Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Brian Thorsett Launches SFCM Alumni Artist Insights Series with Two World Premieres

How much insight was provided by the first Alumni Artist Insights Series concert given last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music may be debatable. However alumnus tenor Brian Thorsett (’04) brought two world premieres to the second half of his program, both of which were scored as trios. Thus Thorsett was joined by cellist and fellow alumnus Emil Miland (’75), as well as his accompanist for the evening, pianist Richard Masters. This turned out to be a striking coupling of teacher and student, the latter having earned his Master of Music degree at SFCM in 2014 from the former and is now working industriously to earn a living through practices of making music.

That student is Eric Choate, and the title of his composition was …and fall. This is a cycle of five settings of poems, each by a different author from the twentieth or current century. Taken as a whole the collection evokes an advance through the fall season in a roughly chronological order. The title is taken from the last two lines of the final poem, “November Night” by Adelaide Crapsey:
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.
This captures the concluding (“frost-crisp’d’) transition of the season, while gently reminding the reader that the name of the season amounts to a description of what has been happening.

What may be most striking is how Choate has taken what are relatively plainspoken texts by the five poets he selected and couched them in rich textures of counterpoint that complement the descriptiveness of the words in unexpected ways that turn out to be strikingly appropriate. For the record, this made for some complexity that required a bit of extra effort. Louise Gluck’s “All Hallows” is the middle poem of the set; and Choate followed conventions of other musical structures by making it a scherzo. However, it was clear that Miland was still in the process of internalizing the complex rhythms that Choate had conceived. The good news was that Miland believed that a world premiere should be given an accurate account; so he consulted with Masters over the rhythmic interplay of their respective instruments. This took a few tries and a bit of extra delay when Masters’ tablet decided not to cooperate. However, patience was rewarded with the eventual account of the score as it had been written; and the attentive listener could observe that the intended effect really did make a difference! More important, however, was the overall narrative progress of the entire cycle, ingeniously conceived by Choate and effectively communicated through last night’s performance.

The teacher from this program was David Conte, currently SFCM Chair of Composition. His contribution, Love Songs, was not so much a cycle as it was three different perspectives on the same literary theme, each from a different period of Western history and each written in a different language. Thus the set opened in the eleventh century with the anonymous Latin poem “Levis exsurgit zephirus” (the west wind rises softly) from a collection known as the “Cambridge” songs. This was followed by “D’Anne qui me jecta de la neige” (to Anne, who threw snow at me) by the French sixteenth-century poet Clément Marot. The set then concluded with “The Moment” by Theodore Roethke, the American poet active during the first half of the twentieth century.

In introducing these songs, Conte talked about the challenge of working on a text that had already been set by Maurice Ravel. (Ravel composed two “epigrams” on Marot poems, both apparently about the same Anne.) Apologies were not necessary. Conte’s version clearly had its own distinctive voice. If there was anything problematic, it was the way in which a common rhetoric seemed to cut across all three of the poems, even though each of them captured a distinctively different worldview. Furthermore, the Roethke poem clearly ended in a climax the evoked the multiple meanings of that noun. While one could appreciate Conte not wishing to overplay his own hand in the face of such a strong text, he at least could have pulled out a trump card.

Thorsett had apparently titled his program Legacy. (Sadly, this information was absent from both the program book and the text sheet, one of many flaws in the material provided to the audience that threatened to undermine the efforts of those who had come for some serious listening.) Thus, the link between Choate and Conte was paralleled by a link from Conte to Nadia Boulanger, who was represented by three of the eight songs from Les heures claires (the bright hours), a collection she had composed jointly with Raoul Pugno. The program also included three songs from another American composer influenced by Boulanger, Aaron Copland. In the other direction, Thorsett sang the “Panis Angelicus” setting by Boulanger’s teacher, Théodore Dubois, another composition scored for voice, cello, and piano. He also honored Boulanger’s interest in Claudio Monteverdi with three of the arie from the second Scherzi musicali book, which was published in 1632.

The program also included three of the songs from the Opus 8 and Opus 9 collections of twelve songs (each) published by Felix Mendelssohn, consisting of pieces written between 1824 and 1830. (These were published under Felix’ name, but six of those 24 songs were actually written by sister Fanny. Thorsett’s selections, however, where those by Felix.) It is unclear how these fit into the “legacy” pattern. However, it was interesting that one of them, “Frage” (question) was a setting of Felix’ own text. It was probably composed in 1829; and thematically it is a reflection on the Adagio introduction to his first published string quartet (Opus 13 in A minor), which he had written in 1827.

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