“But my spirit will be there,” he said.