Food for Thought 

Topical oratorio Bitter Harvest gets its world premiere in Berkeley.

The time has passed when classical music was content to cocoon in a web of abstract music. Composers on both coasts have been addressing the pivotal concerns of our age with increasing frequency. This week, the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra tackles the potential decimation of our food supply through corporate greed. The world premiere of Bitter Harvest, an hour-long, semistaged oratorio by Bay Area composer Kurt Rohde and librettist Amanda Moody, dramatizes an aging family farmer's struggle for self-determination against the increasing domination of agribusiness.

"This piece is about all of us," Moody declares. "We all eat. That's the bottom line. We all are struggling with the war in Iraq; with genetic engineering. We're in toe-to-toe battle with visible and invisible corporate interests." The idea for the project originated in 2001, when the symphony's music director Kent Nagano and tenor John Duykers (famed for premiering roles in 41 operas by Philip Glass, Berkeley's John Adams, and other contemporaries) began searching for a project to perform together. After settling on the story of a small farmer whose life is destroyed by large agribusiness, they recruited Rohde and Moody for the project.

Rohde, who spent his formative years on New York's Upper West Side, initially found the subject matter daunting. It was only when he began to mentally reframe the farmer's tale as a tragedy of having and losing that he found his way in. After he saw Deborah Koons Garcia's documentary on genetically engineered plants, The Future of Food, he left the theater thinking, "This can't continue. It's so horribly, horribly wrong. They're putting suicide genes in seeds to stop them from reproducing. If those plants hybridize and spread, things will not work out.

"Once I got going," he explains, "Amanda's libretto generated a lot of momentum. I love that the characters are trying to do what they think is right even if they fail. I have a fair amount of empathy for all three of them, which is a really good testament for Amanda's writing." Rohde's eclectic musical palette includes a blues aria for one character, and music "far more crazy than the Antiques Roadshow" for a number of auction scenes. He also enlists a small ensemble of microtonal instruments to give the music a feeling of being warped and out of time. "A bit old, like listening to an old record" is how he puts it. "The microtonal ensemble is like a haze that emerges from the orchestra and helps with the libretto's many temporal shifts."

Moody, whose prior participation in a theatrical union strike gave her a belief that people's dreams and visions are no longer coming true for them, could easily relate to how rural people feel marginalized and invisible. "This landscape is their soulscape," she asserts. "When you take that away, you're creating a kind of soul murder." Nonetheless, she insists that the work is not didactic. "It's a kind of entertainment," she says. "No one is standing on the stage and shaking their finger at anyone. It will be a really handsome production, with style and elegance."

The Berkeley Symphony performs Bitter Harvest on Friday at 8 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. For tickets, visit BerkeleySymphony.org or call 510-841-2800.

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