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Jivin’ Java

Musicians of Ma'alwyck brew up some Bach, Hawaiian style

by B.A. Nilsson on May 30, 2013


Jerre Tanner first heard Bach’s “Coffee” Cantata while a student at San Francisco State University, where he was studying with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Wayne Peterson. “It’s a wonderful piece,” says Tanner. “It works as a chamber opera. So as it became time for Bach’s tercentenary in 1985, that piece was in the back of my mind.”

Tanner is speaking by phone from his home in Hawaii, which he salutes in his Kona Coffee Cantata, which he wrote as a companion piece for the Bach work, but which will be performed by itself in two concerts by the Musicians of Ma’alwyck. There’s a preview at noon Thursday, June 6, at Grace Lutheran Church (Hillside Avenue, Niskayuna) and a formal concert complete with coffee tasting at 7 PM Friday, June 7 at Schenectady’s First Reformed Church (8 N. Church St., Schenectady).

The idea developed over coffee in 1981—“Everything in Hawaii moves much more slowly than in the rest of the world,” explains the composer—at a shop called, appropriately, the Coffee Cantata, which was run by music-lover Christine Jones. “She was the catalyst for it. She asked what I was doing for the tercentenary, and said, ‘I’ve got a great idea,’ and suggested a story. She also offered to put together the production, but unfortunately didn’t live long enough to do that.”

The story is set in a Hawaiian coffee shop and a very special roast, the beans of which are continually disappearing. There’s also, in tribute to the work’s predecessor, a marriage in the works. Soprano Sabrina Manna sings the role of Kolea, whose music, as befits her character, is full of stolen goods. “One of the themes I used is borrowed from a Hawaiian folksong, a melody I recognized from Strauss’s Alpine Symphony and Bruch’s G-Minor Violin Concerto. When we went to Czechoslovakia to record the work with the Prague Chamber Orchestra, one of the musicians asked if I knew that the theme was a Czech folksong! I figure that a Czech sailor must have found his way to Hawaii in the mid 1800s and some local musicians picked it up.”

Tanner lately finds himself immersed in more large-scale forms, and is working on his fourth symphony. “I’ve written two major operas, and now I want this symphony to be my magnum opus, a very big piece. I’ve made a systematic study of the symphony in America, which has had a fascinating history through the 20th century.”

Joining Manna for the Musicians of Ma’alwyck performances are tenor Tim Reno and baritone Jonathan Estabrooks. The ten-piece instrumental ensemble will be conducted from the keyboard by Dan Foster.

A special coffee roast will be served, created and provided by Fred Cashmere of Averill Park’s Liquid Assets Coffee, Tea & Spice Co. Other blends will be served by the Daily Grind and Ambition Coffee Cafe.