Yesterday afternoon the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) confronted the challenge of presenting the world premiere performance of “… within the shifting grounds …,” written by Iranian composer Anahita Abbasi on a commission involving collaboration with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). This was an ambitious undertaking. Most likely every member of the ensemble had to contend with mastering alternative performance techniques required by the score. In addition the composition had a significant spatial dimension, which required that many of the players be distributed across the available space afforded by the interior of Davies Symphony Hall.
Fortunately, they had the benefit of guidance from a variety of additional resources. Three of the ICE players, violinist Jennifer Curtis, bassoonist Rebekah Heller, and trombonist Michael Lormand were involved in the spatial distribution. (The other ICE performer, saxophonist Ryan Muncy, was part of the on-stage ensemble.) Presumably, all of them have had to draw upon alternative performance techniques for many works in the group’s repertoire; and, hopefully, that meant that they could provide coaching beyond what could be offered by members of the San Francisco Symphony.
On the other hand over the course of the full program of this afternoon, those of us on audience side learned several times that Wattis Foundation Music Director Christian Reif believed emphatically that every performer should have the capacity to listen to all the other performers. Clearly, where separation across significant distances is involve, merely hearing others may be problematic; but when the score itself departs so radically from past performing experiences, escalating the act of hearing to one of listening is even more problematic. Furthermore, just to be fair, that act of listening can easily be just as problematic for the members of the audience as it is for the players.
Fortunately, there are usually at least some on audience side that are better prepared than others. Those familiar with groups such as the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) or Earplay will probably have some familiarity with at least some of those alternative performance techniques; and I still have vivid memories of one SFCMP concert in which the spatial distribution of the players was as engaging as it was significant. Nevertheless, the question remains as to just what the composer of a new work expects to gain from drawing upon such factors as part of the act of creation. This is the real rub behind any world premiere, and I would like to submit humbly that it is rarely the case that even the most attentive listener is prepared to take on that question after listening to the piece only once.
As an aside, Philip Glass upped this ante even higher. In his memoir Notes Without Music he stressed how important he felt it was to be able to experience two distinct productions of any new opera he created. He has set himself a rather demanding standard, but I suspect his reputation is strong enough to allow him to live up to it. However, I think the important point is that Glass himself could not really assess a new creation until he had experienced multiple points of view of it.
Thus, from the limited perspective of one who has experienced only a single performance of “… within the shifting grounds …,” I have to say that I do not yet feel equipped to offer any value judgements of either the composition or how it was performed. I can say that, while the performance was taking place, I found myself thinking of earlier ground-breaking efforts by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and John Cage; but I have long held to the precept that listening-in-the-present cannot avoid being informed by listening-in-the-past. All I can say as a sincere listener is that Abbasi has tweaked my curiosity enough that I hope this will not be my last contact with her music. On the other hand, as an observer of SFSYO, I feel that preparing this piece must have been a really valuable experience with practices that were probably entirely unfamiliar before these performers encountered their parts.
That issue of players listening to each other was further reinforced by Reif preceding the Abbasi premiere with five pieces, each for a small number of players. This was his way of emphasizing to both SFSYO members and the audience just how much listening to the others matters to him. To be fair I would say that his objective was satisfied with mixed success. For all of its thorny dissonances, the seven brass players, all of whose instruments were muted, presented a vibrantly convincing account of Carl Ruggles’ “Angels;” and I suspect that the success can be attributed to the role that each player contributed to maintaining just the right blend of these seven harshly distinct parts. On the other hand the double brass choir performances of the selections by Giovanni Gabrieli were less convincing, probably because both the polyphony and the variations in dynamic levels were far more elaborate and still at least somewhat beyond the grasp of the players.
The richest balance challenges came with Richard Strauss’ Opus 7 serenade in E-flat major. This was scored for thirteen separate wind parts; and it was clear that some moments of balance were better than others. More problematic was Michael Burritt’s “Fandango 13,” scored for six percussionists who, this afternoon, played without a conductor. This turned out to be a case where listening was a challenging task on the audience side, leading me to wonder what it was like for the players. As one who has listened to quite a bit of the music of Steve Reich, I can appreciate the significance of the composer being aware of the audibility of the manifold threads of a thick texture. My personal conjecture is that the performance of “Fandango 13” was not problematic because of the players but because the composer had not given sufficient consideration to listeners interested in maintaining attention to those manifold threads.
One reason for that conjecture is that the overall balance of the final work on the program, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major, could not have been better. As textures go, Beethoven wove an impressively thick fabric for this symphony; and there were only a few occasions when the eye captured instrumental activity that the ear could not register. In many ways this was the most challenging work on the program because it was the most familiar. Nevertheless, Reif’s relationship with his ensemble was both technically informed and emotionally expressive. This was anything but “just another performance” of familiar music by Beethoven.