Time travel is an essential part of pianist Dylan Mattingly’s job description. The conservatory-trained composer is also a student of the classics whose music often draws inspiration from ancient Greek stories and myths, like The Iliad. And as the creator of ambitious, sprawling projects that take years to bring to fruition, he casts his imagination years into the future. Or he did, until the pandemic shrouded the performing arts in dank, impenetrable uncertainty.
On Sunday, he’s part of a prodigious pack of musicians offering a glimpse of post-pandemic prospects with “Hear | Together: A Celebration of Extraordinary Piano Performances.” Alternating between two outdoor spaces at Crowden Music Center, the free-but-ticketed all-day event runs from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (capacity for each time slot is 50, and audience members must either be vaccinated or have a recent, negative COVID test).
The program encompasses a glittering array of Bay Area keyboard talent, including Brazilian jazz master Marcos Silva, Delphi Trio’s Allegra Chapman, Monica Chew, Elizabeth Dorman, ace accompanist Tammy Hall with vocalist Leberta Lorál, and intrepid new music interpreter Sarah Cahill, the guiding force behind the mini-festival.
“Dylan wrote this really amazing two-hour tour de force piano work and he wrote to me about whether I wanted to organize an outdoor concert for Robert Fleitz,” said Cahill, who performed al fresco at the Albany Bulb on her grandmother’s spinet last August. “Many of us pianists would love to be playing outdoor concerts, and I figured if we’re going to all the trouble to get a piano outdoors, why not make a day of it? That’s how it started.”
A Berkeley High graduate and alumnus of Crowden’s John Adams Young Composers Program, Mattingly also performs an improvised set in the afternoon. But the Albany resident is best known as a capaciously melodic composer who’s received commissions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the Berkeley Symphony, and Marin Alsop, and many others. The “Hear | Together” program culminates with New York pianist Robert Fleitz performing Mattingly’s two-hour piece Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field. The solo piano work draws on the 24 books of The Iliad, Homer’s tale detailing the end of the Trojan War.
Mattingly studied the epic poem as an undergrad at Bard College while earning joint degrees in composition and classics. As the title slyly suggests, Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field is laced with reoccurring themes designed to act like memories. The extended work “can create really amazing arcs of experience, these landscapes and architectural forms as they transform over time,” Mattingly said.
“It doesn’t sound like a sound track, but growing up loving big, long movies, it has this arcing story experience, and the duration gives you the capacity to have the music teach it to you. One of my favorite things in music is to use memory as a tool.”
At 120 minutes, Mattingly is just getting started. His six-hour multimedia opera Stranger Love was slated to premiere in Los Angeles last fall when the pandemic put the production on indefinite pause. It’s now scheduled for spring 2023. After working on the project for nine years he doesn’t lack for patience, but Mattingly found the uncertainty of the work’s fate was tormenting.
“Every single person has had some uniquely terrible experience,” Mattingly said. “The thing that feels specific to me about the arts is that we’re used to imagining the future, working on projects that require a huge amount of time. Aside from fear of illness, the hardest part of this whole thing is being cut off from that sense of the future for so long.”
While San Francisco Symphony opens Davies Symphony Hall for performances on Thursday with an audience of about one third of the theater’s capacity, the return to normalcy promises to be halting and gradual. Live music in particular is going to depend on outside spaces through the summer, and “Hear | Together” is an experiment.
The event is presented by a consortium of non-profit performing arts organizations, including Alternating Currents, Crowden Music Center, New Music Bay Area, and Contemporaneous, a New York-based new music collective that Mattingly co-founded as an undergrad at Bard College Conservatory of Music. The music kicks off at 10 a.m. with a performance by Crowden students, who returned to five-days-a-week in-person classes last month.
“These families haven’t seen their kids perform in chamber music groups,” said Crowden Executive and Artistic Director Doris Fukawa, a Berkeley High graduate. “They’ve seen them in what I call the ‘Hollywood Squares’ boxes. It’s really different for students to interact together. There are still a couple of classes on Zoom that are cross grades so they can’t co-mingle in person.”
The nature of the piano itself is partly responsible for “Hear | Together.” Performing outdoors presents specific challenges. After finding an appropriate space without too much noise from traffic, getting an instrument outdoors isn’t a job for amateurs. Crowden wasn’t Cahill’s first option.
“We thought of parks, but the East Bay Park Service said, ‘No, we won’t let you set up a piano outdoors,’” Cahill said. “Once we connected with Crowden you call piano movers and tell them you’re going to wheel it out of the room, down Sacramento and onto the soccer field, and it requires a different way of thinking.”
In her devotion to 20th- and 21st-century composers, the Berkeley pianist has always felt comfortable thinking differently about repertoire. Her program includes some unpublished pieces by Lou Harrison, selections from Frederic Rzewski’s Humanitas, and Paul Dresher’s Two Entwined. Exploring new music is always a thrill for Cahill, but in offering an opportunity to gather with friends and neighbors, Sunday’s performances offer a pleasure just as primal.
“We all deserve something after this last year,” she said, “to return to live music in this way.”