Friday, December 1, 2017

Recent Music for Clarinet and Piano at SFCM

Last night’s Faculty Artist Series concert in the Sol Joseph Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was presented by pianist Jon Nakamatsu. However, for all but one of the selections. Nakamatsu was joined by clarinetist Jon Manasse. The Manasse/Nakamatsu Duo has been around for over a decade, over the course of which they have been building up their repertoire through commissions. The second half of the program was devoted to three of those commissions, which were composed between 2006 and 2012. One of them, Four Views by Gordon Goodwin, was performed in its entirety, preceded and followed by single-movement selections from the other two.

Goodwin is the leader of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. He has worked on film scores, but usually as a team player. He has a shelf full of GRAMMY awards, one of which was for Best Instrumental Arrangement in his work on The Incredibles. Other films bearing his mark are Snakes on a Plane and the notorious Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. His Four Views was light but engaging. On the basis of how he introduced some of the selections, it is clear that Manasse has a healthy sense of humor; and Goodwin’s style clearly appeals to it. Indeed, while none of the related films seem to appear on Goodwin’s resumé, the third “view” in this set could easily be taken as a lullaby for Minions.

Four Views was preceded by “Lecuonerias,” a movement from The Cape Cod Files by Paquito D’Rivera, commissioned for the Duo by the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. D’Rivera may have been nodding at Heitor Villa-Lobos’ title Bachianas Brasileiras, since D’Rivera’s suite was as much about his Cuban influences as Villa-Lobos’ pieces reflected on the composer’s Brazilian influences. This particular movement was a nod to the Cuban pianist Ernesto Lecuona, whose “Malagueña” soared to mass popularity almost immediately after Lecuona played it for the first time. Ironically, it was the final movement of Lecuona’s Suite Andalucía, suggesting that Lecuona himself never intended it as “Cuban” music.

Equally ironically, D’Rivera decided to honor Lecuona with a piece for solo clarinet, perhaps to make sure that the clarinet would not be upstaged by Lecuona-inspired piano virtuosity. However, D’Rivera is, himself, a clarinetist; and he poured as much virtuosity into the clarinet solo has Lecuona had summoned up for any of his solo piano performances. D’Rivera provided Manasse with an abundance of hoops through which he had to leap, and Manasse glided through each one with elegance and more than a bit of sass.

There was also no shortage of sass in the final selection, the “Full Stride Ahead+” movement from John Novacek’s Four Rags for Two Jons. The sense of stride rhetoric (not to mention any ragtime foundation) only began to insinuate itself after the piece began. However, once it was on a roll, there was no stopping it; and Manasse and Nakamatsu clearly knew how to close out their program with a bang.

Unfortunately, the more traditional part of the evening in the first half of the program, was not nearly as effective. They began with the first (in F minor) of the two Opus 120 clarinet sonatas by Johannes Brahms. By now everyone knows that the Opus 120 sonatas are very late pieces, written with a particular clarinetist in mind only after Brahms declared that he had retired from composing. While Manasse seemed to catch on to the “twilight rhetoric” of this music and conveyed his understanding through a highly nuanced approach to dynamic levels, Nakamatsu played as if Brahms was still pinning his reputation on all the energetic vigor he had poured into the Opus 24 set of variations on a theme from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 434 harpsichord suite in B-flat major. (Brahms wrote this piece before he had reached the age of 30.)

However, if Nakamatsu’s approach to Brahms was unduly intense, his solo delivery of Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 22 in E-flat major, published under the title “Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante” was far more brutal than “brillante.” It often seemed as if Nakamatsu wanted to convince the listener that he would not lose control of his agility even while beating out each note with a sledgehammer. For anyone there to listen to the music, the result was painful and seemed like little more than a calculated ploy to elicit boisterous audience approval immediately after the final chord had been attacked.

Far more appealing was the virtuosity behind the encore selection. This was an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” with no credit to the arranger(s). I would not be surprised to learn that Manasse and Nakamatsu cooked up their own arrangement, perhaps even after having improvised on the tune to work up a repertoire of ideas. For the record, the introductory music (and words) of this song are almost never performed; meaning that any singer who includes the introduction is probably playing for the shock of recognition when the words “I got rhythm” are finally set.

Manasse and Nakamatsu included this music but turned it into a middle section. While the song was originally written for the musical Girl Crazy, last night’s performance was delightfully evocative of its appearance in the movie An American in Paris. (At one point those familiar with the film could probably hear Gene Kelly shouting “Airplane!” while leading the kids through one of his swooping moves.) The approach Manasse and Nakamatsu took to their Gershwin would probably have brought smiles to all listeners, even to Oscar Levant’s grumpy puss.

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