Last night I went over to Z Space to take in the first of the four concerts wrapping up the 2017–18 season of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP). Presented as part of the at the CROSSROADS series, the four programs were designed to recognize two landmark occasions: the 85th anniversary of the birth of Pauline Oliveros and the conclusion of Steven Schick’s tenure as SFCMP’s Artistic Director. Last night the second concert was devoted to Oliveros, while the first took place on Schick’s turf.
That turf was, indeed, one of “crossroads,” coupling two pieces from the present decade with two composed about half a century ago. Strictly speaking, however, it was unclear whether or not those two roads ever “crossed.” Indeed the contrasts between the two ends of that half-century were almost shocking in their differences, both technical and rhetorical.
The highlight of the evening was the the world premiere of “Cold mountains, one belt, heartbreak green” composed by Carolyn Chen under an SFCMP commission. Chen’s instrumentation was, to say the least, imaginative: bass flute (Tod Brody), violin (Hrabba Atladottir), cello (Stephen Harrison), harp (Karen Gottlieb), and percussion (Loren Mach). Chen was inspired by Wai Lim Yip’s English translation of a poem by Li Bai. The title comes from the second line of that poem, and the sections of her composition correspond to individual noun phrases in the English text.
Sadly, the program notes by Robert Jackson Wood gave a rather haphazard account of those sections and their associated nouns; so the attentive listener was left with the sonorities evoked by the performers. In their pre-concert conversation, Chen and Schick talked about the challenge of working with instruments having distinctively different dynamic ranges. Sadly, the techniques discussed in theory during that conversation never really surfaced in practice. Instead, one could appreciate how different voices would come and go within a somewhat nebulous context in which an integrated blend never seemed to be part of the agenda.
A much better sense of resource management could be found in Xavier Beteta’s “La Catedrale Abandonata,” evoking two abandoned cathedrals in Mexico and Germany, respectively. The opening seemed to suggest a parallel with Claude Debussy’s “La Cathédrale engloutie” (the sunken cathedral) prelude, with Debussy’s sustained echoing open fifths being replaced by the ostinato of a single tone. Over the course of only about ten minutes, Beteta knew how to evoke a poignant sense of isolation reflecting on the ruined structures that had inspired him, thus making for one of the more memorable offerings of the evening.
Just as memorable was Galina Ustvolskaya’s “Grand Duet” for cello (Harrison) and piano (Kate Campbell). Composed in 1957, this was, without a doubt, the most aggressive work on the program. The violence of its rhetoric delivers as shocking punch today as it did over 50 years ago. The demands on the cello were so aggressive that, for one of the five movements, Harrison switched over to a bass bow to get a stronger sound out of his strings. Yet, while the performance clearly aimed to assault the senses, both Harrison and Campbell brought a clarity to Ustvolskaya’s writing that led the attentive listener through her twenty-minute wild ride with little sense of how much time had passed.
On the other hand Luciano Berio’s 1964 Folk Songs felt like it went on forever. Much of the problem was due to the fact that no text sheet was provided for these songs. For that matter, there was no clear list of what the songs were or the different “folk” sources behind them. All that was provided was the URL for the Web page giving the lyrics and (when necessary) their translations. Sadly, the layout was so poor that this page would not even have served those bothering to bring it up on their cell phones.
Berio’s intention seems to have been to rethink traditional music by providing unconventional instrumental settings. As a result, this rather modest collection requires two percussionists (Mach and Nick Woodbury), along with two winds, flute (Brody) and clarinet (Peter Josheff), two bowed strings, viola (Meena Bhasin) and cello (Harrison), and a harp (Gottlieb). The songs themselves, written for Cathy Berberian, were sung by mezzo Silvie Jensen. By the third song one could pretty much “get” what Berio was trying to do; and little was gained from listening to him do it again and again over the full stretch of eleven songs.