Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Brahms Rises Above Young Composers Reflecting on Him

Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble presented the latest program in their 2016–2017 season, entitled Brahms Through the Looking Glass. The first half of the program was devoted to the first performances of three short works by young composers invited to “reflect” on Johannes Brahms’ Opus 8 piano trio in B major. As was previously explained, Opus 8 is, itself, a product of reflection. Brahms was in his early twenties when he composed it in 1854, but 35 years later he decided that he had overdone things. Much of the revision involved trimming away the excesses of Brahms’ youth; and the revised version, published in 1891, knocked the overall length of the piece down by about ten minutes. (For the record, that duration of “saved time” was longer than any one of the new works on the program.) The 1891 version is the one most frequently performed, and last night it constituted the entire second half of the program.

That performance was given by Anna Presler on violin, Tanya Tomkins on cello, and Eric Zivian on piano. It was, for the most part, a satisfying experience. Zivian’s past tendencies to overdo things, particularly when the dynamics get loud, were kept in check, at least during the first three movements. The result was a well-balanced account of the score through which one could appreciate the breadth of inventiveness that Brahms applied to his thematic materials. One could also appreciate the ways in which the individual performers could seamlessly move between foreground and background, almost as if the score was the musical equivalent of some very elegant pas de trois.

It was only in the final movement that Zivian’s old habits got the better of him. This is probably the most challenging movement of the trio. For one thing it shifts from B major to B minor, and the opening theme is one of disturbing restlessness. It is worth noting that the revised version of the score marks the tempo as Allegro, in contrast to the Allegro molto agitato of the original version. It would appear that Brahms himself recognized that this movement called for restraint, and that restraint involved reducing the number of measures by almost 200.

This is not to suggest that the movement demands an understated rhetoric. When Brahms moves into the major key, he does so with bold and broad strokes; and these definitely should not be short-changed. However, the overall rhetoric of the movement is one of tension and resolution. Zivian never quite got the tension side of this equation, and in those passages it almost seemed as if the other two players had been left in the lurch.

Nevertheless, this was, at least during the first three movements, a reading that showed considerable understanding of Brahms, perhaps even in ways that captured the older composer reflecting on the excesses of his younger self. This was more understanding than any of the three composers in the first half of the program brought to the party. Indeed, the most interesting of the three had more to do with Zez Confrey than with Brahms.

Jennifer Jolley’s “The Lives and Opinions of Literary Cats” emerged from the fact that the young Brahms would occasionally identify himself as Johannes Kreisler. Kreisler was a character in three novels that E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote between 1815 and 1822, the last one of which had one of the lengthiest titles in literary history, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper. The basic idea was that Murr was Kreisler’s pet cat. He decides to document his life and uses sheets of paper that Kreisler discarded while working on his own autobiography. Hoffmann himself provides an introduction in which he explains that Murr’s pages got mixed up with Kreisler’s; and, unable to sort out the mess, the publisher just decided to print all of them! There is also an “in” joke in that the phrase “life and opinions” is also part of the full title of Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Both novels have been embraced enthusiastically by modernists with a passionate interest in metafiction.

Jolley’s may not have much to do with unorthodox literature, but she does seem to like her cats. Whether she ever heard of Confrey or his most famous solo piano composition, “Kitten on the Keys,” is open to question. However, the rapid-fire fingering, particularly in the upper register, in “The Lives and Opinions of Literary Cats” could easily have been channeling Confrey’s spirit. Zivian’s dexterity in handling these passages was downright awesome; but, ultimately, Jolley’s wild ride on the keyboard tended to push the violin and the cello into the background. Thus, the result was less a reflection on Brahms than an opportunity for some really exuberant piano composition.

Sam Nichols’ “in zwei farben” (in two colors) seemed to extract a single fragment from Opus 8 and embed it in a rich texture of solo violin and electronics, which also included verbal fragments from a letter that Brahms wrote to fellow composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg interleaved with transforms of violin sounds. The result was engagingly inventive, even if it could not really be called a “reflection” on either Brahms or his music. Still it had more to offer than Kenneth Lim’s “Trio in C Flat,” whose prankish title was the high point of the piece. (Did he really write out a C-flat key signature?) In his statement for the program notes, Lim wrote, “While this piece is neither on nor about Brahms, I took the opportunity to explore and reconstruct the narrative arc that I find in the composer’s work, with a particular interest in how effortlessly the thematic material lends itself to geometric dis-/reassembling.” The opening clause is the only clear part of this statement; and, sadly, the music itself was about as opaque as the rest of the sentence.

The overall result thus emerged as an object lesson in biting off more that you can chew; and, on the basis of his revision work, it would appear that Brahms was the only one to get the message.

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