In the San Francisco concert scene the month of October will be getting off to a roaring start, but I suspect the event I am most anticipating will be the opening concert of the 2011–2012 subscription series concerts of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP). The irony, however, it that there is nothing really contemporary about the part of the program I am most anticipating; and yet it bears a critical relevance to the conception of the entire season. The new Artistic Director, Steven Schick, conceived of the season under the rubric title Zones of Intensity. That is a phrase that can be found in a 2004 paper for Contemporary Music Review by Gerard Pape on the subject of Edgard Varèse’s approach to composition. As Pape put it, Varèse explored “the concept of a counterpoint of differing zones of intensity that would be demarcated by different colours and amplitudes.” Schick’s title thus amounts to declaring Varèse as the patron saint of the subscription season, if not of SFCMP itself.
Varèse, of course, died in 1965. Put another way, he died before many leading composers and performers of “contemporary music” (for all I know, including Schick, whose Web pages do not appear to be forthcoming about his birthday) were born. Another way of setting context is that we are about a dozen years of shy of the centennial anniversary of the composition of “Octandre.” This work was selected to represent Varèse in the subscription season; and it is, by a very long shot, the oldest work to be included in this season of five concerts.
Thus it will not surprise me if there are several (if not many) people in the audience who have never heard it. I count myself lucky to have come to know it not only through some fine recordings but also through a performance by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. In spite of all of this historical context, I almost with that the program for this first SFCMP concert not explicitly give the year in which “Octandre” was composed or, for that matter, the years of Varèse’s birth and death. I would guess that those who are unfamiliar with this music will be struck that, at its ripe old age, it still reverberates with a sense of newness that stands out above any number of scores for which the ink on the manuscript pages has not yet dried. This could turn out to be a fun concert!