Last night in the Old First Presbyterian Church, Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) returned to the Old First Concerts series with a program entitled 56 x 54: Focus on the Cello. 56 by 54 refers to a series of world premiere performances written in response to a Call for Scores issued in 2015, and the results have provided a generous share of the repertoire for recent E4TT recitals. The subtitle involves the fact that cellist Anne Lerner-Wright performed on all ten of the selections on the program, three of which were world premieres, two United States premieres, and two West Coast premieres. Lerner-Wright played two solos, two duets with pianist Dale Tsang, and two duos in which she was the only accompaniment for soprano Nanette McGuinness, as well as being part of the full trio in four pieces. This kept Lerner-Wright busy for the entire evening and included one selection (her first solo) for which she had to retune her lowest string.
Lerner-Wright is definitely an impressive cellist. She was clearly up to the full scope of challenges of all of the works on the program; and she could “play well with others” as effectively as she could present her solo work. She even knew how to maintain audience attention with informative comments while retuning her instrument. Indeed, the selection requiring the retuning turned out to be the most engaging work on the program.
That piece was the first suite for solo cello written by Greek composer George Hatzimichelakis in 2006. This was one of the works being given its United States premiere, and the very decision to call the piece a suite could not avoid prompting associations with the solo suites that Johann Sebastian Bach composed for the cello. Hatzimichelakis found just the right stance to take in structuring his composition, honoring the Bach formula with a prelude followed by five dances. However, those dances reflected neither the dance forms that Bach utilized nor any of the traditional Greek dance forms. The spirit of the dance, so to speak, was in the composer’s rhetorical approaches to different rhythmic foundations, all of which managed to be “dance-like” without falling back on a reliably steady beat. Hatzimichelakis than departed from Bach in a different direction by following the fifth of the dances with a postlude.
This music was as technically challenging as it was imaginative, but Lerner-Wright was clearly up to all of the challenges that Hatzimichelakis posed. This was also true of her other solo presentation, Lawrence Kramer’s “Ricercar,” whose very title evoked memories of music that was “in the past” even for Bach. Here, again, the score demanded prodigious technical proficiency, which Lerner-Wright again delivered effectively.
Kramer’s music, on the other hand, was another matter. In the sixteenth century the ricercar was not, strictly speaking, a form. Rather, because the word means “search” (or even “research”), it tended to provide a frame in which a composer might take one or more thematic cells and explore different ways in which those theme(s) could be unfolded, possibly through variations, possibly through imitative polyphony, possibly through “something completely different.” As a result many of the pieces called ricercar tend to go on at some length; and some even suggest that the composer was “improvising with his pen,” so to speak.
In the course of my own keyboard work, I have come to feel that a ricercar is more of a dialog between composer and player, rather that something conceived by the composer for a listening audience. Kramer’s ricercar showed few (if any) signs of reflecting on the sixteenth century. On the other hand, the piece did go on for quite some time; and there was some limit to how much of that time could go into productive admiration of Lerner-Wright’s technical skills. As a result I came away with the feeling that my conjecture about the sixteenth-century ricercar was just as valid for the one Kramer had written in 2011.
The two pieces that Lerner-Wright played with Tsang were the United States premiere of “Sonia’s Letters” by Frederick Schipizky and a capriccio composed by E4TT Co-Director David Garner in 2014. Schipizky’s piece was sort of a play on words, since his theme was based on the letters in the name of composer Sophia-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté. As one can see, this theme is much longer than those based on Bach’s last name or Dmitri Shostakovich’s abbreviation of his, both of which involved only four notes. The result tended to be a bit long-winded, suggesting that this was music that looked good on paper that was still seeking out a rhetorical stance from which it could also appeal to the ear. Garner’s capriccio, on the other hand, was vigorously engaging, making it an excellent choice to wrap up the entire program.
Unfortunately, art song is a major element of the mission of E4TT; and last night it was the weakest part of the program. The problem was not so much a matter of McGuinness’ vocal skills as it was one of properly presenting the content to the curious listener. No text sheets were provided to inform that listener about the words being sung, let alone the person who had created those words. Because the textures of instrumental accompaniment were so rich and complex, it was very rare that any of McGuinness’ vocalizing would register through more than the occasional phoneme. For that matter, the fact that “Music I Heard with You” was a setting of a poem by Conrad Aiken only slipped out when composer Tom Flaherty was talking about his work prior to the performance.
From past experiences I know that McGuinness takes the words she sings very seriously; but last night even the most attentive listener was lucky to take away even a single word from the vocal offerings on the program.