"Number three. Can we try number three?" Tom Baker poses the question while leading a rehearsal for his latest "operatorio," Hunger—the Journey of Tamsen Donner. The Seattle composer and guitarist gives a quiet count and the musicians begin. A clarinet burbles quietly. As wire brushes rub against the surface of a snare drum, soprano Maria Mannisto sings, "At night we drown out the howling of the wolves by singing..." Then, half-chanting, she continues, "We have the appearance of a large funeral procession."
Hunger recounts the infamous journey of the Donner Party across the American Wild West in 1846. Trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the party's animals perished, food ran out, and some succumbed to cannibalism. Sung, spoken, and chanted by Mannisto, the opera's centerpiece is Tamsen Donner, who bears witness to the party's slide into helplessness and suffering.
At the end of number three, Baker reminds clarinetist Jesse Canterbury, "You can play with those notes at the end if you want." Enlisting his compadres in the Tom Baker Quartet—Canterbury, bassist Brian Cobb, and Greg Campbell on horn and percussion—Baker urges everyone to improvise in certain sections. "Here," says Baker, pointing at the score, "is where we let the players drift off for a few measures." Instead of random notes, the effect is sparse and spooky.
Hunger, unlike his previous operatorio, The Gospel of the Red Hot Stars, requires fewer performers. "This is more oratorio than opera," quips Baker. Yet after hearing a dozen or so parts of Hunger in rehearsal, Baker's ensemble, augmented by a harmonium (a portable organ popular in the 19th century), sounds stark, sure, and true.
Hunger runs Fri March 14 and Sat March 15 at the fourth-floor Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave N, 800-838-3006, 8 pm, $5/$15.
JOE DORIA TRIO
One of our burg's busiest—and top-notch—jazz organists swings hard on the Hammond B-3. Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave, 547-6763, 5:30—7 pm, free with museum admission.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
A reliable advocate of contemporary classical music, Peter Boal's "Director's Choice" program features music by Philip Glass, the adventurous opera composer Mikel Rouse, Arvo Pärt (a version of the ubiquitous and pliable Für Alina), and the restlessly eclectic Thom Willems. Through March 22, see pnb.org for a complete schedule. McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St, 441-2424, 7:30 pm, $20—$150.
Conductor Robert Bode leads the band in J. S. Bach's magnificent St. John Passion. Although Bach's St. Matthew Passion remains better known, the St. John has a singular intensity. Don't miss it. Also Sat Mar 15 at St. Leo's Church in Tacoma at 8 pm. Plymouth Congregational Church, 1217 Sixth Ave, 877-404-2269, 7 pm, $22—$30, students attend free.
MUSIC OF REMEMBRANCE
Baritone Morgan Smith sings For a Look or a Touch, Jake Heggie's song cycle memorializing a verboten queer love affair in Nazi-era Germany. Seattle Asian Art Museum, 1400 E Prospect St in Volunteer Park, 365-7770, 2:30 pm, free.
The Seattle Pianist Collective honors the centenary of French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908—1992), whose exotic harmonies and love of birdsong radiates joy amid obsessive, hieratic rhythms and time-freezing chords. Pianists Julie Ives, Dawn Clement, Kelly Wyse, Peter Stevens, and Oksana Ezhokina play Messiaen preludes as well as various movements from Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus; the Michael Owcharuk Trio perform the "Danse de la Fureur, pour les Sept Trompettes" from the Quartet for the End of Time. Seattle Asian Art Museum, 1400 E Prospect St in Volunteer Park, 654-3100, 2 pm, $8/$12.
Due to continual touring, saxophonist Jack Wright has been dubbed "the Johnny Appleseed of free improvisation." I've heard Wright several times in recent years and found myself absolutely thrilled and confounded by his music. Ranging from what most people would call "melodic" to atomized slivers of sound, Wright's risky music maintains an openness to all sounds that few performers ever attain. Here, Wright collaborates with Italian percussionist/electronicist Fabrizio Spera and pianist Gust Burns, who focuses on extracting fragile textures from the piano with rosined rods. Gallery 1412, 1412 18th Ave, 322-1533, 8 pm, free, but donations accepted.
I still fantasize that a local group will further the work of Burnt Sugar and fuse the funky grooves of 1970s cop-show jazz with the abrupt, mind-melting segues heard on Miles Davis's mid-'70s albums such as Agharta and Pangaea. Plying similar yet more straight-ahead territory, Water Babies manage to bring the funk without the usual jam-band excesses: deluded musicians who attempt to create compelling 25-minute solos, hippie dancing, umpteen CD releases, and superficially avant noodling. Brad Gibson's Khaki Patrol shares the bill. ToST, 513 N 36th St, 547-0240, 9 pm, $5.