Friday, December 9, 2016

Bold Modernism Distinguishes the San Francisco Opera Orchestra Strings Program

Last night in the Taube Atrium Theater of the Wilsey Center for Opera, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the first of what hopefully will be an ongoing series of concerts entitled San Francisco Opera Orchestra Up Close. The basic idea is to “escalate” the SFO musicians out of the orchestra pit of the War Memorial Opera House and provide opportunities for them to take the center of attention. The beneficiaries of last night’s concert were the members of the string section; but it would be fair to say that the audience benefitted just as much, particularly those interested in encountering new compositions.

From that point of view, the main attraction of the evening, so to speak, was the opportunity to listen to an Adagio movement listed on the program as composed by Ruth Crawford Seeger. Technically speaking, this was the music of Ruth Crawford, since she composed it before her marriage to Charles Seeger, who had been her composition teacher. Furthermore, it was a repurposing of one of her earlier works, the third movement from a string quartet she had composed in 1931. There is, of course, a far more famous instance of a string quartet Adagio rearranged for string ensemble, that being what is probably the best-known composition by Samuel Barber.

However, Barber would not write his quartet until 1936; and he never ventured into the bold dissonances that would occupy Crawford in 1931. Crawford was probably aware of the efforts of Arnold Schoenberg and his students to “emancipate” dissonance; but her own approach probably had more to do with the sort of counterpoint lessons she had received from Seeger. (Another one of Seeger’s students was Henry Cowell.) Crawford herself described the Adagio movement as “a heterophony of dynamics—a sort of counterpoint of crescendi and diminuendi.” Furthermore, the melodic line of the counterpoint emerged through a succession of single pitches coming from different instruments. When these pitches were sustained, dissonance would emerge through their superposition. This contrasted sharply with Schoenberg’s efforts to rethink the nature of harmonic progression by departing from conventional dominant-tonic cadences. Crawford, too, avoided such cadences; but her “ground rules,” so to speak, had more to do with the emergence of melodic lines that were almost vocal in their phrasing.

Led by Resident Conductor Jordi Bernàcer, the SFO strings gave a clear and bold reading that was not shy about Crawford’s approach to dissonance but also captured those vocal qualities of her melodic line. By all rights, this is a composition that tells us far more about the emergence of a distinctively American voice in the composition of music than anything that came out of Nadia Boulanger’s school in Fontainebleau, where she was ostensibly teaching eager young Americans how to write American music. Of course it took quite some time before the “distinctively American” music of Charles Ives came out of the shadows; and, despite the efforts of enthusiastic advocates, Carl Ruggles has yet to emerge. The Crawford catalog is relatively modest, particularly since she shifted her attention to ethnomusicology after marrying Seeger; but, on the basis of this Adagio movement, it is definitely about time for more of it to come out of those shadows.

The program also included the “Concertino Pastorale” by another modernist, whose music is seldom performed. This is the English composer John Ireland, who never received the prominence of his contemporaries such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. During my student days there was a certain popularity accorded to his 1936 “London” overture (due primarily to the recording industry). This registered with many of us for the sinister qualities (including instrumentation) of its introduction before settling into its jauntier Allegro section.

As the title suggests, last night’s selection was more pastoral in nature; and it lacked the sharp edges of instrumental coloration found in the 1936 overture. Indeed, it threatened to register as a bit too soothing in its evocation of countryside landscapes. Nevertheless, the piece wrapped up with a dynamic Toccata movement that provided a refreshing burst of energy after most listeners had had enough with placid rhetoric. Bernàcer may have enjoyed that placidity a bit too much for the good of the listeners; but the Toccata still registered with its fireworks-like bursts of sonorities.

The first two selections on the program were led by Concertmaster Kay Stern. Note that I did not say “from the Concertmaster’s chair,” because all but the cellos stood for the performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 136 divertimento in D major at the beginning of the evening. This was played by an ensemble appropriately reduced in size; and those numbers were only slightly enlarged for the following piece, the instrumental version of Edvard Grieg’s Opus 40 suite composed for the bicentennial of the birth of the Norwegian playwright Ludwig Holberg. This is usually called the “Holberg Suite;” but Grieg’s title was Frå Holbergs tid (from Holberg’s time). He supposedly referred to it as his “powdered wig” music.

Of these two pieces the Mozart fared much better. It was given a crisp account, and the rhetoric was almost as intimate as that of a string quartet. Indeed, the visual element was particularly conducive, allowing the attentive listener to appreciate just how much activity migrated across the different sections of the ensemble. The Grieg suite, on the other hand, was originally written for piano; and, while I appreciate the popularity of the string version, I have to say that I wish it had remained in piano form, particularly since Grieg was at his strongest behind a piano keyboard. Even with reduced resources, the schmalz factor in the thickness of the string sonorities tended to be more than a bit much (particularly for those of us with cholesterol problems).

Fortunately, intimacy was restored when Stern led the encore selection. This was the Pastorale from the eighth (G minor) of Arcangelo Corelli’s Opus 8 collection of concerti grossi. This is the one with the subtitle “Fatto per la notte di Natale” (made for Christmas Eve), which is generally called the “Christmas” concerto. Stern and Jeremy Preston played the two solo violin parts; and, where appropriate, cellist David Kadarauch provided solo continuo. The selection was, of course, timely; but it also reaffirmed what the opening Mozart had demonstrated, that this group is equally at home in both distant and recent past.

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