Thursday, September 22, 2016

SFCM New Music Ensemble Presents a Fascinating Coupling of Henze and Kancheli

Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) New Music Ensemble offered up a highly intriguing program in which an extended composition by Georgian composer Giya Kancheli was flanked on either side by works of Hans Werner Henze that featured plucked strings.

Between 1990 and 1995 Kancheli worked on a four-part cycle entitled A Life without Christmas. The program note by Susan Harvey describes the underlying concept of the cycle as “the nightmare of a brutal, unjust world that grinds down the capacity for joy and love, and against which the spirit must struggle to remain uncorrupted.” Since he was born in Tbilisi in 1935, Kancheli grew up in a culture in which an ideology that included Marxist atheism was reinforced by the horrific administration of Joseph Stalin. The terror that Stalin wrought was so mercilessly intense that Dmitri Shostakovich could never shake his fear of it, even over the two decades he lived after Stalin’s death.

Each of the four compositions in A Life without Christmas is named for a set of prayers. In addition, each has its own unique instrumentation. “Morning Prayers” was scored for chamber orchestra and tape, “Midday Prayers” for soprano, clarinet, and chamber orchestra, “Evening Prayers” for eight alto voices and chamber orchestra, and “Night Prayers” for string quartet. Last night Nicole Paiement conducted the New Music Ensemble in a performance of “Midday Prayers.”

Harvey also cited Alfred Schnittke as acknowledging Kancheli’s “rare gift of being able to suspend all sense of time.” Schnittke knew enough music history to recognize that this gift had an honorable legacy, reaching back at least as far as Ludwig van Beethoven; but no one would confuse “Midday Prayers” with the quiet timelessness of, for example, the Adagio sostenuto movement of Beethoven’s Opus 106 (“Hammerklavier”) piano sonata in B-flat major. Kancheli’s rhetoric is one of extended auditory landscapes whose features are almost too subtle to be recognized until the entire auditory field is torn asunder by an onslaught of decibels for which “brutal” is definitely the most apposite adjective. Such dynamics are seldom associated with a chamber orchestra; but Kancheli’s instrumentation calls for horn (Liam Herb), two trumpets (Camas Stredder and Peixiang Li), two tenor trombones (Nicole Hillis and George Jones), bass trombone (Sam Patchett), two percussionists (Mika Nakamura and Diego Becerra), and electric bass guitar (Ramon Frermin), accounting for almost half of the full ensemble. (So says the program sheet. I could have sworn I saw a tuba as well.)

The soprano (Rachel Spund) only joined the ensemble for the coda, singing excerpts from the Sayings of Jesus on the cross in Latin (which may not have been the specific texts in Harvey’s notes). The use of text from the Passion in a cycle mourning the absence of the celebration of the Nativity did not go unnoticed. If Schnittke admired Kancheli, then he probably appreciated the latter’s sense of irony as much as his unique approach to time-consciousness. The clarinet part (performed by Andrew Friedman) frames the entire landscape at its most featureless. Friedman’s command of the barely audible was, to say the least, awe-inspiring. It made for a suspenseful opening and was just as chilling in the coda, as the sonorities lapsed back into the silence from which they had subtly emerged.

If Kancheli’s music involved subtle suggestions with violent disruptions, Henze’s rhetoric was more disposed to straightforward declamation. Both the opening and concluding compositions featured David Tanenbaum, both SFCM alumnus (class of ’78) and currently Chair of the Guitar Department. The latter piece, Ode an eine Äolshärfe (ode to an Aeolian harp), written between 1985 and 1986, was dedicated to him. The piece began as a cycle of four poems by Eduard Mörike; but, as the work progressed, Henze dropped out the vocal line leaving behind only the titles of the poems. The guitar does not replace the vocalist but, instead, provides an alternative perspective on the Mörike poems.

In this case the instrumentation involves more familiar chamber orchestra resources but with a few significant differences. There are no violins, but there are three pre-classical instruments, a viola d’amore, a gamba, and an oboe d’amore. The first of these (performed by Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo) is in a highly tenuous position. The instrument is distinguished by the presence of sympathetic strings, which resonate in response to the pitches of the bowed strings that cross the bridge:

Photograph showing the sympathetic strings of a viola d'amore (uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Aviad2001, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

In other words this is the one instrument in the ensemble that comes closest to the “spirit” of an actual Aeolian harp. The sonorities may best be appreciated in Johann Sebastian Bach’s use of the instrument in his BWV 245 setting of the Passion text from the Gospel of John. Bach has the instrument accompany a tenor aria, and the sympathetic strings provide an almost spooky setting for the text. Henze, on the other hand, blends the instrument in with not only the gamba but also two cellos and two violas. This seems like an almost perverse decision to employ the instrument in a setting in which its chief asset is inaudible (unless Henze intended a cryptic assertion that Aeolian harps were best left unheard).

Beyond this peculiar approach to instrumentation, however. the music offers a rich fabric of sonorities that weave in and around the guitar solos (enhanced with amplification at last night’s performance). Henze’s music is not always readily accessible, but both Paiement and Tanenbaum offered rhetorical shaping that would guide the attentive listener through many of the composer’s complexities. Somewhat more accommodating was the opening selection of three short Henze pieces, entitled “Carillon,” “Récitatif,” and “Masque,” scored entirely for plucked strings. For this performance Tanenbaum was joined by SFCM faculty member Emily Laurance on harp and guest artist Dana Rathe on mandolin.

Henze composed these pieces in 1974. While they are highly individual and innovative works, those who know their ballet will probably wonder whether or not “Carillon” may have been inspired by the music that Igor Stravinsky wrote for George Balanchine’s ballet “Agon” in 1957. There is no guitar in the score for “Agon;” but one of the dances (Stravinsky’s latter-day take on a galliard) has a delightful interplay in which harp and mandolin weave around each other’s lines. That same sense of interleaving pervades all three of Henze’s short movements, suggesting that he may have enjoyed what Stravinsky had done and decided to pursue the idea at greater length.

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