Saturday, September 30, 2017

SFCM New Music Ensemble Plays Women Composers

Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Nicole Paiement presented the first performance of the season by the New Music Ensemble. She prepared a program consisting entirely of women composers that included a teacher-student connection. The teacher was Composition Faculty Member Elinor Armer, whose “Recollections” and “Revel” were performed by cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau and pianist Steven Bailey. The student was Aleksandra Vrebalov (Class of ’96), whose “Transparent Walls” also featured a solo cello (Jenny Crane), playing against an ensemble (conducted by Paiement) of ten winds, celesta (Chelsea Wong), and percussion. The full Ensemble was also joined by guitarist Marc Teicholz for “O Saci-Pererê,” a three-movement concerto by Clarice Assad.

Armer composed her two short pieces for the married duo of cellist Bonnie Hampton and pianist Nathan Schwartz. Both pieces capture the intimacy of a happy marriage and the playfulness that seasons that intimacy. “Recollections” amounts to a dialogue between the two players, whose respective parts reflect disagreements over what are supposed to be shared memories. Fonteneau was particularly good at capturing a prosodic delivery of his thematic material, which sometimes more than hinted at the acoustics of speech sounds. Bailey, on the other hand, offered the “husband’s perspective” through inventive approaches to rhythm and the coloration of raised dampers. Armer herself described “Revel” as a “romp;” and, in the context of “Recollections,” it amounted to a cheerful setting aside of disagreements.

“Transparent Walls” was commissioned by SFCM, where Paiement conducted the premiere on November 15, 2008. As the title suggests, the music is a study in the opposing qualities of transparency and opacity; and those qualities arise through imaginative approaches to their representation through contrasting sonorities. Those contrasts are first suggested by the opening celesta solo, whose characteristic attack times bring crystalline clarity to each note but whose long decay times begin to obscure that clarity as more notes sound. Similarly, there is often the sense that the clarity of the cello line is struggling to “establish perception” against walls of obscurity imposed by the winds. As a composition this was definitely an ambitious undertaking, sufficiently imaginative that it does not deserve to be heard only once (or twice) and then forgotten.

Similarly, Assad’s piece had also been previously performed at SFCM and was being given a “return performance.” “O Saci-Pererê” received its world premiere on January 14, 2016 during the first public concert of the International Guitar Competition and Festival Maurizio Biasini. It was dedicated to Teicholz, who performed it with Paiement and the New Music Ensemble. The title refers to a Brazilian mythological character, and each of the three movements explores a different story about him.

Assad has a keen ear for instrumental sonorities and a knack for making every sonorous quality an engaging one. Working the sounds of a guitar (even with amplification) into such a rich texture is no easy matter; but Assad was definitely up to the task. The result was an expansive palette of colors that covered the nature of Saci-Pererê’s character from his reputation as a trickster to his darker side that is decidedly evil.

Taken as a whole, then, this was an evening of revisiting compositions from the past legacy of SFCM. It was a gentle reminder than any composition worth its salt deserves more than one or two public performances. All three of these pieces amounted to more than a few grains of salt and definitely deserve more attention in repertory programming.

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