Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Exact Location of The Soul

Nicole Paiement above led one of the loveliest, most integrated, and sheerly enjoyable concerts last Sunday evening that I have ever experienced. It was held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the third and final installment of her BluePrint series dedicated to new music, and the composers were all connected to Northern California, including Lou Harrison, John Adams, Terry Riley, and Ryan Brown.

The Lou Harrison piece was a short, six-movement ballet score called The Perilous Chapel written for Jean Erdman, an essential 98-year-old American dancer/choreographer who collaborated with Martha Graham, was married for decades to Joseph Campbell, and whose most famous dance theater piece was The Coach with the Six Insides, a 1962 adaptation of Finnegans Wake. The music is scored for a flute, harp, cello and drums, sounding vaguely Asian and very Aptos proto-hippie. It was given a gorgeous performance by Jessie Nucho, Kilby Li, Esther Cynn, and Stephanie Webster, ending too soon and leaving us wanting more.

This was followed by Paiement leading her New Music Ensemble of Conservatory students in a crisp reading of John Adams' 2007 Son of Chamber Symphony. The piece is a sequel to the composer's own 1992 Chamber Symphony. The composer explained how the manic, fiendishly difficult piece came about: "One afternoon I was sitting in my studio, studying the score to Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony in preparation for a performance, when I became aware that my seven-year-old son, Sam, was in the adjacent room watching cartoons (good cartoons, old ones from the 1950s). The hyperactive, insistently aggressive, and acrobatic cartoon soundtrack mixed in my head with the Schoenberg music, itself hyperactive, acrobatic, and not a little aggressive. I realized suddenly how much these two traditions had in common."

Son of Chamber Symphony was originally written for the Alarm Will Sound chamber orchestra, and ended up being co-commissioned by Mark Morris and the San Francisco Ballet during their 75th Anniversary Festival for a ballet called Joyride. Hearing the complex piece again, with its rapid, constantly shifting time signatures, only increased my admiration for Morris and the SF Ballet dancers for simply being able to count out the wildly varying rhythms. The performance on Sunday was as good as any I've heard, by either Alarm Will Sound or the SF Ballet Orchestra.

After intermission, the palate cleanser was Y Bolanzero, a 2001 work by Terry Riley written for a guitar ensemble that was intricate and soothing in equal measures, with a fine performance under Conservatory guitar instructor David Tanenbaum above. Part of a set written by Riley for every letter of the alphabet, the pieces have become new standards in classical guitar departments at music conservatories across the country.

The performance was expert by (in no particular order) the student guitarists Eric Sandoval, Ryan Wallace, Katrina Gavelin, Patrick Smith, Matthew Lyons, Keith Barnhart, and Kevin Robinson. To hear Y Bolanzero on YouTube, click here.

The final piece was a world premiere by local composer Ryan Brown called The Exact Location of the Soul. It is a setting for three voices, percussion, and two keyboards of poetic excerpts from former Yale surgeon Richard Selzer's musings on the body, the soul, and dying in a hospital. It was a complete success on its own terms, in a theatrical presentation that was spooky, beautiful and strange.

The work was written for the three local singers above: (left to right) Sidney Chen, bass; Eric Tuan, tenor; and Justin Montigne, countertenor. They occasionally sang solos but the bulk of the music was concerted, bringing to mind the three countertenors from John Adams' El Nino and the soprano/countertenors/bass configuration of David Lang's The Little Match Girl. They were absolutely wonderful together, as they weaved in and out of the instrumentalists and each other's vocal lines. You can see and hear a video of this performance on YouTube by clicking here (it's well worthwhile).

Brown (above left) won this year's SF Conservatory Hoefer Prize which is annually given to an alumnus for a musical commission to be performed at the school, and the prize could not have been more deserving. Brown also co-founded the annual Switchboard Music Festival in the Mission District, which has been growing more ambitious and successful with each iteration. To be held this year on Saturday, April 12th at the Brava Theatre on 24th Street, it's a marathon of new music and brilliant performers that lasts from 2-10 PM (click here for a link). Meanwhile, the consistently genius conductor Nicole Paiement (above right) will be leading a high concept mashup of Kurt Weill's Mahagonny Singspiel and Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias with her Opera Parallele ensemble at the Yerba Buena Center April 25th through the 27th. If you want to hang out with the cool kids, both events are required listening.


john_burke100 said...

I accompanied Justin Montigne in some French art songs a few years ago. Lovely voice.

Hattie said...

Wow. Just wow. I love Lou Harrison. I can get the album anyway.

Civic Center said...

@Hattie: Jean Erdman is originally from Hawaii and is back living there. She'd be an interesting person to find out about.