Features & Columns

San Jose Chamber Orchestra Celebrates with 25th Anniversary Concerts

The San Jose Chamber Orchestra presents its official 25th anniversary concerts
this Saturday and Sunday at Le Petit Trianon Theatre.
LEADERS OF THE OLD SCHOOL: Wes Brown, left, and royal hartigan will perform this weekend at Le Petit Trianon Theatre. Photo by Steven de Castro

An old wise guy from the East once said, and I'm paraphrasing, nothing in the past is ever wasted or squandered. It's all just one big stew that prepares you for what's currently unfolding. For example, don't think your college life was thrown away like last week's newspaper, just because you didn't use your degree for anything. As you evolve, it will all come back into your life somehow.

With that in my mind, the San Jose Chamber Orchestra presents its official 25th anniversary concerts this Saturday and Sunday at Le Petit Trianon Theatre. The program features world-beating premieres by retired and/or former San Jose State University School of Music faculty. For starters, Brent Heisinger will debut his new work, EKTA III, taken from the Hindi word for 'unity' and inspired by the African percussion teachings of another former SJSU professor, royal hartigan, who now teaches back east. This weekend, hartigan—who spells his name all lowercase—returns to play on the piece, along with bassist Wes Brown. Also on the program is a new work by SJSU professor Pablo Furman.

Of course, the spacetime continuum-shattering aspects of such a gig preclude me from any objective interpretation. In the same way that Taoists and quantum physicists might understand reality, I, as the observer, cannot separate myself from that which I observe here. Heisinger, hartigan and Furman were key influences during my decade of college, which seemed to begin right as the San Jose Chamber Orchestra did. The first two years of music theory I took at SJSU found me in Heisinger's classes. I can't even fathom how many hours I spent in the Spartan Pub studying, in particular, Wagner's use of leitmotifs in Tristan and Isolde, or Debussy's impressionistic pointillism in Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn. Both of those masterpieces formed a launching pad into 20th century music, which I then embraced. In Furman's case, my first semester of Sound Recording found me in a tiny upstairs studio with an old four-track recorder and quarter-inch tape, splicing the sounds of my voice into strange Dada-esque or William S. Burroughs-style sonic cut-ups. Yes, this was my first assignment.

However, in royal's case, he was my premier, half-western, half-eastern inspiration. His lifelong commitment was then, and is still, the mainstreaming of all the world's musics, whether it's Korean tunings, Balkan folk music or African percussion. He was the only SJSU prof ever to teach a semester of Indian ragas, one of the best classes I ever took. Instrumentally speaking, on a trap set, royal could play four different meters at once, all while reading the newspaper and talking about the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. He was also the only one who let us roll bowling balls down the aisle in the music building for a final project, with him, the teacher, as the sole bowling pin, standing at the end of the hallway. He embraced Dada. He was hip to Fluxus, Duchamp and John Cage. He was receptive when someone rode a homemade motorized skateboard through the classroom, crashing into desks while that student's compadres made a racket with synthesizers, all while the motor shorted out and filled the room with smoke, thus emptying the classroom. He was receptive if that student then hopelessly tried to justify it with French poststructuralist philosophy, as if he was some wannabe-Eurosnob grad student.

With relentless enthusiasm, he inspired hundreds of students with words of unity and freedom, both musically and politically, encouraging everyone to upset any apple cart they could find and become better at whatever they wanted to do in life.

The old wise guys from the East were right. None of those days were wasted, even though I usually was. As a result, in this column, I now get to cheerlead for some of my biggest influences in college, all of whom are still creating, composing and performing a quarter century later. Yes, they're back together this weekend to celebrate 25 solid years of new music thanks to Barbara Day Turner and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. By my interpretation, that orchestra is San Jose. Everything cycles back, everything returns to the forefront, and I am proud to tell all my readers about such a rocking gig.

San Jose Chamber Orchestra 25th Anniversary Concerts
Saturday, March 12 8pm
Sunday, March 13 7pm
Le Petit Trianon Theatre