Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Pianist Sarah Cahill Surveys 100 Years of Imaginative Modernism at SFCM

Last night’s Faculty Artist Series recital in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was given by pianist Sarah Cahill. Cahill has been a great champion of the many diverse aspects of modernism. The program she prepared last night fit comfortably into a 100-year span, ranging from 1927 to 2014, and was organized around two “themes,” each represented by three composers.

The focus of the first half was Henry Cowell, who was not only adventurous in his own approaches to making music but also prodigiously industrious in encouraging and promoting the pursuits of others, particularly through his New Music publications. The ordering of the three selections in this portion was chronological, beginning with two of the nine preludes for solo piano composed by Ruth Crawford between 1927 and 1928. (These were composed before she met and subsequently married the musicologist Charles Seeger, then taking the name Ruth Crawford Seeger.)

The preludes were written during Crawford’s time in Chicago, where she studied composition at the American Conservatory of Music. Through Djane Lavoie Herz, with whom she studied piano privately, Crawford came to know Cowell and became one of those composers he encouraged and promoted. Herz also introduced her to the music of Alexander Scriabin, who may well have influenced the preludes she then composed. She shared with Scriabin the role of dissonance as a harmonic ambiguity, rather than as a technique unto itself that needed to be “emancipated” (as Arnold Schoenberg put it) from traditional practices. Crawford used repeated patterns as a means through which the ambiguity of a dissonance could be accepted on its own merits, rather than as a “transitional” phenomenon. Cahill’s performance lent clarity to Crawford’s intentions, taking two short examples of seldom-performed twentieth-century music and rendering them thoroughly engaging.

The preludes were followed by Cowell’s 1945 sonata for violin and piano. This was written in the period after Cowell had served his sentence on a morals charge at San Quentin State Prison. (While serving time he also served the prison itself by offering music classes to the inmates.) Cahill observed that Cowell’s style tamed down significantly following his penal servitude. The sonata is basically a reflection on traditional sources and the performing styles associated with them, in sharp contrast to the stormy tone clusters that dominate the 1925 suite performed by violinist Donald Weilerstein and his pianist wife Vivian last week. Nevertheless, Cowell’s evocation of traditions did require Cahill to play the piano from the inside as well as the keyboard. Cahill was joined in this performance by violinist Kate Stenberg; and, if the music served up a tamer side of Cowell, the two of them brought both energy and affection to presenting that side.

Cowell’s interest in percussive effects, such as his tone clusters, was shared by several other American composers whose work was emerging during the first half of the twentieth century. The most memorable of these were John Cage and Lou Harrison, both of whom had close relationships with Cowell. One of Harrison’s most stimulating compositions involving percussion was his “Varied Trio,” which added a percussionist to a violin-piano duo. This piece also reflected Harrison and Cowell’s shared interest in “world music,” with an emphasis on Harrison’s particular attention to Indonesia. His use of percussion, as well as some of the melodic lines for the violin, reflect both the Javanese and Balinese styles of gamelan. Even the movement entitled “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard” suggests Indonesian melodies while evoking a painter halfway on the other side of the globe.

Cahill and Stenberg were joined by percussionist William Winant, who gave the first performances (and recording) of “Varied Trio.” Winant presented a highly personal introduction reflecting back on the circumstances of how the piece came to be. He also tended to serve as conductor, attentively guiding Cahill and Stenberg through the intricacies of interleaving rhythmic patterns. The result was an exhilarating alternation of bursts of energy and quiet introspection, simulating enough that the following intermission was definitely in order.

The focal point of the second half was the composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski, who had highly imaginative approaches to thematic development that tended to have more to do with permutations than with harmonic progression. Cahill played his Peace Dances, a set of seven shorty pieces published as his fourth book of “nanosonatas.” This collection was written for Cahill in 2007 on a commission by Robert Bielecki. Each of these miniatures is packed with virtuosic demands; and, while Cahill could not have been more skilled in rising to the occasion, the “mind behind the ear” still had to orient itself to Rzewski’s complexities. This is music that deserves more listening opportunities to allow the listener to make better acquaintance.

Peace Dances was followed by Endless Shout, composed by George Lewis. Lewis performed with Rzewski as a member of Musica Elettronica Viva, and in Chicago he was a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Endless Shout is a solo piano suite in four movements, each of which evokes the memory of one of the great stride pianists from the history of early jazz. (Lewis’ background included a stint on trombone playing for Count Basie.) This made for a rather abrupt shift away from Peace Dances, but Cahill made the transition feel like the most natural thing in the world.

She then concluded with a venture into ragtime by Terry Riley. She observed that Riley tended to create through improvisation, allowing this thoughts to spill out spontaneously. After several passes through recalling and reconstructing, he would find himself ready to write down what he had been playing. Last night’s offering was “Be Kind to One Another” (a phrase attributed to Alice Walker). It was his contribution of Cahill’s A Sweeter Music commissioning project (as was Peace Dances). After writing it all down in 2008, Riley subsequently revised his score in 2014. This was the version that Cahill played. (The version on her A Sweeter Music recording is a revision that Riley made in 2010.) Riley’s meditative style was then followed by an encore selection, Ann Southam’s “Glass Houses,” weaving just the right spell to send audience members out the front door of SFCM to be confronted by the supermoon.

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