Sunday, November 3, 2019

Ninth Planet Debuts at SFCM’s Osher Salon

Composers for last night’s program: Eve Beglarian, Kaija Saariaho, Ursula Kwong-Brown, Dan VanHassel, and Jenny Olivia Johnson (from a Ninth Planet blog post)

Last night in the Osher Salon of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Ninth Planet presented its inaugural concert. The group is the result of the merger of two established Bay Area organizations committed to the commissioning and performing of new music: Wild Rumpus and Composers, Inc. Programming would combine these new works with performances of past compositions, often in a manner that informed the listener of transitions from innovations of the past to those of the present.

The program drew upon compositions presented by both of the previous organizations. It began with “Balance of Power” by Dan VanHassel, one of the founding members of Wild Rumpus and its first Artistic Director. At the other end it concluded with a large-scale composition commissioned by Wild Rumpus, Jenny Olivia Johnson’s “Reflect Reflect Respond Respond (Echo and Narcissus in Reverse).” Composers, Inc. was represented by Ursula Kwong-Brown with the third of her “Unwinding” compositions. The second of these had been commissioned by Composers, Inc., following the first, which had been performed by Earplay. Two of the “past compositions” were by Eve Beglarian, both solo works. “Play Like a Girl” was performed by pianist Margaret Halbig; and guitarist Giacomo Fiore presented “Until it Blazes.” In addition, Halbig was joined by Jessie Nucho on alto flute and guest artist Evan Kahn on cello to perform Kaija Saariaho’s “Cendres.”

Overall, the evening was an engaging one, particularly in the more intimate settings. Kwong-Brown’s third “generation” (as she called it in her opening remarks) of “Unwinding” was a premiere performance. While the resources were modest, they still required a conductor and were led by Ninth Planet’s Artistic Director Nathaniel Berman, a past Artistic Director of Wild Rumpus. Nucho (this time on flute), Kahn, and Halbig were joined by another guest artist, Kevin Rogers on violin, along with Sophie Huet on bass clarinet, and Mckenzie Langefeld on marimba.

The series of compositions were the result of the composer having sustained a bicycle accident, which resulted in both frequent headaches and short-term memory problems. That context seemed to reflect a process of getting back in touch with musical memories, perhaps as a result of therapy experiences. There was one fabric of diverse instrumental sonorities that seemed to suggest recollection of the “Dawn” episode in Maurice Ravel’s score for the ballet “Daphnis et Chloé.” Within the context of the composer’s biographical account, the moment almost felt like one of a memory recovered or, perhaps, the “dawning” of previously elusive long-term memories.

Langefeld should also be noted for the wildly diverse percussion work required by VanHassel’s “Balance of Power.” This was intensely aggressive music. Yet Langefeld always found the right dynamics to blend with the instrumental voices of Huet, Fiore, Halbig, and Kahn, joined in this performance by Eugene Theriault on bass. Ultimately, this music was about extremes in both rhythms and sonorities; but, true to the work’s title, those extremes were held in check by an impeccable sense of balance.

The reduced resources of the first five works on the program contrasted with the large ensemble required for Johnson’s composition. This was an “all hands” performance by the instrumentalists, joined by two sopranos, Ann Moss and Amy Foote, both guest artists. One could readily grasp the organization of the composition around the concept of echo, and the effect was particularly impressive as realized by the two sopranos pursuing the relationship between reflection and response.

Nevertheless, the overall quantity was more than a little overwhelming, to the extent that it became difficult to keep track of how much was unfolding, even when one did one’s best to listen attentively. Equally perplexing was the attempt to balance the complexity of the first half of the composition with a reflection on Johann Crüger’s hymn “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesus, my joy), probably best known for being set by Johann Sebastian Bach for his BWV 227 motet. The contrast was striking, to say the least; but I was still left wondering just what was being contrasted and to what end.

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