Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Honoring Andrew Imbrie

Cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau's Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was dedicated to the memory of Andrew Imbrie. The composer and Berkeley faculty member died at the beginning of last December, roughly around the same time as the death of Karlheinz Stockhausen. While Stockhausen's music received considerable "memorial attention" during 2008, particularly in Europe, last night was my first opportunity to hear any of Imbrie's music. He was represented on Fonteneau's program by two short pieces: the 2002 "Duet for Two Friends" and the 2006 "Melody for Gayageum."

It is unclear whether the "friends" of the 2002 composition were Fonteneau and clarinetist John Sackett, who gave the work its first performance, or whether the friendship referred to the scoring for cello and bass clarinet. There is certainly an affinity between these two instruments, so the work provided an opportunity to explore the subtleties induced by their different sonorities. Thus, the work could be approached more as an intimate conversation than as a conventional duet. For jazz listeners such a conversation is not particularly new. Charles Mingus may have played bass, rather than cello. However, he often approached his instrument more as a cello than as a jazz bass; and this was certainly the case in his improvisations with Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet. These two could go on at great length covering extensive ground that was as technical as it was emotional. Imbrie's work was far more modest, although just as technically demanding. Indeed, the intimacy of the engagement seemed to have progressed to a point where these "friends" had little to actually say beyond just enjoying their mutual presence.

The gayageum is basically a twelve string Korean zither. Thus, as was the case with Stewart Wallace's score for The Bonesetter's Daughter, Imbrie's 2006 composition seems to ask to be approached in terms of Asian music heard through Western ears. My own problem was that, while I was familiar with the music that inspired Wallace, I knew absolutely nothing about the gayageum. I was thus confronted with a lack of contextual knowledge that would elevate this work beyond just another introspective cello solo. Fonteneau certainly helped by offering some introductory remarks about the general thematic structure, but the question of how a traditional Korean instrument figured in the conception of the work remained unanswered.

The "bookends" for these rather modest works were more "monumental" in nature: Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 102, Number 2 sonata in D major and Johannes Brahms' Opus 38 sonata in E minor. Brahms was working on this sonata during the same time when he composed his Opus 34 F minor piano quintet, and both works display similar levels of emotional energy and intensity. While the resources of the sonata are not as extensive as those of the quintet, Fonteneau invested the performance with all the emotion it demands and was more than ably supported by pianist Jeffrey Sykes. Similar qualities emerged from their performance of Beethoven, although this was a work from his final years. Listening to these works in succession, I realized that Brahms' sonata was definitely not "haunted by Beethoven's shadow." There may have been a sense of a torch being passed, but it is through the passing of that torch that a work like the Opus 38 can be heard as both retrospective and prospective. If there was a problem with shadows, it was that these two works ultimately made it difficult for very much light to shine on the more recent compositions by Imbrie.

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