Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) presented the first San Francisco performance in its 26th season. The title of the program was Singing the Gamut; and, as Artistic Director Anna Presler observed, the word “gamut” originated as a term used in the Middle Ages to denote the pitches of a scale. Since that time the word has been used to denote the full extent of just about anything. Last night it seemed to incorporate both the diversity of human emotions and composers that have not received very much attention.
The program got off to an excellent start with Jon Deak’s “BB Wolf,” a solo that requires a double bass player to supplement the music with a narrative text. Basically, the piece retells the “Three Little Pigs” story from the wolf’s point of view, with the bass providing rhetorical support to warrant the wolf’s claims. Last night’s performer was Michel Taddei, and he had no trouble channeling Deak’s playful approach to fracturing a fairy tale (with apologies to Jay Ward). Since Deak himself is a bassist, his score served up some impressive virtuosity reflecting a gamut (there’s that word) of emotions on the part of the wolf’s character.
The thing about a gamut, however, is that once one item is taken into account, it is necessary to move on to others. “BB Wolf” was thus the only representative of wit in the entire program; and the remaining context turned out to be a bit of a strain. Consider “Keep On Movin’,” composed by Jonathan Favero and given its world premiere by LCCE. The piece was scored for guitar (Michael Goldberg), viola (Kurt Rohde), cello (Leighton Fong), and double bass, which certainly encompassed a gamut of sonorities, while Favero’s notes for the program sheets suggests that he wished to cover a gamut of emotions. However, once the distinctive sonorities of the four instruments were established, there was little sense that they captured much emotional diversity (or, for that matter, any emotional expression at all).
The scoring for Favero’s piece reproduced the instrumentation for an earlier composition by Mario Davidovsky entitled “Festino.” Rapid-fire passage for all four players made for a dazzling technical display. While “Festino” may best be translated from the Italian into “feast,” the word can also be used in the connotation of celebration. One can easily believe that Davidovsky conceived this quartet as a celebration of virtuosity, and the LCCE players rose to the occasion splendidly.
Charles Peck also seemed to be exploring the gamut of virtuosity in his piano quartet “Sunburst.” This two-movement piece was the winner of LCCE’s 2018 Composition Contest. For the performance Rohde and Fong were joined by Presler on violin and Eric Zivian on piano. Each movement had a descriptive title, “Reflect” and “Absorb,” respectively. The first movement used high-energy upper-register activity to depict the play of light, while the second tended to dwell on lower-register reverberations.
Unfortunately, the plan behind the composition turned out to be more compelling than the composition itself. The LCCE players certainly rose to the composer’s challenges, but little sense of either expressiveness or innovation emerged from those challenges. To be fair, however, among the community of regular concert-goers, Peck’s score was up against some tough competition. Last month the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, served up some thoroughly dazzling upper-register work in Niccolò Castiglioni’s Inverno-in-ver. Anyone who experienced this delightful piece would agree that it posed a prodigiously difficult act to follow.
The remainder of the program was devoted to vocal music sung, almost entirely, by soprano Nikki Einfeld. There was, indeed, a gamut of stylistic approaches in her offering, the most engaging of which was Benjamin Britten’s Songs from the Chinese collection, which he scored for guitar and voice. Einfeld’s offerings spanned a gamut of periods in music history with Britten’s piece representing the twentieth century. Opposite ends of the nineteenth century were accounted for by Vincenzo Bellini (an aria for his opera I Capuleti e it Montecchi) and Alfred Bachelet, a French contemporary of Gabriel Fauré.
Post-Britten was represented by On Loving a collection of three songs by contemporary composer Sheila Silver. None of these offerings were particularly compelling, and Silver’s work disappointed by suggesting that the composer had never taken the trouble to read aloud any of the texts she had decided to set. Her lack of preparation in grasping the denotations and connotations of the texts led to awkward moments of pitches hanging from syllables with little sense of why they were there in the first place.
The program also offered a memorial gesture to Berkeley composer Olly Wilson. Soprano Candace Johnson appeared as guest artist to sing “There Is a Need,” a contemporary reflection on the spiritual “There is a balm in Gilead.” This was a relatively brief offering, but it said all it had to say during the first quarter of its overall duration. After that, the music did little more than rehash the material without adding any impact to the opening gesture.
Gamuts should be made of sterner stuff.