Last night in Herbst Theatre, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) concluded its 2022–2023 season with a program entitled Power Duos, Power Dynamics. Of the five works on the program, four involved two family pairings of composers. The remaining work on the program was the world premiere performance of “Unwound for Solo Cello” by Aiyana Braun, one of the winners of SFCMP’s 2022 Search for Scores Commissioning Prize. The soloist was Douglas Machiz, probably best known as the Friction Quartet cellist.
This made for a program that was richly endowed with abundant content. Several aspects of that content were explored in the pre-performance discussion that Artistic Director Eric Dudley engaged with Machiz and soprano Tonia D’Amelio, the only vocalist of the evening. Nevertheless, the full scope of content deserved at least a few paragraphs in the program book (at least one for each composition); and it was a pity that the attentive listener was deprived of even a brief verbal context for all that content that was presented.
Fortunately, Machiz did a relatively good job of compensating for the absence of printed text. He explained that he had to retune his instrument to perform Braun’s composition and prepared the attentive listener for some of the sonorities, as well as the technical challenges he had encountered. D’Amelio took a similar approach to the unconventional performance techniques required by “Anthem,” composed by George Lewis, half of the first “power duo” of composers.
In the performance itself, she was accompanied by six instruments, one of which involved electronic sampling. The music itself was a joyously raucous affair that suggested the theatrics cultivated by many (most?) rock groups without ever lapsing into any standard beats or progressions. Lewis was “paired” with his wife, Miya Masaoka, whose “The Dust and the Noise” opened the program. This involved a more modest quartet consisting of violin (Hrabba Atladottir) cello (Machiz), piano (Kate Campbell), and percussion (Loren Mach). This appeared to be a fully-scored composition, but the performance dazzled with an engaging rhetoric of jamming.
The second half of the program was devoted to the second “power duo,” the father-and-son coupling of Anthony and Tyondai Braxton. The former was represented by his “Composition No. 152,” completed in 1991. This was one of the more intimate of Anthony’s “Composition” creations, since it was scored for only flute (Tod Brody) and bass (Richard Worn). The music itself involved a series of engaging duo passages, but each of the instruments was also allotted an extended solo. Most likely the score allowed affordances for improvisation.
Tyondai’s “Fly by Wire,” composed in 2014 and being given its Bay Area premiere, was the largest ensemble work on the program. “Large” meant sixteen performers, along with the conductor. This is the sort of music that deserves to allow the ear to adjust through several listening encounters. On “first contact,” one could appreciate the energetic rhetoric; but, in the midst of all that energy, it was often difficult to follow which instruments were doing what. The only alternative was to sit back and make of all the sonorous diversity whatever mind was capable of organizing. Where my own listening was concerned, I came away hoping that, one way or another, I would have another encounter with the music in the not-too-distant future.