Saturday, June 08, 2013

A Tale of Two Chamber Ensembles

San Francisco is in a golden age for contemporary music. Its current ecostructure of composers, performers, funders, writers, venues, and adventurous audiences is probably unrivaled in the world right now. Many of the artists live and work in the East Bay and Marin, though not so much the Peninsula where the major focus seems to be acquiring wealth while creating the sci-fi future that is bleeding into the present.

These thoughts were prompted by two different concerts on Monday and Tuesday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. When the school moved from 19th Avenue into Civic Center in 2006, the institution initially seemed frightened of the neighborhood, but they have relaxed and become an integral piece of the Performing Arts Center that now stretches from their campus at Market and Van Ness to the Opera House five blocks north.

The recent closing of the Veterans Building and its Herbst Theatre for retrofitting has been something of a blessing, forcing musical groups to venture further afield in the neighborhood. The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (including left to right above Anna Presler, Kurt Rohde, Tanya Tomkins, and Leighton Fong) has long played in the second-story Green Room at the Veterans Building, which is a great site for a party but terrible for music due to the crappy acoustics. On Monday evening, they presented one of their mixed concerts of contemporary music with 19th century classics in the small (approximately 130 seats) Recital Hall downstairs at the Conservatory, and it was a delight.

The concert featured cellists Leighton Fong and Tanya Tomkins above in various configurations, starting with three wild "decimations" by Kurt Rohde of Bach Chorales for "Odd String Quartet and Electronics," odd in this case meaning that the usual second violin is swapped out for an additional cello. The odd quartet, minus electronics, finished the concert with the 1894 String Quartet #2 by Anton Arensky, a disciple of Tchaikovsky and a teacher of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. There was also a world premiere of a short piece by Matt Schumaker called Nocte Luz for Two Cellos, Bass and Electronics that started off well but didn't seem to go anywhere.

The highlight of the concert was violist Kurt Rohde playing his own composition, ...maestoso...misterioso...for Amplified Violin and Assorted Objects with Ana Presler above. The Assorted Objects were tuned gongs, harmonicas, Chinese paper accordions, along with the players' own voices. There were also moments of live electronic looping, which seemed fraught with danger since there was a lot of unintended feedback in the first of the Bach chorales, and the tech guy had to replug and reorient the microphones on Rohde and his viola before he started playing the piece. I was close to the stage and started laughing, at which point Rohde broke the fourth wall and said to the audience, "You have NO idea." Even with all the electronics and Assorted Objects, the 12-minute piece was mostly soft and delicate while sounding simultaneously rich and complex. Rohde strikes me as one of the best composers in the world right now, and his performance with Presler was fearless.

There were two late additions to the program from composer John Adam's students at Crowden School, including the sophisticated and funny Jazz Parody by Theo Haber above. When I asked him to write down his name on the program, he asked me to take a photo of "the first time I've ever been asked for my autograph."

The following evening at the larger, upstairs Concert Hall at the Conservatory, clarinetist Brendan Guy above and his new concert series called Curious Flights highlighting "rare and seldom-played music." Tuesday's program was devoted to the music of the late Benjamin Britten, who is having a birthday boy centenary.

The first group at the roster was the Valinor Winds sextet that included Brenden on clarinet, joined by Sasha Launer on flute, Jessie Huntsman on oboe, Jeannie Psomas on bass clarinet, Alexis Luque on bassoon, and Caitlyn Smith on horn. The piece was a bit of juvenalia from 1930 called Movement for Wind Sextet and though Britten was a freakishly precocious musical genius, he hadn't come into his own compositional voice quite yet.

The same could be said about the 1932 Phantasy in F Minor for String Quintet. However, the committed performance was so good by the Friction Quartet above (Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel on violins, Pei-Ling Line on viola, and Doug Machiz on cello, joined by Jason Pyszkowski on viola) that it was a pleasure to hear.

A late replacement on the program was a mature piece by Britten from 1954, the Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain from a poem by Edith Sitwell about the Blitz in London during World War Two. Written for a trio of horn, piano (Ulysses Loken, above center), and tenor, it was originally performed by Britten's tenor lover, Peter Pears. The performance on Tuesday was so striking that it actually managed to efface the original recording by Pears, Britten, and Dennis Brain, a major accomplishment. Tenor Brian Thorsett above right and San Francisco Opera and Ballet Orchestra horn player Kevin Rivard above left beautifully performed Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with the New Century Chamber Orchestra three years ago. Thorsett, in particular, seems to have become even stronger in Britten's music and it was a great rendition, sad and poetic.

Rivard's accompaniment was so good that at times one wasn't sure where Thorsett's voice ended and the soft horn playing began. Here's a suggestion for San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley. Would you please stage Gloriana, Britten's Elizabeth II coronation opera from 1953? And while you're at it, put Mr. Rivard into an Elizabethan costume onstage and have him lead the horn fanfares with which Gloriana is filled. He will certainly steal the show.

After intermission, the stage was set up for a huge, 50-person ensemble to play Movements for a Clarinet Concerto (1941-42), a piece that started off as a commission for Benny Goodman but which was interrupted by World War Two and never completed. Britten's young assistant Colin Matthews has "Devised & Orchestrated" the first movement written by Britten and added two more movements via a pair of Britten's incidental pieces reorchestrated for clarinet and orchestra. Matthews created the piece in 2007 and this was the West Coast premiere, with artistic director Brendan Guy as clarinet soloist.

The revelation was the playing by the pick-up Curious Flights Orchestra under conductor Alasdair Neale, with second violin principal Kevin Rogers grinning in the background. They gave a sensationally good performance of difficult music that often sounded like lost scenes from the opera Peter Grimes. Now, will one of our extraordinary Bay Area ensembles please perform Britten's Church Parables, such as Curlew River and Saint Nicholas and The Burning Fiery Furnace? I promise to play publicist for free.


Pura Vida said...

Golden age indeed. How positive, peaceful, full of energy and joy.

Hattie said...

You are lucky. So the Conservatory is in Civic Center now. What a wonderful thing.