Last night the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music hosted an impressive Graduate Composition Recital shared by two students, each working with a different member of the Composition Faculty. Matt Boehler is a student of David Conte, Chair of the Composition Department; and Luke Mayernik is a student of David Garner. Both of these faculty members have distinguished themselves with some very impressive vocal compositions, and all but one of the works on the program involved different approaches to drawing upon vocal resources.
Boehler distinguished himself through his ability to work on a moderately extended scale. The intermission was preceded by his “Two Friends: a fable;” and concluded with the song cycle “Passed” (which was literally cyclic in its discourse structure). However, he also distinguished himself by beginning the evening with a stunning miniaturist exercise entitled “it is enough.” Mayernik presented a song cycle of his own, as well as a composition in which the “vocalist” existed only on tape. He also contributed the only strictly instrumental work on the program.
The two Boehler compositions on the first half involved texts by playwright Erin Bregman. “Two Friends” was the more ambitious with a narrative that unfolds almost in the manner of a folk song. However, the resources were anything but “folk,” requiring a chamber orchestra (all one-to-a-part players) and an SATB chamber chorus (three voices for each part), supplemented by a four-voice children’s chorus. In “folk” form there is a repeated chorus about two friends asking why we die. Each verse involves an answer by some authority figure, the school principal, a librarian, and a parent. In the final iteration the authority figure is the trickster coyote of Native American mythology, who deploys a trick of his own to wrap up the quest.
These days a librettist with a sense of humor is particularly welcome, and Bregman deployed her words with the timing of a skilled standup comic. Boehler knew exactly how to match that delivery, not only through his own pacing but also through his imaginative use of his sonorous resources. If the chorus provided the narrative, the instruments delivered the “play-by-play commentary;” and each turn in the narrative line was reinforced by its own unique approach to instrumentation. The result was thoroughly engaging from beginning to end and enjoyed crystal clear delivery thanks to the choral preparation by Eric Choate and the conducting by John Masko.
Yet Boehler and Bregman were just as effective, if not more so, working in-the-small with “it is enough.” This piece was apparently inspired by their introduction to the music of Lou Harrison performed by San Francisco Symphony musicians at one of this season’s Soundbox events. Harrison had a particular gift for working with what he called “melodicles,” miniature melodies structured out of only a few notes that would then be elaborated through permutation techniques. Bregman took that same approach to preparing a text that involved only eleven words subjected to both permutation and filtering. For his part Boehler worked with only seven notes.
The presentation itself was similarly miniaturized. Soprano Winnie Nieh was accompanied only by cello (Evan Khan). As is the case in many of Harrison’s compositions, this was music in which every minute moment carried its own share of the overall semantic weight; and the shifting shades of meaning arising from the permutation of the words was revealed through the clarity of Nieh’s diction and her secure sense of pitch, perfectly matched to the diversity of sonorities in Khan’s execution.
Boehler’s final composition, “Passed,” was a cycle of monologues, each delivered by a different character, the first of them returning in the final movement. The texts were provided by lyricist and librettist Tony Asaro. The result was a series of character types that never quite managed managed to gel within a single narrative framework. As a result the listener was confronted by a series of “age of anxiety” symptoms with little sense of establishing background other than a general sense of malaise associated with “life as it is these days.”
Boehler sang these texts himself, accompanied at the piano by Peter Grunberg. His delivery could not be faulted, whether it involved pitch, dynamic control, or rhetorical expressiveness; and Grunberg gave an impressive account of a highly demanding accompaniment. Nevertheless, this piece came at the end of a long evening in which many cycles of attention had been vigorously consumed. The cognitive overload of the occasion did not do last night’s performance any favors.
The preceding compositions by Mayernik, on the other hand, were all delivered with a moderately secure sense of brevity. Certainly his “Soliloquy” for oboe and piano, for which he accompanied oboist Rachel Swanson, knew exactly how to say its piece and then conclude. The work was described as an homage to Edvard Grieg, who could also be a perceptive miniaturist; and Mayernik’s latter-day approach to that style could not have been better conceived.
The same could be said of his settings of six poems by Rita Dove entitled “Heart of Origin.” This was not so much a cycle as a gallery of different perspectives established in Dove’s texts. There was very much a pop feeling to the music, and mezzo Jasmine Johnson knew exactly how to engage the audience in her sensitivity to that overall mood. Her accompanist was Kevin Korth at the piano, offering up a bit of that same “club scene” rhetoric in his stylizing.
Mayernik’s most ambitious undertaking was “an (extra)ordinary man,” based on narrations from the vlog that Lester Magliano maintained on YouTube until his death on December 1, 2015. Recordings of his voice were used to punctuate a triple string quartet. For this performance the Lazuli String Quartet of violinists Joseph Christianson and Clare Armenante, violist Justine Preston, and cellist Kahn played against their recordings of the other two string quartet parts.
All this bore a strong family resemblance to Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” which was duly noted in Mayernik’s program note. Nevertheless, “Different Trains” is an extremely powerful piece, not only for its imaginative use of resources but also for the intensity of its underlying narrative. “an (extra)ordinary man” lacked such a unifying narrative, providing, instead, three isolated reflections; and, while one could appreciate the highly personalized perspectives behind Magliano’s words, Mayernik never quite summoned up a voice of his own to reinforce those words.