The Black Cedar trio of Kris Palmer, Steve Lin, and Isaac Pastor-Chermak (from a Black Cedar Web page)
This afternoon Black Cedar returned to the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library to give what has become its annual free public concert. The group began as the duo of flutist Kris Palmer and guitarist Steve Lin in 2011. The name of the ensemble had to do with Palmer playing a flute made of black wood and Lin playing a guitar made of cedar. The duo is now a trio, joined by cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak (whose instrument is neither black nor cedar).
The heading on the program sheet stated Local Composers in Public Libraries, and the program served as a showcase for three pieces completed in 2017 and 2018, all commissioned by Black Cedar. Two of those composers have strong ties to the Bay Area. Last year Andre Gueziec was awarded has Bachelor of Music degree with Magna Cum Laude honors by San Jose State University; and, at around the same time, Ursula Kwong-Brown received her Ph.D. in Music Composition & New Media from the University of California at Berkeley. On the other hand, Javier Contreras, who won Black Cedar’s 2018 Commission Competition, is based in Chile.
What is most important about all three compositions is that each found its own distinctive way to work with what is decidedly a non-standard combination of instruments. Indeed, the title of Contreras’ piece, “Tres Colores,” entailed an examination of not only the unique sonorities of each of the three instruments but also a rich study of how those sonorities could be blended in different combinations. The entire “package” was delivered with the sort of expressive rhetoric one frequently finds in the music of Astor Piazzolla, clearly stated themes that lend themselves to different aspects of expression and traverse a landscape of differing shades of moody qualities. “Tres Colores” was clearly a major undertaking; but those willing to listen to it attentively were richly rewarded.
The pieces by local composers were both programmatic, but each in its own unique way. Kwong-Brown’s “In Transit” was inspired by the sounds encountered while commuting on BART. This was not so much a matter of trying to imitate those sounds as it was one of capturing familiar rhythms and, every now and then, pitch contours. Given the extent to which BART has recently been besieged by negative connotations, “In Transit” served as a playful suggestion of how one might occupy the mind when the daily commute feels too much like tedium.
Gueziec’s “In the Spring,” on the other hand, took a more naturalistic approach to a setting with far more positive connotations. The score successfully avoiding falling back on any “stock” denotations of familiar attributes of the spring. Nevertheless, the overall impression was one of spirits refreshed after the long nights of winter.
The program also included two older compositions, both written for instrumental resources other than those of Black Cedar. The earlier of these was the first two movements of the trio sonata from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1079, The Musical Offering. The entire collection was dedicated to Frederick the Great; and the trio sonata featured an upper voice for flute, which was the instrument that Frederick himself played. As Bach wrote the sonata, the other upper voice was to be played by violin; but that part was taken by Lin, while cellist Pastor-Chermak provided the continuo. Palmer and Lin have played together for so long that their blend of those two upper voices could not have been more engaging.
The opening selection was a terzetto that Niccolò Paganini scored for violin, cello, and guitar. In this case Palmer took on the violin part with her flute. Considering Paganini’s tendency to push violin virtuosity for all it was worth, she did an excellent job in giving an effective account of the marks on the score pages without ever suggesting that she was trying to imitate violin virtuosity. Thus the attentive listener could take full satisfaction in this trio as it was played, rather than as the composer had intended it to be played.