Saturday, November 2, 2019

O1C Hosts Helia Music Collective Recital

Banner for last night’s concert showing Helia co-founders Emma Logan and Julie Barwick (above) and violinist Robert Simonds (below) (from the SF Station event page)

For those not yet familiar with the organization, the Helia Music Collective was co-founded by composers Emma Logan and Julie Barwick. Their mission is to support the creative endeavors of woman in music throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. I first encountered them through a program by the period-instrument Liaison Ensemble entitled Early Music Meets New, which juxtaposed works created under Helia auspices with songs by two seventeenth-century women, Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi.

Last night at Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts (O1C) hosted a program curated by Helia. The concert was a solo violin recital by Robert Simonds consisting entirely of works by women composed between 1990 and this year. The entire program was framed by two short compositions by Missy Mazzoli, beginning with her 2011 “Dissolve, O my Heart” and concluding  with “Tooth and Nail” (2010), performed against a recording of Uzbek music. The other composers on the program were, in “order of appearance,” Molly Joyce, TJ Cole, Alexis Bacon, Sylvia Mancuso, Lera Auerbach, Melody Eötvös, Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer, Logan, Cindy Cox, and Patricia Van Ness.

All of the compositions were relatively short, and the whole evening lasted less than 90 minutes without an intermission. In the absence of program notes, Simonds took the trouble to provide a brief introduction, which often had more to do with establishing a frame of reference, rather than discussing the music itself. Thus, “Dissolve, O my Heart” and Joyce’s “Blue Swell” were introduced as contemporary reflections on past traditions associated with Johann Sebastian Bach and Eugène Ysaÿe, respectively. (Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas were, themselves, reflections on Bach, leading Simonds to call Joyce’s piece “reinterpretation of reinterpretation of Bach.”)

A similar sense of wit could be found in other “external” references. Simonds introduced Mancuso’s “Complicit” with the phrase “Shostakovich meets Webern.” (Personally, I felt one really had to know one’s Webern to detect where he was lurking.) Bayer’s “I Lost My Life Savings in the Bitcoin Crash of 2014,” on the other hand, was described as a synthesis of Philip Glass and the Ramones.

Logan’s own contribution turned out to be an exercise in repurposing. “Running Ragged” was originally written as a clarinet solo for Jeff Anderle. Last night Simonds gave the premiere performance of the violin version. The second word of the title is a nod to ragtime; but, as was the case with other referential associations, the word was there for general orientation, rather than to identify any specific underlying model.

Hearing so much unfamiliar music for the first time impedes the ability to asses how well the soloist served each of the compositions. Simonds certainly performed confidently, suggesting a solid sense of both text and context in each of the pieces he played. Nevertheless, an onset of saturation began to emerge as the program neared its conclusion. The Liaison strategy of interleaving distant past with immediate present made for an overall experience that better gauged the limits of attention span.

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