Last night the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) launched its 2022–23 season with a new approach to programming in a new venue. The only performers were the husband-and-wife couple of cellist Stephen Harrison and violinist Susan Freier, and their recital took place in the Mission at The Lab. The program consisted of six compositions, three on either side of the intermission. Half of them were duo performances. Freier played two violin solos, and Harrison played one work for solo cello. Five of the six composers on the program were women, represented by works as early as 1980 (Libby Larsen’s “Scudding” for solo cello) and as recent as 2017 (two movements from Gabriela Lena Frank’s seven-movement Suite Mestiza). The program concluded with the earliest composition, Erwin Schulhoff’s 1925 duo for violin and cello.
All of this made for an engaging evening of chamber music at its most intimate; and the physical setting of The Lab, while generous, was particularly conducive to that intimacy. From a personal point of view, I definitely had favorites among the composers: Frank, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Schulhoff. Nevertheless, the expressiveness behind each selection locked my attention into all of the offerings. I was particularly struck by how the players had assembled a repertoire that balanced compositions organized around sonorities with those more attentive to the counterpoint and harmonies of conventional pitch classes.
While I appreciate the need for a more balanced approach to gender in preparing concert programs, I have to say that I had a certain bias towards Schulhoff as the “grand old man” of the evening. Sadly, he never advanced to the age of an old man, grand or otherwise. He was born in 1894 in what is now the Czech Republic. However, with the rise of the Nazis in the Thirties, his music was labeled “degenerate” and his Jewish ancestry marked him as a particular target. As a result, shortly after he turned 48, he died shortly after being deported to the Wülzburg prison in Bavaria.
Thus, his legacy as a composer is limited to only a few decades. Nevertheless, there is considerably imaginative diversity, particularly in his approaches to chamber music. Last night’s duo performance providing an engaging account of the freshness he injected into past chamber music traditions. However, for those of us familiar with his biography, it was also a reminder of how much of his imaginative capacity we would never be able to hear due to his untimely death. Fortunately, the consistently upbeat rhetoric of the five living female composers served, at least in part, to soften the blow of Schulhoff’s tragic biography.