Last night pianist Sarah Cahill returned to the Old First Presbyterian Church to offer another recital in the Old First Concerts series. The program included three premieres of recent works, one piece that Cahill premiered about 40 years ago, and a composition with an integral connection to Northern California culture. With two exceptions these were solo performances.
From a historical point of view, the most interesting of the world premieres reflected back on that premiere performance given 40 years earlier. Ricky Crews composed “Forty Years After China Gates” for four hands on one keyboard as a reflection on John Adams’ “China Gates,” which was written in 1977. Cahill was seventeen at the time; and Adams had composed “China Gates” for her. Adams himself was about 30; and, while “China Gates” is a brief piece, it is one that gives an excellent account of his capacity for working with highly intricate polyphonic structures. Indeed, those familiar with the broader canon of his works can find in this brevity the seeds of many of the tropes that would be developed at greater length in subsequent work.
Crews was interested enough in the structural underpinnings of “China Gates” that he decided to encode it for computer performances using the Max programming language. Whether by accident or by design, he found himself listening to the left-hand part of the score played alone. He realized that he could treat this as an “accompaniment,” above which he could compose an alternative texture of “upper voices;” and “Forty Years After China Gates” was the result.
In last night’s four-hand performance, Crews performed those “upper voices” while Cahill accounted for Adams’ “source material.” The connection was enhanced by her playing “China Gates” in its entirety before introducing Crews to talk about his work and then play it with her. Crews’ piece took a similar approach to exploring the textures of interleaving voices, but his tactics were entirely his own. Through Cahill’s approach to programming, one could appreciate how Crews had approached his “source material;” but one could quickly appreciate how the “forty years after” approach quickly found and maintained its own unique voice.
Crews’ approach contrasted sharply with the opening work on the program, the West Coast premiere of Luciano Chessa’s solo piano suite Green Sea. The title comes from a phrase in a poem by Pablo Neruda; but it was also triggered by Cahill’s story about her daughter thinking that Terry Riley had written a piece called “In Sea.” These contexts seem to have fused in Chessa’s mind when Cahill commissioned him to write a piece honoring Riley’s 80th birthday.
Chessa described the suite as six movements of “delayed gratification,” with gratification coming only in the final seventh movement. One could appreciate gestures of hesitation, false starts, and uncertain conclusions in those opening movements. Many of the gestures ventured beyond the keyboard to other approaches to sound production; and there was very much a sense that the listener was being left “at sea” until that final movement. Gratification then came with both clarity and simplicity, almost as if all the traditions of songs played at the keyboard were coming home to roost. The result was a delightful exercise of wit that could not have been more suitable for Riley’s own sunny disposition.
The remaining new work on the program was Kyle Hovatter’s “track,” which was apparently inspired by a misattribution of an idea assumed to be expressed by Henry David Thoreau. That idea has to do with the fact that a single footstep does not make a path and, by analogy, a single thought does not advance the mind. Ironically, Erwin Straus’ studies of phenomenological psychology made much of the idea of the footprint embodying the properties of a memory trace: evidence of the past realized through an artifact in the present. It would be unfair to accuse Hovatter of trying to use music as a tool for phenomenological scholarship; but his short piece, which he dedicated to Danny Clay, definitely had some of those fascinating triggering effects that Straus associated with memory traces.
For the second half of the program, Cahill was joined by violinist Kate Stenberg. The two of them performed one of the large-scale works that Lou Harrison wrote late in life, when he was finally beginning to enjoy recognition. He wrote his “Grand Duo” for violin and piano for the 1988 Cabrillo Music Festival with specific performers in mind: Dennis Russell Davies on piano and Romuald Tecco on violin. The music is unabashed in its use of grand gestures; but it is also more than a little mind-bending in the breadth of its eclecticism. Each movement is securely ensconced in its own unique mind-set, making the result a bit like a visit to a gallery in which artists of wildly different styles have all been collected in a single room.
For all of that diversity spread out across 35 minutes of performance time, the piece never overstays its welcome. Harrison had a keen instinct for how to register a dispositional effect, but he also knew to let go before that effect would wear off of its own accord. Thus, in some ways, Harrison’s duo is a latter-day Pictures at an Exhibition; and, like Modest Mussorgsky, he knew just how much time to dwell on each of the images his music summoned. Both Stenberg and Cahill clearly appreciated Harrison’s keen sense of timing, and their interpretation summoned up the full scope of the joy that Harrison took in offering his images to the attentive listener.