Saturday, October 14, 2017

JACK Quartet and Joshua Roman: Pleasures and Difficulties

Last night this season’s Shenson Chamber Series, presented by San Francisco Performances, got under way in Herbst Theatre with the combined forces of cellist Joshua Roman and the JACK Quartet, whose members are violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell. Over the course of the program, Otto and Wulliman shared responsibility for leadership. The entire program was thoroughly contemporary, albeit with one modernist reflection on the seventeenth century. All but one of the selections took advantage of the availability of two cellos.

Indeed, the high point of the evening probably came with John Zorn’s “Ouroboros,” composed for Campbell and scored for only two cellos. As its Wikipedia entry explains, the ouroboros is “an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail.” It is easy to imagine such a symbol appealing to Zorn for both its historical roots and its uniqueness of structure. For over 30 years Zorn has worked with a diversity of genres, often involving repetitive structures. In addition, he frequently calls attention to his own short attention span, creating works that unfold as a series of fragments.

In “Ouroboros” Zorn draws upon the two cellos to explore echoing repetition; but his preference for fragments is also evident. Most important is his delight in a rhetoric that comes off as cartoon-like fury, intensely energetic but always with comic undertones. When writing for strings, Zorn emphasizes his intensity through nonstandard techniques, such as bowing practically on top of the bridge (or bowing surfaces that are not supposed to be bowed). Last night Campbell partnered with Roman to give a thoroughly engaging account of Zorn’s fast-and-furious score; and it was probably the most memorable event of the evening.

One reason why some of the other compositions did not register as enduringly, however, may have been due to inadequate materials in the program book. The first two compositions were replete with an abundance of extra-musical references. Ari Streisfeld’s notes for his five-part arrangements of three of the madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo made it clear that, while he could not capture the sonorities of five singers, he could still give an account of what they were singing. Anyone wishing to take him at his word, however, would have to had known the madrigal texts from memory, since they were not included as part of the program book. Similarly, Amy Williams’ “Richter Textures,” the only piece for string quartet on the program, consisted of seven short movements, each “inspired by a different painting by German artist Gerhard Richter” (from Williams’ program note). Since the paintings were neither named nor reproduced, it was difficult to establish whether Williams had done justice to her inspiration.

In fairness, however, each of these opening selections on the program was given a reading that both seized and held the attentive listener. Execution involved a judicious combination of traditional technical skills and unique sonorities. Because both pieces were based on building blocks of relatively short duration, none of this music overstayed its welcome. Instead, the attentive listener could enjoy them simply as new approaches to imaginative sonorities for a cello quintet.

More disappointing were the quintets by Jefferson Friedman and Roman himself. Friedman’s program notes described his piece, called simply “Quintet,” as “a deeply personal work,” after which he related it to the grieving process. Sadly, the music was about as clichéd as his lexicon. One could be impressed with the technique displayed by the five players, but beyond those impressions there was little to hold attention.

Roman, on the other hand, tried to take a narrative approach in “Tornado,” which was being given its Bay Area premiere. The narrative is basically a before-during-after account of the attack of a tornado in Oklahoma. Unfortunately, Roman seems to have turned to music such as Aaron Copland’s score for the dance “Appalachian Spring” for his narrative style; and the result never really captured any solid emotional grounding for the narrative.

Thinking of Copland, I was reminded of a couplet (words by Ira Gershwin) from one of his choral pieces:
We’re the younger generation
and the future of the nation.
In the context of the song (written for the film The North Star), those words are being sung by some very obstreperous, if not downright disagreeable, children. Last night left me wondering why the music could not have been more obstreperous. While the execution was consistently satisfying, the pieces being played, for the most part, never really seemed to gel around any strong commitment to music-making.

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