Monday, March 13, 2017

A Program of “Bach++” for Guitar and Flute at Herbst

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the 2016–2017 Guitar Series, presented by San Francisco Performances in partnership with the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts, continued with a duo recital by guitarist Meng Su and flutist Marina Piccinini. Su’s Beijing Guitar Duo partner Yameng Wang was unable to appear for reasons discussed previously. The first half of the program was devoted entirely to music by Johann Sebastian Bach, while all the works on the second half were composed during the twentieth century.

The two works on the first half that Su and Piccinini performed as a duo, BWV 1033 in C major and BWV 1035 in E major, were described by Bach as sonatas for flute and basso continuo. Su thus had full responsibility for the continuo side of this partnership, and she rose to that challenge admirably. Whether she played directly from figured bass, as in the manuscript edited by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in 1731, or from a written-out realization (her own or someone else’s) could not be determined. She was playing from a music stand; but the music was facing her, rather than the audience!

However, it is worth noting that, in the final movement, a coupling of two minuets to played in ABA form, Bach used figured bass only for the second minuet, writing out the first in its entirety. This allowed Su to play that first minuet when it was repeated while Piccinini provided a new melodic line in a higher register. Presumably, this was her own improvised contribution to the “grand finale” of the sonata. All four movements of the sonata were certainly presented with in-the-moment spontaneity, as if any marks on paper were simply there as a point of departure. In that context Piccinini’s added line offered a delightful reminder that music is always about the here-and-now, even if the marks on paper came from the eighteenth century.

BWV 1035 tended to be somewhat more bound to those marks, however. Nevertheless, there is was still no shortage of immediacy in the performance. This was particularly the case in the Siciliano movement, to which Piccinini brought a rhetoric of expressiveness that may have been more informed by the present than by Bach but was still highly effective. (This was not the better-known Siciliano from the BWV 1031 sonata in E-flat major; and most likely it was new to most of the audience. However, that novelty added an extra beam of light to shine upon Piccinini’s approach to interpretation.)

Between these two sonatas, Su gave a solo performance of the BWV 1006a lute suite in E major. This was Bach’s own transcription of his BWV 1006 solo violin partita, also in E major. The holograph manuscript is available from the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library; and the notation uses two five-line staves (rather than tablature), often indicating when more than one string is sounding:

from IMSLP (public domain)

Su’s performance (which could easily have been read directly from that holograph) fit perfectly well on the guitar, frequently (and effectively) evoking memories of the original BWV 1066, which may be the most popular of Bach solo violin compositions. She was particularly good at capturing the dance qualities of all the movements following the Preludio, reminding the listener that it was the use of dance forms that distinguished suites from sonatas.

Dance was also evident during the second half of the program, but in this case only one dance form was involved. The music was Astor Piazzolla’s four-movement suite Histoire du Tango, which surveys tango style at the beginning of four twentieth-century decades. The suite begins in a bordello in Buenos Aires in 1900, moving to a cafe, possibly in Paris, in 1930. This is followed by the “Night Club” movement, set in Buenos Aires in 1960. The suite then concludes with “Modern-Day Concert.” Piazzolla’s program notes suggest that, in the first three movements, the tango progresses from a dance to a listening experience (in the cafe) and then back to a night-club dance. The final movement, however, represents an almost tectonic shift in both melodic content and rhetoric. Piazzolla’s notes refer to “the tango of the future;” but it is also a tango that survived the efforts (not always successful) of twentieth-century composers (Igor Stravinsky being a prime example) to appropriate it.

It was in that last movement that both Piccinini and Su really began to shine. The first three movements abound with familiar Piazzolla tropes. These were given a dutiful account, but it may have been a bit too polished for the music’s rawer origins. However, in that final movement all of those tropes crash head-on with all the different approaches to modernism that had surfaced (and in some case sunk again) by 1986, when Piazzolla created this piece. Piccinini and Su summoned up a performance that brought just the right blend of Piazzolla’s nostalgia with the dizzying assortment of modernist styles he was confronting, and the result was truly magical.

Less effective were the five songs they selected from the eight songs that Robert Beaser arranged in his Mountain Songs collection. Beaser wrote these on a commission (granted in the same decade when Piazzolla was working on Histoire du Tango) from flutist Paula Robison and guitarist Eliot Fisk. Beaser’s composition teachers included Jacob Druckman, Earle Brown, Toru Takemitsu, and Betsy Jolas, none of whom had much of an affinity with the folk genre. (There was, of course, Takemitsu’s guitar arrangement of “Yesterday;” but the Beatles were far from a folk group!)

Beaser’s approach was to consult the collection of ethnographic material that Alan Lomax had compiled. He used Lomax’ documents as thematic sources and then developed his own instrumental fantasias in response. What is most unclear is whether he ever listened to any of the recordings that Lomax had made, informing himself on how music was (and still is) being made in Appalachia. Beaser’s interpretations thus have a polished quality, and both Piccinini and Su did justice to that quality. However, for those more familiar with the sources, the whole affair had a somewhat disconcerting middlebrow quality that was soothing when it could have been provoking. (“The House Carpenter,” for example, is a very sinister song.)

However, if provocation was in order, it was definitely well served by Piccinini’s solo performance of Michael Colgrass’ “Wild Riot of the Shaman’s Dreams.” Whether or not, as Colgrass claims, this is a miniature tone poem about the violent visions and death of an Inuit shaman, the music itself is almost painful in reflecting the narrative’s tortured undercurrents. It is also excruciatingly demanding on the flutist. Since Colgrass wrote the piece on a commission from Piccinini, it is likely that the two collaborated on just how much the scope of her technique could embrace. That scope was rivetingly impressive; and Colgrass could not have been better in arranging the full breadth of his tropes into an overall plan that, if not strictly narrative, still gave the listener a sense of a journey from its beginning to its conclusion.

Thus, for the most part, the evening itself was a highly satisfying journey. Indeed, so much ground had been covered that Piccinini and Su may have set a record for brevity in their encore selection. This was the famous “Tambourin” included in François-Joseph Gossec’s one-act opera “Le triomphe de la République, ou Le camp de Grandpré,” a celebration of the French Revolution with a libretto by André Chénier. The piece lasted only about a minute, but it was the perfect exclamation point to tack on at the conclusion of Piazzolla’s suite.

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