Last night at the Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts presented chamber music performed by the trio of Jeff Anderle on clarinet and bass clarinet, Hannah Addario-Berry on cello, and Kate Campbell on piano. Those familiar with the repertoire tend to associate the piano trio with a clarinet replacing the violin with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 11 trio in B-flat major and little else. Last night only one of the works on the program was a trio. There were two solo performances, and the remainder of the program was devoted to different combinations of duos.
With one exception all of the composers on the program were alive, and four of them were present at last night’s concert. Also with one exception all of the selections were relatively short. Curiously, both exceptions applied to the same composition, “the “Grand Duet” for cello and piano composed by Galina Ustvolskaya, who died in 2006. Campbell was no stranger to this piece, since she had performed it, with cellist Stephen Harrison, for San Francisco Contemporary Music Players this past March.
Last night’s performance contrasted sharply with the rest of the repertoire not only through its extended duration of twenty minutes but also through a rhetorical stance that was aggressive to such an extreme that could easily be called violent. Indeed, one of the movements required Addario-Berry to use a bass bow to get a stronger sound out of her instrument. Unrelenting strength thus pervaded the entire composition, reinforced by having the two performers at the opposite extremes of the Old First altar. Dutch critic Elmer Schönberger called Ustvolskaya “the woman with the hammer;” and there were times when her aggressive approach to keyboard work tended to come across as even more violent than Henry Cowell at his most percussive. The mere fact that Addario-Berry could hold her own against such an onslaught of decibels was an accomplishment worth noting. The additional fact that, within that thick cloud of dissonance, the two of them could give a convincing account of the sonata structures behind all of that spectacle made Ustvolskaya’s piece a memorable conclusion to a stimulating evening (even if none of us were whistling its themes as we went out the door).
At the opposite end of the chronology, Anderle and Campbell played the world premiere of Ryan Brown’s “Kaolin.” That word comes from the Chinese village Gaoling, but it is best known as the root of “kaolinite,” a form of clay with a particularly white color that was used in the making of porcelain. (Kaolinite can also be found in sedimentary structures with oil-bearing sandstone. Because the clay has virtually no porosity, it can seal off pockets of oil and must then be penetrated by a prospector’s drilling equipment.)
Brown’s piece seemed more occupied with the sparkling qualities of porcelain than with revenue sources for Royal Dutch Shell. There was an easy-going, almost loping, quality to the rhythms for the bass clarinet line. Anderle clearly captured that spirit, delivering the piece with a breezy rhetoric that ran the gamut from accommodating to downright catchy. That spirit also sustained his performance of the opening selection, “Disco Toccata” by Guillaume Connesson, scored for clarinet and cello. (Yes, this was the same Connesson whose Italian-landscape tone poem was performed by the San Francisco Symphony last month under the baton of Stéphane Denève.) For that matter Anderle could summon up just as much spirit playing on his own, which he did in his bass clarinet performance of “Stir the Earth,” one of the two movements from Cornelius Boots’ Sacred Teachings of the Lonely Goose. (Both Brown and Boots were present for last night’s performances.)
The San Francisco premiere of the evening was the only piece on the program scored for trio (bass clarinet, cello, and piano). It was written by one of the members of the Guerrilla Composers Guild, Ryan Rey. Rey currently teaches at California State University East Bay in Hayward, which is where this piece, “Specular Reflections,” was first performed. The title is a bit of an oxymoron, since the adjective “specular” relates to the properties of a mirror; but that title still tended to encourage the mind to seek out how motifs would reflect across the surfaces, so to speak, of the three instruments.
Rey was also present for last night’s performance, as was Belinda Reynolds, whose “Dust” was performed by Anderle on clarinet and Addario-Berry. The title reflects the composer’s personal impressions of conditions in New York City after 9/11. It was a reminder that the impact of the fall of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers extended far beyond the WTC site itself. Indeed, Reynolds’ musical evocation of the dust whose extent covered so much of New York City brought to mind the words from Carl Sandburg’s funereal reflection on World War I:
I am the grass; I cover all.
“Dust” was written for a benefit to raise money for New York composers displaced by 9/11; and it provided a sobering reminder that hazardous times are still with us.
The remaining work on the program was Campbell’s only solo. She played the first two of the seven piano études that Don Byron composed for pianist Lisa Moore in 2008. Those pieces made him a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. As is the case with the piano études composed by Philip Glass, the attentive listener can appreciate the technical skills being developed without necessarily having very much (if any) personal experience at the keyboard. Both of the études Campbell played were brief, leading one curious as to where the other five would go.
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