Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Riding the Elevator Into the Sky

The ninth season of Blueprint, a "new music project," opened Saturday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with its artistic director Nicole Paiement (below) conducting.

I went to the concert with some trepidation, because brand-new, modernist "classical" music is something of a crapshoot. Some concerts are excitingly revelatory, others are excruciatingly boring, while most are somewhere in between. The happy news is that Saturday's concert was on the exciting and revelatory side of the spectrum.

This was due primarily to a hugely ambitious, 40-minute violin concerto called Chiaroscuro Azzurro by Laura Schwendinger (above), which is the work of a brilliant composer coming into her own. It's also very difficult music, densely packed with ideas going in all directions, but the lyricism of the solo violin writing keeps one focused. The fiddling by Wei He (above), by the way, was beautiful and heroic.

There are three expansive movements in a traditional fast-slow-fast progression, and though it's just about impossible to absorb on first listening, the concerto passes my personal new music test, which is "Do I want to hear it again?" Ms. Paiement has just recorded the piece with an ensemble on the East Coast, and you can hear bits of Ms. Schwendinger's music on her website, including excerpts from this concerto (click here).

The second half of the concert started with a minimalist palate cleanser in the form of a teaser for Ms. Paiement's other performing group, Ensemble Parallele, which focuses on modern opera. This February they are presenting Philip Glass' opera adaptation of the Cocteau film, Orphee, in Herbst Theatre, and Saturday's concert started with pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi playing four selections from a suite of piano transcriptions from the opera created by pianist Paul Barnes. (Click here for a YouTube clip of Barnes playing one of the excerpts. It's very pretty, though Nakagoshi's playing was even lovelier.) This was followed by a suite of five songs by composer David Conte to Anne Sexton poems, with Marnie Breckinridge (above) as the soloist.

Sexton is almost a character from Mad Men, a 1960s housewife who drank too much, smoked too much, was clinically insane, and who wrote aggressively confessional poetry before killing herself at age 46 in 1974. (An interesting take by Patrick Vaz on Sexton in yet another contemporary music piece can be found here.) For some reason, Sexton has been a beacon to contemporary composers, with Conrad Susa writing his most successful opera, the 1973 Transformations, based on her twisted fairy tale versions of the Brothers Grimm. The David Conte (above left) Sexton Songs started out with a recorded version of Anne Sexton reciting one of the poems herself (click here for another YouTube of Ms. Sexton in an early video sounding like a cross between Suzanne Pleshette and Tallulah Bankhead). As Sexton finished, there was a dramatic singing entrance from the back of the stage by soprano Marnie Breckenridge as she made her way to the front of the orchestra.

Unfortunately, none of Mr. Conte's musical settings was more interesting than the opening recording of Sexton simply reciting her poetry in her booze-soaked baritone. This wasn't at all the fault of soprano Marnie Breckenridge, who is smart, has an exquisitely beautiful voice, and is great on stage. Mr. Conte's music was actually sort of fun (you can hear more of it on his website), bouncing back and forth between jazzy cabaret and Samuel Barber English declamation style, but it was wrong for the material.

It didn't matter, though. This was a great concert and I look forward to Blueprint's next interesting production, the Tom Stoppard/Andre Previn 1970s play for seven actors and an onstage orchestra, "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," a major rarity that's playing two performances on November 20, 2010. Click here for more details.

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