Monday, November 14, 2011

Sarah Cahill Plays Pre-Maximalists at Old First Church

Old First Church, at the corner of Van Ness and Sacramento, not only attends to the spiritual needs of its parishioners and the material needs of poor people, but it also attends to the cultural needs of its surrounding community by allowing Old First Concerts the use of its lovely space for a Friday night and Sunday afternoon musical concert series (click here for their upcoming calendar).

The eclectic music concerts started in 1969, and have somehow survived for 42 years while charging the public very little money. The $15 ticket price, in fact, just went up a whopping $2 to $17. You can also attend a $25 fundraiser this coming Sunday the 20th where wine and chocolates are promised along with an amazing array of musicians, from jazz pianist Mike Greensill and vocalist Wesla Whitfield to cellist Vicky Ehrlich and pianist Sarah Cahill playing chamber music of Lou Harrison.

As part of the series, Sarah Cahill (above) performed a recital of contemporary piano music last Friday at Old First that was a combination of bracing, lovely, and ear-cleaning. All of the composers on the program are still living, and though many of them flirt with Minimalism in terms of repetitive patterns, a better name might be what composer Paul Dresher has coined as a joking rejoinder to "Postminimalist," which is "Pre-Maximalist." The major common thread that tied the program together was that Cahill knows all the composers and loves their music. In some cases, she even commissioned the pieces we were hearing, such as Paul Dresher's 2011 Two Entwined and Ingram Marshall's 2008 Movement (Deep in my Heart) which are part of Sarah's A Sweeter Music omnibus of contemporary piano music about peace.

The concert started brilliantly with the New Zealand/American composer Annea Lockwood's 1989 Red Mesa, a 16-minute tone poem about the American Southwest desert that managed to avoid every pictorial cliche while still evoking the desert with clarity. It started with Sarah playing repetitive notes on the keyboard and then playing inside the piano itself, at which she is an old hand after years of Henry Cowell, and then layering on the complexity until a very rich climax diminuendos into more soft, single, repeated notes. Click here for Lockwood's website which has musical samples and photos of her Burning Piano performance art pieces which predate Burning Man by decades.

This was followed by Victoria Falls, an early piece by New York based composer Evan Ziporyn "when he was a 25-year-old graduate student at UC Berkeley, which he doesn't list in his collected works because he forgot about it and doesn't even have a score, but I do," Sarah explained. The Africa influenced piece was rhythmically jubilant and a delight to hear. Ziporyn might want to get a copy of the score the next time he's in the Bay Area playing gamelan orchestra, which has been his mature musical obsession.

Two short pieces followed from Japanese composer Mamoru Fujieda's Patterns of Plants, a mammoth undertaking he started in 1995 that attempts to describe the biometric properties of flora in sound. Last month Sarah recorded a set of excerpts on a CD for the Tzadik label at the UC Santa Cruz recital hall, and though the evanescent, sweet sounding music doesn't do much for me, I trust Sarah's taste and figure the problem is mine.

After the enjoyable Dresher and Marshall pieces, Cahill was joined by Regina Schaffer (above right, with page-turner Kelsey Walsh on the left), another Bay Area pianist who focuses on new music. The pair played four-hand transcriptions of improvisations by Terry Riley that were so insanely virtuosic that Cahill's assertion that Riley was able to play them with only one pair of hands seemed impossible.

Both the 2000 Waltz for Christmas and the 2003 Etude from the Old Country are also extremely lively and fun, and it's good to hear that Cahill and Schaffer are going to be recording a collection of five of these pieces soon. The old San Francisco hippie "Godfather of Minimalism," as Sarah referred to the composer of In C has a literally groovy website (click here), where you can see what he's up to next.

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