Sunday, October 23, 2011

Harbison, Rohde and Schulhoff at BluePrint

An unusually entertaining concert inaugurated the BluePrint new music series' 10th anniversary on Saturday evening. The evening at the SF Conservatory of Music started with mezzo Julienne Walker above singing five John Harbison songs from poetry by Elizabeth Bishop. The musical writing for a seven-person orchestra struck me as well-done, dry and academic, which didn't seem to fit the poetry at all. Even though Harbison was trying to be bluesy at times (two of the poems were written for Bishop's friend Billie Holliday), the attempts meerely highlighted that rhythm wasn't necessarily his strong suit.

The next piece on the program, a "Concertino for Solo Violin and Small Ensemble" by Kurt Rohde (above right with BluePrint general manager Jacques Desjardins) that premiered last year was the diametric opposite: propulsively rhythmic, filled with energy and color, and as rich and unacademic sounding as you can imagine, which is ironic in that Rohde teaches at UC Davis and the Conservatory.

Rohde claims the three-movement work isn't really a violin concerto, but it is. The writing for the solo violin, composed for Axel Strauss above, is virtuosic in the extreme and underpins the entire twenty-minute piece. The first moment has an almost gamelan brightness, the slower second movement shimmered in all kinds of interesting ways, and the final movement felt like we were on a very entertaining, retooled John Adams Fast Machine. The performance by Strauss and the eight-member chamber ensemble (William Cedeno, Jeannie Psomas, Masako Iguchi and Alex Wadner, Paula Karolak, Patricia Ryan, Eugene Theriault, and Carlin Ma) was so exciting and expert I can't imagine it being played better.

After intermission came a concerto by Erwin Schulhoff, this time for piano and small orchestra (about 40 players), with a stunningly good Keisuke Nakagoshi (above) as the soloist. Schulhoff was a Jewish Communist composer in Prague at a time when that wasn't the safest thing to be, and he died at age 58 of tuberculosis in a concentration camp in 1942. The undated [in the program or the internet] Concertino for Piano and Small Orchestra sounds like an interesting mixture of early, sarcastic Prokofiev and Shostakovich along with a mystical vein that feels more Bartok. The ten-movement piece would switch gears from soft, spare and yearning to jazzy, driven and wild at a moment's notice and was a complete pleasure to discover.

The final piece was a scene from an upcoming Ensemble Paralle production in February of John Harbison's 1999 Metropolitan Opera commission, "The Great Gatsby." The opera is being reorchestrated by Jacques Desjardins from 120 instruments to 35 in order to give the piece a better chance at a performance life. The scene that was performed certainly had a huge amount of energy, especially when Erin Neff and Bojan Knezevic starting singing the parts of Myrtle and Wilson right before a car crash.

Conducting all this disparate music, brilliantly, was BluePrint artistic director Nicole Paiement (above left).

She was self-effacing all evening long, pushing her soloists and ensembles into the limelight, but the triumph of the evening was definitely hers. I can't wait to hear what she does next.

1 comment:

sfphoneguy said...

I too was very entertained at the performance. Although I enjoyed all the pieces performed, my favorite was the Schulhoff concerto, as my ear seems to be very much in tune with music of that period. I found Rhode's concertino delightfully enigmatic yet thoroughly enjoyable, and both of the Harbison pieces are making me look forward to 'The Great Gatsby' next February. Kudos to Nichole Paiement for tackling these pieces, and to the orchestra musicians, all of whom sounded absolutely first-rate and totally professional in each piece. The BluePrint series is a hidden musical gem in San Francisco, and I hope more people discover it!