In December of 2015, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) presented a program entitled Broken Consorts. The name reflected the fact that the program was organized around unconventional combinations of instruments (along with a guest vocalist). This past Monday evening’s program, given in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, featured a single broken consort whose three component “pieces” were “compatible” duos. Those duos were a pair of guitars (Michael Goldberg and guest artist Marc Teicholz), two strings (Anna Presler on violin and Leighton Fong on cello), and a pair of winds (Stacey Pelinka on flute and Jesse Barrett on oboe, filling in for the injured Andrea Plesnarski).
Each half of the program concluded with a performance by the entire sextet. Indeed, the final work, composed by Sebastian Currier in 1966, was entitled “Broken Consort.” The piece was a refreshing burst of energetic rhetoric that lasted about fifteen minutes. However, there was a somewhat aggressive act of differentiation across the contributing voices, almost as if this were a more serious approach to the P.D.Q. Bach “Echo Sonata for Two Unfriendly Groups of Instruments.” However, the aggression was not so much one of mocking imitation as it involved conflicting assertions of self that tended to thwart coming to any form of consonant agreement.
Barrett shifted over to cor anglais for the sextet concluding the first half of the program. This was the world premiere of David Coll’s “Ghost Dances.” The title referred to a Native American ritual ceremony, but this could be inferred only from Coll’s explanatory paragraph in the program book. The score was more a study of sonority than one involving thematic development or harmonic progression. There was a prevailing rhetoric of stasis that may have been consistent with the Native American ceremony that Coll had in mind, but there was little to guide the attentive listener on the journey this piece made over the course of its brief five minutes.
Each of the pairs of instruments also had the opportunity to give a duo performance. The program opened with Goldberg and Teicholz playing “Canticles for Two Guitars” by Dušan Bogdanović, a former member of the Guitar Faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In contrast to P.D.Q. Bach, this was music of much “friendlier” exchanges, most of which were developed around elaborately intricate rhythmic patterns. Rhythmic elaboration also figured significantly in the second duo, Maurice Ravel’s 1922 sonata for violin and cello. As Presler pointed out, this was also music with an impressive economy of thematic material across all four of its movements.
The remaining duo was the winner of the latest LCCE Composition Contest. Melody Eötvös scored “House of the Beehives” for flute, oboes, and electronics. It is based on a tale by Italo Calvino, but the notes that Eötvös provided for the program book said nothing about that tale other than the phrase “fascinating yet grisly.” Since the subtitle of the final movement was “Like a sinking memory-go-around,” I was wondering if she was aiming for the sort of prankishness one often finds in Erik Satie. (Satie once included a performance instruction stating “like a nightingale with a toothache.”) It almost seemed as if Eötvös was reveling in her own obscurity, but that kind of defiance did not go down that well where the experience of listening was concerned.