Monday, October 7, 2019

A Few Samples from SF Music Day 2019

Yesterday afternoon InterMusic SF presented its seven-and-one-half hour marathon SF Music Day. Taking place concurrently in four performing areas in the Veterans Building, the entire event was given the title Rebels & Renegades; and those nouns were honored at most of the events I sampled. I did not stay very long, simply because there is only so much that memory can maintain. However, the audience turnout at each of the events I visited was definitely impressive.

I suppose my highest priority was to check out the recently-formed Chordless duo of soprano Sara LeMesh and pianist Allegra Chapman. My efforts to follow Chapman’s work reach all the way back to when I was first revving up my writing skills. More recently, she has undertaken a series of impressively ambitious projects for her Bard Music West festivals. My first encounter with LeMesh, on the other hand, only came about this past summer with her West Edge Opera performance of Bess McNeill in Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, based on the film of the same name by Lars von Trier.

Much of the Chordless program could be taken as preparation for the next Bard Music West festival. The title of the festival will be The World of Grażyna Bacewicz, which will get under way at the Noe Valley Ministry on Friday, October 18. Bacewicz herself was represented by two short humorous songs; but the program also presented selections by two of her Polish contemporaries, Andrzej Panufnik and Tadeusz Baird. The Panufnik selection consisted of two of the movements from “Hommage à Chopin,” a collection of five vocalises. The evocations of Frédéric Chopin were subtle (and/or perhaps prankish). However, the wordless vocal lines were imaginatively engaging, given a thoroughly convincing account by LeMesh. The program began with another vocalise, the original version of Igor Stravinsky’s “Pastorale.” Stravinsky would later set this music for a variety of different instrumental combinations, but this was my first opportunity to listen to the piece as he originally wrote it.

When words were involved, things got a bit more difficult. LeMesh had a consistently solid and clear delivery, but clarity of text was not always the composer’s priority. This was most apparent in her performance of two of the movements from George Crumb’s Apparition, a collection of settings of poems by Walt Whitman. Crumb was clearly more interested in sonorities than in the semantics behind Whitman’s texts.

The vocal line is demanding unto an extreme and is accompanied by piano work that takes place directly on the strings, as well as at the keyboard. The result is a compelling landscape of diverse timbres that seems to give little heed to the need for the poet’s texts as anything more than a source of phonemes. With the benefit of a text sheet, the attentive listener may be able to grasp greater semantic significance; but none was available. A text sheet would also have assisted by providing an English account of the Polish text in the Baird selection.

The final selections showed more respect for English diction. These were William Grant Still’s “Grief” and Henry Cowell’s “Spring Comes Singing.” In these selections clarity was as significant for the composers as it was for the performers. They put the cap on a vocal recital that was definitely true to the overall SF Music Day title.

Chordless was preceded by equally adventurous chamber music performed by the Heavy Roots Shakuhachi Ensemble. This group was founded by Cornelius Boots and celebrates the low tones of the taimu (bass) shakuhachi. The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute; and the flared bottom of the bass instrument comes from the root end of the plant itself, hence the name of the ensemble.

The group’s repertoire, however, is not limited to traditional Japanese music. Through Boots’ own experiences, the group’s “book” combines Japanese idioms with those of both blues and gospel, a further play on that noun “roots.” Boots himself played his own solo blues composition for the instrument entitled “Green Swampy Water.” He also played an excerpt from “The Other” with Kevin Chan, which involved stronger reflections of the instrument’s Japanese background.

However, things began to heat up when the quartet was filled out with Chris Adkins and Darrell Hayden. The entire group played the premiere of “The Heavy Root Speaks.” This appeared to involve not only ventures into different genres but also an entirely convincing display of jamming practices based on the different themes and motifs that arose. Among the events I attended, this one was definitely the best instance of “something completely different.”

Earlier in the afternoon I went over to listen to the Stenberg | Cahill Duo in the Herbst Theatre space. Regular readers should know by now that this group brings violinist Kate Stenberg together with pianist Sarah Cahill. Once again they pursued music by Lou Harrison, opening their set with the Prelude movement from his “Grand Duo.” However, there was also a clearly rebellious strain in their only other selection, Claude Debussy’s violin sonata, his last multi-movement composition.

Debussy had spent the better part of his life at odds with both the idea of a sonata and the structural constrains traditionally associated with it. Towards the end of that life, however, he planned to write six sonatas; and only the first three were completed. There are any number of ways in which the violin sonata “rebels” against past practices, particularly in its use of organizational structure for rhetorical purposes. Both Stenberg and Cahill seemed to catch on to the composer’s “rhetorical mission,” delivering an account through which one could appreciate the novelties of the work’s time, some of which can still provoke one century later.

No comments: