Friday, September 26, 2014

California Culture 3: Brant's Ice Field at the SF Symphony

Last week the San Francisco Symphony presented a bizarrely eclectic program of J.S. Bach's Brandenberg Concerto #3, the first revival of Henry Brant's 2001 Ice Field which was written specifically for Davies Hall, and Tchaikowsky's Fifth Symphony. The Bach performance by the eleven players (below), including violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Peter Wyrick (above) was surprisingly lively and fun, and for once Davies Hall didn't swallow up the chamber-sized ensemble.

Henry Brant was an experimental composer who ended up in Santa Barbara for the last couple of decades of his life. He was known as an expert orchestrator, where he assisted everyone from Alex North in his soundtrack for the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra to the composers Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland. He was also known for spatial music, where musical forces that are usually on one stage are split into various groups around a performing space. In 2001, I was creating daily PowerPoint "FotoTales" about the world around us, and managed to capture the premiere along with the orchestra musicians making fun of the piece after a morning rehearsal. Excerpts from the slide show are below.

Henry Brant died in 2008, so this revival had the flamboyant organist Cameron Carpenter above playing the half-notated, half-improvised organ part that the composer performed himself at the premiere. On Friday evening, Carpenter looked terribly nervous and score-bound during the performance, as if he was in over his head, and the results were mostly tentative interjections, while my memory of Brant's performance was that he was wailing away on the Ruffatti organ throughout the entire 20 minute piece, holding the whole work together.

Still, it was ear-clearing fun to hear Ice Field again, and I hope the work returns to Davies Hall before another 13 years pass by. I also hope that the companion piece on the program is something more interesting than Tchaikowsky's Fifth Symphony which sounded like a schlock-fest after the Bach and Brant, and this is coming from a fan of the Russian composer.

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