Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble Fires on No Cylinders

Last night the members of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) presented Air From Other Planets, the second program in their 2019–2020 season. The title comes from the opening line of “Entrückung” (transport), a poem by Stefan George that Arnold Schoenberg selected to be sung in the final movement of his Opus 10 (second) string quartet in F-sharp minor. This was one of two poems to be incorporated into the structure of Opus 10, the other, “Litanei” (litany), also by George, to be sung in the third movement.

Last night’s vocalist was soprano Nikki Einfeld, accompanied by violinists Anna Presler (LCCE Artistic Director) and Liana Bérubé, violist Phyllis Kamrin, and cellist Tanya Tomkins. Einfeld can be counted on consistently to bring a solid sense of pitch to her delivery and to seek out just the right rhetorical stance from which her string of notes unfolds. She was clearly in her comfort zone with the intensity of George’s verses, delivering an account of expressive clarity.

Sadly, the instrumentalists never managed to home in on a suitable context for all of that vocal intensity. Indeed, it sounded as if they had not yet attained a level from which they could negotiate the many melodic and harmonic ambiguities that build up to the quartet’s final movement, which is very much a proclaimed omen that the composer was ready to venture into unfamiliar territory. The fact is that Opus 10 abounds in emotional complexity even before George’s “voice” is “added to the mix.” Last night, however, there was a sense that the instrumentalists had not yet mastered sufficient command of the notes to tap into that highly subjective maelstrom. Thus, any sense of climax associated with the last words of “Litanei” never managed to register with much impact.

If there was a sense that the string quartet members had not advanced beyond the “early reading” stage for Schoenberg, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 465 string quartet in C major, often named after the dissonances encountered in the introduction of the first movement, did not fare much better. K. 465 is the last of the six quartets that Mozart wrote for Joseph Haydn as a “response” to the “call” of his colleague’s six Opus 33 quartets Hoboken III/37–42. Most likely Haydn and Mozart played all twelve of these quartets over the course of regular gatherings with Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (playing first violin) and Johann Baptist Wanhal (playing cello). (Mozart’s instrument was the viola; and Haydn played “second fiddle.”)

K. 465 was thus a gesture of friendship intended to complement similar gestures from Haydn. It could be appreciated for not only the craft behind its structure but also the sorts of “surprises” injected in an effort to trip up the players during their first reading. While the LCCE players never tripped up in any serious way, they never were able to capture the refreshing social dynamic that motivated both Haydn and Mozart to put so much imaginative thought into the material to be “shared with the group.” Last night served up an account that was, at best, a capable reading; but, as would again emerge in the Schoenberg performance, finding and realizing the right emotional dispositions seemed to be “beyond the scope of this course.”

Einfeld also sang with the quartet in the world premiere performance of “Waving Goodbye” by Jamie Leigh Sampson, joined by Michael Goldberg on guitar. The title of the composition is also the title of the poem it sets, written by Elizabeth Spires and included in her published collection Swan’s Island. The text of the poem is centered around a crystal ball and the distorted reflections it provides. Once again, there was an intensity in Einfeld’s voice that well served the sinister subtleties of the text. Unfortunately, Sampson’s skills as a composer never quite rose to the heights of Spires’ poem. This seemed to have been due in no small part to Sampson’s preoccupation with hanging notes on syllables, rather than developing the rhetorical qualities of the text taken as a whole.

The remaining work on the program was another world premiere, a movement for viola and guitar given the subtitle “Eye Contact.” The piece was composed by John Schott for the married couple of Kamrin on viola and Goldberg on guitar. Schott’s “comfort zone” is in jazz; but, in his own words, he writes “a substantial Classical piece of music every eight years or so.” “Eye Contact” would never be confused with jazz; but it also seemed unclear just what sort of stance Schott wanted it to take. Since Schott is, himself, a guitarist, he provided Goldberg with several fascinating riffs; and Goldberg’s interplay with Kamrin made for some of the most expressive moments of the evening (even if that is not saying much). The irony is that, as might be guessed, the chemistry between these two players was so strong that they never seemed to need to communicate through eye contact!

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