Last night’s Faculty Artist Series concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was presented by David Conte, Chair of the Composition Department. He prepared a program that showcased two world premieres and three San Francisco premieres, as well as reflecting on two earlier works. An impressive number of performers gathered to present these pieces, many of whom were alumni or students. With two exceptions, all of the pieces presented were vocal.
While I have had several opportunities to get to know Conte’s vocal work in both art song and choral compositions, I realized last night how little I knew of his work in opera. As a result, I was particularly drawn to the world premiere of his 2016 revision of an aria from his opera-in-progress East of Eden, based on the novel of the same name by John Steinbeck with a libretto by David Yezzi. (The original version of the aria was composed in 2014.) Mezzo Kindra Scharich, accompanied at the piano by Kevin Korth, presented the aria sung by Kate during the opera’s first act.
One can appreciate Conte choosing to present this aria even before the completion of the entire opera. In many ways it is a distillation of the key elements of Steinbeck’s novel, all captured when Kate explains to her son Cal how circumstances have led to the situation in which he meets her for the first time in his adult life, having been told by his father that she was dead. This brings to mind how the Norns begin Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung by explaining everything that happened in the three preceding operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen; but Kate’s account is much shorter and far more intense.
Yezzi did an impressive job of turning Steinbeck’s prose into an opera libretto. He captured the author’s plain-speaking directness while shaping the ideas behind the words into phrases that lend themselves to musical interpretation. Kate’s text spans an extensive swath of emotional dispositions; and, even in the absence of sets and costumes (let alone the presence of Cal to whom Kate is singing), Scharich brought fierce determination to her embodiment of those emotions through Conte’s music. Her diction could not have been better, but the text sheet was still useful for the sake of keeping track of all the plot details that Yezzi had packed into his words. This single aria set a very high bar for what one can expect from the rest of the opera, and we should all hope that the final product is just as compelling as this foretaste was.
All of the other vocal selections on the program involved settings of poetry. The other world premiere was of the recently completed cycle Madrigals for the Seasons for soprano (Ann Moss) and piano (Steven Bailey). As might be expected, this cycle consists of four songs, each setting a poem for one of the seasons of the year: summer (Emily Dickinson), autumn (John Clare), winter (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), and spring (William Blake). Clearly, there were different personal dispositions behind each of these texts; and Moss knew how to mine those distinctions from Conte’s approaches to each of the poems. Nevertheless, there was a sense that both the music itself and its performance would require more than a single listening experience to appreciate the full scope of the work’s expressiveness.
On the other hand the four texts, again each by a different poet, of the Everyone Sang set, the only vocal San Francisco premiere, tended to take a somewhat more direct path to expressive response. This may have had much to do with the bold delivery offered by bass Matt Boehler, who could probably tease out intense emotional shading in a Safeway shopping list. With Korth again at the piano, Boehler seemed to have an instinct for the differences of voice in each of the poems, shaping the entire cycle as a journey of personal attitudes that seemed to reflect against each other as the music progressed from one poet to the next.
The instrumental premieres were of an elegy for violin (Kay Stern) and piano (Peter Grunberg), completed in 2014, and a three-movement clarinet sonata (José González Granero, accompanied again by Grunberg). The elegy was compelling in its brevity, while the sonata demonstrated that there was still much to be expressed through multimovement structures based on traditional forms. Both soloists effectively delivered that expressiveness, with Stern distilling the essence of a single moment while Granero surveyed a broader landscape of emotional dispositions.
Having recently reported Clerestory’s account of Conte’s setting of Robert Herrick’s poem, “Charm Me Asleep,” I was delighted to encounter it a second time only two weeks later. This time the ensemble was the Mouthscape Chamber Choir, an a cappella ensemble founded by and consisting primarily of SFCM students and alumni; and there was much to appreciate in how the music wound its way through Herrick’s imaginative approach to rhyme schemes. The remaining work on the program was Conte’s 2009 setting of three poems by Christina Rossetti, for which Scharich and Korth returned to give the performance. These were engaging offerings, but it was a bit hard to free them for the shadow’s of Scharich’s intensity during the first half of the program.