From 1 to 9 PM on Sunday, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music hosted an ambitious festival of contemporary music played and sometimes composed by Conservatory students and alumni in locations throughout their Oak Street campus. I peeked in with my friend Charlie Lichtman for a couple of hours during the afternoon, and had a blast.
Our first performance was in the small downstairs Recital Hall where we caught the short, brilliant Rust and Anchors by Brendon Randall-Myers for viola, cello and toy piano played by Luis Escareno, Ami Nashimoto and Danny Clay respectively above. The composer, who was in attendance, wrote in the well-done program notes for the festival:
"The toy piano is squeezed between the two string parts, the sound emerging only for a second. The string players are asked to bow with increasing amounts of pressure, which gradually squeezes the pitch out of the sound. Much of the piece is unmeasured and the players are asked to avoid visual cues, putting pressure on them to listen carefully to each other in order to stay synchronized."The performers gave an amusing, committed account that was a complete success.
We climbed the stairs to the large Concert Hall for a performance of the 1950/1970 Luciano Berio amusement about a barnyard called Opus Number Zoo, played and recited by the Valinor Winds. From left to right above were Sasha Launer on flute, Jessica Huntsman on oboe, Caitlyn Smith on horn, Alexis Luque on bassoon, and Brendan Guy on clarinet. It was hard to make out the vocal sections, but the instrumental playing was superb.
The next piece was a 2012 Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano by Joseph Stilwell with the composer on piano. He is standing above with left to right the always exciting Kevin Rogers on violin, Erin Kelly on cello, and Brenden Guy on clarinet. The composer wrote about the two-movement piece: "While I typically do not subscribe to the notion of composition as self-expression, I cannot help but consider this piece my most personal to date." Whatever he was expressing, the music and performance were interesting enough that I would gladly hear anything else by the young Mr. Stilwell.
After all this bracing modernism, the next piece sounded dully conservative so we ran out after the first movement and snuck into the second half of a one-act opera in the Recital Hall. It was called Gallantry, by Douglas Moore of Ballad of Baby Doe fame, and it was a very funny 1958 parody of a television soap opera set in a hospital complete with sung advertisements for the sponsoring soap. From left to right are soprano Sarah Eve Brand who is loved by both tenor Brandon Casbeer and baritone Alexandre Tarczynski. Amber Rose-Johnson, with soap in hand, was the Narrator.
I couldn't stay for the showcase event of the festival, Loren Jones' 2012 Dancing on the Brink of the World, but Charlie stayed and filed this report:
The 75 minute piece, for orchestra, chorus, and an eclectic collection of ethnic and period instruments (including the composer playing the Native American Flute) consisted of a 14 movement (scaled down from 23) quilt, offering a musical timeline of San Francisco history, from the original Ohlone people (the title of the piece being the name of a long-lost Ohlone song), through the Gold Rush, 1850’s Chinatown and Barbary Coast, to the 1906 Earthquake, and trips to Playland, the Golden Gate Bridge, North Beach, Haight-Ashbury (where the composer lived during the late 60’s) and the Castro (represented by toned-down Disco music followed by a somber remembrance of the Moscone/Milk assassinations and the AIDS epidemic). The finale brought back some themes from the previous movements, and featured the chorus singing the poem “The City By the Sea”, by California poet George Sterling (1869-1926).
The piece was smartly conducted by John Kendall Bailey, and performed beautifully by the Hot Air Festival Orchestra, Golden Gate Chorus, and ten guest musicians, playing an array of instruments from banjo, accordion and musical saw, to erhu and pipa (Chinese instruments), and a mini rock band of electric guitars, bass, and drums.