Monday, March 21, 2016

Transatlantic Crossings

British Californian Brenden Guy (above), the clarinetist, publicist, and impresario of the Curious Flights music series, presented an interesting, ambitious concert called Transatlantic Crossings last Saturday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last Saturday. Highlighting the evening were works by the young British composer Simon Dobson, who was in attendance conducting his own music.

The concert started with Dobson's 2014 Crystal, a short, thrilling fanfare for eight trumpets. You can hear Dobson playing all eight parts in an amusing YouTube video (click here), but on Saturday we were treated to eight trumpeters being led by the composer. In a profile by Jesse Hamlin at the SF Chronicle, Dobson noted that he remains deeply in love with the sonorities of the brass ensemble, the clarity and warmth of a sound that’s woven into the fabric of the U.K. "Brass bands are integral to the history of this country. It’s a working-class pastime that grew up around factories. Mines and factories have closed, thanks to a horrendous Tory government. What we’re left with is the beauty and the wealth of history encapsulated in the brass band world.” Following the fanfare, Brenden Guy gave the world premiere of A Modulation on Plymouth Sound, a short piece for solo clarinet and electronics that evoked the waves, gulls and people of Southwest England.

This was followed by Samuel Adams' 2010 Tension Study No. 1 written for The Living Earth Show, a new music group started by guitarist Travis Andrews above and percussionist Andy Meyerson below.

Andrews stoically retuned his electric guitar to various microtonal settings while the quicksilver Meyerson scampered about his vibraphone and drums in an extraordinarily entertaining manner. The "soft to loud, slow to fast superficial narrative," as the composer puts it, was given a splendid, compelling performance.

The first half ended with another essay in electronics and acoustics, the 2007 Red River by Mason Bates, a pictorial meander down the Colorado River before it stops at the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas and trickles out into the Mojave desert. Written for the unexpectedly wonderful combination of violin (Tess Varley), piano (Ian Scarfe), cello (James Jaffe), and clarinet (Brenden Guy), it was a pretty, charming work given a lovely performance. Oddly enough, the piece gained nothing from the additional electronic sound effects that is Bates' ongoing compositional shtick.

After intermission, the chamber musicians were replaced by the San Francisco Wind Ensemble, which turned out to be a 50-person orchestra of wind players, percussionists, a pianist, string bass, and a harp. Wow. The group performed two world premieres and a U.S. premiere of three substantial works by (left to right) composers Robert Chastain, Noah Luna, and Simon Dobson, who each conducted their own music.

First up was Noah Luna's The Wireless, which was my favorite piece of the evening, a bright, funny, sophisticated depiction of "a stubborn father who knew the only trick to make that [wireless] box work right, to power it up, and sift through the static [was] by scrubbing this way and that until a clear signal of the desired frequency was attained." Between passages of static that sounded like Ligeti tone clusters were musical dioramas influenced by jazz and movie soundtracks, seamlessly floating in and out of each other in a manner that could have sounded like a gimmick but did not. Luna was also a crack conductor and the huge wind ensemble played magnificently, making a rich, mighty sound.

The mighty sound continued with Chastain's Metanoia, a 12-tone depiction of a psychotic breakdown, which was certainly ambitious but bombastic barely describes the repeated aural assaults and 27 different endings that made up the work. I have to give the composer credit for courage but the piece became tedious fast.

Simon Dobson's 2014 Another World's Hell was inspired by Chapter 5 of Huxley's Brave New World, where the protagonists attend a concert "at the newly opened Westminster Abbey Cabaret and listen to Calvin Stopes and his sixteen Sexophonists." Dobson decided to write the "future music" himself, and it was a fascinating, well-composed piece that echoed The Wireless in its smooth transitions from one wildly different episode to another. Dobson was also a skilled conductor, literally dancing to his own music on the podium, which in his case was charming rather than annoying.

The entire evening was a challenging, delightful success.

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