At the end of its 2015–2016 season, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) announced that two more musicians would be joining its ranks. These were to be percussionist Loren Mach and soprano Nikki Einfeld, both of whom had contributed to past LCCE concerts. Last night at the Dennis Gallagher Arts Pavilion, both of them made their respective San Francisco debuts as LCCE members in a program entitled Brilliant Palette.
That title suggested that these new members were not only providing more “warm bodies” to the group but were also extending the range of sonorities that had previously been realized only through strings, winds, and piano. Einfeld’s presence was particularly distinguished through the major work on the program, Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 61 La bonne chanson, a song cycle of nine settings of poems by Paul Verlaine in which the soprano was accompanied by a string quintet (adding a bass to a string quartet) and piano. This was the only piece performed during the second half, and it was complemented by having the program open with Ernest Chausson’s Opus 37 “Chanson perpétuelle,” setting a single poem by Charles Cros for soprano, string quartet, and piano.
Musically, these two pieces complemented each other excellently. Both were composed in 1898. In addition, both poets took rather adventurous approaches to their respective selections of words and the images connoted by those words. Yet, at the same time, they both valued the constraints of rhyme schemes and underlying rhythmic patterns. However, rhyme and rhythm were never more than the elementary components of a solid foundation upon which far more expressive semantic structures could be erected; and both Fauré and Chausson each had a keen sense of how to go for the semantics without being distracted by any rigid patterns in the foundation.
Einfeld shared that prioritizing of the semantic. Her voice is a confident one with which she can (and does) explore broad ranges of expressiveness. If her French diction was not always faithful to the word-sounds that reside in the poetic texts themselves, she always seemed to be there with just the right timbres to blend with both composers’ instrumental colorations.
As a result, the only real threat to the many sonorous virtues of both of these compositions came from pianist Eric Zivian, who still has a tendency to overwhelm any other sources of sound within a hundred-yard radius. Each of the string quartet players, violinists Anna Presler and Jory Fankuchen, violist Phyllis Kamrin, and cellist Leighton Fong, had to contend with being seen but not heard with disconcerting frequency; and bassist Michel Taddei did not fare much better in the Fauré selection. Fortunately, Einfeld seems to have cultivated attentive control of her upper harmonics, giving her sonorities the sort of edge that could cut through even Zivian’s more percussive gestures.
Those sonorities also served her well in her performance of George Crumb’s first book of madrigals. Scored for soprano, vibraphone, and bass, this provided an opportunity to listen to Einfeld and Mach in the same composition. There are only three madrigals in this book, and the text for each of them consists of only a single line by Federico García Lorca. However, Crumb seemed to be less interested in the words than in an exploration of his chosen texts at a phonemic level, sometimes even deconstructing a single syllable of Lorca’s into its phonemic components.
Crumb wrote these pieces at a time when other composers were also exploring language in terms of the long chain that extends from the foundations of phonemes to the expressiveness of semantics. For those with a voracious appetite for concerts, this fall season provided a fortuitous opportunity to “compare and contrast” Crumb’s efforts with those of Luciano Berio, whose “Sinfonia” was performed by the San Francisco Symphony this past September. Neither Einfeld nor Mach was fazed by Crumb’s almost microscopic approach to setting text (nor, for that matter, was Taddei); but even the most attentive listener needs the benefit of multiple performances to find his/her way around Crumb’s forest of intricate details.
Mach also took a solo in a performance of the third and fourth of four short pieces for vibraphone collected under the title Short Stories by Martín Matalon. These were as absorbing for their physical qualities as they were for their musical ideas. Mach conveyed the impression that choreography was as fundamental to understanding what made these pieces tick as were the more familiar musical primitives of pitch classes and rhythms. In many respects these pieces encountered the same brevity that Crumb was exercising in his madrigals; and, like Crumb, Matalon has a capacity for packing more musical expressiveness into even a few minutes than mind can do justice to the listening experience during a “first contact.”
Mach’s only other percussion work for the evening involved playing the flower pots that accompanied Fong’s cello work in a performance of Caroline Shaw’s “Boris Kerner.” The piece is named for a mathematician specializing the models of traffic flow, but the title does not appear to be anything other than a gratuitous evocation of an unfamiliar name. The score required Fong to explore many of the “usual suspects” of seventeenth-century continuo tropes; but his evocation of “common practice” is threatened (and eventually eroded) by nervous tremolo passages for the flower pots. (Was the continuo running into a traffic jam?) The result was mildly diverting but not quite enough to overcome the prevailing air of pretentious posturing.
Einfeld and Mach also took a duo encore with a performance of Stuart Saunders Smith’s “Breath,” which he composed in 2001 and scored for mezzo and glockenspiel. Smith seems to be another one of those rugged individualists from New England (think of Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles). He was born in Portland, Maine, in 1948 and now lives in Vermont. He has been composing since 1970, has accumulated almost 200 pieces, and is still going strong. “Breath” seems to amount to a brief vignette about the interplay between sound and silence, complete with a false ending that seems to have been right in the middle of the score. This put a pleasant cap on an evening of what was probably a generous supply of “first encounters” for much of the audience.