Volti opens the 45th season with an old dedication to new music

Volti’s sopranos and altos | Credit: Don Fogg

For an “old ensemble” Volti always performs new music – and that’s without quotes. On November 3 in Oakland, Nov 4 in San Francisco and Nov. 5 in Healdsburg, as it opens its 45th season, the vocal ensemble will offer contemporary music from a diverse group of composers and, as always, will present a premiere.

Underscoring Volti’s new brand of music is the inclusion of these November concerts in the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music, created by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the San Diego Symphony and featuring more than 50 organizations from across the state.

Since its founding in 1979 by Artistic Director Robert Geary, Volti has performed numerous commissioned works and world, US and California premieres as it has during COVID and such is the case with this upcoming Great Poets, Contemporary Composers program. At these concerts, Volti will perform the Bay Area premiere Book of colors (The Book of Colors), a 2022 work by Brazilian composer Marcos Balter that sets lyrics by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Marcos Balter | Credit: Heidi Solander

Currently a professor of composition at Columbia University, Balter may be familiar to Bay Area audiences as the composer of Panpresented by the SF Symphony in last winter’s Soundbox concerts with flute virtuoso Claire Chase.

Pessoa wrote prolifically under about 75 names, which he called “heteronyms” rather than pseudonyms. He gave each name a complete personality and an independent intellectual life and style of writing. The corresponding texts are slanted and intriguing.

An example is “Rainy Day” by The book of anxiety (under the heteronym Bernardo Soares): “The air is hidden yellow, like a pale yellow seen through dirty white. There is almost no yellow in the gray air. However, the paleness of the gray has yellow in its sadness.

More in Volti’s November program:

Genesis: Two Collins Songs2010 Volti commission by Yu-Hui Chang, setting of two poems by Billy Collins

Words cast shadows by Volti composer-in-residence Mark Wings, who sets the poetry of the “eloquent and exacting” Jane Hirschfield

Dressed in starsin which British-American composer Freya Whaley-Cohen explores excerpts from John Milton’s In Time and Alexander Pushkin’s Little Bird

a song called lovea new piece by LJ White, a graduate of Volti’s Young Composers Program, in which each singer chooses what words to sing from a large “text bank” of phrases all beginning with “love”

nanunikuin which Singaporean composer Emily Koh recalls Teochew lullabies and nonsense words her grandparents used with her when she was a small child

Robert Geary (center front) with Volti | Credit: Barbara Hero/Volti

Geary says of the program:

“It’s some of the most intense music we’ve worked on, and singing in Portuguese is also new for us. Balter is not in the least bound by the conventions of tonality. He creates his own harmonious world, with skillful use of dissonance and rhythm.

“Mastering this world is a huge challenge, but it’s much more creative, another whole level of experience. The composer has something to say. The poet has something to say. Touching other cultures, other voices is part of the excitement of new music.”

When asked about the tight-knit members of the Volti, who are fiercely loyal through thick and thin at times, challenging even of Pandora herar (not a box), CEO Barbara Heroux explains why she’s still on the job after decades in similar careers:

“After I retired from the Lamplighters [Music Theatre] 15 years later I’m still with Volti because it opens my ears to new things time and time again and it’s a great group of bright, inquisitive, funny and kind people.”

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