Yesterday evening pianist Sarah Cahill returned to the Hotel Rex to give the final recital in the 2016 Fall Salons series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). Cahill had concluded last season’s Salon series this past May with a program that examined the chaconne form from the perspective of both the Baroque period and the twentieth century, drawing upon a full-length program she had prepared for the Noe Valley Chamber Music series, which she had performed the previous January. Last night’s program was entitled Chaconnes, Revisited; and it took, as its point of departure, the Q&A that had concluded Cahill’s May Salon.
At that time she explained that she had commissioned local composer Danny Clay to write a new chaconne for her, and she played a brief portion of the beginning. This led to a question from the audience as to when she would play this music in its entirety. Yesterday evening provided the answer to that question (and, hopefully, the questioner was in the audience)!
The title of Clay’s piece was “Still Cycles;” and it took as its point of departure a much earlier chaconne, composed in the key of G major by George Frideric Handel in 1706. Thus, to set context, Cahill programmed the Handel chaconne to precede Clay’s. The chaconne may well have originated in South America at the end of the sixteenth century and then found its way to Europe by way of Spain. It probably began as a dance form and was still serving that purpose in theatrical performances in eighteenth-century France, if not at social gatherings. However, it is better known as a musical form involving a repeated pattern, which may be no more than a bass line, which is elaborated through a succession of variations.
This is basically the approach that Handel took in 1706. The variations themselves provided an opportunity for the display of virtuosity and tended to follow a progression of becoming more and more elaborate. (In the final movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor, perhaps the best-known chaconne to most audiences, that simple-to-complex progression takes place three times, first in D minor, then in D major, and finally back to D minor.) In many ways Handel’s chaconne serves as an introduction to the theme-and-variations technique that would be explored later in the eighteenth century by composer’s such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Indeed, listening to Cahill play Handel on a piano (rather than a “period” instrument), one could almost imagine how this music defined a path to the keyboard music that Mozart would subsequently write.
Approaching that music as a path to Clay, on the other hand, is quite another matter. It is worth appreciating that Clay’s title is a pun. On the one hand it states flat-out that the repetitive structure of the chaconne is still with us. Indeed, the form is still with Clay himself, who explored it in at least two previous works, “La Folia,” which he composed for MUSA to perform in the Young Performers Festival of the 2014 Berkeley Festival & Exposition, and “Providence,” included in the Teleformation program prepared by the Guerrilla Composers Guild and performed at the Center for New Music almost exactly two years ago. In this case the repetitions were provided by a tape on a “period” cassette player with elaborations provided by parts for viola and cello.
At the same time, the repeated structure for Clay’s “Still Cycles” is almost glacial in its sense of time passing, meaning that the basic theme that is being cycled is very “still.” Indeed, Cahill explained that Clay was very flexible in specifying rhythm, allowing the player great flexibility in deciding when one pulse leads to the next. (This approach recalls a technique that Morton Feldman explored in a series of compositions that he called “Durations.”) Cahill was a bit apologetic in informing the audience that Clay’s piece lasted about fifteen minutes. However, her approach to those “still” qualities of the music’s rhetoric could not have been more absorbing. Indeed, this was one of those performances in which (to milk the pun just a little bit more) time itself seemed to stand still. Repetition was no longer grounded in a theme or a harmonic progression but in that clarity with which one could appreciate the recurrence of individual notes, and it was easy to sense how Clay’s technique worked its magic on the entire audience.
Cahill framed her program with two seventeenth-century chaconnes, beginning with Louis Couperin and concluding with John Blow. She also included Cecile Chaminade’s Opus 8, which the composer called a chaconne but which provide to be an engaging little nineteenth-century intermezzo in ternary form. However, one of the most interesting selections of the evening was Cahill’s “encore” performance of the chaconne that Sofia Gubaidulina composed as a student in 1962 but has not been included in her personal catalog of compositions.
In this case I have to confess that my understanding of this piece benefitted not only from my having heard it in the recent past but also in my serving as page-turner for that particular composition last night. As a rule I try to avoid score-following when listening to a performance. (Recordings are another matter.) In this case I had no choice; but following the score as part of turning pages at the right time led to my thinking about this music in a new light.
The source of that light was Ferruccio Busoni, whose most frequently-played composition is probably his arrangement of that chaconne from BWV 1004 for solo piano. One gets the impression that Busoni had scrupulously studied the full panoply of virtuoso demands that Bach had packed into his violin piece and then upped the ante by reworking the score to provide even heavier virtuoso demands on the pianist. Busoni’s result is so challenging that his version continues to be played to death by pianists for whom flamboyant virtuoso display is all that matters.
With that as context, the opportunity to view the score while Cahill was playing it led me to conjecture that Gubaidulina’s chaconne was the product of a rambunctious student who had had enough of what Busoni had done to Bach. While her music never explicitly points to Busoni, the score abounds with tropes that have strong family resemblance to techniques of elaboration encountered in his rethinking of Bach’s chaconne. In other words Gubaidulina set herself to do unto Busoni what Busoni had done unto Bach, and one gets the impression that she did so with gleeful prankishness. To be fair, much of that prankishness amounts to a relatively arcane in-joke; and I shall be the first to admit that I did not “get the joke” after my first encounter with the piece. However, I am now pretty confident that the joke really is there and would be only too happy to hear more pianists play Gubaidulina’s chaconne more often.