Last night at the Noe Valley Ministry, Bard Music West (BMW) presented the first of the three concerts being offered by its second festival. These were patterned after Bard Music Festival (BMF) offerings held every summer since 1990 on the campus of Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson in New York. Each of those festivals had a title beginning “The World of,” followed by the name of a composer. As conceived by Artistic Directors Allegra Chapman and Laura Gaynon, BMW follows the same approach, but selecting “worlds” with some connection to the San Francisco Bay Area. Thus, the first festival in the series, The World of György Ligeti focused on a composer whose visits to the the Bay Area cultivated a strong attraction, as well as a source of inspirations for his works.
The title of this year’s festival is The World of Henry Cowell, and it involves considerable breadth. That is because Cowell was not only an innovative composer but also an assiduous student of diverse musical practices, making him one of the earliest pioneers in ethnomusicology and what we now call “world music.” Just about every practitioner of adventurous modernism in the United States had some connection to Cowell one way or another; and New Music Quarterly, the periodical that he founded in 1927, served as a publication platform for many of them. (It provided the first publication of the music of Charles Ives; and Cowell, together with his wife Sidney, would write the first Ives biography.)
The title of last night’s concert was In Search of American Music. True to Cowell’s own scholarly practices the program reached back to Colonial times with music by William Billings, as well as a nineteenth-century selection by William Walker. Both of these composers were represented by works that were subsequently collected in The Sacred Harp. The remainder of the program then covered both Cowell and a broad assortment of composers that were in his orbit.
For the most part the selections were short, which facilitated considerable breadth in the diversity of approaches to composition represented. The one exception was Ives, whose piano trio was performed in its entirety by Chapman on piano, Gaynon on cello, and Luosha Fang on violin. Ives was a composer with a yin-yang duality of intense metaphysical speculation, derived from the Concord philosophers of the early nineteenth century, and outrageous thigh-slapping comedy. That duality is presented at its clearest in the trio, whose meditative outer movements surround a wild Presto movement marked “TSIAJ” (which stands for “This scherzo is a joke”). Ives’ dense polyphony was given an impressively clear account, although I find myself worrying that fewer and fewer listeners can still recognize the full diversity of fragmented references to the composer’s favorite tunes, particularly in that “joke” middle movement. (I had similar concerns listening to his “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” this past Wednesday.)
Luosha Fang, Allegra Chapman, and Laura Gaynon taking their bow after performing the Ives trio (photograph by and courtesy of Michael Strickland)
Among the shorter samples, Cowell received the most attention (as was his due). The performances included Sarah Cahill playing “High Color,” an elaborate interpretation of an Irish jig punctuated with tone clusters and waves of rapid-finger embellishments. The other instrumental selection was the seventh two-movement piece he called “Hymn and Fuguing Tune,” featuring violist Jessica Chang with Chapman on piano. In addition Volti performed his a cappella setting of Psalm 121. Volti was also responsible for the more “historical” portion of the program with the Billings and Walker offerings.
What was memorable in the midst of all the diversity was that each individual selection had its own particular take on modernism. For example John Cage was represented by one of his pieces for prepared piano (“Bacchanale,” played Cahill), while the Ruth Crawford selection consisted of three wordless chants (Volti, again). Another fascinating perspective involved two very different composers, Otto Luening and Aaron Copland, both setting poems by Emily Dickinson (sung by Sara LeMesh accompanied by Chapman). Since LeMesh concluded the evening, she also provided, as an encore, one last Cowell selection, his song “Spring Comes Singing.”
All of this made for a very substantial evening. The usual two-hour concert experience ran about another 30 minutes longer. Nevertheless, there was never a sense that anything had gone on for too long. Each of the individual samples had its own quota of fascination. While the quantity may have been extensive, the listening experience never succumbed to fatigue, since each new discovery had its own intriguing delights to offer.