Saturday, October 28, 2017

Landmark OFS Season Off to an Impressive Start

Last night the One Found Sound (OFS) chamber orchestra presented the first program in its fifth anniversary season. For those who do not already know, this ensemble prizes itself on being highly collaborative, so collaborative that it has neither a conductor nor any other form of music director. The five founders of the ensemble were all students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, from which they acquired not only their solid grounding in technique but also a healthy sense of adventure in their approaches to repertoire.

Over the past five years that sense as been delightfully evident in every concert program the group has prepared. It has also influenced many of the choices of performance venues, and last night provided a prime example. The concert took place in the headquarters of Monument, a group loosely organized around bringing together creative people from both the arts and the sciences. The headquarters building (located in SoMa) serves as a workspace, a gallery, an event space, a residence, and a place to meet and make friends.

The title of last night’s program was Monster Masquerade, which was inspired by the date’s proximity to Halloween and provided an excuse for most of the performers (not to mention members of the audience) to sport outrageous costumes. At the same time there was also a sense that the instrumentation for the three selections on the program allowed for an exploration of the different “guises” that music can assume.

This was most evident in the opening selection, which involved the largest ensemble of players. This was Anton Webern’s arrangement of the six-voice fugue from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1079, The Musical Offering. Webern was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and the influence of his teacher took on not only his best-known efforts to “emancipate” dissonance but also an adventurous approach to instrumental coloration that may have originated from Schoenberg’s parallel interest in painting. Webern’s arrangement of Bach was particularly adventurous in his approaches to instrumentation and orchestration, breaking a melodic line into fragments (sometimes individual notes) and distributing those fragments across different instruments with radically different sonorities.

The result is as fascinating as it is challenging, particularly for a group that plays without a conductor. All the performers must always be aware of the contrapuntal activity at the heart of the fugue, grasping the contributions of not only each of the six voices but also Bach’s keen sense of point-against-point superposition of those voices. Last night one came away with the impression that every OFS player had established her/his own personal grasp of the entire fugue. As a result, even when playing only a single note in isolation, (s)he always knew how that note fit into the “big picture.” Through this performance the attentive listener could attain not only new ways of thinking about Bach and the traditions of counterpoint but also a clearer perception of how Webern had applied his thoughts to his own compositions, works like his Opus 21 symphony.

Similar diversity of “guises” could be found in the final work on the program, Igor Stravinsky’s “Danses concertantes.” This originated with no specific ballet in mind, although George Balanchine would create two different ballets based on the same score. Like “Scènes de Ballet,” which Stravinsky composed about two years after “Danses concertantes,” the piece can be called music about the idea of dance, rather than music for the dance. This is most evident in the Pas de deux movement, which almost seems to be using relationships between individual instruments to reflect how the dance form establishes a relationship between a pair of dancers.

In many respects the Stravinsky selection was more challenging than the Webern arrangement, since, as a result of their music education, the players had a clear understanding of Webern’s point of departure. Stravinsky, on the other hand, had far more personal motives, which were also far more idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, that distinction did not daunt any of the performers; and the result was a thoroughly engaging journey, which was probably a journey of discovery for almost everyone in the audience.

Between these two full-ensemble pieces the wind players performed Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 44 serenade in D minor. This was scored for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and three horns, to which subsequently the composer added a bass part. The thematic material of the piece’s four movements is consistently accessible, but the real treat comes with how the tunes are handled by different combinations of instruments with an overall rhetoric that serves up just the right mix of competition and cooperation. Even in the Andante con moto movement, there is something joyous about the overall mix; and the coda of the Finale, which brings together the opening theme of the first movement with the principal theme of the last, ties up the whole affair with an almost smug sense of satisfaction.

The best that can be said of this five-year milestone is that it should lead all of us to look forward to what will happen over the next five years.

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