Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Volti and the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) joined forces for a collective launch of their respective 2016–2017 seasons. The program consisted of four compositions, each by a different composer but based on the text of one or more letters. The opening and closing selections were world premieres, both written on joint commissions by Volti and LCCE. The intermission was preceded by a string quartet composed 88 years ago by Leoš Janáček and followed by an a cappella choral work written about seven years ago by David Lang.
The string quartet also provided the only instrumental resources for the two commissioned works. The players were Artistic Director Anna Presler on first violin, Phyllis Kamrin on second violin, Artistic Advisor Kurt Rohde on viola, and Leighton Fong on cello. The Volti vocal resources involved sixteen singers under the leadership of Artistic Director Robert Geary, four each in the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass ranges.
The title of the concert was A Close Correspondence, which was certainly rich in multiple meanings. Likewise, the texts themselves were rich in meaning, often by virtue of some highly imaginative blends of denotation and connotation. Perhaps “meaning” is too neutral a descriptive noun in this case, since every text selection deployed its own unique approach to the expression of intense passion with love and death being the primary topics.
Sadly, the composer best equipped at such expression turned out to be the only one no longer living and the only one who did not work with words explicitly. Janáček assigned the title “Intimate Letters” to his second string quartet, which was completed about two months before his death in August of 1928. HIs first string quartet had been composed in 1923 and amounted to a “narration” of Leo Tolstoy’s 1889 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, an intensely passionate account of a love triangle. “Intimate Letters,” on the other hand, is “about” an equally passionate correspondence that Janáček began shortly after “informally” divorcing his wife Zdenka. His correspondent was Kamila Stösslová, married and 38 years his junior.
It is important to note that pretty much all of the passion in this correspondence was on Janáček’s side. Stösslová was not unhappy in her marriage, but she did not try to reject Janáček. Thus, to a great extent, the “correspondence” was more monologue than dialogue; and Janáček seems to have written the quartet as an alternative channel for that monologue. In other words the quartet is not so much “about” the letters themselves as it is about the state of mind in which Janáček wrote his letters to Stösslová.
The LCCE players did an impressive job of evoking that state of mind. Clearly, they had a lot of help from the composer; and those fortunate enough to have seen the current San Francisco Opera production of Janáček’s opera The Makropulos Affair would be able to notice that his techniques for superposing repetitive structures work just as well on a string quartet as they do on a full orchestra. There was a fearlessness in last night’s performance that both admirably captured the composer’s tenuous grip on the reality behind his amorous aspirations and approached the execution of his score pages with intense concentration.
Unfortunately, when words themselves became part of the performance, the result turned out to be rather bloodless. The problem may have been that none of the contemporary composers on the program managed to establish an affinity for the texts they had selected that reflected the same level of understanding that Janáček had brought to his own personal state of mind. Curiously, the least bloodless of these efforts turned out to be the most abstract.
This was David Lang’s “a father’s love,” one of the movements from his battle hymns collection of songs about war. The text is a long and highly poignant letter by an officer in the Union army written to his wife only a week before the first Battle of Bull Run, where he and many of his fellow soldiers would be killed. In that text one can experience the writer, Sullivan Ballou, trying to keep a “stiff upper lip,” writing about death with almost dispassionate objectivity, but never letting go of the emotional intensity of the sense of loss he knows will come over the rest of his family.
Lang’s abstraction involved deconstructing the text into short phrases and then ordering all of those phrases alphabetically to serve as his libretto. The text is basically chanted, albeit in harmony, first by the ensemble. Then individual solo voices break off to chant the text at difference speeds. Finally, they are joined by a vocal quartet, proceeding through the text at yet another speed. The result is an amorphous cloud of words through which mind struggles to find meaning. One might almost take the composition as a metaphor for another notorious metaphor, “the fog of war.” Before leading Volti in the performance of “a father’s love,” Geary read the source text in its entirety. This probably set a suitable context; but, while Ballou’s writing style now sounds more than a little dated, Lang seems to have found a way to return to an emotional core that is as strong now as it was in 1861.
Sadly, neither of the commissioned composers managed to rise to a similar level of understanding of the texts being used. Onur Türkmen’s “but you alone” set a stanza by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe incorporated in one of the poet’s amorous letters. Unfortunately, it was hard to tell whether the English translation Türkmen was using did justice to the German source. (Few of them do, and the same could be said of the rather flat reading of that English given by Volti Board President Richard J. Collier prior to the performance.) However, the issue of translation quality was probably moot, since Türkmen seemed to have reduced his task to a setting of syllables from which any evidence of semantics at the level of either words or phrases was a result of pure coincidence. Similarly, while Türkmen was apparently working with a tuning system based on just intonation, the sense of pitch from both voices and instruments turned out to be too muddled for that decision to have much significance.
The other composer was Mark Winges, whose “Letters” concluded the program. Each of the three movements involved words of different correspondents. The first was a setting of Latin excerpts from Peter Abelard and Héloïse. This was followed by English translations of passages from the letters of Janáček and Stösslová, and the third movement concluded with fragments of passages by Virginia Woolf.
Winges made some opening remarks about the overall fast-slow-fast structure of his piece. Sadly, his attempt to give each movement its own “vocal character” never really hit the mark. Furthermore, as had been the case in “but you alone,” the composer’s relationship to the text rarely seemed to rise about the level of the syllable. Thus, while one could read the text sheets and “see” the intensity of emotion behind the words set by their respective authors, none of that expression seemed to emerge from last night’s performance.
Last night’s program may have been conceived as a “grand experiment;” but, if all experiments worked out according to plan, then they would not really be experiments!